DAMASCUS, Syria – A friend who sees me every day, whom I ran into near my home, observed, “You seem stressed.”
“Really? I had not noticed,” I said, which was true. I wasn’t being facetious or downplaying the fact that being in Damascus right now is stressful for a variety of reasons.
But when I finally took a moment to look in the mirror, I saw dark circles under my eyes and totally unkempt hair. This moment of reflection also reminded me that I was hungry -- I had forgotten to eat lunch, and it was already late afternoon.
There's no doubt that the threat of a looming U.S. strike against Syria as punishment for alleged chemical weapons use is starting to take its psychological toll. And this made me wonder how everyone else was holding up.
Thousands of Damascenes have packed up and left the city, believing that an attack could come as early as Aug. 29. One driver described the border crossing to Lebanon as “hellish,” with some people waiting 12 or 14 hours to get through.
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Thousands more remain in the city, resigned to their own fate.
During the past 24 hours, I have seen people grow more nervous. Faces appear more stern, voices more shrill, conversations more curt and behavior akin to a mild panic -- something, perhaps, that I am not as immune to as I would like to think.
Earlier on Thursday, I decided to go out and buy extra bread. I already have enough in the freezer for two weeks, which is more than I expect I will ever need. But I couldn't override my last-minute, panicky instinct to hoard even more food.
At the store, it seemed that everyone else had already beaten me to the punch. I could find no bread and no batteries, the two items that seemed to be in highest demand lately.
“Perhaps I could go over my own evacuation plan one more time in my head,” I thought a bit later in the day.
I am not alone in that, either.
Thursday, it seems every Damascene I come across has the same thought on their mind: Where in the city might a war jet strike, since so many buildings in the capital can be considered military targets?
“Will it be next to our house? Next to my in-laws’? My daughter’s? My grandparents?” a neighbor of mine wondered out loud.
She then asked what I might do with my cats if the strike came too close, and I had to evacuate in an instant.
“Good question,” I said, and glanced at the two cat crates I placed next to my front door. I already practiced the maneuver with Pumpkin and Gremlin: Scooping them up when they least suspected it and placing them in their crate, ready to be evacuated with me wherever I go.
“But I’m so worried because they’re low on food and I can’t find their special kibbles in any store,” I said, adding that their vet promised to “search high and low” for some food for them.
And yet more concerns remain unresolved in my mind.
What will happen to my 96-year-old aunt, who recently broke her hip and is unable to walk? And what about her 70-something-year-old daughter, who takes care of her full time? She could never leave her mother behind, so if they had to evacuate I believe she would stay put no matter the consequences.
There's also my uncle, a widower in his late 70s. He lives alone and is half blind. He remembers all too well the Israeli strike in early May, as the war plane bombed targets very near his home in a Damascus suburb. All his windows shattered, and he swears the building “shook to its core.” Like all Damascenes, he thought he was in an earthquake.
But amid all these worries, I find that my fellow Damascenes, like myself, trudge on with a determination to carry out a normal life.
At least two of my friends on Thursday went for a manicure. My neighbor, the one worried about where the bombs might fall, went to the hairdresser. Across the street from my home, a groom picked up his bride, complete with a poofy wedding gown and about two dozen jubilant guests.
It was a sight so rare these days that traffic came to a complete stop and drivers started honking in unison with the folksy wedding drummer.
Even the cats ended up with a treat. At 7 p.m., just before I sat down for my dinner, their vet rang me up with the good news. They won't go hungry for a while.
For now, the cat food is one less thing I have to worry about. Friday, I return to my daily routine, punctuated by spontaneous decisions to further prepare for what's coming. Thursday night, I wonder if that boom or that blast sounds closer than it should be.