Alaa Stands in a Lifelong Queue
Alaa descends from the green bus at the Muqawama bus stop on the main street of Damascus’ Rukneddine neighborhood, heading towards the alleyways of slums sprawled across the mountain. It is early still at 8:30pm, and Alaa is accustomed to climbing the mountain on foot. But having had a tiresome day dealing with the military service postponement application, he decides to ride one of the “rockets.” He is not a fan of these vehicles, which feel more like a turtle about to turn on its back.
For those unfamiliar with the “rocket,” it is a Honda minivan with a powerful engine that is the only vehicle capable of traversing the narrow, corroded, extremely steep and labyrinthine mountain lanes between the mushrooming shanties. Locals resort to this Chinese ‘creature’ to secure transportation for those living high up in this impoverished area.
Alaa is a fourth-year student of English Literature. Having attempted to delay mandatory service at all cost, he will soon have exhausted the maximum course failures allowed for Syrian students before they are forcibly recruited into the military. He is not wealthy; his father is a taxi driver, his mother has passed away and he lives with his grandmother and younger brother Mahmud.
On days like these, Alaa is overcome with mixed emotions towards his younger brother. He loves him, but hates him. He feels aggrieved by the fact that his brother, who is still a seventh-grader, does not have to deal with the terror and humiliation associated with mandatory service application.
Alaa wishes he had a cute little sister that looks like Maha, his girlfriend and fellow student. The day was nearing when they would have to part ways, at least for a while, because he will eventually have to flee the specter of military service, which continues to haunt him no matter how hard he tries to postpone it.
Alaa arrives home, exhausted. He has a dish of shishbarak [dumplings in yogurt stew] served without the meat stuffing. His grandmother is immensely creative in devising economical ways to make the food tasty even when it is short on basic ingredients.
“What happened with you? Did you manage to postpone?” asks his father, concerned.
“I still haven’t made it to the records room…” Alaa sighs.
Young men wishing to postpone their service are already in the Recruitment Division at 7:00am. University students must obtain an enrollment certificate to prove their affiliation and attendance . It can take a month to obtain such a certificate, since all that relates to mandatory recruitment is under intense scrutiny these days, and let alone the enormously irritating bureaucracy and the whims and inclinations of officers – although this is usually avoidable with a few thousand pounds in bribes. Students bring this certificate along with other relevant documents, and are lined up even before the Recruitment Division is open to the public, to reserve their place in the long queue that may extend for hundreds of meters.
Everything begins with the arrival of the colonel who will sign the documents. The colonel usually arrives at 9:00, but he does not receive visitors before having his morning coffee, which may take yet another hour. In the meantime, the privates organize the queue by kicking and cursing, which can be light or heavy depending on the weight of their military connections.
Two queues are lined up in front of the colonel’s office: one for the ordinaries, and one for those cutting in line because of their influential acquaintances in the military or government. In the meantime, the colonel feigns anger because of the overcrowding at his door, lecturing everyone about discipline and order. He pontificates about how chaos is the cause of the scourge befalling Syria, and asserts that Syrians do not even know how stand in line.
After a prolonged, humiliating wait, Alaa gets his university certificate signed by the colonel, then moves on to the records queue to get the postponed date of his enlistment, and finally have it stamped and signed on the military service book back in the colonel’s office.
Alaa waits for long in front of the records room. He restlessly watches other students withdraw from the ordinary queue, talk to one of the privates, passing them a thousand-pound bill to be moved to the expedited queue. Alaa only has a few hundred pounds on his person, barely enough to go to university, buy some coffee and then go home. It is worthwhile to tolerate standing in line with the others as long as he can afford having coffee with Maha later that day.
The shift is over, and Alaa still has not been able to enter the records room to obtain his damned file. He proceeds to the university and has an argument with Maha. He returns home, exhausted, angry and resentful of the fact that his family once decided to have a second boy.
The next day, Alaa goes to the Recruitment Division yet again, stands outside at 7 and awaits for it to be opened at 9. He desperately tries to convince the private that he does not need to enter the colonel’s office, and that his application is stuck in records. After much strife, he finally reaches the door of the records office.
The employee lets in one person from the ‘exceptional’ queue after the other. In a moment of folly and madness, Alaa decides to vent his bitter feeling of injustice: “I’ve been here for an hour and you keep letting people go ahead before me!”
Miss Rima, the employee, stares at him in silence. “Since you’re saying that, no postponement for you,” she coldly replies.
“What is this, your dad’s own Division?”
“One more word and I’ll have the privates drag you out. No postponement for you here. Go figure it out on your own!”
Alaa composes himself and asks one of the privates: “What to do with this one, huh?” The private shakes his head: “Nothing. When Miss Rima says no, it’s a final no.”
Meanwhile, not too far, Alaa’s father drops a passenger at the Azbekiyyah area, then thinks to call his son to give him a ride to the university, hoping that the latter would have good news.
Still unaware of Alaa’s ill luck, Abu Alaa goes to the Recruitment Division, only to see his son sweating bullets in the corridor. He showers Alaa with a barrage of insults, then turns to Miss Rima: “Please forgive us, Miss. We’re sorry, and the boy is at fault. Reckless youth, you know… I will teach him a lesson when we get home.” Stunned and standing at door, Alaa does not utter a word.
Rima stands in the middle of the records room, waves her poorly dyed blonde hair, and addresses Alaa: “Lack of taste, lack of manners! These influential people you were disparagingly talking about are the ones defending you on the battlefronts. All the while the effete like you come here and plead for postponing their duty. No postponement for you, and that’s that.”
Abu Alaa retreats, and heads for an adjoining room, and then returns with a staff member who tries to intervene. After an hour of subservience and apology, Rima agrees to release the boy’s file.
A humbled Alaa enters the computer room with his father. The employee says: “The computer isn’t working, but for 500 Syrian pounds [$1] we can make it work.”
After being done with the Recruitment Division, Alaa returns home with his father, having forgotten all the humiliation he has just experienced. The postponement document in his hand. He is born again!
Two days later, Alaa goes on a date with Maha. Maha sometimes panics about the future and what it holds for her and Alaa, especially that the he has no guarantees or clear plans under such precarious circumstances. Alaa understands her anxiety, and hopes that this date will reassure her a bit. On the bus, their hands touch, Maha smiles, and Alaa is overcome with joy.
Then, they come across a huge traffic jam, with pedestrians gathered by the side of the road.“It’s a reserve checkpoint!” she exclaims. Alaa produces his postponement papers for the private, who orders all men under the age of forty to step out of cars and buses.
The private checks Alaa’s paper and carelessly comments: “How could I know it’s not forged? Go stand there at the [computerized] scrutiny queue [tafyish].”
The paper flies from the private’s hand, and Alaa fails to catch it. It plunges into a puddle of asinine water, and so does Alaa and Maha’s hearts. What to do now? Their dream of living some semblance of a normal life has just vanished.
Maha stands besides Alaa. “Why are you here? Are you wanted for reserve?” the private chides her.
An hour has passed and Alaa stands with the employees on the checkpoint computer checking his status. He finally retrieves his identity card and returns to Maha. He is not wanted for military service, as he only postponed the day before. But no young man can take a single step without his military papers with the postponement stamps.
Tomorrow, he will have to return to the Recruitment Division, and to stand again among hundreds of young men for long hours, await the colonel to have his coffee, tea and mate, and face the records employee who will not spare the chance to humiliate him once again.
[Main image: A drawing portraying Alaa’s never-ending journey to obtain his draft postponement (Comics4Syria/SyriaUntold)].