In 2009, the celebration that marks the end of Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, fell on September 21st. I was living in Syria studying Arabic at this time and I remember the day vividly. I spent several hours with my teacher in the Mezze Jabaal (or Mezze 86) area of Damascus in which he lived, a ramshackle conurbation of multi-story apartment buildings built over a series of hills in the south-west of Damascus. My teacher was one of a small number of Kurds living in the area, in which the majority of the inhabitants were Alawite. Now frequently referred to as an Assad (or security) “stronghold” in the media, I remember it as a friendly, somewhat rundown residential area that, aside from a slightly higher number of military-registered vehicles, and perhaps a lower number of veiled women, was in many respects indistinguishable from several other neighbourhoods in Damascus.
After five months of having lessons together daily, my teacher and I had become close friends, so after my lesson that day, I stayed at his apartment and enjoyed a long meal with him and his two brothers. In the early evening I left his place and began the short, winding walk downhill to the bus stop where I would catch a serveez (a shared taxi, usually a minibus in Syria) back home to Souk Sarouja, the area where I lived in a house with other foreign students and our Syrian landlord and his wife. The streets of the neighbourhood, almost always bustling anyway, were full of families strolling around, several of the children were dressed in their best clothes for the day. The men had mainly stuck to what at times seemed like an official uniform: fake Adidas tracksuits. These tracksuits were displayed in the windows of many of the area’s shops, I ended up buying one and when I wore it, I was mistaken for a Syrian significantly more often than when I didn’t. Most of the children in the streets, the boys at least, were running around playing with toy BB guns which had clearly been the Eid present of choice in Damascus that year.
As I approached the corner where the serveez stop was, two boys aged around 13 suddenly ran out in front of me and simultaneously ducked behind a car. Leaning with their backs to its bumper they signalled dramatically for three friends behind them to halt. None of the group paid any attention to me. The front pair were holding large BB guns, one had a replica AK47, the other an M16. The elder of the two had a pistol tucked into his belt and was obviously the leader of the gang. I heard a shout from behind me and saw why they had signalled for their comrades to stop. On my left hand side around 10 metres away, a gang of 4-5 boys was creeping forward using a parked serveez as cover. All the members of this group were holding replica pump-action shot guns and looked older and a bit tougher than the first.
I took a step back into the doorway of a nearby shop and as I did so, the two opposing groups began shooting and then charged forward while swearing at one another. At such close range they could not miss and they began to shout out in pain when they were hit with the plastic pellets. This went on for a minute or so until it stopped abruptly when one of the boys was hit in his eye and began to cry loudly. Both groups – their demeanour previously so serious and aggressive – were instantly transformed into a united mass of worried-looking boys. Not long after, a middle-aged woman appeared and pulled the crying boy away by his outstretched hand up the steep, winding hill that I had just walked down. The rest of his group retreated and followed slightly behind him looking decidedly sheepish. The other boys ran away in the opposite direction and began to chase a stray cat as if nothing had happened.
I chuckled to myself at what I had just seen but was also quite struck at how real it had initially appeared. Until the seriousness of the scene had been pierced by the boy’s tears and the obvious concern of his friends, the faces of the boys had been pictures of intense concentration and nerves. I was still standing in the doorway of the shop so I turned around to look inside. The shop keeper was sitting opposite me on a white plastic garden chair absent-mindedly playing with his phone. He looked up, smiled at me and asked what I had thought of the “battle”. I responded with a smile and told him that honestly I thought it had been a little scary. He laughed, looked at me as if I was being over the top and asked why it was scary. I told him I was only joking but that since I had been in Lebanon recently and was currently watching a TV series about the country’s civil war, it had made me think of that. He laughed again before dismissing my comparison with a wave of his hand – “just kids playing” he said. I laughed and agreed. Looking to his left I realised that this shopkeeper was in fact the very man responsible for, and profiting from, the fighting on his doorstep, usually a half-empty mobile phone shop, his small premises had been transformed into an armoury, and was now absolutely crammed full of Chinese-made BB guns – more than I had ever seen in one place.
A childhood interest in BB guns that has stubbornly – and rather embarrassingly – lingered into adulthood stirred inside of me. I asked him how much an AK47 would cost me and could not believe how cheap it was when he replied. I felt self-conscious and had expected him to be bemused by my interest but he did not bat an eyelid. After a few test shots, I eventually left the shop with a pump-action shot gun (complete with laser sight) and an AK47 stuffed into my bag. They were mine for a total of less than five pounds. The barrels of both guns sticking out of my bag caused more than one sideways glance in my direction once I was on the serveez back to Souk Sarouja. I was sitting in the seat immediately behind the driver, a position which by default makes you responsible for taking the fares of those passengers sitting further away, handing them to the driver and returning the right change. This role was often a mathematical challenge, with multiple different fares to count and – especially when I first arrived in Damascus – somewhat of a linguistic test too. Yet I appreciated the way in which, foreigner or not, this responsibility was thrust upon you unquestioningly and I quickly began to enjoy the friendly interactions and short conversations with Syrians that sitting in that position inevitably led to.
On this occasion, at the Baramke bus station not far from my stop at Jisr al-Thawra, as I handed an elderly man his change, he gestured towards my bag and asked me why I had bought toy guns at my age. Feeling a bit of an idiot, without thinking I lied and told him that they were an Eid present for the son of a friend. The man nodded and smiled, seemingly content with this spurious explanation. Once I got home, my purchases caused a little bewilderment and laughter from my housemates. But it wasn’t long before one of them went out and bought some for himself to play with. After a few days however, both of the guns I’d bought had broken and I was forced to throw them away.
I have thought of this memory regularly since I left Syria at the end of 2009. Some of the boys I saw on that day would now be 18 or 19 years old and I often wonder what has happened to them since then. It is a distinct possibility that some of them have been involved in the actual fighting that has engulfed the country since 2011, and perhaps even been killed.
Despite its vividness, this memory, like so many others from my time living in Syria feels somehow as if it is from another life, the tragic reality is that the Syria I knew and loved is now gone. My teacher, with whom I am still close, has left the country, and now, like tens of thousands of other Syrian Kurds is a refugee in Northern Iraq. In fact, most of my Syrian friends are now living outside of Syria, dispersed as refugees across a number of different countries. I pray for the day that they will be able to return to their country in safety and begin to re-build what has been destroyed.
Louis Allday, 10th January 2015.