Damascus, March 2011
Ali opens the door to his apartment with a groan. His backpack is crammed full of books his advisor recommend he read in preparation for his next chapter, and he drops it onto the floor with a heavy thud. He’s a year into his PhD in political science at Damascus University, and he feels like he’s only just touched the surface of his topic.
He’d love nothing more than to lie on his bed and not think about anything for the rest of the afternoon. But he has a Skype call in twenty minutes with his old MA supervisor at Cairo, so he grabs his laptop and settles himself on the couch.
His laptop pings with an alert that there are two unauthorised users poaching his wifi network. It’s not an uncommon occurrence: his apartment is above a popular café in a popular student area, and there are always people looking for a free network to join.
Ali keeps his network open as a matter of principle. He feels like something big is coming, like the moment before a thunderstorm when the air crackles with static electricity. He doesn’t want to say the word ‘revolution’ aloud for fear of being dismissed as a romantic and an idealist, but he sees it in every post on social media and in every whispered conversation on campus. When the sky opens, he thinks, he has to do his part, even if it’s as simple as facilitating the rush of the storm.
But with an impending Skype call, he needs all the bandwidth he can, so he boots “Tafas” and “Themistocles” off the network.
He’s surprised when “Themistocles” re-connects immediately. Usually getting kicked off sends a clear enough message. Throwing a glance at the clock, he groans, grabs his keys, and heads downstairs to the café.
Immediately his eye is drawn to a young man with blonde hair, dressed in an ill-fitting shirt and pressed slacks. As Ali walks closer, he spots a bag by his feet emblazoned with the logo of Oxford University. English, he thinks to himself with a sigh.
“This is my hotspot,” he says firmly.
The man looks up from his laptop, and Ali is met with the bluest pair of eyes he has ever seen.
“Oh, is it yours?” he asks. “Thank you for keeping it open, it’s dreadfully difficult to find a stable connection around here.”
“You will have to go somewhere else. I am expecting a very important call.”
The man smiles. “You seem like a very important man,” he says, and raises an eyebrow inquisitively.
Ali understands the implied question. “My name is Ali ibn el Kharish.”
“Ah, from Damascus? I have heard of you,” the man says. “I read your article in International Studies Quarterly - ambitious, if somewhat blunt.”
“Oh,” Ali is momentarily taken aback. He looks at the Oxford bag again. “You are a student? Of politics, or history?”
“History?” the man asks with surprise.
“Themistocles,” he replies, gesturing to his laptop.
The man looks delighted. "You know your ancient Greeks," he says. "No, I've nearly finished my doctorate in international relations. Just a little more field work to go.”
Ali sighs inwardly. He has met plenty of enthusiastic Westerners conducting “field work.”
“And what sort of work would that be?”
"Well, to quote Themistocles: I cannot fiddle, but I can make a great state from a little city," he says. "I’m exploring how the tensions between national and regional identity are experienced by ordinary people - not at the level of the government, that is.”
“So you think to tell us our own lives?” Ali doesn’t wait for an answer. “I can tell you how the people 'experience' the nation-state,” he snaps. “Ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam.”
“The people want the fall of the regime,” the man translates.
“That is our experience,” Ali says.
“Do you feel change in the air, Ali?” He pauses. “I can see from your face that you do. And this is not just any wind of change: it is democracy.”
“Blowing in from the west, is it?”
The man doesn’t rise to the bait. “Democracy is coming, Ali, and by god, I hope to be here when it does.”
Ali glances at his watch. He cannot continue to stand here and argue with an irritating Englishman.
“Well, god be with you, English,” he says mockingly, then turns and walks back to the stairs to his apartment.
He can feel those blue eyes burning into his back.
Later that night, he does some research on the Oxford website, and eventually finds the man from the café. His name is listed as T.E. Lawrence, and he studies international relations at Jesus College. “Twin supervision with Professor Dryden and Professor Allenby,” he reads. He knows those names well from many an evening buried in journal articles.
From there, it’s not hard to find the man’s social media. He’s passionate and idealistic and described his upcoming “field work” as an “adventure.”
Dryden thinks that going to Syria right now is a foolish enterprise, but he is wrong: it’s going to be fun.
Ali sighs again. God save him from idealistic, meddlesome Westerners.
God obviously has other plans in store, for Ali runs into Lawrence again the very next night.
Ali has been attending Faisal’s meetings regularly, discussing the events in Tunisia and Egypt, and watching the ripples spread across the region.
But Ali is tired of waiting, and he storms into Faisal’s living room in a rage.
“They arrested children,” he yells. “Children!”
“Good evening, Ali,” Faisal says calmly.
“Did you not see what happened in Daraa?”
“They were boys, Faisal. And they tortured them. All for daring to imagine a different future.” He slams his fist on the table. “Will we just continue to sit here and debate politics, or will we do something?”
“He is right, you know,” a suspiciously English-sounding voice says from behind him. Ali turns to see Lawrence sitting in the corner of the room.
“You two have met, I believe,” Faisal says.
“What do you mean, Lawrence?” Faisal asks.
Lawrence rises to his feet and comes to stand next to Ali. “The time to act is now. We have seen it elsewhere: Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya. This is the moment.”
Ali snorts. Lawrence keeps talking. “It is as your book says: by the noonday brightness, and by the night when it darkeneth…surely the future shall be better for thee than the past.”
“You have missed a line,” Ali mutters, but he is surprised.
Faisal looks at Lawrence thoughtfully, and Ali feels his anger flare once more. “You would listen to an Englishman, Faisal?”
“No,” he says. “I will listen to neither of you. We will continue to watch and wait.”
Ali throws up his hands in frustration and storms out of the room. He’s halfway down the stairs before he realises that Lawrence is following him.
“What do you want?” he snaps, refusing to slow his steps.
Lawrence catches up to him just as he’s exiting the building. “The same thing as you, obviously.”
“I am not so sure about that,” Ali says.
“Change, freedom, revolution?”
“I think you are here for adventure,” Ali counters.
“That too,” Lawrence smiles. "But that's what revolution is, Ali."
“You Westerners are all one and the same.”
Lawrence sighs. "Go on, ask me whatever you want."
“How do you know the Qur’an?”
“I have studied it,” Lawrence says. “It is a very rewarding text.”
“It is,” Ali says carefully. "Is this part of your thesis?"
“Oh, no. I mean, it helps, of course, to understand the systems of belief of the countries I'm investigating, but it's really all extra-curricular.”
“Most students do not have time for extra-curricular research.”
"Well, I suppose I'm not 'most' students.”
He is irritatingly sure of himself, Ali thinks, but despite his better judgement, he is intrigued. “Did you mean what you said in there?”
“Hmmm?” Lawrence asks, looking at something on his phone.
“The future shall be better for thee than the past.”
“Of course,” Lawrence says. “Doesn’t everyone think that?”
“Everyone hopes,” Ali replies. “Not everyone believes.”
Lawrence pockets his phone and looks at Ali. “Hope and belief are not so different,” he says. “They are both a matter of courage.”
“Or naïvety,” Ali mutters, and Lawrence makes a face. “You are an idealist.”
“I have been called that before,” Lawrence smiles. “It is my manner, I am afraid.” He grabs Ali’s arm. “Look, you hope to protest like they do in Daraa, right?”
“Well, what if we went to Daraa?”
Ali stops to stare at him. “Are you mad? We cannot just go to Daraa.”
Ali opens his mouth, but all of his excuses feel small and worthless, and he sees them for what they are: excuses. He looks at Lawrence’s shining eyes, impossibly blue, and he again feels that sense of electricity in the air.
He closes his mouth.
Lawrence smiles. “It is only a matter of going,” he says, sweeping an arm out in front of them. “It is only a matter of believing.”
He should walk away now and leave this mad Englishman behind him, leave him to his naïvety and his arrogance and his hubris. But he does not. Instead, he finds himself turning towards him, like a flower turns towards the sun: irrevocably, openly, steadily.
He nods slowly. “Perhaps,” he says. “But not yet. First we protest here. We mobilise, and we organise.”
Lawrence raises his phone. “We can use that wonderful hotspot of yours.”
Ali rolls his eyes, but looks at the phone thoughtfully. “It will be a day for the ages,” he says. “A day of rage.”
Lawrence practically beams. “And you call me an idealist,” he says.
Ten days later
The crowd numbers over a thousand. He and Lawrence had spent the last week encouraging people to join their cause. but they had never dared to image a crowd so large. They had started with 50, and now they were 1500-strong, a sea of people chanting and marching as one.
Ali has never felt more alive.
Everywhere he looks, he sees faces he knows. Two of the students in one of Ali’s undergraduate classes, Daud and Farraj, were marching with a group of their classmates. He spots Gasim up ahead of him, and Majid to the right.
And of course, Lawrence at his left. They’ve been largely inseparable for the last week, planning and arguing and debating. They make a good team: Lawrence’s over-confidence is tempered by Ali’s caution, and Ali’s strong ethical code is galvanised by Lawrence’s endless reserves of energy.
He turns to say something to Lawrence, but the man is looking at his phone. Ali gives him a shove.
“I was thinking,” he says indignantly.
“You were tweeting,” Ali corrects, and Lawrence has the grace to look abashed.
“It’s for the cause!”
Ali gives him another shove. “This is the moment, you said. So be in it.”
Lawrence fixes him with a measured look, then pockets his phone. “Alright,” he says.
They continue to march when they become aware of a disturbance up ahead. The crowd is retreating back on itself.
“What is it?” Lawrence asks, craning his neck to look over the crowd. Ali grabs someone trying to move in the other direction and converses quickly in Arabic.
“It is the military,” he says, and Lawrence looks dismayed. “They have water cannons.”
A scream pierces the air. It’s enough to startle the crowd, and people start running. Ali grabs Lawrence by the arm and steers them into a nearby alley, then beckons at Daud and Farraj. The other students take off down the alleyway, and Ali turns to follow them.
“Wait,” Lawrence says. “Where is Gasim?”
Ali turns and glances around. “He must have got lost in the crowd.”
“We must go back!”
“Are you mad? The mood is turning!” A molotov cocktail flies over his head and explodes in the window of a nearby shopfront. “We cannot go back out there!”
“I can,” Lawrence says. He shoulders his backpack. “Take the rest of the group, and seek shelter.”
Ali grabs his arm. “What will you achieve if you go back? Nothing but your own reckless fantasies!”
“Get out of my way,” Lawrence says slowly. There is as much danger in his voice as in the crowd around him.
“Will you not understand? Gasim’s fate is no longer in our hands. It is…” he casts around for an appropriate English phrase. “It is written.”
“Written? Nothing is written,” Lawrence snaps, and shakes himself out of Ali’s grip.
“Fine! Go back, then!” Ali yells. “But you will not be at Daraa, English!”
“Oh, I will be there. That much is written.” He taps a finger against his skull. “In here,” he says, then disappears into the crowd.
Ali stares after him, a numb feeling spreading in his chest. He hardly notices the crowd surging around him until Daud grabs his arm and pulls him to safety.
Ali sits silently in the corner of Faisal’s living room, turning his phone over and over in his hands. The rest of the group are jubilant at the size of the protest, if deeply concerned about military’s violent dispersal.
No one mentions Lawrence.
He is an arrogant man, Ali thinks. Arrogant and naïve and hopelessly stubborn, intent on proving his own exceptionalism at the cost of all common sense. They are better off without him.
But he cannot take his eyes from the closed door.
Ali dozes for a while, and when he wakes, the streets are quiet and calm, but Lawrence has still not returned. He closes his eyes again and leans back against the wall, wondering why he wants to weep.
The door bangs open, and Ali opens his eyes to see Lawrence in the doorway, Gasim propped up next to him. The room erupts into chaos. Everyone runs towards the two men, and Gasim is led to a couch, where he gratefully sinks into the cushions.
Lawrence scans the room until he finds Ali. He is covered in dust and dirt, his lips are dry and cracked, and his hair is streaked with grime. But his eyes are as bright and blue as they have ever been, fixed on Ali’s own. A small smile plays at the corner of his mouth, and Ali can feel an answering grin spreading across his own face.
He grabs a bottle of water from a nearby table and walks to Lawrence, never breaking eye contact. He holds out the bottle and Lawrence takes it slowly.
“I did tell you,” he croaks, before raising the bottle to his mouth. “Nothing is written.”
“I feared I would not see you again,” Ali says. He has taken Lawrence back to his own apartment. Lawrence is tired but refused all other offers of accommodation.
“No, I shall stay with Ali,” he had said, and that was the end of the matter.
“I told you I would,” Lawrence replies, sitting down heavily on the couch. “Now, and again at Daraa.”
“How could you have just run back into all of that chaos? You would have known you would be hurt.”
Lawrence smiles. “The trick, Ali, is not minding that it hurts.”
Ali sighs. “You are a reckless man.”
“So you have told me.”
Ali winces. “I would not have had us part forever on such poor terms. I apologise for what I said.”
“It was not unwarranted,” Lawrence replies.
“Of course it was not,” Ali says sharply. “You believe yourself invincible.”
“Then what are you apologising for?”
“English,” Ali says. “I would not have you think I believe you a nameless foreigner.”
Lawrence laughs. “Ah, but I am a foreigner, Ali. My skin marks me so, and my name marks me so, and we are not free to choose either of those.”
“Skin, no,” Ali says. His eyes linger on the pale expanse of Lawrence’s throat, and he tears his gaze upwards. “But a name? I will gift you a name. El Aurens.”
Lawrence’s mouth drops. “El Aurens,” he repeats.
“El Aurens is best,” Ali says simply.
“Alright,” Lawrence smiles. “El Aurens it is.” He stifles a yawn with his hand.
“You should sleep,” Ali says. “I will get you some clothes. You cannot sleep in those, they are filthy.” He goes upstairs and rummages around until he finds an old Cairo University t-shirt and some shorts, and brings them back to Lawrence.
“You are very kind,” he says, as he takes the bundle.
“It is only what any decent person would do.”
“You are kind and you are decent, and those are qualities that are not always found in people,” Lawrence says.
For a moment they just stare at one another. Ali feels that crackling sensation in the air again, but this time, he thinks it has little to do with the pending revolution.
“Would you point me in the direction of your bathroom?”
Ali gestures wordlessly to the door. While Lawrence cleans up, Ali tidies his bedroom, quickly changing the sheets. When he hears Lawrence leave the bathroom, he intercepts him on his way back to the living room.
“You will sleep in the bed,” he says.
“I…no, I cannot impose. The couch is fine.”
“Do not be ridiculous, the couch is cheap and you are exhausted.”
It’s a testament to how tired Lawrence is that he doesn’t argue, simply nodding and allowing Ali to lead him to the bed. He is asleep almost as soon as his head hits the pillow.
Ali pulls the covers up to his shoulders, and perches on the side of the bed, watching him sleep. He feels hypnotised by the gentle rise and fall of Lawrence’s chest.
“Aurens,” he corrects himself.
When Aurens wakes, Ali is in the kitchen, looking out the window.
“Good morning, Ali,” he hears, and he turns to see Aurens, dressed again in his dusty shirt and slacks, his hair is rumpled from sleep.
“Aurens,” he says, and the smile he receives in return makes his stomach flip.
“Is that a dust storm?” Aurens asks, coming to stand beside him.
“Only a small one, it will pass soon.”
“I should return home, get some clean clothes.”
Ali nods. “I will go with you.”
“Will you just never let me out of your sight again?” he asks, and Ali feels his face warm.
“If it will stop you doing anything else reckless, perhaps.”
“Oh, Ali,” Aurens smirks. “I do not know how to do anything else.”
“Then I suppose I shall just have to keep watching you,” Ali replies.
“I suppose you shall," he says. He picks up his bag from where he had left it the night before, and Ali pauses at the sight of him.
“Wait,” Ali says. He ducks back into the bedroom and picks up his white keffiyeh. “Here,” he says, thrusting it at Aurens. “It will protect the dust from your face.”
Aurens turns it over in his hands. “Also handy for staying anonymous in a protest?”
“Yes,” he says. “I will help you with it.” He moves forward to help him wrap it around his face, and if his fingers tremble slightly as they brush his cheek, neither of them say anything about it.
When he’s done, he steps back to survey his work.
“Am I fit for the outdoors?”
“Yes,” Ali says softly. Aurens’s eyes seem even bluer against the white silk, and he wonders if he’s made a terrible mistake.
Aurens’s fingers brush against the silk. “Thank you,” he says. “I am once again in your debt.”
“It is no trouble.” Ali turns and picks up his own keffiyeh.
“Let me,” Aurens says. Ali raises an eyebrow at him. “I should practice,” he says, and steps forward, taking the keffiyeh from his hands.
Ali’s heart lurches in his chest as Aurens wraps the scarf around his head. He has to correct him at one point, and Aurens glares at him.
“Stop laughing, this is difficult enough without you wriggling around.”
“It is not difficult, a child could do it,” Ali says, and Aurens sighs.
“There,” he says. “All done.”
Ali turns to look in the hallway mirror, tightening the keffiyeh slightly. Aurens appears in the mirror over his shoulder.
“Well,” he says with a smile. “Don’t we make quite the pair?”
Ali looks at the two of them: dark and light, brown and blue, his own serious expression and Aurens’s easy smile, and he thinks he understands why the moon devotes its life to chasing the sun.
They do make it to Daraa. They join up with Auda abu Tayi and his group of Howeitat when Aurens accidentally poaches another hotspot.
“Do you just travel around and meet people by stealing their bandwidth?” Ali asks, as Auda bears down on them.
“I do seem to be rather good at it, don’t I?” Aurens smiles.
Auda takes some convincing to join their cause.
“I am paid a golden treasure by the military,” he says. “Why should I listen to you?”
“Because you are a river to your people,” Aurens replies.
“And the tide is turning, is it?” Auda sneers.
“I believe that is a mixed metaphor,” Aurens mutters, and Ali barely suppresses a snort.
“Well, why should I join you?” Auda asks.
“Because it is your pleasure to do so,” Aurens says.
“Your power,” Ali adds. “And the power of your people.”
Auda frowns between them. “You two bother me like a married couple,” he says, but Aurens shoots him a triumphant grin, and he knows they’ve won.
Together with the might of the Howeitat, the protestors burn down the local Ba’ath Party headquarters. “We are no longer afraid,” the crowd chants, and Ali chants with them until his voice is hoarse.
Later that night, Ali leaves the Howeitat looting the surrounding stores and seeks out Aurens. He’s sitting on a ledge looking up at the night sky.
“My god, I love this country,” he says. His eyes are very bright, despite the darkness.
Ali sit down beside him, and looks up at the night sky. “Are you a stargazer, Aurens?” he asks
“When it is dark enough to see the stars, yes. But even if they’re not visible, I take comfort knowing that they cross the skies again and again.”
“But we are the ones who are moving,” Ali says.
“Of course,” Aurens smiles. “We know it but we don’t feel it, just like we always know the stars are there without needing to see them.” He waves a hand at the city in front of them. “It’s just like the revolution. Change comes, even if we can’t feel it. We just have to believe.”
Ali smiles softly. “Ever the idealist.”
“You agree with me, I know you do.”
“Perhaps,” Ali says. He looks at the sky. “God is the one who has set out for you the stars, that you may guide yourselves by them through the darkness of the land and of the sea.”
“It is one of my favourite passages. The stars guide us, but they do not define us: they give us the impetus to act, but the action is our own.”
Aurens looks at him thoughtfully. “There’s a poem I read in a book somewhere, a long time ago. It reminds me of you. Shall I tell you it?”
“Please,” Ali replies.
Aurens looks back at the sky. “I loved you,” he begins, and Ali’s heart turns over in his chest.
“So I drew these tides of men into my hands, and wrote my will across the sky in stars to earn you freedom,” he continues, turning to look Ali in the eyes. “The seven pillared worthy house, that your eyes might be shining for me when I came.”
He looks back at the stars. “It is very beautiful, isn’t it?” he says.
“Yes,” Ali replies, his eyes never leaving Aurens’s face. “It is.”
Aurens's phone vibrates loudly between them, making them both jump.
“That infernal device!” Ali exclaims.
“Sorry,” Aurens says, pulling his phone from his pocket. He frowns, standing up from the ledge.
“What is it?” Ali asks.
“It's Allenby,” he says. “My supervisor. He’s in Cairo, and he wants to see me.” He looks at Ali. “I have to leave.”
“What?” Ali says, hardly believing his ears. “Now?”
“Yes, right now,” Aurens says.
“What could you possibly achieve in person that you cannot say over the phone?”
“He wants my first hand experience of the Arab uprisings.”
“Oh, I understand,” Ali snarls. “The word of an Arab is not enough, is it?”
“Don't you see? This could be our chance to get worldwide attention.”
“We already have it!”
“But it could be so much more,” Aurens says, turning and walking away. “I am sorry, Ali.”
For a moment Ali is back on the streets of Damascus on the Day of Rage, watching Aurens disappear. He will not suffer that again, he thinks, left behind in the wake of the storm, so he chases after Aurens grabs his arm. Aurens turns around with an expression of resignation on his face, but before he can speak, Ali takes his face in his hands and kisses him.
Aurens makes a small noise of surprise. He doesn't move into the kiss, exactly, but he doesn't move away either: he simply lets Ali kiss him, slowly and surely. It is only when Ali goes to retreat that he responds, leaning forward to chase his mouth with his own.
When they break apart, Aurens rests his forehead against Ali's, his eyes wide and sparkling.
“Oh Ali,” he murmurs. “You are a foolish and sentimental man.”
Ali smooths the edges of Aurens’s keffiyeh. “You will return?” he says.
“I did once, didn’t I?” he replies. “Do you trust me?”
“Yes,” Ali whispers. How could he do anything else?
When he can no longer see Aurens in the distance, he returns his gaze to the heavens with a sigh. "You may guide yourselves by them through the darkness of the land and of the sea,” he repeats to himself, but he is thinking less of stars than of a pair of bright blue eyes.
Aurens returns, of course. He brings with him various books, a new router, and an American war correspondent, Jackson Bentley of the Chicago Tribune.
“The whole world is watching,” he says, like it is the most inevitable thing in the world.
Aurens loves to be watched, and truth be told, Ali loves to watch him.
He watches him in the middle of the protests, his eyes gleaming, his face alight.
He watches him pose for Bentley’s photographs, which are shared again and again online.
Auda scowls at him. “Social media will steal your soul,” he grumbles, and Aurens throws back his head and laughs.
And he watches him at night in the bed they share, Aurens’s body shining in the moonlight. The first night he took him to his bed, he had been gentle and careful as he undressed him, hardly daring to touch his skin lest he put out the light that seemed to shine within.
Eventually Aurens had laughed. “You are a very sweet man underneath all that glowering, but I am not made of porcelain.”
Ali had scowled at him, which only made him laugh more.
“Well?” he had asked, reclining back on the bed and raising an expectant eyebrow at him.
Ali had let his eyes linger over Aurens's body, stretched out before him in the moonlight. "You asked me once if I trusted you," he had said, kneeling on the edge of the bed. "Do you also trust me?"
"Yes," Aurens had replied.
So Ali had kissed him, pressing him down into the mattress until they were both gasping, until he could pretend that he could protect him from the world with nothing but his own bare skin.
“I do not like this new group,” Ali says. They are rallied on the streets of Damascus, as they have been so often over the last few weeks. The crowd is different to the usual collection of students and activists, and it makes Ali uneasy.
“Don’t be so closed-minded,” Aurens scolds. “The revolution is for everyone.”
Ali looks at the men around them. “I do not think these men know much of revolution,” he says. “They thrive on violence for violence’s sake, and I think they are here to fight, no matter which side.”
“It’s fine,” Aurens says. “I’ll show you.” He leaps atop an overturned bin, raising a fist in the air. “The people want the fall of the regime!” he yells.
That’s when the shooting starts.
Later, when he tries to piece together the events of the day, Ali won’t be sure exactly what happened. He knows the security forces opened fire. He knows that ninety people were killed.
But he only remembers the acrid taste of teargas, the sting of the smoke in the air, the sound of screams and wails, and the eerie silence that follows.
And he will always remember the sight of Aurens, horror in his eyes, his white keffiyeh splattered with blood.
It is inevitable, after that. Each protest becomes more and more dangerous, and each day brings another disappearance from their circle. Aurens stops talking of belief, and Ali stops talking of justice. More often than not, they stop talking at all, but sit together in an anxious silence punctuated only by the gunfire that echoes through the city.
Before long, the British government issues a travel warning, and Ali wakes one morning to find Aurens gathering his belongings from where they have been carelessly strewn around Ali’s apartment.
“You are leaving, then,” he says.
“The university will no longer support me here. It is too dangerous, they say.”
“So you are giving up?”
Aurens crosses to the window to look out at the streets below. “You were right, Ali. I am an idealist, and this…” He sighs. “Where I hoped for peace, there is war; where I saw democracy, there is dictatorship.”
“What happened to belief?” Ali asks. “There is more beyond what you can see, change beyond what you can feel. You said so yourself, that night in Daraa.”
“I suppose I did,” he replies. “But perhaps I’ve come to the end of my belief.”
“But not the end of the Arab Spring,” Ali snaps. “You give yourself too much credit.”
Aurens says nothing, just continues to throw clothes into his bag.
“What of the others? The people who have followed you?”
“They’ll have you,” he says.
“And what of me, then? What of us?”
"That is not safe either," Aurens says gently. “Ali, I…” He reaches out to grip his shoulder. “You could come with me. I worry that…”
Ali wrenches himself free. “This is my home,” he hisses. “I will not just waltz in and out as I please.”
“I know, but-”
“No,” he snaps. “Your privilege to cross borders blinds you to their persistence.”
“Ali,” Aurens begins, but Ali hardly hears him over the blood rushing in his ears.
“No,” he says again. “No, I shall stay here, and continue to fight.” He turns away from Aurens to look back out the window. “Go back to your own people, and leave me to care for mine.”
He does not move until he hears the door close quietly behind him, refusing to watch Aurens walk away from him for a third time. But even if he had turned around, he would not have seen him; not through the hot tears that spill quietly down his cheeks.
Oxford, November 2012
Ali walks the streets of Oxford. He does not like the town: small and stuffy and damp. He had not wanted to attend this conference, but his supervisor had insisted that it was a good opportunity for him. So he had prepared his paper and boarded the plane, determined to focus only on the work, on representing his institution and his country as best he can.
But with every step on the cobblestone lanes, he wonders how many times Aurens’s feet had walked the same paths. He wonders if he is doomed to forever follow helplessly in his wake, a star around a sun.
He presents his paper calmly and smoothly, only having to pause to correct his institutional affiliation during the introduction.
“Damascus,” he says.
“Oh, but I thought it was Cairo,” the chair apologises.
“We are based in Cairo now,” he says. “It is...temporary.”
He looks at his notes so he does not have to see the pity on the faces in front of him.
At the end of his paper, multiple hands shoot up immediately.
“Are you the same Ali who knew Dr. Lawrence?” a young woman asks.
“This is irrelevant to my research,” he says.
“You helped lead the uprising in Damascus!” another student exclaims. “You were central to the revolution!”
“Were you really there on the Day of Rage?”
Ali grits his teeth. He did not come here to be an exhibit of “authenticity” for a gaggle of students.
“Okay, let's limit our questions to the research topic,” the chair interrupts.
After the paper, the woman who asked the first question approaches him.
“You are Dr. Lawrence’s Ali,” she says.
“Do you know him?” he asks.
“Oh, no,” she says. “I’ve never spoken to him. But we’ve all read his thesis.”
Ali frowns at her. “Why?”
“Our supervisors hold it up as a model example,” she says with a smile. “It is very good.”
“I would not know,” Ali says, trying to find a way to extract himself from the conversation.
“Wait, you haven’t read it?”
“No,” Ali snaps. “It is not exactly bedtime reading.”
“I really think you should,” she says.
“I will keep that in mind,” he says, pushing past her to escape outside, away from the curious eyes of the other delegates.
When he returns for the afternoon keynote, there’s an excited hum in the room.
“We’re very pleased to announce a special guest today,” the conference organiser says. “Dr. Lawrence, from Jesus College, has kindly agreed to share some of his insights into the Arab Spring.”
Lawrence stands up from where he had been seated in the front row and approaches the podium.
Ali’s heart skips a beat.
He is dressed in a shirt and a woollen jumper, and he looks every inch the Oxford academic. But he does not look happy: even from Ali's seat in the back row, he can tell that his smile is tight and forced. He tugs anxiously at one of his sleeves and glances at his notes, before raising his eyes to the audience.
They immediately fall on Ali.
The silence in the room is deafening. People start shifting in their seats, turning around to try and see what has seized Lawrence's attention. Ali stands and walks out of the room, grateful for lecture theatres with back doors. He does not want to cause a scene, but more than that, he not want to hear whatever Lawrence has to say about the Arab Spring.
Of course, when he emerges from the stairwell, Lawrence is standing in the corridor.
“Ali,” he whispers.
“Dr. Lawrence,” he replies, and Lawrence’s face falls.
“Please do not call me that.”
“Did you not earn that title?”
“I did," he says. "But I recall I once had another name, one given freely and without conditions.” Ali says nothing, and Lawrence sighs. “I hear you will soon be a doctor yourself?”
“Yes, well, it is hard to keep to a timeline when your country is ravaged by civil war.”
Lawrence flinches, and Ali feels no remorse.
“Dr. Lawrence!” a voice calls from behind.
“Excuse me,” Ali says, and walks away down the corridor. He does not look back.
That evening, alone in his hotel room, Ali looks up Lawrence's thesis on the university website. “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom: Re-imagining the nation-state in the Arab Spring.”
Scrolling through the thesis, he sees that Lawrence has organised his chapters around the six key countries: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain. Judging from his conclusion, the seventh pillar seems to be ‘democracy.’
“Always the idealist,” Ali sighs.
He stops for a moment at the acknowledgements: his two supervisors, Dryden and Allenby, the usual librarians and archivists, various people who helped him in Syria, his fellow PhD students and friends. At the bottom is a paragraph for his family, as tends to be customary, but beneath that is one final sentence, alone.
For Ali: who wrote his will across the sky in stars to earn our freedom.
Ali stares at the words until his eyes water, but he does not see them: he sees the ones that are not written, the ones that were whispered under the stars on a wall in Daraa, and again and again in a bed bathed in moonlight.
The next day he rises early. He has a train to catch to London, and a flight the day after that, but he has some time to spare, so he walks along the river beside Christ Church Meadow. The town feels like a page torn from a storybook, safe and isolated and untouched by all the horror and bloodshed and violence in the world.
He hates it.
“Ali,” a voice says softly behind him. Ali turns to see Lawrence, standing a few feet away from him. He is not really surprised to see him there.
“May I join you?” he asks.
“It is good to see you,” Lawrence begins. “Are your family well?”
“Some,” Ali replies. “Some are dead.”
“Oh Ali, I am so terribly sorry.”
Ali says nothing.
“I have followed your work. You have done much for your field, and for your country.”
“I try my best,” Ali replies.
“What will you do when you graduate?”
“I hope to teach,” he says, meeting Lawrence’s eyes. “So that the future will be better than the past.”
“That is a very noble profession.”
“I had not thought of it before I met you.”
They are both silent for a moment. Ali watches the autumn leaves drift from the trees into the water in front of him.
“Ali, I was wrong,” Lawrence says.
“Yes, about many things,” Ali replies. “To which do you refer?”
“I should have stayed,” he says. “I could have…”
“You still give yourself too much credit,” Ali interrupts, but there is no venom in his voice. “One man would have made little difference.”
“But some difference,” Lawrence says. “It would have been something.”
“Yes,” Ali replies. “Yes, it would have been something.”
Lawrence looks at him carefully. “There is something else I was wrong about,” he says, taking a tiny step towards him. “Some things are written.”
He places a hand over his chest. “In here.”
Ali feels his traitorous heart lurch wildly.
Lawrence takes another step toward him, and reaches out carefully, slowly, to gently touch Ali’s own chest. “And in here,” he says softly.
There is a question in his voice that Ali cannot bring himself to answer.
Lawrence sighs, and lowers his hand, taking a step back. “Do you remember what we chanted on the streets of Daraa?” he asks.
“We are no longer afraid,” Ali says softly.
“Well, I am afraid,” he says. “I fear this endless war, and this surge of hate I see rising in the West. And I fear that I will never again believe in change, or freedom, or revolution, or love.”
Ali looks at him. He thinks about the way the moon follows the sun, the way his people follow the stars, and the way that, as someone once told him, belief follows hope. And he thinks that the reverse is equally true: that belief might create hope, that the stars might follow people, and that the sun might also spend its life chasing the moon.
“I did not come here to argue your ideals," he says. "Your romantic notions about change and freedom and revolution."
Lawrence nods sharply, looking away.
“And I do not pretend to know much about love,” he continues. “But perhaps it is as you once told me, Aurens."
He reaches out to take his hand. “The trick is not to mind that it hurts.”