Sunday, December 29, 2013

Shadows of Damascus Cover Release


Shadows of Damascus is a character-driven fictional novel with an usual plot unfolding in the Middle East and America’s dairy land. The story is derived from current events sweeping Syria, and speaks of a softly developing relationship between a man and a woman, worlds apart.

Back home in Wisconsin, reclusive Iraq war veteran Adam Wegener receives a mysterious letter asking for payment of a debt. He figures the letter came from the Syrian interpreter, Fadi Jabir, who saved his life while they were on patrol in Iraq five years earlier. Fadi is one of the opposition leaders protesting against his government. Because of a brutal crackdown, Fadi is desperate to get his sister, Yasmeen to safety. How can Adam help? And what does he have to do to honor his commitment to the man who saved his life?

To escape persecution, Yasmeen is forced to make a difficult decision that lands her in America with Adam, hoping to return home once it is safe. Yasmeen quickly learns she staked her future and security on a man who is plagued by his own demons, suppressing a violent upbringing by an abusive father, and suffering from PTSD nightmares. Can Yasmeen survive life with this traumatized stranger? And will she find a way to move forward given the atrocities she had witnessed in her homeland?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Excerpt 2 from Shadows of Damascus


Baghdad, Iraq
Summer 2006

M4 Carbine rifle ready, Sergeant Adam Wegener scanned the street, skimming from window to rooftop. Nerves on edge, his neck and shoulder muscles strained to keep him focused. His heart thumped against his ribs.
Patrol leader Lieutenant Clifton moved his troop with caution through the street, Adam’s fire team at the rear. They’d done street sweeps many times before, but this one was different. Something was not right. Apprehension took hold of his insides and squeezed tight with every step.
Adam turned and walked backwards a few steps, establishing eye contact with Corporal Scottsdale. He nodded at the big guy’s expressionless face, assurance at having Big Scott cover his back. He checked on the other two members of his team trailing his left, Corporals Andrews and Bradley, and faced forward again.
The neighborhood seemed unnaturally quiet. No children walked to school, no laundry hung outside windows on this breezeless day, not even alley cats explored the overflowing garbage containers.
From a corner of his eye, he caught a movement in one of the windows. Wood shutters slammed closed against the windowpane.
A loud boom burst the air. Adam hit the dirt, his head pounding the pavement. The world went silent. He spat blood mixed with something solid. Parts of his body armor and uniform had been ripped off, along with patches of skin. He rose to his knees, his hands searching for his rifle. Finding it, he clasped the rifle in his arms and crawled. He moved as if swimming in a viscous liquid, not knowing which direction to take. He saw only clouds of smoke.
He screamed the names of the soldiers in his team, not sure if his voice even worked. He couldn’t hear a damn thing. His elbow landed on something hard, a boot. He moved his fingers up the leather, across the twill fabric of the pants, until his hands sank in soft flesh and wetness. The man mumbled something, his voice muffled and distant.
“Big Scott, that you?” Adam shouted.
A shower of bullets rang by his side. Helmet gone, he ducked and covered his head. His ears popped from the pressure, jump-starting his hearing.
“Take cover.” Big Scott’s voice penetrated the sounds of warfare.
He scrambled to his feet, hoisted Big Scott on his shoulder, and dashed to the nearest house. He kicked the door and threw himself and Big Scott inside. Propping the injured soldier’s back to one wall, away from the windows, he snatched the M9 Beretta pistol from the holster mounted on his chest rig and forced it into Big Scott’s hands.
“Cover the door.”
Rifle raised and ready, he moved from room to room to secure the small house. He entered the kitchen, coming face-to-face with an old woman. Sitting motionless on a wooden chair, hands clasped on the Formica table in front of her, she stared down Adam’s raised barrel.
Keeping an eye on the wrinkled, tanned face, he scanned the kitchen. No place for anyone to hide, not even a closet door to check behind.
“Anyone else in the house?”
She held her stare, unflinching.
Adam tried to recall Arabic words he heard Fadi, the interpreter assigned to his patrol unit, say in situations like these. But he couldn’t recall a single one.
“Where’s your husband?”
The woman blinked. She craned her neck to one side, looking past him toward the front of the house. The white scarf covering her hair slipped down to her shoulders, revealing gray strands pulled back in a tight bun. She lifted the scarf and refastened it under her chin.
His hand shook. He aimed a loaded weapon at a woman the same age as his mother. Hell, she even resembled her.
“Rajul? Rajul?” Was that the right word for man? Why was she so calm?
The only point of entry was the door he came through. He heard heavy movement outside. The sounds of shouting men grew closer. The old mother could yell to alert the insurgents any second. He snatched a towel hanging on a hook to his left, and held his index finger to his lips, motioning for the woman to go with him to the front room.
She followed without uttering a sound.
Adam pointed his weapon for her to sit on the cement floor. He tore the towel into strips and kneeled in front of her.
Big Scott moaned. He slumped to one side, pistol aimed at the door.
“I got you, man. Have to secure the old mother first.” He used a towel strip for her hands and tied another around her mouth.
 He turned to Big Scott, got his first aid kit out of a side pocket on his torn pants, and dug for supplies. He applied bandages to Big Scott's bleeding midsection. Keeping pressure on the wound with one hand, he pulled the radio from his pack and reported to his platoon sergeant they were trapped inside one of the houses.
“Damn it, which one?” Lieutenant Clifton’s voice crackled.
“Don’t know. Scottsdale’s injured. It’s bad.”
“Andrews, Bradley?” The lieutenant screamed back.
“God damn IED was right under them. Can’t confirm.”
“Second platoon’s six blocks away. They’re en route and
A loud explosion silenced the radio. Cursing, he flung the radio across the room.
“Hang in there, big man. QRF’s on the way.” There was no way the Quick Reaction Force could come to their rescue if they didn’t know where they were.
“How long?” Big Scott’s voice came out calm, surprising him.
“Ten minutes.” He fumbled with more bandages. Could second platoon make six blocks in ten minutes? It was possible. “Stay with me. Think about that sweet girl you got back home. Sandy, right?”
He slumped beside Big Scott. Sticky stuff on his back squished. He closed his eyes, hoping to God the sensation resulted from an injury he hadn’t yet felt, rather than the blood and flesh of his missing team members splattered all over him. He needed to find a way to signal their location.
Big Scott clamped a charred hand on top of his. “Won’t make it.”
“The hell you won’t. Sandy’s waiting for you.” He pulled himself to his feet and approached the door. “You’d better not disappoint her.” If he opened the door and his patrol didn’t spot him, the insurgents would be alerted to their position, and that would be the fucking end. If he didn’t do anything, Big Scott would bleed out. He looked back at the corporal. His friend didn’t have much time. There was only one thing to do.
“We have to get out of here.”
 He propped Big Scott on his shoulder and opened the door. Clouds of smoke blocked his view. Using the cover of smoke, he edged his way along the side of the house, unable to see a yard past his face. His foot stumbled over a chunk of cement, and he collapsed against the house, slumping down on the dirty street, overcome by how absurd this mission was.
A clomp of boots on the gritty pavement caught his attention. They were trapped. They could not fade into the concrete, not a car nor a bush to hide behind, and he didn't have time to retrace his way back to the door. He aimed his rifle in the direction of the approaching boots and counted the steps. One man, probably a scout. Shots would draw others.
He slung the rifle across his chest and let it hang. Clamping a hand on Big Scott’s mouth, he stifled the soldier’s agonized moan. Adam stretched to full height, flattened his back against the wall, and pulled his knife.
Heavy fire erupted around them. Bullets shattered the wall to Adam’s left. He hit the dirt again. Big Scott’s limp body fell on top of him, pinning him down. Knife gone, he tried to push Big Scott off. Pain shot through his body like electricity. He doubled over and collapsed once more, trapping his rifle under him.
Leather boots slammed right next to his face. He wrapped his hand around the ankle and tried to topple the guy down.
“Don’t fight me, Adam. I’m here to helb you.”
“Fadi? That you Fadi?”
“Shut ub before zey hear us.”
Fadi took hold of Big Scott’s shoulders and pulled him into the house. He returned to Adam and dragged him until they were inside. He checked their injuries.
Multiple holes on Adam’s left side bled. Big Scott lay flat on his back, praying aloud.
“Clifton knows where you are now.” Fadi applied bandages to Adam's leg.
He sucked in a sharp breath and tried to stay alert, his eyelids too heavy to keep open.
Fadi shook his uninjured shoulder. “Do what you always do to stay awake.”
Adam opened his eyes. “What?”
“Count, man. Count za bains. Double za number if zey were very bainful, half if zey were minor,” Fadi urged in his particular accent.
Adam’s mind kicked into counting mode. Shit, was he crazy?
“How’d you know where we were?”
“I heard za insurgents shouting to each ozer.” Fadi moved fast to administer the articles in his first-aid kit to Adam’s other wounds.
Crunching numbers didn’t do much to alleviate his pain, but the process helped him filter through Fadi’s heavy accent.
 “At first I didn’t understand the words they were using for directions,” Fadi explained. “Arabic has two words to indicate left. One can mean north, depending on the dialect. I had to get closer to figure it out, and that’s when I saw you. Clifton was very mad. Didn't want me to leave the team, but hey, I’m a contract interpreter, not one of his soldiers.”
The woman moaned from her corner. Fadi shot his head up and approached her.
“Who did this?”
“Needed to make sure she didn’t scream.” Adam tried to lift himself on his elbows. He groaned, the full force of deep searing pain setting in.
Fadi untied the woman’s mouth, released her hands, and spoke to her, his tone low and gentle.
“She’s an old woman, Adam. She’s trapped here just like we are. This is her home. No one and nothing is going to drive her out of it. You didn’t need to tie her up.”
“Not taking any chances.”
Scott’s praying voice disturbed rather than comforted Adam. He concentrated on breathing. Why couldn’t he just pass out and be spared this agony?
The woman placed her hands in her lap, flipped her palms upward and muttered something.
“What’s her problem?”
“She’s praying,” Fadi said.
“I didn’t hurt her. See what else you can do for Big Scott before I lose it.” Adam found it hard to formulate his words.
Fadi kneeled in front of Big Scott, tore a bag with his teeth, and spread its contents over his gaping wound.
Adam’s eyes darted between the old mother and Big Scott. Never hesitant Scott. Never questioning and never smiling either. Were they praying to the same God? Would He listen?
“Tell her I’m sorry I tied her up, will you?”
Itlaa barrah balady,” the woman responded to Fadi.
“What the hell did she say?”
“She wants us to leave.”
“We wouldn’t be here if her people hadn’t planted that Goddamn IED. Tell her that.” Adam spat blood.
“She meant leave her country.”
Darkness closed in on Adam, the bliss of unconsciousness threatening to take over. He closed his eyes.
“I'm okay with that . . .“

Shadows of Damascus to be released by Soul Mate Publishing mid January 2014

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Excerpt from Shadows of Damascus



Damascus, Syria
Summer 2006

The seductive fragrance of Damascus roses drifted through the open window and flirted with fifteen-year-old Yasmeen’s olfactory senses. The potent flowers in her neighbor’s yard delivered the best awakening. She loved beginnings, especially early, mid-summer mornings like these. Stretching across the bed, her imagination raced with possibilities for the promising day.
Thursday. The day her older brother’s friends visited and stayed well into the evening. Yasmeen ticked off potential visitors in her head, dashing young university students who loved to talk politics with Fadi. Today, she would do her best to discover the name of the quietest member in the group, the thin one with round-rimmed glasses. On her nightstand, the sketch she worked on during the last visit waited for his name, and more details around the eyes.
Peeling off the covers, she tip-toed to the window. Lively noises matched her optimistic mood. Nightingales sang greetings. Clanging dishes and pots resonated from surrounding houses beyond high walls. Mothers called out for their daughters to get breakfast ready. Men’s deep voices describing fresh fruits and vegetables with tempting traditional phrases drifted above hidden alleys. One vendor claimed his cucumbers were small as baby fingers, and likened his ripe apples to a virgin bride’s cheeks. Another boasted his plum peaches shed their covers without enticement, and his shy eggplants hid well in a moonless night.
Yasmeen succumbed to the enlivening chaos spilling in from her bedroom window, her own special and personal opening to the world. Tilting her head back, she exposed her face and neck to the sun, allowing its invigorating rays to paint her cheeks.
Today, her mother told her she would be allowed to take a coffee tray into Fadi’s room once all his friends arrived. What would she wear? She should tell her best friend Zainab to stop by earlier than usual to go through her wardrobe. She could help her decide. Perhaps one of Fadi’s friends would notice her. More than one? Why not?
Draping her arms on the windowsill, she looked at the neighbor’s yard, counting the blooming roses, a ritual she performed each morning since the season started. In the north corner of the largest flowerbed, two violet buds grabbed her attention, their delicate petals about to unfold. Once they came to full bloom, their deep purple color would dominate the landscape.
A knock sounded at her door.
“I am awake.”
Her father walked in. “Good. We have work to do.” He held a hammer in one hand and a couple of boards in the other. “Move aside, Yasmeen.” He approached the window.
She stepped away and pointed at the boards. “What do you need those for?”
Her father closed the windowpanes, locked them, placed one board across the frame, and hammered it in place.
“What are you doing?”
“This window is not to be opened again, child.”
She could not believe her ears. “Why?”
“Neighbors moved out last night.” Her father nailed the second board in place. “Mukhabarat took over their house.”

Shadows of Damascus to be released by Soul Mate Publishing mid January, 2014

Monday, December 2, 2013

Paperweight And the Holiday Season

Working on final edits of my first book, and trying to finish the second book in progress, I have been cooped up indoors for the past few weeks. I finally got to a point where everything was falling in place, and decided to take a break and go on one of my usual long walks to clear the clutter in my head.
The weather was perfect, sunny and breezy. Feeling lighter and optimistic that I would return home with a clearer idea on one of the characters in the book, I picked up my pace and opened my senses to the beautiful nature surrounding the jogging trail.
Fifteen minutes into the walk, a lady touched my shoulder from the back. I slowed down and was surprised by a tight hug. She was the mother of one of my son’s friends from school. After the usual greetings, I noticed she was a little upset. She had lost her cell phone on the trail, tried to call her number from a borrowed phone five minutes later, and a lady picked up her call.
“How fortunate,” I said. “Someone actually found it, and now you can retrieve it.”
            Her face dropped. “The woman asked for $100 to give it back to me. She said she would wait for me by the fountain in the park.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. No matter how much I saw of people’s greed and cruelty over the years, I was still taken back by that complete abandonment of goodwill. If this woman stole the phone, and not bothered to answer my friend’s calls, I would have probably accepted the act as simple thievery. But for her to have the audacity to inflict that kind of distress by her greedy request baffled me.
“I don’t carry my wallet on me when I exercise.” My friend’s fingers dialed the woman again. “I don’t know what to do. And she will not pick up my calls any more.”
I didn’t have my wallet on me, either. I didn’t think my friend should pay the money, anyway. I looked ahead. If we really tried, we could be at the designated fountain in about ten minutes.
“Let’s go. We can find her and try to reason with her. Do you have a passcode on your phone?”
“Yes. She will not be able to use it.” My friend’s eyes brightened for a brief instant, before they dimmed again with disappointment. “Not right away.”
“You could send her a text message and tell her you would call the police. They will be able to track your phone through its GPS,” I suggested.
My friend silently nodded, her mind probably speeding through all the changes she needed to make if she didn’t get her phone back.
We reached the fountain, looked around, and found no woman waiting. There were many families, and people jogging with their dogs. Like I said, the day was inviting for outdoor activities. But we didn’t see a woman holding a phone, scanning the crowds.
Dejected, my friend said, “She left. I was late.”
“Call your service company and burn the phone,” I encouraged. “She would not be able to even sell it as hardware. It will be completely useless to her. She could use it as paper weight.”
That enticed a tentative smile from my friend. She thanked me for trying to help, and urged me to resume my brusque walk, then started heading back to her house. I wanted to stick around, but it was obvious she wanted to take it from there on her own. So I wished her good luck, gave her a hug and went on my way.

The incident stuck with me the rest of the day, and the following one. I didn’t feel angry, rather nauseated and disgusted. Simple acts can go along way, I was always told. Gestures of cruelty or kindness have the same ripples in someone’s life, some stronger than others. This mysterious woman, thief, tormentor, probably didn’t ruin my friend’s entire Holiday season, but she sure punched a huge dent in it. What for? What did she gain? A colorful paperweight?

Lilas Taha is a novelist, winner of the 2017 International Book Awards  and is the author of Shadows of Damascus and Bitter Almonds.