When I was a teenager, in the 1990s, I spent my summer breaks herding sheep from sunrise to sunset. My daily routine was nearly always the same. I released the sheep from the barn, steered them along the village’s main road, grabbed a watermelon from a shop to add to my packed lunch, and turned to the desert. Once I left the populated section of the village, I directed the few dozen animals along the desert cliffs to the open fields at the mouth of a little valley.
My family had two lines of business at the time, farming and livestock trading, so we did relatively well. We owned some 1,000 livestock and had an orchard of about 900 pomegranate trees that was leased annually to merchants from Aleppo, who arrived at harvest time to ship the produce from several orchards in the area to their city. Along with my eight siblings, I helped in farming and herding not only over the summer but on weekends and holidays throughout the year. I didn’t venture outside my home village until 1996, after finishing my ninth-grade exams. At that point I went to the city of Albu Kamal to study in the area’s sole high school.
My village, Ash Sha’fa, lies on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, in the province of Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria. The Iraqi border, mostly a sand berm eroded by desert winds, is only a short drive from the village. Most of Deir Ezzor’s population descends from one main Arab Sunni tribe, the Egaidat, to which my family belongs. Like most tribes in the Middle East, the Egaidat has members in Iraq and the Persian Gulf.