It was a massive commercial structure outside Kavala, Greece, with spalled concrete walls and a collapsed concrete roof and all of its interior so smashed up, trashed, without utilities and ruinous that when his boatload of refugees was first apprehended and brought here, his parents had burst into tears. They thought the war had been here too. They thought the war had been here before them.
The war was everywhere, inescapable. Like the barbed-wire fence that surrounded the parking lot. Like the guards who patrolled the fence.
The truth, however, was that the destruction here wasn’t from fighting, but from a crisis of global economy. This place his family was being forced to live in now was a mall, or was planned to have been a mall, but then the world’s financial markets crashed, the bank loans fell through, construction was halted, and the building was left incomplete. It was left to the whims of the state that seized it and to the EU, UN, sundry NGOs and the seasonal devastations of the weather.
Parts of the mall were one floor tall and parts of it were two floors tall, but most of it was something crumbling between. At the center of the building was an atrium of escalators stilled into stairs and a squat metal information kiosk whose panes were shattered and lacked a map.
He was thirteen years old or just about and newly an only child. Newly not a child. He’d been growing out of everything: his shyness, his stammer, his donated sneakers and donated sweats – all of him expanding like the hallways into mystery.
The hallways were lined with storefronts, or what were supposed to have been storefronts, each given over to a single family initially, so that in the early days, the families that’d fled together lived together, whether next door or along the same forlorn stretch of cracked LED lighting and patchy tile.
But later, as more arrivals kept coming, families were compelled to make space in their storefronts to accommodate the unstoppable influx of uncles, aunts, cousins and unrecognizable friends, so that even while the hallways were becoming more cramped, they were also losing the only characteristics – the scents, dialects and sanguinary ties – that had ever made them feel familiar and distinctive.
The hall his family was on was still, to a degree, one of the proud old Aleppo halls, though it was swiftly becoming one of the major Homs halls too, even while its farthest reaches were being colonized by boorish tribes from the rural Hauran, with the terminal vestibule converted into the slovenly redoubt of the Abazaid clan.
This diversity meant that the hallways presented differently – they presented different privileges, prospects and hassles – depending on who you were or were related to or what city or province you’d fled from. It was also why no one could ever agree on what to call them. The only universal toponyms were Red Hall, Green Hall, White Hall and Black Hall, the gates to which still retained traces of red, green, white and black paint. That color scheme hadn’t been extended to any of the other hallways, however, so that what his parents called Brick Hall (because of all the spare bricks that’d been there, before they were scavenged), his uncle called In-Law Hall, and his aunt called The Hall In Which I Can Finally Sleep Undisturbed.
Because of the overcrowding in Brick Hall, his uncle and aunt moved in here and divided the storefront with him and his parents. Their areas were separated by tarpaulins hung from a pipe and held down by bricks.
Arguments were common. Since the arrival of his uncle and aunt, he’d been avoiding spending time there. He’d wander the NGO corridors. Bumming candies and gums. Sitting on the sidelines of football matches. He’d pretend to search for his sister, who’d died with her husband’s family in an airstrike in Damascus. He’d invent rendezvous with imaginary friends. He’d volunteer for errands.
His parents, his uncle and aunt would send him out on errands to Liberty Square, al-Azizia, beyond – to Idlib, Hama, Palmyra – to halls they’d call by contradictory names or only describe to him, but in ways that were constantly changing, like the halls themselves were constantly changing, like he changed.