Love in the Time of Polio: A Syrian Love Story

 "Love in the Time of War" (Illustration:  Xeni Ponomarenko  © )

"Love in the Time of War" (Illustration: Xeni Ponomarenko ©

“Of all the classrooms in all of Aleppo, she had to walk into mine.”

The story doesn’t start that way. Abu Hazza is too quiet of a man with an intense, hawk-like gaze, and unlike Humphry Bogart in Casablanca, he is not a chain smoker. But she did walk into his first- year medical school class at the University of Aleppo.

He was instantly drawn to her quiet composure. Both grew up in small Syrian villages, him from Idlib in the north, her from the south. Perhaps there was a familiar feel about her that made the attraction immediate.

“She was the best girl. Before I knew her, I had an idea in my mind about the girl for me. And I knew that when I saw her, I would recognize her,” Abu Hazza recalled.

I could tell the memories were painful for him, but he wanted to remember. There is something cathartic about divulging the past. So I let him talk on without guiding the conversation much.

“She was a quiet girl. The first time I talked to her, she said she wanted to cry. I asked her why,” he said.

“Because you asked what my name is and where am I from,” she replied.  

She was not use to talking to men, but something inside her made her reply. Perhaps she too had imagined what her future husband would be like, and now she found that person standing in front of her.

“Her name is Raghad,” he giggled as he said it.  

In my mind I could see him walking the streets of Aleppo like Tony in Westside Story, singing “Maria,” but with a change in names.

“Raghad. The most beautiful sound I ever heard. I just met a girl named Raghad . . . And suddenly I found how wonderful a sound can be.”

Love always makes everything beautiful, even a name becomes music.  That’s how it was for him. Her name, became a symbol for something absent, something irreplaceable. He plans to hold on to the name and one day name his daughter Raghad.

He continued, but it was hard to follow the timeline. He jumped from memory to memory and I did not stop him often. I wanted to feel with him and get caught up in the story.

“The next day I talked to her for 5-6 minutes. After that I knew that I wanted to marry her. I knew that I didn’t want to talk to girls. So the third time I talked to her, I told her that I wanted to marry her.  I didn’t want a girlfriend.”

“What did she say,” I ask with my Western sensibility and prejudices against love-at-first sight.

“If the option is left to me, I would say yes. I’ll be with you no matter what happens,” was her reply.  

It is easy to make plans when you are young. You have this vision of how your life will be. You are optimistic and you should be. Youth is always so certain.

“I shared everything with her. Maybe she knew more about me than I knew about myself. And same for her,” Abu Hazza recounted, some of the excitement of that time rippling through his voice, but he quickly fell silent again, weighed down by memories.  

He looked at his phone and smiles. “Do you want me to read a message she wrote?”

‘Sure,” I say.

He starts to scroll through his messages. I’m sure he saved everything she ever wrote to him.

“One message she sent to me, written in English, but the meaning is in Arabic. The weather is not always raining- safi, that’s the word. It means the weather is not always good.”

I can tell it means a lot to him, but its meaning is lost to me in translation. I want to understand, but without the cultural context, I couldn’t grasp the meaning. I asked him to explain. He didn’t. He read on.  

“The weather is not always good
The doctor may not always heal
For Abu Hazza, there is no one like you,
But without Abu Hazza, I can’t be found.”

I understood. I have been there myself. It did not need any further translation. Love is a universal language and young love is always painted in absolutes.

“Why didn’t you ask her family to marry her at that point? What made you wait so long to ask her family,” I asked?

“After we talked, she told her mother about me. Her mother said no.  She said we were too young. It is impossible, maybe later, she said.” He laughed a small, ironic laugh, the knowledge of hindsight spilled over into his voice. And then silence again.

They did not stop talking after that. It was already too late. They were in love. I let the silence become pregnant and waited for him to speak.

“I’ll tell you something,” he says it like a naughty, little boy. “I just remembered someone, right now,” he pauses, “her,” he laughs. There was no pleasure in the memory though.

A year passed and the medical school at the University of Aleppo was targeted by the Syrian government and destroyed in the spring of 2014. Abu Hazza and Raghad continued their studies the best they could at a makeshift medical campus. There were only a few professors left and they provided basic medical training in triage medicine. The sky was raining barrel bombs and the streets were filled with snipers. The medical students were getting an on-the-job-crash-course.

In 2013 a polio epidemic was raging in northern Syria due to a lack of vaccine, and with the medical school out of commission, and most medical personnel dead, imprison or on the run, the remaining medical students left became critical to the delivery of medical care. This was the backdrop of this love story. There were no flowers or long walks in the moonlight. Yet, the world seemed full of possibilities.

They talked about rebuilding Syria, together. They applied themselves to their studies. They shared a sense of responsibility to their fellow countrymen, and it added to their love, a sense of purpose that transcended them and bound them closer. There was still a chance they could get married. The proposal was never formally made. They hung onto that hope, hand in hand, but the relationship suffered because of the uncertainty and he stopped talking to her because it brought more pain than happiness. Their love felt fragile, making them feel vulnerable all the time to possibility or inevitability of one of them being killed. Then the war intervened, again. He was arrested by the secret police and disappeared.

“For me, I was sure love in the world will be more beautiful than this. But I found, it makes it worse because there is someone to lose. Every time there is an accident you think, is she hurt? Is she dead? You keep thinking about this all the time,” Abu Hazza recalls.

I ask him about his arrest and detention.

“I was in Aleppo and just finished my exams for the year. I was on the road to my village when the government arrested me.  It was a very big problem for everyone in my family.”

He was in prison a total of 20 days. He did not volunteer details and I did not ask. He only said his family had to pay a huge ransom to secure his release. After his release, he went home, but didn’t stay long. He went back to Aleppo because there was nothing for him to do in the village.  

“At that time something changed in my mind.  Before detention, I didn’t talk to her about a lot of things. For three months or four I didn’t talk to her,” his voice resonated with certainty.

“What made you talk to her again,” I asked him?

“When my brother Khaled told me he will travel to Europe, it was a big shock for me. I told him I want to travel, and I told him about her. Later my brother told my father about her,” he said.

“My father called me and asked, how are you Abu Hazza? I said I was fine. Then he said, and how about Raghad,” I was shocked and a little afraid,” he recalled.

“Who told you about that,” Abu Hazza asked his father.

“Khaled,” my father said,” but don’t be scared. I like this idea,” Abu Hazza said.

“My father spoke to her. Khaled spoke to her, my sister Asma, even my mother spoke to her for a few minutes. I told her about Khaled’s idea about traveling.”

She wanted to be with him, but the choice was more complicated than agreeing to go to Europe. There were huge dangers involved.

“When I went back to the village it was a Sunday, and then we went directly to her family.”

His family went and asked for her hand, but the answer came days later. Abu Hazza had to wait.

“I’m sorry.  She will finish her studies,” was her father’s reply.

And it was over. He couldn’t stay in Syria any longer. He was at risk of being rearrested any day.

“My father told my mother, and she told me. It was a disaster for me. I called Raghad,” he said.

”I cannot say yes and my family says no,” she told him.

She didn’t reject him for a Fiddler of the Roof, tradition reason. It was fear of more loss. In a country where death is arbitrary and civilization is being destroyed under your feet, you leave home and kiss your loved ones like it is the last time, because it might be. She could not bare being separated from her family. She could not bare more loss. She literally could not leave them there to their fate. She was not willing to give up the only thing she had left for love to set off on an uncertain journey to Europe.

“Then our messages became less and less. It is best. I will travel and this girl will stay in Syria. I had to leave her because she wasn’t for me,” Abu Hazza said.

That is what the rational mind says. We all hope we will make the rational call, but love is not rational. It is all the what ifs that keep you up at night, the would haves, the could have beens. Love is already complicated enough, but add in war and the refugee crisis that followed, made it impossible. In the end it was not their bad choices or immaturity. It was a dictator holding power in Syria that derailed a young couple’s lives, and forever hijacked what might have been.

“I’m trying to forget this girl, but every night I close my eyes and I see her face. I wake up and I remember something from our time in Aleppo,” Abu Hazza says.

That was nine months ago.  There is a long pause. I let the silence fill.

“Be or not to be, you are you,” he is laughing. He sounds young again. “When she sees this, she’ll know what this is.”

“What does it mean,” I ask?

“If you are my wife, or you are not my wife, you will always be my love.”

When he speaks there are moments when the pre-mature look of an aged man leaves his face looking youthful, like a veil swept away by a passing breeze. This was one of those moments. So much loss and hardship for a 23 year-old. We don’t talk anymore, I’m not sure why. He’s in Norway now. I’m not sure how he’s doing, but I hope he’s doing well.

“Here’s looking at you kid.”


Anisa Abeytia is a writer whose work is featured in The Hill, Brunei Times, The Dubai Sun, and the Middle East Observer. Anisa traveled to Turkey, Serbia, Norway and Germany following refugees on their journey to Western Europe. She also worked on the short film, Children of the Rising Phoenix in conjunction with USC School of Cinematography. Anisa began her career working for the producer Fred Roos, one of the producers of the Godfather Trilogy. She is a published poet and author whose work is translated into over 14 languages. She has an MA in Postcolonial and Feminist Thought from Stanford University, as well as a Master’s of Science. She holds a B.A. from the University of Southern California in Creative Writing.


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