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Writers in exile
26 min read

Return to the Nightmare

Dara Abdallah is a Syrian poet and writer, born in the city of Qamishli in 1990. He lives in Berlin since 2013, and studies at the Faculty of Philosophy and Cultural Studies at Humboldt University. He is the author of two books: "Loneliness pampers Its Victims" and "The majority of the few" and many articles in various Arab websites and newspapers.

Pen/Opp translated part of his diary "Return to the Nightmare" into English. Abdallah wrote this text after his first travel back to Syria in August this year.

Credits Text: Dara Abdallah Translation from Arabic: Hazem Shekho December 17 2021

The Nationality Checkbox
The journey from Erbil to the Tigris River takes about four hours. The Tigris River is a borderline that separates the Kurdistan Region in Iraq and the al-Jazira Province of Syria. Both sides of the river are very much politicised; the Peshmerga dominates the Iraqi part, while the Syrian side is controlled by the “Haval[2].” The taxi driver was a Syrian-Kurdish and he talked about his suffering from the daily racism and the arbitrary laws applied by the Region’s administration on the Syrian refugees.

The driver wished to stop the car because he wanted to pray. He lay his prayer-mat on the infinite level ground. The horizon line appears only in two situations: the desert and the sea. Given the intensity of the heat, the solid ground at the horizon flickered as though it was mixed with liquid. When the earth and the sun merged in the horizon, the eye was tricked to see the soil as though it had lost its cohesion and solidity. I heard the driver reciting the Quran loudly. The illiteracy in the Arabic language was clear. This attention to pronunciation and the slowness of reciting suggested that it was a reiteration of an intelligible speech. He pointed his finger and raised his voice during the recitation of the shahada[3]. He finished his prayer, folded the prayer-mat, and we set off to the Semalka border crossing.

Semalka is the known name of the irregular crossing point, which the international forces deemed to keep open for “humanitarian reasons.” The crossing opens only on Saturdays, Mondays, and Wednesdays. It is known as well that the Iraqi-Kurdish side’s treatment of the arrivals is horrendous, and that they intentionally make the bureaucratic procedures degrading, difficult, and fuzzy. The taxi driver tactfully gave me advice after apologising for doing that. He emphasised the need of covering the tattoo on my arm, and the necessity of removing my earring, because a few weeks ago a young man coming to the crossing from Germany received degrading comments and abusive talk about his appearance. The look of the tattoo on my arm under the burning sun enchanted me. I looked at the car’s mirror and slowly removed my earring, and from afar the curve of the Tigris River shone like the hook of a scythe. It seemed like a blue droplet in a sea of the colour yellow.

I met various groups of people at the crossing. Refugees from the “Domiz” camp in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, who were visiting their families, refugees coming from the Gulf countries and Europe, especially from Germany and Sweden, foreign journalists, who were keen on sticking together and not mixing with anyone else, and employees in international NGOs. I met a young man from Manbij. He spent half a year in Manbij and the other half in Sweden. He was the most experienced regarding the crossing procedures. He explained to me exactly the offices I should move between when stamping the entrance papers from the “Kaka’s”[4] side. On the Iraqi-Kurdish side, they gave us a form to fill. It included an item, where it stated “Nationality” directly. Expectedly, there were only two options: Arab or Kurd. The young man from Manbij winked at me and pointed towards the nationality checkbox. I said to him jokingly, “Come on, try to live briefly the life of a Kurd under the rule of the Baath’s party.” We laughed loudly.

The buses, which ferried us across the Tigris river, played some loud music. They entered the Syrian territory, which is under the “Democratic Autonomous Administration’s” control. The atmosphere changed immediately. Women’s presence here was in stark contrast with their absolute absence on the “Kaka’s” side. Moreover, the bureaucratic procedures were unmeasurably faster. It took me less than half an hour to finally be able to hug my brother, who came to receive me with an air-conditioned “van” vehicle. The journey now was from the Semalka crossing on the Syrian side to Qamishli. The driving was for roughly 3 hours. The first military checkpoint examined my identification card but gave it back at once. At the second military checkpoint, a young man, whose beard was still not fully developed, asked us to park the car on the right because he wanted to perform a background check on my name. when I heard that, my whole body was inflamed with a current of black terror. A military checkpoint, in an arid desert, with heavily armed teenagers, and under the direct sun, this was the complete incarnation of the shared Syrian nightmare. I rested my head on the car seat and I remembered that I hadn’t slept for the past 36 hours. So, if I slept now, I might be protected from seeing the nightmare because it was happening in front of me. I noticed that I couldn’t control the tremor in my hand, like the water that gushes from a crack in a door. After five minutes, he returned the identification card and welcomed me. Then, we set off towards Qamishli.

I arrived at home and saw my mother on the balcony crying, while my father avoided the whole scene and hid inside. I grew up in a family, where weakness was unfavourable and there were scarcely talk about emotions. We remained silent and swallowed our saliva with pain, as someone was gulping a ball of fire and extinguishing it in their stomach. We avoided opening up, as if reconciliation with weakness was denuding the body, frailty was a disgrace, and feelings were a sign of collapse. I kissed my parents’ hands and entered the house, which I hadn’t stepped into since a decade. I ate burghul and well-cooked meat for dinner. Afterwards, envoys from the extended family descended upon us to welcome me. At night, while I was surrounded by noise, I curled up under the desert cooler[5] and someone covered me at once with a thin blanket. Gradually, the noise started to recede. I didn’t know if I was falling asleep and my awareness began to remove the sounds owing to my state of utter exhaustion, or were the guests really leaving. I slept through a special noise: the whole milieu around me spoke Kurdish.

Negating the Dream
The first moment I stepped onto the street, it looked to me as though the whole matter was pre-planned, and the surrounding environment was borrowed from a fiction work. Qamishli to me is usually a subject of dreams. The borrowed topography in dreams is either distorted and confused or precise and real. The basic structural division in the city hadn’t changed. There were no collective building projects or general construction policy. Instead, it was a construction chaos expanding upwards without any shared aesthetic coordination. The streets were the same: Siahi street, al-Quatli street, al-Masaref street, and al-Khaleej street. I visited my uncle and aunt in the al-Antariya neighbourhood, which was a district that I hadn’t walked into for the last 15 years. I recognised the two houses without any help. Owing to my temporary and passing presence in the city, which it had a beginning and an ending, exactly like a dream, the moments of correspondence between the places that recurred usually in dreams and the places I passed through after a decade triggered a current of electricity, as if the five senses had broken down and lost their credibility. This lightening inside the mind was followed by a mental focus to be able to separate dream from reality. In the first ten minutes while I was walking on Siahi street, I watched my steps while they were treading the ground, like a human had descended on the moon. I was constantly negating the state of me being in a dream by activating my wakefulness and slapping my intuition.

Money Quantitatively
One euro was 3800 Syrian pounds. Exchanging 150 euro required bills of the 2000 Syrian pounds. The 500 pounds bill was almost the smallest monetary value, while the bills of 100 pounds were extinct, and if they were ever found they would be torn and rotten like a carpet trodden upon by one thousand feet at the threshold of a funeral tent. Everyone was wearing a fanny pack to carry the bundles of money. Everyone counted the money. The fingers needed to be moistened with saliva, because its dryness hindered the counting process. To buy the week grocery one perhaps needed to count 40000 pounds. A friend remarked jokingly, “our pockets are always empty, either for lack of money or for their physical abundance.” The abundance here was not in worth or value, but it was physical and quantitative. As though the presence of money decreases with the rise of its value, while its visual presence increases with the decline of value. 100 euro brought 380000 in Syrian pound, and the whole population were “millionaires”. The one euro, while issuing all these bills that hold the image of Bashar, resembles the foreign hostage that releases a great number of hostages belonging to the terrorist organisations’ families. At the exchange market in Qamishli, weighing money on a scale became the standard given the difficulty of counting during the exchange of big amounts. The weight of money in kilograms was its true value, for the money stacked in bundles transferred in goods vehicles. Back in the 1990s and the early 2000s, the 500 bill had its own visual weight on the memory of every Syrian. The bill held the image of Zenobia. Its scarce presence and purchasing value corresponded with the fossilised characteristic and austere presence of Hafiz al-Assad. The image of Bashar al-Assad and his political value cannot be separated from the value of the Syrian monetary bill. The correspondence was precise between the poetical metaphor and the economic reality. The great frequency of Bashar’s image on monetary bills, which their values were measured on weight scales, had brought down his moral weight and symbolic esteem. The one who put his image on a currency valued by its weight became a simple quantitative in international policies.

International Borders
Heat crippled the movement in the city for two hours in the noontime. During my stay in Qamishli, the temperature did not go below 41°C. It rose on some subsequent days to 44°C. Because of the night heat, one could hear children’s screams from the buildings’ contiguous balconies, and the sound of people turning on beds that became swamps of sweat. On the following day, the whole city had insomnia. On Siahi street, there were two known buildings that never witnessed power cuts: the UN building and WHO building. The UN building was a brick castle belonging to a Kurdish businessman, who was known for his previous intelligence relations with the Syrian regime. The red brick building was a mystery to the inhabitants of the city. Facts about its interior plaster designs were mixed with people’s inflated rumours. The two buildings were protected, armoured, and surrounded with rows of security cameras, barbed wires, and square cement blocks, as if they were simultaneously there and not there. One of the channels of communication between them and the people were the garbage containers, for it was known that some people would ferret around the WHO’s garbage in search for something to eat in order to silence the sheer call of hunger. While I was passing them by, I felt I was before international borders.

A Knife inside the Ear
The quality of the cars’ fuel was really bad. Despite the proximity of the region to oil wells, they still used the worst quality. When the cars’ engines started, they sprayed black smoke like a repressed vomit. The vehicle behind would be blinded for seconds until the intense smoke cloud dissipate. There was a viral increase in the number of cars in the area owing to the absence of any customs laws and the spread of corruption. Each vehicle was a small pollution reactor that contributed to the increase of the layer of smoke settled above the city. The moment I stepped into the balcony, I noticed at once the diaphanous grey shroud, as though the scene in front of me had altered from a picture with natural colours to a picture where the dark grey had intensified intentionally.

Electricity didn’t come to Qamishli. The regime’s power line was the strongest and least present. It came each day for one hour. It was the only power line capable of starting the engines, which dragged water to water tanks, wash machines, and water kettles. When the regime’s power line came the whole city mobilised, as if the regime had invaded. The movement of people in their houses increased to perform the necessary missions. This act had to turn into an instinct, otherwise, any negligence would cost the house thirst or stench. When the regime’s electricity would cut, the local ampere-generators would start. The generator was enough for lighting, cooling, and starting the desert coolers. The condition of our house was relatively good, because it intersected with a generator that was lighting the UN building. Our joke was ready as soon as the regime’s electricity would cut, “turn it from Bashar to the UN.”

Qamishli contained more than 20000 generators. The generator had a choppy and irregular sound that the brain was unable to reconcile with. Cars’ noises or the sound of sea waves could play as a background for silence, however, the sound of the generator didn’t compromise. They worked round the clock, making the city swim in a constant racket, like a knife pierced into the eardrum. Some neighbours in some neighbourhoods had literally killed each other because of the complaint and disagreement about the generators’ noises. A batch of wires sprung out from every generator, moved towards knots connecting neighbourhoods, and finally ended up at every house. The batches lost their density as they moved away from their origin source and into neighbourhoods and houses. The sky in Qamishli was barricaded with intertwining wires that was quite impossible to follow the history or fate of each one of them. At the market, where the congestion swelled, the wires stacked in some places to a degree that it formed a shade under it like a ceiling. I climbed to the fourth floor in one building in the market and looked under: layers of intertwining wires swam in a dark grey cloud like arteries and veins in a piece of dead meat.

During my stay, I slept alone in the living room where the TV was placed. I remembered that when I was a teenager, it was forbidden to sleep alone in the TV room. I don’t remember precisely, but my sexual feelings appeared when I was 11. As soon as one crossed childhood to puberty, crossed the neutrality of instinct into the sexual positioning, parents would begin their persistent monitoring to protect children from the sex pandemic. Sex was a threat to purity, danger to school, distraction from productivity, key to calamities, and a spoiling factor that demanded chasing and trimming. During the early 2000s in Qamishli, Turkish magazines were smuggled into the city. These magazines contained pictures of Turkish models in swimsuits and sometimes even topless models, which made the owner of the magazine the ruler of everybody. Prices varied. Browsing the magazine in school cost 5 pounds, while taking it home for one day was 20 pounds. The terrestrial TV received some local Turkish channels such as ShowTV, ATV, D, and Cine5, the last one was called “sinabesh.” “Sinabesh” used to broadcast porn every Friday and Saturday. However, watching the channel was a near-impossible mission. One needed to dangerously climb to the rooftop to turn the antenna towards the Turkish territories. If your parents didn’t catch you, you were anyway exposed to the neighbours living in those contiguous adobe houses. They would later pass the information to your parents. However, such matters were easy to be noticed because of the direction of the antenna towards Turkey, which contradicted the common direction of the other antennae. It was as clear as someone deciding to put his prayer-mat in the wrong prayer direction during a congregational prayer. We became filled with life when death happened in a friend’s family, for the travel of the deceased’s family to the village for three days offered us an empty house and an antenna to direct as we pleased towards Turkey. We invited friends to study for “the maths exam” in order to watch the 16+ movies of “Sinabesh.” A fundamental change occurred with the advent of computers and CDs. Pornography was available among the network of teenagers and CD burners facilitated its spread in reasonable prices. The movies’ titles were improvised. A slight resemblance between one porn actress and the Syrian actress Norman Asaad dubbed the latter’s name in a porn movie. At least 30% of Syrian teenagers had watched this movie, and it required repeated denial from the actress herself.

As porn became more available, parents became more anxious and their arts of invading privacy had exacerbated. More than once, my father raided and searched the CDs’ portfolio at home. He would randomly choose one dubious CD, which had no title, to play it and make sure of the content. However, the sexual desire in the teenager is like the mettle of a drowned person to stick to life. It is creative in thinking, capable of adapting to censorship, able to circumvent, and it is unstoppable. I wouldn’t buy a movie called “The Mail Driver” or “The Milk Seller.” I would upload the movie on the computer and hide it in folders saved inside folders inside other folders, to a degree that the process of finding it surpassed my father’s humble expertise in technology. Yet, the biggest repression inside every teenager’s conscience was the cultural abuse surrounding masturbation. Masturbation was an anti-human natural act, interference in the biology of the body, and a waste of the cerebrospinal fluid.

The white substance is an extract from the nerve cells that break in the brain, which causes irreversible loss of memory and concentration. Onanism squanders the limited manhood reserve in the testicles, and wears away the vigour in the human body. The psychological suffering inside the teenager’s soul was indescribable, especially facing the inability but to repeat the same inevitable and deep-rooted mistake. Masturbation became a crime committed constantly by a conscientious person. It ignited every time the same intense feeling of guilt. To a degree that we would explain pleasure’s numbness that affected the feet and the slight body tiredness after climax as a proof of the circulating theory, which claimed that masturbation depleted the human body. We were afraid even during the moment of ejaculation, for we made sure not to contaminate the surrounding place with the substance’s impurity. We wouldn’t put the white tissue in the garbage bin because its piercing smell brought suspicion. We would instead burn it like burning bodies in some Asian civilisations.

After 2003, satellite TVs spread around and the conflict between parents and children became digital and more precise. The famous porn channels like XXL and Satisfaction were on the European satellite constellation. My father had wiped out the European continent and left only some Kurdish, sports, and animal world channels. Installing the porn channels required knowing the password. Even after knowing the password, there was a risk of orbiting the satellite from the Arabsat to the European constellation (which was called Hot Bird) during the night because the movement of the satellite dish made such a noise. After two months from buying the satellite, I discovered the password, which was my father’s birth year 1956, and I respected his laziness to think of another strong password. I claim that I was the fastest person in the world to install the forbidden channels and remove them immediately. The process required only 15 seconds, while walking from the front door to the TV room took 20 seconds. As for my excuse for being on the European orbit was ready: I enjoyed the Kurdish channels and accusing me of lying was a questioning of my patriotism. My father’s birth year remained the password for two years, to a degree that he sensed danger in such stability, until finally he changed the password as a pre-emptive strike. I remember that the day he changed the password was catastrophic to me.

For two months, I tried everyone’s birth date. His birth date in different number order, my mother’s, my brother’s, even my birth date, and the Barzani Revolution’s. I tried everything. Nothing worked. I consumed all the images from my memory. My imagination dried up completely and wasn’t capable anymore of repeating the same phantasies. After a while, I acquired some golden information that changed the rules of the game. The information was that every device had a password from the manufacturer, which worked regardless of the user’s password. Our device number was 6814. When it worked, it looked like someone suffering from life-threatening debts had unlocked a treasure. Things stayed like this, each had his own private number. When my father pressed the password, and tried to hide the remote control in fear of me peeking and managing to interpret his hands movement, I would leave the room, claim disdain towards such knowledge, and show refined respect towards privacy.

The Chaldean Cemetery
I tried to visit “al-Orouba school,” which I had attended during my middle and high school education. I found it turned into a military barrack and an administration centre for the Autonomous Administration. I begged the guard to allow me to enter and have a quick tour. I also asked him about the possibility of meeting the officer in charge. He didn’t budge and his tone was getting sharper as time passed. The Autonomous Administration put local Arab employees and military men in positions that demand daily direct contact with people, such as bureaucratic offices and military checkpoints inside the city, along with senior government positions. However, the political mainstay, which represents the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Syria, had a monopoly on the central military, strategic economic decisions, and political dominance.

Qamishli is divided into sections, and each has raised their own flags. The “security Square” in the middle of the city raises the pictures of Hafiz al-Assad and Bashar al-Assad. Whereas the Syriac Christian forces Sootoro is controlling al-Wusta neighbourhood, where it tries to keep on the remaining Christian life after the big migration. The person in charge of the Chaldean cemetery said that some elderlies were buried with the presence of not even one single family member or relative because of the mass migration. They were buried in their countries as though they were in exile. The Russians are present at the airport. Given that the airport area was full of the city’s big wedding halls, the Russians had rented them and turned them into huge military fortresses. The Americans have no contact with the population, for they exist exclusively in their military bases in the desert, which are far from the vision’s range of car roads. The only signal denoting the existence of a nearby American military base is when the electronic devices and electric circuits are cut or broken down as a result of the field magnet they generate to a certain radius. The drones fly above the bases and patrol. It looked from afar like unknown flying objects given its speed and smooth movements. The visual paradox resulting from the presence of such developed technology in such a poor environment made it appear as though the Americans were a scientific NASA mission from one planet to another, and not a political and military presence. The rest of the city and area are under the control of the Democratic Autonomous Administration and its various military formations. Here, the pictures of Abdullah Ocalan exist in abundance in public squares, along with some of his quotes translated into Arabic and Assyrian languages. These quotes are in reality also translated into Kurdish because Ocalan writes in the Turkish language.

The accidentals
The word “revolution” as a political indication and historical event has a completely different impression in Qamishli. “The Revolution'' was the beginning of the collapse, the change of everything forever, and the steep decline from bad to worse. There aren’t any political options that have equal realistic weight to compare and choose from. People found themselves under the control of different de facto forces, in changing field conditions, and states of corporal contact with real danger. Politics disappears in situations, where one has to give up politics to have security. Competition becomes between service/security projects and not between political/ideological projects. The options available to the locals (Kurds and Arabs) are either the Islamic Jihadist project, which interferes with the private life, monitor smoking, and obsess about women’s bodies, or the Autonomous Administration project, which dominates the general political and economic rhythm and the strategic political decision, without interfering with the private life, or trying to change – either in negative or positive way - the predominant cultural and social values. The two projects are not democratic. However, the choice goes to the project less close to the body, and able to be re-produced minimally. Given the occasional bitterness in this choice, it wouldn’t be strange to hear sighs that express some nostalgia towards the days of Hafiz al-Assad.

Those, who were born around the 2000s, who were children or young teenagers in 2011, have a different sense towards Syria than those who saw it before 2011. To them, Syria is chopped, temporary, and in constant state of change. To them, it isn’t a place with clear geographical borders, and a political centre which is Damascus, and an economic centre which is Aleppo. They had never crossed the Euphrates River. Some of them had even never visited Deir ez-Zor. The place to them is a piece of cloth that has been constantly torn and patched. Stability for them is the exception, and the accidental existence and the interluding feeling are the norm.

On the morning of 16 August, I bid my family farewell, going on a marathon journey from Qamishli to Erbil. I had conflicting feelings between the obvious joy and covert relief of going back to Berlin and the chronic internal infection that my mother, brother, and father were still living in this nightmare. I entered Berlin and reached the Kreuzberg neighbourhood, where I live near a charming water canal. I put my hands on the green grass and placed my head between my arms. I remembered that my father’s hearing had declined, and that he would pretend to understand sentences, which he couldn’t hear well. He pretended to be understanding to hide it from me and save me from feeling worried. I opened my eyes and drew my tears over my lips to let the saltiness into my mouth.

[2] This is the Kurdish equivalent of “comrade.” Haval is the name that denotes PKK’s fighters in the 80s and 90s of the previous century.

[3] The testimony: is an Islamic oath, one of the Five Pillars of Islam. It reads: ''I testify that there is no god but Allah and I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.'' The five canonical daily prayers each include a recitation of the Shahada. [Translator]

[4] Kaka means friend or mate in the Sorani language, which is predominant in Iraqi Kurdistan Region.

[5] A type of air-conditioner. [Translator]

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