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  • Sara "Cristia" El Halabi J.

I Never Meant to Leave You. Love & marriage in times of war. Part 1


The soothing sunset was a stark contrast to the desolation and the misery I saw outside the cab's window. The war in Syria had brought hardship and shortages to many families while the government forced our men into combat. For the moment, children had to figure out a way to get the food, and mothers had to seek better hiding places to protect their infants, bearing the idea they could lose their older descendants forever. I didn’t want to become another widow with a dismantled family and await any help from the government, which was barely enough.


I adjusted my veil to cover my dark hair and hid my face from the curious stares on the street. Despite my exhaustion and hours traveling, I couldn't take a nap and wished to arrive at my destination with my husband Mustafa.


I still remember his disappointed look and our children's tears several months ago when I told him I wanted us to separate. From where did I get the courage to hurt him and lose all we'd forged together?


"Don't worry, Dalia. The children will never lack anything. I will send you whatever they need." Were his last words before I parted with our son and daughter to my parents' house. He never agreed with his parents to take them away from me.

********


Mustafa and I were childhood friends. We were lucky our parents agreed to our relationship, considering our families’ dogmatic and traditional way of thinking, and let us court for a while. After graduating from high school, we married and moved to the city to study at the university. Of course, my father never planned to send me to college. Girls of my age had to get married and fulfill their duties as mothers and homemakers. Yet, Mustafa knew about my dreams and supported me from the beginning.


We both graduated in Accounting, and he encouraged me to work at a company before we had our son, Kamal. Three years later, I gave birth to our daughter, Kamila, and we agreed I’d work from home. Many businesses requested my accounting services, which made me feel supportive of my family.


One day, his father called and told him his health was rapidly declining. Mustafa’s family wanted him to move back to our hometown, which implied taking over the family business and following his father's footsteps and rules.


At first, I was worried at first, because I knew that, in a town like ours, women had to stay at home and take care of the children and husband solely. That was the old family custom.


After moving in with his family, I found myself surrounded by our relative’s ill intentions. The unforgiving and envious tongues poisoned my husband's thoughts, and my self-confidence dropped. For instance, I overheard my sister-in-law telling the neighbors that my children were bad-behaved because I was a working mother and Mustafa had to tame me. I could barely stand my mother-in-law's disapproving stares if I burned the rice or a dish was a bit over-salty.


Time passed, Mustafa and I let the routine take hold of our love. We barely talked to each other and seldom shared our dreams anymore. I felt suffocated. That was when the shitan―the devil―played with my mind. The crazy idea of wanting my freedom back broke my will. What is freedom with a broken heart after all? I erroneously thought that, after giving me wings, Mustafa wanted to enchain me.


He never contacted me after we separated and only talked to my parents when he wanted to see the children―that’s the rule divorced couples had to commit with, never to see each other again. I was desperate and repentant that I’d made the wrong decision. Besides, I always feared his parents would convince him to take full custody of the children after the divorce. That would be the common thing to happen in our culture.


One day after four months, Mustafa came to my parents’ house to see the children. My father was surprised by his unannounced visit and speechless when Mustafa asked for permission to talk to me. My mother, however, didn’t hesitate to call me.


When I stepped into the living room, I was shocked to see his tired bearded face and reddened eyes. His greeting was dry―he barely looked at me; yet, when he saw our children, he knelt to receive them in his arms.


At first, Kamal and Kamila were shy and watched our steps as if waiting for any sign of hope in our greetings. Later, they advanced to their father, and Kamila clung to his neck. Mustafa showed them the toys he had brought with him. The heavy traces of the lonely days were erased at once from their innocent faces. My parents left us alone while I sat in a corner, watching him and our children with a smile. With his gray eyes and black hair, Kamal was a copy of him, and Kamila was a sweet combination of us both. For a moment, I thought he had come to beg me to be a family again.


After Mustafa told the children a couple of stories, he asked them to play with the toys. But before, he gave each one of them a warm embrace. When I saw his watery eyes, I could hardly swallow the low expectation of what he was about to tell me.


"I'm joining the army tomorrow," he said once we were alone.


"But...why?" The words almost stuck in my throat, and my heart drummed in my chest. "Did they recruit you?"


"No, I joined voluntarily," he murmured. "You don't have to worry about anything, for I’ve told my uncle Mahmud to give you a sum of money every month."


"Why did you do that? Didn't you think of your children at all? What will they do if something happens to you?" The tears drowned my questions. I could feel his body wanting to run and embrace me. I wanted that, too. What if that was the last time I saw him alive?


Instead, he crossed his arms above his chest and said with the saddest tone I’ve ever heard from him, "Dalia, I can't stay here like this anymore. Can’t you see I’m dying from inside? I need to get away." Despair was in every word he uttered.


My heart sank in bitterness because I knew it was my fault. Mustafa wanted to escape from me, from our memories. I should have felt relieved, or at least indifferent for his departure. Yet, I wished to beg him to stay, to tell him I wanted him back, but my ego forced me to bite my tongue and keep silent.

********


Days passed, then weeks and months. No news came from him. We could hear the bombing in the distance, and my only concern was to know something about Mustafa. As much as I wanted to stand firm by myself and protect my children, I still loved Mustafa.


One morning, I was in the garden picking some tomatoes when I saw a soldier walking toward our house. His gait was heavy and slow, and he had a cane in his right hand. As soon as he reached our pathway, I recognized him as our neighbor's son, Ali.


He greeted me politely, though he looked surprised to see me out so early, or maybe, he didn't expect to give me the news. He cleared his throat and continued, "I was passing by to greet your father before going home—"


"My father isn't here. He had to take off to the market, but I'll let him know you're here. Allah is so generous to bring you back safe from war to your family!" I said while adjusting my veil upon my head.


"Thank you, sister, but that's not only why I came over here. There's another reason." He lowered his eyes and twiddled his fingers. "I have news of Mustafa." Ali trailed off. I could see his lower lip trembling, and I knew something terrible had happened to my husband.


My frown replaced my smile, my knees began to shake, and my hands could barely hold the basket of tomatoes. I couldn't ask him anything, for my heart leaped into my throat.


"I'm sorry,” he continued, “but the enemy attacked us on the battlefield, and Mustafa…he was seriously injured." He paused, and I felt the blood draining out of my veins. Then, he continued, "I didn't know anything about him until two days ago. I discovered he's still alive, but he has lost an eye. I pray to Allah that Mustafa returns to you, I mean, to his family, safe and sound."


I blinked, making sure I heard well, that Mustafa was still alive. My heart raced; I couldn't tell if it was of joy or despair. Tears flooded my face, and when Ali saw me in that condition, he excused himself and continued his way. I hurried inside the house, looking for my mother. When I found her, I ran to her embrace and cried like a child, babbling everything Ali had told me.


"Mother, what will become of Mustafa now? He doesn't have a brother to bring him back and help him, and his parents are too old! Who will take care of him?" I cried.


"Let's pray to Allah to help him. It'd be best if you calmed down. The children will wake up anytime now," my mother murmured. Her brows creased at my reaction to the news, but her features were as hard as a stone.


That afternoon, while watching the kids playing in the garden, I knew what I had to do. I announced to my parents my decision to go after Mustafa to bring him back. They tried to persuade me to desist from that mad and dangerous idea. But there was no turning back.


That night, I prepared my documents and some personal things for the journey. My father accompanied me to Ali's house, where he told us how to get to my husband.


I set off at dawn in a cab after bidding goodbye to my parents, who prayed no harm would reach me, and kissed my children while they slept. Silent tears dropped in the darkness for fear of not seeing them again or not returning with their father.

********


The journey was long and exhausting. Five hours later, the cab arrived at an army camp. The driver told me to prepare my documents in hand. I grasped my veil tight to my face, trying to dissipate the fear of danger for coming alone to that place.


When the driver slid down his window for the soldiers, he handed them our documents. I waited while calming my worried heart and praying to Allah.


After a while, one of the soldiers returned with the documents, handed them to the driver, and told him the cab wasn't allowed to enter the camp. So, I packed my things up and started walking past the gates toward the building with the Red Cross flag.


Before I walked away, the soldier, who had checked our documents, said to me with a sad smile, "May Allah help you find your husband. Not all the wives have the courage to come for their husbands."


I heaved a sigh of relief and nodded.


Black and green tents were in front of the infirmary. Officers and soldiers were running back and forth, waving with their arms and shouting orders. I kept walking until I found myself before a large, black tent. I don’t know why I went inside, but corpses covered with light fabrics were on both sides. Death and wretchedness hovered above the soldiers who had sacrificed their lives defending our country. I felt faint at the thought Mustafa could be one of them when a firm grip caught my shoulder.


"You should not be here! What are you looking for?" Came a rough female voice beside me.


I turned to meet a nurse dressed in white with a veil of the same color. Despite my commotion, I was happy to see her. Instead, she took me outside and told me to take a deep breath at seeing my pale face. When I could finally talk, I told the nurse I was looking for my husband and gave her his name.


“Why don’t you ask for him in the infirmary? He might be among the injured.” She smiled at me.


The hope in her eyes encouraged me. I picked up my pace, and after thanking her, hurried to the infirmary.



To be continued.













© 2021 Cristia H. J.


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