Boy From Damascus

I’d met with the owner of Mosaic Press on the Saturday of Easter weekend, 2017.  He stood short, a white man with thick square glasses and a kindly smile.  His name was Howard.  We talked of the publishing world, the price of distributors, royalties and copyright.  I listened and spoke little because I knew nothing of the writing industry. 

I’d written a book and sent it to the first publisher I’d heard of that didn’t require an agent.  Howard told me Mosaic got about 600 manuscripts a year, and printed 15 of them.  I was floored by that statement.  My manuscript was made up of short stories themed around the lives of Coptic children living in Egypt which became my thesis for my MFA.  The topic of my stories ranged from the pain of a dying country under the fist of Mubarak to revolution to the death of Sadat to the sectarian tensions between majority and minority religions to tribal justice to an uneducated pimp with a conscience, all told from the eyes of a child.

“You know your work is really unusual,” Howard said.

“Is it?”

"Yes.  There really isn’t much of a market for it.”

“Really?” 

“Yes, that’s okay.  We’ll print it anyway.  It’s good work.  I showed your work to a few other people on our board and they all loved it too.”

I was honoured that he liked my writing enough to choose it as one of 15 amongst 600 others.  I knew there was no way a major publisher like Harper Collins or Simon and Schuster would ever print something that they’d considered “unmarketable.” 

For a moment, the briefest moment, I wondered if I’d written all the wrong words.  Best selling popular fiction in North America tends to be heavy on romance, science fiction and fantasy, among a few other popular subgenres.  The audience for Arab ethnoreligious minority affairs is substantially smaller.  

Still, I believed in my work.  Above being good, I knew my stories were necessary.  Almost everyone knows of the bloodshed in the name of religion and honour in the Middle East, but no one knows or cares to know the names of the children maimed by IEDs on their way to school or the mother shot by a sniper as she shooed her children away from a city she didn’t know anymore or the 21 men in Libya’s coastal city of Sirte that were beheaded for believing in the wrong God.  I’d met many people from a few different Arab countries, namely Egypt and Iraq and Syria, who’d seen these atrocities first hand, like my little friend Marcus. 

I’d met Marcus in my church library on a warm Saturday night in mid-September.  I’d come to visit my friend Peter who sat behind a desk across from a little person with a small round nose you’d see on every character in a Doctor Seuss book.  The little person had black straight hair long enough to reach the shoulders, but tied up in a small ponytail.  At age eight, the boy looked somewhat like a girl.  His mannerisms and composure gave him away.

The sides of the boy’s head were shaved.  I said hi as I entered the room, interrupting the boy mid speech. 

“This guy is Lebanese,” he said in perfect Egyptian Arabic.

“Me?  No, I’m Egyptian, just like Peter,” I said in my clumsy Egyptian.

“No.  You look Lebanese.  All the Lebanese men are bald like you.”

Peter laughed.  The boy stayed his stoic face.

“So you lived in Lebanon?” Peter said.

“Yes,” the boy said.  “We moved there when I was two, after the war broke out in Syria.”

I took a seat across from the boy.  He definitely didn’t look Egyptian, but he wore the handout green tank top given to children for kid’s conventions held by the church, and almost all kids within my church were Egyptian.

He also didn’t exhibit the typical Egyptian child demeanour (read he didn’t look like he could be set free in the forest and take it over from the bears.) 

Egyptian children were wild.  He was tame.

“You know my dad owned a factory in Syria,” he said.  “He made some things I don’t remember.  And then some guys came in with a huge truck with a giant metal ball on a steel line and smashed his factory with the giant ball.”

I sat and stared at the boy’s wide brown eyes, unflinching and honest. 

“Wow, they destroyed your dad’s factory?” Peter said.

“Yes.”

“Do you know who it was?”

“No.  Probably some confused guys.”

“You think maybe it was because your family is Christian?”

“I don’t know.  But we had to escape.”

The boy sat back in his seat.  An older man, maybe in his forties, called to the boy from the hall.

“Marcus, I’ll be outside for a smoke,” he said in his Syrian dialect.  The boy often switched between Syrian and Egyptian dialects in his speech.  I translated his words in my mind from Syrian to Egyptian to English, often finding myself lost in translation.

“You speak really good Egyptian,” Peter said.

“Yes I lived in Egypt.  When the war started, baba took me and my sister and mama on a bus to Lebanon.  I lived there for a while.  Then we moved to Egypt and I lived there for four years.”

“Oh no wonder.”

“Yeah I was all over.”

“Where were you from in Syria?”

“I lived in Damascus. Then the war came and some people destroyed baba’s factory and we had to escape.  Baba took us on a bus ride with a bunch of people from my church.  We went to Lebanon.  We sat at the back of the bus, but there was a bomb on my bus and it blew up and so many people at the front of the bus died.”

The boy’s tone never changed as he spoke, with the same minor excitement a Canadian kid may have when telling the story of his first lost tooth.  I sat amazed at the boy’s relative calm.  My normal was far safer than his.

“Wow,” Peter said.  “Were your friends on the bus?”

“Yes.”

“Did they die too?”

“Yeah some of them.”

The boy’s words slipped so casually.  I realized that what he knew to be true was far more real than anything I’d ever experienced.  And he was eight years old.

As an Arab Christian, I’d always kept a close eye on the plight of my people who in recent times had been trampled on by an aggressive and often tolerated fractional minority of extremists.  Whether in Syria or Iraq or to a lesser but still significant degree, Egypt, I have watched and mourned the destruction of a people that traced their roots back to the apostles, the soil still fertile by generations of the blood of their martyrs. 

Had my friend Marcus sat a few rows ahead on his bus, his body would be mixed with Syrian soil today.  By grace, he and his whole family were saved.  His story, and many others I’d heard and read over the years, gave me reason to write. 

Western media focuses on lives and stories that push their Bottom Line.  Minorities in the Middle East, be they Copts, Assyrians, Shabaks, Yazidis and the numerous others, along with the majority of peaceful Muslims who are themselves oppressed by fundamentalist genocidal ideologues, are often ignored by this media that ascribes them no monetary value.

As for me, I don’t care for their market.  I don’t care for a profitable story.  I don’t care for money or fame.  I choose to write for a people unknown and unnamed by a Capitalist media.  I will fight against the tyranny of a thirsty sword with words of recognition, the problem exists, and the places and names of the people that remind me they still live.  They still breathe.    

I will tell the story of the boy from Damascus.