Yarmouk Camp, where Matthew McNaught studied Arabic. Photo by carimachet, Flickr

At the time, the stories we read seemed to me a means to an end, grueling exercises for the tender muscles of my developing Arabic. Only more recently have I wondered what it might feel like to read them as someone living under the Assad regime. A story, at its best, can make us feel less alone; it can be a portal into the most intimate corners of another human consciousness. This is the thrill of my favorite stories. That lightning bolt of connection when a writer nails a familiar feeling in words. That reminder of the obvious but startling fact that every other human on the planet has an inner life like me, feels hope and pain and that same faint ache when the evening sun lights the streets a certain way. For me, this is a pleasure, at times a consolation, like a kiss or a conversation. But in a state ruled by violence and fear, what kind of subversive potential might these stories take on?

Matthew McNaught, writing in n+1. McNaught’s piece reflects on the years he spent living in Syria before the Civil War. He paints a haunting and specific portrait of his former Arabic teacher in Damascus, revisiting the stories he read with him and how they resonate in the wake of all that has unfolded. For further reading, see McNaught’s essay “The End of the Line: A Microbus Map of Damascus,” which originally appeared in Syria Comment and was reprinted on Longreads in January 2014.