Dima Mardini is a lanky, attractive Syrian woman who has seen more than her share of sorrows for a 26-year-old. I meet her at the Deira City Center in Dubai recently. She is to help me research and develop the plot for my upcoming 4th novel based in Syria during the recent war. Dima has been referred to me by Fatema Abdulkazem, the Arabic editor of my 3rd novel PHOOT! Once again, this new novel’s sales proceeds will insha’Allah benefit the 550 worldwide orphans under CAI donor care.
While I wolf down a sizable plate of spicy stir-fry beef at PF Chang’s, Dima pecks on a solitary spring roll on her plate and talks while I make mental notes. I must pause feeding my mouth and ask questions or gape at her pretty face whenever she describes more macabre and painful moments of her tale. It’s a fascinating saga, one that’ll help develop and thicken my novel’s plot, for sure, except what Dima is saying is no fiction. It is reality, something that actually took place, a savagery that is inhumane. So here is Dima’s story:
I was born in Damascus into a middle-class family; we are 5 daughters and a brother. My family originates from the village of Al Jawlan, but that city was occupied and my ancestors were expelled to Damascus generations ago by the Israelis. So, I’ve only known Damascus as home, although many holidays were spent with my maternal grandma at the Alyarmouk refugee camp close to Damascus.
Life in Damascus was difficult, as it is for most middle-class families seeking to make ends meet in any large grinding city, especially for my parents as school educators. But there was always plenty to eat and be thankful for, even with the constant threat and aggression by the bullying neighbor to the south. The unit my father had bought in an apartment building was spacious and airy, so the large family fit in relatively well. My school was progressive, the community we lived in had all the sectarian sects that make up Syria living in peace and harmony.
Since it was the trend to make and save money for the future by working in the Gulf countries, my parents took up well-paying positions in the UAE and our family moved to make a new life in the UAE Emirate of Sharjah. I returned to Syria for college, because the quality of education was much better and way more affordable in my country of birth.
It was while I was in college that our world turned upside down. In the city where my ancestors were welcomed with open arms, protected, sheltered and fed when they fled the Israeli aggression, sectarian strife and intolerance became the norm and my beloved country began to bleed. People we knew and grew up with became instant strangers at first and open enemies as blood was spilled in the name of religion and loyalty to a government, or a group, or along party lines. There was little sense or reason for the mayhem, as ragtag groups formed to supposedly protect lives and or turf.
While throngs of people tried to escape via the sea to Europe, and hundreds perished, I hunkered down, since I was passionate to finish my degree program in English Literature. Also, I had the option of a secure home with my parents in the UAE. Miraculously, the University of Damascus closed not once all through the conflict, a testament to Syria’s academia resilience in a secular setting. In my quest for education, I found love, from someone I knew not, but who pursued me relentlessly, until I relented and we were engaged to be married later, after I graduated. It was someone I learned to love, as all young women naturally do when betrothed.
Several of those that perished were relatives of my family or close friends. Many were murdered in cold blood by one group or another, many others were kidnapped for ransom and never released even when the ransom was paid and many, many more were tortured for no reason at all. Truth became false and vice versa, irrationality became common sense and mayhem prevailed. When groups acquired more lethal weapons, the bombing began and death and destruction intensified. People lost homes, yes, but many lost limbs, and lives. And with every death, a little piece of me also perished. When it became too much to stand, and with my parents petrified to shreds for my safety, I fled to Sharjah, to the safety of my parents.
Leaving behind my maternal grandmother in her refugee camp home, because she simply refused to be cowed by the feuding factions, I fled to the safety of Sharjah and to be with my family once more. However, reports of my country’s systematic obliteration and demise filled my every sense and the news headlines, most fabricated and many outright false, made living in peace difficult, if not impossible. When I expressed the desire to return and complete my college education, my parents firmly believed I had taken the leave of my senses, refusing permission outright. My heart, however, yearned for home and the completion of my formal education. This desire was accentuated after my fiancé, on fleeing to Egypt, had a change of mind about me and called off the engagement and married another woman. His loss. Heartbroken I was, but not defeated and my parents finally, reluctantly let me return to Damascus.
I stayed with friends and relatives while attending classes that were postponed and or canceled most days due to bombings or security threats. Going to the university was precarious, and I lost many fellow students, who simply got blown away by senseless murders. Damascus, unlike other areas in the country, had enough water, but sporadic power, so most of my required college reading was with the help of rapidly and increasingly hard to get and pricey candles. Life was excruciatingly hard and painful. Although I personally did not starve, many others, especially villages surrounded and held hostage by rebel groups resorted to boiling grass seasoned by salt for food. Trying to get simple bread through the siege required raw courage and money for bribes.
Thank God, I persevered and survived. When the government forces finally gained the upper hand, we were in subdued jubilation, since the joy of liberation was tempered by the loss of many beloved. When I returned to our apartment in Damascus, I found it was used as an ammunition storage for one of the rebel groups, remnants who were still holed out in it. When I confronted them and demanded they leave, I was asked to depart at gunpoint by an unkempt, smelly teenage fighter in rags. However, scared I was, but stood my ground. The rebel was the first to blink and lowered his weapon, spat on the ground and told me he was sparing me because I was a woman. I let him believe so. I got my parents apartment back.
Peace is now slowly returning to my country, thank God. I have graduated with a Bachelors in English Literature and teach at a private Western school in Dubai while pursuing a diploma in Education; I will, insha’Allah, continue with a masters in the future. It is a very fulfilling career, and a busy, demanding one. I am happy for me, since I overcame and have a fulfilling, productive life. My heart, however, is in agony for my relatives, friends and fellow countrymen who were slain in cold blood. May Allah rest them in peace and avenge their blood.
Narrated on July 19, 2018, at PF Chang’s, Deira City Center.
Here is Dima: