On a normal morning in New York I’d be texting angrily with my ex, flirting with a girlfriend on Google Chat and catching up with my friends in New Jersey on Facebook. This morning I find myself riding on a minibus between Aleppo and Azaz. I struggle to remember the quiet of the world when I was a child. But I’m happy.
The minibus bounces, shaking my spine like a loose coil. I’m attempting to stay on the slender wood bench facing away from the wide open door to my right. We’re on straight empty roads that cut through red dirt fields. To the war we are naked; there are no weapons in the van, and I’m not plugged into anything. I have no cell phone or iPad. There’s nothing even closely resembling law here. The chubby Syrian who has been eyeballing me from the opposite bench decides to speak. He has to yell to be heard.
“Where are you from?” he asks, curious and friendly.
“I’m American,” I answer, confident that he will see me as a brother for this.
The moment seems to suspend itself along a third axis of space and time, and I’m entirely exhilarated, free from the thoughts I have everyday: thoughts only pathologically paranoid people had in previous epochs, such as “Who is watching?” and “Can they hear?” I’m alone in the van with two people: the driver and my new friend. He speaks once again.
“Is this your first time here?”
I smile and nod my head. “Yeah.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Interesting visit, no? What do you think about what is happening in our country?”
“I’ve never seen anything like this.”
We try to make small talk about Aleppo and finally he asks me about my religion. As I’m trying to formulate the right answer for the hundredth time, he preempts my reply.
“I’m atheist. But lately I don’t know. What do you think?”
“I’m not a believer either, but I see things that make me think maybe there is god.”
“Do you think America will help us? We need the stingers to blow up the Migs.”
“I don’t think America will let this continue.”
“What is your name?”
“Tcharrafna,” I say, pretending to be confident in my Arabic speaking.
“You know,” Hassan says, “everything is different now. I never really cared about anything before the revolution.”
“I think I may know what you mean.”
“I hope America helps us. I promise you, if they don’t, Al-Qaeda will come in and make a country here.”
“Do you really think that?”
He changes the subject by pulling out an MP3 player. “I want to visit America. This is my dream. Do you know this song?”
I laugh. “Everyone Knows ‘Hotel California’.”
Patrick Hilsman is a freelance journalist focusing on Syria and the Middle East. He was born in New York and recovered from a heroin addiction without the help of a higher power. He has since made numerous trips to opposition controlled Syria between 2012 and 2015. He is currently a columnist at the Seattle Globalist and contributes to The Daily Beast, Mashable and Vice News.
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