Under the Same Sun
by Hannah Ahdab
The power outages happened every day at noon. These outages were as integral to the Syrian lifestyle as afternoon naps and eating dinner at 10 p.m. It was seemingly cruel to cut the power during the hottest part of the day, as if being in the desert wasn’t torture enough. My grandparents’ large stone mansion was always filled with noise. My grandmother clanking around in the kitchen, my cousins and I watching Spacetoon on the bulky TV, and my aunts and uncles constantly coming and going to the accompaniment of the large iron gate buzzing and clicking every time they left the house. When the power went out, however, the house and the city went silent. The washing machine would quit its humming, the fans would stop whirring and the TV would go black. Within minutes, the hot air would begin creeping through cracks in the house. “I hate the heat,” I mumbled into the cool stone floors beneath me.
I was lying face down on the floors of my grandparents‘ house during yet another power outage. My cousins sat cross–legged on the couches around me, giggling to each other as I threw my daily tantrum. I was a rather well–behaved child, but there was something about the heat that I just couldn’t handle. The hot air seemed to creep into my lungs, hindering me from breathing. The cold stone floors were my only savior. I would sprawl out on the ground, shut my eyes and remind myself to breathe.
My cousin Judy teased me every day for my reaction. I spent three months out of the year in Syria and for all ninety days, my reaction was the same. Despite the heat, Judy and her sister, Renda, sat cross–legged on the couch in jeans and a sweater. All three of us had gotten our family’s classic genes: thick hair, pale skin, dark eyes and big noses. I, however, lost the gene that allowed me to adapt to the heat while somewhere over the Atlantic.
I was indifferent to their jokes. To me, there was no point in getting off the floor. When the power was out there was nothing to do but mope. My cousins shook their heads as they left the living room to complete their chores or play with friends in the streets. When the power returned two hours later, I would rejoin my cousins once more, to continue our daily shenanigans of candy store runs and making up dances on top of the ping pong table in the basement.
The city wouldn’t cool down until the sun slipped behind the rows of stone house. With the cool breeze now wafting in, we would finally venture into the garden. My mother and her siblings sat on plastic chairs as we ran around barefoot. The stone floors of the garden, which had been baking in the sun all day, would keep our feet warm.
Neighbors would slowly emerge from their house, eating late–night dinners in their own gardens, their laughter mixing with the smoke that rolled from their hookahs. An old man would make his nightly route with his cart full of snacks playing Arabic music. If we had behaved that day, my grandpa would buy us a Sprite and some popcorn. Their lifestyle was slow and peaceful.
My last memory of Syria, however, isn’t as pleasant. Just a few short weeks before the revolution broke out, I left Syria for the last time. I never even got a chance to say a proper goodbye as I was whisked into the taxi to get out of the cold that had overtaken the country.
I came home from a tiring day of recess and division to find my mom sitting on the couch crying. An overly aggressive news anchor was screaming in Arabic through the TV speakers. My mom wrapped me in a hug so tight I could barely breathe. She wouldn’t explain what was going on, she just rocked back and forth. My dad sat in his office, head in his hands as he tried to get into contact with his siblings, but the phone lines were dead. All my relatives lived in Syria, a country that had been suddenly thrown into war and chaos, and we sat helplessly on the other side of the world incapable of doing anything other than stare at the TV.
I stared at the TV for hours that night. The streets where I used to play every evening were now covered in bodies and blood. I knew Syria would be different that night. Everyone would eat dinner in their homes with the blinds pulled shut. My grandma would use the plastic chairs to barricade the front gate, and the popcorn man wouldn’t dare to walk through the streets. There would be no laughter in the air. The smoke from the bombs and air raids would have blanketed the city, blocking out the sun. The stone floors in the garden would be too cold to walk on.
I wobbled down the cobblestone roads, trying my best not to roll my ankles. I grabbed hold of Renda and Judy on either side of me to stabilize myself. My sister, Dana, marched ahead of us, unaffected by the ground below her. The hot Italian sun beat down on us as we searched for a restaurant with the best view of the Colosseum for dinner. I was willing to eat anywhere as long as they had cold water.
My mom suggested the impromptu weekend trip to Rome to meet with my cousins and aunt. We hadn’t seen them in five years, so we were eager to reunite once again.
“Remember, you don’t mention anything about the revolution to them this weekend,” my mom implored in the taxi from the airport. “Your cousins have had a very rough few years and this weekend is supposed to be fun. Don’t do anything to remind them of what’s happening at home.”
My sister and I remained true to our promise, but my cousins had changed. They laughed at our jokes, but it never reached their eyes. They were far too skinny, and their ribs poked out from beneath their shirts. Their skin had gotten paler and my aunt’s hair was graying. They walked on eggshells constantly. Even Judy, who was my closest cousin, and I ran out of things to talk about, something that never used to happen. When we finally decided on a restaurant, we found ourselves sitting in another lull of awkward silence. I grappled with what to talk about with them, until finally my aunt asked Dana about the colleges that she was in the process of applying to. Excited to finally have something to talk about, Dana pulled out pictures of Georgetown. She explained the concept of a “dream school” and talked about how she wanted to major in International Politics. I pretended not to notice the tears in Renda’s eyes as she listened to Dana. Despite being the same age as my sister, Renda had no dream school. What’s the point of planning for a future in a country where you might not even get one?
I tried to talk to Judy about starting high school next year, she had asked a question about it, but her mind seemed elsewhere. I complained about the trek that I had to take every day from my house to school, completely oblivious to the fact that Renda and Judy have had to alter their routes to school every day depending on where the soldiers have put up checkpoint and where the most recent bombings have taken place.
Dana showed them pictures of her beloved Jeep Wrangler, and my cousins visibly cringed. They had been trained to run away from Wranglers out of fear of the soldiers who drive them. Dana explained Toga Day and talked about how well our football team is doing, but they can’t relate. Their social life had been taken over by the revolution. They only left the protection of their apartment for school.
My mom suggested watching the fireworks over the piazza after dinner. She offered to buy us some popcorn for old time’s sake, but Judy looked panicked. My aunt had to explain to us that Judy had developed a rather extreme reaction to loud noises like fireworks. The sounds were too similar to the bombs that go off in nearby neighborhoods, and she becomes sick immediately. My mom’s face fell; she hardly recognized the nieces sitting in front of her.
To Dana and me, this weekend excursion to Rome was a fun little adventure. To Renda and Judy, it was the first breath of fresh air they’d had in five years. They could finally walk freely through the streets without constantly looking over their shoulder.
“I wish I could have given my daughters the life you have given yours,” my aunt sniffled to my mother, finally drawing attention to what we had been dancing around all weekend.
I spend the rest of dinner with my head down. How could I have been so stupid? I should have just kept my mouth shut. Who was I to be complaining about my life? I tried to take deep breaths, but I already know what is coming. The sensation I know so well is taking over again. Beads of sweat pricked my skin and my chest got tight as my lungs struggled to drink enough air. Once again, I’m being suffocated by the heat.