We woke up at five o’clock in the morning and ran to the Hophop bus that was waiting at the school gate. It was colored and beautiful and had the words Scania speaks and the Volvo hurts written on it. The children stood in line in an orderly fashion as they boarded the bus. Teacher was carrying a stick made from a pomegranate branch given to him by the son of a local official, who is lazy but who always comes first in class. Sheikh Khadir, the driver, was washing the bus, and as they boarded, the children splashed the children behind them with water.
When popular uprisings against the Baath regime started in Syria in 2011, Odai Al Zoubi was in the United Kingdom working on a PhD thesis in Philosophy. He quickly became involved in the revolution, writing political essays to defend the right of Syrians to self-determination. But his literary passion was fiction. Since 2011 he has published tens of stories and literary essays in journals such as aljumhuriya and Romman and most recently “Silence” in The Common’s forthcoming Issue 17. “Silence” marks Al Zoubi’s first appearance in English translation.
Al Zoubi’s short stories capture feelings of transience shared by many displaced Syrians. They are often set in spaces of transition: a balcony overlooking the sea in Beirut or a mall in Dubai. There, characters caught between a past in ruins and an uncertain future have fleeting conversations, sometimes about matters that might seem trivial considering the gravity of Syria’s situation. But from the attempt to resume the banality of everyday life springs a profound existential anxiety linked to irremediable loss and a striving for survival.
Silence in the Syrian Limbo: an interview with Odai Al Zoubi
It was almost time for lunch. The guests had grown tired of oohing and aahing over the properties, the streams, the lakes, the banks, the airplanes, and the beautiful women.
“You are about to behold a rare kind of sheep which you will soon be eating,” announced the master of the palace and surrounding farms, as he stood pointing with his right index finger at a giant television screen.
The guests stared at the screen, where a gaggle of beautiful young women, shapely and fair-skinned, their silky golden or jet-black hair streaming in the wind, picked flowers as they romped through a verdant garden filled with trees, cavorted in a turquoise pool, splashing one another and laughing, and finally sat around circular tables, surrendering themselves to ravenous and seemingly insatiable appetites as they devoured the finest foods. The master of the domain addressed his guests once more: “When sheep are upset or frightened, their meat is tough and leathery, and it tastes like sawdust. Our sheep enjoy only the happiest of lives, leaving their flesh succulent and juicy, so tender that it melts in the mouth and hardly requires chewing—moreover, they are all slaughtered in the prescribed, halal manner.” Turning to his eager assistant, the master added: “Yahya, please give our guests a brief summary of what is required for halal ritual slaughter.”
Your games are upsetting; they always seem like they’re going to end in tears. Like this one you’re playing right now, for example—I’ve just woken up to find myself blindfolded, with my hands tied to the chair I’m sitting on. I don’t like it at all. But I’m smiling at you anyway, expecting you to come toward me. I’m only smiling because I’m frightened that if I don’t you’ll sense how weak I am and do me even more damage.
The muscles stretching this desolate smile across my face are cramping now, and I give up; I’m going to call out for you, even though I know it means I’ve lost.
I last spoke to Abu Musa in March 2003, the week the Iraq war began. It was late afternoon, Syria time, when I called from my apartment in Washington, DC. I waited several minutes while the shopkeeper across the hall—the only resident in Abu Musa’s building with a telephone—summoned my former music teacher from his apartment.
I might have caught Abu Musa in the midst of a nap; he made me repeat my name three times.
At last, he laughed. “It can’t be,” he said. His voice, low-pitched, buoyant, was thick with cigarettes and fatigue. “Where are you? Are you still in America?”
When I said I was, I felt him smiling in disbelief. “You could be next door,” he said. “You could be down the street.”