This article is part of a SyriaUntold series featuring daily life stories from Damascus.
On the public green bus jammed with more than 150 young people waiting for the unknown, Ahmad (pseudonym) tried, in vain, to find a corner where he could stick his nose outside a small window opening that the soldier had missed. He was on the verge of passing out from the stench of urine, sweat and bad breath as the bus took off from Eastern Ghouta to a shelter in a regime-controlled area that day in March 2018.
Ahmad was an only child and had grown up without a father. His mother who refused to remarry was his sole companion. He not only inherited her black eyes, chestnut hair and soft hands, but also her extreme obsession with cleanliness. Her words still resound in his head. She would say, “It is not a problem if you wear old clothes, as long as they are clean;” or “If you were the most handsome of all but you smelled, everybody would be repelled by you;” and “Don’t you dare bring home a dirty daughter-in-law. I swear I would kill myself!”
Samia (pseudonym), Ahmad’s mother, spent half of her time at home cleaning, washing and disinfecting. The other half, she thought about how to keep her house, her son’s clothes and her own clean. Passers-by in the street could inhale the smell of soap emanating from her house on the fourth floor. Ahmad recalls in details how his mother would bathe him when he was a child. She would wash him repeatedly with laurel soap and rub and soak his body—once to remove dead skin and twice to make the body glow. She would end the bathing ritual with an aromatic German shampoo.
When Ahmad’s body changed at puberty and his sweat secretions increased, Samia would smell his underarms after every shower, which had become his own responsibility. Many times, she would make him shower again, if his scalp or underarms smelled off. And she made sure about his genital hygiene. As a mother, it was hard for her to teach her boy how to clean the folds of his testicles and get rid of remaining urine in his penis. In his father’s absence though, she had to do what she had to do.
Ahmad became a young man and went to university. He would disappear in the morning and return in the late night, sometimes alone and other times with a friend.
Samia kept checking on everybody’s hygiene. She gave her opinion about who she saw fit to be her son’s friend based on her impression about their cleanliness, smell and stainless clothes. She would say, “Remember son, a person who is clean from the outside is clean from the inside. It is not a rule, but it is often the case. God bless you, let people talk about your cleanliness because it shows that you are a decent person who respects others. Nobody has to smell sweat and endure disgust.”
During Ramadan, Ahmad would carry a toothbrush in his bag. He took this habit from his mother who would say, “Nobody has to smell your stinking breath during your worship of God.”
That was Samia, or Umm Ahmad (Ahmad’s mother). Her house was the cleanest in the neighbourhood, and her efforts to make Ahmad a role model in elegance and neatness wherever he went did not go to waste. Whether in high school, at the Faculty of Arabic Literature, in the market, in family gatherings and friend outings, Ahmad’s cleanliness was always laudable.
It was not easy for Ahmad to suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Just like his mother, he had a nose like a bloodhound. He hated foul smells, and he wore a protective face mask when passing by garbage dumps. He avoided big groups, especially in summer. He preferred to walk home instead of taking an overcrowded public bus where his body would touch those of others he did not know. He could not kiss the girl he loved during the first year of university, but not for religious or social reasons, which would have been justified. In fact, the idea disgusted him. However, he overcame this repugnance over the next few years, pushing himself by saying, “If I am always disgusted, I will never have kids.”
The most torturous for him was using the bathroom outside his house. This, he could not overcome—not in school, university or while at work at the school where he taught. The stench of others’ stool emanating from public facilities made him so dizzy that he could not even urinate. He would force himself to wait until he got home, even if that meant waiting for ten hours or more. Anything is better than the public bathroom experience.
Away from a clean house
In mid-2011, Ahmad participated in a peaceful protest in his neighbourhood. When security men were chasing the youths like madmen, Ahmad ran and fell to the ground several times. He returned home in his white shirt stained with sweat and dirt. Although his return home was an achievement in itself, his fear of upsetting his mother if she were to see his dirty clothes trumped his sense of survival. Yet his mother did not care about his clothes. She held him close to her chest covered with a chalk white prayer cape, and she thanked God for his safety and cursed the hour he decided to join the revolution with his friends and neighbours. But she could not convince her son to reconsider. A clean person on the outside is clean on the inside. And, a clean person on the inside cannot take oppression or insults lying down. The choice was crystal clear.
The day came when Ahmad got arrested. It was 4 a.m., and he was taken from his house with his head covered. His mother’s wails could be heard in the background. Ahmad did not care about the punches and kicks, the taste of blood in his mouth, being stripped searched or getting whipped for long hours. He got used to the stench of sweat, blood, vomit and urine in the cell overcrowded with dozens of men just like himself. One thing he could not get over, however, was the toilet in the cell. His adaptation mechanisms fell short at this point. On the first day, Ahmad could not urinate. The toilet was Western-style with a seat. “If it were a squat toilet, it would have been easier,” he thought.
More than 40 people were using the toilet, and the flush valve was not working. A water bowl was being used instead. You would rarely be so lucky as not to see a piece of floating faeces. The colour of the toilet was greenish brown from the inside, and it stank of decaying corpse smell. The sight of the toilet was a nightmare for Ahmad, and using it was even more so.
During the first four days of his arrest, Ahmad did not eat anything for fear of having to defecate in that infested hole. One of the men was able to find Ahmad a bottle to urinate in because, when he tried to stand over the toilet to relieve himself, he vomited and almost fainted. The other inmates mocked Ahmad because of the state he was in. However, they soon realized that his condition was critical when his inability to pass stool almost poisoned his body. The bottle became Ahmad’s urination place, but the defecation issue remained unsolved until he found a way to do so without touching the seat. He relied on his thigh muscles and learned to hold his breath for two full minutes to get it over with quickly. Soap was not available, only water. Even the water available to wash hands and bodies was filthy.
Two months later, Ahmad was released and returned to his mother’s house. She had aged ten years in his absence. He vowed never to let anyone deprive him of the right to relieve himself in a clean place or to wash his behind with clear water ever again. He will not allow anyone to treat him like an animal that sleeps in its own dung.
Then Hamouriyah, where Ahmad and his mother lived, was no longer under the regime’s control. Ahmad was safe from arrest. Still, the water cuts, blockade and scarce resources constituted a new problem for his mother. She could eat anything; that was not the issue. But she could not find good cleaning agents. Everything was expensive and of low quality. Ahmad still taught at the same school, and his salary was barely enough for one week’s food. Many of his friends had enlisted with the brigades controlling the city. He, however, had promised himself and his mother not to join any armed party. When he thought about it, he would smell a stench without knowing where it came from.
Ahmad and his mother sold the valuables of their home and the smell of cleanliness no longer left a trail in the streets. Still, their house remained the cleanest in the neighbourhood. Umm Ahmad would say, “Poverty is not an excuse for dirtiness. One can be poor, but they can still be neat and clean.” Ahmad realized that his mother’s OCD left no space for reason.
Umm Ahmed, due to old age and the hardship of the blockade, started losing her mind. She ventured out to hang the linen, no longer chalk white as before, amid heavy shelling. Ahmad scooped her up and carried her quickly to a shelter. There were 250 men, women and children living inside it and sharing only two bathrooms. Ahmad remembered the bottle and the promise he had made himself. He would wait for the shelling to subside and run home to relieve himself calmly and mark a victory against anyone dreaming of depriving him of this right. Then, he would return to the shelter where his mother had formed a group of women responsible for cleaning the place. Still, he continued going back home during the calm moments to use his own toilet. A week later, he headed home but could not find it, so he had to use the shared toilet.
The news of the regime’s control and the retreat of armed brigades struck the shelter like lightning. Yet it was better than dying trapped under rubble after a terrifying bombardment campaign that hit the neighborhoods and its residents with every kind of weapon. The possibility of arrest, humiliation and field execution was less grim than picking up the remains of children who paid for the choices of others. In any case, there was no other choice this time. Defeat was inevitable.
As per the agreement made by the Syrian regime and Faylaq Al-Rahman, the opposition faction in control of the area, the militants had to retreat to north Syria while the inhabitants had to turn themselves in to the authorities be distributed over the shelters. Umm Ahmad hugged her only child while repeating incomprehensible words. Her smell was not the sweet one to which Ahmad had grown accustomed. But, he kissed her head and bid her farewell, knowing that the men would not be treated like the women and children, even those whose peaceful behaviour or lack of participation in rebellious or opposition activity was well proven.
At the crossing, the soldiers captured dozens of young men and jammed them in rusty buses. The militant buses drove north. The women and children were put together and moved elsewhere. Other buses, including Ahmad’s bus, remained in place while soldiers verified each person’s identity and conducted security checks. A few hours later, the men demanded to be allowed out of the bus to relieve themselves. The soldiers did not oblige, and they beat the men with the rifle butts. One of the men urinated in his pants and cried his eyes out. The soldiers laughed. All the men started urinating in their pants and crying, one after the other. Ahmad could no longer tolerate the stench. He wished he had a bottle for every man to spare them the humiliation of that moment. A few minutes later, Ahmad urinated in his pants, and he no longer smelled anything or felt any shame. But he could smell an unpleasant odour as he watched the soldiers holding their rifles and walking around the bus laughing.