Waiting to wait more

Journalist Atia Abawi’s latest novel explores the tense lives of Syrian refugees.

DISPLACED SYRIANS walk in a refugee camp in the Turkish border town of Suruc in January 2015 (photo credit: OSMAN ORSAL/REUTERS)
DISPLACED SYRIANS walk in a refugee camp in the Turkish border town of Suruc in January 2015
(photo credit: OSMAN ORSAL/REUTERS)
A Land of Permanent Goodbyes is the story of Tareq, a Syrian teen whose life is altered forever when his city is bombed, killing his mother, grandmother and three siblings. Together with his father, Fayed, and little sister, Susan, Tareq becomes one of the thousands of Syrian refugees making their way toward the border with Turkey to escape death and destruction.
There is no time for Tareq to mourn his family. He and his father and sister have no choice but to flee. Every step of the way, decisions must be made as to how to move forward, as nothing is ever as it seems and danger lurks everywhere. Before leaving Syria, they drive to another part of the country to get the money they need from Tareq’s uncle, who lives in a region that has been taken over by Islamic State. Just getting there is another harrowing experience that they are lucky to survive. When they leave his aunt and uncle’s house, Tareq’s cousin Musa joins them.
To reach the border with Turkey, they ride in a minibus with other passengers through eight checkpoints. On the way, they pass the skeleton of a vehicle just like theirs that had been hit by a mortar shell while trying to reach the border. When they finally do reach the border, they find that they are surrounded by hundreds of people, all trying to escape the apocalypse that their homeland has become.
“Syrians have cumulatively spent millions of hours at crossings like these, forced to endure the elements – the blazing sun, relentless rain or blistering cold,” author Atia Abawi writes. “Waiting, only to wait even more. If it wasn’t the weather, it was the fear of not being allowed through – and the wrong customs agent could cost you your freedom and possibly your life.”
Abawi, a journalist who spent years reporting in Afghanistan for NBC News, is now based in Jerusalem with her husband, Fox News correspondent Conor Powell.
When Tareq and his family finally arrive on the Turkish side of the border crossing, their relief is temporary. Tareq and his cousin Musa separate from his father and sister, after making the decision that it was cheaper for them to stay in a town near the border with Syria while Tareq and Musa travel to Istanbul to see if the city is livable. As they cannot get work permits in Turkey, they have to find ways to make money without a permit, which proves to be a difficult feat. Countless other Syrian refugees are also looking for work and there is little available.
Tareq and Musa find themselves “sleeping in alleyways on some nights, under a bridge on another, and in empty lots.” They survive on scraps left at tourist spots and at times even dig through trash cans looking for food. Eventually Tareq finds small jobs for which he gets paid by the day, after he learns the hard way not to trust someone who promises to pay after a week. Months pass, and finally he is united with his father and sister and they embark on a frightening and dangerous trip across the Aegean Sea to Greece. Eventually they settle in Germany and begin rebuilding their lives.
As a teenager who through no fault of his own had become one of millions of refugees looking for a place to call home, Tareq was often mistrusted and mistreated. He faced countless hardships and challenges, and while there were always those who tried to take advantage of his vulnerability as a refugee, he also met people who wanted to help him. It is these people who made it possible for Tareq to not lose his faith in humanity altogether.
A Land of Permanent Goodbyes is narrated by the voice of “Destiny” who introduces the story by commenting on humanity.
“Your greatest achievements came from your brain. Your heart is a whole different system. An intensely more complicated one. It’s a place that can hold an incredible amount of love or an incredible amount of hate – sometimes both at the same time. And although there has been ample growth in the capability of your minds, not a lot has changed in the nature of your species... Your chest is a vault for your jealousy, prejudices and regrets – emotions that you once released through sharp tongues and bare hands. Until your tongues and hands were replaced with swords and poisons – and now bullets and bombs. The streams of blood turned to rivers and then to oceans.”
While the voice of Destiny stays in the background as the story unfolds, it is heard with its philosophical musings at just the right moments, and blends smoothly into the flow of the story. An unusual literary device, the author uses it well and it brings the novel’s message closer to the reader’s heart.
A Land of Permanent Goodbyes was published as a book for teenagers in grades seven and up, yet it is a book that any thinking and feeling adult will be moved and enlightened by. Sensitive and well-written, it puts a face on the refugees we hear about in the news. They are real people, with the same hopes, fears and feelings that the rest of us have.