Blue skies. White steps. The peevish ‘preet!’ of a traffic cop’s whistle. Horns honking like angry geese. Fumes creep into my nostrils and curl around the fresh-baked smell of koulouria from across the square. The babble of people swarm in and out of the Metro station. I lean back against the cardboard I’m lying on, close my eyes and let the thin winter sun tickle my face. Its warmth feels so familiar. If I try hard, I can almost imagine I’m back home. Back to the ‘old me’.
I open my eyes and watch the feet going past, each on their way somewhere else. Rushing to work, late for a date, going to a lesson, meeting friends for coffee.
Two small sneakers with the laces half undone stop in front of me. Their new-shoe shine has been scuffed off, and they dance awkwardly on the spot like they’re trying to find the courage to do something. A little kid, maybe five years old, bends down and nervously hands me a crumpled paper bag, then looks to his mum for approval. I look inside, then up into his face, and nod my thanks for the half-eaten cheese pie.
Sometimes, people give me food or some spare coins. Even a smile before going on their way. Other times, it’s just angry words I only half understand.
But most don’t even look at me. I’m no more important to them than the empty coffee cups, unwanted flyers and dead leaves swept into the gutter. Just another part of the landscape that they filter out in this dirty, noisy city that’s as old as history. They feel safer that way, I suppose, more ‘comfortable’.
That boy had a family, a home, a good life, hopes and dreams despite the troubles beyond our walls. He had an Xbox, home cooked meals, friends, homework, a mobile phone, football boots, piano lessons...
Maama was so proud when I was offered a place at the Damascus High Institute for Music and Theatre. Made all those hours practicing scales and plonking my way through the Arabic and Western classics worthwhile. Her own ambitions, stopped in their tracks when she married, were born again through me. The first time I played ‘Für Elise’ without a single mistake, she’d burst into tears. Imagine how happy she was when her boy had got into the country’s top music school.
It closed down just a few months after I enrolled. The chords and harmonies that echoed in its practice rooms silenced by the crescendo of gunfire and explosions that got louder, closer, more deadly every day.
The music still lives inside me. Even this ‘new me’ that hasn’t showered in months, gets as much compassion as a stray dog and has to beg or rummage through the garbage for food. Music is the one thing that reminds me that I’m still human. Just about.
I cram the rest of the cheese pie into my mouth and wipe my fingers on my jeans. I reach into my pocket, pull out a grubby piece of paper. It’s marked where it’s been folded and refolded a thousand times. Notes and time signatures dance along the lines on the page. I lay it on the ground and carefully smooth it out.
My fingers mimic familiar movements on the keys and, just for a moment, I’m back in our living room. Practicing while Maama stirs a pot of thick, sweet coffee, her head nodding with the tempo and a quiet smile dancing on her lips.
I can almost smell the cardamom cookies she bakes to serve with the coffee.
My older brother Sameer left one night and never came home. He’d gone to Europe, Maama said. He’d send for us. But her eyes were red, and the shadows under them got darker with every day we heard no news.
One day, Baba came home smudged with dust and blood. A bomb had exploded in Rawda Square, he said. Things would only get worse, he said. I had to leave. Now.
Maama’s face crumpled. “No! Not my baby. He’s only 17. He’s just a boy.” A sudden staccato of gunfire a few streets away silenced her. My father looked at us, empty-eyed, a once proud man broken by his inability to protect his family.
Two days later, I said goodbye to the only home I’d ever known. Bundled into a truck in the middle of the night, clutching a bundle of pastries Maama had spent a tearful afternoon baking, trying to soak every ounce of her mother’s love into the dough. Baba hung his head as he handed the driver a bulging envelope. He wouldn’t – or couldn’t – look at me.
The journey was a blur. We travelled by night, often with no lights, through places I’d never heard of. After days (or was it weeks?) on the road, we reached the coast. I spilled my guts in the open boat crossing the sea. Then, we were vomited onto the beach of an island where people looked like me but spoke a different language. Some brought us day-old bread, olives, bean stew and dry clothes. Others spat at us as we walked into town.
An overwhelmed policeman with a nicotine-yellowed moustache demanded our papers. I had none, except the music in my pocket.
Athens is my home, for now. No camp or shelter for me. Officially, I don’t exist. I sleep in the wreck of an abandoned school. Fifty of us to a room with rows of filthy mattresses covering every inch of the concrete floor. No running water or electricity. We make what we can with the rice, lentils, oil and bottles of water kind-faced volunteers bring us, cooking our meals over a flickering camping stove.
It’s better than sleeping on the streets. Or selling ourselves to perverts in the park.
Back at the squat, I have to escape. Too many people. Too much noise. Too many smells.
I climb the stairs, picking my way past the junkies lying dead-eyed on the landing. I’ve never come this far before, fearing they’d infect me with their poison. Huh, needn’t have worried. They don’t know I’m there. All they know is the temporary escape running like sludge through their veins.
On the second floor, a breeze ruffles my hair and bangs a classroom door. All the windows are broken. Graffiti I can’t read covers the walls. I shiver and pull my jacket closer around me against the chill.
My footsteps crunch over the broken glass that lines the corridor. I open a door and look inside. Almost empty. Just a battered piano stool. No piano. A space waiting to be filled.
I pull the stool to the windowsill, sit down and take out my sheet of music. My fingers find their place and start to move. ‘Für Elise’ fills my mind, and I swear I can smell cardamom cookies.
The old me still lives, bound by hope and the music in my head to my home. A place where I am safe and loved. A place which probably no longer exists.