A love story far from the sea

This beautiful little love story has some extraordinary bits about the Syrian revolution, the subsequent civil war(s), love, families, sectarian sentiments, and the sea:

On the second day of Ramadan, I come home from work to find Jesus, Maalik, and Qais sitting on the back steps, vaguely matching in short-sleeved plaid shirts, whiling away the last of their 17-hour fast by enumerating the current staggering prices of refrigerators, meat, and bread in Syria. Turkish versus Syrian price comparisons is another sideshow.

But always their talk returns to the sea. What size house you could buy after working for two months as a captain. How much money a tricky crew can embezzle by playing with the fueling log. How maritime insurance companies calculate compensation for a shipwreck (by the weight of the sunk iron). How many ships total there are in the world. How many in Syria, in the possession of Syrians: they start listing family names.

Jesus is the expert, reeling off wages: that of an uneducated seaman and of an educated one, of a captain, a first mate, and the local pilot who must, under maritime law, be the one to steer an arriving ship into port: that guy makes a killing. But on the long stretches of ocean between berths, newer ships are steered automatically, by CD.

“Soon we will all be replaced by CDs,” Jesus adds wryly.

For Qais, Jesus is a visitor from a world to which he longs for admittance. Qais’s dream is to follow another of his older brothers out to sea. Though this brother made a shrewd detour in 2011, deserting ship sans passport, and is now an asylee in a small, orderly EU member state.

Like him, Qais studied maritime engineering–this is how the two-year vocational course translates into English—and dreams of traversing the globe in a vessel he can keep running with his own know-how. But the Syrian shipping business shrank as the revolution picked up steam, and after receiving his laminated course certificates, he could find no ship to take him.

In Istanbul, he rouses himself from speechlessness only to enumerate kinds of sea-faring knowledge. At a café overlooking the Bosphorus, he displays “SOS” for us unbidden, using a Morse code phone app he’s installed on his phone, the distress signal flashing out across lit bridges. He skips most of the Turkish classes Maalik enrolls him in: the language of the sea is of course English. Which he has gleaned from Eminem videos.

The beautiful and strange name of the essay is explained thus:

An inveterate student of history, Maalik is constantly amazed by my ignorance. Among his brothers, he’s the odd son out in his quest for academic knowledge. As the only male interested in such, he was allowed to leave home to pursue it, but his desire is nevertheless inexplicable to his family, who could not understand his stubborn insistence on turning his back on that great provider, the sea.

“It’s the same in my city!” exclaims my friend Suhail when I mention Lattakia’s collective seaward bias. His city is Tartous, the next city of any size to the south and the site of Russia’s only Mediterranean submarine base. “No one goes to school there; people only want to work at sea.”

Indeed, he recalls, when he told his grandmother–”a very special person,” he adds, smiling at the recollection–that he wanted to go off to university to study accounting, she couldn’t place the term.

“Sea accounting?” she asked doubtfully. “You want to be a sea accountant?” To any marine profession she would give her blessing.

“No, grandma, not sea accounting. Just regular accounting,” Suhail said. And this, for several years, she scowled upon–until he had proven that a living could also be made from landlubber figuring.

Sea accounting: more than just a nonexistent profession, it is the mechanism that dictates that the unfamiliar must be bent out of its own shape to be encompassed by the known, contorted in order to be fitted into an identifiable model; it therefore remains unrecognizable and unassimilable on its own terms. Sea accounting maintains the status quo by labeling innovation as anathema.