Do good and cast it into the sea –Arabic proverb.
The old women in my hometown used to say, “Do good and cast it into the sea”. I would hear this without knowing what it meant, until one frightening day, when I not only understood the proverb but lived its meaning for real, and not in theory.
I did not wait for appreciation or a salary in exchange for my humanitarian work with aid groups and relief organizations that worked in the Syrian towns and cities hit by the most violent shelling and destruction, nor did I wait for acknowledgement of my work in the vast camps near the border. I did not wait for thanks from anyone but God. For me, the greatest reward was when I can put a smile on a child’s face after offering them something they loved, or when I hear a prayer straight from the heart of an old woman who would lift her hands to the sky and say:
‘May God preserve your youth for your mother and family.’
But I did not expect that my life could be a gift from someone I didn’t know, and all because of a simple good deed that I had done and forgotten. This was what happened with me on that frightening day.
I do not remember the features of the masked person who gazed at me with eyes flooding with gratitude. It’s hard to remember someone from their eyes if you have not seen their other features.
He was standing a few meters away from the border gate that allows people to cross into Turkey. These people are normally sick, injured, disabled, or workers with humanitarian and relief organizations, of which I was one.
I was waiting for my name to be called. It was written on a paper, sitting in the hands of a Turkish officer who was responsible for allowing us to enter. Before my turn, a woman in distress arrived, holding a child whose head was resting on her shoulder and whose legs were stretched out in a line down to her knees. She tried to convince the officer at the gate to let her enter. I understood from what she was saying that the child needed to be urgently taken by an ambulance to a Turkish hospital. But the officer, who didn’t speak Arabic except for a few words necessary to his job — and mostly two words that he repeated all day, allowed and forbidden — did not understand her. All he could see was that she wanted to enter even though her name was not written on the list, so he was repeatedly and impatiently saying, “Mamnoe’” to mean forbidden. He struggled to pronounce the last letter of the word, since its vowel does not exist in the Turkish language.
He would forget himself and start to shout in both Arabic and Turkish, “Yasak, yasaaaak. Mamnoe, Mamnoeeee”.
There were many who wanted to pass through the crossing for urgent medical reasons. The Turkish soldiers weren’t heartless stone, but they were merely following strict orders. Many times, I saw their tears as they rushed to help the injured into an ambulance while praying that God would help them avenge themselves on their oppressors.
The distressed mother tried again to explain her child’s case, but in vain. Meanwhile, the masked man was listening carefully to their discussion.
I understood that the child suffered from renal failure and needed dialysis, and that, if they waited until the next day, he would die. The hospital that had been regularly helping the child in Syria had been targeted and taken out of service. I tried to intervene, but the Turkish officer seemed to be programmed like a machine, repeating “forbidden” incessantly.
He started to explain this to me, so that I could explain it to the woman, since he knew my face, as I’d passed in and out through the humanitarian crossing many times. From him, I understood that only fifty people could enter a day, and only those who came at the beginning of the day. Then he started to shake the list of names and repeat again and again, “forbidden.”
“Only those on this list enter. The injured and sick come in the morning, and that’s that.”
I saw the child’s mother was in distress, and that the father had sent his wife to talk to the officer, perhaps thinking the officer would feel kinder toward her as a mother. This inspired me with an idea.
“My name’s on the list,” I told him. “Since the number is limited, I’d like to give my name to this woman, so she can enter instead of me.”
The people around us who spoke Turkish pushed the case, explaining the child’s situation and telling the officer that he was in a state of crisis. In the end, the officer agreed to let the woman enter instead of me. He deleted my name from the list and asked the woman about the child’s name. I remember she said “Omar,” but I do not remember his surname.
Then there was a new problem: her husband. It was clear the woman was simple-minded, and would not manage the situation without him, so the father had to accompany his child. But the officer refused, so we tried to convince him. I knew officers like him did not like to argue, and if they said yok, which means no in Turkish, then it was not negotiable. Still, I did not lose hope of trying to spark feelings of mercy towards the child. Again, I started to explain the child’s situation, which was very dangerous, and told him that the mother alone would not be able to cope with the obstacles or figure out where to go and how.
Then he said:
“You work with doctors, so you can help her”.
“If there were a hospital or electricity,” I said, “no one would have come here. She will enter instead of me, and it’s important that the father enters with the child”. Then the officer gradually started to ease up, explaining to me that he was only an officer following orders, and he could not bypass the rules and the system, and if he did so, repercussions would await him.
Eagerly, I told him, “God will not let you come to harm so long as you are doing good for Him, and nothing is lost to God, not even an atom”. I continued preaching about goodness because I felt he was religious, since he used religious words more than once — such as the name of God and the Prophet Muhammed — and also he had said in Arabic “There’s no strength nor power except in God”. I kept insisting.
“Do good and cast it in the sea,” I said.
He liked the proverb and said that his grandfather has once told something like that, and he wanted to know the meaning of it, so I explained that it was a traditional Arab proverb. He liked it a lot and started to repeat the words, as if he were trying to memorize it.
“Do good and cast it in the sea,” he uttered with difficulty.
I was happy, as was the woman, when the officer decided that the father could be allowed to enter with his wife and child. He seemed affected by the proverb, and maybe he thought it was a verse from the Quran or one of the sayings of the Prophet.
When the officer gave his consent, the woman called to her husband, who has been patiently waiting through my argument. The husband hurriedly removed his mask and got the child from his wife, then went ahead to the internal gate. I couldn’t remember his features, but I remember his rough voice from when he thanked me and insisted on knowing my name. The mother also prayed for me warmly, her heart seared by pain from her child’s predicament.
I turned back, having lost my turn, and told the officer: “Do good and cast it in the sea”.
He repeated the phrase with his flimsy Turkish accent and smiled.
As I left, I felt relief well up inside me. I felt the pleasure of helping that family, although at the same time I was thinking about how to enter, now that I’d relinquished my turn.
Days passed, and I forgot the story, since many things happen every day.
Weeks later, I heard that a man named Abu Omar entered from Turkey with his wife and child, and that they came searching for me in the border area but didn’t find me. I heard from my colleagues that he wanted to thank me for the good turn I have done for his family. But I didn’t mention that goodness until the frightening day came.
On that frightening day, I was bent over, trying to pick up bags of fruit I had bought, when an iron fist yanked me from behind and I was dragged into a car. The car’s door closed, and then the brakes gave a snarling sound, and the vehicle that looked like a wolf that had just captured its prey, moved off with the speed of lightning. All of that happened in the blink of an eye.
I was with my older brother, who was imprisoned in one of the regime’s detention centers, and passed horrible moments until he was, by some miracle, released. He often joined me in my travels, especially my stories about the kidnappings by unknown parties were on the rise. My brother had visited me in the morning and suggested taking a vacation in our hometown with the family, and he convinced me by mentioning how much my mother wanted to have this family reunion, and to see us all together sitting at one table, as we had not been for years.
I sat beside him in his car as we headed to Idlib’s Maaret al-Numan city. By evening, we were on the Saraqib Bridge, where a vendor was putting out boxes of fruits, waiting to sell it to people passing by in their cars. I asked my brother to stop and buy some fruits, and he agreed right away.
“You go ahead while I go to a gas station near here and fill the car,” he said.
It was only a few minutes before I’d put the bags at the edge of the street while the vendor, who was a few meters away, started reorganizing his goods. That’s when a hand grabbed me and a car swallowed me and moved off like an arrow, leaving the fruit that dropped from my hands and rolled onto the street.
Suddenly, I found myself in a darkened sedan, and one of them grabbed my t-shirt and pulled it over my head while another held my arm and yanked it wildly backward and handcuffed me. A hand reached out and patted me down from the top of my head to my toes and found nothing except my wallet containing my ID and some money. During the first seconds, I did not realize what had happened. I felt like I was chocking and was not able to scream, my heart thudding against my chest so fiercely as if it might fly out of my trembling body. My ears were filled with the loud buzzing that was circulating in my head. It was a matter of seconds, and then I realized I had been kidnapped. When the car passed a bump in the road, I felt it fly in the air then crash to the ground. Those inside the car hit its roof, and since I was handcuffed, I almost fell off the seat. One shouted at the driver saying,
“Slow down! You could’ve killed us. We’re far away now.”
The car then started to slow down. At the same time, I heard voices around me saying, “Are you sure he was the one we want? Maybe we made a mistake. He doesn’t seem like the right one.”
Another man said in a high, squeaky voice, “I’m sure he’s the one. I saw him more than once at the border in the camps. And the sheikh said he’s blond with blue eyes and is carrying a backpack. I followed him from the border to Saraqib Bridge”.
The first one disagreed. “Man, this is an Arab, not a foreigner. Take a look at his civil ID. His name is Hasan.”
I was trying to gather my strength to scream in their faces: “What do you want from me?”, but their argument was louder than my voice that disappeared inside the cave of my mouth.
No doubt they thought I was a foreigner because of my clothes or blond hair, so they kidnapped me to trade in for a big ransom. That was what one of them said.
“He seems like a foreigner with a Syrian ID. Maybe his ID is fake. Anyway, this one could bring us a lot of cash.”
I knew that my features, and the way I dressed, made a lot of people think I was not from the area. Many would see me with the teams of foreigners, and so they would infer I was one of them. Maybe this was the reason I have been kidnapped three times, although every time there was a different story. Once, I almost lost my head.
However, their accents were not foreign to me, and they sounded very close to our local accent. They had to be from the region, so I suddenly shouted, “Who are you? What do you want from me?”
The man with the high-pitched voice answered. “We don’t want anything from you, but you’re welcome to stay with us for a few days, and then we’ll sell you to your family.”
The words sell you to your family hit my brain, and I pictured my mom when she would hear about my kidnapping.
I remembered my brother who had gone to fill up the car. He must have gotten back and discovered I was not waiting him on the bridge. He would ask the fruit vendor, but had the vendor seen the car that kidnapped me?
Maybe yes. Maybe no. Everything had happened in a flash, and even I did not notice the car that was behind me while I was putting the bags down on the street. But my brother must have seen the fruit spilled out onto the street. He would know that something had happened to me — that someone with a car had kidnapped me — but what would he tell my mom and my family?
I felt the car leaving the main street. It turned to the right and seemed as though it had entered a road full of potholes. The car zigzagged from right to left and my head smacked against the glass more than once. The driver slowed down and one of them asked me, “What does your father do?”
I didn’t answer, but instead I shouted: “Who are you? Are you revolutionaries or thieves?”
A new rude voice chortled and said, “We’re thieves”.
Then the person who asked me about my father repeated his question: “What does your father do?”
“Nothing” I said.
“How does he do nothing?”
“He was working in real estate.”
The person with the squeaky voice said, “Real estate means buying and selling, which means your father is rich. Sweet. Now you have to talk to him and tell him to bring us 100,000.”
Then he asked, “Is 100,000 good? Or should we make it 200,000? It seems you’re pampered and dear to your mom.”
These thugs who kidnapped me did not care about who I was or what I did. Their only interest was to get the ransom.
I started imagining how they would torture me to force my family to pay up. I thought of asking them about their big boss, so I could try to make a deal with him. But from the way they were talking, I could not figure out who among them was the most important person or their leader. All of them spoke at the same time, and all of them talked over each other. I could not figure out who was giving orders to the others. I asked them to take off the handcuffs because they were cutting into my wrists, but they did not listen.
“You always go through the border crossing,” one of them said. “Do you work with journalists or organizations?”
“Why did you kidnap me?” I asked. “I swear I am with nobody and my work is all with humanitarian organizations.”
“Humanitarian organizations for who? For the regime? And are you also working with journalists?”
“Humanitarian organizations?” another one said. “By God, you’re all thieves. You steal aid and sell it.”
Another one said: “Not only do they sell the aid, but they also get their salaries in dollars.”
A third one threatened me. “I swear you’ll pay us everything you get in dollars. I swear that you’re the thieves of the revolution. You stole the people’s blood.”
I couldn’t bear what he was saying. His words were like whips to my ears, so I screamed as loud as I could: “We’re the youth of the revolution, and the men, and you’re its thieves who kidnap people in exchange for ransom. For three years I’ve been working as a volunteer without any money, not in dollars or Syrian pounds. I help people and the needy, whether they’re suffering from cold, rain, snow, or shelling.”
I expected them to hit me for cursing them, but I was surprised to hear a man who I thought was speaking for the first time. “If you’re like you say you are, then we’ll know when we get there and check with the sheikh, but if you’re lying, there’s going to be hell to pay.”
Then he changed his tone, addressing the others: “I don’t think he’s the guy we want.”
“The sheikh described him like this.”
“Anyway, we’re almost there,” another one said.
My t-shirt, which they had wrapped around my head to cover my eyes, was transparent, so I saw the large home the car drove up to. They got out, leaving me handcuffed, and closed the doors behind them. Their footsteps faded until the place was quiet, and I felt like a carcass thrown in an abandoned cemetery.
In the frightening darkness, horrible demons pounded in my chest as I imagined the ways in which they would torture me in order to blackmail my family into paying ransom.
I imagined many strange and terrible things, as I heard a lot about kidnaping cases. I imagined that they would hang me by a rope in an abandoned well, and then would close the opening with a rock, and that they would throw a loaf of bread to me, and the rats would fight me for the bread. After that, they would drop me a mobile phone to call my family, especially my mom, to ask her to sell all their property in order to pay the ransom. I also imagined they would agree on a place to leave the money and then would ask my family to leave, and that they would get the money and forget me in the well to die of hunger or from being eaten by wild rats.
I began asking God to help me, and said all the prayers I have memorized, asking Him to rescue me from this catastrophe. I reminisced of what they had said in the car and tried to identify them — whether they were bandits, thieves or revolutionaries — and whether they were looking for someone else and had confused him with me. They said they would bring me in front of the sheikh. So, who is this sheikh? Was he the leader of a gang or a revolutionary military faction? I felt cold tremors run all through my spine, and I wondered if they were loyal to the regime and would bring me in to be arrested. Death would be more merciful, since I have heard about what detainees faced in the regime’s dark cells.
I tried to arrange my thoughts. How would I confront him? What should I say, at the start? Before I could come up with a plan for a speech among my many contending thoughts, I heard an iron door open violently and heavy footsteps strike the ground. They hit my chest as well. Then an angry man with a rough voice asked: “Where is he? May God destroy your homes!”
Before I heard a reply, the sedan door opened with a creak like the angel Israfil’s trumpet, and a bright light was focused on my body, which was crammed onto the seat.
“Here he is,” someone said, and the man with the rough voice said, “Show me his face!”
The bright light poured into my eyes, and I could not see anybody, but I heard the rough voice curse harshly, “You cows, you donkeys, you son of….”
Then rushing toward me, yanking off my handcuffs, and speaking in the same tone,
“Mr. Hasan? Oh, you animals! This is Mr. Hasan… Come here! Come here, Hasan.”
And he hugged me.
I could not understand what was happening as he took my hand and walked with me through the darkness in the courtyard. I was no able to comprehend what he was saying. When we entered a room, I saw his face … I focused on his eyes, and they were familiar to me, but they were full of apologies.
When a man said “Uncle Abu Omar,” I remembered the eyes of the man who was watching me, waiting, while I was arguing with a Turkish officer at the border crossing.
He hugged me again. “I’m so ashamed, son of my brother”. Then he turned toward the other men. “I sent you to arrest a military spy and informant at the border and you brought me the man who saved the life of my son Omar.”
He hugged me and said with a shaky voice, “For God’s sake, forgive me, my son”. When he left, after hugging me, I saw two heavy tears crawling from his eyes into his scraggly beard. Shocked at this sight, I did not know what to say.
I imagined the face of the Turkish officer, saying the Arabic proverb in his Turkish accent: “Do good and cast it into the sea”.
I heaved a deep sigh. “Thanks to God. Do good and cast it into the sea”
I wrote in my notebook:
The kidnapping chapter is not a personal one, but rather one of the darkest chapters in the stories of wars in general, and the Syrian war in particular. Many gangs were formed to exploit the chaos and the absence of the rule of law. Most of these gangs started up on the regime side from the first days of demonstrations, when the regime released its mercenary shabbiha to wreak havoc on the people and suppress the demonstrations. Time passed, and they formed organized gangs to kidnap people. They frightened thousands and gathered millions of pounds and dollars in exchange for the life of the detainees. This was the trade of war, the trade of souls.
There were traders who made a business from people’s lives, hiding behind the names of flashy humanitarian organizations as they begged on behalf of those who lived in the open, and made a business from trading in the blankets people used to protect themselves from the heat of summer or the cold of winter.
I have met many of these people who wear fake humanitarian masks, or even religious ones — those who grew their beards long for religious reasons while their wallets were full of dollars and riyals. They exploited the situation in the camps to gratify their personal desires. Some of them searched the camps for underage women alone and in need, and they would marry them under the pretext of helping them according to the Quran and the Prophet’s teachings. These child marriages among the minors in the camps escalated as a result of misery and deprivation.
I remember that, once, I offered a toy to a thirteen-year-old boy and another to his sister, who was a year younger. When I met the child again, after a year, he remembered me and said sadly, “Do you want my sister’s toy? She left it in the house”.
I did not dare ask him where his sister had gone, afraid that he would say she had died, but he said, “She got married”.
I was furious and headed towards her mother’s tent. When I asked her why she had done this, she smiled coldly and said, “Marriage protects girls”.
“But she’s a little child,” I said.
“Her other three sisters got married before her, and at the same age.”
Then she began babbling her illogical words of justification, not even a syllable of which I found convincing. I have heard similar speeches about poverty and being in need and babies born out of wedlock so many times. After a year, I met the boy again, and he told me that he wanted two toys for his sister’s daughters, since she has given birth to twins and that then her husband left back to his country.
This was not only limited to individuals — states also carried out such cruel actions in the names of Syrian refugees. These were states that claimed to be Islamic and Arab, and some of these countries closed their doors in the faces of immigrants escaping death. At the same time, some European countries opened their doors and communities to them.
This war is cursed. Some people work day and night without waiting for a reward, only for the sake of God and for humanitarian reasons, regardless of the obstacles, insults, and the risks that can include death. But on the other side, others are keen to exploit the war as business to earn millions and make it a market to buy slaves for their desires.