I open Facebook to find a birthday greeting. I grasped the opportunity to return the greeting, making up for those three years in which I couldn’t send him birthday wishes. Those were the three years he spent in prison for writing on the Internet. I used to contribute to his site. It was called Akhawia.
Karim Arabji is a beautiful friend.
For three years, I would play with my own birthday cake and blow out my candles, wishing him freedom and goodwill. He was released from prison and I messaged him on Facebook. I sent him birthday greetings in a formal manner which did not quite convey how happy I was that he was free. And he reciprocated in a gentle way.
That was our last opportunity to celebrate Kareem, who died after leaving prison from a heart attack at the age of 33, leaving us wondering what horrors that heart had experienced, what had made it give up. He left this world just before the revolution.
My wishes were very personal. Some concerned the possibility of travelling to America, my studies, love and life. And I blew out the candles.
August 12, 2011
Each year my mother would put the family into the birthday spirit for the occasion. Nothing could convince her that we had grown up and might perhaps have preferred to celebrate our birthdays somewhere other than at home.
Dinner was always the same: Bite-sized sandwiches, zaatar, spinach and cheese, little pizzas which she would brag about being tastier than those bought at the market, taboula, a chocolate cake which had my name on it and candles. The house was tidied and she would invite a few relatives and friends.
There was a present. A necklace with a butterfly (when I was optimistic, I used to consider it a symbol of strength and femininity). And my sister and I would agree on the gift I wanted her to buy for me.
This year, my mother made the celebration even bigger. She was happy I was fine. During the party she gently reproached me about the terror I had caused her. I blow out my candles, wishing for the revolution to succeed. They jokingly sing to me: “It was a black day when you were born.” And it seems that with time, I started to think that this is really the case.
My wishes: the overthrow of Assad. I suspect none of the rebels expressed any other wish on their birthdays.
I then had another birthday with my friends, my childhood friends.
On that day, we made light of our political differences and approached our intellectual arguments with some timidity. We blew out my birthday candles for the last time.
August 12, 2012
After my mother died it didn’t feel appropriate to celebrate in the house without her. I was still wearing black. My childhood friends forgot—or pretended to forget—my birthday. The fear of being associated with me became the defining factor in our relationship. Our differences became political. It became a sharp ethical difference, which could no longer be bridged with humour or even sarcasm.
In the morning I had to attend the weekly interrogation at the political security branch. I told the interrogator how ridiculous it was for this to happen on my birthday, and he laughed stupidly.
The celebrations were with a new group of friends I had got to know in the relief schools after half of Aleppo was liberated and the other half turned to providing relief aid.
My wishes were for Bashar Al Assad to leave, for the bombing of Aleppo to stop and for the exhausting interrogations to end. I blew my candles out for the last time in my family home in Western Aleppo, which is until today under the control of the regime and which I can’t even visit.
August 12, 2013
I have been living in the liberated part of Aleppo for a while, surrounded by wonderful friends whom I called during war the “full half of the glass.”
They are still today how they’ve always been. They are friends who don’t know anything about my childhood and have never visited my family home—all that unites us is the revolution. On that day, the ISIS started its first kidnappings in my city. The previous day, Abu Maryam had disappeared and we did not know anything about the faction that took him and if he really was kidnapped.
On my birthday, a “black day” like the all the previous ones, Samar and Mohammed were kidnapped by the ISIS. They are still missing.
The celebrations were interrupted by the sounds of explosions, which we have become used to and which did not bother us at all. The sweets on offer were modest. The bouquet of flowers would have, for some reason, looked normal at a funeral. They brought me another bouquet through the dangerous crossing which you could have been sniped at for just crossing it. My friend crossed it to celebrate my birthday with me.
My wishes were to return to the Aleppo I knew, for Abu Maryam to be fine, and for the ISIS to disappear from my life. My wishes were narrow, the size of my local concerns. I was not able to have wishes which encompassed the whole nation. We did not blow out the candles because there was no electricity.
August 12, 2014
I am in Gaziantep, in Turkey, and can’t return to Aleppo. I am obsessed with the person I love and worried about losing him. Nothing in me is healthy, if it is correct to say so. He summons all his powers to organise a surprise birthday for me. He invites friends and some of his relatives. They buy presents and select a place. It’s hard to come up with a surprise that would suit what we think is my “severe depression.”
The moment I entered the party and saw them all, I wasn’t overcome with joy. On the contrary, I was depressed. I reproached him unjustly, just like all my bouts of anger: “I told you I don’t want to celebrate.” At that moment, the music starts. The Turkish music startles me. I will never return to Aleppo. I sit on a chair in the restaurant, surrounded by those many friends. I cry. I break down.
I leave the party.
August 12, 2015
It is a normal day. This is what I decided I would do to celebrate my birthday.
Perhaps I have become used to life in exile.
In the morning, I have to attend a conference on the role of civil society.
In the afternoon, I have a session with my therapist.
And at night, I will meet with friends where we will have political discussions about the Turkish currency, the buffer zone and the protests in the coastal areas.
Nothing personal at all.
This Post is published as a part of Dispatches from Aleppo, Global voices.