His arabic features stood out, as any other middle-eastern would have in a mixed crowd of Malaysians and Indonesians. The sunlight hit his face mercilessly in spite of the roofs above us that stretched along Kasturi Walk. A cigarette was carefully lit. The volume of noise was suddenly raised as the bazaar reached its peak hour. He raised the cigarette up high as if it was a drink to be toasted, and flashed me an Arabian smile.
‘After 30 over years, this is my only friend,’ he remarked. We both nodded.
‘Ssssmoke and ssssand?’ I said in jest. Thankfully my effort was not in vain. He puffed rings of smoke in delight. It seemed as if the topics we discussed were strangely related, alphabetically – smoke, sand, Syria.
‘I hope you don’t mind…’ he trailed off and let the rest of his sentence drown in the din around us. I casually waved a hand to mean that it was okay. Normally at this point, a voice inside me would be narrating the opening lines of an eulogy. Evidently, like the bustling crowd around me, that voice was out to lunch. I perceived his cigarette to be a minimal threat, but later I would find out that his enthusiasm and ciggy, teamed with the occasional spittle, proved to be a deadly combination.
A little while before, we were inside the air-conditioned refuge of Central Market, yet to be touched by the sweltering heat. He was telling me about history, his humble life as the son of a merchant who did sand art – decorative bottles of intricate designs, filled with nothing but coloured sand. He never received any formal education because that was the norm for children who lived in the vast expanse of Syrian desert. The sand art he marks everyday for a living has been his one and only source of income for the past 30 or so years. In action, one would certainly attest to his fantastic competence. He says that it’s a matter of practising a particular design, one at a time.
‘I can make something different, but it would take additional time to finish because it needs practise. What I’m used to can take 5 minutes. The most difficult design takes me 30 minutes’
His job pays well enough for him to travel to different countries. He has been to Italy, Africa and most of the Arab world and aspires to work in China and Singapore next. Talk of his home inevitably lead to the Syrian war and the Arab Spring. His cheerfulness subsided a little and made way for a more serious character. He struggled to express himself. It was then that he suggested we step outside (which was only a few feet away from his stall) to facilitate his habit. I also learned that his name was Ahmed.
The way he pronounced ‘Ahmed’ was bizarre to me. It had a foreign ring to it. The letter ‘h’ silenced. It was refreshing to hear an Islamic name pronounced differently, kind of like the new perspective he gave me on the war. Ahmed inhaled a few deep drafts before he unleashed a long speech on the current affairs of his homeland’s war. He emphasised a few points through repetition: that on average, 200 civilians are killed everyday by the army and the Syrian tyrants are stupid behemoths.
‘Yesterday, 45 people died. At any day, it could be 100. Or 200. It’s a war against innocent civilians. We have 7000 years of civilised history. So much richness of culture. Look at Malaysia, only 40 years and you — you made something out of almost nothing! But war must come first now, we have waken up.’
‘Sacrifices must be made.’
‘I’m sorry, what?’
‘It’s alright. Er, to have something good, there must be some bad first.’
‘Ah, a price.’
“A lot to pay.’
I couldn’t tell if his eyes were red from the high-riding emotions, the scorching sun or the smoke. Every time he wanted to make a point, he swung his arms about, causing some of the ash from his ciggy to fall away. I had to watch my distance; I didn’t like burns.
I wanted to say something along the lines of, ‘we young punks here don’t quite like our government too, albeit for individual reasons.’ But it came out as ‘I don’t really like the Malaysian government.’
‘Ah, I like your Mahathir Mohamad. He did many things for your country. Do you know how many bridges you have? Thousands. In Syria, we have a few bridges, and even those most of us can’t really get to.’
I chewed on that for a moment. About how dire the situation is in Syria. His stories of women being raped and the dead being mercilessly chopped up and young men being denied their most basic rights. How extremely incomparable the situation of these two countries are. He sensed my discomfort and tried to lighten up the mood.
‘Even though my best customers are Chinese, the Chinese government back Bashar. And Russia.’
‘Oh, god. Power?’
‘What else is there? Oil. Gas. Our own government will only take. And take. They do not care for us. Even the Muslims wage war against their own brothers. I’m sorry, do you understand the war between the Sunni Muslims and the Shia Muslims?’
So he explained to me, very concisely – and impressively, given his limited vocabulary – about the fundamental difference between the two. A very messy and bloody clash of beliefs.
‘The funny thing is, in Syria, the Sunnis are the majority. Shias are minority, but they are very powerful.’
‘Bullying. That’s bad.’
‘Very bad. Did you know a Muslim means to be… I’m not sure how to say this… to make peace with one another? This makes the government very stupid people. Even Iran supports the president, because Iran follows the same denomination.’
I was at loss for words. It was too much information in a short period of time. Probably my punishment for not reading up enough. But I did not care much before. I did try to care, I did buy last year’s last edition of TIME, which featured Ahmed’s people. However, I found myself right then and there, struck by the full force of his words. His cigarette butt’s end in crumbs on his lap and sweat trickling down his neck. Never have I seen such fear in a person’s eyes and determination to survive. My bubble used to extend, at its furthest, to near-death experiences with irresponsible drivers while on my bike, roadkill and my father’s dolled-up corpse.
Although Ahmed left his country in time, just before the Arab Spring, he tries his best to help the younger and more tech-savvy Syrians through the media and facebook, helping circulate relevant and pressing news and updating other expatriates like him on both good news and bad news.
‘If I went to school and realised the importance of education earlier, I would have become a journalist.’