Week of January 3rd, 2021:
“The only way to move on is to build something new worth holding on to,”
Editing Revisions: ‘Last Kiss In Damascus’ / working draft of introductory chapter
If Tiba had any negative feelings about remaining behind in the city, it was only because of how much worse things had become. She had lived in Damascus throughout the entire seventeen years of her life, and during which time she had witnessed many of the ups and downs that had befallen the once proud city of her birth. Much violence had happened since the outbreak of the civil war between the government’s military soldiers and the civilian-backed rebels. The conflicts’ strain on day-to-day life had resulted in too much death and destruction throughout the city and the country. Yet in her heart, Tiba knew that she still loved the city of Damascus more than any place on earth and wanted to do whatever it was she could to help restore the city to a peaceful existence for all the people like her who chose to make it their home.
Tiba and her sister, Bella, grew up in a small home with their parents just off the central road from the city gates. Her father, Yensen, had started off his career as a construction laborer in Beirut, Lebanon, until a construction accident in his mid-twenties left him with bone fragments permanently lodged in the shin above his right foot. After several weeks of surgeries and rehabilitation he remained unable to walk properly without the aid of a walking cane and was fired from his position. Desperately seeking a new way to make a living, he accepted a job through an opening within the Greek Orthodox church that required him to move to Damascus. It was through the church where he married Tiba and Bella’s mother, Imma, and together they chose to settle down and raise their family in the city. Yensen’s assigned job was to wake up each morning before sunrise and drive his pickup truck out past the mountains into the pasteurized farmland to pick up eggs and fresh crates of milk and deliver them to the local café shops that lined the streets inside the central business district. He performed this job so diligently and so well for so long, that eventually he was asked to take ownership of a café owned by a local man named Nassim. The shop, Café Fila, was popular among locals for having the best blend of Arabic coffee beans in the entire city and it had been in Nassim’s family for generations, passed down from both his father and grandfather. As tensions rose between the government and rebel forces throughout the city however, violence in the surrounding areas quickly began to escalate. Nassim deemed it prudent to to relocate his family back to his wife’s ancestral homeland in Turkey, and decided to entrust the care of his beloved Café Fila over to the man who had woken up every morning before the sun in order to deliver fresh milk to his shop. Yensen, overwhelmed by Nassim’s generosity, vowed to keep alive the Café’s reputation of producing the best local coffee and began waking up even even earlier to continue his delivery route before returning to open the café each morning. He enlisted both Tiba and Bella to help him run the cafè and did his best to keep the shop open for extended hours in order to give people seeking refuge a safe place to stay.
Tiba and Bella spent each morning with their mother, who taught them their school lessons at home, and each afternoon they walked the blocks.from their apartment over to the café to help their father. Bella served customers and ran the cash register from the front, while Tiba helped her father prepare biscuits and brew coffee in the back. Most days saw only a small number of customers, a group of soldiers on a break from their patrol of the city, or a few locals who stepped inside in order to avoid being seen by those same patrolling soldiers.
As conditions in the city continued to worsen, Tiba began to notice an increase in the number of confrontations among the store’s customers. One morning, a group of soldiers from the military entered into the store and declared a surprise inspection. They demanded that all of the customers seated inside produce identification in order to register with the local military unit charged with the safeguarding of the city. As the soldiers walked around the café to conduct their inspection, one middle aged man seated at a corner table in the back refused to comply.
“I’ve lived in this city my entire life,” he shouted defiantly at the soldiers as they demanded he turn over some form of identification. “I have no need for identification- the previous regime never required such measures!”
“Produce identification or face detainment,” a young soldier, perhaps barley twenty, instructed him.
“My identification can be found in the pouring of my sweat-the sweat of this city that has perspired through my pore’s for sixty-two years!” he said, his face flush with anger.
“Last chance old-timer,” said the boy soldier as he motioned for two of the other guards to come over and detain him.
The scene began to cause a stir among the patrons in the café, all of whom quickly rummaged through their belongings in search of identification to present to the soldiers. Yensen witnessed the commotion from the back and tried to smooth things over by offering the soldiers to take a seat at an empty table and enjoy free coffee and biscuits. “Surely everyone needs a few minutes to sit down and relax during these trying times,” he said with a kind smile as he offered up a tray of baked goods.
“We take what we want, not what we need,” the soldier informed him as he grabbed the tray out from Yensen’s hands and motioned for two of the guards standing watch in the back room to enter into the storage closet and remove several of the large sacks filled with coffee beans.
“No, you can’t,” Yensen pleaded. “We won’t have enough to serve the people of city.”
The soldier placed the commandeered tray of baked goods down onto the table and reached for his baton as he clobbered Yensen across the head so hard that he feel backward and stumbled toward the ground.
“Father no!” shouted Bella from across the room as she rushed over to aid her father.
“This is your daughter?” asked the soldier, the mischievous sound of his voice intimating his cruel intentions. “I wonder why you never taught her not to interrupt?” he asked, signaling the guards to bring her over to him. Once more raising his hand into the air, the soldier ran his dirt covered fingernails down along the frayed edges of Bella’s long brown hair. “You don’t want to teach her? That’s fine,” he said grinning happily. “We’ll teach her for you.”
The soldiers began to head for the exit with the sacks of coffee beans and Bella carried over their shoulder.
“No,” Tiba pleaded as she came rushing over from behind the counter.
“Stop Tiba,” her father ordered her with a wave from his hand and he steadied himself against the corner of the table and slowly attempted to stand himself up despite a stream of loose blood spilling out from the back of his injured head.
“You have a lot of courage, I’ll give you that old man,” said the lead soldier said as he stood over the still rising Yensen. “Hopefully you teach this daughter better than the first…otherwise we’ll have to come back for her to,” he taunted, his voice dripping with utter contempt for the lives of any of the civilians sitting inside the café.
As it happened there a was middle aged man seated in a table at the center of the café. As the events unfolded he had remained seated and continued to read his newspaper, his face obscured by his dark sunglasses and scruffy blond beard. Bella noticed him when he first walked in that morning, new faces were uncommon as more and more people began to flee the city to seek refuge from the growing violence. She hadn’t given much thought to it as he ordered a black coffee and and sat down, keeping quietly to himself. But now as she stood back watching the young soldier prepare again to strike down her father, she noticed from the corner of her eye the pistol the man hand drawn out from under his table. Quickly he sprung from his seat and aimed his pistol directly at the soldier. Towards the exit two other large men arose from their seats brandishing rifles as well. Together the two men quickly toppled over the soldiers carrying Bella and the sacks of coffee beans.
“What is this?” the young soldier shouted as he drew the gun from his holster and scanned his eyes around the café trying to make sense of the situation.
“Friends of the rebel alliance,” said the middle aged man, his pistol still aimed squarely at the chest of the young soldier. “Your in violation of the geneva convention accords against harming civilians, you and your men will leave this café and not return, or you won’t leave at all.”
Pulling the still reeling Yensen up from the floor, the soldier placed him in front of himself as a shield and placed his gun against his temple. “If you harm me you’ll never make it of this city, we have soldiers everywhere,” he said, his eyes watchful at the peripheries for any sudden movements.
“We have people as well,” said the middle-aged man, “Now let him go and we can talk.”
“Oh I’ll let him go, just as soon as you and your men leave this café and never return- not that it matters, we’ll find you no matter where you go.”
The soldier pushed the barrel of his gun further into the temple on Yensen’s forehead, mocking the hesitation of the middle-aged man as he waited for someone to make the first move. As she stood watching, Tiba saw the pain in her father’s grimaced face and decided to take action. She picked up a sliver coffee tray from behind the counter and hurled it across the room, striking the lead soldier in the head. Still clasping onto her father, the lead soldier turned and lifted his aim up toward Tiba. As he prepared to pull the trigger a loud bang erupted from the opposite side of the room. The young solider looked down at his chest and saw that he had been shot. Before he could process what had occurred he dragged out from the store by the middle-aged mans two large associates, where he was held for questioning until the time of his death.
Rushing over to her father Tiba saw the extent of the injury to his head and began to fret.
“We have a van outback with medical equipment. Unfortunately We only have room for two extra passengers, we’ll take you and your sister with us but your father will have to stay until we can send another convoy back for him,” said the middle-aged man as he helped Yensen stand up and assisted him in walking over toward the counter.
“No,” said Tiba. “I’ll stay.”
“No Tiba, you can’t,” said her father. “They’ll return with more soldiers, it isn’t safe. You and your sister go, I’m already old and can live out my days until they find me.”
“No,” said Tiba, her brown eyes sparkling as bright as diamonds. “I will stay here. Let these men take care of you and Bella. I will not run away from the city that I love. I’ll stay here and continue to help the people as long as I can.”
“We come back to the city every two days, but if word gets out about what happened here more soldiers will come looking for you. This may be your only chance to escape,” said the middle-aged man.
“No,” she told them as she helped usher her father into the car and kissed her sister Bella goodbye. “This is my only chance to stay.”