I didn’t know the bus was going to drive by Abbassiyyin Square. I had been trying to avoid the square for the past two years, but the elderly driver had decided to round it, heedless of the anguish it might cause passengers to cut across an area loyal to the ranks of the Front.
The bus approaches the entrance to the square bordering the Zabaltani district and drives past some big rubber tires scattered on the side of the road. Despite my stress-induced alertness, at that moment I fail to curb the tide of memories flooding back and drowning my brain. We take a right turn in front of the big sports center named after the square: Abbassiyyin International Sports Center. I had spent hours in front of that building over the last few years, waiting for any means of transport to arrive and take me home to the inner part of the Eastern Ghouta suburbs.
We hadn’t called it Eastern Ghouta back then. We referred to each region in the belt by its own name: Jobar, Zamalka, Irbin, and so on. That doesn’t matter as much as the fact that I waited there, under a blazing sun or during the last hours of the night, scared of the scolding I’d get at home if I arrived too late. Shortly before we moved to the new house, cell phones were invented, solving all these problems.
I feel my cell phone in my pocket the moment we sweep around the corner toward the center of the square. The park still looks the way it used to. The way it used to last time I checked, that is. When the council decided to dig some big tunnels under the square, they demolished the old garden and replaced it with a forest of grotesque columns whose meaning I still haven’t worked out.
While turning, we hear a burst of gunfire and I feel smooth skin brush against my hand. The back of my hand has just touched the forearm of a girl in her twenties I hadn’t seen climb on the bus and stand next to me. She is gripping one of the handles that hangs from the ceiling of the bus; they always remind me of gallows. I wasn’t up for recalling gallows, nor could I focus my attention on the girl’s face. The deluge of memories had taken over by then and it besieged my reality. It had even numbed the fear I ought to be feeling after hearing gunfire.
The driver completes his turn around the center of the square and proceeds toward the beginning of the al-Qusur district. He stops the bus at the end of the street in front of The Church of Our Lady to drop someone off and continues the ride immediately. The stone benches next to the church are completely empty. Nobody was sitting on them as we used to do when we attended school. The bus stops suddenly and the handle I had been holding slips from my grasp. I taste a wisp of the twentyish-year-old girl’s hair that barges into my mouth. The halt had been so abrupt that all the passengers bump into each other. The flavor of the hair was bitter and made me want to throw up.
The interior of the bus is plunged into pandemonium. It soon becomes apparent that the driver had drawn short to avoid hitting a cat that had swiftly crossed in front of the bus. The crowd slowly starts to get their breath back—some even crack stupid jokes about the ludicrous situation.
“Sweet thing, this refreshing swap of prospect. We dodge the bullets and get killed by a cat crossing the street instead.” The words have been blurted out by an old man. Everyone explodes with laughter.
Suddenly, I feel the urge to get off the bus. I press the stop button at the rear door, but it doesn’t make any sound. It is broken! However, it seems that I have managed to catch the attention of the old man, who shouts, “Open at the back!” The entire group of passengers regards his call as another joke and starts laughing again. Nonetheless, I am lucky enough to get the bus driver to open the door for me.
I step out of the bus and my feet touch the pavement. I want to retrieve the stream of memories before they are long gone. Returning to the square is dangerous, but I need to surrender to the feelings that own me. Hence, I turn around and head toward it.
The Author, Waseem Sharqy:
Writer and playwright from Syria.