My voice rings out, this time, from Damascus
It rings out from the house of my mother and father
In Sham. The geography of my body changes.
The cells of my blood become green.
‘Just have to make a pit stop.’
Abu Samer gets out of the burgundy Hyundai Sonata and heads to the convenience store. The car is spacious and fuel efficient, a popular choice amongst Syrian drivers. He comes out holding a carton of Marlboro Red 20s. He’s tanned, with a thick, manicured beard and balding head. He gets in the driver seat, opens the carton and carefully positions the ten packs it contains: four in the compartment underneath the driver window, two in the lower compartment on the driver door, two more in the slot between the driver and passenger seats, and two in his shirt pocket.
He takes a thick wad of Syrian currency from his back pocket and quickly counts it. Fourteen thousand Syrian pounds – about 26 American dollars and 35 Australian. Six years ago, £14,000 would have made US$280 and close to A$300. He breaks the wad into small chunks, putting only a few bills in each of his pockets.
‘Anything in your luggage I should know about, habibna?’ he says to me.
‘Don’t think so. Just clothes, shoes, toiletries,’ I reply.
‘Have you taken off the tags?’
‘Problem.’ Having luggage full of tags could look like we were smuggling goods.
‘Can we stop on the side –’
‘Too late – leave it to me, habibna.’
Abu Samer is a considerate man and keeps his smoking hand near the window as we speed from Beirut through the Mount Lebanon Governorate, towards the Syrian border at Masnaa. The cool mountain breeze rushes in through the open window, his chest hair billows out of his shirt. Unbuttoned at the top, it stretches over his gut even more now that he is seated – long days and nights spent behind the wheel with a diet of manakeesh and Pepsi can do that to you. The average driver crosses the border 2–4 times a day.
He finishes the cigarette and with one smooth motion, grips the steering wheel between his knees, flicks the butt out with his left hand and grabs a bottle of cologne from the glove compartment with his right. He douses himself in Aramis. ‘I’ll have to turn the AC on soon. It’s going to get hotter as we head down.’
We are driving along a clear stretch of highway, but in the distance a parked car flashes its hazards. Abu Samer slows as we approach, and parks in front of it. ‘Just seeing a friend – stay inside.’ I wait for some time, straining to hear crumbs of conversation.
‘Allah wakeelak, I spoke to Abu Ali himself, he said five thousand.’
‘Not what we agreed.’
‘Ya akhee, speak to him!’
A man follows Abu Samer back to the car, carrying an unusually shaped suit bag. They carefully load it into the back seat. Drivers tend to supplement their income by couriering a range of goods between the borders.
As we drive off, Abu Samer pulls out his phone and leaves a WhatsApp voicemail for his colleague. ‘Five thousand! You asked for five thousand for that?! God send you five thousand bullets in your sleep! Pull your head out of your arse and talk to me.’
We drive on, Abu Samer manoeuvring through the increasing traffic.
‘How much longer?’ I ask.
‘Good day, two hours, bad day four.’
I haven’t been back home for years. The airport in Damascus was closed due to the risk of ISIS attacks; I had to fly to Beirut and cross the Lebanon–Syria border by land.
I haven’t been back home for years. The airport in Damascus was closed due to the risk of ISIS attacks; I had to fly to Beirut and cross the Lebanon–Syria border by land. The two cities are just 100 kilometres apart, and there is a strong industry of private cross-country cab drivers in the region. My mother had organised for Abu Samer to pick me up and bring me to Damascus as soon as I got off my 21-hour flight.
I don’t know much about Abu Samer – not even his first name. In the Middle East it is common for men and women to be referred to as ‘Father of’ or ‘Mother of’ their first-born son; I know that the man driving me to Syria has a son called Samer, but that’s about it.
A four-wheel drive sits right on our tail, flashing its headlights aggressively. ‘Why doesn’t he overtake us?’
‘This is normal – Lebanese don’t like us, habibna.’ The Hyundai is sporting Syrian license plates, which makes us an easy target. ‘They never liked us.’
I twirl my Lebanese ID in my hand; it’s what I’ll use to cross the border. The authorities at the Beirut International Airport didn’t stamp my Australian passport upon arrival because they considered me a local. Besides my paranoid fear that the Australian authorities would accuse me of going to fight for ISIS, entering Syria as an Australian would mean I would have to exit and re-enter the country every 15 days – a costly and risky endeavour. No need to complicate things.
My family immigrated to Australia in 1990 out of fear that the First Gulf War would spread to Syria. My mother’s side had begun trickling in since the 70s. My father had overcome poverty to become an esteemed jeweller in Damascus; born in 1936, he was unable to cope with a new Australian way of life at such a late age, and in 1995 he moved us back to Syria. Fortunately, we were Australian citizens by that point; my four older siblings and I grew up going to private schools and universities across Syria, Lebanon and Australia.
In Syria I was shunned for being too Australian, in Lebanon I was shunned for being too Syrian. I moved back to Australia at the age of 17 after graduating from a Quaker boarding school in the Lebanese mountains, narrowly escaping the Lebanon–Israel war. I arrived in Melbourne in 2006 and rapidly transformed into a vegetarian, three-quarter-almond-flat-white addict; my generic international school accent dissolved to make way for a neutral Melbourne one. My two sisters and I live in the Western suburbs, within seven minutes’ drive of a Bunnings, Chemist Warehouse and Hungry Jacks, so we can’t complain. They work 9-to-5 jobs, and after 5 torturous years of architecture school, I am a struggling artist.
My parents never moved back. Our family home is located in Kassaa, a majority Christian neighbourhood in Damascus. It is 1km away from an ISIS front; my parents were unwilling to leave our properties and business behind, afraid of the pillaging that would inevitably take place.
Though war in Syria has been raging for years, it is easy to forget that the majority of the Syrian population remain in the country. Before the war the population of Syria was approximately 21 million, practically the same as Australia. Several million fled and countless died but the majority remain, living through war, in Damascus especially.
Though war in Syria has been raging for years, it is easy to forget that the majority of the Syrian population remain in the country.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that I developed a host of depressive and anxious tendencies. Being apart from my mother for so long allowed my depression and anxiety to fester; some days I couldn’t get out of bed. Therapy proved unaffordable and ineffective for me, even with a Mental Health Plan, and I found myself scouring Reddit sub-forums in my attempt to self-medicate. One suggested I exercise my way out of depression; another suggested I micro-dose magic mushrooms for several months. Eventually I decided that a 10-step Korean skincare routine taken from /r/AsianBeauty would cure my anxiety. It worked wonders for a while, but self-care can only do so much.
The only solution became clear; a vacation to war torn Damascus, the motherland. Armed with my new skincare obsession, I would spend the Syrian summer of 2017 there, escaping the arctic winds of Melbourne, applying copious amounts of sunscreen, and being coerced out of my demonic vegetarianism by mother dearest.
The Lebanon–Syria border crossing at Masnaa consists of several low-rise admin buildings, roadblocks, checkpoints, hundreds of parked cars and dozens of cargo trucks. Abu Samer and I approach the border control offices, but there is complete chaos so I’m not sure where to go.
Hundreds of people, stuck under the scorching sun, crowd toward the entrance. The crowd shout over each other as several Lebanese soldiers holding batons attempt to push them back.
‘Form a line. Form a line!’
‘Get back! Get back I said!’ A soldier threatens the crowd, raising his baton high.
A middle-aged man pleads with a soldier no older than twenty. ‘Son please, the rebels took our town. They tried to make us fight, we fled.’
‘Get back, old man!’
‘Please, please. My wife and children are across the border. I have to go.’
‘You’re not getting in! Fucking animals, get back!’
‘Please brother, God bless you, God bless your children, God bless your parents,’ a man says clutching a soldier by his shirt.
‘You! I told you you’re not getting in.’ The soldier strikes him, the man backs down.
‘I’ve been waiting here for hours, please, I’m going to faint.’
‘Learn how to stay in line or go back to the shit hole you came from.’
Before the Syrian war, Lebanon’s population was around 4 million. Overwhelmed by taking in 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the span of 5 years, on top of its already large population of Palestinian refugees, the Lebanese government passed laws requiring Syrian nationals to have at least US$1000 cash in hand (per person) plus a hotel booking to enter the country. This has caused massive bottlenecks of Syrians fleeing from war to get stuck at the border for days, with many refused entry and subjected to verbal and physical abuse. The poorest people, often the most affected by the conflict, will pay smugglers around US$200 with the hope of reaching the UN headquarters across the border, but it is not uncommon for the smugglers to lead them straight to the authorities instead. What used to be a quick, routine process has turned into a chaotic, humiliating ordeal for many.
‘You need to fill out an exit card,’ Abu Samer instructs. I stand there frozen.
‘Don’t worry! You can go straight through, no lines for Lebanese.’
I approach the entrance, flash my ID and go straight in. The border offices have designated queues for Lebanese, Syrian and foreign nationals. The queues for Lebanese nationals entering Syria are practically empty.
I fill out the exit card in my fifth grade Arabic handwriting.
Place of Birth: Damascus
I go to the queue and give the soldier my ID. He looks at it, then at me. ‘This picture is too old, it doesn’t look like you.’ He’s right – I haven’t been back for years.
‘My dad told me they don’t expire here,’ I attempt a Lebanese accent.
Before hitting puberty, I sported a mushroom bowl cut hairdo, and my Roman nose was yet to kick in; my soft features and soft voice led most people to assume I was a chubby little girl. The pink colour scheme of the Lebanese ID card coupled with an awkward photo of my younger, double-chinned self just added to this impression. To make matters worse, the card was damaged almost beyond repair. At boarding school as a sixteen-year-old, I decided to rebel against my parents by getting both an eyebrow and tragus ring – being a private international school, dress code prohibited such rebellious displays and the jewellery had to be stored in my wallet during school hours, resulting in dozens of deep dints and holes in the plastic card. I can’t believe I hadn’t anticipated this would be an issue.
‘This won’t do,’ the soldier said. ‘Where’s your passport? They’ll give you problems on the other side.’
‘I didn’t bring my Lebanese passport.’ I had lost it.
He sighs, stamps the exit card and gives me my documents.
‘God with you.’
‘Merci kteer.’ I’m in and out in less than five minutes.
I was born in Damascus in 1989. My father, being Lebanese, registered my birth in Lebanon – but, being busy with the birth of his fifth child in seven years (typical Catholics) decided to send his cousin, George, to do the paperwork. Mother says George was illiterate. May he rest in peace.
A young Arab man travelling the world in this socio-political climate with dual, conflicting nationalities is not an ideal situation.
As a result, I have an incorrect birthdate on my Lebanese ID. A young Arab man travelling the world in this socio-political climate with dual, conflicting nationalities is not an ideal situation – adamant about the need to ‘fix’ my identity in 2015, I hounded my mother for weeks. She told me the story of how she confronted the Mayor of Beirut in order to have the issue resolved.
‘Mukhtar, how much will it cost to fix his birthdate?’
Mukhtar Baydoun was fat with beady eyes and thick glasses. His office was on the ground floor of Sodeco Square, a mixed residential/commercial complex in central Beirut. It was cramped and crowded with nowhere for anyone else but him to sit. He dwelt on the question for a solid fifteen seconds, moving his lower lip left to right ever so minutely, his eyes searching the ceiling.
‘Six hundred dollars. Two hundred for me, two hundred for the lawyer today. The rest when you get the papers.’
‘Okay,’ my mother said reluctantly. She had no choice, it was the only way to do things there.
‘And I want two kilos of Ghraoui chocolate liqueurs. I want the dark chocolate – the expensive, not the cheap one.’
‘It’s a bit hard to get those chocolates with the situation in Syria, Mukhtar – the factory was bombed.’
‘You’ll manage. Who’s next?’
She stood to the side as a middle-aged man approached. ‘Mukhtar, I need to renew my passport as soon as possible.’
‘I can get you your passport tomorrow.’
‘Thank you Mukhtar, thank you. How much will it cost?’
Again, his eyes searched the ceiling. ‘You live near the port, don’t you?’
‘Five hundred dollars. And I want five kilos of fresh red snapper from the market near you, cleaned and scaled…I’m having a barbeque in two hours.’
‘That’s a bit short notice, Mukhtar.’
‘You’ll manage. Next?’
My mother braved ISIS mortars to get Mukhtar Baydoun those chocolates, but my ID was never corrected.
The lanes of the Beirut-Damascus International Highway are separated by large concrete road dividers. It’s encircled by bright red mountains covered in wild Aleppo Pines. The deep blue horizon vacillates in depth as the walls of the mountain shift from steep, narrow incline to wide rolling hills.
‘What do I do if they give me a problem, about my ID?’
‘Don’t worry habibna, you’re with me. No one will say anything.’
My gaze is captured by what looks like a mountain of white stones in the distance. As we approach I see that the stones are in fact a huge mountain of plastic bags.
‘Is this how they solved their garbage crisis?’
‘No, no. This is just from the nearby Bekaa valley. Too far for Beirut garbage,’ Abu Samer explains. ‘The entrance to Lebanon is covered in garbage, habibna,’ he laughs, shutting the windows and turning the air conditioning on. ‘You know the Lebanese still rely on Syria for electricity? With everything we’ve been through…and our garbage trucks never stopped!’
My senses are invaded by a ripe, syrupy aroma. It envelopes me from behind, I turn back to see an Ambi Pur automatic sprayer stuck above the backseat. ‘Cherry and forest berry flavour,’ he says proudly. ‘It’s automatique.’ He points to the two car diffusers attached to the front vents. ‘And these are Jasmine and Musk.’ The concoction is almost strong enough to mask the countless cigarettes smoked inside, but it gives me a splitting headache.
Abu Samer switches the radio station and the deep bass guitar and unmistakably 80s synth riff of Bandolero’s Paris Latino blasts through the speakers. Abu Samer sings along with the chorus, bobbing his head to the beat.
Que bueno que rico que lindo
‘You have a girlfriend in Australia?’ He shouts over the music.
‘Yes.’ I don’t.
‘She’s tall, blonde with blue eyes, yes?’
‘Brown eyes.’ I reply swiftly. He’s disappointed.
‘Does she dance Lambada for you? She has to dance Lambada.’
I look out the window, trying to find something to change the subject. My attention is drawn to a line of people that stretch from beside the road to the top of the mountain.
‘No Lambada, no good! She has –’
‘Aren’t those people afraid of being caught or killed?’
He laughs, still bobbing along. ‘This is no man’s land…No rebels, no soldiers here. No oil…nothing.’ He slows the car as we pass them.
Joséphine blanche, robe rouge et noire
Danse avec le reflet du miroir…
The group consists of women and children with a few elderly men. Some carry sacks, plastic bags, others carry nothing. They trek under the silhouette of what used to be a large billboard, now an empty frame. Two young girls rest under the little shade it provides, this steel skeleton rising from oxidized soil.
‘They won’t let them cross the border, they’re from the village,’ Abu Samer says casually.
The mountainside is scattered with brightly draped bodies traversing its steep incline. I can barely stand the 43-degree sun in the air-conditioned car, I have no idea how they are resisting sunstroke. The smell of garbage penetrates through the car filters, adding to the cocktail.
The mountainside is scattered with brightly draped bodies traversing its steep incline. I have no idea how they are resisting sunstroke.
Party! I’m gonna make you move (Get down)
To the latest groove (Don’t stop)…
A lone woman pauses a short distance from the car. She’s out of breath, staring down with her back parallel to the incline. Dressed all in black with a colourful, embroidered hijab, her hands rest firmly on her lower back, supporting a crying infant camouflaged within her garments, its outstretched hands grasping at her hijab. Sweat pours from her brow. It’s not until her gaze meets mine that I realise I am staring at her. Her piercing yellow eyes tear straight through me with a defiant strength. The woman readjusts the lump on her back, takes a deep breath and powers up the mountain. I watch as her silhouette disappears into the horizon, blurring into the sea of Aleppo pines that crown the peak.
The car speeds between stratified layers of rock. The medley of odours, the stifling heat and the dizzying panorama crescendo into an intense motion sickness. My vision blurs, engulfed by the river of tarmac meandering through the pastel pink gorge as I drift into sleep.
It’s 7 years ago, I am in Damascus, and my father is telling me the story of how our Syrian family came to have Lebanese citizenship.
‘My grandfather was beheaded by the Ottomans in 1916…like ISIS today!’ My father laughs, his unique staccato of high pitched hyena-like giggles. It’s a laugh which can be disconcerting when heard for the first time – even more so when you see it emanating from a white haired, hobbit-like man. ‘Your grandmother was just ten months old when her mother wrapped her in a blanket and fled. With forty women from the village, only twelve made it.’ He’s sitting at his desk, wearing a crisp white shirt tucked into high waisted, wide legged pants that stop just above his belly button. ‘They walked on foot, through mountains, from Mardin to the Syrian territories, nothing but the clothes on their backs. You know, they were killing all the Christians at the time, those bastards. The Syriacs, the Assyrians, the Chaldeans – not just the Armenians!’
Rectangular frames rest on the tip of his prominent Roman nose, a nose just like mine. The lenses are so thick they distort the peripheries of his face. ‘Your grandmother was born in 1915, your grandfather 1882. In the end they couldn’t agree if it was thirty or thirty-five years difference. Like Michael Douglas,’ he laughs. ‘You know, it was different back then, people just made up their birth certificates.’ He jams the eye loupe hung around his neck into his right eye as he inspects a diamond and enamel broche. ‘It’s why we’re Lebanese, too,’ he says in his Damascene accent. ‘If you were Syrian you’d all be in the army right now, probably dead.’ Another of his disconcerting fits of laughter.
‘But we’re all born in Syria. You’ve lived your whole life in Damascus, mum is Syrian. How are we Lebanese?’ I demand.
My father looks at me like I’m a fool. ‘There were no borders! Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, they were all one Greater Syria. We lived under French occupation. They plotted Sykes-Picot with those English bastards, that’s the real story! I tell you, nothing is colder than English blood.’ He glances around, lowers his voice to a whisper and switches to his broken, thickly French-accented English. ‘He was afraid of the Muslims, your grandfather. First, he had to flee conscription from the Ottomans, then the genocide. After that the Druze stole everything from him, kilos of diamonds and gold, when they rebelled in 1925, the bastards. Lebanese territories were Christian! With every child born he’d go there and register us. Just in case. Your aunt Angel was registered in 1930, me, I was born in –’
‘God send you a tsunami Antoine. He didn’t ask for a lecture!’ My mother’s voice travels down the hallway, with the scorn of 35 years of marriage. Her tone turns soft and loving when she speaks to me. ‘Darling, you are what you need to be, when you need to be. Intelligence is about being flexible.’
‘Fell asleep, habibna,’ Abu Samer’s voice wakes me.
‘Have we crossed yet?’ I ask in a daze.
‘Once my pockets start emptying, you’ll know we’ve crossed.’
My heart races as we approach the first Syrian checkpoint. We slow to a stop; the checkpoint is flanked by two concrete kiosks painted with the Syrian flag.
My heart races as we approach the first Syrian checkpoint. We slow to a stop; the checkpoint is flanked by two concrete kiosks painted with the Syrian flag.
‘Identification,’ the soldier commands. I give him the ID card. ‘Are your roots Syrian?’
‘No. I’m Lebanese.’ My parents’ warnings echo in my mind.
His eyes shoot between the double-chinned child on the ID card and my bearded self. ‘This doesn’t look like you. Show me your passport.’
‘Habibna, it’s him, let it pass.’ Abu Samer says.
‘Show me your passport.’
My testes have retreated into my gut – he could accuse me of evading conscription or falsifying identification. I’d be held in custody till proven innocent. ‘I don’t have my Lebanese passport.’
‘How do I know this is you?’ He turns to speak to his colleague. ‘Don’t move!’
As he walks away from the car, a ray of sunlight spears through the window into my over-packed bag, and a glimmer of gold appears. I delve my hand deep and pull out the source. I’ve never been happier to see that emu and kangaroo awkwardly caressing a crest. ‘I’m Australian,’ I state with feigned confidence.
The soldier takes the freshly minted passport out of its plastic sleeve, inspecting it slowly, looking at every page.
He pauses for some time. Staring closely at the Identity Information Page in one hand, the Lebanese ID in the other. Oh God, I know I don’t believe in you, but save me.
‘Go, go. God with you.’
Slender concrete arches clad in sandstone mark the entry to the second border crossing at Jdeidat Yabous. Each lane adorned by a portrait – the first of the president, the second his father before him. The black, white and red Syrian flag flies high between them.
‘No need to get out.’ Abu Samer takes my ID and heads to the border control office. He comes back shortly after, with my exit card stamped.
‘That was quick.’
‘Don’t look at them when they do it,’ Abu Samer says to me. ‘They’re shy.’ I have no idea what he’s talking about. ‘The soldiers. Look away when they take their rizqa.’
Their rizqa; their livelihood. Syrian soldiers are paid an average of forty thousand Syrian pounds per month, that’s approximately US$80 and under $100 Australian. War has increased the cost of living tenfold; salaries have remained largely unchanged. Most soldiers are too proud to take money – instead they take packets of cigarettes. The average soldier may get a few dozen packs a day; once he sells on for two dollars each, he’s made his rizqa. Bribery, though technically illegal, is a fact of life. There are between eight and twelve checkpoints from the Lebanese border to my home in Damascus, depending on the roads taken.
War has increased the cost of living tenfold…Most soldiers are too proud to take money – instead they take packets of cigarettes.
‘You have bribery in Australia?’
‘Not petty. Just at the corporate scale.’
‘Here there’s bribery for big and small. Bribery for everything. You can even bribe your dad.’ We drive on, the mountains slowly retreating. We dance from checkpoint to checkpoint, stopping momentarily to perform each one’s assigned choreography. ‘Habibna, open the glove box,’ my attention is drawn directly ahead of me, I pull at the latch. ‘You can close it now.’ We drive off, two of the Marlboro packs having mysteriously disappeared. ‘This one takes his rizqa underneath the papers,’ Abu Samer says as he nestles money between our travel documents. ‘There’s a camera watching him 24/7, look over at that hill.’
‘They only accept Marlboros, no Alhamra.’ He is referring to the local Marlboro knock offs. By the time we pass the checkpoint, two more have disappeared.
‘Open the boot,’ the soldier commands. Abu Samer yanks the handbrake up, grabs a pack from the centre console and scrambles to the back of the car. The raised boot masks the interaction; he’s back in twenty seconds. ‘That one’s not greedy, he’s happy with one pack.’ Another checkpoint. ‘This son of a bitch takes two packs and money.’
‘Why didn’t that one take anything?’ I ask.
‘You worried about him?’ He says with a chuckle. ‘His commander was behind us, next time he’ll remember me and take double.’
We’re almost out of cigarettes, which means we must be getting close. I see the silhouette of the National Football Stadium in the distance, I’m almost home. The excitement of seeing my parents after so long is overwhelming. I can practically taste my mother’s cooking. But again, the car slows to a stop. Another checkpoint. This time the soldier holds a long antenna-like device attached to a grip. He positions it parallel to the car and walks across the length of it. ‘What kind of detector is that?’
‘Very special one.’ Abu Samer is ordered to get out of the car. ‘Great at detecting perfumes, medicine, alcohol…not so good for weapons and drugs.’ He checks his shirt pocket. ‘What’s the problem, brother?’
‘Open the boot.’
‘No need for that,’ Abu Samer slips two reds from his pocket to the soldier’s. He does not let up.
‘Open the boot.’
Abu Samer opens the boot. ‘You’re new here, what’s your name?’ The soldier unzips my bags and sticks his hands aggressively into my belongings, turning them inside out. I’m summoned out of the car.
I rush through the labyrinthine pathways of Emporium Melbourne, before finally I find the bridge across Little Bourke Street connecting it to Myer. I pull out my smartphone, open the Viber app and video-call ‘Mum Syria’.
‘Darling, I’ve missed you.’ My mother lays on an emerald green chaise longue in the formal salon of our Damascus home, a cigarette in one hand, a Syrian coffee in the other. I point the phone camera through the aisles of the women’s designer section.
‘See anything you like?’
‘What’s that on the left?’
I pull out a tailored, cream coloured blazer accented with black lines. ‘It’s Moschino.’
‘Oh it’s beautiful darling. Is it on sale?’
‘Looks like it’s full priced.’
‘Criminals! charging those prices for polyester.’ Boom. The sounds of a mortar landing in our neighbourhood blast through my headphones. A nearby car alarm goes off. ‘This is making me sick, take me to the shoe section.’
Bang. ‘Mum, that one sounded loud, was our building hit?’
‘No, no. The maid just dropped a pot.’
I point my phone directly ahead of me, slowly scanning the entirety of the mirrored display wall filled with high end designer shoes and bags. I must look insane to the sales rep hovering nearby, seemingly talking to myself.
‘Honestly, I don’t know what’s happening to this world. These designers are going crazy. What’s that? That gold one in the corner there.’
‘How did you even see that?’
‘Bring it closer to me. I saw Amal Clooney wearing the exact same pair. It was a lower heel and a different colour, but practically the same. Oh, it’s gorgeous.’
‘It’s on sale.’
‘Darling it’s a must-have.’ The sounds of jet planes flying overheard permeate through the headphones. ‘I love them. Bring them to me.’ A series of gun shots in the distance. ‘Just put it on the American Express.’
The soldier pulls out a colourful Myer bag imprinted with the words AUSTRALIA’S BIGGEST STOCKTAKE SALE. He unearths a pair of candy red patent leather Luciano Padovan heels, followed by some delicate lace lingerie, tags attached. ‘These for you?’
‘For my mother,’ I say, hoping he doesn’t pull at the lace. I had to fight off a bunch of Brunswick mums for that shit. He continues excavating, spilling my clean clothes into the boot. I try to contain the demon within me when he yanks out a large Chemist Warehouse bag. Bottles, jars and tubs of vitamins and skincare products fall everywhere, I try to hide my panic as I gather them up.
‘This is enough medicine for a village,’ he says firmly.
I look him square in the eyes and tell him the truth. ‘This is all for me.’
He points to a shiny black bottle. ‘What’s that?’
‘Activated charcoal, for flatulence.’
‘B12. I’m vegetarian.’ The confusion on his face is palpable. ‘I don’t eat meat.’
He grabs a large tub of St John’s Wort, shaking it.
‘That’s for my anxiety.’
‘It’s, ah…fuck, never mind.’
His hand moves towards a dainty white bottle speckled with orange and gold. ‘That’s my sunscreen.’
He holds the bottle up, inspecting it with curiosity. ‘You’re smuggling these to sell. I have to confiscate them.’
I am about to lose it. There’s no fucking way I’m going through the Syrian summer without sunscreen. That stuff cost me $30 for 50ml. ‘How much do you fucking want?’
He looks to Abu Samer. ‘Is your friend crazy? I’ll send him to Daraa.’
Abu Samer interjects, trying to diffuse the situation. He shakes the soldier’s hand, dropping several thousand pounds. ‘Habibna, forgive him,’ he seals the transaction with a kiss to the cheek. ‘He’s from Australia, visiting parents.’
‘Is everyone from Australia like this?’ The soldier asks, bewildered.
Abu Samer laughs hysterically. ‘Yalla, yalla, I’ve got customers waiting brother, I have to head back.’
‘Go on then,’ he says wearily. I close my bags and get in the car.
‘God save you and God save the army!’ Abu Samer waves goodbye as we drive off.
I sit there fuming.
‘Eighty dollars,’ Abu Samer reminds me. ‘That’s how much he makes. Could you live off that?’
‘How can anyone live like this? All these checkpoints, all this bullshit.’
‘Life in Damascus…it’s like a river, you know? It never stops. They put a checkpoint here, the current splits into smaller, stronger streams. They throw a pebble, a rock, a boulder, it makes a splash – big, small, whatever. But life flows on, habibna.’