The following events have been dramatised and are not in chronological order.
Imagine a suburb in Damascus. The black tarred roads provide a contrast to the orange hue of bricks bathed in sunlight. It’s 3:30 pm in the afternoon and Khalid has just put his younger sister to sleep.
He sneaks back to the living room, and after making sure that his mother locked the door before leaving for work, he picks up his battered laptop, manages to fix the charger into the half defunct socket, and settles down to watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones.
That seems jarring to some of you, perhaps? A teenager in Syria obsessively clinging onto the latest episode of an HBO Television series seems far-fetched, especially when you’re busy imagining that he’d be watching an Arabic show.
But fret not. Khalid has ample reason to be obsessed with a fantasy drama series that breaks almost every custom held dear to his religiously conservative parents.
After all, it was them who sent him to an English medium school, and it was them who dismissed it when he began listening to songs by Eminem. So he naturally graduated from episodes of Friends to the latest phenomenon dominating American television. And he isn’t alone as many youngsters around the globe are able to – courtesy of illegal torrents – follow the adventures of the Stark family.
Now lest that his sister wakes up before he finishes watching the one-hour episode of season three, Khalid pushes the earphones in, taps the space bar, and raises the volume till it’s maximum. He does that not just for aesthetic, but practical reasons as well. For as he rests his head against the living room wall, the sound of mortar shells flattening buildings mere blocks away resonates throughout the neighbourhood.
A lot happened during that one-hour episode. As Khalid watched two main protagonists attend a wedding, something far more sinister was
As Khalid watched two main protagonists attend a wedding, something far more sinister was unravelling in the streets of Damascus. But he was too busy to notice. His sister was fast asleep to bother.
There was no way Khalid could have foreseen his last few minutes. His parents had lectured him about the dangerous situation they were in as a family. Living in the capital of a country that was in the midst of a civil war was always a dangerous proposition. The four members of the family had taken all necessary precautions, by staying indoors, making sure to always stock up on supplies, and perhaps most important of all, spending a considerable amount of time at night immersed in prayers.
Even Khalid’s sister stood up, swaying slightly as she battled drowsiness, just so that she could join in her family’s pleas to God to protect them through this trying time.
But it was the smallest of actions – or rather inaction – that caused all their wartime preparations to unravel. Khalid had just finished cooking in the kitchen and naturally left the window open to let any lingering smoke out. How was he to know that soon enough, smoke would be pervading into his house?
It may be the smallest of consolations, but the forces that unleashed the chemical attack on Khalid’s neighbourhood inadvertently made sure that he’d finished watching the episode of Game of Thrones. In fact, like almost every other viewer around the world, he was flabbergasted by the shocking climax to the episode.
By the time the pesticide smelling smoke wafted in through the kitchen window, Khalid was accessing both Twitter and Facebook, ready to join the worldwide chorus that was decrying the death of beloved television characters.
And then his nose began to run. As though he’d suddenly been hit by a massive bout of flu. He typed an incorrect password, for his eyes were watery. The laptop screen began to blur, though Khalid had not dropped his spectacles. He never wore spectacles.
His sister woke up just as Khalid slammed to the floor. She began crying loudly, though if you asked her why, she wouldn’t have been able to put a finger to it. Her head was paining. He was lying on the ground, sweating profusely. She screamed louder, as she felt bile rise up her throat. By then he was shaking violently, gripped by terrible convulsions.
Khalid wasn’t the brightest boy of his age, but it didn’t take abnormal intelligence to piece the clues together. The pesticide smell was distinctive now. And he’d heard his uncle talk about the symptoms. His sister’s screams stopped, and immediately Khalid gained a moment of clarity. It was a chemical attack. He was dying.
He twitched his head to the right, and caught a glimpse of his laptop, still perched on the table, dispassionately inviting him to continue his rant about a television show. A few thoughts passed through his mind in rapid fashion, in keeping with the convulsions that were about to drain the life from his body.
How many people would be killed by this chemical attack? Who had ordered this massacre?
He wondered if there would be retribution. Whether his and his sister’s deaths would be avenged. Whether the world would cry in outrage at this barbaric attack.
Thankfully, he died the next moment. He didn’t live with permanent paralysis to see what would happen the next few days.
The last episode Khalid watched received over 1.5 million reactions on Facebook within a few hours of it being aired. There were news articles, Twitter updates and video uploads that analysed and reacted to the events that unfolded on television screens.
A few hours after Khalid died, every major news channel aired footage of his and his neighbours’ corpse filled houses, along with a comprehensive report that estimated about 1,500 people had died a violent and painful death.
There was no major reaction on Facebook. Not much of a flutter on Twitter. No over flooding of forums with messages of shock, anger and bereavement.
1,500 men, women and children had their nervous systems severely damaged just before they died, but that didn’t elicit a fraction of the reaction from the public that the slitting of a handful of characters in a fictional TV show did.
They said that the internet would be the great leveller, the medium that would bridge gaps and bring the corners of the world together. YouTube was supposed to allow anyone upload a video and attract the attention of a person sitting halfway around the globe. Facebook was supposed to let anyone have a mouthpiece so that distinctions of class and status (pun intended) would evaporate.
What happened instead, was that people were busy downloading torrents than read the news; videos about ‘Charlie’ biting his sibling’s finger was more popular and shared than those about inhumane gas attacks on civilian populations; status updates about the latest fashion trends on the Oscar red carpet were deemed more important than those about the impending economic crisis and political upheavals around the world.
Some may argue that popular perceptions were always skewered towards the more mundane and trivial of information. That’s not true. If Twitter had been available in the early 60’s, one of the most trending topics would have been #LeaveVietnam.
Khalid is dead now. The war in Syria continues. The people of Syria, like those of previous nations that have been ravaged by calamities, wars and social unrest, cry out for our attention.
And we, the youth of the world, shall unite sooner than later, to voice our opinion…
…just wait for the Season 4 premiere of Game of Thrones.
Written by Mohammed Musthafa Azeez, an aspiring book author, currently dividing his time between Dubai, UAE, and Doha, Qatar.