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A boy in Damascus

We first noticed Melhim in a sunny corner of the Military Museum in Damascus. His rakish posture caught my attention: he was sitting askew on a child’s red plastic chair, one leg dangling over one side, the other stretched out straight. If he’d been ten years older you might have expected a cigarette in one hand. Although clearly absorbed in his own thoughts, he had placed in front of his seat some bathroom scales to attract the wandering tourists and a few liras.

I loved the look, so I dug in my handbag for my camera, wanting to capture it. But of course it was lost as soon as I gestured that I wished to take his photo. Immediately, he stood to one side of his chair in a military position, stiffly erect, arms at his side, now acting more like the child he was. Not totally happy with that shot, I asked him to return to his chair, and I took a photo of him sitting, anything but nonchalant now. He looked intently up into the camera lens at me.

That was the beginning of our periodic trips back to the museum to see Melhim. The second visit really determined our commitment to stay in touch with him although we went merely to give him the photos I had taken.

Holding his pictures at arm’s length, Melhim exclaimed to himself, ‘Oh Melhim. Naughty Melhim. Naughty Melhim.’ He had captured my husband’s heart. From then on, most of the photos or memories I have now are of Melhim and Fouad: the two of them chatting together; Fouad fitting on Melhim’s shoulders his first school bag, a green and gold one, and a new blue smock—the unisex uniform for prep kids. Seeing Melhim excited to receive these gifts reminded me of a photo we have of my son, schoolbag on his back and hair brushed back wet for his first day at school, grinning broadly.

It was on that second visit that we learnt that Melhim kept his dad company at the museum. His father, who welcomed us kindly but shyly, cleaned the museum toilets. He kept incense burning in the entrance to the toilets and offered water to weary visitors.

Being a child who was in the area every day, Melhim was well known to the artisans and shopkeepers in the craft market next to the museum. On one trip to see him, we had to backtrack as we had walked past him; he had been sitting on a stool with an elderly artisan leaning over him fitting a leather band onto his wrist.

And he must have been a little like a mascot to the soldiers in the museum. It was the young soldiers relaxing near him, rifles casually slung over their shoulders, who had first assured us, smiling, that Melhim would be there the following Friday, or any other day, if we wanted to return to give him his photos.

Fouad told me how, on one of his visits, a high-ranking officer had called to Melhim. Gesturing to the officer, Melhim let him know that he was busy, and turned back to give his attention to the conversation he was having with Fouad. Officers are not used to being ignored. Melhim’s officer had to entice the five-year-old with the promise of chocolate.  Fouad said Melhim got the chocolate and returned directly to continue their chat.

We had little difficulty finding Melhim whenever we went to the museum, but for a brief period, father and son vanished. Melhim’s father had been transferred to the toilets at the souq near the Omayyad Mosque, another environment indeed for a young boy to make himself at home in: aggressive spruikers, hawkers selling socks and the like, and crowds looking for bargains, crowds that a child could get lost, jostled and bruised in, all under a rusty iron roof, stretching half a kilometre or so towards the mosque, with light let in by the scattered holes of (reputedly) French machine-gun fire.

Father and son returned, but we never saw the little red chair and scales again. Without them, Melhim was more likely to wander. On one summer afternoon, we found him sitting alone on the roof of the toilets. From a small courtyard hidden from the view of the family groups sauntering past his little corner, Melhim had climbed a workman’s ladder to the roof, to sit and survey the world. I doubt if he could see much more than the tops of the eucalypts beyond the walls of the museum and the silhouettes of cranes beside the skeleton of an emerging five-star hotel.

Unable to communicate with Melhim in Arabic, I was usually a step or two back from the action with my camera ready, content to record the delight he and Fouad found in each other’s company. But once Fouad visited Melhim alone and was asked, ‘Where is the lady?’ Perhaps I had a bigger role than I had imagined. Or was my camera the attraction? On the next visit, while Fouad was chatting with Melhim’s father, I stood aside and waited. Normally happy to feel invisible, relax and contemplate the scene around me, I was surprised to notice that Melhim was intently gazing up at me in a quizzical and affectionate way. My meeting his gaze didn’t disarm him, so I did my best to catch his look and return it. 

In Damascus—in another culture, another workplace and surrounded by an alien language—I worked hard just to be, just to cope. I had a nervous tic in my fingers. I would find myself  rubbing my right thumb and my second finger together as I walked home after a long day. My interaction with people was often studied; I felt stilted. But like Melhim, most Damascenes were so in the moment, I don’t think they noticed as long as I maintained their warm eye contact.

At the end of the summer, Melhim was to return to his village near the Jordanian border to rejoin his mother and two younger brothers, so he could begin school. The day before his departure we came to farewell him, not knowing when we would see him again. That day he must have put some thought into a backdrop for the photos he knew I would want to take of him. He led Fouad past the local lads, the young soldiers lolling around in the sun, into an area that would normally require a ticket from the ticket office at the other end of the museum. As one of their duties was to check for tickets, the soldiers called out something to Fouad, but Melhim, as if he were their commanding officer, pointed out that Fouad was with him, and walked on, hand in hand with Fouad, down the path, through dappled light and unkempt garden, towards an ancient tank and airplane, and a giant green fibreglass statue of a soldier. 

As I write this, a long way from Damascus now, back in our suburban home, my cat is curled up on my lap and the photographs taken that day are in front of me.

One shows Melhim standing on the tank, arms stretched up, palms out, as if he is a general placating an applauding crowd. The only picture that I didn’t take myself is of Melhim still on the tank and of me standing beside it. I’m looking impatiently at the camera behind my sunglasses, while Melhim looks at me, with one hand resting on my head as if he feels I need a pat, and the other held up high like a policeman at a busy intersection; he seems to be telling the world to stand still for a moment while he cares for me! And there is another of him crouched between the legs of the green soldier, giving us the cutest smile. He looks very neat, dressed in a blue and white T-shirt with the word ‘Baseball’ emblazoned across the middle of it, matching shorts and a pair of plastic slippers.
I am conscious of the green tidiness of the world outside my door, and of the mostly empty streets as people lead their lives inside. Melhim is now in the dustier landscape of his mother’s village, perhaps with the smell of jasmine in the air. He must have recently celebrated the end of Eid with his family; uncles would have given him modest packets of money and his mother would have cooked some special treats.

It’s more than six months since we first saw the boy with the laid-back look in the Military Museum. From being a subject for a tourist photo, Melhim has been weaving a special thread through our lives. I hope we can stay in contact with him. I would like to smile into his eyes again and to give him picture books to look at perhaps while he is in a tree or on a rooftop.

But I do fear for his future, and wonder what impact decisions made a long way from his sunny corner in the museum will have on his life.

Susan Dirgham is an ESL teacher from Melbourne who has been teaching English at the British Council in Damascus since September 2003. All images Susan Dirgham


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