Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Fiction: The Syrian Doctor in Paris by Cecilia Brainard

My story, The Syrian Doctor in Paris, was published in The Philippine Graphic and received a Certificate of Recognition by the Nick Joaquin Literary Awards. I have read this piece in performance in Paris and in Jackson, Tennessee.

My deepest sympathies go to the Syrian people who have suffered long and hard. ~ Cecilia 

The Syrian Doctor in Paris
By Cecilia Manguerra Brainard 
Copyright 2014 by Cecilia Brainard, All Rights Reserved

May 9, 2014, the last rebels leave Homs

He lives in a flat near the Ile Saint Louis. Today, he’s up at four in the morning because he hardly slept and news feeds from Syria stream into the internet. His favorite sites are “The Syrian Revolution 2011” and the “Local Coordination Committees in Syria”, which give up-to-the-minute news in Syria. The sites will warn: “Artillery shelling and mortars and heavy machine guns aimed at the country districts of Daraa Al-Balad’s neighborhoods;” Or: “Explosive barrel bombs targeting the village Guenitarat in Aleppo.”

It’s May and Paris is still chilly at this time of the morning. He glances at the velvety blackness outside and tries to make out the hulking outline of the Notre Dame. It is too dark but soon, when the sun is up, the Notre Dame will present itself with its turrets and gargoyles, a sight that used to enchant him and which still gives him some bit of solace. Quietly, so as not to wake his son, he makes a pot of tea and resumes his vigil in front of his computer. He has a couple of hours before he has to go to the Hopital Cochin.

The images today are of rebels in Homs lining up to board buses. He has seen dead children in white shrouds lined up after the chemical attack in Ghouta; he has seen piles of bodies barely recognizable as human beings. But today’s news about the capture of the last rebels in Homs upsets him. He can trace his roots in Homs back to the sixteenth century.

Even though he has lived in Paris for decades, he calls Homs “home.” Right now, even as he performs surgeries, does his rounds, deals with patients and hospital staff, home is Syria. It’s home even though Assad has bombed and obliterated the schools he had attended, the mosques his ancestors had built, the streets and alleyways he had walked on. Most of the landmarks of his “home” have been ripped apart, shot at, destroyed by bombs, scud missiles. Some of the girls he had loved, the boys he had called “brothers” are dead, some from chlorine and sarin nerve gas. Some from barrel bombs. 

He chews his lower lip at the sight of the men who have held out for two years in the Old City, burrowing like rats in the tunnels and pathways they have created. Assad’s soldiers had surrounded the Old City, and for over a year the rebels and people who remained had been eating nothing more than grass, and if lucky, some unlucky cat – their imam had to issue an official permit allowing them to eat stray dogs, cats, even rats. The Syrian doctor looks at the drawn faces and hunched shoulders of the rebels. Some are younger than his son. That was another sorrow — the Syrian child soldiers — nine-year-old, eleven-year-olds toting rifles — boys who ought to be in school, who ought to be playing instead of killing.

The news is not good, but there is nothing unusual about this. The situation has been getting worse and he wonders how a peaceful march could have spiraled into this awful war.

When the last of the rebels are bussed out of Homs, he remembers he’s supposed to see Christine that evening. Suddenly he finds her tiresome. She’s French, trim, perky and he sees her once a week for dinner and he has sex with her regularly. With Christine he can make love with a wilder abandon that he can with a Middle Eastern woman. He can enjoy her body fully, allow her to pleasure him as well. She is a social worker, divorced, and makes no demands for him to marry her, which to him is one of the attractions of Christine.

Today he performs surgeries in the Hopital Cochin and Clinique Blomet. He attaches bones together with pins and plates; he welcomes doing these because the activity pulls his mind back to Paris, away from Syria. He can lose himself in that work, forget for hours that some of the rebels were picked up for further questioning, meaning they would be tortured and killed.

He calls Christine after work. “Hello, Christine, good afternoon,” he says, trying to sound cheerful. They met after Christine’s divorce and he made her laugh and that was how their affair got started. With Christine, he always appears buoyant, light hearted, optimistic. But tonight he can’t put on this mask.

“Hello!” Christine replies, sounding happy, her cheerful voice grating on his nerves. He recalls the girl he had loved in Homs, wonders what their lives would have been if they had gotten married. His marriage in France had been a disaster; the only good thing that came out of that was his 24-year-old son.

“Tonight—“ he starts, then stops.

“The same cafĂ©, yes?” Christine says in a voice less cheerful. “Is something wrong?” she adds. Then before he answers, she says. “I know the news is bad. I am sorry.” Her voice trembles.

            People have been saying “I’m sorry,” and he’s never sure how to answer them. He is tired of “I am sorry” while the world’s governments have turned their faces away from Syria. Ignored Assad’s crossing of red lines, reduced the misery of millions of Syrians into statistics. His head throbs when he hears “I am sorry.” This afternoon, he decides to disregard Christine’s sympathies, says instead, “Something has come up and I can’t make it tonight.” He’s aware Christine will know it’s a lie.

            Christine sucks in her breath and is silent for a few seconds. Then recovering, “Of course, I understand. Don’t worry. I’m fine. Take care of yourself.  Next week…?” Her voice trails off.

            He does not answer; he can’t think about next week. He can’t think of Christine, not of the weekly dinners and love making.  His mind overflows with images of faces of his countrymen filled with anger, desperation, fear, anguish, pain. He has been yearning to hear the musical call of the muzzeraine and he wonders if it still echoes through the streets of his youth. He hopes the perfume of jasmine still sweetens the night air of his family’s open courtyard, even though he knows his parents’ home has been reduced to rubble.

            Christine continues, “I know it’s a difficult time. If I can help, let me know.”

            “Yes, yes, thank you,” he says. “I have to go. I have a meeting with Dr. Khatoud,” he lies.

He hurries out of the Clinique Blomet, gets into his car, and drives toward his flat. But before he gets there, he turns and heads toward the Sorbonne. He stops the car and studies the white buildings which had frightened him when he was eighteen. He closes his eyes and recalls that long ago journey from Homs to Paris, his sad farewell to his father who died a few months after he arrived in Paris. As he starts his car he wonders how long his mother will hold out in Syria, wonders when she will accept that it’s time to leave. He hopes she makes the decision soon, before things get any worse.  

It is almost eight at night when he enters his flat. When he closes the front door, silence surrounds him. The hallway feels clammy and he smells the mustiness of his old books which fill the bookshelves. He thinks he should get rid of some of these books, save only the ones that had belonged to his father.

Later, he switches on his computer and he settles down to catch more images of death and destruction, to catch images of home, even when home is no more.

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Tags: literature, fiction, Syria, Syrian, war, Middle East, Aleppo, Damascus, Raqqa, Homs, Philippines, Philippines, writing, short story, flash fiction, Paris

This is all for now,

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