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.
His thoughts, his words, his accent.
The directions would be: find the dry fountain and count two storefronts down. Keep going until you reach the wiring repurposed into clotheslines. Make a left by that crazy lady who feeds the pigeons. Make a right past the last window of the Melkites that still has its glass. Ask for a man named Hafez. Who’ll recognize you. Ask for a man named al-Noury. Who’s the cousin of the husband of your sister.
He was never sent to return something borrowed without borrowing something else. He was to deliver the requests and accept what was given, all with pleasant deference, which was even how he’d accept the refusals.
He had to stay focused, on task. Focused on what his parents wanted (flameless cooking fuel, which were sometimes labeled ‘hexamine tablets’ and sometimes labeled ‘esbits’). Focused on what his uncle and aunt wanted (scissors). He had to keep repeating the messages to keep them straight. Repeating them mentally, repeating them aloud, as the scenery looped, the routes became tangled. Each turn he took, there’d be another face. Each concourse held a voice, importuning, beckoning.
His one regular daily trip was to the Red/Green spigot for water. He’d be carrying a jug. Carrying it empty there, full back. Light then heavy.
He’d take the Red route there, the Green route back, until a ceiling caved in and blocked the Red and the elders of the Green commandeered the hose.
He had to find other spigots.
There was one in the Hospital, down past the cubicles of the blue-jacketed medics. There was another in the Office of Documents, behind the cubicles of the bluejackets who spoke a passable Arabic and helped with translating, interpreting, filing forms. Though it was never very obvious: which was the line for medical aid, which was the line for legal aid, and which was the line for water.
Yet another spigot was outside by the loading docks, where every moon or so a man who’d smuggled an ancestral blade over the border to Turkey – who’d smuggled it through Turkey and onto the hell boat to Lesbos – unsheathed that blade and pronounced God’s name and slit the throat of a goat.
Stores started opening in the storefronts: people got ahold of basic ingredients and cooking equipment from the bluejackets and even from the guards and started to cook. Someone got ahold of some cobbling tools and began a business mending shoes. His family’s storefront became a combination kitchen – which supplied a cafe collectively improvised among the remnants of the mall’s food court – and tailor shop. His mother did the cooking, his aunt did the tailoring. Because so few people had money, and what money was had was so precious and hoarded, most of the transactions were trades. Barters. Goods for goods. He’d be sent out to a certain theater of ‘the multiplex movie theater’, to a certain lane of ‘the bowling alley’, to the only elevator that was still an elevator on The Way of Open Shafts, carrying a skirt or blouse of rags, a shawl sewn together out of Chinese tartan totebags and Russian nylons, a cardboard box of kibbeh seeping soy grease, or a broomstick threaded through the warped holes of unleavened ka’ak – carrying instructions too, in his head, about what to expect, what to demand, in return. Money, always start the bargaining with money. Take bills, even coins. Not the ones with Arabic on them. The ones without Arabic. If they don’t have any bills or coins, or if they only have the ones with Arabic, take soap and razors. Take frying oil too. Not used frying oil. New. Soy before palm. Palm before canola. The people he had to deal with, even the cousins he had to deal with, would try to stiff him, by claiming his parents had debts. They’d try to take what was offered at no cost. Taking what was owed them. They’d give him soap clumped together from bits of bars. Hairs would still be stuck to them. The razors would be dull, jagged, spattered. The new oil would just be old oil, inadequately strained, and once he was hauling a load of it back to his parents in a repurposed spackling pail and the handle snapped and the pail fell to the floor and the oil it spilled was filthy with charred chickpeas. He ran back to his hot kitchen storefront crying and forgot the bucket. His mother stopped his father from smacking him. His mother smacked him herself.
It was about this time that a real store opened up in the atrium. A real store owned by real foreigners, who came and went every day and didn’t live inside it.
The store accepted, as its sign stated, real money only: €, $, ₺.
VIP was its name and he went there with his father and when his father had to help his mother, he held their spot in line.
He held their spot in lines, because each hallway had its own line slightly longer than a day – all of the lines braiding together into a single line only in the atrium, where everyone jostled. He had to use his elbows, he had to use his shoulders. He waited through the night, even after the VIP had closed, alternating shifts of sleep with his father. When the VIP reopened, it emerged that the dozen or so people still ahead of them had been holding spots for relatives who only now were cutting in and so everyone behind was yelling and shoving, in a tumult that was interrupted by the morning call of the muezzin and then continued, in a different vein, when those who didn’t pray insisted on the privilege of jumping the line ahead of those who did.
He went down on his knees in front of his father, because his father’s spine was bad, and felt for the money. The money was in his father’s shoe, stitched inside its tongue. He extracted it. Folded to the size of a postage stamp. Damp. Turkish lira. Not quite euros, not quite dollars, but also not quite Syrian pounds. The sum was enough for the cheapest phone, which came wrapped like a baby in its charger.
After that purchase, the errands changed. He’d be dispatched back to the VIP, usually weekly, to wait in line again and the wait, the line, was only barely shorter. He’d come here, as the others who’d already bought phones would come here, to buy the time that made phones work. To buy the minutes, the hours, air. Refill credits, which came on cards. After a while the atrium line was divided into two lines – one for people buying phones, one for people buying credits – and then after another while it was combined into a single line again. Some weeks his parents would have him buy thirty minutes, some weeks they’d have him buy an hour. A week became the span of the time purchases. A week was either thirty minutes or an hour. The money was flecked with flour and creased sweaty like his mother’s hands. He’d take the card the credits came on back to their storefront, where his father would scrub away the metal coating – as if scouring burnt bulgur from the bottom of a vat – to get at the numbers below.
Some conversations his father would have in their storefront, but others required a walk. His father, cupping the phone to an ear like a seashell, would go out walking the halls among all the other people who were walking the halls on phones of their own – walking, talking, cupping their free ears so as to hear better.
He’d follow at a distance, in and out of range. Past the bathrooms with sinks but no toilets and the bathrooms with toilets but no sinks. Around barricades of pallets. Puddles. Creeping weeds of blue graffiti.
His father greeted the people he passed with silent nods. Violent gestures became cursory waves. And then his father, and the people his father knew and even didn’t know, all returned to their phantom dialogues, seething.
One walk brought his father and so him into the atrium again and to the VIP. His father waited in line. He waited on his father behind the mapless information kiosk, until the phone was fully recharged.
His father’s pockets were jammed with cards.
Another walk had led up an escalator to what existed of the mall’s higher floor. Twisted rebar, broken benches. Busted PA megaphones swung from their poles. Men, all men, lived together in tents under a roof that was like a tent pitching inward. A cruel dog was chained to a grating. Its collar was studded with nails.
He descended and abandoned his father, who’d always return to their storefront at too slow a pace, slow and stooped. To be interrogated by his mother. To be cursed by his mother. His father never let her touch the phone.
A new store opened up, just next to the VIP – Telekom was its name and it also sold phones and credit for phones and sessions of charging and one day a man standing outside it handed his father a hat that read telekom: life is for sharing and another day another man canvassing the atrium handed his father a shirt that read one life ‒ one love ‒ one vip and his father gave him the hat – which was too big for the boy even with its brim tucked in – and gave him the shirt – which billowed with a supernumerary sleeve and swung at the boy’s knees – so that wearing both he appeared like a wizened imam making his alms rounds in a neon yellow skullcap and dishdasha.
In a frontage across from the competing stores, there was a grocery now, which sold food ingredients and packaged food, but refused to carry the food that the people prepared themselves and sold to one another in the food court. The grocery also did a business in phone accessories like bluetooth headsets and served as a bureau of currency exchange. Inside, bracket-mounted on its back wall, was a TV, a flat screen. It was kept on constantly from open to close. To attract customers and entertain them while in line, to entertain the blonde woman who manned the counter.
He, in all his senses, was captured. Now he’d follow his father only as far as the atrium. He’d go out on errands for his mother and be detained. He’d stand outside the grocery and press his face up against its plate glass, watching. What the screen showed always changed. He wasn’t familiar with anything on it. The women on the screen were, like the woman behind the counter, so unnaturally blonde it was like their hair was indistinguishable from their skin color. The one behind the counter would watch the ones up on the screen and when the shows they were in were over, she’d pick up a brick-like remote and change the channel. She never watched the news and ignored, or just pretended to ignore, any of her customers who requested it. She just put on whatever she wanted. As did the other woman with the pink-purple hair and rusty complexion who worked some days. The two women alternated. But not in any way that gave him any sense of calendar. The guy who brought the women was the same. With teeth like an extra set of keys, with a body that was a bundle of muscle. In the mornings, the guy would bring whichever of the women and unlock and raise the shutter. Then the guy would unlock the door and switch on the gas-powered generator and switch on the lights and take from his rucksack the cashbox and new inventory. Shoelaces, toothbrushes, toothpastes. Cigarettes by the carton or pack or individual. Even beers. One time the guy brought a brindled cat without a tail, which ran away.
The first show of the day was typically about the guards. About detectives. They’d find a murder in a tiny wooden bed in a tiny wooden inn or splayed out in the middle of a flowering meadow, whichever – they’d always have thirty minutes, except sometimes they’d have an hour, to find the murderer. Who usually turned out to be one of the victim’s co-workers or relatives. The last show of the day depended. Whichever woman was working would click away from the news and land either on a show about nature or a show about decorating a house. But once the woman clicked away from the news to a channel showing friends, but nude friends – rough hands spreading a vagina apart as if to shape its bald dough into pastry and then a tongue dipping down to wet it or taste, just as the muscle guy came in to close, and he hurled his rucksack at the blonde woman’s head, and the blonde woman – who’d been rushing to serve her last customers and hadn’t noticed the programming – sobbed.
The kids – not just him but others, his age and younger – scattered through the halls. The next day, they were back against the plate glass. The rusty woman was behind the counter – the more tolerant one, who even let them inside the premises and only kicked out the older kids for shoplifting.
The blonde woman returned days later wearing sunglasses.
The boys would have to guess. They’d have to trade their guesses. About what was happening. About what was being said. Given that none of the shows were in Arabic. All they could do was project. All they could do was imagine.
He was talented at this, or his new friends regarded him as talented, because after a time they hushed their efforts and just listened to him talk. They looked at the screen but listened to him and it took just a few episodes of this for him to realize what they thought. They thought he understood. They thought he was telling them everything. All that was being said. All the dialogue. They thought he was translating, interpreting, narrating faithful sense out of the alien garble. He was ashamed. He was confused. He was happy. He did nothing to disabuse his new friends of his skill – to the contrary, he let them believe it and, on especially fluent nights, he might even have come to believe it himself: that everything was becoming clear to him.
Like Carrie. Like Rachel. That must’ve been their names, because the other characters kept repeating them, and whenever they said Carrie, Carrie turned, and whenever they said Rachel, Rachel turned.
The rusty woman behind the counter was Carrie. The blonde woman was Rachel. The key-toothed guy who brought them in the morning and brought them away at night was Mr Big, who kept setting the traps and collecting the traps that were killing the mice and telling him and his friends to be careful around them, because the traps were – sma, he said, sma – which neither he nor his friends understood, so Mr Big took out his phone and flashed them the Arabic word he’d found for ‘poison’.
He stuck a skull decal onto the plate glass that read poison.
One day, Rachel was at the counter with a neck brace – her eyes were still swollen and bruised like rotten apples and when he and his friends tried to venture inside, she snapped and chased them out with a mop.
One day, Carrie, who’d been getting plumper and nicer and would even now let them sit on the linoleum directly under the screen, gave him and his friends each a free chocolate egg whose hollow yolk held a toy.
Magnum (Bashar) got one with a miniature soldier. Fanta Boy (Mohammed) also got one with a miniature soldier. His held a tiny airplane.
Mr Big was the husband of Carrie, who’s pregnant, and the brother or cousin of Rachel, who’s unmarried and has a disease. Miranda and Phoebe were the women who worked the desks at the phone stores now and who once, on a break, took pills and snuck behind the dumpsters with the NGO workers Chandler and Ross.
During the day, when he’s not at the grocery, Mr Big is at the gym. He’s stuck on buses and trains. He’s always checking his watch. He can never decide what to wear. Carrie leaves her wedding ring in the machine that washes dishes. Rachel has a toy that vibrates like a phone that she puts in her suitcase and brings to the airport but a guard finds it and Chandler and Ross, who’d stopped by the grocery to buy batteries and stood around watching, laughed – this was the scene they laughed at the most.
The challenge, for him, had gone far beyond just discerning the plots: now he was trying to make the plots connect, to make the plots continuous. Episode to episode. But the way life was, both onscreen and off, was frustrating all attempts in that direction. No day seemed to have any relation to the day before it or the day after it. Each day seemed like starting anew. With another minor accident or mishap amplified into a crisis, to be resolved or just forgotten by the next commercial block. Some Kurdish farmer type would stumble into the grocery bleeding from the head, caught in the grip of morphine withdrawal and a ravening madness, and yet the next time he’d notice the man, the man would be regular, healed and calm – the man would be like a different man, who’d appear to have no memory whatsoever of what’d happened and everyone here, he decided, was expected to act in that way, as if they never remembered anything.
A beggar fainted outside one of the phone stores and was ported away ringing and dripping and never returned. No one ever said anything about it.
No one ever knocked at his storefront. They just barged on in, no matter how late or how early. Cousins. In-laws. Strangers who were his parents’ friends from school or work, from another life, from the life they had before. They came, they helped themselves, they made themselves at home.
Fanta Boy was here to borrow sugar. Magnum was here to borrow salt. His mother complained about having loaned her ladle out to the Abazaids, who’d loaned it out to the Hafizis or the Shamsis, who’d lost it. His aunt complained about missing some thread. His father and uncle were shrieking that a wall had just collapsed.
He hurried to the atrium. The front wall of the mall was gone. The wind was blowing in. The cold. The guards, the fence, the sky.
He waded through the rubble toward the cameras and mikes, the crew whose coats read press. He wondered if they would shoot him.
Photograph © Kevin Domantay