Coke Does the Trick
Tear gas burns our eyes.
Nael, Tareq, and I are standing with hundreds of other protesters in the street in front of al-Mansouri Mosque, gagging on the tear gas lobbed at us by the military. Our faces sting, so we wrap them in our T-shirts.
Until five minutes ago, we were chanting, “If you have a conscience, join us,” but now all we can manage is, “Kus ukhtak, ya Bashar”—Hey Bashar, fuck your sister’s cunt.
I see a gas canister on the ground. It leaks the same foul stuff that’s making water stream from Tareq’s eyes. I pick it up from the back end so that it won’t burn me. My hand screams anyway. I throw it toward the line of riot cops. I don’t know where it goes, but I grin anyway, exultant.
It is my first protest.
Fear is dead.
If a bullet hits me now, I’ll feel no pain.
Ramadan is drawing to a close, taking with it the sourness of our childhoods, but in Syria, a revolution is being born. It has been six months since the first demonstrators hit Damascus’s al-Hamidiyah neighborhood. Their protests consisted of defiant shouts and the sound of their sneakers skidding as they ran through twisted alleyways, the security forces close behind. Now protests bloom in most cities. The country is boiling, but aside from some tiny demonstrations, our Raqqa seems quiet—a poor, uneducated city, lagging behind, just like it always has.
We are young this summer. I am twenty-two, Nael is twenty-four, and his brother Tareq is twenty-one. We grew up together; we played soccer in the dusty streets beneath the disapproving gaze of our parents. How we longed to escape—and we did: I to study in Aleppo, Nael in Damascus, and Tareq in liberal, libertine Beirut. We are among the first of our families to attend university, but we are still failures in our fathers’ eyes, who only want us to rise to their level of achievement and no further—they fear the victories we might win on our own.
Dusk is falling. The muezzin sings the Maghrib prayer to signal that we can break our fast. We haven’t eaten since dawn, but food isn’t what we are hungry for.
We want to shout our throats bloody. To force the sound of our voices into the most intimidating ears.
Every evening for weeks the same scene has played out at al-Mansouri Mosque in Raqqa. Several dozen protesters merge into the crowds that stream out after prayers. Taking advantage of their relative anonymity, the protesters shout slogans made famous in Egypt or Tunisia for a few thrilling minutes, then vanish into the side streets. For weeks, we’ve known about these protests, and tonight, for the first time, we hurry to join them. I glance at Nael. His face shines with its usual nervous energy, fueled by the furnace inside him, and I think again that for Nael, the whole world will never be wide enough.
“Our parents must not know,” he whispers to me. He’s right. Activists are trouble for their parents, especially if they’re caught.
“No one must know,” I grumble back.
Soon we see more protesters. A few hold Syria’s three-starred independence flag, while others wave signs scrawled in Arabic. Only God, Syria, Freedom. Death, but not humiliation. Word spreads that security forces have massed at a junction near the mosque, so we march instead through the nearby al-Hani passageway. We curse recklessly against the powers that be. “Hey hey! This is Raqqa!” we chant, claiming our city’s place in the revolution.
In response, insults pour from every window and balcony. “Sons of bitches!” “Go back to your parents’ house!” the neighbors hiss. “You have ruined this country!”
“God curse you!” one old woman screams, her face contorted with hate.
What can she know of our motives or those of the other protesters at these demonstrations blossoming irrepressibly across our country? Her rheumy eyes see nothing but a crowd of brats. To her we are stupid children, behaving badly, in need of our fathers’ fists. We will never forgive her, nor those like her, I think. “Ingrate,” I mutter in disgust.
I understand the rich not caring. The well-connected businessmen. The government employees who bought nice cars with the money they got from bribes. The regime turned out well for those people, so why would they spare a thought for others? But how can a working-class Raqqan ever allow him- or herself to be content? Nael told me that when a government keeps kicking people down, they get used to it. Life is shit, they think, and turn for happiness to their personal shit piles. Though we understand the mechanisms of control, neither Nael nor I can excuse this apathy. Even covered in blood, the protesters slaughtered during crackdowns in Homs and Dara’a looked more alive than the zombies who curse us from their balconies. History might prove us wrong, but at least we could speak to the people killed when the regime tanks rolled into Deir ez-Zor mere weeks ago. Somewhere in your country, people cared for you, we could say to our rebellious dead.
We march for ten minutes before security finds us. They chase us, but we are too many, so they start firing the gas.
When the tear gas billows, political sentiments flee. Adrenaline slams me, and I am high inside myself, my throat raw, my skin vivid with electric fire. I am free. I can do anything. I am alive. In the chaos, nothing matters outside my body except to keep Nael and Tareq in sight. We hurtle forward, grabbing each other’s hands to stay together, but the crowd’s momentum is too much. Our hands part. My two friends are in front of me, behind me, beside me. I watch them out of the corners of my eyes.
Nael runs to the front of the crowd. He has wrapped his face in a kaffiyeh to protect against the tear gas and, probably, to conceal his identity; his honey-colored eyes sparkle like they want to escape their orbits. He reaches down to pick up garbage from the street. He hurls it toward the riot line. He screams something I cannot hear. Then he turns toward the crowd, jumps, and raises his hands in encouragement to attack. “Hey hey! This is Raqqa!” Are those his words? The crowd’s? What does it matter? We are one. The riot line fires another volley of tear gas. Nael ducks.
We run down an alley. The neighborhood is a concrete mishmash of bare apartment boxes and traditional Arab houses, its streets barely the width of two cars. We flood them with our bodies, our lurching, screaming youth. The old woman is right. We are naughty children, bad but not ashamed. Fleet of foot, strong of lung and leg. Boys in jeans and undershirts—our outer layers stripped off, then turned into improvised scarves that mask our faces. Five brave girls. Some protesters grab whatever their hands can find—small rocks, bottles, trash—and hurl it in the direction of our enemies. They syncopate their throws to the chants of the crazies at the front lines. “Hey hey! This is Raqqa!”
The military fires more canisters. We peel backwards, graceful as startled deer. The crowd clings to the walls, and I am left with Nael at the front lines. I silently repeat a Mark Twain quote I’d memorized during university: “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear—not absence of fear.”
How long are we in the streets? It might be ten seconds or a night—but it is enough. A few minutes are all we need. We curse the security forces who shake us down for bribes, lock up our families, rule our lives. They can kill us, but who cares?
We shout in their collective face.
We stare death in its eyes, and our minds are opened.
They have guns. We have nothing. In nothing, there lies power.
The young man beside me strips off his undershirt. The tear gas and sweat bead on his skinny brown chest. Come on, motherfucker, his body says. I’m half-naked. You’re in riot gear. I’m stronger anyway. I can take you. Through my lens of tears, he ripples like a mirage.
The protest disperses. Nael drags us from corner store to corner store, trying to persuade the scared shopkeepers to sell us cola, which activists in other cities say is the best antidote for tear gas. When one finally agrees, we pour the sweet liquid greedily into each other’s eyes. Along with the tear gas, the Coca-Cola washes away any lingering traces of shame.
I find my father and brother-in-law waiting for me in the sitting room. My yellow T-shirt is marked all over by Coke and tear gas and a small red stain I don’t notice until later.
They know. Of course they know.
My brother-in-law starts blubbering, stuffing my ears with his cowardly remarks, but my father only offers a smile whose meaning I cannot read.
That night, as I lay my head on the pillow, frantic thoughts race through my mind. They’re gonna get us. I’ll be tortured to death. I’m drained enough not to care. As I sink into sleep, I hear another, softer whisper: You’ve become a man.
I was born in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Raqqa. My family’s house was the material result of the years my father spent working outside the country as a trucker. He built its three rooms himself with money earned by hauling loads from the port of Aqaba, in Jordan, through Rutba—a town the British built as a rest stop in the unfriendly deserts of Iraq’s Anbar province—and down the highway to Ramadi. The war between Iraq and Iran created chaos outside his windshield—highway gangs and other criminal opportunists—but he drove on anyway to deposit his cargo in Baghdad. His third truck accident left him buried in wreckage at the bottom of a Jordanian valley; he came back home with a broken spine. In the 1990s, after his recovery, he worked as a driver for one of the army’s half-military, half-civil construction companies: Al-Eskan al-Askari, whose main business was taking decades-long contracts and making billions of Syrian pounds disappear. At Al-Eskan al-Askari’s headquarters in Raqqa, my fasting father fought with his boss because my father refused to bring his boss’s visitors lunch during Ramadan. Only a phone call from a well-connected friend saved him from being falsely reported as a Muslim Brotherhood member. He quit the job soon afterward and began growing vegetables in his backyard. My mother learned to sew traditional dresses from her mother-in-law. As a youngster, I apprenticed both professions. My four sisters and my brother and I slept in the same room and lived under my father’s rigid routine of work, study, and prayer. TV, friends, play—all banned. When other students talked about their adventures in amusement parks, I was silent. I nodded when they asked if I knew what had happened in the latest episode of the Viking cartoons—though they soon discovered and mercilessly mocked my lies. If my father found out I’d been beaten in school, he took his turn beating me when I got home. My father hadn’t worked since the age of ten so his sons could turn into bullied, idle wastrels. He wanted better for us, even if this meant imprisoning us in our home.
Nael, whose family lived two blocks away from mine, had an even rougher childhood, though if its roughness was more a product of parental neglect than of parental domination. Nael’s father worked for the water filtration station on the Euphrates and had married two wives. His wages weren’t enough for both families and he fought with whichever wife he was with; his cries echoed so loudly that the whole neighborhood knew the intimate details of each of his nightly rants.
I met Nael in elementary school. Our long acquaintance has erased all memories of his child’s face. I try to recall it now, but instead I see him as a miniature version of the man he was at twenty-four, all sharp cheekbones and messed-up hair and edgy, restless skinniness. He cracked jokes and sought mischief, even then—he was smart as sin, filled with a confidence I did not have, born of a freedom for which I would have paid any price.
In accordance with the counsel of religious texts, my father was a regular napper, which provided me with chances to sneak over to Nael’s after school. We played Monopoly and checkers, and on the rare occasions his black-and-white TV was not broken we watched Captain Majid, a dubbed Japanese cartoon—the ultimate treat. During the shifts his father spent with his other wife, Nael and I played soccer with a stuffed plastic bag. In summer, he made a pool out of the pothole in the concrete in his backyard, and we slid into the shallow water. I measured the hours carefully, for if I came back home to find my father’s nap shorter than expected, I would regret it, and so would Nael.
Children are fearless in finding their joy. Each Eid, when the adults were happy and busy with their interminable family visits, we leaped through this perfect window for our recalcitrance. One Eid, we went out to search for a movie theater, but finding those we knew closed or deserted, we instead drifted to the Rawdah Mosque to watch the noon prayers from the doorway. After the prayer ended, we watched as the worshipers closed the yellow curtains, then blocked any remaining light with prayer rugs. They had all sat down together in a big circle when a few of the worshipers saw us gawking from the doorway and one of them commanded us to join. We hesitantly entered the circle and sat down among them. Sacks filled with pebbles appeared, which the imam ordered distributed to the worshipers. He began to chant in the Naqshbandi Sufi fashion, each praise of God uttered to a haunting rhythm, echoed by the rest of us, who, with each repetition, passed a smooth pebble from our right hand to our left, then discarded it on the floor. I watched with fear as the used pebbles piled up, unsure of what would happen when the last pebble dropped. The men, their individuality now subsumed into the chant, rose at the imam’s command and swayed in unison to the beat. The rhythm grew faster. The men began to jump and scream. From some unseen corner two zealots brought out swords. When they started to dance manically, my belly sank. My eyes sought Nael’s. His face, dry with fright, was a perfect mirror of my own. We fled as stealthily as possible.