The highway from Homs to Damascus, spindly and unlit and lined with squat concrete barricades, was deserted but for the five buses speeding southward, past the purple-green olive groves and the terraced desert. Still, the passengers hunkered low in their seats. Some checked soccer scores on their phones and carried on quiet conversations with their seatmates, passing the time. Some rocked forward and back, trying to lull their infants to sleep, and some made the same motion though they had no children. Some slept and others fought sleep, fought what it might bring. Such were the myriad mechanics of initiation into the oldest tribe, the tribe of endless leaving.
Amir Utu sat near the back of the second bus next to his mother, Iman, his half-brother, Harun, and his uncle and now stepfather, Younis. With his thumbnail he dug furiously at a wristband that misspelled his name Amin, and his age as six, not eight. Earlier, at the site of departure, the humanitarian workers said every evacuee would have to wear a wristband, but when it became clear there weren’t nearly enough, they placed them only on the wrists of children, and although none of the workers could say with much confidence what purpose such a thing would serve, it turned out by chance there were exactly as many wristbands as children on the convoy, and the workers took this to be an indicator that the correct decision had been made.
Silently, Younis rubbed the edge of a coin against the passport pages on which he’d earlier pasted passable facsimiles of Egyptian visas. In the way he moved the coin against the watermarked paper, lost entirely in the task at hand, there was an air of ritual. Amir observed without emotion the man he’d only ever called, behind his back, Quiet Uncle, the man who was now responsible for Amir and his mother and this new child to whom Amir felt no connection at all. How a man so meek, who shrunk back into himself so readily he seemed to wear his own skin like a too-big suit, might ever take responsibility for anyone at all, Amir couldn’t imagine.
Baby Harun gummed a fold in his mother’s skirt. Iman held her infant with one hand and with the other checked Amir for signs of damage. She asked him questions: “What floor did we live on? What street? The broken clock tower in the roundabout, what time did it show?”
“Leave him alone, Iman,” Quiet Uncle said. “Don’t keep reminding him.”
But she continued. “Tell me the name of the girl you liked,” she pleaded, “the one from the pastry store, the one with the French accent—do you remember? Do you remember?”
Amir stared, unable to answer. Whenever she opened her mouth, his mother made a sound no different from the sound made by everything around him since the first bombs fell, a fine metallic din.
He retreated from his surroundings into the pages of a comic book. For years it had been his favorite—the adventures of a boy named Zaytoon, and a girl named Zaytoona in the alleyways and fields and citadels of a city that reminded him of his own. There was no quality to the art, the shading uneven, the linework like bad stitching, the colors too bright and bleeding. But the stories had a whimsy to them. The children were adventurers, and over the course of an issue they might devise from mechanic-shop scraps a dirigible or turn a bellows and a garden hose into a means to walk the bottom of the sea.
Amir read, captivated—not by the plot or the impossible contraptions, but by the way Zaytoon and Zaytoona’s little town always seemed to reset at the beginning of every new story, as though none of the previous ones left a mark. He had never noticed this before, but he noticed it now and, although he couldn’t articulate it, the thing that most amazed him was the sheer lightness of such a repairable world. To live so lightly was the real adventure, the biggest adventure.
The buses drove onward. In peacetime the journey to Damascus might have taken an hour and a half. This time it took 26.
At one of the checkpoints the passengers were marched onto the side of the road and made to stand in line and a young soldier asked them who they believed in. He phrased it this way, simply and without preamble: “Who do you believe in?” It was the fourth checkpoint of the day and at each one the evacuees had been made to wait for hours and stand outside and give plainly rehearsed answers to the same questions about their allegiance to the state and the Leader. But none had rehearsed for this, and none knew what to say to the young soldier as he marched up and down the lineup of exiles at dawn, chewing on sunflower seeds and asking, “Who do you believe in?” Some stammered and said, The government. Others said, The Leader, God bless him and his brother, and God rest his father’s soul. And God bless his children, others added, our future leaders, but the soldier did not appear to approve of this answer and instantly those who’d given it wished they’d never mentioned future leaders, never mentioned a future at all. On this went, so empty the pantomime that even the young soldier himself did not seem to care when Quiet Uncle, early in line and unable to think on his feet, responded, “Whoever you want.”
Years earlier, before he was disappeared, Loud Uncle said only a coward survives the absurd.
On the first day of spring the convoy reached Damascus and for a while the Utus lived as guests of a relative in a villa in the eastern district. Their host was a woman named Mona, a distant cousin on Amir’s father’s side of the family. Through much pleading, Quiet Uncle had convinced her to let them stay, though it was clear that Mona intended theirs to be a short visit, a temporary respite on the way to wherever they were going.
It was a modern-looking home of white walls aligned at right angles, a curveless cube of a style Amir had only seen in foreign magazines. Often Mona held cocktail parties in the villa’s stone-tiled garden patio, beneath the scattered shade of the flowering jasmine trees, and on the mornings of these days, before any guests arrived, the Utus learned to expect a last-minute suggestion from Mona that they go visit a tourist attraction or undertake some other daylong excursion on the other side of town.
Sometimes Amir managed to avoid these trips, and if he remained out of sight and earshot for the entire evening, Mona did not seem to mind him staying home. From the confines of the servants’ quarters—a tiny secondary house in the back of the garden—he would watch and listen to the voices of the guests, voices that were like his, yet alien. Dressed in fine suits and gowns that glittered under the hanging lantern lights, the attendees spoke about the success of the recent literary festival or the unacceptable surge in the price of tickets to London and Paris or about the Qatari emir’s daughter buying up art at auction with her oil-field allowance and locking it away in a warehouse somewhere because of course these people have more money than taste and wasn’t it just barbaric. The scent of their perfumes mingled with the scent of sizzling lamb skewers on the grill and the scent of white jasmine.
It mesmerized Amir, the revelry of their parallel world. On the outskirts of this neighborhood, he had seen the shattered windows, the craters in the roads, the buildings stripped of their outsides—and so he knew the monstrous thing that had taken his father and Loud Uncle and had driven his family from their home had also, in some way, visited this place. But the men and women at this party seemed not to know or care. Late at night when the rest of his family returned from their excursion, sneaking back into the house unseen through the servants’ entrance, Amir remained at his lookout watching. He stayed this way until the early hours of the morning, until the last of the guests stumbled drunk into their waiting sedans and the house grew quiet.
Often, in these hours after the festivities ended, Amir’s mother ventured outside to sit in the garden and listen to the old Walkman she’d owned since childhood and had managed to save as they fled.
Sometimes Mona came out to join her. For weeks, the two had treated each other with pleasant, mechanical formality, their conversations almost entirely composed of rapid-fire greetings and well-wishes, uttered in accordance with local custom and utterly insincere.
One night, Amir peered out his bedroom window and heard Mona and his mother talking in the courtyard.
“It’s a beautiful evening, isn’t it?” Mona said, taking a seat on the chair next to Iman, startling her. She picked a leaf from one of the jasmine flowers nearby. “It’s always beautiful this time of year. It’s a blessing, really, to have weather like this.”
“Yes, of course,” Iman replied. “A blessing from God.”
“Obviously, it’s not always this way,” Mona said. “Sometimes we get storms, or a cold night. But, you know, it passes.”
Iman smiled and nodded. The two women sat in silence, watching the flickering lights of the old city center beyond the gates of the villa. In the garden the housemaid picked up the plates and glasses, remains of the party, and then set to wiping the soot and grease from the grill.
“Why did you come here, Iman?” Mona asked.
“I’m sorry?” Iman replied.
“Why did you leave your home? Our President says people should never turn their back on their home, and he’s absolutely right. It’s a terrible thing, the worst kind of crime.”
“My home doesn’t exist anymore, Mona,” Iman said. “Our President—” She paused. “It was bombed, it was destroyed. Our whole neighborhood was destroyed.”
“Don’t exaggerate,” Mona replied. “That’s what they want you to do, the terrorists, the foreigners.” She spread her arms wide. “They want you to say it’s this.” Then she closed her arms and held up her thumb and forefinger, an inch apart. “When you and I both know it’s really this.”
Iman sat up in her chair. “But you must have seen it with your own eyes,” she said. “You must have seen it on television, just the other day—the rubble, the dead. You must have seen what they did to our city.”
“The things they show on television?” Mona brushed her hand as though shooing away a fly. “They film those things on a soundstage abroad, they build fake sets and hire foreign actors. It’s all made up.”
Mona patted her houseguest’s hand, a look of deep concern on her face.
“You know,” she said, “you really can’t let yourself be so easily fooled.”
The following week, at Quiet Uncle’s insistence, the Utus left Syria for good. What remained of their savings they spent buying their way aboard another brigade of buses down the length of Jordan, and then onto a huge white ferry that lumbered across the Gulf of Aqaba to Egypt. He had never spoken of the place before or shown any interest in or attachment to it, but in Egypt, Quiet Uncle said, there was at least the chance at life. He repeated this phrase, time and again: the chance at life.
In the back cabin of the ferry, Amir’s mother rocked baby Harun through his crying fits while Quiet Uncle slept where he sat, the forged visa peeling off the page of his passport. Amir gazed out the window.
Loud Uncle once said none of this was real, borders being a European disease. In the flint beyond the windows there were no markers of where one territory ended and the other began—only the sea which was the sky and the sky, which was the land and the land which, whomever it belonged to, was not his.
In the rear of the cabin a man sat cross-legged on the floor, reading the Quran out loud. For hours he did this, page after page, verse after verse, in a trembling, sing-song cadence that rendered the whole recitation at once euphoric and funereal. And although almost all the passengers around him were visibly annoyed, none could work up the nerve to interrupt him. Amir, his head aching and the dull nothingness the bombs left in place of sounds receding, covered his ears with his hands. He could hear the world again but accented now with the faintest traces of ringing, the dying pleas of all the frequencies that from here on would be indistinguishable from silence.
When they reached the shores of Taba, its colored resort lights dancing and the music of its nightclubs faint in the distance, they were ushered off the ferry and made to wait, to be inspected. Slowly, Amir and his family moved along the rickety dockside to the customs station, the remaining wheels on the family’s suitcases dragging against the floor, making a fine whistling sound as they neared the crossing. Amir watched as Quiet Uncle eyed the guards, fidgeting and fingering the page of his passport.
A young, slim customs officer with a pencil mustache waved them forward, agitated. “Yallah, yallah, let’s go, already,” he said. “We’ll miss the noon prayer at this rate.”
“Sorry, sir,” Quiet Uncle said.
He handed four passports to the officer, who flipped to the picture pages and eyed each family member in turn.
“What kind of a name is Utu?” he said.
“I don’t know, sir,” Quiet Uncle replied. “I didn’t choose it.”
“Are you trying to be funny?”
“No, sir. Sorry.”
“You’re from the war?” the guard asked.
“We’re not from the . . .” Quiet Uncle started to reply, then stopped. “Yes, sir,” he said. “We have papers. Everything’s approved, the ministry . . .” He gestured vaguely behind him, toward the water.
“You Muslim?” the guard asked.
Quiet Uncle shrugged and looked down.
The guard flipped through the pages of each passport, unconcerned with the visas, looking for something else, something he didn’t find. He shook his head.
“You’re lying,” he said. “You’re Jews.”
Quiet Uncle looked around, hoping for some other senior officer to intervene. None did.
“How can we be Jews?” Quiet Uncle asked. “Listen, listen—do we sound like Jews?”
“You’re spies,” the guard said. “They train their spies to sound like your people.”
“We’re not,” Quiet Uncle pleaded, exasperated. “I swear to God we’re not.”
“Prove you aren’t,” the guard replied, smirking.
Amir stepped forward from behind his mother, he pointed up at the guard. “Prove we are!” he shouted.
Quickly, Quiet Uncle put his hand over Amir’s mouth and shoved him behind his mother. He turned back to the guard with his hands clasped together.
“He’s just a little boy,” he said. “He doesn’t know what he’s saying. Please, we’ve been traveling for—”
The guard cut him off. “Shut up,” he said. “Act like a man.”
As though nothing had happened, the guard stamped the passports and waved the family through.
“Go, go, you son of a bitch,” he said, chuckling and patting Quiet Uncle on the back. “Hell, you probably are Jews.”
The Utus hurried past the soldiers and through the checkpoint, under the eye of a massive billboard on which was painted a crude portrait of a different Leader and, below that, words of congratulations on his victory in the upcoming election.
By the side of the highway, they found a small phalanx of taxi and minibus drivers who made most of their money ferrying migrants from the port to the big cities. Soon they were cramped alongside a couple of other families and once again moving, the minibus rumbling down a thin dirt road past endless desert, and as the checkpoint retreated from view, Quiet Uncle ruffled Amir’s hair and handed him his phone to play games on, and for the first time since the bombs fell, Amir saw his mother smile.
He believed then that it was over, that even if the place they’d crossed to was entirely unknown to him or, worse yet, entirely familiar, at least they’d survived the crossing.
Excerpted from What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad. Copyright © 2021 by Omar El Akkad. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.