This excerpt previously appeared in the ROAD issue of ArabLit Quarterly.
An Excerpt from A Green Bus Leaving Aleppo (2019)
By Jan Dost
Translated by Madeline Edwards
A Red Crescent flag fluttered from the small ambulance that arrived, parking beside the green bus where Abu Layla sat with the rest of the fighters and civilians and women and men and children.
Abu Layla’s breaths once again condensed on the glass until they occluded the view of the scene outside the bus. He didn’t wipe away the steam this time.
Sitting had become tiring. He stood up and pulled the window’s glass to the right, poking his head out to gaze down at the wandering crowd, at the incomprehensible murmur of people. They hadn’t taken anything with them from their homes but suitcases and plastic bags, packed with whatever things would fit inside. Two paramedics carried a wounded patient on a stretcher that was really just an unrolled blanket, delivering him to a nearby bus before climbing back onto the ambulance. It drove off once again.
He inhaled, but the cold air stopped his lungs from expanding. Abu Layla feld revived. The past hour had slipped past him, and something resembling a smile tried pulling itself from his lips. He watched the young children below with their hands in their pockets, their eyes silently following the little ambulance as it shoved its way to join the convoy of ambulances that all looked exactly like it.
God bless you, Hajji, but please shut the window. We’re dying from the cold.
The prickled voice came from the back of the bus.
Without a word, Abu Layla pulled the window’s glass back to the left and slumped down in his seat. The breezes in that last hour in Aleppo revived fragments of a memory.
Before Abu Layla and his sisters went to Layla’s house beneath the hospital, they called on her mother-in-law Umm Farhad. Weeping, she let them in. She narrated what had happened to Layla from beginning to end. How Layla hit her when she tried persuading her to leave her own home and live with the in-laws.
Where had all that strength come from? Farhad is gone, that’s all I said to her, bring your children, come stay with us in our house. Don’t stay in that house all on your own.
There is no strength but in God. Inna lillah w inna ileyhi rajaoun. ِAbu Layla hunched over as he spoke. His sisters leaned in to listen to the story.
They ate, and took a short rest. Everyone headed toward Layla’s house. They knocked on the door. Umm Farhad confirmed that Layla wouldn’t be opening it, that she had barricaded herself in the house since her husband’s arrest. She had become vicious. At one point even the Daesh women had come to her in an attempt to remove her from the house, by orders of some emir or another. They left unsuccessful.
Umm Farhad told them of that day, how she had tried persuading Layla to come outside. How she attached herself to the door of the apartment, speaking to her kindly. Layla opened the door suddenly, only to grab her mother-in-law’s hair and smack her face until it bled.
I swear I went crazy. I swear to God. The jinn possessed her. This, from Layla, an educated girl, a schoolteacher? Hitting me and insulting me?
Layla had locked herself in the house, swearing not to leave until her husband, the doctor, came there himself. That was her commandment. That, or she’d die in the house. She forbade her children from going downstairs and playing in the street, frightening them with stories of beastly humans bearing fangs, claws, and fur made of flames. They fed on the livers of young children. The jinn went down to the public squares of Manbij, she told them, and demons prowled its streets. Devils draped in black attacked homes, kidnapping little boys to feed them black tar. Her children, especially Kamiran and Alan, lived in impossible fear. They stayed indoors, fearing what their mother had told them, and remaining content with the visits of one of the women who had helped Layla out during the height of her husband’s medical career.
I’ll knock on the door and try talking to her. Abu Layla spoke with sorrow after hearing what had happened. I know her affection for me. Everyone else, stay quiet. Don’t let her know you’re here.
His fist trembling, Abu Layla knocked on the door. He placed his ear against it. There wasn’t a sound. He knocked again. Nothing. He pressed the doorbell and called out to her.
Layla, open the door, my love. It’s your father. Please open up. I’m here with your aunties, we came to visit you. We’re your guests Layla, we want to see little Maysoun.
He almost knocked again when he heard a clamor from inside. It was followed by his daughter’s weeping. She began crying at the sound of her father’s voice, opening the door to throw herself into his arms. Maysoun clung to her mother’s dress, beginning to cry as Kamiran and Alan looked on with a mix of surprise and fear. They stared up at their grandfather and aunts as if they were another species altogether.
Their revolution of tears subsided.
Dear, my darling girl, we came here to take you back to Aleppo. Your mother is sick, she wants to see you. Allah yakhleeki, come with us.
No. I won’t leave unless the world ends. How can I leave my house to the jinn?
What jinn, my dear? What jinn? Allah yakhleeki.
The jinn. The ones that walk around in the streets. They wear black and have evil eyes. When they walk, blood drips between their feet. I saw them with my eyes, which the worms will eat. I saw them, father. I saw them with my eyes.
She returned to sobbing.
Her oldest aunt, Umm Muhammad, embraced her, speaking to Layla tenderly. It’s better to flee the jinn and come to Aleppo, she explained. Staying inside these walls won’t protect you from them. Layla refused.
I’m waiting for Farhad. Farhad won’t be long.
My sweet girl, come with us. As soon as Farhad is free, I promise you we’ll come back.
I’m staying here.
So you’ll stay here on your own with these children? What is all this talk, sweet niece, darling of your auntie’s heart?
Take the children with you. Take them, and say hi to Mama for me. I’m not coming! Layla tore off her headscarf and pulled at her hair with such a force that her aunts stepped in and held her back from more.
Maysoun fortified herself behind the sofa, only her terrified eyes showing. Kamiran and Alan had already ventured into the kitchen, where they picked at whatever things were left in the refrigerator. They had subsisted that way since their mother’s psychological decline, when their father was kidnapped from the hospital. They lived in fear, and had been convinced by their mother’s words about the jinn that filled the streets of Manbij and its public squares, and kidnapped small children to feed on their bones. Their mother ruled over them with silence. They didn’t move around inside the house often, for fear of attracting the jinn to their noises, of their location being discovered, of their kidnapping, of being stripped of their flesh, their fresh bones shattered between the teeth of the demons.
Fresh little bones are what jinn eat for dinner, Layla repeated to her children each evening.
What do the jinn eat when they can’t find any children? Alan persisted in asking his mother, but his older brother Kamiran answered.
They eat animal doodoo.
No. Don’t say that, Layla responded. They dig up the graves of dead children whose bodies have melted away, and they eat the bare bones.
Why don’t they just eat like we do? Wouldn’t that be better?
That’s how God created them. The jinn are from another realm.
Maysoun understood little of these affairs. She wanted to play, sing, dance, to move about the house freely, to go down to the street or at least the balcony and observe the goings on of those outside, of the passing cars and clamor of the hospital, the shouts of children. She didn’t understand the reason behind her mother’s oppression, why she cloistered herself and her two sons. Every night Maysoun asked for her father. Layla had prepared her daughter for him to knock on the door at any moment. But for that to happen, she said, Maysoun must close her eyes and go to sleep.
Layla made them fear that ghosts could seep in from outside. They began to speak in whispers, then, in the final days, sign language, until their grandfather arrived. The children threw themselves into his embrace, circling around him as if he were holy.
Abu Layla was dismayed by his daughter’s stubbornness, by her sadness and the sorrow of his grandchildren, their desire for a bit of freedom. He had no choice but to rescue the children, even if by force, from this nightmare. He gestured to his sisters as he spoke to his daughter.
We’re going means we’re going. It’s not up to you anymore. You need some rest. As soon as Dr. Farhad comes back safe and sound, we’ll come back here. That’s a promise. You’ll be here in Manbij the very next day.
Layla refused. She would not go and leave her house under the control of Daesh, that was certain. There was nothing for her father to do but force her to come with him, after all that he’d gone through to reach this city in the caliphate of blood.
He grabbed her arm, and her aunts forced her jilbab over her head. She tried to shout and escape from her father’s grasp. She hit him, and his heart shattered. Umm Muhammad wept. She demanded Abu Layla be gentle with his daughter.
My sister, if we allowed things to keep going on as they were, we’d stay here for a year waiting for her to come with us.
He dragged his daughter outside, where the taxi sat waiting.
Abu Layla followed what was going on outside the bus, preventing two large tears from leaving his eyes. He ran back through his sad memories. The scene in front of him darkened. He wiped the tears away with his thumb. In front of the bus was an old woman cloaked in a black jilbab leaning on a walker, a little boy following close behind her. He carried a large sack on his head. Behind the two of them followed a little girl, her face sullen and fearful. The three soon disappeared behind a pile of rubble.
A light rain began falling from the sky. The bus driver, frowning, turned on the windshield wipers, two gigantic arms that began wiping raindrops from the glass.
Abu Layla stuck his cheek, covered in a thick white beard, to the cold window glass, reliving his decaying memory once again.
Jan Dost is a Syrian Kurdish novelist, poet and translator who lives in Germany. Dost was born in Kobani in 1965. He writes poetry, short stories and novels in Arabic and Kurdish, and won many awards, including the Kurdish Short Story Award in 1993 and the Kurdish Poetry Award in 2012. Among his best-known translations is The Epic of Mem and Zin written by the acclaimed Kurdish poet Ahmad Khani.
Madeline Edwards is an editor, translator, occasional reporter, and book lover living in Beirut. She is the English editor of SyriaUntold, a nonprofit news organization focusing on arts, culture, and society in Syria and the diaspora.
Editor’s note: If you want to assist with earthquake relief, Mohamad Kaboub has assembled a spreadsheet of some organizations and their donation links; there are also many individual initiatives on the ground, such as this one to house Syrians arriving in Istanbul.