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The Ship No One Wanted
by Hassan Abdulrazzak
inspired by an interview with Amal Ibrahim, a refugee from Edlab, Syria, conducted by Ashtar Theatre
Reem is in her early 30s.
She speaks directly to the audience.
The recording presented here was made by Sirine Saba
Oh my god he is so gorgeous. So so gorgeous. He has curly hair, a chiselled chin and a thin beard. Not terrorist beard, not hipster beard but professor beard, young professor beard. And the kindest of smiles. Kemal, that’s his name. Professor Kemal.
He taught me English literature, at the university, before the war and I was so, so . . . It’s a cliché I know. To fall in love with your teacher, it’s a cliché but then clichés happen, right? Let me tell you the story of how I fell in love with him.
The Israelis were bombing the Palestinians. I know, not the best start for a love story. Anyway we were watching this on TV, the bombing. In those days we Syrians had the luxury of watching wars on TV, never imagining for a second that these sorts of catastrophes would happen here.
As usual everyone was fired up. Outside restaurants, the owners would lay down Israeli flags for passers-by to step on them. Everyone was proper angry as usual. But professor Kemal told us a story – a dangerous story because it could have been misconstrued as being sympathetic to the enemy – he told us about Jews who tried to flee Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Things were already very bad for them at home. So they got on a ship that sailed to Cuba. They were hoping to get from there to America. And that ship sailed halfway around the world but it wasn’t allowed to dock in Cuba. It then sailed towards Florida hoping for a better result but once again they were turned away. No one wanted the Jewish refugees. The captain had no choice but to sail back to Europe. Many of those onboard ended up being murdered in the Holocaust.
Why did professor Kemal tell us this story? I guess he wanted us to see another side to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That the Jewish narrative, the reason why the Jews ended up in Palestine, was not trivial. It was really the first time I saw the Jews as victims rather than aggressors. The story messed with my head and I kept thinking about it over and over. And that also meant that I couldn’t get gorgeous Kemal, the teacher who dared to be different, out of my head either.
One night I dreamt that I was in Kemal’s house and he was teaching me one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. We were sitting on these uncomfortable wooden chairs. And he could see that my back was hurting so he said let’s move to the sofa. And now we were on the sofa together and then the dream just kind of – you know – changed, the way dreams do. And we were no longer on the sofa but in Kemal’s bed! And I remember thinking any minute now he was going to lean over and kiss me. And my heart was just beating and beating and then the bedroom door opens and in walks Kemal’s wife.
Oh yeah, he is married, I forgot to mention that.
Oh, and so was I.
So yeah, his wife walks in on us, but get this, she wasn’t mad. In fact she was bringing us tea and baklava on a silver tray. What a dream, eh? Analyse that, Sigmund!
My marriage was arranged. It happened just before I met Professor Kemal. I first got engaged to my future husband and that meant we were allowed to go out together to see if we liked each other before taking the big plunge. My husband didn't have a chiselled chin like professor Kemal. In fact he was a bit on the chubby side. In the facial hair department he favoured a moustache rather than a beard. We spent many afternoons drinking Turkish coffee or lemonade in one of the old cafes. Sometimes we would walk side by side in the park. I liked my future husband even though he never so much as held my hand, not because he was shy but because he was a little bit old fashioned that way. But still I liked him so when I told my mother that we can go ahead and get married everyone was very happy. I really thought I was in love with my husband until I met Professor Kemal. Then I knew what real love was. Butterflies in the stomach, and constant dreams about us being together, often in bed, sometimes alone, sometimes with his wife, sometimes with my husband. Sometimes with both his wife and my husband who would watch us kiss – tongues and all – whilst they nibbled on baklava and sipped their tea.
When I made love to my husband, when I closed my eyes, I pictured Kemal. I felt ever so guilty afterwards and worried that my children would come out looking like professor Kemal. And my husband would say: “Reem, come here Reem, stop hiding in the bathroom, come here and explain why these bastard children look nothing like me.”
Fast forward to the start of the revolution. We heard stories from friends and neighbours about this march or that demonstration but we never took part. No one was shouting for regime change at the beginning but when the government started shooting at the demonstrators that’s when things escalated.
We began to hear gunfire in the streets. That went very quickly from being surreal, like something you’d see on TV in a movie to being regular and normal and part of every day life. That’s how war happens, it creeps up on you, day by day.
Once I was alone in the house, preparing lunch in the kitchen when suddenly I see a boy jump over the garden wall and run into my home. “Hide me! Hide me!” he pleaded. And then soldiers kicked open the front door. I thought this is it, they will shoot me and I will die just like that, with a half-carved aubergine in my hand and without having said goodbye to Professor Kemal. The boy started screaming, “She’s my sister. She’ll tell you, I wasn’t out on the demonstration! She’ll tell you.” One of the soldiers then turns to me and asks: “Is he your brother?” I’m shaking like a leaf. He shouts again, “Is he your brother?” The boy is pleading with me with his eyes but all I can do is ever so slightly shake my head. They grab hold of him and drag him kicking and screaming out of the house. The aubergine drops from my hand and explodes like a bomb. I sob uncontrollably. When my husband came back, I was too ashamed to tell him what happened. I’d like to think the soldiers let the boy go but it’s naive to think that. They probably killed him. They killed him and it’s my fault.
It got very dangerous in our neighbourhood. We moved to my aunt’s house where it was a bit safer but soon the fighting followed us there also. The shooting turned to shelling. Entire buildings were pulverised. The sight of dead bodies became normal. I realised I had to flee the country, I had to do it for my children.
But before I left, I contacted Professor Kemal. We met at the university café. I was so nervous. He had hardly changed. Just a few white hairs at the temples. I told him I was thinking of leaving the country. He looked out of the window, shook his head with regret. And I knew then, I knew that he felt the same way about me. I was so nervous, I kept tapping the table with the teaspoon. He put his hand over mine to stop me and kept it there for a good five seconds. The most erotic five seconds of my entire stupid life. Then he asked me where I was thinking of going and I told him. London. My husband has a brother there. His eyes lit up. “My favourite city,” he said. And I begged him to come also, to just leave this madness. But he told me he owed it to his students to stay, at least till the end of the semester.
It was decided. Me, my husband, the children and my mother were all going to leave. We packed as much as we could carry. My husband paid a smuggler and in the dead of night we got on a truck with other families and we all said goodbye in our hearts to everything we had ever known. The truck was supposed to take us to the Turkish border. But halfway through it stopped and we were told to get off and walk. The smuggler didn’t give us an explanation. So there we were, walking with our belongings carried on our backs and heads. This reminded me of pictures I had seen of the fleeing Palestinians when they were terrorised out of their homes in 1948. Then I thought of Professor Kemal and the seminar he gave us about the Jewish refugees. I hoped he would change his mind and leave also.
We walked for a day and a night. At one point we had to muffle the cries and moans of our hungry children as we edged past an army barracks. If the soldiers had heard us, they would have shot everyone. My hand was over the mouth of Younis, my two- year-old boy, and I was pressing so hard I nearly suffocated him. Mum collapsed several times and my husband had to drop some of our food rations so he could carry her. It was then that I realised how much weight he had lost. Now he too had a chiselled chin like Professor Kemal. I looked at him with pity. Sometimes you can mistake pity for love.
We reached a small village and this amazing thing happened. The villagers came out of their houses and gave us food and water. It was incredible. It made me realise there was still some goodness left in the world. Our smuggler was now arguing with other smugglers and finally he came back to us and said that we needed to pay some six thousand lira for the next leg of the journey. We were shocked because we thought we had paid for the whole journey but the smuggler did not listen to our pleas. This fleecing by smugglers would happen again and again and again over the next few weeks.
The truck we got on was very rickety. It broke down and we had to get out and push it. My daughter Rania who is five started shouting at the smuggler, “Why did you do this to us?”. He told her to shut up or he was going to fire his gun in the air and the soldiers would come and kill us. My husband told Rania to be quiet and not cause trouble. I was angry with my husband for letting the smuggler walk all over us but I also understood that if we pissed him off he could just abandon us in the middle of nowhere. The worse things got, the more I thought about Kemal. I started to think about him obsessively, much more than I ever did before.
It took several truck changes and lots of extorted money until we reached the border. My mother’s health had deteriorated so much, and she was running low on her medicine. The Turks were not allowing in anyone. We had to sleep in the open with hundreds of other families. All throughout the night Rania and Younis would whisper “Mum, I’m hungry” and it took all my strength not to break down in front of them when I heard those words.
After two days pleading with the border guards, they finally took my mother in. I hugged her goodbye and told her to call me after she sees the doctor in the hospital. One of the guards said she could be given shelter in a refugee camp but we could not go with her because the camp had reached capacity.
Now my husband was clinging even more to the dream of us making it to London. He said I could get a good job because I spoke the language and he could work in his brother’s restaurant. I kept fantasising about London. At night I would dream that I was visiting Notting Hill like in that movie with Julia Roberts and I would get into the book shop but instead of seeing Hugh Grant, I would see Kemal, smiling that incredible smile of his and brushing his curly hair with one hand whilst holding onto a pile of books with the other.
Whilst my husband was out searching for a smuggler, I asked this young woman, another refugee, if I could borrow her phone. It was one of those good ones that has internet on it. I told her I wanted to send an email to my aunt. But actually that was a lie. Instead I logged into Facebook and went straight to Kemal’s page. My heart thumped in my chest. He hadn’t posted a thing since the last time I saw him. Oh god, please let him not be dead. Please, please, let him not be dead.
Our new smuggler told us that he could get us illegally into Turkey, and from there we would catch a boat that would take us to Greece. It took several days till we reached the shore. I had pictured in my head a boat like the one the Jewish refugees got on when they went to Cuba. It was nothing of the sort. This was a rubber dingy. There were at least fifty of us. How were we supposed to fit in? The smuggler just shouted at us to get in quickly and stop asking questions.
We were packed in like sardines. I was holding onto Rania with one hand and Younis with the other but I couldn’t see them. The weather turned nasty and the waves started to pound our dingy. I felt panic. I wanted to go back to the shore but it was too late, we were too far out. I was so worried for the children. Neither of them knew how to swim. I was certain we were all going to drown. I tried to recall a poem, an English poem professor Kemal had taught me. Something about drowning, about waving and drowning but I couldn’t remember the words. Instead I recited a Qur’anic verse that a lot of people say in times of trouble. “And give glad tidings to the patient who when an affliction befalls them say: ‘We belong to Allah and to Him we shall return.’.” When the waves got higher and higher and the boat was filled with screams and it looked like any second we were about to capsize, all I could do was recite the last bit of the verse over and over in absolute terror. “We belong to Allah and to Him we shall return. We belong to Allah and to Him we shall return. We belong to Allah and to Him we shall return.” I held tight onto Rania and Younis and hoped that all our deaths would be quick and painless even though I knew that drowning was anything but.
We survived. Just about. When we reached the Greek island, we saw a huge pile of life vests on the shore from all the other refugees that had crossed before us. Not all of them made it alive.
The further we crossed into Europe, the more we clung onto that dream of reaching England.
We are now in Calais. The camp they call call ‘The Jungle’. One of the few Syrian families that made it this far. It’s not at all what I imagined. There is no United Nations here, no government presence. It’s just pure chaos. We had to make our tent out of tree branches and discarded plastic sheets. At night we huddle together like animals trying to keep warm. There are volunteers here who come to help. Kind people but all amateurs.
One of the volunteer lawyers said she might be able help us get asylum in the UK. We have a chance because of my husband’s brother but it’s also possible we could get turned down. We could get deported out of France to god knows where. We are so close to England. On a good day you can see it from here.
I was outside our tent one day, trying to boil water on the wood fire when suddenly I saw him. Kemal, my Kemal. He was 100 meters away on the main thoroughfare and then he disappeared. I ran after him. I did not dare shout out his name. A married woman shouting the name of a man that is not her husband. It won’t do. I got to the main thoroughfare and I caught a glimpse of him turning down a lane. I ran to the spot where he turned. He was nowhere. At the end of the lane was a small mosque, a ramshackle hut with prayer mats, that the men had built. The mosque was full of men so I didn’t dare enter. I kept pacing outside like a wild animal waiting for the prayer time to be over. When the men emerged, I scrutinised each face. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing!
When I got back to our tent, Younis was crying, he had soiled himself and my husband was furious. “Where the hell have you been?” I thought he was about to hit me but then he just stared at me. He must have been frightened by the look on my face. Did I look insane? Is that what he saw? I took the diaper from him and changed Younis without saying a word.
The mood in the camp is growing gloomy by the day. The news is filled with fear stories about terrorists being amongst the refugees. This made me think of Kemal again and what he told us about Jewish refugees. There were fears that amongst them were Nazi spies. All these fears turned out to exaggerated in the end. But it was too late for the people on the ship no one wanted.
This morning, I borrowed a phone. Logged into Facebook and saw that Kemal had posted! Just 22 minutes before I logged in. I looked in the about section of his profile and he has deleted his Syrian address. Where is he? Could he really be here in the Jungle? Or maybe he already got asylum in the UK. Maybe he is in London already? In Notting Hill? In the bookshop?
Tonight is going to be the first night in a long time where I look forward to falling asleep.
Go to Arab British Centre & Banipal Event on 21 June 2016
For more about Hassan Abdulrazzak, click here