Text size

Al Jazeera is showing Syrians fleeing Syria out of fear of the Syrian army. The numbers rise from hour to hour: three thousand, four thousand, ten thousand.

Explore the rest of the Haaretz 2011 Writers Edition, or head over to the Haaretz.com Facebook page to share your thoughts on this special feature. Kindle users can now download the entire special supplement.

 

Grandpa Sami translates the reports for me and adds analysis: People, he says, don't understand that there is no such thing as "Syrians." There are Alawites, Sunnis, Druze, Circassians, Palestinians, Catholics, Greek Orthodox. For that reason, the Syrian situation is more complicated.

Grandpa Sami is my wife's father. He was born in Syria - a Prisoner of Zion. At age 5, he lost an eye in a Palestinian terror attack on a synagogue in Damascus.

"I read what you wrote in the paper about the Nakba," he tells me now. "I just want you to know that after 1948, thousands of Palestinians from the Galilee came to Damascus and showed the city's Jews what a Nakba is. They took over courtyards by force. They harassed people in the street. They shot in the air from morning till night. You couldn't leave the house."

"Would you be able to find the house now if you went to Damascus?" I ask, trying to escape from politics.

"I assume so," he answers.

"And who do you think lives there now?"
"Palestinians."

At age 14, Grandpa Sami tried to flee Syria for the first time. He was caught by the gendarmes and sent to jail for a full year. He shared a cell with criminals and was treated as a criminal in every respect.

Al Jazeera is now screening a video clip of a Syrian soldier kicking a demonstrator, who curls up like a centipede. Grandpa Sami shows me the scars on his shoulders from the beatings he received in jail. "There are also scars you can't see," he adds. And from his tone of voice, I understand that he doesn't intend to say anything more on this matter.

After his release from jail, he scraped together some money and tried to flee again. This time, he made it as far as Beirut. But there he discovered that the Mossad agent who was organizing immigration to Israel had been arrested by the authorities a week earlier. Thus Grandpa Sami and his companion in flight were stuck in Lebanon for another two years - until they were arrested by the Lebanese security service, accused of spying and thrown in jail.

Only thanks to a Jewish lawyer did they manage to escape the sword of deportation back to Syria and instead took ship to Italy. From there, an airplane took them straight to the Israeli airport in Lod.

"So overall, how much time passed from the day you started out on your first journey until you arrived here?" I ask. "Four years," he replies. And I think about the intolerable ease with which people (including authors who have published a new book) use the word "journey."

"And here in Israel, was it what you had imagined?" I ask.

"Not exactly," he admits. "But I survived.

"Anyone who goes through what I went through in jail learns to survive," he
adds. "And knows that it's always better to be on the stronger side."

Shortly after he arrived, Grandpa Sami began working in the kitchen of an Ashkelon hotel. He very quickly noticed that everything the head chef was doing, he could do, too. Today he is a diplomaed chef. (You wouldn't believe what family dinners are like in this family. Ever since I was accepted into it, I've lost all desire to eat out in restaurants.)

Now Al Jazeera is showing pictures of Damascus. The streets are quiet. Damascus is where all those close to the government live, Grandpa Sami explains. That's why there are no demonstrations there like there were in Cairo.

"Do you sometimes miss Damascus?" I asked him.

"No," he says decisively. "A person doesn't miss a place where he wasn't wanted."

But if there is peace someday - and he actually favors peace with Syria - he'll go for a visit. For curiosity's sake.

Then he gets up and turns off the television, saying, "Let's go. It's late already. Don't you have to get up and go to work tomorrow?"

We head down to the kitchen and he takes food out of the pots and puts it in plastic containers so I can take it home to his daughter, the apple of his eye. Casseroles, pasta, meatballs. I go home, the plastic containers on the passenger's seat beside me.

On the radio, the White House spokesman is urging Bashar Assad to resign and allow democratic reforms to be implemented. And I think about how feelings are always someplace other than where you want them to be.

At home, our new baby is wide awake (she's been jet-lagged ever since she was born). I take her from her mother and put her on my knee. She stares at me. She's as like Grandpa Sami as two peas in a pod.