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To Damascus and back again: how my draft novel was kidnapped in Syria and lived to tell the tale

“I realised: as well as my wallet and keys and hundreds of dollars, as well as my bank details and personal photographs – he had my book. My second, cherished, unborn novel – lovely plotted and crafted, and for some mad, forgotten reason not backed up.”

Parts of Damascus still retain the beauty they had before the war.
Photograph: OmarSyria on Flickr, via Creative Commons

The ransom email started: “Dear Lady”.  I read it in the middle the night; it was bizarrely addressed to my sister-in-law in New York but clearly meant for me. My name, “ it continued, “Is Bassim Hamoud. I am from Damascus, Syria. Today I was walking in the street market and saw an Apple computer there. All your documents are on it. The man says he will sell it tomorrow. It cost him $800. Unless you email me tonight. Don’t delay.”

My palms were sweating as I typed a swift reply. My laptop had indeed been stolen earlier that week in Lebanon, with my entire life on it. How might Bassim suggest I retrieve it? “Don’t worry,” he wrote back, a smiley face after the lowercase, misspelt letters. “I will help you. This is your lucky day.”

I hadn’t felt so lucky until then. It had happened on Hamra Street, the once dazzling heart of old Beirut that has now run to potholes and seductively dark corners. I was walking back from a concert at the American University, through an early summer night hazy with jasmine and petrol and argileh. My laptop bag was in one hand, a change of clothes in the other. The stresses of my UN job at the centre of the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis were idling round my head, in time to a faint song floating from an open window above the road.

Then another sound rose to drown out the music – a buzz, coming from a corner – a scooter running along the pavement at speed, heading for the tiny gap between me and the mottled wall. I barely saw him in time; I jumped out of the way in panic, he leaned over as he shot past, grabbed the bag – and then he was gone.

I ran after him, of course. Even though there was no hope. And then my legs gave way underneath me as I realised. As well as my wallet and keys and hundreds of dollars, as well as my bank details and personal photographs – he had my book. My second, cherished, unborn novel – lovely plotted and crafted, and for some mad, forgotten reason not backed up.

In the week between the theft and the email I drifted from dull denial to incredulous grief. How could I have been so stupid? My Lebanese UN colleagues and friends agreed wholeheartedly. Didn’t I know crime was going up? Lebanon now has over a million Syrian refugees in a country of just four million people. They need to eat, poor souls, they said. Others scoffed: they’re mostly criminals. The oldest shook their heads in despair, recalling their own bitter civil war. Even back then, it wasn’t this bad, they assured me – in defiance of the old bullet-riddled buildings hidden within Beirut’s modernised cityscape.

I felt like one of those buildings as I mourned – full of holes and empty. Even a half-written novel has a life of its own, a uniqueness born of hours and months of love and thought and creativity. I can never be copied or remade; its loss is like a little death. So when Bassim’s note arrived, I was shocked back into hope, ready for any sacrifice to see it safely, miraculously home again.

And Bassim knew it. Confident of having reeled me in, he agreed to meet a friend of mine in Damascus to make the trade. His asking price was $800. My friend threatened and blustered – but Bassim was un-phased. It turned out he was affiliated to a well-known local organisation – close to the government, virtually untouchable. In the end we agreed to $600. “It’s a good scam,” my Syrian friend told me down the crackly phone line. “They pay them in Beirut to steal. And then they sell it back to the original owner. They know you’ll give anything.”

As he spoke I had a sudden memory of Damascus before, a true Arab beauty – coffee drinking, cigarette smoking, full of life and surprises.  It seemed she’d vanished as surely as my book – or so I’d thought. All that remains now is her ghost.

In the end, not 100 metres from the Four Seasons Hotel where the UN is working day and night to dispose of the Syrian’s government’s chemical weapons and gain humanitarian access to Syria’s besieged cities, Bassim got his money. My computer made its way to the Syrian border in a truck. There, it passed through customs with 10,000 others crossing into Lebanon every day, each with a worse story to tell than mine. And at last it journeyed back to the gathering dusk of Beirut to face an emotional reunion. But its fellow travellers face a more uncertain future.

Today the new book is growing (and backed up). Bassim is $600 dollars richer. The Hamra scooter-snatchers have moved onto new victims. And war and chaos continue to reign around us, spilling millions across borders to unknown destinations. Who knows how the story will go from here? I only hope we are all lucky enough to meet with such unexpectedly happy endings. 

Ishmael’s Oranges (Oneworld, £14.99) by Claire Hajaj is published on 17 July

Photo: NRK
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Skam, interrupted: why is the phenomenally popular teen drama ending before its peak?

The show has been building towards high school graduation – but now it’s ending before its lead characters finish school.

“Have you heard they started their bus already?”
“No!”
“One month into high school – and they started their bus.”

This Skype conversation between Eva and Isak comes early in the first episode of Skam. The phenomenally internationally successful series follows teenagers at a high school in Oslo. The “bus” they're discussing is a key plot point and concern of the students' lives. That’s because, in Norway, graduating high school students participate in “russefeiring” – it’s a rite of passage into adulthood, a celebration of completing high school, and a farewell to friends departing for university or jobs around the country.

Students gather into groups, give their gang a name, wear matching coloured overalls, rent a big car or a van, and spend late April to mid May (17 May – Norwegian Constitution Day) continuously partying. They call it the “three week binge”. It’s a big fucking deal. 

Skam, with its focus on teens in high school, has therefore spent a lot of time thinking about “russ”. The show, which is set at the exact same time it airs, has followed its four main characters Eva, Noora, Isak and Sana (who each have a season of the show written from their perspective, a la Skins), as well as all their friends, from their first few weeks at school in September 2015. In other words, preparations take years, and we’ve heard a lot about the plans for their russ bus.

In season one, Eva has fallen out with her best friend, and is hurt when she hears she is moving on and has formed a new bus, with new friends, called Pepsi Max.

We meet one of the show’s most prominent characters, Vilde, when we see her trying to get a bus of girls together. The show’s five main girl characters, Eva, Noora, Vilde, Chris and Sana, become friends because of her efforts: they bond during their “bus meetings” and fundraising attempts. They flirt with a group of boys on a bus calling themselves “The Penetrators”.

The latest season follows Sana’s struggles to ensure the bus doesn’t fall apart, and an attempt to join buses with rivals Pepsi Max. The joyful climax of season four comes when they finally buy their own bus and stop social-climbing, naming themselves “Los Losers”. Bus drama is the glue that keeps the show together.

But now, in June 2017, a whole year before the characters graduate, Skam is ending. The architect of the girls’ bus, Vilde, has never had her own season, unlike most of her friends. Many assumed that Vilde would have had her own season during her final year at school. Fans insist the show’s creator Julie Andem planned nine seasons in total, yet Skam is ending after just four.

The news that Skam would stop after season four came during the announcement that Sana, a Muslim member of the “girl squad”, would be the next main character. The show’s intense fandom were delighted by the character choice, but devastated at the news that there would only be one more season. “I can’t accept that this is the last season,” one wrote on Reddit.

“I'm so shocked and sad. It’s honestly just...weird. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s not fair. It’s not fair that we’re not getting a Vilde season. Most importantly, it’s not fair that we’ll never get to see them on their russ, see them graduating, nothing. It seems like such an abrupt decision. It doesn’t serve the storyline at all.”

No one has given a concrete reason about why the show ended prematurely. Ina, who plays Chris, said in an interview that “we all need a break”.

Some fans went into denial, starting petitions to encourage Andem to continue with the show, while rumours abound suggesting it will return. 

Many speculated that the show simply became too popular to continue. “I think that the show would have had six seasons and a Vilde season if the show didn’t become popular outside of Scandinavia,” one wrote. “I think the pressure and the large amount of cringy fans (not saying that some Scandinavian fans aren’t cringy) has made making the show less enjoyable for the actors and creators.”

Andem has stayed mostly quiet on her reasons for ending the show, except for a statement made via her Instagram. She recalls how very early on, during a season one shoot, someone first asked her how long the show would last:

“We were standing in the schoolyard at Nissen High School, a small, low-budget production crew, one photographer, the sound engineer and me. ‘Who knows, but I think we should aim for world domination,’ I said. We all laughed, ‘cause I was obviously joking. None of us understood then how big Skam would turn out to be. This experience has been completely unreal, and a joy to be a part of.”

Skam has been a 24/7 job,” she continues. “We recently decided that we won’t be making a new season this fall. I know many of you out there will be upset and disappointed to hear this, but I’m confident this is the right decision.”

Many fans feel that season four has struggled under the burden of ending the show – and divisions and cracks have appeared in the fandom as a result.

Some feel that Sana’s season has been overshadowed by other characters and plotlines, something that is particularly frustrating for those who were keen to see greater Muslim representation in the show. Of a moment in season four involving Noora, the main character from season two, one fan account wrote, “I LOVE season tw- I mean four. That’s Noora’s season right? No wait, is it Willhell’s season??? What’s a Sana.”

Others feel that the subject of Islam hasn’t been tackled well in this season. Some viewers felt one scene, which sees Sana and her white, non-Muslim friend, Isak, discuss Islamophobia, was whitesplainy. 

One popular translation account, that provides a version of the show with English subtitles, wrote of the scene: “A lot of you guys have been disappointed by the latest clip and you’re not the only ones. We do want to finish this project for the fans but we are disappointed with how this season has gone.” They announced they would be translating less as a result.

The final week of the show has been light on Sana. Instead, each character who never received a full season has had a few minutes devoted to their perspective. These are the other girls from the girl squad, Vilde and Chris, and the boyfriends of each main character: Eva’s ex Jonas, Isak’s boyfriend Even, Eva’s current fling “Penetrator Chris” and Noora’s on-off boyfriend William.

It’s understandable to want to cover key perspectives in the show’s final week, but it can feel teasing – we get a short glimpse into characters' home lives, like Vilde struggling to care for her depressed mother, but the scene ends before we can really get into it. And, of course, it takes precious time away from Sana in the show’s final minutes.

Some were frustrated by the characters focused on. “Penetrator Chris” is a particularly minor character – one fan account wrote of his scene: “This is absolutely irrelevant. 1) It sidelines Sana 2) It asks more questions 3) It doesn’t answer shit. This isn’t even Sana’s season anymore and that’s absolutely disgusting. She didn’t even get closure or ten episodes or anything.

“Sana has been disrespected and disregarded and erased and sidelined and that is fucking gross. She deserved better. Yet here we are watching a Penetrator Chris clip. How ironic that it’s not even called just “Christopher” because that’s all he is. “Penetrator Chris”.

It’s been a dramatic close for a usually warm and tight-knit fan community. Of course, many fans are delighted with the final season: their only sadness is there won’t be more. One of the largest fan accounts tried to keep things positive. “I know people have mixed feelings about Skam and who deserves what in terms of screentime this season (etc),” they wrote, “which I totally understand.

"However, everything has already been filmed, so there is nothing we can do about it. I think this last week of Skam will be much more enjoyable for everyone if we focus on the positives in the clips ahead. Skam isn’t perfect. People are allowed to disagree. But let’s go into this week being grateful for everything Skam has given us.”

Some fans choose to look to what the future holds for the show – an American remake. It will keep the same characters and plotlines as the original, and Andem may be involved.

Few think it will be a patch on the current show, but some are excited to have the chance to watch it teasingly as a group regardless. It seems unlikely that the US remake will compare in terms of quality – not least because the original was so heavily researched and tied to Norwegian culture. But for fans struggling to let go of Skam, it can’t come soon enough.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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