“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity
(UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
Ishmael feels like he is lying stuck inside a grey cloud. There are a myriad faint, distant sounds muffled in the cloud. Everything is somewhere outside, and he seems to have been sunk in concrete. Suddenly he gasps; he tries to hold his breath but cannot. He coughs and gags, chokes, coughs again and gasps for breath. His arm hurts; he moves his fingers gingerly and opens his eyes but sees only the grey cloud and feels the sand beneath his eyelids – it stings, like needles. Something presses heavily down on his legs, as though someone were pinning him down.
– Ishmael! Ishmael! shouts a distant voice.
It is as if his name is being called into a thick blanket. It reaches him faintly, dreamlike. Now the voice gets louder and comes closer. The somebody calling him is his grandfather. It’s Jidu. His thoughts become a little clearer. But he doesn’t yet realise that half of him is lying beneath a smashed concrete wall. He is, however, coming round.
– I am Ishmael, the boy thinks. The house was hit by a bomb. The floor collapsed. I fell. Our apartment was on the third floor. He squeezes his eyes shut, opens them wide in order to see, feels a sharp pain in his head. Jidu was standing next to me. He handed me a piece of bread, which went flying when the floor collapsed and Jidu fell. Mum was standing by the window. She had Jada on her arm. Was standing by the window, holding Jada. Until the bread went flying. Until the window exploded and the floor collapsed. Ishmael pictures the bread flying
slowly up into the air, spinning, landing in the ceiling light. And glass and bricks rain down as Ishmael crashes down into the grey cloud and loses consciousness, that moment when everything explodes and everything shatters. Initially the noise is deafening, but then the sounds are suffocated as the ears shut down – they probably shut down because they refuse to believe. The ears refuse to acknowledge the noise that comes from a barrel bomb as it lands on a home.
– Ishmael, Ishmael! Jidu’s voice is hoarse and desperate, almost savage. Ishmael thinks he is responding but doesn’t know whether any words come out. Was it the bread that flew up into the air or was it Jada? Pretty little Jada, so named because Jada means ‘gift’. She was given that name because she was a gift of joy and hope to their home in the middle of this hideous war, Dad said. Did Dad say that? Where was he? Of course, gone. Gone long since. They came for him. But when?
– Ishmael! Jidu screams, joyfully. He feels a hand grab his arm, his grandfather’s big fist. He hears Jidu shout for help, he feels his hot breath on his face, the rank, foul-smelling breath which is sweet and calming in the greyness of the ash.
Jidu spits onto his headscarf and wipes Ishmael’s eyes, mops the dust off his face, the dust and the blood. Ishmael screws up his eyes and sees his grandfather, bloody but smiling. At the same time he sees the white helmets. They lean over him, lifting the concrete like giants from a fairy tale. They seem like beings from another planet, but he knows who they are, these beings. He has seen them before, the rescue teams with their white helmets, seen them going around the war-torn quarters of Aleppo every day, seen them rescuing people and easing their suffering.
The moment the weight is lifted off his body, Ishmael feels pain in his leg. Jidu weeps but is also laughing. He shouts and gives thanks as he feels Ishmael’s body all over.
– He’s alive! Jidu yells. My dear boy is alive!
Now the tumult crashes into Ishmael’s eardrums. He hears screams and weeping, shouts and instructions everywhere; he carefully moves his head and sits up. Jidu is charging around amidst the rubble.
– Rasha! he shouts. Rasha! Have you seen Rasha? And the baby? She was carrying a little baby! Little Jada! Rasha!
Grandfather’s shouts fade out of earshot.
– I must help Jidu look for Mum and Jada, Ishmael thinks. Blood flows from a deep wound on his thigh, but he senses that his legs are otherwise unscathed. He is about to prop himself up with his right hand, but sees that the arm is broken, hanging together by the skin. But he feels no pain. He pulls a piece of cloth from the rubble and tries to tie it round the injured limb. Strong hands take hold of him and dress the fracture with a black scarf and bit of wood, draping a threadbare shawl around his shoulder to make a sling for his arm. It’s the baker’s wife. She is grey with ash, and her face is stained with tears, but her hands move quickly as she wordlessly fastens the sling behind his back. Then she grabs a rag and ties it tightly around the boy’s thigh to stop the bleeding.
– Allah be with you, dear Ishmael. God be with us all. Then she disappears into the grey cloud.
Ishmael staggers to his feet. He looks around, trying to make sense of what he sees. The street that used to be here has been replaced with grey ruins and weeping people, a fog of ash with people running around or crawling out from beneath rubble. He is standing on a pile of stones over his father’s shoe shop, looking at the ruins of the baker’s house. Three buildings on this road have collapsed in this attack. Beyond the baker’s ruins is a deep hole where the school used to be. It was bombed last summer. His mum had taught there. Mum. He looks around, sees the white helmets clambering around on broken walls, lifting clumps of stone. Lifeless bodies being pulled out from holes and craters. Everywhere there are people, digging. They shout, weep, dig.
Mummy – darling, kind, and strict Mummy.
– If you don’t study, Ishmael, you are wasting your chances. It’s not enough to be good-looking, my dear boy. Do well at school. That is the only thing that matters, Rasha said, her green eyes fixing him with a sharp look when he forgot himself and spent too much time playing his harmonica up on the roof while the sun was setting in the west. When
the city was bathed in warm colours, and the sounds on the street were innocent arguments, peals of laughter, everyday commands.
– The harmonica? He reaches into his pocket with his uninjured hand. It’s where it should be. So is his mobile. The screen is broken, but it is on. An image of Mum and Jada appears behind the broken glass. Mum put it there herself. Ishmael protested, but left it there anyway.
After the school was bombed, Mum taught the children in the stairwell above the shoe shop. She taught in order to keep them occupied while their parents trudged between districts looking for food and provisions. Some went to fight at the front. Some fathers went to other countries in the hope of finding a better life for their families.
Rasha had already gone home when the bomb hit the schoolhouse; she had taken Ishmael with her to go and take care of little Jada, who had become fretful in grandfather’s care. It was a quiet day. Only now and again did the bombs bark in the distance. They hurried back home from school. Mum told Ishmael off for not doing his homework and for spending too much time in the shoe shop with Dad. She told him off for listening to the men who used to gather there. She wasn’t angry, but she was strict and sharp, and if she thought that Ishmael wasn’t listening and paying enough attention, she would give him a good poke, jabbing his arm with her elbow.
– Listen, Ishmael, do try for once to pay attention to what I’m saying.
– Somebody has to help Dad, Ishmael replied. Mum smiled. They stopped at the shoe shop before going upstairs to grandfather and Jada. Dad didn’t sell shoes at the shop any more. Sometimes he would swap shoes for food or something else useful. Sometimes he gave shoes away to those who really needed them but didn’t have anything to offer in return, and occasionally he mended worn-out shoes that were about to set out on a long journey. And then there were the meetings – those long meetings, sometimes at night. On those occasions men would turn up, armed men from the neighbourhood, and nobody knew what they talked about. But the day the school blew up, Dad was on his own in the shoe shop. He was sitting there counting money when Mum and Ishmael came in, but was quick to stuff the
bundle of notes into a leather purse and zip it up. Then he reached up with his long arms to a shelf above the counter, held a pair of embroidered leather slippers out of the way as he slipped the purse in between the shoes.
– Yalla! he said, kissing Rasha, and sat back down. Remember where this is kept if something happens to me. The escape fund is getting quite fat! Dinars and euros! And the passports. They are all there. Remember – yours, mine, Jada’s, Ishmael’s, and old Jidu’s.
– Stop showing that to me. We’re not going anywhere without you, Rasha replied with a dark look.
Dad poured coffee into a cup and he and Mum talked about food. The talked about what they had and what they would like to get. Ishmael listened in silence, sipping the mint tea he usually made for himself at the shop. His dad was long-faced and tall, with close-cropped hair and a thick, black moustache. When he smiled, his eyes disappeared into a beaming grin and his big aquiline nose got even bigger.
They were talking about beans when the bomb fell on the school. Dad had just asked whether Mum wanted green beans when the cups leapt to the floor, tea and coffee flooded over the table cloth, the earth shook, and Ishmael and his Mum and Dad huddled together against the walls of the shoe shop. The sky screamed, but then the explosions and roar of the planes faded into the distance.
Many children and most of the teachers died in the attack on the school. The white helmets herded some survivors into a medical shelter in the square, but then the shelter was bombed to bits soon afterwards along with all the patients and doctors.
Nobody is safe in Aleppo; the aim is always just to survive the day.
A brick moves. The dust shifts and swirls. A grey paw stretches out from beneath the concrete debris. With his uninjured hand, Ishmael lifts a stone. A small cat crawls from beneath the rubble. It drags itself out with its forepaws. Now the hindquarters appear, mangled and indecipherable. The trail of blood lengthens and the little creature’s eyes are shining with terror. Their eyes meet and Ishmael bursts into
tears. Cats are his friends. The stray cats by the souk could always rely on him to give them a bite to eat. Ishmael sobs uncontrollably. Today the sky has fallen in on them both, him and the pussycat. He screams, snatches a brick and lands it as hard as he can on the head of the animal. The cat lies still and Ishmael scrabbles gravel and stones over it. He scrabbles and screams.
– You’re not here, he sobs. Now you are well, and you’re not here. I saved you! You know I saved you. He doesn’t know how long he sits there crying. Not out loud, but within himself, and the weeping goes to the pit of his stomach and out to all his toes and fingers too.
Jidu storms back, striding over stones and jumping between fragments of wall like a teenager. This stout little man throws up his hands in despair. Ishmael watches him, and thanks Allah that his grandfather is alive.
– Ishmael, our Jada is dead. They found her out on the street. Somebody took her to the fruit merchant’s place. Where is your mother? He scans the ruins and shouts.
– Rasha! Curse you to hell, you murderers! The women haven’t done anything! Villains and devils! Give her back! I demand it! Now! Jidu screams until his voice breaks. He sinks down to his knees and bursts into tears. Ishmael stands there helpless, stroking his grandfather’s head with his good arm. He looks around.
There is destruction everywhere. Amira, the baker’s little daughter, lies mutilated in her mother’s arms. She shows signs of life. The white helmets arrive with stretchers and give them first aid. The crackle of gunfire is heard nearby, and the occasional bomb drops on neighbouring streets.
– There’s nothing left to destroy here, Ishmael thinks. His grandfather stumbles to his feet.
– We have to be strong, my dear boy, he whispers. Strong, he repeats shrilly, his voice cracking with grief. Weeping, he tears at the remains of walls, rummages around in the rubble, and struggles to shift great boulders aside.
– There’s people under here. Your mum might be down there, he pants, continuing to labour. Help me, boy.
Almost in a trance, Ishmael starts to help his grandfather with his good hand and his feet, keeping his broken arm close to his body.
– Rasha! Jidu calls, but there’s no reply.
Ishmael has still not said anything to his grandfather. He doesn’t know if he’ll ever be able to speak normally again. All around, people are calling for their lost ones. Sometimes there is a reply, but most of the time there is none. Faint cries can be heard from beneath a pile of stone.
– Help! Help me!
People come running. Some give orders, others heave bits of wall and boulders aside. Finally a hand appears. Fingers move. It is a person, little fingers, a little person. The eight-year-old son of their neighbours opposite is pulled out. He is limp and chalky grey like a statue in a museum, and yet emerges remarkably unscathed from beneath all the rubble. The white helmets have quick hands. An ambulance appears. It does many trips carrying the injured. Much later a white helmet spots Ishmael wandering around the ruins. He is led to the ambulance and taken to hospital. Grandfather shouts to his friends and neighbours, tells them to keep looking for Rasha while he goes with Ishmael. It is as if all this is happening to someone else rather than Ishmael – as if he is just an onlooker, from a distance.