Seven Hells by Zaid Hassan
‘I need to speak with you, meet me at Al Nuaimi Café in 15 minutes’.
Helin wiped the sweat from her forehead using the knuckles of her left hand and checked the time on the phone she held in the other. 6:44. The message had been sent at 6:12. Sighing heavily, she pulled off her apron and vest and flung them onto her futon. Tiny spirals of dust launched into the air, visible only as they swirled up into the streak of sunlight entering the tent through a small tear in the canvas. She could get to the café in ten minutes, five if she ran, but she wasn’t going to run. No, she would stroll along at her own pace, perhaps stopping to pick up and smell a stubborn flower that might have survived the regular stampede of feet that terrorised the wildlife on the camp grounds.
Helin wondered what Shireen wanted from her this time. Whenever they spoke, it seemed she required a favour of some sort. Helin was always happy to help, eager even, as though it was programmed in her to serve those in need, often at her own expense. ‘Am I sure I’m ready to see her?’ she speculated, picking up and sniffing each of the three vest-tops she owned. She wasn’t sure, but she’d go anyway, hoping Shireen had already left. Deciding to wear the vest she had just taken off, she lightly dropped the others back onto the futon, careful not to wake the child sleeping there. The toddler had snuggled up with her after another night spent whimpering through the relentless cycle of falling asleep only to be jerked awake by night terrors. For once, he appeared peaceful.
The grime on Helin’s face—acquired by working in the kitchen of a camp that fed almost 100,000 people—needed washing off; she couldn’t let Shireen see it. Helin zigzagged over to the wash basin, cautious not to step on any sleeping limbs, and scrubbed her unlined face hard with calloused palms.
Helin turned to the bed-ridden old woman who was too curious in nature to ever fall into a deep sleep.
‘Sorry, Auntie, did I wake you?’ Helin addressed her respectfully to blunt the rude evasion of the question.
‘It’s okay my dear. It is difficult to sleep in this place but I am not one to complain. Your son kept me awake last night. I am only glad to see the poor boy now resting quietly… he’ll ask for you when he wakes up,’ the old lady spoke as if every word required effort.
‘I’ll be back before then. I brought food from the kitchens, we can eat together when I return or if you are hungry now I can bring you some,’ Helin replied as she raised the cracked mirror and eyed the newly reddened complexion on her tan face.
‘No, don’t worry about that. We will eat together. And the boy… I’ll watch him until you get back.’
Helin nodded her thanks and let her hair out of its tight bun, replacing the plastic cap covering it with an intricately patterned cashmere shawl—a rare souvenir from the life she once lived. She finally met the vacant eyes inspecting her and narrowed them, challenging herself and responding by setting her face to stone. She left the tent and headed towards the coffee shop, her determination and confidence characterised by the length of her strides and the incline of her chin. A more observant passer-by may have instead noticed her clenched jaw and flickering fingers. She didn’t adjust her shawl, not to shield her eyes from the harsh sun nor to protect her nose from the pungent smell of sweat, waste, and disease. The camp was filled with idle minds and bodies, not sure what to do or where to turn. Some played card games, seeking distraction, others reminisced about better times with laughter edged with bitterness; most simply did nothing. Sitting, standing, or lying on the floor, they stared blankly in different directions, all seeing the same nothing.
Helin approached the café not having seen a single flower on her way, trodden or otherwise.
Shireen was sitting on a red plastic chair under a parasol with the word Calypso printed on more times than seemed possible. Her eyes were hidden by a pair of large cat eye sunglasses and she wore a headscarf wrapped high with her ears exposed. Sipping her coffee and preoccupied with something on her phone, Shireen didn’t notice Helin, who had to will herself from turning around and leaving. Though she desperately wanted to be, Helin wasn’t the type of person who didn’t show up. She steeled herself and walked toward Shireen, who, finally lifting her eyes from her phone, stood to greet her old friend. They shook hands. Helin stood stiffly while being hugged. They then sat down. No pleasantries were exchanged. A coffee appeared on the table and Helin sipped it in the expected uncomfortable silence that followed. Helin’s eyes darted from the coffee to the woman opposite her whose gaze was concealed behind her sunglasses. The sunglasses were a blessing, sparing Helin from having to see the tainted reflection of her old confidant’s familiar eyes. She winced, then, as Shireen removed her sunglasses, revealing large brown eyes blackened with tear-smudged kohl. Shireen leaned in close and tightly held Helin’s unresponsive hands as she cleared her throat and squeezed out the words ‘He’s alive Helin, and I know where he is’.
‘It’s hell here in Zaatari,’ the driver said, packing Helin’s meagre possessions into the back of his truck. ‘This place shouldn’t exist, it’s full of dangers… nothing good happens here.’
Helin moved to enter the truck but the driver stepped in her way. Helin flinched as he reached out to place his hand on her shoulder but he was undeterred; he waited until she met his eyes then gently tightened his grip,
‘But listen… what we do have here is community, I look out for you, you look out for me, we are all together… I’m not going to ask where you got this money from, I’m happy to take it from you, but to ease my conscience I’ll tell you this once and once only, forget your husband, whether they were wrong about him matters not, what matters is that once they take someone— khalaas, you don’t see them again… you keep this money and use it to get that boy of yours—’ he gestured towards the toddler holding Helin’s hand, ‘—to a safer place, somewhere he can actually forge out a life. I know he needs his father, I know you need his father, but more than that, you both need safety and security. It may be hell in here, but there are seven hells, and I fear the road you have planned will only plunge you into a lower level.’
Helin released the child’s hand. She removed the driver’s hand from her shoulder, flipped it over, and emptied into it the money her spare hand had been clutching. Grabbing the boy’s hand again, she led him around the driver and into the truck.
Outside the gates, it was a different world; a world Helin had seen only nine months ago, but a world she had almost forgotten. Like most of the refugees, Helin had been confined to the camp for the entirety of her stay; only a select few held the free travel pass that the driver had shown to the guards. As the truck veered away from the camp, Helin was surprised to find herself holding back tears. The unpolluted view of the vast expanses of land, and the now open arms of the distant mountain ranges that had loomed over her, allowed her, for a moment at least, to forget what she
had lost… forget where she was going… forget who she had been. For allowing her that moment alone, Helin simultaneously felt pangs of gratitude and guilt concerning the driver. For months, she had been seeking a way back to Hamza. The driver’s price was steep, but he was the only person to offer her any hope. His genuine concern and advice was not deserving of her ignorance.
‘We have one life and one death, uncle,’ she said at last. ‘I’ve stared death in the face before, and forced him to look away. I’ve been shot at more times than I can count. This scar on my neck is my reminder of how close death has been. I’ve seen so many of my people killed in front of me… I should be dead too. If God wanted me to start a new life, he would have let me die. He didn’t and while I’m alive I’ll live my life, the only life I have here, one that exists only with my husband.’
The driver glanced away from the road and took a moment to re-appraise his passenger. He then closed his eyes, inclined his head, placed his right hand over his heart,
‘Insha’allah, the road ahead is paved with lights that brighten up even the darkest of the roads behind you,’ he said before shifting his focus back to the road. He then remained silent as Helin spoke to the boy of the landscape, naming the various trees they passed and describing the different fruits that they bore—fruits that Sami had never had the chance to eat.
Sometimes Helin felt like someone else was wearing her body. And while the stranger lived their life, she was still at home, Sami in the garden swinging from the branch of the olive tree, on the swing that Hamza made him for his third birthday. Hamza pushing him higher and higher asking him where he learnt to fly. Helin brings out the tea, scolds Hamza for pushing her baby too high, Hamza interrupts her with a kiss— Helin wondered if that swing was still there… wondered if any of it was still there. She could not stop herself from hopelessly clinging on to the hope that someday she will relive the life of that memory… with the same house… the same swing… the same Hamza… the same Sami…
She stopped playing with the boy’s hair and leaned over to kiss his forehead as he lay in her lap. He nuzzled his head against her hand, urging her to carry on tousling his hair, she complied with a smile and he responded with a toothless grin. The view of wildlife through the window had long been replaced by rubble that had once been people’s homes. All that could be seen now were broken buildings, some with a corner blown off, some roofless, some demolished with more accuracy than a wrecking ball could manage, and some flipped over laying on their sides like hospice patients awaiting death. Helin shut her eyes to the remains of the old city’s corpse and acquiesced to the call of sleep.
She awoke to a night sky and could see the lights of Aleppo in the distance—where home used to be. They had been driving for less than five hours. The reverse journey from Aleppo to Zaatari had felt much longer. Perhaps it was the traffic. Perhaps it had just seemed longer because of what happened. There were checkpoints surrounding the city, each manned by different factions. Hamza had been taken from her when they tried to pass through one of them on their way out. Shireen said Hamza was in Idlib, a city around forty miles out of Aleppo. Helin was thankful for this as it meant she could avoid the checkpoints.
‘We’re nearly there,’ the driver said. ‘If he’s here, he’ll be in the Hurriya district, by the ruins of the clock tower—that is the known meeting point for people searching for estranged family members…’— he almost stopped himself from uttering his next words after seeing the excitement on his passenger’s face but, exhaling deeply, he continued— ‘I’ll be returning to Zaatari after the Maghrib prayer tomorrow, if… for any reason… the two of you would like to accompany me, meet me then outside the Masjid. I will take you back free of charge.’
‘I cannot thank you enough,’ Helin replied. ‘But please, do not wait for us. I am not leaving this place without my husband and I won’t put you at risk by asking you to offer him the same kindness you offered to me. I will find him and together we’ll find our own way.’
The driver nodded, his face flushed with a mixture of relief and embarrassment.
Helin sat in the middle of the packed street, her back resting lightly on her knapsack. She looked up at the multitudes of people swarming around the dilapidated clock tower. As they scanned every passing face, she saw the familiar flickers of hope in the eyes that recognised a loved one and saw the faces drop into despair when they realised they were mistaken. She had grown acquainted to that feeling herself over the last four days. Acquainted to the feeling of despair and numbed to the feeling of hope. She had barely eaten, surviving only on water and giving what little food she had to the boy who had trudged on alongside her. Helin was on the verge of cursing her bullishness when she heard a voice call her name. It was a voice that stabbed through the stranger wearing her body and into Helin, bringing her back to life. She jumped to her feet and spun frantically, trying to locate the source.
She caught the briefest glimpse of her husband’s face before he crashed into her, embracing her with a tightness that felt like home. As he hoisted her into the air she could almost smell the warm woody smell of Oud that she would diffuse in their home every morning. Tears streamed down her face as she clung to her husband like a child clings to their mother after experiencing separation for the first time. But as Hamza noticed the boy next to her and perplexedly asked,
‘Who is this boy Helin? Where is our son? Where is Sami?’
Her joy made way for grief and she crumpled to the ground, her body heaving with agonizing sobs. When he eventually understood, Hamza collapsed on top of his wife. They lay entwined there for an eternity, their bodies shaking with wracking convulsions, their desolate pain ignored by the throng around them… and ignored by the rest of the world.
The young orphan watched the woman he had learnt to call mother finally allow herself to grieve. Assuming her sadness had been due to the separation from her husband, he didn’t quite understand yet why she wept. So far, the boy’s life had been shrouded in uncertainty and he would be forgiven for resigning himself to an uncertain future. However, in that moment, defying the miasma of despair surrounding him, the boy promised himself one certainty. Someday, somehow, he would fix his mother’s broken smile.
Zaid Hassan was born and raised in West Yorkshire, UK. After dropping out of college at seventeen, he recently decided to re-enter the world of education and is currently studying English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. His short story, One Rebellious Strand, is featured in the UEA UG Creative Writing Anthology 2018 and Seven Hells, published here, was shortlisted and commended for the Wasafiri New Writing Prize 2017.