Necessary sounds

Necessary sounds

During the war, ISIS set up camp in her father’s fields. The rebels fired rockets into town from their perches somewhere in the foothills. Indiscriminate mortars, blind and loud, tore craters in the earth. Syrian government forces set up in a ring around the mountain village west of Damascus, snipers on the road, the sound of bullets zipping through the cool air.

Sabiha is in Beirut now. She fled the fighting, the bloodshed, everything she knew. But she still needs the sound of explosions.

Maybe it’s like falling in love with horror films. Or growing up under the L in Chicago and hearing the grinding train as a constant lullaby, but exponentially more horrible. Or maybe it’s like soldiers—at least soldiers in movies—who go to Iraq and patrol rough neighborhoods and disarm IEDs, and then are addicted to the thrill. The risk. The danger.

“It’s so quiet here. How can I sleep?” Sabiha says. “I miss the fighting.”

In fact, downtown Beirut is not quiet at all. The street is alive with pedestrians and partiers and horn-happy cars until well after midnight. People yell and laugh in hookah bars. Neighborhood cats screech at each other as they tear between garbage cans. Taxi drivers and motorcyclists rev their engines at every intersection. But the sound is not loud enough to lull Sabiha to sleep.

Her home in Syria is two stories and made of stone. It is built into the mountain slope and the car out front, once bright red but now rusted by age and snow, is parked at a dangerous incline. Holding the photograph under the light, Sabiha points to her room, its open window gaping black, haunted. There are fruit trees in the front yard and the leaves are full, buds beginning to show fresh, warm colors. It’s a rustic vision, a mountain home, beautiful. Anyone could live there. But not now, because there is a war.

“We can hear the planes,” Sabiha sighs. “Different kinds of planes. And mortars. And everyone is angry, so we hear shouting. And there are soldiers on the road out of town. And Hezbollah comes in.”

The way she talks about it, smiling, nostalgic, one would think she was remembering a school reunion or a family celebration. But she is reminiscing about home, like we all do. Only her home is besieged.

Homesickness is peculiar. For Sabiha, she misses home, but not the building—not mostly. What she misses is the war that enveloped her home. The tension in the air. The excitement of soldiers and tanks. The ecstasy of gunfire.

Her eyes widen, then soften. Her heart races, blood boils, building to a tremendous climax that never comes, then suddenly calms. To remember Syria’s war—her war—is to bring her peace.

On a weekday morning in Beirut, there is a fight down the street. A screaming match. A man kicks in a floor-to-ceiling storefront window. Sabiha’s face lights up, not with panic, but with something like relief. She asks to go see the aftermath. She smiles.

For Sabiha, home is whatever is familiar, not whatever is peaceful. But whatever is familiar—when it becomes so familiar she can see it with her eyes closed—becomes peaceful. Like a dungeon becoming comfy after years of confinement. A battlefield becoming soothing with long exposure. She misses the violent quirks of home.

In the spring, she returns. Pays too much to cross the border, through the checkpoints, through crosshairs. The siege is lifted. Even though soldiers are still present, they don’t unload their clips like they once did. The electricity is on more often. Internet is available. Water flows again.

In her hometown, in her room, in her bed, Sabiha misses home. It is late. There is a moon, somehow. But Sabiha is waiting, restless. Biding her time until a window breaks outside or a bullet flies out of a barrel, and finally she can sleep again.