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Note: Names are changed.

Most of my class went to Egypt for our year abroad. I can see why, it’s better known, more people speak English, pyramids… A very small group of us decided to go to Syria. Two of us, my close friend and flatmate, decided to go a step further and live with families instead of friends – better for learning Arabic. She did the thing properly and went through the embassy to find a family who wanted to rent to a student.

Me? I got on a plane, rocked up in Damascus, found a hotel and decided to wing it. My mum freaked. I had studied Arabic for two years but was virtually mute. I could have recited a pre-Islamic poem, but hail a taxi? Not so much.

I did a classic Narky thing. I hid in my hotel room. I went out every now and then but panicked and hid some more. I remember noise and chaos. Yellow cars and shouting. I remember watching ‘Days of our Lives’ on repeat. I remember peering down the corridor to check the bathrooms were free. I remember men staring at me. I remember the first of many stomach upsets.

Thankfully I had another friend out there who had grown up in Morocco and spoke Arabic fluently. He marched me into the old city and showed me the wonders of Damascus. I fell in love instantly. I remember oranges and juice. Dark nights and talking on the streets. Smiling. We wandered around and he helped me to ask shopkeepers if they knew of anyone who wanted to rent a room to a young English woman.

We found a family. They lived in an extremely old house right in the centre of old city Damascus, just around the corner from the Umayyad Mosque. This house had some rooms around a courtyard and more rooms upstairs. Courtyard, fountain that didn’t work, tortoise. Dust. Strong coffee in tiny cups. Five small children. More noise. More chaos. And a family who smiled at me.

I moved in with them. My life hasn’t been the same since. I hid for weeks inside my room but at the beginning I came out and we had dinner together with my two friends, in the courtyard with the tortoise. Soup with bits of chicken skin floating in it. This I will never forget. Fatima:

“Isn’t my husband wonderful? He killed a man because he flirted with me.”

I remember my smile becoming somewhat fixed, and seeing the fixed smiles of my friends. Majid had shot a man, who was also a lodger, for flirting with his wife. Majid was in the army, which makes a little more sense of the whole shooting thing. This man was shot on the staircase that I was facing right at that moment. Majid was not long out of prison.

So anyway, for reasons I cannot describe, I decided to stay with them. They were nice. I just didn’t tell my parents I was living with a murderer.