When I was a kid, my father used to tell my brothers and I stories of his youth.
But he never shared details from the time he turned eighteen until he got married.
When pressed, my father would simply say there were things that he’d done that he wasn’t proud about. Immature on his part, but that we would never top some of the crazy stuff he’d been a part of.
If only he knew.
In April of 1997, at the mature age of 28, I knocked out the electrical power for a large portion of Damascus, Syria by tossing a six-foot concrete flower bed from a fifth-story balcony, where it took out power lines and blew a transformer. I fled the building with the three other teachers and the neighborhood of Abu Roumaneh, eventually winding up at the Australian Embassy bar in Mazzeh.
Three hours later, we were at the Australian Embassy, confronted by the administration of our school and the wife of the teacher who had hosted the event.
“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?” they shouted in unison: the headmaster at me, and the wife at her husband who’d hosted the drunken afternoon. We all reacted sheepishly, and mumbled apologies.
But it was well past a simple “sorry.”
On the ground floor, there was a store, and outside the store sat a car owned by a nephew of Hafez al-Assad, the President of the country at that time…and that car was covered in popcorn, empty beer cans and trash. He was not amused.
When he left the store and saw what had happened, he asked some people milling around the scene what had happened, and they pointed to the apartment and said, “The Americans”. He and his bodyguard drew guns and came up to the apartment looking for us.
Someone called the landlord, who then called our school. The off-campus manager Adnan arrived on the scene, where a few locals had taken to burning some American flags.
Over the next few hours, Adnan cleaned up the street and paid some prominent people. The host of the party and a few others assisted as well.
The next morning I woke with a knot in my stomach. What I’d done had sunk in.
I had rugby practice around 11, but before I left I began to pack my things…there was no way I’d be allowed to stay after this. Just before I left my apartment, the phone rang – it was the American Embassy asking if I’d come down for an interview. The four of us were interviewed individually to establish what exactly had happened.
- Were we to blame?
- Who had done what?
- What had the locals done to incite us?
During that first interview, I remembered that I’d thrown the flower bed, but couldn’t remember other details. Once I’d finished telling them my version, I was informed that the President’s nephew was pissed and searching for us, as other expatriates reported their apartments had been broken into. We were told to stay in our apartments, and that the embassy would call us occasionally to check on us.
If we didn’t answer, or if the phone was cut off, the embassy would send Marines to bring us into the embassy for our own safety.
After that initial interview, the four of us spoke. Biology remembered the most about the evening. He was pissed that he’d been there, and even more pissed that we didn’t stop when he warned us. Calculus wasn’t having a good year – he was sick of living in the Middle East and frankly didn’t care what happened as long as he got to leave.
Host was just plain scared.
I recalled a couple of things during that discussion: first, I was mostly responsible for throwing stuff off the balcony, and I had the least to lose. The other teachers were married, had children, or both. I was just a drunk single guy who happened to teach.
I went to rugby practice visibly upset. The team asked what was wrong, and I explained what I’d done. Typically, the team cheered.
On Saturday, the Abu Roumaneh Four had another meeting, this time with an embassy representative, the school headmaster and the president of the school board.
I told them I’d started it, threw most of the stuff off the balcony, but I couldn’t take credit for the entire flower bed; it was simply too big for one person.
When asked why, I didn’t have a valid reason.
Before I left, I was told there would be a meeting the following night (Sunday) to discuss our fates. I went home and continued to pack.
Over the next twenty-four hours, I made phone calls to say goodbye to my expatriate friends, and one quick phone call to an American friend whom I was supposed to backpack Europe with that summer. On his voicemail, I told him to NOT purchase a ticket, without sharing any details.
On Sunday morning, I went to school and taught like I’d done every other Sunday. Most students had no idea about the controversy I’d started – somehow, in a small expatriate community where everyone’s business was known, this was missed – but a few of them knew something was up, and asked probing questions.
For one of the rare moments in my life, I had nothing to say.
On Sunday morning, the four of us were called to campus to learn of our discipline. It turns out, lobbing large items off a balcony while loaded is the OTHER thing one can get in trouble for in Damascus, besides showing support for the nation of Israel. Calculus and I were told to pack our things – we were being sent back to the United States via Amsterdam. Damages were to be paid out of salaries we were owed, which amounted to about ten thousand dollars.
My ticket was to Detroit. I’m not from Detroit. I told the embassy I wasn’t from Detroit.
They told me they didn’t care.
That night, I invited friends over from the expatriate community to say goodbye and sell those things I couldn’t pack. Hani, the Syrian kid who could sell ice to an Eskimo, managed to sell most of my appliances on my behalf.
The impromptu party drank the last of my alcohol, and I gave a goodbye speech while Adnan changed the locks on my door; the school guards stood at the entrance waiting to drive me to the airport. An Australian friend asked them if he could drive me, and they acquiesced. The thirty minute drive was mostly in silence as I tried to figure out my future.
During the layover in Amsterdam, Calculus decided he was going back to Syria to stay with his girlfriend and newborn child. I flew to…Detroit.
Once I arrived there, I bought a one-way ticket to Philadelphia. Too ashamed to speak to my parents yet, I called my brother and asked him to pick me up at the airport. Late Tuesday evening, I walked into my parents’ house with a backpack, all of my other belongings in storage back in Syria.
My stepmother walked into the kitchen, surprised at first but quickly figured things out. “Wha? What? What are you doing here?
“What happened? “You get kicked out of the country?”
I nodded, then asked where dad was. He was away at a conference for the week, so I pleaded with her not to say anything until I could figure out how to explain.
She didn’t listen – a couple of days later, she was on the phone with him and said, “There’s someone here who wants to talk to you”, then handed me the phone.
“Who is this?”
“Wait…what are you doing? Why are you home? You got kicked out of the country, didn’t you?”
My father started laughing uncontrollably, and said he’d call me back. He called a few minutes later and asked if I was okay, then admitted, “Son, I think you finally topped my stories.”
My dad never asked what I’d done to get kicked out of Syria. And I never had the guts to come clean.
For that matter, neither did my dad.
…end of the series…
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