The Mannequin Challenge

A journalist takes pictures of an Aleppo demonstration calling on the Free Syrian Army to break the siege of the city. Photo: Mujahid Abu al-Joud

A journalist takes pictures of an Aleppo demonstration calling on the Free Syrian Army to break the siege of the city. Photo: Mujahid Abu al-Joud

Was it Syrians who invented the so-called mannequin challenge, even though we never got credit for it?

The world was quick to embrace this online meme, in which a group of people freeze in position, like statues, as they are filmed.

But this has been our lives as Syrian citizens for a long time.

Four years ago, I personally took part in this challenge in Syria, before it became a trend. Here is my story.

My sister and I were walking in the al-Jamiliya neighbourhood in Aleppo, behind the al-Razi hospital and through the middle of public bread ovens and a vegetable market that had sprung up because of the crisis.

My sister and I tried to cross through this chaos to the other side of the street. Children and young people struggling, old people living without the dignity they deserved and women robbed of everything by the war except the endless patience to haggle over prices.

The sky was cloudy and winter showed its fangs. We all wore thick jackets and most of us wore woollen scarves and high boots, our fingers cracked and red because of the extreme cold.

Nothing can adequately describe winter in wartime, the gloomy faces, the smell of bread coming from the ovens.

An officer was controlling the people lining up to take their bread. They were barely even people, more a group of bodies with numbers written on their arms to show where they were in the queue.

You have to stop for a moment, sit on the pavement or stand beside the sweet seller so as to look at this scene that you have seen so many times you no longer notice it.

Do people get used to humiliation? We didn’t get used to it, we just blocked out our feelings so that we could walk through life in slow motion. It’s not easy to bear the misery of war on your shoulders.

Then there was a whistle. We all stopped, looked at the sky and froze. The mannequin challenge had begun.

The soldier chewing a piece of bread froze with his mouth open. The old man smoking a cigarette froze as he exhaled. The woman picking through vegetables froze with half a tomato in her hand. The crying child froze and became completely silent.

We all froze like an orchestra obedient to the maestro’s wand.

Then, in a moment, a new challenge began. We all had to run, it didn’t matter where to, everyone ran in all directions. We ran, but in slow motion, always in slow motion.

I was completely numb, I don’t remember any details about the minutes when we ran. I just remember that I held onto my sister as I did when we were young. I only remember the moment when the smell of bread changed into the taste of gunpowder. The queue for bread disappeared and all I could hear was the sound of screaming.

You will cry a lot, yes, but later on. You will cry when the door of the bus closes and you find yourself a stranger on roads that you once passed through every day, or when you open the newspaper searching for the others who took part in the challenge, or when you mend a jacket torn by shrapnel or you will cry suddenly without justification in a lecture on international law.

It is possible that you won’t cry at all and just go on to the next challenge in exile, which is the hardest because it extends over vast areas of slow, silent time.

You find that the whole world has turned in your eyes to a mannequin challenge.

Everything around you in exile is beautiful, but cold. The shop cashier’s pleasant smile is cold. Your neighbour’s warm greeting cold. The clean cars, free of bullet holes, are cold.

Do you know what cold is?

It is when time stops and leaves you running in place.

Farah Yousef is a graduate of political science and international relations who lived in Aleppo until October 2016. She currently lives in France.