The Land of Jasmines
Illustrated by Xin Ting Zhou
Jasmines painted the streets white. Crystallized teardrops elegantly dancing in the Mediterranean wind. A man carefully trod on them, his steps like footprints on feathers of snow. He made his way through Rawda Square, a path he had walked down ever since he could stand on his two feet. But this time, it was different; everything was so vivid. The cedar trees overshadowing the minaret that towered over the city, pine needle silhouettes swaying against the cracked walls. Mount Qasioun red in the sunset, as if soaked in Abel’s blood. Damascus a fragile rose with jasmine thorns protecting her narrow, dusty streets.
He closed his eyes, and for a second, he was by his grandmother’s side, picking petals in the dormant streets of dawn for his perfumed morning tea. He let his lungs fill up with the aroma of childhood one last time, before breathing turned sharply into acute pain.
His shirt was completely red now.
As he turned back to see the trail of blood that painted the floral canvas, he collapsed on the rubbled marble sidewalk of his falling city.
Buried underneath a sea of wilting jasmines, his hands reaching up to the sky.
* * *
The children woke up startled. They couldn’t hear the missiles. The silence in the house was so unusual, they thought they were dead.
Rima got up and checked on her infant brother, Amine. He was still sleeping soundly. She caressed the crescent-shaped birthmark on his nose with her small delicate fingers.
How lucky you are, sleeping like this.
She pranced to the living room, her two pigtails bouncing on her flat chest.
There, slumping on the pile of old blankets that formed their makeshift couch, was Khalil.
He was staring at his phone. A terrorist attack had occurred in a foreign country the night before. Headlines read Pray for Paris. Thousands of people held candle lights. Some were hugging each other, some were crying. In a video on the phone screen, a father was comforting his terrified son, telling him that the bad guys may have guns, but they have flowers.
Khalil couldn’t help but laugh. What could a delicate little flower do against bullets?
Rima looked over his shoulder.
“Do you think people ever pray for us, too?” she asked playfully.
“We don’t need their prayers. We have God.”
He twiddled with his misbaha, which he always kept in his pocket.
* * *
Omar walked in.
He saw his younger sister, Rima, leaning against Khalil, both children staring at the phone, bickering over it. Precious glimpses of a scattered childhood.
A wave of guilt overtook him.
His kindness betrayed by the deep contemplative wrinkles carved between his thick, bushy brows.
He gave Khalil a serious glance, and walked to the hallway. Khalil followed him.
Omar remembered once again when he and his Free Army brothers had found Khalil in an abandoned building three years ago, alone. Khalil never talked about his parents or his past; in fact, he rarely talked at all, but his eyes told the story of terrors beyond words and a tormented sadness and wrath that should never belong on the face of a child. And that made Omar like him even more.
Omar loaded his rifle with Khalil by the entrance of their confined apartment. Omar watched as Khalil put on his bullet-proof jacket and walked up to Rima, who was holding her infant brother in her arms. He gave her a quick peck on the cheek and ran out the door to hide his flushed face.
“We’ll be back,” said Omar.
Omar could read the words in Rima’s expression. You better be, her eyes said as she rocked little Amine, who had just woken up to the sound of gunfire in the distance.
“Shh, it’s okay little buddy. You’re a hero, right? Yes you are. Yes you are,” she whispered.
* * *
As Omar drove, both hands on the wheel, through the wreckage of the city, Khalil lay in the backseat, reading an article written by an American, in a copy of the New York Times that one of the rebels had brought from Turkey.
Aleppo was once the heart and soul of the motherland, an amalgam of cultures living in perfect harmony under her monumental Citadel that rises above the suqs, mosques and madrasas of the old walled city. Her outstanding architecture fossilized remains of Assyrian, Hellenistic, Greco-Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and other ancient civilizations’ past glories. Now, this paragon of historical richness has been reduced to nothing but dust and debris among a wasteland of ghosts. 7000 years of history wiped out by a tyrannical lunatic with a thirst for blood and destruction and mindless extremists born from the moral decay of a suffocating oppression.
What could this American possibly know about his world or his struggles? The people who read this article probably pitied Syrians for a few minutes, before going on with their comfortable, sheltered lives. What was the point of writing about the war if his people were continuously massacred? He didn’t understand why anyone would want to be a journalist.
Their usual route was blocked by a small group of protesters, mostly skinny kids in ragged clothes and an unsettling fury in their eyes. Their fingers formed a V as they chanted.
“The people want the fall of the regime!”
“Victory to the rebels!”
* * *
As he steered, Omar couldn’t help but remember his university days when he and his friends would gather by the Great Mosque and march down the lively cobblestoned streets of Aleppo. Red, Green, White, Black. The colors of oppression had been rearranged to create the colors of democracy; the Free Syrian flag covered the crowd. Their chants, synchronized to their heartbeats. It was an electric shock of sweat and vibration in a sea of enthusiastic rebels roaring for freedom, like lions let loose from their cages. Those protests were an adrenaline fueled euphoria, a visceral call for change. Everyone thought that they were writing a new page in history ― and they were― but that page was tainted by an international conspiracy that impeded what could’ve been a great revolution, or so he thought.
His friends had either fled the country or died. Despite his losses, he managed to remain hopeful. He truly believed that, one day, goodness would prevail and the Syrian people would know what true peace and liberty looked like. Just like his late father, he carried his patriotism like a badge of honour. Life was cheap in the face of the motherland. He wasn’t afraid of dying, if it meant protecting his country.
* * *
Khalil watched the protesters, indifferently. He had seen his fair share of protests, big and small, yet here they were, living in the chaotic madness of the apocalypse itself. This only solidified his idea that you could only fight against violence with arms and bullets. He squeezed his misbaha.
The car stopped.
It was time.
Khalil jumped out, and so did Omar. Khalil opened the back of the trunk. Omar ran ahead of him, inspecting the area swiftly. He gave Khalil a nod: the path was clear. Khalil carried the suitcase and with Omar he sprinted to the old-city wall. From above them snipers began to shoot. A bullet grazed Khalil arm.
Omar turned to him, briskly.
“Are you hit?”
“No. It’s just a scratch.”
“These pigs can’t even hit their targets from a tower.”
He wrapped Khalil’s hand with a bandage. “Apply some pressure on it. On the count of three, we run.”
Khalil pictured Rima in his mind. He imagined the gap between her teeth, the two dimples under her eyes, the red rash on her cheeks. And suddenly, he was afraid of death.
He could feel his heart palpitations ripping right through his shirt. They were louder than the sniper shots that echoed in the background.
His mobility had evaporated through the rain showers of sweat that dripped from his forehead. He was paralyzed.
Omar dashed through the open field of collapsed architecture.
“What the hell are you doing, idiot?” he screamed back at Khalil. “Run!”
Khalil was glued to the wall.
Omar placed his head in his hands with a cry of exasperation. He ran back to Khalil, grabbed his arm and pulled him up brusquely.
Dazed, Khalill snapped back to reality.
He dashed next to Omar to the gate of the the old market. Khalil remembered his article.
The century-old trading center that was once adorned with Indian spices and Iranian silk, copper and wool and exotic soaps, was reduced to a desert of debris and collapsing domes, piles of mangled metal and strategically hidden explosives at every turn. This was Aleppo’s battlefront, where the opposition attacked civilians with barrel bombs and ballistic missiles, and rebels fought back with homemade grenades.
* * *
Khalil staggered through the gate. One of Omar’s guys was waiting on the other side to meet them. The man could easily pass as their grandfather. He walked them through the burrowed walls of the old city that acted as secure routes to the rebels’ frontline positions. They arrived in a room padded with piles of rice bags, like cushions under a big hole in the wall that served as their firing point.
Two other men waited for them there, with a handmade catapult positioned in front of the grey blanket that cleverly hid the gaping hole.
“You brought the suitcase?” asked one of the men, who wore a black tank top that showed his bulging muscles.
Khalil placed the suitcase on the floor and opened it to reveal a dozen handmade bombs. Omar had spent every second of the last month meticulously crafting them.
“Heh. I guess that engineering degree did serve you for something, after all” joked a lanky man with rectangular glasses.
“Four-eyes was my old classmate, Jamal” Omar said to Khalil.
The man in a tank top held a mannequin head on a stick in front of a smaller hole in the wall.
A few seconds later, the sniper began shooting at them.
“It worked!” laughed the man in the tank top. “These donkeys have it coming. We located their position.”
The men in the room lay low, sheltered by the rice bags.
Without wasting a second, Khalil handed a bomb to Jamal, who placed it on the cords of the catapult and pulled with all his strength. The bomb ripped through the curtains, shredding them to pieces.
A loud boom was heard in the distance.
The sniper fired faster than they could blink. The walls of the room looked like a sponge, covered in holes.
Khalil covered his head, taking short, uneven breaths.
“Another one, quick!” yelled Jamal.
Khalil crawled over to him, handing him another bomb.
Jamal catapulted it right away. A louder boom could be heard this time.
“Come on, one more!”
“Strengthen your hand, Jamal” said the old man.
Jamal catapulted the third bomb.
This time, the gunfire ceased.
The room was dead-silent.
The man in the in tank top screamed.
“God is great!”
Everyone cheered after him.
“God is great!”
Except Khalil, who had his mouth agape, stupefied by Jamal’s targeting precision.
Khalil felt suddenly Omar’s hand patting him on the back of his head.
“Hey, spacey-boy. You did really good today.”
A warmth poured through Khalil’s bones. Omar made him feel safe, even in the middle of a battlefield.
* * *
Omar and the other boys were at the rebel base, celebrating one of their rare victories. The old man offered them colorful cubes of sugar-powdered gel.
“Turkish delights,” said the old man.
Khalil picked a pink one.
“Rose water. Good choice, my son.”
Omar swallowed his desert like a starving child. Khalil wrapped his in a tissue and placed it in his pocket.
“You’re not gonna eat it?” asked Omar.
“I’m saving it for later.”
“You cheeky bastard.”
* * *
Khalil waited for Omar inside the car. Omar was taking longer than expected, but that was normal. He was probably saying goodbye to his comrades.
When Omar emerged from the base he was on the phone. He seemed agitated. Khalil overheard him mentioning something about a hospital.
Omar slammed the door shut. He drove silently. Khalil was worried, but didn’t say a word.
“I have to go somewhere,” said Omar. “I’ll drop you off home, so you can watch over Rima.”
Khalil didn’t want Omar to go alone, but he couldn’t argue with him. And he trusted his judgement.
He got out of the car and looked at Omar one last time, before going inside the building. He had a strange feeling in his gut.
* * *
Rima boiled milk. She was down to one can, which worried her. What if Omar couldn’t get her another can before this one ran out?
She filled the baby bottle. Amine was wrapped in a wool blanket by the bed. He was in a deep, peaceful sleep, but his bottle was ready for whenever he would wake up, crying for his mother’s breast.
The door opened.
It was Khalil.
Her little dimples illuminated her face.
She ran up to him, giving him a hug.
He seemed colder than usual.
“Where is Omar?”
“He’s taking care of a few things.”
From the troubled look on his face, she knew that he was lying. But she didn’t dare to ask.
He avoided her gaze and turned to the door. “I’m going up, to smoke.”
Rima ran after him.
“Khalil! What did Omar say about going up onto rooftops?”
Khalil looked unbothered. He continued to inhale nicotine into the lungs he didn’t seem to care about.
Rima followed him hesitantly.
“Hey, stupid! You wanna die or something?”
He threw his cigarette on the floor and stomped on it.
“She’s mourning,” he said.
“The city. She lost someone she loves.”
Rima was baffled by his absurdities.
“Cities don’t mourn, silly. They’re not alive.”
“That’s what you think. But if only you opened your eyes and ears, you’d know that they are.”
She sighed. She could never understand this boy. He was full of contradictions, and it troubled her. Rima liked rational things.
He moved closer to her and placed a pink cube in her palm. It smelled like roses. He was shaking;
She couldn’t believe it: he was nervous. She was so used to seeing him cool and collected, she didn’t know this side of him even existed.
She held his sweaty hand that gripped hers tightly.
A beautiful fleck of white was carried in the breeze.
“Look, it’s snowing!” Rima screamed with the excitement of a child waking up on Christmas.
Khalil gawked at the sky.
“That’s not snow…”
Rima, and Khalil, too,cupped their hands hands to catch the falling whiteness. Overhead, hundreds of jasmines littered the sky like ethereal orbs of light floating in the deep blue of noonday.
Rima stared in awe, her heart infused with a strange feeling that made the world freeze, even if just for a brief moment.