While relaxing in my comfortable Whitehorn bed, I sometimes indulge in some PUBG. For the unlucky few who’ve never experienced the sheer glory of mobile games, this is a fun battle royale multiplayer with various maps and modes. The game’s fun is further amplified by an increasingly popular trend within the mobile game industry: global servers, which give you the opportunity to interact with other players around the world. As a result, I’ve come across some diverse and interesting people, all with a different story to tell.
But of all the individuals I’ve spoken to, one stands out. To maintain his anonymity, I’ll call him Afso, a shortened version of his PUBG nickname. He is in his late 20s and comes from Latakia, a port city in Western Syria. And, I have to admit, his story and his life have really put my life into perspective.
The conversation had an admittedly awkward start. The other participants in my crew were exclusively from the Middle East: Iraq and Syria. I don’t speak a word of Arabic, Aramaic, Kurdish or any of their many dialects and, in my experience, Middle Eastern PUBG players speak very little English, save the most crucial words. Whenever this happens, I greet the players with a badly pronounced “As-Salaam Alaikum”, ask if any can speak English or French, and wait for a response.
Afso spoke almost immediately. He apologised for his “broken” English, though in my mind it was quite passable. He first noted the high number of Iraqi players in the 100-player pool, saying he understood the reason behind the disproportion. When I inquired for an answer, he said, “I don’t want to sound racist”. I said I didn’t mind. He explained that some parts of Iraq were in dire straits, and so the Iraqi citizens that lived there needed to distract themselves. “That’s not racist”, I replied, “it makes perfect sense”. Iraq has experienced frequent and brutal fighting, notably during the recent civil war, which saw the Iraqi government and its many allies face off against ISIS forces in areas like Fallujah. It certainly makes the West, and especially St Andrews, paradisal in comparison.
He seemed uninterested in conversing at first, since the game is high-pressure and thus requires a steady focus. Yet he relented, purposefully killing himself in-game (or so he maintains). When we’d returned to the lobby, he let the words flow, perhaps comforted by my earlier candidness. He also admitted that he wanted to tell his story to somebody, someone that was ”not from here”. Though he contended that he hadn’t experienced the worst moments of the Syrian conflict, he has seen much. His family had been reduced to relative poverty at the beginning of the conflict due to wartime property and material destruction, and so were forced to create a modest shipping company from scratch. They managed to do so on limited funds, with limited experience and virtually no help from their community: this is impressive anywhere, let alone in war-torn Syria.
But, one day, one of their drivers stole a lorry, drove it to Aleppo and sold it to an unknown buyer. From there, it switched three different sets of hands, finally ending up in the possession of the US-backed SDF forces stationed there. When Afso and his family got wind of this, he and his father had to take a long and torturous (they encountered dozens of Government checkpoints, many equipped with K-9 units) bus journey to retrieve it. He tells me that in Syria, both popular culture and government propaganda have taught the average citizen to view Americans as untrustworthy, even devilish. And so, regardless of their education or intellect, the duo was overwhelmed and slightly worried by their presence, as they were studded with the easily noticeable Humvees and “AR-15-style rifles”.
The length and difficulties of the trip were compounded by a gridlocked legal system, which Afso likened to a “kangaroo court”. It took them three weeks of negotiations (peppered with the occasional bribe) to retrieve their lorry. From there, they opted to drive it themselves back to Latakia. Neither the SDF, nor the Americans offered an escort, even though the trip would involve crossing the Badia, a desert which covers 55 per cent of Syria’s total land area. In addition to the harsh and perilous terrain they would be facing, the Badia is notorious around the world as a smuggling route for the Syrian Opposition and ISIS alike: they would stand no chance against either group.
He tells me every second was spent worrying, knowing full well that if confronted, they would surely end up dead or kidnapped. The first day went surprisingly well, as the only excitement of the day came in the form of an ISIS caravan transporting oil. They “slept” in their lorry for the night, shivering in the biting cold. The next day, the vehicle broke down in one of the remotest stretches of the Badia. While trying to fix the issue themselves, a firefight between Opposition and Government forces broke out less than 200 meters away. Afso tells me he could hear the bullets as if they were whizzing right past him. Forced to flee and abandon their lorry, the pair found refuge in a village located two miles away, which they managed to reach in the blazing, early afternoon heat.
They enlisted the help of a mechanic and hoped to find their lorry untouched the next morning. Amazingly, it was, though the sickening remnants of the battle they had witnessed lay nearby. Afso and his father postulated it had not been taken since the truck still had a mechanical problem, and that whichever force had won the skirmish simply didn’t have the time to fix and take it. The mechanic managed to repair the lorry, and the pair went on their way. They eventually reached Latakia, and, according to Afso, the truck is still in relatively good condition. I simply can’t imagine experiencing anything like that in my life.
Afso also discussed more mundane matters. He is an atheist, and despite this, is still widely accepted within his own neighbourhood. He is married to an Alawite woman, whose family loves Afso as their own. However, their union is not legally recognised, since it requires a spiritual ordination by a religious official, which he cannot undergo due to his atheism. The couple had planned to move to Romania yet could not due to a constant lack of funds. Though Afso states his dream is “to get out”, he isn’t too bothered, since he knows he will soon overcome his financial woes. He’s also quite happy that most of his family have left, having moved and settled within various locations in North America and Europe. He also thanks his parents for giving him a good education, which involved learning English in the now-evacuated British Consulate in Latakia. Even without the war, then, Afso’s life is infinitely more difficult than the lives we have the privilege of enjoying in the West.
Afso describes himself as extremely intelligent, technically a member of MENSA (though he has not yet received the registration papers due to the ongoing Syrian conflict). He planned to become a computer scientist, though the university exam required a 99 per cent passing grade, while he received a 98.5, meaning he now works as a dentist. Regardless, he plans to try the exam again, and is quite content with his life trajectory.
I tell Afso that I’m amazed at his openness, since I know full well that the government’s constant monitoring and censoring of the country’s internet puts him in a perilous position. He says he doesn’t care, that he needs someone to know, someone unattached to the constant stream of misinformation peddled about Syrian people in the rest of the world. I tell him I’m grateful, that I’ve recently undergone a shift in my political opinions. “Maybe God has sent you to me, brought us together”, perhaps demonstrating that Afso still clings to his religious upbringing for moral support.
Despite Afso’s constant daily struggle, he can’t help being optimistic. Though he must bribe, fight, and lie his way through life, pretending to change loyalties whenever he comes across Government, SDF or Opposition members, he knows he has a good life, a notion I can barely fathom. Whenever I think about complaining about my troubles, I think about Afso and his view on life: joy ultimately comes from your perspective. Without a positive outlook, nothing in your life will change. Afso has given me a profound gift, an optimism I’d lost along the way. All of us who study at St Andrews are a lucky, privileged few who’ve little to complain about, though we obstinately maintain otherwise. Life is good. “You play well for a history student” he chuckles. I can’t help but agree.