This was early fall, the year 2010. I had been in Syria for roughly one month. As I was standing near my house, next to the Umayyad Mosque, two young men approached me and started to ask questions about my background.
They were kind. And welcoming. But nothing shined through them as much as their curiosity for the world I came from. One of the men was ’M’, a stark critic of the regime who later became a dear friend.
He took me to see his family several times in one of the suburbs. Sure, I know that hospitality is central in any Middle Eastern culture, but this was different. It was an act to say, ”You are a true friend”. I hope I was. Not the least because he didn’t have many. M wanted to leave the country. Meanwhile I was happier than ever. His life was different of course from the one I knew in Damascus.
During our time together he became increasingly disillusioned – almost on the verge of collapse. Although he had never been out of Syria, my friend had seen much. His father dead, siblings to care for without much money, a young neighbour killed, and an urge for freedom that got him in trouble more than once. I recall the evenings sitting in parks drinking beer from a Lebanese brewery. That was the moments he really enjoyed. A secluded space.
The stories he told were remarkable. At times unbelievable. But I believed him. The hidden café with bamboo sticks where couples met to touch each other freely, strange relations with women, and episodes with the security service.
I stopped hearing from M in the spring of 2012. His phone was out. No activity on Facebook, like before. Then suddenly, after six months, a notification on Skype alerted me of his birthday. For a second I thought he had come back. But M was still offline and I started writing in frustration. Two days later his account turned into green.
“Where have you been?!” I asked. Incoherent replies followed. ”What do you know about the situation here?” he wrote. 60,000 dead was all I could say. We chatted, and eventually decided to challenge authority (I didn’t approve) by having a verbal Skype conversation. Out in the open, just like that. And I run a digital newspaper. Hard to not ask the wrong questions. But sometimes there is more than a news story and it was his story I wanted to learn. Not to report back to you, or anyone else.
I haven’t heard from my friend since our Skype session. Sources in his extended family tell me that he is alright, if that is at all possible.
“I miss the days when we were together. I haven’t smiled since and it will never be like that again,” M said on the day of his return. As the “good friend”, I am still hopeful. And I think of him, and I dream of the Syria M wanted so badly. Let’s pray he will live in it soon.
Adam Hedengren is co-founder and managing editor of Your Middle East. Feel free to drop him a line here.