Todd stood in the aisle between me and the staring man; I pulled my scarf tighter about my face. I looked out the window and hoped the leering man would be less interested in the back of my head.
The bus stopped for thirty minutes at the Palmyra oasis, the ancient Tadmor of the wilderness. I bought a slab of dried apricot paste at a small grocery and tore off a hunk, chewing as I got back on the bus. Our bus pulled out onto the highway again, and the desert flowed past in dunes and grainy expanses punctuated by periodic villages and mosques. The leering man had moved to the rear of the bus.
Our route across the desert ran past dozens of villages. Each village was made up of a single family: cousins and second cousins and relations who couldn’t trace the exact connections, except that they belonged to the same tribe. These villages were Muslim, all of them. By afternoon, the minarets cast shadows across their villages in long stripes.
A somber child waved to me as our bus streamed past her village. I waved back, feeling like the little girl at sea who glimpses a mermaid from the ship's deck. Something in my chest stretched tight as I turned my head to watch the child and her village grow smaller in our wake. Then she was gone.
We pushed to the northeast, toward Turkey and Iraq, to the edge of ancient Assyria and the cities of the Medes. I fell asleep, my head against the window, feeling the rhythm of the wheels turning and of the wedding song. When I woke, we’d gone from shifting desert scenery to lush green fields, just as Dorothy goes from black and white to full technicolor when she touches down in Oz. The bus slowed and jerked, then turned awkwardly to pass a tractor. The farmer wore a Yassar Arafat style checkered headdress, a koufiyye. As we passed him I saw English words on the side of his green and yellow tractor: John Deere.
When the bus finally stopped at Qamishle, passengers spilled from the bus door and scattered to waiting relatives—each to his own tribe—in the golden light of late afternoon. The Kurdish bride climbed into the cab of a pickup truck along with her mother. The leering man was gone.
Last to get off the bus, we climbed down to reclaim our suitcases from the belly of the bus. There was something familiar in the light warmth of the sun and the faint sound of children at play, some memory resurrected in the scent of cut grass. Instead of the Damascus smells of diesel and burnt Turkish coffee, we breathed in the sweet smell of spring in a fertile valley.