I am greedy. I want to go back to Damascus, but I want to go back as it was before the war, before our screens were filled with its anguish, and before the tormented numbness of old men and young women shattered my sleep. Had I passed some of them in the tiled courtyards and arched alleyways in that long ago time? And what had become of Amira?
I always wanted to go to Syria. I had grown up with tales of the Old Man of the Mountain, of rich libraries and intricate carpets, looted or burned by marauding Crusaders. An uncle with a love of history and theatrics in equal measure had returned from travels to Syria with slides of mountain forts, where, he declared with a flourish, Salah al-Din had triumphed over the heretics. My uncle’s tales were recounted over the whirring of a slide projector, accompanied by the occasional brandishing of a carved dagger; all of which left us children with goosebumps and a fair few nightmares.
But in the end, it was not a carefully planned and researched trip with guides and pre-booked hotels, nor a notebook with my uncle’s contacts. Rather, the decision to go to Syria that November was a bit random, and we left almost as soon as the visas arrived. We would fly into Damascus and back from Aleppo, and make our way in between the two cities by whatever means seemed best. Not our usual way of travelling to intrepid destinations, but we were bereft and depleted, and longed to be overwhelmed by something other than sorrow.
The source of this morbid state of heart and mind? The sweetest baby in all the world, with a dainty mole beside her left nostril, and soft brown hair flecked with gold. She had been our daughter briefly, and then she was no more. In our grief, we doubted we could ever again put ourselves through anything that could leave us so utterly hollowed out.
16th November 2007 is the date I would choose, if I could return. It was our third day in Damascus. We had spent the afternoon wandering through the Al-Hamidiyah Souq inside the old walled city, after eavesdropping briefly on a guide at the imposing Temple of Jupiter. In that moment, though, I could not have been less interested in any pile of stones, Roman or otherwise.
The Souq, however, drew me in. Slowly, I became immersed in the colours of glass lanterns and sugar-coated sweets, and in air thick with the aroma of perfume, green herbs and ground spices. It was Friday, and there was a celebratory vibe, an exuberant chattering cacophony. Young women in short skirts, with arms linked, sashayed between older women in embroidered abayyas and black gloves, while toddlers darted between their fathers’ legs and mothers’ skirts.
Our destination was Bakdash – one of the few recommendations we had jotted down before our hasty departure. “The very best ice cream in the Arab world”, a Syrian friend in London had insisted, her voice infused with nostalgia. “They pound it by hand, and roll it in layers of the freshest pistachio”. So of course, we said we would go.
And there, framed by the wooden doorway of Bakdash, was Amira, in a candy-floss-coloured pink dress like a gigantic, cascading, meringue. Pearl-like beads were scattered over the already overloaded hemline. White patent shoes with pale pink butterflies, and white glittery tights, completed the confection. A large silver badge pinned to her front, with the number 5, announced the occasion. When I saw her, she had just caught sight of herself in the gleaming glass doors and pirouetted in delight, her brown hair with gold flecks dancing in ringlets around the most kissable dimples.
I stood. Transfixed, remembering… and imagining. Amira threw her head back and, unexpectedly, our eyes met. To my own surprise, I reached out my hand. With a giggle, she reached back. Her fingers were sticky. Maybe that dress really was made of candy floss….
I felt tears starting to fill my eyes. I blinked them back, but she had noticed and looked suddenly bewildered. Before I could speak, though, a voice called out her name. As I watched, she turned to join the gathering birthday guests. She did not look back.
Amira will now be 18 years old. My daughter, born a year later, is 12. Her hair is darker than Amira’s; and even at age 5, she would never have countenanced pink lace. Sometimes, though, when she smiles, there are faint dimples. In those moments, I find myself thinking of Amira, wondering where she is, and, always, sending her silent thanks for the hope she so unexpectedly offered me that day.