Where a City Gets to Shine

Seven Fountains Roundabout Manbij, Syria

Our history teacher once told us that a city’s roundabouts represent death and my brother, the poet, has always said that there is no better way to know a city than through its roundabouts. The first time I saw a dead body was at the Seven Fountains Roundabout. It was a young man sprawled on the road next to his motorcycle. I then recalled the words of my history teacher and thought that the government should have built traffic lights to regulate the flow of traffic entering the square.

The square receives its name from the seven-spout fountain located in its center. Its water-pumping mechanism is only rarely working properly. This is just one of the various ways my city tries to emulate cities like Damascus or Aleppo, where there are also fountains carrying this name. What it doesn’t seem to be taking into consideration is that there is more to a name than what one can simply copy. And, unlike in Damascus or Aleppo, in this city there are no private nor governmental institutions fighting to acquire a building directly abutting its roundabouts.

In summer, people take shelter at the Seven Fountains from the concrete ovens their houses turn into. The problem is that there is no place in my city for lovers to meet. Its inhabitants are always on the alert for unseemly behavior and those who wish to pander to their basic instincts need to do so behind very firmly closed doors. As a result, all I have ever been able to do with girls is exchange photos and songs. I once received a virtual kiss from one of the girls whose name appeared on my phone as within Bluetooth range, but she might very well have been a fat forty-year-old male prankster smoking a narguile nearby.

While on military service, I once tried to desert. After I got apprehended, I tried to convince the correctional officer working at the slammer I was thrown into that I had only meant to take a few days off to make a brief excursion to Damascus. He seemed amused by my ridiculous attempt to get off the hook by giving a flimsy excuse to just anyone, blithely disregarding how much of a say they might actually have in the matter, and jested, “Looks like you didn’t think ‘the Seven Fountains’ was a steep enough price to pay gratuitously for visiting Damascus.” It was only after I finished my military service and could finally jaunt off to Damascus to visit it for the first time that I grasped what he meant back then, when at a check point on the way there I saw a police officer, who after inspecting the papers and belongings of a driver, asked him whether he and the rest of the car’s occupants had the “seven fountains”. The driver thought it wise not to play obtuse and pressed some cash into the officer’s hand. “We are seven,” he informed the officer. “Seven as the Seven Fountains,” chirped the police officer while the driver started the engine and drove away.

The first demonstration that was held against the government at the Seven Fountains Roundabout ended in a blood bath, and after the government lost control of the city, air strikes began to be launched against it on a regular basis. To the pilots of those aircrafts, the people on the ground must not only have resembled ants, but also had about the same value as them. It must have felt like a game to them, to make ground meat of the crowds that swelled by the thousands in the roundabout.

Three days ago, two beardies dropped a wooden box in the middle of the roundabout. Inside, was a man they had arrested for immoral behavior. After the afternoon prayer, they picked it up, opened it and started parading the streets with it. The children and the mentally challenged spat at the man crouched down inside of it.

As I passed by the roundabout today, I saw flocks of people whispering in huddles at its center. They seemed to have arrived there driven by curiosity and were unable to leave because of the fear that had subsequently paralyzed them. Suddenly, I recalled my brother’s words of wisdom, “It is in the roundabouts of cities where history is made.”

I myself was unable to resist the temptation to find out what was happening and approached the crowd on the roundabout. In its center, was a man shackled to a pole. He must have been almost sixty years old. His entire body was swollen and his face looked like that of a ghost, both pale and familiar. His dead eyes seemed to be fixed on me. It took me a while, but I wound up recognizing him eventually. The second dead body I had ever seen up-close turned out to be the one belonging to none other than my former history teacher.


Written by Mahmoud Alhsan.