The Bitter Bet

23 September 2018

Alice Al-Shami

Alice Al-Shami (pseudonym) is a Syrian writer.

Translated by: Naziha Baassiri

Abu Wissam nervously sat in his little car parked at the beginning of the Damer project. It was customary for him to arrive early to any appointment, no matter how insignificant. Today, he was half an hour early for a meeting that could change his fate. He spent the time tapping nervously on the steering wheel as he wiped his sweaty brow in the oppressive August heat. In his lap was an envelope containing $12,000 – the money needed to ensure the escape of his family (a wife and four kids) from Syria.

At the beginning of 2018, Abu Wissam and his family decided to leave Syria, but the decision came late as it had become increasingly difficult to travel now in comparison to the earlier years of the war.

Abu Wissam, 60, had not been under significant economic pressure that would have had him consider leaving his life and job, which he established ten years earlier. He was, after all, a well-known orthopedist. He was comfortable financially and was not forced to leave his home. He suffered some minor losses here and there when investments went bust with the war, a fate shared by many other Syrians who had invested in factories and commerce. Yet, that had never been the main source of his livelihood. He had been a partner in a foodstuff manufacturing factory in the Shibaa are in the Damascus countryside, which was burnt down in 2012. His second house, which he rented out in the Ain Terma area, was heavily damaged when the regime forces surrounded and bombed the Free Syrian Army there. At that point, Abu Wissam considered himself lucky to own a large house in a safe area.

After the regime regained control of Ain Terma in early 2018, Abu Wissam went to check up on his second property. He found it had been entirely ransacked and was so severely damaged that it would require a lot of money to rebuild it. Additionally, there was a strange family squatting in the house. Abu Wissam did not take any measures against the family. In fact, he felt so disgusted and defeated that he resigned himself to the status quo.

But this was not how he felt when he lost his factory in Shibaa. In fact, then, he had felt a strange kind of happiness as he considered himself christened into the ranks of his fellow Syrians who had suffered the consequences of the revolution and the practices of the regime.

The reason was that his friends always argued against his support for the protests and his criticism of how the regime handled them. He was a staunch supporter of the revolution against the rule of the Assad family. Being Christian, it was never easy to hold such conversations within his closed community that has been indirectly ruled by historic fears and preconceived ideas of economic and social interests with the state. Questions such as: “Do you know what would happen in case we were governed by the Muslim Brotherhood? Why do you care what’s going on? It’s a Sunni-Alawite or a Sunni-Shia conflict, which should not concern us.”

When the regime bombed Abu Wissam’s factory, which was then looted by pro-regime militias, he recounted that incident and the loss he personally suffered in all his subsequent discussions to prove that the regime doesn’t really differentiate between civilians and that it’s willing to burn everything to the ground just to retain its power. It was corrupt and destructive, although the regime claimed to be protecting the people, especially Christians.

However, none of Abu Wissam’s arguments swayed people. Everyone implicitly knew the truth. Even his pro-regime friends and acquaintances knew that, yet they based their stances on “not poking the sleeping bear” and believed that no good could come from a revolution of this kind. Thus, they continued to base their opinions on religious and sectarian fears, and they left no occasion to mention any news, real or fake, about opposition factions attacking Christian businesses and people. But Abu Wissam’s stance remained strong: the stagnant water and bad smells came from the regime’s sewers, which ought to be buried and gotten rid of so everyone in the country could breathe. Everything else is minor by comparison.

Abu Wissam’s cousin, Joseph, believed differently. A real estate lawyer in his fifties, Joseph was a bachelor who frequented the bars in Damascus. At the beginning of the crisis, he refused to have anything to do with the issues of the detainees from the protests. That alone drove Abu Wissam crazy, who got even angrier once Joseph denied the “opposition’s stories” regarding the detention and torture of protestors. Abu Wissam couldn’t be sure if Joseph knew the truth but was denying it, or if his consciousness didn’t want to admit the truth as it didn’t align neatly with his pro-regime stance.

One time during a family get-together, Abu Wissam and his cousin got into a heated discussion where the latter swore he will not stay a single day in the country if the regime was defeated. Abu Wissam responded, saying he won’t stay in the regime triumphs.

  • Really?
  • Yes, really.

That was in 2012. In the few times since then, Abu Wissam and Joseph got together on family occasions and often reminded each other, whether jokingly or seriously, of their bet, which was disquieting to other family members.

At the beginning of 2018, and specifically after the battle of Al-Ghouta, Abu Wissam made up his mind. He could no longer stand being in Syria. Things were becoming clearer: The regime was still in power, the economy was a mess, and those who made their money during the war as well as their shabiha, who remined above the law, were here to stay. Living in a wealthy area, those became Abu Wissam’s neighbors. On an international level, nothing alluded to a positive change in the region, and the provocative arrogance of the regime was on full display everywhere, in the media and on the streets.

There was nothing left to hope or live for. Abu Wissam had hoped that he could remain in the country he loves, where he lived all his life and was only ever away for a few days. He had hoped that his children would find their feet here, a place he could say he helped build. However, today, they are asking him to leave to a place where young people can pursue their ambitions, live a normal life, and attain their personal and professional goals without the fear of ever having the freedom, hope, and ability to dream being crushed within them.

A father to three sons and a daughter – the latter being the eldest in grade 11 and the youngest son in grade 6 – Abu Wissam knew it was only a matter of time before the family would be haunted by compulsory military service. Perhaps this more than anything else troubled the mother, who was a visual artist working from home, and what drove her to insist on travelling. Abu Wissam, on the other hand, was always stalling and biding his time to see how things turned out. His bet with Joseph was weighing on him: he didn’t want to lose to his cousin, but his worry for the future of his children was increasing day after day.

One cold night at the beginning of 2018, the power was out. Abu Wissam’s children were studying for their midterms using the pale LED light they had as they kept warm by their gas heater. Abu Wissam looked at his wife and said: Maybe it’s time to leave.

The decision to leave meant Abu Wissam had to leave everything behind. A doctor in his sixties, he most probably won’t be able to work in a foreign country. It won’t be easy to learn a new language, even though he’s proficient in English and French. However, his ten years of experience as an orthopedist wouldn’t be useful in France. He’s closer to retirement. His wife, however, may be able to create lucrative opportunities for herself as visual artist, but she too will face many challenges as she approaches her 50th birthday. The benefit of this decision would entirely go to the children. The life Abu Wissam and his wife knew will be gone forever.

It’s okay, thought Abu Wissam to himself. Maybe it was time to retire and spend the rest of his days in a safe, civilized country within a democracy where everyone was under the law. No decision comes without some sacrifices, and this might be the lesser of the evils given the options, he thought.

During all those years, Abu Wissam, a well-off Christian, never considered that leaving Syria will pose a real challenge to him and his family. He made up his mind to apply to France, but his visa application was rejected. He then applied to Canada; however, during his interview, he didn’t lie and didn’t claim he had to leave his home or that his children’s education was disrupted. He had heard that such statements helped during one’s application process. In his opinion, having to live in a country already ranked as the most dangerous internationally and under a dictatorship is enough reason to want to find a better place to one’s family to live. Sadly, his application to Canada was also rejected. The process continued, with several European countries rejecting his applications.

Up until that point, Abu Wissam had refused to consider applying through the church or through a Christian association, a path that was proven to be almost guaranteed every time. Many thought it was part of a scheme to push Christians out of the country, but in a more dignified way. For him, it was an impossibility: he had lived his life fighting against these privileges given based on religious and ethnic affiliations that ruled the small religious communities in the country. Now, he found himself having to resort to a means that he had previously rejected. This exemplified the defeat of right against wrong. His wife, aware of Abu Wissam’s dilemma, offered to coordinate the whole thing. After all, she was the more practical one who had less sensitivities when it came to guarantee the safety and future of her children. And that’s exactly what happened.

Abu Wissam waited for the broker, who showed up on time and received the money inside the car. He gave Abu Wissam an official receipt and said that the embassy interview would be scheduled for next week. Most probably the family would travel after a month, he added.

The man stepped out and shut the door. Abu Wissan rested his head on the window. He thought he was sweating before he realized he was crying. He was like a statue soaked in sweat and tears, as he realized he was shedding his entire being. Who will he be at his new country? Will he be able to overcome the identity crisis he’s sure to face? Or will he die out of grief like many before him who were not allowed to return home?

On the way to Beirut to catch their plane and before he lost service on his Syrian network, Abu Wissam called his cousin, Joseph, and said: Congratulations to you and to the regime. You’ve won the bet.



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Illustation by Dima Nechawi Graphic Design by Hesham Asaad

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