Extract from Chapter 5 - Syrian Rebirth
Rashid's family along with Dareen and her two children had joined the flood of refugees, fleeing Damascus and heading to Beirut. They took a side road, trying to avoid the main road along with its overwhelmed border checkpoint. A truck driver, intent on robbing them, viciously attacked the group. In the encounter, the driver had been killed while Rashid had been seriously hurt. Dareen drove the truck several miles across a stretch of open desert, crossing the border into Lebanon. As they drove across the desert, Rashid and Dareen sat in the cab and the other five tried to hold on in the open flatbed.
As they crossed the sandy plain, Rashid realized the far-off ridge didn't seem to be much closer, as he hoped. The maps I checked, on-line, showed this crossing to be only ten or twelve miles. I think we have driven for about five miles, and we're no closer. Walking all this way, we couldn’t.
The truck came to a gradual halt. Dareen frowned as she stared at the dashboard's gauges. "What, the .... "
Rashid's thoughts about the route stopped as he turned, puzzled, toward Dareen.
The front of the truck started to gradually drop. As Rashid focused his thoughts and tried to work out what might have just happened, Dareen opened the driver's side door and jumped out. She screamed. Rashid rolled toward her door to see her floundering and screaming. Her feet and lower half of her legs had already sunk into the loose sand, and she continued to slowly sink. He had only ever heard about quicksand but never been around any before.
He forced open his own door and despite his injuries clambered along the side of the truck, trying to ignore all the pandemonium and terror coming from those in the flatbed. When he passed the rear wheels, he put a foot on the ground and applied more weight to that foot. He did not sink. Still holding on to the truck, he put his body weight on the both feet on the sand. He didn't sink. He shuffled to the back of the truck and pulled down the tailgate.
Fatima sat, braced next to the tailgate. Her frightened expression indicated she was unsure what to do. Rashid grasped both of her arms and firmly said to her, "Fatima, my love, I need you to stay calm, stay where you are, and help the children get to me." He helped all the children except Faisal on to the sand where they stood paralyzed with fear. He clambered up onto the flatbed, telling Fatima to join the three on the sand. The truck tilted at more of an angle as the front sank lower. Dareen was up to her waist in the sand. He took a handful of the dog chain as he hollered at her, "Dareen, Dareen. I'll throw this chain to you. Grab it." The first throw landed too far from her to reach, but the next toss was close enough for her to grasp. She desperately wrapped links of the chain around her right arm and hand.
Rashid turned to Faisal. "Keep the chain away from my feet as I pull her to me." Faisal nervously nodded. Rashid pulled on the chain, but his pains and injuries stopped him from exerting all the effort he needed. As he fought to gain just a little movement, he was further compromised by fear he might lose a dear friend because he was unable to pull her clear. He gained an inch, then two. A sense of relief flooded through him. He pulled harder, but as he did so, he realized there was no slack in the chain behind him. He turned, expecting to see Faisal managing the end of the chain to keep it out of his way as he had been instructed. But between them, Fatima braced herself, pulling with all of her might.
Dareen stopped screaming as her knees were almost above the sand. Rashid breathed heavily as he suggested to Fatima and Faisal, "Let's move over next to the truck, so we can pull her onto the firmer sand where the kids are." They unhitched the chain from the anchor points in the flatbed, threw their luggage near to where the children stood and moved to the firmer sand. All the kids joined the chain to help pull Dareen out of the quicksand. Eventually she stood on firm ground in the embrace of Fatima, Rashid and the four children. They laughed, they cried, they thanked Allah.
By the time they released their embrace, the truck's front grill had disappeared into the quicksand. They inched back away from the truck along its tire tracks. They realized they were going to have to walk from this point and the ridge of hills with the canyon was still a long way off. Seeking firmer terrain, they headed North toward a low ridge that lay about half a mile away. Rock slabs ran along the ridge, giving Rashid the hope they'd find a safe passage with no more quicksand. After an unsettling walk across loose sand where every footstep was uncertain, they reached the rocks, and they slumped down, relieved.
After a short rest, the group trudged along the lower edge of the ridge, keeping to rocky areas. Soon the ridge turned further to the North, forcing them to venture back out across open areas of loose sand. Rashid wanted to keep their path aimed at the canyon. Their pace slowed to almost a crawl. The children complained about the heat and being tired. Fatima asked Rashid, "Isn't it time to set up camp? The sun is getting high."
Dareen added, "I think we are all rather beaten after losing the truck in the quicksand. I know I am."
Rashid reluctantly agreed, "I suppose you're right. I hoped to reach the road this morning. But having to walk makes that impossible."
They found a partly rocky area where they unpacked what they needed for their camp. In just a few minutes, bread, dried fruit, and water had been laid out for a small breakfast. Gratefully, they retired in the shade created by the tarpaulin and tried to sleep. Rashid lay restless and in pain. His swollen face pulsated, particularly around his left eye. Fatima applied salve to the bloodied areas causing Rashid to wince. He whispered, "I'm sorry. I don't mean to pull away. The ointment stings while you rub it on, but I admit I feel better afterwards." She smiled sympathetically, causing him to think. That's what I need ... my Fatima's smile ... I missed her smile. My spirits are lifted, seeing her smile. They lay together. Soon she fell asleep leaving him to ponder why this desert crossing wasn't proceeding as expected.
As they broke camp in the late afternoon, Rashid noticed Faisal lost in thought. Rashid nudged him and asked, "Something on your mind you want to share?"
The twelve-year-old smiled sheepishly at his father and blurted out, "Now that I'm a man, I need to do things. I was thinking about us possibly walking into quicksand and I have an idea."
Rashid put his hand on Faisal's shoulder. "We shall talk about being a man, but that can come later. What's your idea?"
"I weigh less than you and more than Tahira. If I walk ahead of the group, I can check for sand that isn't firm."
Rashid expressed concern about the suggestion, "But, what if you start to sink, like Dareen did?"
Faisal chuckled and pointed at Rashid. "You can tie the rope we use for the tarpaulin around my waist. You can hold the other end of the rope. If necessary, you and mother can pull me out."
Rashid nudged Faisal's shoulder. "Perhaps you're becoming a man. I'm not saying it's a great idea, but not too crazy. Let's go and talk to your mother and Dareen."
Fatima immediately rejected the idea. However, after a few trials with the rope being doubled to ensure the line would be strong enough, they all agreed. With their new configuration, they walked more assuredly and maintained a faster pace. Rashid's focus stayed on the canyon which took them directly across the open plain of sand. After a couple of miles, daylight faded.
Rashid still held concerns about quicksand. "I know we normally travel after dark, but considering this terrain, I suggest we camp now and delay starting until after dawn."
The thought of a longer night of sleep brought cheers from the four youngsters. Almost without any discussion, the children started pulling camping gear out of their bags. Fatima and Dareen shrugged and began setting up camp, too.
Arising as the sun came over the horizon felt so late. But the mood of the camp was lighter and more optimistic. In little time, they had eaten and prepared for another day of walking. Faisal again took the lead, keeping up a steady pace. Rashid thought they could reach the canyon during their afternoon walk.
Natasha had been day-dreaming as she wandered along, but suddenly she pointed behind her to the right. "What're those?"
The group stopped and turned where she had pointed. Beyond the end of the ridge they walked along the previous day, the tops of four poles with wires strung between them stood proud against the blue sky. In an instant, Rashid recognized the significance of the poles. He joyfully shouted, "The road. The road must be over there." The group cheered, they dropped their bags and excitedly danced around, despite their tired muscles. Expressions of relief, happiness, and amazement crossed their faces. Fatima embraced Rashid. "You brought us across the border. Hopefully, we will now be safe. Thank you."
He hugged her. "Alhamdullila. Thank you, Allah."
They gathered up their belongings and headed up the rise between them and the poles. Their pace quickened as the thought of a road pulled them forward. They finally stood still, looking down a slope at the two-lane road, which snaked its way between ridges and dunes, along with an accompanying line of poles holding wires that sagged listlessly. The end to their walk across the open desert lay just a quarter of a mile ahead of them. No one worried about the canyon that Rashid had been aiming for. He disregarded the canyon himself. A road was a road and it went somewhere.