I tell the participants to take a short break. I say 15 minutes, but I know it means 30, and that’s OK.
Participants leave the room and head for the hallway where coffee, tea and snacks await. I take a couple of minutes to prepare for the last activities to end this third day of our human rights workshop. The crowd by the cookies dissipates; only the lousy cookies remain. I see one participant from Baghdad idly playing with his coffee cup.
“How’s your family?” I ask Ayman. I spoon Nescafe into a coffee cup and fill it with warm milk and hot water. The milk does little to ease the bitterness of the vile coffee powder. At this point I need as much caffeine as possible to overcome jet lag.
“They’re fine thank you. My youngest is still into Spider-Man.” He pulls out a recent photo on his mobile phone. Two young brothers beam gapped smiles. The youngest one, no more than four, sports a Spider-Man shirt.
I want to suggest Spider-Man gloves, the kind my sons have, but I doubt he’d find them in Amman. Stores scatter the city with dusty rip off versions of shirts, shoes, socks, underwear, schoolbags, toys, and watches with images of Sponge Bob, Spider-Man, Dora the Explorer, Batman, and the ever-present Mickey Mouse.
“Does he like books?” I offer. Having two young children of my own, I appreciate the added bonus of purchasing gifts that take as little space as possible in a suitcase.
“No. He prefers guns.” Well, screw that.
“How’s your mother?” I ask.
“She’s all right, but a few weeks ago we had a scare.” That meant anything from being held at gunpoint to avoiding a rocket blast.
“What happened?” I venture.
“We were walking home from the market when we saw a tank at the end of the road,” he begins. “Usually, when we see that it means there is trouble somewhere in the neighbourhood. There could be insurgents with guns. So we stopped and decided to backtrack towards the market. That’s when we heard the bullets smashing into the walls in front of us. The tank ahead started to veer off down the streets. It seemed like the bullets were getting louder and louder. Even though we must have been caught in the hail of bullets for only a few seconds, it really felt like a lot longer.”
“What did you do?”
Ayman takes a sip from his coffee and pulls a drag of the cigarette. He knows the smell annoys me, so he puffs sideways. “We started running down the street as fast as we could. We were in an area with small shops and people’s homes. I ran up to a door on my left that I saw someone close a moment before. I banged loudly on the door but they did not open for us. I tried to grab my mother’s hand but she was gone. I guess in the mess of it all we must have gone in different directions. I looked around like a crazy man and yelled her name but I got no answer. There were only more bullets whizzing through the air.”
He takes another sip of his coffee, blinks and keeps his eyes closed for a moment longer, reliving the memory. “I figured I had to find a place to get away from the bullets, so I kept knocking on door after door. Everyone locks their door nowadays in case they are attacked. It didn’t used to be like this.”
“People don’t want to open the doors, even for innocent people who are trying to find shelter?” I ask.
“The problem is,” he counters, “it’s hard to tell an insurgent from a civilian. It’s easy to yell from the other side of the door and say you’re being attacked, but in fact you’re the one doing the killing.”
A group of people sitting in the hotel lobby laugh at someone’s joke.
“Anyway,” he continues, “I eventually knocked on a door and someone was nice enough to open it and let me in. The gunfire continued.”
“You were lucky they opened the door for you.” He nods.
“I waited until the noise of the bullets ricocheting off the walls stopped. It was only a few minutes but felt like a long time in my head. All I could think of was my mother and whether or not she was all right. I thanked the family and they slowly opened the door to let me out onto the street. The tank had disappeared. Usually in cases like this, the Americans hear the gunshots and they start to fire in the streets. People know by now to run as fast as they can. I walked back the way I came and hoped I would see my mother. By that point, there were a few other people who had come out onto the street. Our faces are all the same. It’s like we’re all scared, but too shocked to show it. As I turned the corner I saw my mother was walking close to the wall, very slowly.”
“I’m sure she was happy to see you,” I say.
“Of course. And I was so relieved to find her safe. When the bullets rang out she ran in another direction and was fortunate that the first door she knocked on opened. A father and his two sons opened the door for her.” His cigarette’s close to burning his fingers. “We went straight home after that. We didn’t really talk to each other until the next morning.”
I have no way to respond to his story, only a vacant and inadequate look of sorrow. He puts out his cigarette in the nearby ashtray and pastes a smile on his face as another participant joins us. It takes me a moment to realize they’re talking about where to shop later tonight.