by Benjamin Rees
With sand still in his boots, and a sleepless night in the Cairo airport behind him, Jordan took the tram from the airport towards downtown Porto. It was well past midnight.
The city at night seen through the tram’s windows revealed little to nothing of the cars and streets outside, and instead the panes of glass pitched up an honest, white reflection of the interior. In it he saw his face with a two-day stubble, having recently shaved his several month long beard before flying. As he looked straight at himself, the skin under his eyes drooped from a serious lack of sleep, and only with the sheer force of will he had learned to employ as a nightwatchman did he keep himself awake. He tucked his chin close to the collar of his olive colored canvas jacket and sat like a compressed spring ready for action at any moment.
At his stop he stepped of the tram and took a compass from the breast pocket of his jacket before hoisting his duffle bag over his shoulder. He found the north exit of the station in seconds when the little red arrow pointed eagerly in his leveled palm.
The kilometer and a half up hills and then back down them stirred his blood to life. His body had become stiff from sitting on poorly cushioned vinyl chairs in terminals and standing in line for many hours. Jordan made a point of keeping the same pace of walking no matter how steep the incline of the hill. Such exertion soothed him, and if not for the sand grating against his sweaty toes, he might have enjoyed the trek to his hotel. But he kept from thinking about the sand, taking no stock of the city around him, and instead kept the aim of his mind focused on higher ends of a world he had been fighting for.
He had been in the desert on the border between Syria and Turkey, serving as a volunteer in the Kurdish militia. Though he had learned about the Rojavan revolution from afar on various internet forums and subforums, it was not until he had attended a talk by one of their militia man who had immigrated to the US that he began taking the cause seriously. As he was leaving the cafeteria on campus he had seen a flyer pinned to a cork board that invited anyone who read it to attend a free talk with the agenda of discussing the Rojavan struggle for sovereignty.
The meeting was held one Saturday night at 8 PM in a room usually rented for studying in the student center. After the talk Jordan stayed behind and spoke with the speaker, a man born in Rojava with a short, dense beard in the floodlit parking lot. They stood for hours by their parked cars, long after the sunset, discussing what exactly the the word revolution meant to each other, how it was possible for women to be given the dignity to fight alongside men, and, how every creature, human and animal alike, deserved more dignity than they received under the reign of capitalistic imperialism.
At first he found himself taking small steps towards the decision. Over his final two semesters before graduating he moved back in with his parents to save money, read about the legality of joining a foreign militia as an American combatant, looked up flights, and had to decide whether he ought vaccinate himself against any disease. Then, without even knowing exactly how, right after his final class, and before his graduation, he found himself at the precipice of the matter, looking down from the edge where all that remained was a great leap from one side of the planet to the other by flying from New York to Erbil.
During his month long training, his body willingly turned itself into a kind of idea that no longer noticed chaffing thighs, waking up with sand covering his clothes and skin, or fearing that he might have to go days with only one bottle of water to survive on. And before long he was on the front line for the first time, crouched behind a crumbling brick wall, using a small mirror to peak around the corner without exposing himself to combatants of the Islamic state who were behind another crumbling wall a hundred meters away. He looked at his hands to see if they were shaking, but they didn’t. This surprised him. Jordan had worried that might have to overcome some fear to desert his station. But, instead, he felt opposite forces inside him winning out.
Fighting for the revolution in Rojava invigorated him on that first mission. It provided a point on which his indignation towards the world’s injustices made contact with the world itself, and he felt his blood spark to life like the primer of a bullet struck by a firing pin, hurling him at once violently towards a just world to come, one that would eventually reach all corners of the earth. No part of Jordan’s conscience hesitated the first time he took aim at the shape of the enemy and squeezed the trigger while taking slow and deliberate breaths, just as they had taught him to do in training.
One day, after the fighting had dwindled to an occasional gun shot far off in the distance, he was told to leave Rojava, and to leave immediately. A new enemy west of Rojava had reared their head on the horizon, and it was absolutely forbidden for him to so much as aim a rifle in the direction of Turkey, who were an ally of the nation that issued his passport even if on complicated terms he might not agree with. The caliphate had essentially fallen, and so Jordan had packed his duffle bag and began his long trip home.
The receptionist at the hotel spoke perfect English. “Jordan Moore, yes, we have a single suite room ready for you,” he said as he stood up behind his desk and pushed a form towards him. The receptionist was alert despite the late hour, and ready to help the weary to their warm showers and fresh linen. Jordan would have rather stayed in a room with many bunk beds at a hostel, but this budget hotel was all he could find at the last minute during his short layover in Cairo before his phone had died.
He looked over the paper and signed it. “Thanks,” he said to the receptionist as he turned towards a bellboy who appeared from the elevator’s opening doors. When the bellboy approached, Jordan tightened his grip around the straps of his big. The bellboy did not offer to carry it, and he was rather surprised when Jordan gave him a gratuitous tip of ten euros when he had been shown to his room, taking the bill from a small bundle of euros he had withdrawn from an ATM.
The bellboy’s smile eased into an expression of good will as he decided to go through the extra effort of showing Jordan his way around the room. “You put your card into this slot on the wall to turn on the lights. And, here, the hot water in the shower is marked backwards. Turning the blue knob will make it hot, not cold. Oh, and also, if you do drink anything from the minibar, we won’t know so long as you replace it before you leave,” he said.
Jordan said, “Thanks.”
The moment the bellboy left, Jordan took the card from the slot in the wall. In the dark room, he set down his bag, and then took off his jacket and laid it over his bag. As he did, he took from the side pocket of his bag a water bottle that was scuffed and dented, sanded raw to a bright sheen of aluminum from falling many times in the sands of another continent. He filled it up, and then drank it down in a single draught without rinsing it, then filled it again, and set it on the night stand next to his bed. Without closing the curtains, and without taking off his shirt, pants, or shoes, he reclined atop the bed cover, not quite laying down, propped up against the large pillows.
Before he even felt an inch of sleep began to overtake him, the morning sun of an April day shined through the window. The air above the city was saturated with humidity and vague amounts of pollution into a diluted blue-gray haze, but at his window, when he looked straight up, he saw the deep blue of a clear morning at the sky’s zenith. Only one day remained before he home flew to New York, after a short flight and an hour layover in Lisbon. Two days after his return he had an interview scheduled with a local news station. They had arranged it with him a week before via email to sit down and talk on camera. The email was unclear whether his interview would be broadcast live, but, regardless of that, he looked forward to the opportunity to speak of the revolution.
His day before him was empty of any duty or obligation, and the only requirements were that he exist and nourish himself. It seemed surviving would be simple enough in Porto with clean tap water, a few euros in his pocket, and the simple knowledge that there were grocery stores all around. Today, he could walk freely, a white male in combat boots with a tanned face, anticipating no challenge or threat, expecting no gunshots in the distance.
With the exception of pickpockets, he could think of no danger out there waiting for him, and, a pickpocket was a minor threat at that. It was not too difficult to spot a pickpocket anyway, from the way they hold their jackets over their hand, and the way their awareness hovers on towards their prey while also making a point to keep their eyes vacantly ahead. If he were to have his small bundle of euros stolen, no doubt a piece of him would be angry, but another piece would understand his contact with a thief as connecting with someone reduced to poverty, victims in their own right forced to doing anything they could to keep their nose above water, betting on a day in the future wherein they would no longer have to steal to survive. And Jordan had been fighting for exactly that day. He was too tired to remember where he had read a phrase that had become tattooed on his heart, to “never treat anyone as a means to an end, but always as an end in themselves.” But he could hardly remember what route he had taken from the tram station to his hotel as it was.
He showered with warm water for the first time in many months, and put on a new pair of boxers and socks before putting back on his shirt and pants from the prior day.
At the reception desk, he greeted the same man from the night with a nod, and said, “Is there a grocery store near by I could walk to?”
“If you turn right when you leave here and walk up the street about 200 meters, there is one on your right,” the receptionist said, and smiled.
Outside in the street, he took in Porto for the first time. Walking along the old cobble which looked like a mouth with missing teeth, he passed an abandoned lot with a red brick wall that was topped with rusty barb wire placed there to keep the public out. Through an iron gate in the wall, he could see an orange tree growing out of a large crack in the cement. But it’s perfectly edible fruits were left there alone, some of them having already ripened and fallen onto the ground to rot.
The facades of blue and white tile had been faded in the Mediterranean sun into maligned and unintended colors, becoming saturated by light for many days into a shade somewhere between the musky yellow found in old books and the ceiling in a smoker’s home. These facades with their intricate and repeating patterns of vines and flowers did not displease Jordan. They were the first sight that began nudging him out of Rojava and towards the fact that he was back in the West. What he had seen in Rojava had become routine and stale. It was ruinous, too, in its own way, not from time, but from war.
A small trace of those sands were still with him, grinding against his heel, yet it was not the right time to unlace his boots and pour out the sand. The grains felt like a bulwark against the sights of Porto which had come upon him suddenly. No, it could wait till after breakfast.
Ahead he saw the store, and, in front of it, a man with a bruise on his right cheek and the dull eyes of desperation walking around its entrance in an aimless panic. This man’s hand was nothing more than sinews and shrinking bones, and one of them held a paper cup that jangled with coins in it. Jordan knew at once he was a beggar.
A car pulled up and parked on the curb across the street. The beggar walked over to it, standing in the middle of the road as he opened the door and solicited money. The man exiting the car gave him a few cents to purchase the beggar’s absence, and walked away in a huff of annoyance.
Inside the store Jordan had to pass before a tall security guard standing nearby before pushing through the turnstile entrance-only gates. The security guard had a large chest, that was crossed with anaconda sized arms. He looked at Jordan as he approached. Jordan tried to catch his eye, to show a sly, but unmistakable contempt, though he did not connect with the guard who saw Jordan only as a mere tourist and looked past him towards the front door.
He had not eaten meat for some years, and found the butchered slabs of cow ribs under a red light that accentuated the bloody flesh in the deli counter so displeasing that he avoided getting close to them. Once, after a few minutes wandering aisles, he found a bag of peanuts on the shelves whose organization he could not exactly understand, he returned to the front of the store where the bread and fruit laid in abundant piles. For his breakfast he picked up three rolls with sunflower seeds baked on their tops, and decided on taking a few more to carry in his coat pockets for later. He broke a couple of bananas off of a massive bundle and went to stand in the checkout line. If someone were to steal a roll or a banana from him, they could be forgiven. But a pickpocket most likely never knew for sure what they were taking, and in that way it was slightly humorous that it was possible to have a roll swiped from his pocket. Then again, why not simply give bread to the desperate, and why not start by giving the beggar outside a few rolls. Jordan left the check out line and returned to pick up a few extra rolls and bananas.
The beggar almost began to cry when Jordan gave him the few euros in change he had received from the cashier along with the meager rations he’d bought for him. The elation on his face gave way to prayers and blessings in a language Jordan could not understand. The beggar began to kneel, growing weak in the knees, and seemed like he was on the verge of praising Jordan himself, who reached out and raised the man to his feet at once, placing his hands on the beggars arms.
He turned to walk away, content, at least, in knowing that even where they could not speak the same language, they at least ate of the same bread as equals. He had grown accustomed to denying himself any version of events wherein a good deed was not solely his duty, and he had been focused for so many months on turning his mind and body into an idea that he rarely permitted himself the pleasure of indulging in a kind act. Yet, he was overtaken by something profound and human in the exchange with the beggar, and aside from the warm shower that morning, this was one of the few true pleasures he had felt in almost a year. Still, in many ways he was fortunate to be in a country where he could carry out his silent act of goodwill unnoticed, that it might forever be his own, almost as if a secret with himself and the world.
Throughout the day he walked on and on, ignoring the sand in his boots until the right moment came. He had no destination in mind, but regularly checked his compass in order to keep his bearings. Before him a tall bridge stretched across a large river, and he began to cross it. As he had been walking around in the thick of the city moments before, Jordan had seen so many churches he was not sure that he had not passed the same ones from different angles. But no, he had his bearings alright.
From the start of the bridge he could see behind him that there were indeed many churches. Whenever he had passed them, Jordan had sneered at the tourists who stood in lines with their black and yellow camera straps, craning their necks like poultry waiting for feed as they looked up at the bell towers. The churches’ towers were crumbling, and the top of their steps smelled of sunbaked urine, yet it was as if these features only further attracted the tourists. Perhaps these churches were necessary at one time, with corruption and persecution the only means by which to govern humanity, yet a day was soon coming with no stone monuments serving any purpose.
From the center of the bridge he stopped and looked back at the city on the hill. It rose up against the years, despite time weighing on it like the gravity of a large, alien planet, and stood as a hymn to its own beauty. For the first time, he noticed and failed to reject an involuntary wave of comfort at being back in the West. The walls and roofs of the pastel and bright buildings were so vivid that they rooted him to the spot with their beauty. The sun glided over the hill as a small breeze might graze a major chord on a perfectly tuned standing harp, and the murmur of the pleasant sight poured into him and reached deep into his being in a way no abnegation of his will could deny, placing him in Porto beyond what could be doubted.
He climbed down from the bridge by narrow stairs carved into the mountain to reach the river, and began making his way along the brackish water out towards the ocean. Along the way he stopped at another grocery store and refilled his aluminum water bottle in the bathroom sink. By the time he made it to the beach, the sun had begun its descent, though night was still many hours away. He found a rock to sit on that was the size of suburban house. Wave after wave roared and crashed against the rock that supported him, and in no way did it budge an inch. His feet were swelling, and he thought it was as good a time as any to empty the Rojavan sand from his boot.
With his left boot unlaced, he took his foot out, and then removed his sock. Affecting the closest thing to a ceremonial gesture he allowed himself, he poured the sand from his shoe before him into a small pile, and then shook those grains from his sock as if they were ashes thrown to the wind. He placed his sock and shoe back on his left foot and by habit, laced up his boot tightly, before unlacing his right boot and repeating the motions.
The small pile of foreign sand would soon be carried into the Atlantic ocean, when the wind picked up or the tide rose. He knew how easily sand could be picked up in a breeze and thrown about into eyes and mouths. Only the sand immediately below him and his hevals had ever stayed still, weighed down by their shadows and their sweat, not budging in the wind as if in solidarity with their resolve. The day for them had ended, as the sun had just surely set in the Levant, and, just over the horizon it began to rise on New York. He imagined all the faces of friends and family, rising and meeting one another in the streets and cafes on a bright morning at the end of Spring. A shudder of loneliness ran up his spine and into his heart. He resisted the temptation to give into such self-pity, and thought back to the many genuine friends he had made over the past year.
On the way to the hotel after the sun had set, Jordan became rather tired from walking up and down the hilly streets for hours, his senses worn down in a land of infinitely novel sights and smells that barged into his awareness with no reference beyond themselves. Everything seemed entirely new, and taxed him to assimilate the abundance of stimuli. He stepped into a bakery and ordered a sweet roll and an espresso by pointing at the combo sign above the counter.
The bakery had six tables crammed together, creating a forced intimacy between everyone inside. Only one seat was open, and before he sat down, he gestured to a couple who were sitting next to it engrossed in conversation. They smiled and said something in Portuguese he did not understand and turned back to each other. With the espresso and roll reviving him, he sat for a few minutes, and enjoyed the break from the honest labor of walking. He was in no rush to return to his hotel which was mostly up hill for what he estimated to be still several kilometers.
At the neighboring table sat what looked like a grandmother, a mother, and her daughter. The daughter seemed to be about 11 years old. The mother and grandmother were chatting away, sipping their espresso, and leisurely picking at the same bread Jordan had just consumed. The daughter had nothing before her on the table. She sat quietly and pressed her thumbs into salt crystals she had poured onto the table in a pile.
The past, present, and future merged together in that family as three generations went about their day together as one. Jordan could see only the back of the mother’s head, but he had a clear sight of the grandmother. She was wearing makeup, had kindly eyes, and hair dyed a reddish-brown.
While Jordan watched on, the daughter reached towards her mothers plate to grab an abandoned pastry crumb while her mother was leaned forward talking with animation. The daughter pressed a crumb to her finger, and began withdrawing her hand furtively. The mother, looking down and seeing her sneaking hand, quickly smacked the crumb from the daughter’s finger with a sharp rebuke. The daughter cried out sharply, like an animal whose leg is snared in a trap. Hurt and surprise clouded her brow as she raised her hands to defend herself. The mother began to strike her, forcing down the daughters defenses, until she could smack her face. The daughter’s protest faded into a seemingly-resigned sob, which seemed to cull the mother’s fury. After a single hard slap, the beating ceased. The mother turned back to the grandmother and resumed their chatter picking up their conversation as though uninterrupted, while daughter sat there, attempting to suppress her quiet sobs. The grandmother paused briefly to address the girl in what seemed to be an expression of “you should know better” before turning back to chat.
During the entire ordeal, no one in the bakery so much as flinched to intervene. The couple next to him had looked up for an instant, but had gone back to talking unfazed. It had happened so quickly and unexpectedly that Jordan had had no idea what to do. Now that the beating was over, he still felt it was necessary to step in and say something, anything. He remained quietly seated, trying to catch the grandmothers eye without directly staring at her, though she seemed to deliberately ignore his glances.
A grave impotence began coursing through his veins. Were he to say something, it was unlikely the mother spoke English, and Jordan knew no Portuguese. Were he to try and get between the mother and crying daughter, she would call the police. He knew it would go very poorly for him to be in that position, some strange foreign man with blonde hair and blue eyes, trying to keep a mother from her weeping daughter.
What if he were to try and directly confront the mother. That was not at all possible. Most likely, he would provoke her anger towards him, and if she were to hit him, he knew nothing to do then but run. No matter the outcome of the situation, it might escalate, his flight would be difficult to catch were he in jail. Or the negative attention could make the mother lash out further against the daughter. He was crippled by the awareness that he was powerless to help, completely incapable of making a change in the face of so obvious an injustice.
His static anger reached a pitch, his own despair at looking on, his silence a concession to the injustice before him. As he got up to leave the bakery, he had to suppress an urge to slap the mother as he walked passed her. The grandmother saw his harsh eyes at last, and he hoped she would understand the look on his face. But all she returned to him was a smile that condoned her own daughters deeds. She likely had slapped the mother years before as she had been slapped for being disrespectful or greedy. He read her approval as a legacy that stretched back towards creation.
Her look nearly invited Jordan to say something, no, not invited, but seemed to challenge him. In him she seemed to have found an enemy, an outsider to her culture. His was the only judgment in the cafe. Her mouth turned up into a smile as their eyes locked, and he saw her relish in her victory. She did not need to know much, or really anything about Jordan to see his disgust, and he saw that she relished in his defeat.
Out in the dark street, he could see through the clean windows into the bright bakery. With one final look as he walked by, he saw the daughter still crying, her situation further wrought with pain by the fact that no one spoke up on her behalf, condoning the whole situation many times over.
The walk to his hotel took an hour and a half. He marched up hill, his pace quick to keep his body engaged in mindless action. When he got to his room, his stifled anger poured forth in a torrent. He punched the palms of his own hands, one after the other, making loud slaps that pierced the quiet of the hotel. Then he went into the bathroom and looked at himself in the mirror as he breathed through his nose, surely loud enough to hear in the hall.
Someone should have spoken up. No, he can’t expect them to. They don’t see the situation as clearly. Like a sophist they wove doubt into the whole situation, justifying a kind of complicity which allowed them to sleep easily. He saw it clearly, more clearly than anyone there in the bakery had. He always saw the world clearly, and his hevals had given him a position a ways behind the front line from which to snipe the enemy. But, then, his entire existence there was submerged in a world fueled by the rhetoric of martyrdom.
As he sat by the window in a chair, he noticed that the lights were on, and that the reflection of the room and its contents were obstructing his last chance to see Porto by night. With a last glance at himself he rose to find the switch. He returned to his chair after turning out the light, and looked out at the orange tiled roofs lit by pink street lights, and what little of the city he could see. He looked at his watch’s neon glow-in-the-dark hands. The sun was descending in the New York sky, and soon it would be rising again over Rojava. He felt himself in a limbo, hoping that somehow this night did not really exist. His heart behind him in the desert and his home a skyline of towers ahead of him, having fallen somewhere in a meridian between the two cities and two different time zones a world apart, he felt, presently, that he was never really there.
By the time he boarded the plane the next day, he only wished that no one at home or in the interview would ask him what he thought of Porto. But really who would? He had taken part in a cause far greater than that city, more grand than Europe and America. He had fought in a war against every form of injustice and inhumanity, and he assured himself that others needed, more than ever, to hear his message.
About the Author:
Benjamin Rees is from the United States and is 29 years old. For his bachelor’s degree he double majored in philosophy and psychology at the University of Memphis. He has recently graduated from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven with a Master’s degree in philosophy. Currently he is working as a lecteur d’anglais at the University of Haute-Alsace, France.