One warm, moonlit night in Homs, a young photographer held his breath and stepped out into a six-lane motorway, piled up with the bloodied bodies of men, women and children.
Sami had to cross this road in Homs to escape the siege of the Syrian city, which he had endured for two years. Regime snipers were everywhere. He knew in his heart that his next breath could be his last, but that if he could survive, he had a heartbreaking story to tell. And so he ran.
Later, when Sami met Swedish writer Eva Nour in Paris, he began to retell the details of his extraordinary life as a child in Homs, a conscript for the Syrian regime and finally a media activist/journalist in the 2011-14 siege. "Sami waited a long time to tell me that last bit," Nour tells The National.
"Some memories I was trying to run away from," Sami says. "But I realise now that to talk about my experiences was the biggest relief." Nour's debut novel The Stray Cats of Homs is inspired by this reality, and was recently published in English by Agnes Broome. Nour met Sami in Paris in 2015: he had just arrived as an asylum seeker and she was covering the November terror attacks in the French capital for a Swedish newspaper.
Nour was taken aback by the "complete honesty" of this stranger she had encountered in a very charged atmosphere. As they got to know each other she slowly started noting down his fragmented reflections on Syria.
As a journalist, Nour knew this was not only an incredible story, but also an opportunity to make people more aware of the human cost of a civil war that has become a tangled, intractable conflict. But publishing a book that, while not outwardly critical of the regime, makes it pretty obvious “who was acting badly” became inherently dangerous for Sami’s family still in Syria.
Sami was still keen for something that could “make a difference for the suffering of Syrian people”. So Nour started to fictionalise some characters and situations, and wrote using a pseudonym to protect Sami and his family.
“Eva is a Swedish name that means ‘life’ and Nour is an Arabic name that means ‘light’. Light and life, I liked that, it’s hopeful,” she says. “A lot of my favourite books are on the borderline between reality and fiction, and I think it allows you to find a greater truth. And here, I wanted to explore what it is to be human. It’s not just about the war in Syria, it’s about how the decisions in your life really matter when it comes to life, love, death.”
And Sami’s decision to flee, in the end, was a good one. He knows, though, of “many friends in Syria who have even worse stories. Who lost all their families, who live in tents on the border, who are still suffering today. So it actually feels good now for other people to know these details about Syria.
“Even in the siege, there are good memories from that of small kindnesses and friendships.”
Nour says the moment she really knew Sami was special came when he showed her a photograph of cats he fed after his house was destroyed in a missile attack. “It was incredible to me that he could think about these animals when he had just lost his home,” she says.
Sami actually took about 20,000 photographs during the siege, many of them becoming the inspiration for the book's more cinematic scenes: a child's bicycle lying in the rubble or a girl wearing a necklace made from spent ammunition.
“I focused on images like that because there was quite a lot of propaganda from the Syrian regime to show the siege and the city of Homs as a place exclusively of terrorists and fighters,” he says. “This was completely wrong. Mostly it was families, children and the elderly. People who had nothing to do with the war but suffered the most. They paid with their homes and their lives.”
Indeed, one of the greatest successes of The Stray Cats of Homs is that it manages to explain the complexity of the war in Syria through Sami's eyes, without getting bogged down by exactly who did what and when. Nour does not even think Sami is a hero in this book. "He is just put into extreme situations which he tries to navigate as best as he can," she says.
And that journey has now turned into a Parisian love story. “We became good friends at first … and then more than that,” says Nour.
“Yeah it’s cool,” says Sami, but you know he too thinks it is much more special than that.
“Actually, something that has been surprising for me when I’ve met Syrians is how strong, funny and warm they are. How much is not lost,” she says.
Nour turns to Sami and says: “You’ve been here five years now. You are calmer. You have changed a lot. I don’t know what will happen to the country, but I’m very hopeful for its people; there is a bright future for them. But yes, I would love to walk with you in Homs, to see your childhood street. One day, maybe …”
Sami responds reflectively: “Yes, I’d like to go back one day, too. I just want to see my family and friends.”
‘The Stray Cats of Homs’ by Penguin Books is out now