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The Imperfect Traveler:

Part 14: Sent Home

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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. 

“Hey”

“Who is this?

“Your son.”

“Wait…what are you doing? Why are you home?  You got kicked out of the country, didn’t you?”

“Yes.”

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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cstolliver
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cstolliver
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April 19, 2023 5:42 am

It took guts to do so now. I have to say, last week, I couldn’t respond I was so floored by what you’d done. But I do think it takes a lot of heart to share the most difficult moments of one’s life — the moment you’re not at all proud of, but you realize in retrospect was a turning point. I have to give you credit for that. Thanks for taking that risk.

mt58
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April 19, 2023 7:49 am
Reply to  cstolliver

A question for you, Chuck:

As a school counselor to young people living in 2023, do you give them advice about trying to avoid Internet infamy?

Most of us will admit that we did our share of irreverent things when we were young. The huge, huge difference is that today, one stands a very good chance that any such untoward episodes will be recorded. And available to be viewed in perpetuity.

I genuinely worry and wonder if some of the kids I’ve seen online in compromising situations will ever recover. When a recorded record exists, it’s very easy for other people to resurrect it anytime they want, and it seems like it often serves as a permanent reminder of misdoings.

People change and grow. I was a perfect idiot when I was younger, and I hope that I’ve improved, but I had the benefit of “forgive”, when, in the digital age, it’s harder to “forget”.

Does this ever come up, and how do you handle it?

cstolliver
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April 19, 2023 11:54 am
Reply to  mt58

We do talk about online safety and responsibility but much of that is done at the middle school level in an effort to strike at the likeliest time of initial concern. I do fear that students may not absorb the full implications until they’re older.

Phylum of Alexandria
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April 19, 2023 7:38 am

“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.”

That’s an extraordinary privilege to have, and yet one that must be absolutely terrifying to hear it being offered.

My God, what an insane experience. Thankfully no one was injured or killed during the drunken mayhem; that would have been far, far worse.

It’s never easy to reveal our lowest moments. Even online there’s a strong tendency to present your best or idealized self to the world, so thanks for digging out that blurry Polaroid snapshot of a time you’d maybe rather forget, and sharing a little slice of reality to the tnocs Insta page.

I have a question about Calculus. He was the one who wanted to leave…but he had a newborn child? What’s up with that? And was he even allowed to return to Syria given what your group had done?

LinkCrawford
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April 19, 2023 10:46 am
Reply to  thegue

St. Helena. A 10 mile wide island isolated in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. I can’t even imagine.

LinkCrawford
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LinkCrawford
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April 19, 2023 10:40 am

I am one mild-mannered dude…not without faults, but just boring. I’ll admit that I could not relate whatsoever to your partying attitude. It’s just so not me. Though I also did some really stooopid stuff as a youth, that had I gotten caught might have caused me trouble, but it wouldn’t have been at this level. (Maybe I’m more to blame…I never could blame my actions on a drunken stupor, since I’ve never drank).

But today you wrapped things up so well! I am totally feeling empathetic. I love how you brought your father and his past into this story.

thegue you may have done some stupid stuff, but you are one good man. You’re one of the reasons I want to stay around here. 🙂

Last edited 1 year ago by LinkCrawford
Virgindog
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April 19, 2023 11:27 am

Lessons learned, eh? Sometimes they’re painful.

Both Grouse
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April 19, 2023 12:37 pm

On the other hand, saying that you’ve been thrown out of a country – any country – if a flex that few people can make.

JJ Live At Leeds
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April 19, 2023 12:37 pm

Did not see the story winding up going via Detroit. Quite the adventure. Like others have said; you live, you learn. It shows character that you recognised that things went too far and you’ve made changes.

When you’re in that bubble of the expat community without the same sense of responsibility the locals had and with the endless parties it must be easy to get swept up in it and not see that things are getting out of hand until it really does get out of hand. It’s been a heck of a story. Thanks thegue.

Edith G
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Edith G
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April 19, 2023 2:45 pm

Well what can I say? People say that you learn better from bad experiences, and I’m sure that you did learn. Of course nobody would like to deal with the consequences of their actions, specially when they are disastrous and chaotic, but something good had to come to your life after that, even if you couldn’t see it at the time.

Thank you for sharing that part of your life.

cappiethedog
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April 19, 2023 8:01 pm

I try really, really hard to abstain from saying anything political. But I can’t say goodbye to Syria without mentioning that the entire state of Hawaii disowns Tulsi Gabbard. If anybody feels the same way I do, I apologize on behalf of the 50th state. And likewise, I apologize if you like her. I highly doubt Assad is into diplomacy. What’s never been clear to me is if Gabbard went to Syria with the intention of not being found out. Since she was, Gabbard said the right thing. She was on a peace-keeping mission. But if she wasn’t. What in the world did they talk about?

I know my fair share of post-war Syria, thanks to the great reporting from The Economist. This great series of eyewitness articles makes the state of Aleppo all the more sadder.

Pauly Steyreen
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April 19, 2023 11:55 pm
Reply to  cappiethedog

She did pull off quite the heel turn, didn’t she?

Phylum of Alexandria
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April 20, 2023 7:25 am
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

Politician, Heel Thyself!

dutchg8r
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April 20, 2023 9:19 am

For a moment there I was afraid you were going to say the president’s nephew’s car broke the fall of the concrete flower bed, oy. You’re fortunate that didn’t happen!

In a strange way, sounds like pops was almost proud of you! But, considering what you shared a few chapters ago about the chaos in your life at that time that you were running away from, I can totally understand your mindset while you were living there. The most important takeaway from your tale is that you recognize the not-so-wise choices for what they are, have learned from them and moved on as a better person –

With some doozies of stories to share!!! Thanks for the ride along, thegue!

PeiNews
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April 20, 2023 5:42 pm

Could be worse… at least you didn’t throw things off the balcony while shouting pro-Israel slogans

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