Walking in [Insert City Name]

Walking in Memphis! But do I really feel the way I feel?! They got catfish on the table, They got gospel in the air. Reverend Green!! be glad to see you when you haven’t got a prayer. Boy, you’ve got a prayer in Memphis.

Cher – Walking in Memphis 

Everything is different in Damascus, that city has its lights that dazzle you, you’re standing in the middle of the street, and you see the shinning lights glowing on the background of darkness; as you walk, they mesmerize you, and they start creating hallows of gold around them, that shines all the way across the dark blue skies. There is nothing like the skies of Damascus, they are so clear, so clean, so dark at night and so bright in the mornings. They are dusted away by angels in those wee hours when only wolves are awake. Just so you would wake up in the early minutes of sunrise; see the drop of dew sliding, like in an amusement park, on the windows and on the cold iron bars of the stairs; right next to the small plants my grandmother cherish and protect with her own life. 

Damascus is a dream that doesn’t come true but for the deserving. It’s a city of hopes and love, hiding deep within the corners of Bab Sharqi, on the rooftops of Al-Hamidieh, and in the jars of spices of Mehdat Basha. Damascus is a song only the true listeners can hear.”

— The way my boyfriend, originally from Damascus, would describe his mother city.     

ImageAleppo is driving in the middle of night, with your music loud enough to wake the dead, and enjoying a breathe of freedom. Aleppo is the guy singing for 16 hours, nonstop, those hard, untouchable, Qoudoud Halabieh, while people enjoy their Arjileh, mimicked across the world, but never the same taste. Aleppo is the city where children play peacefully and safely until late hours of nights. Aleppo is checking out the cute girl in the corner, and she checked you back. Aleppo is the bizarre taste of a first kiss, the electrifying feel of a first touch, the deep inhale as you fall in love for the first time. 

Aleppo is a lady standing on top of a tower, and her hair is long. She let it down only for the worthy, and only the worthy can climb it all the way up to the top. Aleppo is a magician that doesn’t reveal his secrets. Aleppo is a goddess standing in the middle of the desert, and surviving for the past million years.

Aleppo is the deep laughter of a child who is playing, tirelessly, pika-poo with his parents for the very first time. Aleppo is the musical noise of cars honking at me; yet, I’m lost with Aleppo, and cannot be found.”

— My friend Jay, the way she would describe her love for Aleppo. 

Alexandria is a mermaid, with blue hair, spreading her magic over the waves, and calling you to come, as you might never come back.”

” Istanbul is my sister, waiting at home, with a sweet smile, takes care of me when I’m down, hugs me when needed. We might picker, but our love is eternal.”

“I might hate Beirut, I surely cannot afford Beirut, I sometimes feel cheated by Beirut, but Beirut is my city. It’s where I’m from, it’s where I belong.” 

— Some friends I crossed paths with before. 

As I prepare myself to the next chapter in my life, getting myself ready to explore yet another city around the world, trying to see how will I fit in the big puzzle such cities provide. I hear people speak about their mother cities; and I fall in love of their versions of the cities that carried them while they were young. Mostly, I find myself joking inside of my head about the misleading concepts they have for a city they usually idolize based on childhood memories that are most probably twisted and added upon with layers of time and changes that they might actually never been real after all. Yet, like Frida Kahlo, in one of her most important paintings, I cannot help but wonder about the roots of me. Where do I see myself? Which city do I foolishly idolize. I find my answer to be void all the time. 



The dream Frida is trying to produce here is of her, rootless, only belonging to herself, while her ideas, her relationships, her life, is growing out of her simple and shallow body; leaving scares unhealed by the time, and streams of blood that cannot be ended. 

Is it me? Am I the problem? Touring the world might have given me much, but it also took away from me the ability to delusion-alize oneself into believing in a concept of a city, where cities are merely locations on a map that are bordered according to the political and historical twists of fate. Cities are rocks, dust, water and fire gathering to create yet another meaningless corner of the world. Why does it mean so much to others, while it means nothing to me? Why do I lack the need to belong to an entity; a city, a nationality, even? I cannot figure that out. 

Cities are landmarks to the primitive notions of human needs to gather for protecting, food and shelter. Knowing that, however, do not help me understand why, this notion of belonging, is haunting me, yet again, as I’m preparing my next move away from yet another city. 


Why do I travel? to be free

The sky was getting darker and the cold wind was becoming harsher, but hiding behind the closed windows of the ferry taking me back from Anadolu Kavagi, a village overlooking the Black Sea, to Istanbul, I was shielded from the elements.

The chilly though enjoyable atmosphere was the highlight of my trip to Turkey last February. I remember thinking about the small joys of travel, right after I bought some boiling hot black tea from a coffee shop aboard the ferry. As I held the tea cup, I could feel the warmth traveling through the fabric of my gloves, a pair I had bought years earlier in Cairo but had never used until that moment. The contrast between hot and cold heightened my senses, and my eyes followed the drops of rain as they fell and left traces across the glass window next to me. The boat was sailing down the Bosphorus strait. To my left was Europe with its glaring lights, and to my right rested Asia. The continents were calling my name.

During that ferry ride, I was almost in denial. I couldn’t believe that I was there, somewhere between Europe and Asia, listening to Dido’s “Give me Strength” and emancipated from the “Arab Traveler Lock-in Syndrome” (ATLS)–a very unique condition that hits people like me, and those with similar circumstances. ATLS–I pronounce the term like the word “atlas”–is something my family and friends have come to know well after I was diagnosed with the syndrome.

You see, as a poor journalist without a foreign passport, I’ve believed for so long that I’m one of these unfortunate people that won’t get to travel too far. Stuck with my Syrian passport that won’t take me anywhere, I once believed that Egypt was the farthest place I could dream of traveling to.

My love for novelty and my passion for traveling took me all across Egypt back when I lived there but the situation in Syria prevented me from doing the same. I managed to visit places some Egyptians have never been to–the Black and White Desert, Siwa Oasis, Qusair and Aswan. Through these trips, I tried to calm the symptoms of my unique syndrome, but I never really managed to satisfy that beast inside of me that always hungers for new places and experiences.

A “lock-in syndrome” is a real condition. It’s a rare neurological disorder characterized by complete paralysis of voluntary muscles in all parts of the body except for those that control eye movement. Individuals with lock-in syndrome are conscious and can think and reason, but are unable to speak or move. The disorder leaves individuals completely mute and paralyzed. That is exactly how I felt, as an Arab who enjoys traveling.

A small number of embassies would open their doors to me, and even a smaller number of countries would allow me a non-visa visit. Europe and the United States, although on the top of my dream list, are the hardest to get into, for reasons of stereotypes and stigmas.

It often seemed to me that the embassy officials of these nations are not willing to look at each and every case of a visa application individually. Although I’m a middle-class Arab with a good education and, as my friend puts it, no criminal record, I’m still treated like one of these people who would overstay their tourist visa and work illegally in Europe or the States. Add to that; that I’m single in my papers; how would a gay man be anything but single on his Syrian papers even if he was in a relationship? To go to places such as Canada, Europe or America; I actually have to immigrate; imagine that! I have to work with my friends there to either find someone from them who is willing to marry me or support my claim to immigrate under the spotlight that Syria is this barbarian place where gays are being killed on sideways! I mean, yeah, Syria is homophobic; but I’m living here a normal life as long as I’m keeping my head down.

Admittedly, we hear all the time about Arabs illegally entering Europe. How could the people reading my application be sure that this guy, in his mid-twenties, is not going to do the same? I understand that, but it doesn’t help me fight my ATLS, my condition of paralysis and inability to speak.

I felt unworthy of the gift of travel.

I always heard something too–a trickle, the sound of my life slipping away. Day after day I would feel the itch to journey, to know new places and hear different languages, and I would suppress my feelings with a new trip to Dahab or Marsa Matrouh, both inside Egypt. Several attempts to get a tourist visa to Italy or the United Kingdom failed miserably and my depression went through the roof.

No matter how many midnight trains I take inside Egypt or Syria, I still felt that my journey has not started yet. I needed to go somewhere new so bad that sometimes I felt I was going out of my mind.

But then there was a glimpse of hope. And, yes, I was saved.

Turkey and Syria, couple of years back, opened their borders to each other’s citizens: no visa required.

In the airport in Istanbul I was standing there in the line, wearing my heaviest jacket and way too excited, when I saw this American man, wearing shorts and flip-flops and screaming in the face of the immigration officer. The American guy–who had obviously researched the weather in Istanbul in February–did not believe that he needed to go to an extra window to pay for his entry visa. Such an easy and simple procedure somehow insulted him and he start cursing while heading to the wrong window. I wanted to help him, but he was fuming and unapproachable, and I was next in line.

I took a step forward, fearing that someone was going to take this chance of seeing a new land away from me. I greeted the immigration officer briefly and smiled; he smiled back, and stamped my passport. I was in Turkish land. I was free to travel.

I was once asked what travel means to me. The images that came to my mind were not of journeys and trips, but of someone trapped, staying in the same place, the same street, the same city, the same country…for too long. The feeling that surfaced was of stillness and routine, and the knowledge that there is nothing new to know and experience. Simply because I have come to associate these feelings with travel. Or, more precisely, with the lack thereof.

For me, travel is not an action in itself, it is a reaction against stillness–and with all the negativity in my life, there is a need for novelty. It is simply the need to ponder on all my unanswered questions as I am introduced to even new ones.

Now; I’m stuck in Syria and it has been a long winter since I travelled out of my routine road between home and work; I’m counting the moments to travel to Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, anywhere really; and wishing that I can just leave these borders; open two wings and fly. You can imagine how I’d feel if I managed to get out. And again, for a moment, it will seem that the syndrome is finally leaving me–I will be healed, and able to move–or at least fidget–in my psychological cage…slipping through bit by bit.

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