Unsafe haven an, p.10

Unsafe Haven, An, page 10


Unsafe Haven, An

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  Clearly not intimidated by the situation, the mayor shakes Peter’s hand firmly and reassures them that everything will be all right.

  —Tell your husband – he leans over to speak to Hannah in a loud voice – tell him we are proud to have him here. Foreigners are most welcome in our town.

  —Peter understands everything you’re saying, Abou Mazen. Hannah addresses the mayor by his name. He’s just not very good at expressing himself in Arabic.

  At this, Abou Mazen slaps Peter on the back and laughs out loud.

  —That’s wonderful, he says. Now let’s go get your friend out of the mess he’s got himself into. Tell your driver to follow me. That’s my car over there.

  They arrive at an army barracks and Abou Mazen instructs Hannah and Peter to wait for him outside.

  —I’ll let you know if I need you, he says, his expression suddenly serious. I think it’s best if I take care of things because I know them here. Things will take time to sort out so don’t worry if you don’t see me for a while.

  Peter and Hannah return to wait in the car while the driver steps out for a cigarette.

  —Don’t look so worried, Peter says. It’s going to be all right, I’m sure.

  He sees her raise a hand to her chest and take a deep breath.

  —Are you all right, Hannah?

  She smiles at him.

  —I’ve probably had too much coffee today.


  She nods.

  —Nothing serious. I’ll be fine, hayati. I just hope Anas is OK, that he’s being treated well, that’s all.

  The infiltration of Islamic extremists from Syria and the subsequent search for them by Lebanese authorities have resulted in instances of discrimination against and abuse of the Syrian refugee population and Peter recognizes that Hannah is not wrong in being concerned, but he does not want her to worry further.

  —I don’t know why Anas took a bus to Damascus, Hannah continues. He would have been a lot better off going in a taxi.

  —Not necessarily, sweetheart, Peter replies. They’re stopping almost everyone these days, trying to enforce the new laws on refugees from Syria. The army has lost a lot of good men to the battle with the militants and they’re being vigilant. The real question is why Anas decided to return to Damascus in the first place. He should have been on a plane to Germany instead.

  Only two days earlier, Hannah and Peter had returned home to find no trace of Anas. He had tidied up the room he had been sleeping in and left with all his things.

  —I just hope they won’t use this arrest as an excuse to stop him coming back into the country, says Hannah.

  Peter shrugs.

  —Maybe what’s happened will finally persuade him to go to Berlin and be with his family. Maybe he’ll realize now that there’s no future for any of them in Damascus.

  —Who knows what he’s thinking right now or what the consequences of this situation are likely to be? Hannah seems uneasy.

  —Are you sure you’re all right? Peter asks again.

  She dismisses his concern with a gesture.

  —I’ve been thinking, Peter, wondering really …


  —You keep saying you wish you could get away from here. Are you serious about wanting to leave?

  —Keep saying? I mentioned it once in anger.

  —Once or twice – it doesn’t really matter, does it? It’s enough that the thought has actually crossed your mind. What if you decide to do what Brigitte did?

  —You mean disappear like that? Peter protests. Are you insane, Hannah? I would never do that to you.

  —Because you know I could never leave this country, she continues as though he hadn’t spoken. I told you that from the start. It was your decision to come here to live. I didn’t ask you to do it.

  He wants to tell her she is wrong, that leaving her would be impossible, but all he can do is stare as she clutches once again at her chest and begins to gasp for breath. For a moment, he is unsure if what he is feeling is indignation at what she has said or shock that there might actually be some truth in it. He jumps up from his seat, stands behind hers, wraps his arms around her and stays there until she is breathing evenly again. He takes a tissue out of his pocket and wipes her eyes.

  —Hush now, Peter says. You’ll be fine, sweetheart. It was just a panic attack.

  Moments later Abou Mazen returns to find them sitting side by side in silence.

  —They’ve agreed to release Anas into my custody for tonight and we’ll come back tomorrow to finalize the paperwork, he says.

  —That’s great news, Peter says. Will he be able to stay in Lebanon now?

  —As long as he doesn’t get deported, he should be fine. Once someone is deported under these new laws, it’s very difficult for them to return.

  —But did they tell you why they arrested him in the first place? Hannah asks.

  —We don’t have open borders between this country and Syria any more so they check all Syrians leaving Lebanon to make sure they have valid papers under the new regulations.

  —Weren’t Anas’s documents in order?

  Abou Mazen shrugs.

  —It seems they weren’t. Look, I’m just going to go with one of the officers to pick him up at the checkpoint.

  He puts an arm around Hannah.

  —We’ll talk more later. I’ll meet you back at the café. Have your driver take you there and tell him to return to Beirut. There’s no point in keeping him on since you’ll be staying at the farm for the night. We can arrange for someone else to take you back tomorrow.

  He starts to walk away and then turns around again.

  —And don’t try to call me. They’ve taken my mobile away for the moment. Just be patient, OK?

  They return to the café in Chtoura, order lunch and then spend what seems like hours waiting and wondering if Abou Mazen will indeed return with Anas before nightfall. In the half-light and as conversation fades into a comfortable silence, Peter looks at Hannah and smiles. She too, it seems to him, has been calmed by patience, her eyes following the movement of the canopy above them stirring lightly in the evening breeze. He reminds himself of a lesson he learned early on in his life and work in this part of the world: that acceptance and endurance are one and the same, that in passions receding lies the promise of tranquillity.

  Hannah jumps up.

  —It’s Abou Mazen’s car. She points at a vehicle coming to a stop alongside the café.

  Anas steps out and walks towards them and Hannah runs to embrace him. Peter waits for her to let go before greeting his friend. To his relief, Anas looks dishevelled but otherwise all right.

  —It’ll take a good half-hour to get to the farm from here so let’s go straight there, says Abou Mazen. I’m sure everyone’s tired and needs a good meal and a rest.

  On the journey, Anas, who is sitting in the front passenger seat, remains silent. Peter touches Hannah’s shoulder and shakes his head when he sees her lean forward to speak. She sits back and sighs and, suddenly aware that she is weeping, he knows he loves her now more than he has ever done.

  Chapter 17

  He glances longingly at the big blue slide on the other side of the park, at the children careering down it, his sister among them, a big smile on her face that reflects a happiness he does not feel, and kicks at the bench his mother is sitting on so that she looks up at him with the anxiety in her eyes that has been there since the day they left home: a kind of startled nervousness that only makes him angrier every time he sees it.

  —What is it Marwan? Mama asks him. Why don’t you go and play with the other children?

  —You want me to play with those babies? he says. I’m too old for slides and playgrounds.

  He frowns when his mother reaches out to touch him.

  —Sweetheart, come here.

  He quickly moves away.

  —No, he says, his voice rising. You can’t make me want to be here. No matter what you do.

  For a
n instant, he is pleased at the hurt look on her face before a now familiar feeling of confusion comes over him.

  He does not understand why they have to be here. Berlin is unfamiliar, cold most days, with too big, tall buildings crowded up against each other and so many people. Even this park where his mother has insisted on coming every day since their arrival, the greenness here and the relative quiet, make him feel small.

  He sighs. He longs for the skies of home and the familiar streets sheltered below, for the smells of Damascus, for its secrets revealed only to him, for the boy he is there and the future he had been promised.

  Maybe, he tells himself, maybe if we were here on holiday, I would like it then.

  As it is, he does not know how long they are likely to stay. But what scares him even more is that neither does Mama. When is she going to start behaving like a proper grown-up again? he wonders.

  She beckons to him, and he realizes that she is as pretty as ever these days, long golden hair and the coloured eyes he and his sister Rana have inherited. Still, she seems less herself lately, thinner and often sad. For what seems to him the thousandth time, he wishes his father were here.

  Only yesterday, he had tried to approach her about getting in touch with Baba again to tell him they were willing to return but she had been adamant, had shouted at him for bringing the subject up, for upsetting her and his sister unnecessarily.

  —I’ve explained it to you so many times now, Marwan. Why is it so impossible for you to understand? Do you want to go back while the war is going on? Is that what you’re thinking?

  Unlike his sister, who was younger, Marwan had known about the unrest in Syria pretty much as soon as it started. His classmates had talked about it constantly, and he, at twelve years old, had understood most of what was said in news bulletins on television. But throughout that period, he had believed in his father’s assurances that they would always be safe, even when eventually he found himself being wakened at night to the sound of gunfire and loud explosions, so that he would have to try to stop the trembling in his body, the dread that gripped his insides, by closing his eyes tightly and humming quietly to himself.

  He had been able to keep his fear at bay until the day before they finally left. Baba was away in Lebanon again for work and he and his sister had just arrived home from school when they felt the whole building shake beneath their feet, heard the sound of glass shattering throughout the apartment. He put his hands over his ears as Rana began to scream; then, to his eternal shame, instead of comforting her he had run into his room and hidden under the bed. The moments that followed seemed endless. He remembers the grimy feel of tears on his face, of his nose running so that he had had to wipe it with his sweater sleeve because he was too scared to go and fetch a tissue. Eventually, when his sister’s screaming finally died down, he heard his mother calling to him. The fear and urgency in her voice compelled him to crawl out of his hiding place and into the living room where he found her sitting in an armchair with her arms wrapped around his little sister, her hair matted and splattered with blood, both of them whimpering quietly.

  It seemed to him that everything changed at that moment; he was certain he could no longer believe whatever he had once thought true: not his father’s promises, not childhood nor joy, not home nor any claim to it. Sitting in his mother’s lap next to his sister, body trembling, he had felt himself retch at the sight and smell of blood and immediately known guilt and shame because of it.

  He wanders over to the edge of the park, away from the playground, and hides under the wide and drooping branches of a large tree. The thought that his mother would not find him should she come looking pleases him. Let her be scared, he thinks. Maybe she’ll try to understand then how I feel.

  Until now, his mother’s parents had not figured too prominently in his life. And though he loves them and knows that they return that love, he does not think he knows them well enough to give them his unconditional trust. In Damascus, everything and everyone was familiar: the home he grew up in, the streets and neighbourhood he loves so well, his school and all his friends, the family whom he misses so much – Sitto and Jiddo, aunts, uncles and cousins; all the people who, in recognizing him, made him feel stronger and still more real.

  There is something else too, something he would not dare talk about to his mother, especially not now. In Damascus, he was aware of occupying a unique place in the family, of enjoying the privilege of being the only son of an only son – the keeper of the family name, his grandfather had once explained. It meant not only that he was allowed more freedom than his sister but that, as he grew older, there were fewer restrictions on his movements than on those even of his mother and other older female members of the family. It was something that he had heard Brigitte and Anas argue about so that at times he had felt in himself the same divergence, the same struggle to accommodate conflicting ideas without success. Still, whatever the conflict, there was always the reassurance that it would be resolved, that the family, unbroken, would always win through.

  But he is fearful that all that has been lost now, that in the rift between his mother and father, in the spaces between himself and his home, in the before and after of this war, his own life has been immeasurably altered, his future riven with uncertainty. And while having his German grandparents here helps soften the fall, Marwan knows that falling of some kind, that being thrust into the fearful unknown, has become inevitable not just for him but for his parents and sister too.

  Rana comes running towards him, grabs his hand and pulls him out of his hiding place.

  —Come see, come see, she squeals.

  —What is it?

  —I can slide down on my stomach now, really fast. Come watch.

  She pulls at his arm but he stands his ground.

  —Marwan, bitte?

  He looks up to find Brigitte beside him and expects her to begin pleading with him again. Instead, she is smiling, her face open and with so much expectation in it that his heart leaps inside his chest.

  —OK, I’ll come, he says. Just stop pulling at my arm, Rana.

  Chapter 18

  Abou Mazen’s home is not what Anas had expected. In the half-dark, as they step out of the car and walk through a tall metal gate into a garden with the sound of running water nearby, even as he sees only the shadowy silhouettes of a gazebo, of a trellis covered with climbing plants and further on a dwelling with a low, flat roof and wide wooden doors, he is aware of the scene’s ramshackle beauty, of a healing stillness in the air that makes him want only to close his eyes and sleep.

  Once inside, he turns to Abou Mazen and thanks him again.

  —But you will think me rude now, Anas says quietly, because all I want to do is to go to bed.

  —Surely you’ll want something to eat first, replies his host.

  Peter places a hand on Anas’s forehead.

  —You know, you might be running a temperature, he says in halting Arabic.

  He reaches for Hannah’s handbag and rummages inside it.

  —Here are some tablets to bring that temperature down, Peter continues. They’ll also help you sleep.

  Abou Mazen smiles.

  —If the doctor thinks you need to go to bed, then let me show you to your room right away, he says.

  Anas places a hand on Peter’s shoulder.

  —Thank you, habibi, he says, and then, looking at Hannah, continues: I’ll see you both in the morning.

  He follows his host through a dark passage and into a small room at the end of it.

  —The bathroom is next door, Abou Mazen says. There are towels in there and a bottle of drinking water. And if you feel cold, there’s an extra blanket in the closet.

  Anas is glad the temperature has turned cool since it will make falling asleep easier. Alone, he swallows the tablets, strips down to his underwear and gets in under the covers. He should shower but he cannot bring himself to do anything that will require too much effort, that will allow thoughts of the indignity h
e has endured, of his family so far away and of his own indecision to infiltrate his mind when he has spent this day just past trying to empty it of them. There will be enough time for thinking tomorrow, he knows.


  He wakes at dawn, to a rooster’s call and the sound, distant and faint, of a muezzin in prayer. Getting quickly out of bed, he showers, puts on his dirty clothes once again and tiptoes down the passage to the main door and out into the garden where two men dressed in work clothes are already tending to the trees and plants.

  The air is fragrant so that Anas, his heart inexplicably leaping, takes a deep breath before making his way to the seating area under the gazebo where a tattered sofa and several chairs covered in chintz are arranged around a wooden chest. He is surprised to find also what looks like an old carriage propped up in one corner, velvet curtains, once red, pulled back to either side of its door to reveal, as Anas looks in through its window, not seats, but bowed and dusty emptiness.

  He decides to explore further and finds, raised on to a concrete platform, a swimming pool and around it pots of a variety of shapes and sizes filled with geraniums that are still in bloom. He dips his hand in the water and shivers at its iciness, yet smiles too because there is something so fresh and true about this blueness that, in the absence of sunlight, is pure, unsullied by external warmth, a colour perhaps impossible to replicate though the artist in him wants to try to do just that.

  —I miss my studio, Anas finds himself saying out loud, and he is surprised at the sadness that suddenly engulfs him and at the tears he begins to shed.

  When his son was still an infant, Anas would sometimes take him to the studio and sit him in his baby chair on the table where he worked, and Marwan would watch as his father painted or sculpted, occasionally calling out for attention with a quiet grunt or an indignant baby screech that made Anas look up. As he met his child’s eyes, to grin back at him and cluck his tongue with acknowledgement, he would feel a rush of something unnamable, not just of love, which he had in abundance for both his children, but also of a kind of recognition of how far they had come together and where they were likely to go, their lives forever partnered as father and son.

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