Chapter 1: Anissa
Friday, April 11, 2014
To My Dearest,
Last Tuesday brought a powerful reminder of why I should never lose hope in life, no matter how bleak things seem to get sometimes. The danger of prolonged despair is its tendency to cloud the gift of a new beginning that every tomorrow offers.
With all of the mounting anxiety and bad news of last week, I had almost forgotten this truth. And then, last Tuesday, my worries and depression were suddenly flipped on their heads, leaving me full of promise and joy. I learned that Professor Morales and Michael are both alive, and that my efforts to help my family and other persecuted Christians in Syria have borne fruit in ways that exceeded my wildest optimism.
After seeing all of the good news in Michael’s email, I eventually calmed down enough to get to Professor Morales’ class, although he embarrassed me a bit for showing up about an hour late.
“Anissa – so nice of you to join us!” he said, as he noticed me trying to enter the room as inconspicuously as possible. “Did you personally decide to end daylight savings time about six months early?” he asked jokingly, to the class’ amusement. I was glad to see that he was back to his usual self and that the class was apparently responding well to him. The moment flustered me a bit, but I was strangely relieved by the net result: the class saw that Professor Morales doesn’t play favorites and that I’m still on the hook – as much as every other student is – for the standards that he had established for everyone.
I caught only the last thirty minutes of his lecture – the first one that he gave since mysteriously disappearing for a week. Judging from that half hour when I was present, he seemed to have regained his confidence, and maybe even some new wisdom or perspective. His apparent renewal naturally increased my eagerness to speak with him again – if only to find out what brought about his epiphany or changed outlook. Of course, I also wanted to thank him for his five-million-dollar donation to the Mideast Christian Association (MCA). But when I went up to him after class to try to talk to him, he was rushing out. As he quickly walked to his car, he spoke on his cell phone for most of the time, so it was hard to communicate much with him while hurrying alongside his stride.
He eventually noticed me there, waiting for the right moment to address him. “I’m sorry, Anissa. I’m in a terrible rush right now. Guys like me have no business disappearing for an entire week without planning for it a solid year in advance.”
“Right, sorry… I’m just glad you’re OK,” I replied, continuing at a brisk pace that matched his. “And I wanted to thank you for that unbelievably generous donation you sent to – ”
“No thanks are needed,” he replied with a smile, as we reached his car. “Let’s do this properly, after I’ve put out the biggest fires,” he added, as he opened the door and entered the luxury sedan.
“So when can I see you again, outside of class?”
“Hopefully by the end of Friday, things will be more manageable. I just need to get through this week somehow,” he said, closing the door.
Then, on Wednesday, I finally spoke with Michael on Skype and learned more about my professor’s big MCA donation, the change in plans requiring him to stay in Syria longer, and other details.
“Was there any note or anything with the five-million-dollar wire transfer?” I asked out of curiosity.
“No, it arrived anonymously from a foundation, which I’m sure is his,” Michael informed me, his face beaming with pride and gratitude.
“Yes. He didn’t deny sending the money when I tried to thank him for it yesterday,” I noted with a smile.
“High five, Wonder Woman!” he said, putting his palm up against the screen. I mirrored his action so that our hands virtually touched on my laptop. “Or should I call you ‘Incredible Inās?’ Or maybe just my future Finance Minister for Antioch?” he added with a wink.
“I’m so happy and excited that this all worked out.”
“Yes, it did. And guess what? I’m leaving soon to help your family.”
My face lit up with an even bigger smile. “What do you mean?”
“I finally had a chance to talk with your uncle, Luke, in Raqqa last week but – until yesterday – I wasn’t sure how I could help, mostly because he hadn’t yet decided where he wanted to relocate his family, and I didn’t have any cash to finance whatever assistance he needed.”
“And now?” I asked, eager for the latest update.
“Well, that wire from your professor changed everything. After I sent you that email update yesterday, I called Luke to let him know that I could arrange for a secure transport with moderate Sunni rebels who are my contacts, and that I could help him with any expenses related to his move.”
“It means so much to me that you’re doing this,” I confessed, my eyes welling up with tears and my heart beating faster. I wanted to give him a huge hug and had to restrain myself from wrapping my arms around my laptop.
“Well, your uncle sounded very relieved and anxious to leave Raqqa. He kept saying how his family could be targeted any day, and my call gave him the extra confidence he needed to uproot all of his immediate relatives from their hometown. When we spoke yesterday, he requested another day to think about where exactly he wanted to relocate everyone. And today he gave me his answer, just a few hours ago.”
I wiped away tears. “So where does he want to go?”
I looked up as I tried to recall what I knew about that place. “Isn’t that a Christian-Armenian village?”
“Yes. It’s about a five-hour drive west of Raqqa, and is just south of the border with Turkey. Actually, it’s roughly where historical Antioch was located, but it’s been an Armenian village for centuries.”
“Why there?” I asked, tilting my head slightly. It seemed odd for my family to be moving to an Armenian village, although the fact that the village is Christian certainly made the decision more understandable.
“So many places, like Homs, are now out of the question with fierce battles raging between Islamists and the Syrian Army. Many non-Armenian Syrians – especially from the war-torn cities of Raqqa and Aleppo – have been seeking refuge in Kessab, and in other coastal cities like Latakia and Tartus. I personally suggested Latakia to him, because there are more Alawites and regime protections there, so it seemed like a safer bet. But nothing is guaranteed, and Luke said that he has a very good friend in Kessab and some business contacts, so he thinks that village would be his best option at this point.”
“And you’re going to be personally involved in this relocation?” I asked, amazed at Michael’s courage and self-sacrifice, yet fearful for his safety.
“Yes, I trust these Sunni rebels, but it’ll be even safer for your family if I am there with them, because they know and respect me. And I promised them $50,000 once your family is safely resettled, so they have every incentive to facilitate a successful move. I’m getting up at the crack of dawn to travel with them to Raqqa, where I’m supposed to meet your uncle at his house by 10 a.m.”
“My Christian Hero,” I said, touching the part of my laptop where his face appeared. “Just be safe. And thank you so much for this.”
After we said goodbye, I thought for a moment about how Michael would be the first of my friends from the United States to meet my family in Syria. I also couldn’t help wondering if he had ever met his ex-girlfriend’s family, since he had dated Karen for twice as long as he had known me.
I shook my head in disapproval of my own petty competitiveness and proceeded to call my sister. It was so wonderful finally to contact her with a positive development that we could both appreciate.
“This is indeed good news,” Maria said, with a forced, tired smile. “Life here is unbearable. Christians are worse than second-class citizens in Raqqa. Many have been beheaded and a few have even been crucified – horrors that darken your memories forever. We are all subject to Sharia law here and it’s the most oppressive and medieval system you can imagine. There is no music allowed,” she began fighting back tears. “I can’t even remember the last time I played the violin.” I thought of the pain and frustration that Maria must feel, knowing that her talent was going to waste, and her musical skills atrophying by the day. “Women must wear a full niqab veil and cannot go out in public without a male escort. They amputate the limbs of accused thieves here. Even some Sunni Muslims quietly complain that ISIS is just bastardizing Islamic law as a way to impose its authoritarian rule over the people of this city. So it’s really just about power and control.”
“I’m so glad you’re finally leaving that Hell,” I said. “But what do you think about going to Kessab?”
“Inās, nowhere is really safe. Syria is becoming one giant graveyard. Uncle Luke thought about Turkey too, but none of us speaks Turkish, and there are so many Sunni Islamists from all over the world flocking to Turkey on their way to fight here, that I don’t even know if we’d feel safe there as Christians – especially since he doesn’t know anyone there.”
“And what about Lebanon?” I asked, even though our discussion was entirely theoretical anyway, since Uncle Luke had already decided on another location in Syria.
“Uncle Luke has better contacts in Kessab. But I think he plans to explore other options in Latakia and maybe also Lebanon, once we settle down a bit. The situation is changing all the time, so we have to be ready for anything, and we’ll need to see what makes the most sense at any given moment. The main thing is to get out of this nightmare where we live now.”
“Yes – just the fact that Kessab is a Christian village should make your lives easier and safer.”
“You have no idea how much we’re all excited about that, after getting a very long taste of life under Sharia law.”
“I’m so happy you’re leaving there tomorrow,” I affirmed. “And guess who will show up to escort you with armed security guards so that your relocation is more secure?”
Maria seemed touched and surprised that someone was actually going to be coming to protect them in transit. “Escort us? I didn’t get all of the logistics and details from Uncle Luke,” she noted, as she tried to guess who it might be. “Who? That guy Michael, your boyfriend?”
“Yes. Well, he’s not really my boyfriend, but we’re very close. It’s complicated. Anyway, he personally knows the moderate Sunni rebels who will escort you from Raqqa to Kessab. And he also speaks Armenian, in case that’s needed, although I’m sure everyone in Kessab speaks Arabic.”
“You have no idea what your help means to us.”
“It’s the least I could do. I always feel terrible that I don’t do more, and that I’m not there helping you in person. But sending a close friend feels like the next best thing.”
“You see, Inās? You’re already doing things for us from there that we couldn’t do for ourselves here.”
“This is just the beginning. Please don’t ever give up hope, Maria. And tell the rest of the family and every Christian you meet that they have a very powerful friend now.”
“What do you mean?”
“The details aren’t important. The main thing is that you and other Christians in Syria realize that you are not alone – that there are people outside who are working to help in any way they can. This movement is just starting, but it holds great promise. You just have to try to stay strong and keep your faith in God and in yourself.”
“Thanks, little sister,” Maria said playfully. “I have to call you that to remind myself you’re actually younger than I am! You sound so grown up now – Mom and Dad would be so proud of you and what you’re doing. I wish I could give you a big hug.”
“Me too. I really miss you and Antoun.”
“And we really miss you.”
After my Psychology and Markets class yesterday, it took all of my willpower not to go up to Professor Morales and speak to him. I knew he was still stressed out and short on time after his unplanned absence from work, but after seeing all that he had done for my family and the cause of persecuted Christians in the Middle East, I needed to show him my gratitude in an unforgettably special way. I wanted to give him something that he would truly cherish and that no one else could give him – not just because doing so would probably deepen our connection, but because it seemed like the right thing to do. The kind of goodness he had shown should be rewarded. He made the generous donation anonymously and hardly let me thank him for it – as if to preserve my dignity and downplay his munificence. As much as I had already grown powerfully attracted to him in recent weeks, his goodness and largesse have made him absolutely irresistible – particularly when I have to keep my distance and let him catch up on his busy life.
But I’m still a bit torn about giving him my virginity – much the way I was when I wrote to you a few weeks ago, trying to decide if I should propose a transaction to him. Like the last time I wrestled with this question, I still find myself vacillating between him and Michael, because Michael really has been my Christian Hero, with all the help he’s given to my family at great personal risk.
Two hours ago, I spoke with Maria again briefly, after they had just settled into a temporary guesthouse in Kessab. She said that there was one very tense moment, at the final checkpoint to exit Raqqa, when the armed guards demanded a final, surprise payment – in addition to the payment that Michael had already made when arranging my family’s departure. ISIS wanted to facilitate their acquisition of “Christian war booty” as they often referred to the confiscated property of Christians who had left the city. Their related demands created a moment of dramatic uncertainty, because no one was sure how Uncle Luke would react to the surprise exit requirement: his signature on a legal document, transferring ownership of his house and business to ISIS.
Their convoy pulled over to the side, to let the other traffic through while Uncle Luke decided on his response. There were two large minivans standing idle with all of his relatives (and whatever possessions they could bring), in addition to two SUVs full of armed rebels that Michael had brought along for security.
Uncle Luke was appalled at the idea and, for a moment, the tension in the air could have exploded in some unpredictable way – if the ISIS guards had reacted violently or one of Michael’s armed rebel escorts had misread the situation and started firing his weapon.
But in the end, Maria told me how Michael managed the situation and asked the ISIS men to give him a few minutes to talk to Uncle Luke privately. Apparently Michael convinced Uncle Luke that this was a lost cause, and that his property was essentially worthless under ISIS rule anyway. Michael patiently and gently set forth the tragic facts that Uncle Luke, in his emotional attachment to all that he had built, was too blind to see: that he was eager to leave the area, that he had no one strong enough to protect his property from ISIS confiscation in his absence, and that nobody would ever pay him a fair price for his property, knowing that he is a Christian who is desperate to leave the city. In the end, Uncle Luke listened to Michael’s reasoning. Maria said that she and the rest of our family all watched from the van as Uncle Luke broke down in tears, reluctantly signing over his home and business to the Islamist thugs who had taken over the city where he had lived for over half a century. It was a heartbreaking moment, but necessary for my family’s liberation from the barbaric rule that had destroyed their hometown.
Anyway, there is so much more I could write to you about so many related topics, but I have to stop now so that I can get ready for my date with Professor Morales. His extra hectic work week is finally over, and I was delightedly surprised to answer an unknown number on my cell a few hours ago, only to discover that it was my professor! He called to see if I wanted to join him for dinner at another high-end vegetarian restaurant – this one near his penthouse. During and after our brief conversation, the butterflies in my stomach went into overdrive. With so many conflicting desires and considerations, I still don’t know how intimate I should be with him, or even – if I were to stay with him at his place – how I would manage my nightly (and rather private) ritual of falling asleep by begging my parents not to enter their car. But I guess that will all just figure itself out as the night unfolds.