Hayat Mousa doesn’t want to be a martyr.
“I don’t want anyone to be a martyr,” she claims. “The ones who want to be martyrs are doing this.”
She means destroying her country, her family, her life and the lives of her children. Her husband, Omar, didn’t want to be a martyr. He wanted nothing to do with martyrdom, IS, the Islamic Front, the FLA or the Syrian government. He wanted to live his life and provide for his family: a practical man, yet a foolish man.
“A good man,” insists Hayat.
Two years ago, on his way to buy weights and line for his fishing rod, he was kidnapped for a third time, and now, after two years of no contact with his family, he’s presumably dead, i.e. he hasn’t contacted Hayat in Lebanon, he hasn’t contacted his parents in Syria, and the kidnappers haven’t contacted anyone. He was assassinated, not kidnapped.
“I was kidnapped. I mean I was contacted by the kidnappers,” asserts Hayat. “They said they had him. They didn’t want money. The other times they wanted money. They said I’d see what they wanted. So I left.”
She left with her daughters, Hanan and Mona, who were six and four at the time; now they’re eight and six and harvest lettuce on a Lebanese farm in the Bekaa Valley, making twenty-four thousand Lebanese pounds per day: twelve thousand pounds each.
“They’re too young to make that much. They make fifteen, and it’s not enough.”
Hayat makes money selling herself to a baker. Omar’s parents, both Sunnis, want her to come to Tartus, where many Sunnis are refugees, albeit minorities. Both her brothers were killed in Damascus. Omar’s brothers live in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Her parents live in Toronto with her aunt. She’s applied for asylum, but Canada isn’t doing anything. If Omar were alive, his parents would know. Hayat has no money. Traveling to Tartus isn’t safe. Putin just fired twenty-six cruise missiles at rebels throughout Syria, killing hundreds, just like her brothers were killed by missiles. She needs to stay safe. Her children need to go to school. She has to get a legitimate job. They live in a white tent abutting a tree where refugees gather nightly and keep her children up. The tree’s roots bevel their tent’s cinderblock foundation.
“My children are up when I’m asleep, and in the morning I can’t get them up to go to work. They eat and walk.”
The camp isn’t safe. Teenage girls aren’t safe. Kidnapping’s ruining families.
“We shouldn’t be here. No one should be here.”
Some days she doesn’t leave her tent. She also doesn’t eat. She’s afraid of who might come in.
“They don’t knock. They have no honor because I have no honor.”
Her brothers don’t have graves. Neither does Omar. She knows he’s dead, yet can’t help but wait for him to walk in. Selling herself, assisting drug dealers, smugglers or rebels, is neither wise nor safe, and sorting garbage for fuel and re-sale is unhealthy and unprofitable. She can work as a maid in Beirut, or she can work for Mr. Khaled.
“I won’t work for him.”
Mr. Khaled’s bakery is close by. Its conveyor belt is too high for her to reach, but she can bag bread behind the counter. He monitors the money box and hands out bottled water and bags of bread to refugees. Whatever he has, he gives to refugees.
“I was grateful when he gave me bread, but he degraded me, and I had to let him do it again and again so I could feed my children. That’s not a good man.”
Mr. Khaled’s wife’s dead. His sons are dead. His daughters are here. His extended family’s back in Syria. Many family members are fighting Assad. He may never see them again. He’s not as old as he looks, and he likes Hayat.
“He likes a lot of women and they all work for him.”
Last winter, his bread enabled her to trade vouchers for fuel instead of burning garbage. Mr. Khaled’s ashamed of what he did. She shouldn’t underestimate his shame.
“He still does it to other women.”
He can’t help himself, but he can help her. Some Lebanese won’t help Syrian refugees on principal. “You deserve what’s happening to you because you demanded freedom,” they say.
“We had too much. We didn’t demand anything. It’s because we lived too well. Omar didn’t have anything to do with anyone.”
Her brothers did: they were sympathetic to the protestors, and when the protestors were shot, they said Assad was wrong. Many Syrians agreed, but her brothers spoke out.
“Not to me.”
To enough people to merit government surveillance. They didn’t just say Assad was wrong; they said he was monstrous, and they joined the FSA.
“It didn’t matter. We were targeted because we were rich.”
She’s still rich. Her home was bombed, but she has her parents, Omar’s parents and brothers, her children: all healthy and safe. Some refugees are dying slowly. Some are near-dead. Many are dead. The majority are stagnating. She has a chance. If she doesn’t take it, she won’t die, but she and her children will stagnate. They could be here for two more years; for five more years.
“We came here because Omar’s parents couldn’t take care of us. His mother’s sick and his father can barely take care of her. I didn’t think we’d be here this long, and I thought Omar would come. My parents lost everything. They were in New York when our house got bombed and when they got to Toronto they found out my brothers were dead. The government bombed our house. Canada’s letting my parents stay.”
The Syrian government killed Omar.
“Kidnappers did. It had nothing to do with the government. Sometimes I think he’s alive, but most of the time I feel nothing. I sit here and breathe. I get up and feel tired. Food makes me sick.”
She stands, leans on the counter, exhales, squats, forcing blood through her thighs and knees, inhales, shifts forward, exhales and presses her forehead against the floor.
“If I didn’t have children . . .”
She doesn’t know how to think.
“I don’t know how to stop thinking.”
She prays, washes her face and re-wraps her head scarf. When she steps outside, sunlight stands in her way. Squinting, she follows a semi-circle. A woman taking in laundry doesn’t say hello. Another woman, kneeling, washes a skillet between two buckets. Satellite dishes, telephone poles, wires, wood and carpets line the dirt road. Rotting onions, blue bags and potato skins cordon rainwater with nowhere to drain: the drainage ditch, twenty-five feet by ten feet, runs behind the tents, and is cleaned sporadically by aid workers, yet remains rocky, littered and contaminated. Wells with contaminated water were recently closed. Multiple tanks on planks now supply water via pipes and projecting faucets.
An Oxfam worker passes a boy carrying water atop his head. Hayat knocks on a water tank and nods hello. A man kick-starts his motorcycle and follows her to the next water tank. Hayat avoids the dust. Children move from tent to tent. Those lucky enough to be in school struggle with teachers who don’t know how to teach. They play games, sing songs, clap, count, share illustrated books and wait to go home or back to work.
A boy presses his forehead and rubs his scalp. His grandfather’s asking him a question. Hayat swats a fly, catching Mr. Khaled’s attention. Mr. Khaled’s bakery spans three tents: a woman sprinkles flour over rotating dough; another separates loaves with a cutter; a boy pats and pulls dough; another feeds the dough into a flattening machine; sacks of dough and multi-gallon water jugs bracket a man working the oven. Mr. Khaled’s at the counter. When he first arrived in the Bekaa Valley, the situation was terrible: confusion, few amenities, long lines, scant help and limited security. He couldn’t meet the demand. Now he appears congenial, listening to a customer.
“He doesn’t want me working for him. He knows I’ll never forgive him,” insists Hayat
She passes by.
Mr. Khaled bakes bread twelve hours a day, seven days a week. He offers insipidly, “People have to eat.”
He watches Hayat walk away.
“I know what she wants, and I told her I’d give her a job. Not full-time, but something. She doesn’t want to remember. And she can’t help but crucify me for sleeping with her, as if I’ve done some horrible thing. I’ve been trying to make it up to her, but she won’t let me. I understand how she feels: she lost her husband; and I lost my wife. I feel shame like the next man. But I’m also happy. There’s no point in lying.”
He sweeps the floor. His short-sleeve shirt’s dirty and his gray pants thin at the crouch. He’ll give away more bread today than he’ll sell.
“I could give away everything and it still wouldn’t be enough. People can’t pay. I say, ‘Come back with some money,’ and they come back with nothing and I give them something.”
That’s how he started his liaison with Hayat.
“She didn’t offer, but fortunately she was willing. I wasn’t rich before the Revolution; and I wasn’t poor. I want to go back to Syria; but at least I’ve rebuilt my savings. I was going to pay for my sons’ university fees. Now I’ll pay for my daughters’.”
He washes his hands and face. His lips are thin and wet, his fingers rough. He wipes his hands on his knees and faces the counter.
“I ask nothing of the people I help, or almost nothing. I don’t have much to offer. Hayat won’t come back. I wasn’t careful with her. And she’s proud.”
He serves a customer.
“Everything’s good here, but of course no one has it good. A child was murdered by a sniper. Is that good?”
His face loses its pretense. He doesn’t believe he’ll ever get back to Syria: not to a home like the home he lost.
“Hayat came twice. The first time she didn’t want to do it, and the second time she was very angry. She wanted money. She acted like I was a grandpa. I said nothing. At one point, I expected her to cry, but she wouldn’t give me the satisfaction. She didn’t ask for money. She got dressed and waited at the door and I paid her and she left. I’ll never have a woman like that again. I could never marry a woman like that. She was friendly when she had money, but she didn’t have enough for all the bread she wanted. I told her to come back. That’s when I saw that flash of hatred in her eyes. But she came back and offered herself.”
Whenever he walks home, he walks by her tent.
“I can’t help it. She thinks she’s too good for me. But I’ll give her a job. We’ll work out the hours and the pay. I can only pay her so much. I don’t know what else she wants. I feel sorry for her, but I’m not sorry for being with her. I understand her loss. I did what I did because I wanted to. I wanted her. I still want her. She must’ve been very happy in Syria to be so miserable now. Maybe I can’t make her happy. Maybe no one can. Just her children. I don’t think she thinks that anyone respects her here. She blames me, but also herself. I’m surprised she even thinks about me. My wife was killed by Assad. He killed her and my boys when he bombed our market. No one does anything here the way they did in Syria. There is no Syria. I feel disgusted. Just the way Hayat wants me to feel. I never felt this way with my wife, even when I was unfaithful. I’d come home and she’d hug me and I’d feel love. Hayat wants me to feel bad because no one loves her, and she won’t even let me try. She’s proud. And very hurt.”
Rain the following day keeps men from sleeping outside fully clothed on pillows under heavy blankets. It prevents soap and cooking water from draining and waste products from running downstream. It keeps Hanan and Mona from working in the lettuce fields.
“We have enough food for a week, but we’re running out of money,” insist Hayat. “But I don’t want them working anymore. They’ve got to go to school and I’ve got to go to work. Look at them: they have nothing to do. Can you imagine every day like this? In winter, we have days like this.”
Thousands of Syrians are on the roads heading west, displaced by Russian airstrikes.
“We won’t make it to Syria if we leave. What if someone takes one of my daughters? I’ll go to Canada, but nowhere else.”
She prepares tomatoes, onions, salt and pepper.
“I’m tired of not being happy for my children. I’m happy I have them, and that they have me and not someone else. I always tell them I love them. I don’t care how wrong things are. Sometimes I feel like I’m failing them. It’s up to me to help them see how good their lives can be. Each year used to be better. Now each year’s worse. Even if there’s peace, there’s nothing for us to go back to. I need to be strong. The first two times, Omar was treated decently and released. They only wanted money. But the third time, the kidnappers wanted me. One of them decided he was going to have me. His name’s Murhaf. They didn’t have to kill Omar. We would’ve paid. I’m not beautiful. Omar never killed anyone. He never took bribes. Murhaf killed him. They should all be killed. I hope Assad’s killing them all right now.”
She agrees to work mornings for Mr. Khaled and sends Hanan and Mona to school.
“I make more money in half a day than they made all day working in the fields,” she reports.
Mr. Khaled overpays her.
“I don’t know what he pays the others. He told me not to ask.”
He doesn’t want the others finding out how much she makes so they won’t conclude the worst.
“They’ve already concluded it. I can tell by the way they talk to me.”
They hardly talk to her.
“They can’t stop talking to me. They fawn over me. They wish they could be as special to him as I am. Honor means nothing.”
Outside the school, women wait for their children. None say more than a few words to Hayat.
“They know nothing about me. And what do I know of them? Shame stops us from talking to each other. Shame at being here. We’re all desperate. We’ll do anything for money. But they don’t want the things I want. They didn’t lose as much as I did. They don’t care about me. They cursed me before they even knew me, and my mistake with Khaled gave them an excuse to curse me freely. Now they can’t stop. They curse me in their prayers.”
She curses them in her prayers, yet always thanks Mr. Khaled for his bread.
“I don’t like him. He flirts with everyone, and even when he’s not flirting, he’s looking. Men are lecherous. But he thinks it’s a joke.”
The joke is deeming love common and akin to good cheer, not rare and intertwined with intimacy.
“And honor. He has no honor.”
The school has three teachers: Messrs. Mahayni, Hassan and Faour. Mr. Mahayni teaches subjects he’s not qualified for. Mr. Hassan spends his time with the youngest students. Mr. Faour teaches reading. They take the students out for exercise and chaperone them for pickup. The students run to their parents – fathers are here, too – but most walk together as if there’s nothing to worry about.
“They don’t have anything to worry about,” asserts Hayat. “We’re here. It’s when we’re not here that they have to worry.”
Yet the students don’t worry. Hanan and Mona are carefree, walking with their friends Hala and Rahaf, veering to the tent of Kaml and his family, returning now to the road, and keeping ahead of Hayat, wearing jeans and sneakers and shirts with sweaters, displaying none of Hayat’s vigilance. Hala and Rahaf’s mothers, too, are convivial, talking shoulder-to-shoulder. A few minutes later, however, Hanan and Mona walk quietly. The last thing they did in school was listen to Mr. Faour read a story. They can’t remember the first thing they did. Today wasn’t a math day. They spent most of their time with Mr. Hassan. Their fingers are pink from red paint. Hala sketched a star with a tail and a fly without wings. The star was a helicopter and the fly a woman falling from the helicopter. Rahaf sketched her grandfather’s workshop, where he used to make patterns for printing fabrics. Hanan mentioned her grandfathers in Canada and Tartus.
Men stand under the tree. They watch Hayat walk to her tent. Most of the men don’t know Hanan and Mona by name. They know Hayat.
“I don’t know any of them,” insists Hayat, turning her back to them, facing groups of women standing at their tents. “I’m tired of them and they’re tired of me.”
The refugees are tired of being here. If not for the Revolution, the women would be in their homes; the young men would have degrees and be working in one of the Gulf States; and the older men, smoking, who don’t feel anything for this place, would be raising their families, not trying to understand why they’re here.
Two men wearing gray hats approach. They stop at the tent of Marleine, a former teacher from Aleppo, and assess the top of her door. They raise a flat rock to a hinge and smooth a corner with their fingers. The corner needs concrete. In the road, boys pitch rocks. Hanan gathers the rocks and pulls up her jeans by her belt. Mona sits on a rock beside a boy who encourages the other boy to pitch another handful of rocks. Hanan lets the rocks fall from her hand.
“My stepmother died today,” reports Hayat. “She woke up and said she felt fine, that everything was good, but she had a headache, so she went back to bed. My stepfather got her some water. He said she could barely drink, and she couldn’t lie down and she couldn’t sit up, so he told her, ‘We have to go to the hospital,’ and she said, ‘All right’ and fainted. The ambulance came and gave her a shot of something to get her up. When they got to the hospital, the doctor said, ‘It’s psychological.’ My stepfather told him, ‘She has diabetes,’ but the doctor already knew that. They checked her in and she couldn’t breathe again. So my stepfather went to get the doctor. When they got back, she was dead.”
Hayat can’t take care of her stepfather in Tartus.
“I don’t have a choice. I have to try. Once we get there, I’ll see if I can take him with us to Canada; then maybe one of his sons will take him. I don’t know. I’m glad we won’t be staying here much longer. My stepmother was in a lot of pain; most of it was from Omar’s death. It destroyed her, just like my brothers’ deaths destroyed my parents. For a long time my parents thought I was going to die. I loved my brothers, but not like my parents. I’m afraid we’ll be robbed on the road. The refugees work with the criminals. Someone will call the mafia and we’ll get robbed. I can’t let anyone know we’re going. Hanan and Mona won’t know until we go. I’ll pay a driver and we won’t have to sleep anywhere. My stepparents never wanted Omar marrying me. We met by chance. His first wife didn’t mean anything to me. She couldn’t have children. I knew he still loved her, but I decided he could love me, too. We never did anything dishonorable. We waited until he was divorced. No one wants to live here. Our lives mean nothing here.”
She has no friends.
“I don’t want them. I don’t need them. I had friends in Syria.”
Many are dead.
“Two are dead. I don’t know about anyone else.”
Daesh raises money by selling women. It cages them, either to be executed for refusing to be prostitutes or placed atop roofs and in squares to deter Russian airstrikes. It offers them as prizes and gifts, separates them from their families, abuses, beats and starves them. She won’t be safe en route to Tartus.
“We have to live with my stepfather. We need the safety of his apartment.”
Her children have never been anything but good girls, yet they know what refugees say about their mother, and it makes them want to be better girls.
“They know better than to listen to the people here. They also know that just because everything’s different I’m not different.”
She hasn’t told them what she’s had to do.
“They know, and they don’t understand, and I’m not going to explain it to them.”
Six children were killed near Damascus by a Russian airstrike.
“We’re not going anywhere near Damascus.”
A boy bends, aims his rock and arcs his pitch to maximize gravity: his rock rises through humid air, falls, is reflected by a puddle, hits the road and stops. Men come through the tents to watch the boys. They encourage them with smoky mouths, holding cigarettes at their sides. A rat runs between tents. Another waits among garbage.
The following morning, Hayat and her children drive through Tripoli in a cab that costs too much. Her children know they can’t go back to Syria, so when Hayat tells the driver they’re going to Tartus, Hanan and Mona think she knows something they don’t know. The driver, smiling, sits up against the steering wheel. His transmission’s making a lot of noise. There’s also a lot of street noise. He keeps asking if he can take them to a store where they can get whatever they want; and he keeps naming the things they might want. Hayat’s throat’s dry. She shakes her head no, no, no. The driver, who renews his smile whenever she shakes her head, is toying with her dignity.
“In Syria, I wouldn’t speak to anyone who talked to me this way.”
She doesn’t want Hanan and Mona looking out the windows. Sitting back, they can look through the upper windshield; they’re not to be seen. She’s against the Revolution and against Assad. She doesn’t care what they’re defending: familial relations, a governmental system, any system, their competing versions of Islam, the links they maintain throughout their communities. The driver slows. Cars, scooters and a white bus slow, too, allowing pedestrians to walk around sandbags. Concrete barriers close off a side street. Martyr posters flutter on balconies. A father crosses the street holding his son’s hand. In Tripoli, Syrians mix easily with the Lebanese. Hayat’s claiming they’re on their way to Greece, but now are heading back to Tartus to get her stepfather, whose wife just died. A military convoy in the left lane idles, its soldiers walking about nearby. Above her, a woman hangs laundry. Behind her, a building enmeshed in gauze is undergoing renovation. Across the street, men in light jackets talk beside a car parked sideways.
“Let’s go back,” she utters, meaning back through the mountains and checkpoints to the refugee camp. “The rest of the money will take us back.”
The driver shakes his head, no, no, no.
She looks back: Hanan and Mona are asleep. She looks forward: the intersection’s clear. In the street, a woman and her daughter wait for a car to change lanes. Three ambulances idle at the next intersection. A blue sign and two black signs point ahead, right and left respectively.
“Pull over,” she demands.
The driver can’t, and he doesn’t want to, yet looks for a spot, slows and parks behind a van.
She pays him half the fare. “Why can’t you take us back? You treat a mother and her children like this? Take this. Take us back.”
The driver folds her money into his pocket.
“Why won’t you help us?”
“I’m done helping you. Be thankful.”
“How much money do you want? How much?”
“Nothing. You can go.”
“I don’t have any more to give you.”
“Go. Please. God help you.”
She leans forward and cries, sickened that she can’t keep her children safe, that she can’t work in Tripoli, and that she can’t stomach working for Mr. Khaled.
“Please,” the driver repeats.
She won’t look at him.
He continues to Foaad Chehab Road, which leads to Syria Street, where thinning traffic encourages him to pick up speed. When Hayat raises her head, high rises block her view of the Mediterranean Sea. Pink-and-tan apartments abut buildings suspended in collapse. A fire attracts a man carrying a bag. The littoral is lush, bordered by shrubbery and paths cut off by a gas station. Laundry, satellite dishes and antennas arrest Hayat’s attenuated mind. A cargo liner with a red crane at half-mast chugs in her direction: the cab’s going faster.
“Stop,” she whispers. “Let us out.” She hangs her arm over the seat and brushes Hanan and Mona. “Com’on. Let’s go. Sit up.”
The driver pulls over and gives Hayat back half her money. She leads Hanan and Mona away from the checkpoint. She heads up the street to a fruit stand with crates stacked under sunny tents and buys three oranges. Men wearing baseball hats and bullet-proof vests J-walk to a 4 x 4.
“We’re no one here.”
They sit outside a new building facing the window display of an empty store. A palm tree hangs over the street. Next to the building, a banner resembles the charge of a flag. Her apartment was nicer than the apartments across the street, but not as nice as the apartments in the new building.
“Why won’t people leave us alone? We don’t care about them. Why do they care about us?”
Tripoli isn’t a home. Canada, Tartus and Bekaa aren’t homes. She has to find a home. Hanan and Mona understand: they have nowhere to go. Their mother can’t take care of them. The despair and deprivation, love and pain in their eyes comes from their mother’s eyes.
“I don’t know how anyone survives.”
A car swings by. A man with gray hair, a black mustaches and gray goatee, checkered shirt and jeans, asks if she needs help.
“I hear him. I don’t want his help. I don’t want anything. I’m tired of not being able to think.”
The man waits.