A Smile the Size of a Crescent Moon

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

It’s that part of a Syrian wedding when the band has to entertain us while the bride and groom read the first verse from the Quran in front of the sheikh, before they join us in the reception. The drummer swaggers around collecting tips, while the keyboardist spins seemingly identical tunes of gypsy-flute. The drummer gets up on one of the tables, arches his back, and lifts his drumstick up in the air, with a huge round cask-drum around his neck, like he’s just won a battle. I stretch my arms above my head and point my toes. I close my eyes, slowing down time to enjoy the remnants of every drumbeat and the waft of life that comes with it.

I recognize most of the guests—relatives, neighbors, friends—their placatory faces and the wretchedness they conceal. I recognize their outfits—the same black suits and dresses they wear to funerals. They snack on Aleppan pistachios and pumpkin seeds. A few sing along, and a few reach their hands up and twist to the music like they’re screwing in a lightbulb. Children swarm between tables, spoiling the conditioned air with garlic from the yalangi and baba ghanouj. One row over, a beautiful girl shoots me fleeting smiles. I’ve known her since we were in middle school; she used to pass me love notes in class. Her soft black hair and cotton candy–colored lips attracted me. But in high school, she stopped finding my square-shaped ears cute. Her voice lost that happy tone when we were alone. Until a few years ago, she had been out of my league. But now, I have a quality that is scarce among men my age in this region: I’m alive. I am the league now.

I smile back, appreciating her friendliness.

Silence falls upon the room as we pivot our heads toward the flower girl, with her sleeveless, tea-length dress and big green bow. She passes my table, holding the beaded handle of a satin basket in one hand and littering a red runner with white rose petals with the other. At the end of the aisle, my aunt—a petite woman with smoke-gray hair—waits for her by two throne-like chairs. Guests snap pictures as she drops petal after petal, leaving a perfect ivory trail. My cousin Eva and her groom Murad proceed behind her, arm in arm, to claim their thrones like king and queen.

As soon as the couple sits down, the music is back. And so is gossip. Chatter is steady at my table, with my mother, younger brother, aunt and uncle. It sounds natural, but it’s skillfully crafted to avoid asking about any local relatives or friends; you never know who might have recently died.

“Have you heard from your brother in Canada lately?” Mother asks Uncle Mustafa.

Uncle puts his drink down, swirls it, clinking ice against the glass. “Not for a few weeks. But goodness, isn’t it amazing how you can talk for free across continents with this Viber app?”

“Of course it’s free. It’s owned by Israelis. They’re not after money; they want to spy on what we say.”

Uncle nods. “I say, let them. If they want to listen to us cursing them, then let them.”

My brother chimes in. “That’s not how it works. Do you think they have all that free time on their hands? They automatically start recording if we mention Syria, Israel, or America.”

My aunt adds in a deep raspy voice, “Russia wouldn’t let them spy on us.”

I’m too preoccupied to join in, enjoying the music before the singer cuts us off and announces the accepting of gifts. That’s when we take cash or jewelry to the bride. The groom’s brother, sitting right below the thrones, registers who gives what in a big notebook.

My aunt catches a glimpse of the elegant box I’m holding with both hands, as you’d hold a baby. “Bero, what did you get your cousin Eva?”

Uncle Mustafa, behind her, sends me his signal to keep quiet by stroking his mustache and raising his eyebrows.

“A bracelet,” I say.

“What kind of bracelet? Where did you get it?”

Uncle Mustafa draws one finger across his throat. 

Part of me wants to tell her. I want my family to be proud of me, the way they were three years ago when I got a job with the oil firm and moved out. I want them to tell me how my father—God rest his soul and rest the souls of all Muslims and make their destination heaven—would have been proud of me. But I can't.


A few weeks before my cousin’s wedding, I’d hung around the bus station for hours, hoping a Good Samaritan would give me a ride to my hometown on the western coast of Syria. There was no shortage of cars, but I had heard that every mile or so you had to stop at a checkpoint. Some only had foreign fighters—from Europe, Asia, and places I didn’t know where to find on a map—and it took a while to convince them you weren’t a government supporter, all in hand gestures. Homs, the city I was in and had been living in, was in central Syria, and the eastern part was under no one’s control. It wasn’t worth sending a living body and a Kalashnikov to claim some rubble and debris. It was a ghost town . . . if ghosts hadn’t killed each other, too.

I flagged down a servees. Servees drivers always went too fast: this one pulled over a few feet past me, the driver’s assistant clunking the sliding door open for me. The driver yelled through the rolled-down window, “You going east? We have room for one more.”

“East is lit up,” I said.

“No kidding,” he said, “but word came the route west has been cut off.”

I paused to think about my options, as if I had any. I’d been laid off at work a few days back, after the rebels destroyed refineries, blocked roads, and claimed the rights to the country’s oilfields. I had waited for things to get better, for the firm I worked for to relocate me or to offer me something else, but no word came from anyone, and I was running out of money. My mother and family were less affected—they lived on the coast where the fighting hadn’t reached—and my cousin was getting married, so I had to go back and I had to buy my cousin a gift.

The crisp, cold air had raised goose pimples on my skin—the kind of cold that made you grateful the sun still shone over this land at all.

The driver snorted or chuckled or both. “You know what they say; if you can’t go west, go east.”

No one said that anymore. You shouldn’t go east. Ever. But I needed to get out of this town, even if I couldn’t get to the coast in one day. Maybe the next town had an open road west.

I picked up my suitcase and hopped in. Before the crisis, the servees was dirt cheap—you could ride all day for the price of a hummus plate. Now that ISIS controlled our oil, the servees became expensive, but remained crammed with uncomfortable, fold-down seats. The driver navigated through the pit-filled streets, avoiding craters so large they could swallow the microbus. We drove past deserted parks, cracked concrete of demolished buildings, and four-legged creatures. I suppose they used to be dogs before their owners abandoned them. Now, they roamed the streets with crooked tongues and invisible savage horns, chasing the scent of blood.

The passengers sat quietly, the frequent bouncing over speed bumps and potholes failing to snap them out of their dull daze. A child moved his lips repeatedly, sounding out “vroom-vroom-vroom.” Occasionally, he would lean his head against the window, his warm breath fogging the glass. To him, the world was still new, the destruction strange, the few patches of blue sky familiar.

The microbus windows framed the ruins on both sides of the road as if they were paintings waiting for someone to repaint them. My high school art teacher warned me never to paint over an acrylic painting because every time you start over, the picture takes longer and looks worse. The colors lose glow, the paint gets chalkier, and the brushstrokes from the old picture—if you look closely enough—will always be in the background. She also told me that I could—and should—become an artist. If only I weren’t part of a generation that believed the country needed farmers, and doctors and engineers to build it, believed that we couldn’t afford such luxuries as art.

We drove east and then northwest, zigzagging the countryside controlled by regime loyalists, and ending in Hama, a town thirty miles north of where we started.

One passenger threw his hands in the air. “We’ve been driving the same loop all day.”

“I’m headed west,” I said, hoping he’d offer advice.

“Good luck.” He tapped my back as he and I exited. I dropped my head and followed as half the passengers did the same, my shoulders feeling heavier with every step. I didn’t know if it was the best idea, but I had to do something. Anything. At least, Hama was a familiar town. I’d been to it when my father would visit his brother-in-law.

By now, I’d lost all hope of making it to my cousin’s wedding in Lattakia on the coast, let alone buying her a gift. I didn’t know anyone here. Not anymore. Everyone had either left or died.

I went to the tiny restaurant my father would take me to when I was little. It looked the same—rusted ceiling fan, faded plastic chairs, and a large black-and-white picture of the Old City. The oil cruet had carved itself a little square on the wooden table. I ordered some hummus. The owner had the same last name as the original owner from generations ago.

Winter had been handed down from year to year, getting colder every time. All men were dressed in coats. Some wore military jackets from the 1960s called Fields.

The restaurant air buzzed with words like “UN resolution,” and “ceasefire agreement,” as if any of it were news. Even the Cold War was a hot topic to these guys. An American tourist once told me how impressed he was with the level of political awareness in Syria. He said he and I had something in common, because he had earned a political science degree. I didn’t tell him that we had enough political analysts in this country to put the entire US State Department out of work.

I decided to hitchhike to the coast through the back roads, but before I left the hummus joint, in the doorway, someone hollered to me from one of the tables in the far back. “Bero, is that you?”

“Uncle?” I was surprised to see him there, but happy at the sight of a familiar face.

Uncle Mustafa grabbed my shoulders and pulled me to his chest, hugging me so tightly my face was pressed flat against the large breast pockets of his green Field. And the whole time, while he squeezed the air out of my lungs, he kept praising, “Mashallah, Mashallah, Mashallah . . .”

I wished I could praise God for how well he looked, too. I would have thought he was an apparition, if it weren’t for his warm hands. His shoulders were hunched, his hands pale and thin, veins visible through his wrinkled skin. “Uncle Mustafa, what brings you here?”

“Listen,” he said. He always opened with a word like that, giving importance to what he said. “I’m here for work. I can use your help.”

That’s one word I had thought I’d never hear again. What sort of work would a retired schoolteacher and a laid-off petroleum engineer do in a torn-up town? I would have loved to be working again. Not because I needed cash, though I did. But because I wanted to convince myself that I didn’t fight or die because I had another purpose in this life. That my choice not to volunteer in the army, or the army’s choice not to draft me anyway, were somehow not for nothing.

Uncle Mustafa’s son—my cousin Ammar, God rest his soul and rest the souls of all Muslims and make their destination heaven—had been killed in the war. And I got this vibe from all parents of fallen soldiers that they hated me for being alive, or for not fighting, or for showing my stupid face and reminding them of their children.

The concept of work coming from him scared me. I feared he wanted to avenge his son by fighting radicals or something.

I didn’t tell him that. But, somehow, he looked at me as if he had heard it all, anyway.

“It’s only a couple of blocks from here. If we hurry, we’ll be done before sundown.”

“Done with what?”

“The apartment we have to work on.”

We left the restaurant and its buzzwords. I walked by my uncle’s side, no differently than I had when I was a little boy with my father, except this time I cast a longer shadow along with poles and power lines. Uncle was quiet, unaware of his divine intervention. How funny that fate presented itself in him. And all this time, before he stood between me and the cold, I had been walking around lucky and not knowing it.

When we got to the place, breaking in didn’t feel like robbery. Uncle Mustafa had explained that many homes were abandoned. He didn’t think their owners, who had fled to Europe, were planning to retrieve their possessions before the rebels did.

It took less time to pick the lock than it did to climb the three flights of stairs. The apartment resembled a basement—spacious, dark, and smelling faintly of mold. The living room was over-furnished with mahogany cabinets, dining table, and chairs.

Now, I understood why Uncle wanted to hurry—electricity had been cut off. Uncle opened the heavy tan curtains concealing windows with wooden shutters that looked like accordion coverings. It was not quite golden hour but close enough. Soft reddish light beams exposed dust particles floating and almost disappearing as they moved away from the window frame. Uncle and I would have made a good silhouette picture—two men at work, saving or robbing a home, faces unrecognized.

Uncle explained where to look for things to take. I tackled every closet, every drawer, every box.

I yelled, “Check this out!” a dozen times, dusting off junk like the first Atari console or a Michael Jackson poster from when he had curly hair. In the master bedroom, I found a big fur coat. I put it on, wrapped a fake gold necklace around my neck, and picked up an umbrella like a cane, pretending to be a hip-hop rapper. From America or somewhere else. Anywhere else. Someone—anyone—who’s not running away from anything or trying to get anywhere. But there was nothing, no matter how funny or bizarre, that could make Uncle laugh.

Squatting in front of the TV, digging through the entertainment center, Uncle shrugged me off. “Quit fucking around,” he said. 

Only one thing grabbed his attention: a framed quote that read “God Doesn’t Burden a Soul Beyond What It Can Bear.”

I muttered, “I wish we were more fragile.”

“You don’t understand.” He turned and rested his heavy hand on my shoulder. “God is testing us until we realize we all believe in the same God.”

Maybe so, but who was going to Wikileak it to the jihadists who traveled all the way to our tiny country to call us heretics?

I nodded, like a good nephew, and continued my treasure hunt in the two bedrooms. I must admit: there was a certain joy in invading someone’s home and leaving handprints. I told Uncle it was like the hidden signatures on paintings by artists no one knew existed. He disagreed. “It’s disrespectful,” he said. “Like carving your name on your school desk.”

 I pocketed a few easy-to-carry things—a Gameboy and a digital picture frame. Uncle said electronics are what young guys are after these days. The Gameboy had a wrestling game. More fighting and more death. But at least it wasn’t over religion. It was for sport.

I tested out the digital photo frame in the bedroom before taking it to Uncle. It flashed pictures of a happy family. I flipped through them until one, in particular, made my arm hair stand on end. Three men with mustaches were locking arms and posing in front of a little child blowing out birthday candles. One of the men was Uncle Mustafa.

The longer I looked at the picture, the more clear the resemblance between the men was, and the more familiar the child. When I realized this must have been his brother’s house, I clutched the picture frame as if trying to strangle it. I couldn’t imagine how badly Uncle must have needed money. I put the frame down gently. I melted into a chair and sank into its wornout cushion. The apartment was so quiet I could hear Uncle’s cough through the closed bedroom door.

The photo of the birthday must have been taken in the kitchen. I went there, pivoted from the photo to the kitchen counter, studied the place more closely, took inventory of what was there and what would have been there had the family still lived here. A few dirty dishes sat in the sink. The counter was clear, except for a few cans of chickpeas and a jar of crystallized honey.

Then, I went to the living room. Did they take things that reminded them of home? Or did they leave Syria behind? I thought about what it would have been like had there been no war—maybe I would have visited for a birthday or a graduation someday.

I didn’t show the photo frame to Uncle. I didn’t say anything. Neither did Uncle Mustafa. I kept thinking about whether I should feel bad. They were happy in Canada. They’d been granted asylum and established themselves overseas—an opportunity not many had. It made me wonder if we could have been happy there, too. But there was no point. Syria lived in us more than we lived in it.

I couldn’t tell if Uncle knew that I realized it was his brother’s house. He was already dazed and distant. I parked myself behind him, as he packed a few things, rattling a black plastic bag at his feet as they settled in—a radio, some DVDs, a landline telephone, an electric heater, and a leather jacket. I did what he said: shut the windows, closed the curtains, and carried the heavy TV—no more jokes, no more trying to prove any points.

We stayed the night at the cheap motel Uncle had been staying at. I didn’t ask why we couldn’t stay at the vacant apartment. The next day, we carried the fruits of our labor and strolled from one shop to another until we sold everything we had grabbed. It only took a few hours; trading in secondhand items had become more popular since the war. It was hard-earned money and, in a way, we saved his brother’s house from funding the rebels.

We made about three hundred dollars, each—enough money to buy wedding gifts. We cheered up when we treated ourselves to dinner. This time, it wasn’t hummus; we went to a French restaurant, ordered a fillet and a cordon bleu. We must have been the only two happy faces in that city, and it seemed as though every passerby was there to see what a smile looked like.

Once I stopped thinking about the family that had moved to Canada, I realized I had broken a sweat making money today—something I didn’t think was still in the cards for me. I helped my uncle. I bought a gift. I was as proud as I’d ever been. Prouder than I was after growing my first mustache.

We stayed another night in Hama and spent the next three days making short trips toward the coast. Uncle knew how to bribe drivers, what towns to go to, how to navigate his way back to Lattakia. They were three of the longest days in my life. Our small town in the countryside was safe. I didn’t need much money to stay with my mother and buy groceries. We were okay, or pretended that we were.


The singer stops. I congratulate the married couple and give my cousin her gift. I kiss her cheek. Her skin is warm, unlike everything around us. Her lips curve with a smile the size of a crescent moon. She looks young and oblivious to a world in ruins—a world she’s trying to build a family in. But she’s also brave. Maybe she can paint over an existing painting.

I face the guests and tap a spoon on a glass until I have everyone’s attention. “I used to think the dead soldiers were brave. They are. But, do you know who’s also brave? The ones that still choose to smile. Like Eva. And like her husband Murad. Raise a glass and toast to my cousin and her husband.”

Rims of glasses clink as a dozen voices cheer, “Kasak!” The band strikes up. It doesn’t matter what they play; it will bring us back from the dead like hypnotized snakes to the sound of flutes.

I walk over to my middle school crush, take her hand, and invite her for a dance. We join hands with the other dancers, going in a circle, one step for each beat. We bend one knee in front of the other, kick the left foot in the air on three and stomp strongly on the ground on four, our eyes full of laughter.

There is an exceptional thrill when the drumstick pounds the head of the cask-drum at its center in its weakest spot. And the head, it rebounds more resilient than all of us. That tiny stick, it creates waves of air filling the entire room, fading away right as it sends the next wave. And the alcohol is the kind you can only find here—made from distilled grapes, with a black-licorice flavor and a milky color. It turns the waves of air into electric impulses, giving my brain enough sound to drown out everything that’s happened to this country.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020