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“I said no, and I mean no”, yelled Abou Adel into his mobile phone.

“But Baba, please, I just have three exams left”, pleaded Mariam crying.

But he wasn’t listening. Abou Adel was told by his relatives in Homs that Mariam had been going out on demonstrations against the regime and he was not going to let her risk her life for anything. Abou Adel was sure that his obstinate twenty-year-old daughter was not going to let it go. Yes, she would miss out on the three last exams of term, but those could be repeated next year.  What could not be repeated was a limb or a life.

After that phone call, Abou Adel left his home in Aleppo heading to work. It had been too expensive for him to drive now that fuel was needed for the military tanks around Syria’s mourning cities. Many people like him have deserted their cars and taken to using public transport, the fares of which have also miraculously gone up.

In the cold morning wind he joined the group of people waiting for the mini-bus and started examining them one by one. He knew that everyone else was examining him, too, although he couldn’t see it. They were getting very good at it; exploring their surroundings anticipating danger.

With his eyes looking at the street under his feet, he slowly turned them towards the man a few feet away from him. He looked at his black leather jacket then returned his eyes back to his own feet quickly. Then a few seconds later he glanced at his pointy squeaky clean leather shoes. Pretended to watch the ground again. Casually, he moved a step backwards to see if there had been a pistol or a taser bulging from his rear pocket. Perhaps it was in his jacket inside pocket.

Then, craning his neck pretending to be anticipating the mini bus, Abou Adel stole a quick look at the man’s face. His expression was grim. It scared him to realise how paranoid he’d become lately. He suspected his neighbours, brother-in-law and the butcher he had bought meat from for years.

Then, he turned to examine the young man and girl on his right. The young man was wearing an anorak, worn out jeans and white sneakers. His face was cheerful. The girl who was clutching her university books was talking to him with ease seeming not to take notice of anyone else. He thought of Mariam who must have been clutching her books too waiting for a mini bus to go to her university in Homs. He felt sorry to have made her cry on the phone, but he had done what he had to do. He would make it up to her when she arrived in the evening. His sweet daughter never held any grudges especially with him.

When he got off the white vehicle, he prepared himself for another unpleasant part of his new daily routine. He knew that he had lost everybody’s respect at work. He knew that those who were with the revolution despised him for not being able to show any kind of compassion for those who were being killed or imprisoned. And those with the regime despised him for not participating in their conversations and marches supporting the beloved president, Al-Assad.  At first they all perceived him as an enigma and placed bets on whose side he could really be. After a while, however, they just perceived him as the coward with no opinion he knew he was.

He admitted to himself that he was a total coward, but he didn’t mind. He simply feared for his family’s safety; and what was wrong with that? Did those at work who accused him of having no voice and living on the margin of life at its turning point know how much he had suffered before from the concept “opinion”? Did they lose their fathers in Hama in 1982? Did they have to wear other people’s worn out clothes? Did they have their mothers working as a maid cleaning after those who were his father’s patients? No? Then they had no right to accuse him of being a coward. He had vowed to not let his children grow up without a father like he did. Yes, he was totally with the revolution but no, that was not of anybody’s business.

He ordered his usual black tea and sat to his desk looking at the pile of paperwork he had to get through. Out of nowhere and so abruptly, there were three fierce-looking men over his head asking for Faris. Faris was the young accountant upstairs, who always joked with him as he handed him his monthly salary. Abou Adel was genuinely taken-aback and started stammering. Dareen was the one who answered, “Yes, Faris is the accountant upstairs. Wh..?” but they didn’t wait for her to finish her question. She understood what a mistake she had made only looking at how terrified Abou Adel looked. He tried to sit down, but he couldn’t, hearing the commotion upstairs.

There was a spot in him that he never knew existed that burst open. It burst open and enlarged dramatically taking over his whole being and filling him with a surge of energy like a compulsory fireball making him act without thinking. He rushed out of his office and into all the offices along the corridors on his way downstairs and out of the building, “RUN, RUN; THEY’RE TAKING FARIS. WE MUST STOP THEM!”  Some people pretended not to hear what he was saying; some others shook their heads feeling sorry knowing that many people never came out of detention alive. Quite a few strong men, however, came out with him. They all ran out just in time as the security forces men were forcefully pushing the kicking and screaming young man into the rear seat of the white Peugeot.

Abou Adel went home that day with a few bruises on his arms and a huge smile on his face. Faris was freed and hidden somewhere away from the thugs’ reach. But far more importantly for him, his self-respect had risen to the max realising that although he had been scared, he had never been a coward.

His wife was on the phone to a stranger. She looked very worried and tears were streaming down her cheeks. She handed him the phone as soon as she saw him come in. The stranger repeated his story, “Mariam is fine, don’t worry. She’s here at our makeshift clinic. She was packing her stuff on her way back to you when her building was shelled. Please believe me, she’s really great, but we need to take out fragments from her arms.”

Abou Adel was stolen from his euphoria into a world of terror. “Can I take your word for it? That she’s really alive, I mean?” he whispered.

“I swear to you, she is fine. We will send her home tomorrow when she has woken up from anaesthesia” the man said sympathetically.

There was a pause. Then the deep voice on the other end spoke again, “She was extremely shaken, though, because her roommates didn’t make it. You’re one lucky father.”

The next morning Abou Adel was smuggled into Homs to fetch his daughter. She started crying as soon as she saw him. And so did he. He could only believe that his daughter was alive and well when he saw it for himself. He profusely shook hands with the doctor who had called him the day before. The doctor motioned to him that there was the man whom Abou Adel should really thank; a young man with a shaven head and a camouflage uniform. “That is the man who saved Mariam from the burning building risking his own life”, the doctor told him. From his blooded bed, the soldier returned Abou Adel’s gaze weakly. It took Abou Adel but a minute to get it. This man who was there to kill the protestors had a spot in him that suddenly took over his whole being, filling him with a surge to save the “infiltrators”. Despite his exhausted expression and wrapped shoulder, the young man seemed proud of himself. Needless to say, he was now a defector, an outlaw. Or perhaps a hero! But what did it matter what his label was when he felt so free?

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