Addar’s gift on his fourteenth birthday was a portable music player. With the earbuds firmly in place and the music turned up, Addar was finally able to tune out all the chaos that swirled constantly around his home. With his four younger sisters and two uncles all living in his family’s small apartment, the noise level never abated. With the war raging outside his home, and the constant chatter inside, his music player turned out to be just the escape Addar had long needed. It was the first thing the men waving the black flags took from him when they discovered him walking home from the market. Who knew that music was from the Devil, certainly not Addar.
It was only two days later that those same men showed up at Addar’s family apartment and demanded that he go with them for training. Addar’s father was not home, and neither of his uncles were prepared to say no to the men with the AK-47’s slung over their shoulders. Addar sat quietly and just looked out the window of the old Toyota during the ride to the rebel side of town, an area of Raqqa Addar had never seen before.
The first week at the camp was strangely easy to dismiss. Addar wasn’t even missing his home that much. To him, the noise and chatter at home had just been replaced by a new type of noise and chatter. Each day he would be put into a room with other boys and one of the men under the black flag would drone on for hours. Some days the talk would be on religious studies, some days it would be about politics, some days it would be historical blather. Addar would stare straight ahead and replay the music from his memory and tune it all out.
On the seventeenth day of the camp, everything changed. This time, the other boys in the room were all older than Addar. Several men came in the room and placed a cantaloupe and a Janbiya in front of each boy. Addar at first thought that this was an offering for his good work at the school. He started salivating at the thought, as he had not had fresh fruit since before the war started. None of the other boys in the room had started eating, so Addar decided to wait before devouring this delicious treat. Even in this strange place the manners his mother taught him were remembered.
A very tall man with horribly disfigured teeth went to the front of the room and started a discourse of the same type Addar had heard now heard for days. Addar stared down at the fruit, the sugary flavor of it so close to his lips. Was this some kind of test? Before he could make sense of it all, a very muscular man started a projector in the back of the room and a film started to play that forever destroyed what childhood Addar had left.
In the film, Syrian soldiers were on their knees, hands bound behind their backs, and their heads hung on their chests. A young man, not much older than Addar, stood behind each soldier. When a man, not in sight of the camera, yelled “Allahu Akbar”, each of the young men brandished a Janbiya from behind their backs and proceeded to slide it across the necks of the soldiers. Addar closed his eyes as soon as the reality of what was happening in the film was apparent.
It wasn’t the whipping from the tall man that stung Addar the most. It was the derision from the older boys in the room. They were all laughing at Addar’s tears. He was not tough like them, he could not protect his homeland like them, and he could not follow orders like them. Addar wanted to be strong, but such a sight could not be viewed without emotion, how could it?
The muscular man picked Addar up by the shirt collar and sat him down in the front of the room facing the other boys. The cantaloupe was set on the floor directly in front of him with the Janbiya to its right side. Addar was ordered to place his left hand firmly on top of the cantaloupe and to pick up the Janbiya with his right. The curved side of the blade was facing toward the cantaloupe. The muscular man placed his hand on top of Addar’s hand holding the knife and directed the pointy side of the knife inward to pierce the skin of the fruit. With a strong pull, he slid the knife across the front of the cantaloupe. The cantaloupe slid out from under Addar’s left hand and skidded across the room. All the boys in the room laughed at the sight.
Addar shook with fear as the muscular man raised him from the floor with one hand. A second cantaloupe was retrieved from a basket and placed on the floor where Addar now stood. With both men loudly yelling Arabic swear words at him, and all the boys in the room deriding his feeble attempt to slice the fruit, Addar suddenly just wanted to be at home once again. His knees shook and his back bowed as he was roughly sat back down by the muscular man.
This time, when Addar put his left hand on the cantaloupe he gripped it with a new resolve. Addar briefly closed his eyes and music began to play in his mind. When he reopened his eyes, the actions of his hands became secondary to the music only he could hear. This time, the cantaloupe sliced cleanly into two parts when the knife was pulled. The muscular man walked away and the other boys in the room quieted down and began to take their turns with their own fruit.
The music in Addar’s mind had chased away his innocence.