Following are the opening pages of my novel "Syrian Rebirth - Rashid's World," It introduces some of the main characters and the setting. But, more importantly, it describes some of the tension that Rashid, my protagonist, feels.
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Wiping his brow, Rashid looked furtively across his spice stall at Ahmed to catch his eye. He then glanced and nodded toward the hot sandy trail running between the stalls. The trail through the market in Damascus normally bustled with activity, full of shoppers and children. But, on that occasion, a lone man strode along it with people cowering back. His tall burly figure didn’t hold people’s attention, nor did the deep scar crossing from the bridge of his nose to below his right ear. He held a loop of leather strapping, the other end of which was attached to a dog’s choke collar. The dog, no ordinary dog, was a tall, bulky vicious black beast. Sections of its coat clumped together. Rashid wondered if dried blood caused the matting in the coat. He guessed the dog weighed well over 100 pounds. People shrank back in fear. The snarling dog left a trail of drool in the sand, and its ferocious bark made Rashid take a step back.
As the pair passed his stall, the man, who wore his scar with pride, glanced over at Rashid. Their eyes locked onto each other causing a chill to run down Rashid’s spine. Before he regained his composure, the man and dog had moved on.
Ahmed spat into the sand and scowled at the man and his dog. The intensity of Ahmed’s reaction surprised Rashid. He had only seen Ahmed react that way a few times before.
The man continued through the market and people ventured out again but kept a wary eye until he was long out of sight.
Rashid asked, “Who was that? Do you know anything about him? Smelt like trouble to me.”
“Oh, yes. The latest thug to be enlisted into President Assad’s Shabiha squad, sent out to terrorize people. He has a horrendous reputation, already. I heard about him and his dog’s atrocities. Stay off his radar. That dog’ll maim or kill any of us in seconds.”
“It’s because of problems like this that I agreed to join our local militia. I want to bring peace back to our city so our families can live happily.”
“I know. One day we’ll throw Assad out. He’s a brutal dictator. He has to go and men like that one have to go, too.”
Rashid ladled turmeric from a sack onto the top of a vibrant yellow mound in a plastic-lined basket along the rear row of his spice stall. He inspected all the baskets to ensure the mounds were all equal. Their various colors vied for his eye’s attention in the bright afternoon sun while slight shifts in the air carried various pungent and sweet aromas to him. He shook his head and frowned. “It’s bad enough fighting the army, but these gangs of thugs and released convicts have become a more difficult enemy. Where did this piece of camel dung come from?”
Ahmed thought for a few seconds as Rashid watched some people return to their shopping while others gathered up their children before heading home. Ahmed answered, “First appeared in Aleppo in 2015 after the Russians bombed the city for many weeks, trying to kill most of the militias opposed to Assad. He stayed there for a year or so. Now, he’s been ordered to come here and help control Damascus.”
“Does he have a name?”
“No, but people call him ‘Krahia.’ It’s how he operates - violently, his and his dog’s interactions with people are always violent.”
“‘Krahia,’ eh? Smells about right. I’ll make sure to avoid him and warn Fatima to keep our three children and herself out of harm’s way. We must warn the others, tonight, at the group meeting.”
“Yes, I’ll do that.” Ahmed wiped his sunglasses on his sleeve. “I need to leave now so I can prepare for the meeting. Do you want any time to cover anything new, from your perspective?”
“No. I’ll see you after dinner, around 9:00?”
As he turned to leave, Ahmed enquired, “Are you packing up the stall soon? It's almost the time when you normally head home. I’ll come back, in a while, to discuss some plans I may propose. I don’t want to disturb your wife Fatima’s dinner preparations at your apartment.”
Rashid smiled and shook his head. “Actually, no, I’m staying here for an extra hour, I hope to meet a supplier who imports spices from China and Japan. Fatima dropped Tahira at some friends before going to visit with several other women. The boys will come here and stay with me after school. So I’ll more than likely still be here.”
“Okay. I’ll see you later, either here or at your apartment, depending on my timing.”
Later, Rashid looked up from measuring out coriander for a customer when he heard the excited chatter of his twin boys. They dropped their bags, waved, and before he finished serving the woman, ran off chasing each other. They showed no care for the sweltering heat. He watched them as they dashed from his stall across the main pathway past two other stalls to the side of the apartment where his family lived. They both jumped to touch the kitchen window and raced back. He hoped they wouldn’t knock anyone over.
He shook his head in wonder. I’d have liked a twin brother … what would that have been like? … my older sister was okay … My two twelve-year old boys, they can … they’re mischievous … but I was too at that age.
Two fellow stall owners, Nabil and Youssef, broke his musings when they stopped to talk. Youssef looked concerned. “My business is dreadful, today, I haven’t sold a pot or a pan. Hardly any customers again all day.”
Nabil nodded his head before Youssef continued, “Many people have begun to flee the city. Fear and intimidation have become our way of life. In parts, neighbors suspect neighbors and, occasionally, people just disappear. I’m thinking of leaving myself, but my elderly mother couldn’t survive a long journey. I can’t leave her here, alone.”
Nabil again agreed as he raised his hand to shade his eyes from the sun. He moved under the dampened muslin sheets, which had been draped over the stalls, and muttered, “Ah, such difficult times. I took my parents and several aunts to Amman in 2013. I know they’re now safe, but it’s hard being apart. I may leave with my family soon. How about you, Rashid?”
“Not sure. While there’s enough business for me, I plan to stay around. However, if that Krahia character comes around here too often, I may change my mind.”
Several customers stopped to make purchases, so he waved farewell to his two associates. Having served the people, Rashid called his boys over. “Mohammed, Faisal, I think you’ve chased each other around for long enough. I want you both to sit just over there and do your homework.”
Mohammed always spoke on behalf of the pair. Of the twelve-year-old twins, he had been born first by a couple of minutes. “But, Father, schooling won’t help us and it’s no fun. You’ve an engineering degree and, look, you have a spice stall.”
Rashid let out a long sigh, he had heard that line too often. “Boys, please don’t look at me as an example of how your own lives will turn out. Allah knows, I’m trying to make your lives better. All I ask is that you study and learn.” Faisal frowned and muttered under his breath as he opened his bag. Mohammed stared at Rashid, contempt blazed in his eyes.
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I hope you feel drawn in by the tension, the characters, and setting. The story continues as Rashid faces many trials, negotiating traumatic and life-threatening events to find his place in this war for the soul of the Syrian people and homeland.
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