It was Friday, long past the hour when the adhan rang out along the streets and rooftops shepherding the final stragglers through the yawning doors of Ibrahimi Mosque to rest upon the compassionate breast of Allah. The sun sizzled in the cloudless, summer sky causing everyone’s clothes to stick to them like a second skin to their sweat drenched bodies – perfect modesty was impossible in the August heat – but I had found refuge in the cool, green lushness of our garden terrace. I sat at the pollen and ash dusted glass topped table, my left hand curled loosely around a glass of hot, sweet tea, finger pinched around a cigarette while my other scribbled furiously in my journal.
Slowly, like some kind of poisonous wraith devised of scorched electrical wire and a metric ton of black pepper, the familiar stench of tear gas bored its way into my nose and seared the back of my throat. Without thought, I rose from my seat and began to ready myself – there’d be no question that we’d be go to observe and document the clashes that had now begun.
A sound grenade – the first of what would always become many – exploded in the distance. I began to count, partially out of habit but mostly out of necessity; we’d need the numbers for our reports later.
I slid my bare feet into my dust smeared Adidas, pulling the laces taut and tucking the excess behind the tongue.
I packed my phone, passport and a handful of alcohol pads into one of the many pockets of my tattered khaki utility vest.
Finally, I grabbed the team camera and descended down the slick stone steps to meet my team mates on the street below. With a single, quick nod we began the trek to bab izaweyeh.
We walked in silence past the ominously still military base, beyond the countless rows of shops toward the vegetable market. The thoroughfare, normally bustling with life and activity, was eerily abandoned save for two small boys walking hand in hand who kindly spared a moment to warn us of the soldiers and tear gas ahead.
Our path opened to a wide round about where several groups of teenage boys (Shebab) had gathered around the perimeter. Although they ranged in age from 10 or 12 to 19, nearly all of them had stripped off their t-shirts and wrapped them around their faces in an attempt to disguise themselves from soldiers and press cameras alike. We pressed forward, cutting diagonally across the promenade to the northwest corner. We had passed a gaggle of Shebab, the youngest scrabbling through the trash on the street in search for stones, while the oldest were busy smashing large chunks of concrete on the ground, busting it into pieces that would fit their roughly calloused hands.
Just as we cleared the group, I felt a hand clamp down on my shoulder and spin me around to face its owner. The boy towered over me, his face wrapped in a black t-shirt making his characteristics indistinguishable. My team mates stopped short, watching with wary eyes as I lifted my eyebrows in a silent question.
“Helloooooooooooooo!” the youth trilled from under his makeshift mask, causing my face to crack in an immediate grin. This was Mufadli* a teenager I’d met and befriend in the souq, and this was the way he always greeted me. … quickly followed by an accusation of being Israeli because of a star tattoo on my hand. He enjoyed my flustered denials in broken Arabic, laughing heartily until one day he relented and dubbed me Turkish instead.
I returned my friend’s greeting and he quickly caught me up on what their plan was; simply that they’d been throwing rocks at the checkpoint at the far end of the round about. Just as I was about to ask if any soldiers were on the ground, an explosion – loud and close enough to rattle my teeth – went off. As if were were puppets on a string, our heads whipped toward the direction the sound had come from. There, less than 50 feet away, were a horde of soldiers in full riot gear with their weapons drawn. By this point 6 or so Shebab had joined my friend and I and we had inadvertently become a group – the soldiers could not see us observers, only the teenagers that surrounded us… this was not a situation we should have been in and I would have some real apologizing to do to my team when we returned to the office.
Silence, thick with tension, hung in the air as we all waited for what would happen next. As if in slow motion, I watched as a solider pulled another sound grenade from her vest and threw it directly at us.
“Shit!” we all yelled in unison. Though I knew I shouldn’t, that it wasn’t allowed, that it was a terrible idea, my body reacted instinctively and I took off. My legs pumped beneath me of their own volition, propelling me up the steep hill faster than I had thought myself capable. I threw a glance over my shoulder to make sure my team members were behind me – they were, along with the rest of the Shebab. As I turned my face forward, I saw Mufadli* bedside me, our legs and arms swinging in perfect harmony. He caught my eye with his, and for some inexplicable reason we began howling with laughter as we ran. Then, without warning, I was rocketed outside my body, floating somewhere above the group, yet somehow still tied to it. I could feel the fibers of my muscles contracting, the air sawing in and out of my lungs and my heart beat hammering in my ears.
“I’m here,” I thought with a wild disbelief, “I’m here and I’m with you.” For the first time I felt what I have been saying for years – we are all one. A single organism that lives and breaths together, regardless of time or space.
It was exactly then that my friend took hold of my elbow and yanked me into a nearby alleyway. My team mates and I were sucking wind, only he was unaffected. There was no time for that, though, and my friend put his hands on my shoulders making sure I was paying attention.
“Up, up, left, down, down, down. Bab izaweyeh” he said in a rush. It took me a moment to realize he was giving us directions back down to the round about in a route that would keep us away from the soldiers. I nodded in understanding, and before I could stop him he darted out of the alley way back toward the soldiers. I watched him for only a second, long enough to see him climb some scaffolding before we darted off.
We slowed to a walk, following his instructions, and I felt hot shame and guilt bubbling in my stomach. This was the reason we stayed on the sidelines and observed during clashes – getting involved, even accidentally, had dire consequences. Like now, my friend was more concerned with making sure we were safe – and put himself in danger to do so – than he was about himself. Our consequences, compared to his, were negligible. I continued to berate myself – I should have known better, I should have disengaged,etc. – as we turned left and began to descend back to the round about. Half way down, two Shebab I wasn’t familiar with frantically waved their hands at us, and gestured us into a narrow alley way – the other end opening up to the street we had run up. Seconds later two sound grenades went off near by. Between that heart beat and the next I, mouth agape in shock, saw Mufadli skid into the opposite end of the alleyway, his body silhouetted by a thick cloud of tear gas..
“Helloooooooooooooooooo!” he trilled with a wave as he sauntered my way.
“Shoo? Keyfa!?” (What? How?!) I asked in disbelief.
“I’m good,” he responded with a shrug.
The four of us made our way slowly down the hill wile my friend removed the t-shirt from his face – to reveal mischievous eyes – and pulled it back over his lean torso once more.
“I knew you Turkeya,” he said with a crooked grin, as he closed the door to his home behind him.
“Wa anta mufadli.”** I thought to myself.
*Name changed to protect my friend’s identity.
** Arabic Translation: “And you are my favorite.”