This is privilege

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Sarah Dadouch/Senior Staff

I stood in the fresh-bread section at Berkeley Bowl, fighting an impending mental breakdown.

I stood there for four minutes — maybe less, maybe more, I didn’t count. What I was counting were the types of loaves in front of me: Sweet Batard, Sourdough, French, Italian, olive. I counted 16 before the tears that had started blurring my vision came dangerously close to falling, hanging on the rims of my eyes and threatening to stream down my face if I kept going. I picked up a bag of honey French rolls, threw it in my green plastic basket and stood in line to pay.

“This is privilege,” I thought.

The same thought occurred to me when I sat down to eat the best kebab I’ve ever had. My dad had told me I had to find this place, but he didn’t remember the name. I had been wandering around Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar for two hours, happily lost in its colors and aromas, when I stumbled upon the place, secluded in a small alleyway. I ordered what my dad had recommended, called him on Viber to celebrate my minor victory, then settled into my seat. With the exception of two somber businessmen and a pair of loud, cheerful policemen, I was the only person in the small shop. It was quiet. I smiled to myself. I like quiet.

The waiter placed the most beautiful plate of kababs in front of me with yellow rice and hot, fresh bread. I stared down at my plate.

“This is privilege,” I thought.

Had the waiter who served me in Istanbul seen me two days prior to my visit, he would not have recognized me. My hair, now loose and free in the city’s streets, would have been tied in a knot, carefully tucked away underneath a light pink scarf dotted with prints of white ants. Instead of my T-shirt, skinny jeans and sandals, I would have been wearing my baggiest shirt, similarly baggy pants, and my now permanently muddy Nike shoes. My only accessory was a khaki vest with the words “Maram Foundation” sewn on it in blue and red.

I had been volunteering in Camp Atmeh on the border between Turkey and Syria for a month in the summer, teaching English. This is not a  let’s-make-bead-bracelets-and-have-water-fights kind of camp, but more of a we-had-to-leave-our-town-because-it-kept-getting-shelled kind of camp.

Every day, I would get up, have breakfast at the foundation’s office in Turkey and wait for the car. Then other volunteers and I would drive to a checkpoint, sign in, take a blue sticky note, and get back in the car. We would drive through a town that always seemed abandoned, beyond the fields that always seemed empty and by cows and sheep that always seemed cheerful. Another checkpoint.

We gave them the blue sticky notes; they opened the gates in return. Sometimes, it took them three minutes; more often than not, it took half an hour. Once, we had to turn back. I was furious — did they not understand that people were waiting for me?

We usually got to camp late, but no one with me cared. None of them had made any promises, because they knew they couldn’t keep them. I would leave the Turkish land and walk toward the gaping hole in the barbed wire, crossing into Syria. I would attempt to walk quickly toward the school, but the ground was hilly, muddy and hard, filled with holes.

“You have to slow down, or you’ll break your neck!” an old woman, chilling outside her tent on a spread, yelled at me. I would nod, slow down, then pick up the pace again. Every morning.

I stare into the eyes of 15 students for an hour, speaking mostly Arabic. Then I stare into the eyes of 40, speaking a mixture of English and Arabic. With the last group, about 20 kids, I speak only English. They will have to figure out among themselves what I have to say. I teach for five hours, refusing to take breaks. They offered me water once when they saw I was dehydrated. I drank it desperately and got sick for three days. I learned to only drink warm, canned Pepsi after that. I had a cold Coke only once in that camp: I almost cried from happiness as I gulped it down. I didn’t care that I choked on its fizziness.

“How can you speak English so well if you’re from Damascus?” they asked me.

“Privilege,” I wanted to tell them.

I grew up in the capital, and my dad was a doctor. His father owned a factory. We ate out often, went to the movie theater often and took trips around the world. My father sent me to the States to go to college.

“Don’t tell them you live in California,” a member of the organization warned.

But I couldn’t lie. When they asked me what it was like, they leaned in and a hush fell over the room — a tent with the earth for a floor.

I stood slightly taller and said, “Nothing like Damascus.”

I stared at my plate of kebab and yellow rice. I remembered the woman who invited me to her tent for food, refusing to take no for an answer, beaming with pride when I told her I hadn’t had Mulukhiyah like hers in years.

“Why aren’t you eating more?” she asked. How could I tell her that she should not waste her food on me? How much had the garlic cloves cost her, and how many people did she have to pay off in order to get fresh parsley? I stared down at my plate, and my stomach turned. I can’t eat this, I thought. I don’t deserve it.

A GSI gave a lecture instead of my professor last semester. He spoke of war. I was fine. He spoke of Syria. I was fine. He then asked us to imagine being taken away from Berkeley and being told that we couldn’t go back home. Suddenly, I was sitting on the balcony in my old apartment, listening to the call of prayer as the sun faded, turning Damascus into a pink-and-orange version of herself. Suddenly, I wasn’t fine anymore. I stood up and turned around. Three hundred students were behind me. The whole school in the camp could fit in this hall. My students there would love to be here.

They had begged me to stay, to keep teaching them English. Hussam, 18 years old, my favorite student, did not know how to put together an English sentence at first. Later in the summer, he raised his hand. “My sister plays football,” he said proudly. My students would love to be here, I think again. I leave the classroom.

A guy, late 20s, had shyly come up to me and told me he had managed to grab one book before he left his village. He placed it in my hand. I looked down, and Roald Dahl stared back at me. “The children are our future.” This is the thought that went through my head as I sat in a circle with 30 of my students. There weren’t enough chairs, so some sat on the dusty ground. I opened “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and began reading. “Down in the valley there were three farms. The owners of these farms had done well. They were rich men. They were also nasty men.” “NASTY!” everyone yells. I jump, and then we all start laughing. I had forgotten that I had promised to write difficult words and their definitions on the board. Five pages later, the board is full. I sit back down after I had written the last word, and look around at my group, my kids. Their ages range from 15 to 42. They all scribble in their notebooks, some practicing how to pronounce the word “crook.” You are our future, I think.

Sixteen types of bread. A few months ago, my aunt had told me how expensive bread had gotten. If she was saying that, I thought, then how on earth were far poorer people getting by? Maybe I should buy the 16 types of bread at Berkeley Bowl, borrow a plane, and throw it all over the city, all over the country.

I brushed that thought away.

So I ate my honey French rolls with cheese and olives. I watched the Office on Netflix with my sister, used my own bathroom to wash my face and got into my comfy bed.

“This is privilege,” I thought, right before I closed my eyes and fell asleep.

Contact Sarah Dadouch at [email protected]