People you meet on the Road IV: The Syrian Refugee

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I must confess that contrary what I might seem to express in the last few articles, I’m often not a good person to hang around with. Whilst not a bad person, I’m often too blunt and crass in my views, and I have a deep fondness for irony and sarcasm speckled with black humour. Unsurprisingly, I have an appreciation for gallows humour; when I’ve been in circumstances where I could die, I’ve been known to crack a joke. This works well when I find fellow like-minded compatriots, but it bodes ill when I don’t.

This is something that I’ll probably be reminded of for the rest of my life, yet I learned this once more, one night in Istanbul, almost a year ago. At the time I was in a hostel, in the modern side of town, and as is often the case, I met a lot of people. Amongst them there was a short, and quiet man that was always there. He wasn’t a guest per se, yet he’d once been a guest many months ago. Now that he lived in Istanbul though he would come back for the lively atmosphere every couple of days. His name escapes me at the moment, but saying where he was from will probably be more useful for the story at any rate. He was born and raised in Syria.

It takes little imagination to think about what drove him away from his life as an IT technician in Damascus, and why he felt like boat without a rudder, drifting from one set of acquaintances to the next every couple of days. The hostel had likely been his first anchor – a refuge from god knows what, and thus it’s unremarkable that he’d felt at ease there.

In either case, a group of us at the hostel had befriended each other, and we were hanging out one evening. This man joined our group, and we welcomed his calm demeanour. Soon thereafter, he invited us to his apartment. Or rather, it would be more accurate to say that he invited us to the roof, where there were some deck chairs, and a magnificent sunset overlooking old Istanbul. Off in the distance you could see the Sultan’s Topkapi Palace, escorted by the Hagia Sophia, and the rest of the scene was fronted with the black Bosphorous and an innumerable amount of Ottoman buildings. It was a sight to remember!

We bought a beer or two and enjoyed the view. By now it was clear that our host’s command of the English language was not the best. He was often fishing for words, and all in all did poorly in trying to convey anything but the most simple of ideas. This knowledge gap was often accidentally filled with misunderstandings and faux pas. Add to this the wholly different culture, and you have a recipe for trouble.

Eventually he told us his life story, about how he got out of Syria and got to Turkey; and how he often had to move due to political upheaval. It’s at this point that I made the ill advised joke of saying that he seemed to be the common factor in all of these situations. Maybe unbeknownst to him, he was causing it. Perhaps I should even consider staying away from him, as chaos seemed to follow him wherever he goes.

Needless to say, this did not go well. I blurted this out, not out of malice, but in attempting to make light of a dark situation. I think it is a very human reaction to try to find the humour in the bad. Comedy, in essence is a different interpretation of a tragedy, after all. He didn’t see it as such…

He kept his composure, but he was quite agitated in my presence. Despite his best attempts at hiding it, I read it in his eyes – hatred, for my lack of empathy. It’s not often that one admits to being the villain of the story, but in his eyes I saw that he thought of me a cruel man. Perhaps I was, and I am. I make no apology of who I am.

I stand by my beliefs. I believe comedy is of the few things that allow us to overcome misery. History itself is a comedy of errors. The quickest way to insanity is to take life seriously. Yet, on that sunset, I understood that one has to have an acknowledgement of the different life paths that brought one to meeting each other. As elementary as it may seem, I understood that people will not always see life from the same viewpoint as your own. More so than I had ever understood in my life. He experienced a facet of life that is thoroughly alien to me, and hopefully shall always remain so. Try as I might, I could not begin to understand it.

As such,in due time, I realised that one will eventually be the villain in someone else’s life story, if one happens to be true to oneself. Perhaps you’ll do so quite on accident, perhaps you’ll do so knowingly. Admittedly it wasn’t the proudest moment of my life, to kick someone when they were down. I tried to make amends afterwards, and apologise for having spat in the face of his generosity. It didn’t matter, words had been said, and they could not be unsaid. This proved to be a damper for the rest of the evening…

I have yet to see him since, most probably I will never do so again. At the end of the day, he is a human being, and worthy of dignity. I may not be able to unsay the things that I said, but perhaps I can be kinder and more understanding of where people are coming from. I will not change who I am, but ever since that day, I try to be more compassionate and caring. There’s enough hardship in life already, we should not needlessly add to it, even if unavoidably we may one day become the villain of the story.


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