Heading out the door, she brushes past a tall man pushing his way in as if in a hurry, then she and Basma wander in the alleyways for a while, enjoying a walk in the cool Damascene night air. The sky is clear and a gibbous moon shines over the sleepy city, casting shadows on grey walls and reflecting in the small panes of glass in the upper stories. The friends pass Maktab ‘Anbar and they reach the Street Called Straight (which is not exactly straight).
“Want to join me at Marmar?” Basma asks as they turn the corner and stop to let some cars and a little delivery truck pass. “There’s a new show there and the vernissage is tonight. It’s supposed to be pretty good.”
“Nah, I think I’ll head home.” Nidal puts her hand on her friend’s shoulder. “I have some errands to run first in Madhat Basha, and then I might head out to Riwaq for a drink if feel like it. But it’s been a long day. Another time.”
“Who was that guy?” asks Basma, looking up at Nidal.
“You know who I mean. The tall guy with glasses sitting with Samir in Bayt Sabri. You spoke with him before we left. He was fumbling with his nargileh.”
“Ah, You mean David? … He’s no one. Ya’ni, he’s an American and works as a teacher here. I’ve seen him a few times here and there, at galleries. He likes art, but I don’t really know him.”
“That’s all?” Basma asks, with a knowing smile. “He was blushing when you asked him about my show. I don’t think he even saw it! He could hardly speak!”
“How should I know what he thinks?” Nidal lies, for she knows that David is always tongue-tied when they meet, and it’s not just his sometimes faulty Arabic. She knows he likes her. It’s obvious. But she only laughs lightly then says, “It’s complicated!”
“Aie, complicated, but he’s hilu, no?” Basma pokes Nidal in the arm and they both laugh. “Yes, hilu kiteer,” she thinks. Very handsome indeed.
“Bas, ma fi shi baynatna! There’s nothing going on between us! I don’t really know him. I think we’re just friends.”
“You think you’re just friends? ….” Basma grins. She knows her friend Nidal and how she always closes up with men, but she senses something more this time. Her awkward smile speaks more than her words. But she decides not to push it tonight.
“Yalah, we’ll talk later. I’m going to Marmar.” Basma kisses Nidal on the cheeks then walks off toward the gallery.
“Yalah, bye” says Nidal as turns down Madhat Basha.
She wanders for a few minutes then enters a small, dark side street in the Mazenat al-Shahm neighborhood, in the direction of al-Shaghour. Nizar Qabbani had spent his childhood here, as had she … before everything fell apart.
Nidal’s family traced its origins to the Palestinian city of Safed – a religious and commercial center in Galilee in the North of Palestine. Her grandfather, a certain Marwan al-Safedi, had been a wealthy merchant as well as local religious leader during the first half of the twentieth century. He and his wife, Faidah Sharabi, bore two children, Rashid and Fatima, and they lived in a spacious home toward the edge of the southern part of the city. Then came the Nakba, the “Calamity.” The family was forced to flee Safed in May, 1948, following Operation Yiftah, a plan by Jewish paramilitaries to take over Safed as part of the broader conflict that resulted not only in the establishment of the State of Israel, but also in the flight and exile of many of thousands of Arabs from Safed and neighboring villages. The Safedis and the Sharabis first joined relatives in the Golan, then settled in one of the numerous Palestinian camps operated by UNRWA in Damascus. After a few years they were able to rent a home in the middle-class neighborhood of Mazenat al-Shahm in the Old City. Jiddu Marwan ran a small shop in the neighborhood and contented himself with quiet contemplation in the evenings. Sittu Faidah could be found most evenings sitting in a wicker chair in the courtyard, peeling oranges and listening to the radio.
Not unlike many Palestinian children of their generation, young Rashid and Fatima grew up looking up at the deed to their parents’ Safedi home hanging in a frame on the wall, the original skeleton key to the front door dangling from a chain above the faded parchment written in Arabic, English, and Hebrew, and dated June, 1941. In his retirement Marwan would often take the key off its hook and stare at it with an empty look in his eyes then, with a small shake of his head and a deep sigh, replace it on the hook and retire to the comfort of his armchair. The frame and dangling key announced not only a memory of past ownership, but also the hope of an eventual return. Rashid, when older, had asked his father, “Baba, don’t you think the Jews have already changed the locks, and the key won’t work anymore?” and his otherwise placid father had gone red with silent rage. Little did they know that the home had been demolished years earlier to make room for an expansion of the main artery linking Safed to new settlements encircling the town. To boot, a trendy architect from Tel Aviv had converted the mosque where Marwan had sometimes lead the dhikr prayers into a cafe and art gallery for cosmopolitan Israelis. Rashid had thus grown up with the contradiction of a hoped for return to a homeland he scarcely knew, and the realization that there was perhaps no return after all. There was no home.
Nidal’s mother, Salwa al-Khalidi, grew up in the village of Jubata al-Zayt in the Golan. She and her family fled the shells of the advancing Israeli army during the Naksa or “Setback” of the June 1967 War, arriving in Damascus on foot with nothing but a few sacks of clothing, the jewelry she and her mother wore on their arms, and a heart full of memories. For a time they had lived in the home of her father’s cousins in Jaramana, a situation they thought temporary. When the following year they heard stories of the razing of their entire village by the Israeli occupying forces and its eventual repopulation with colonies of settlers – a fate shared by hundreds of Palestinian villages — they rented a home of their own in Duweila’. There was no going back. They had to create a home in a cartography of absence.
Salwa was not only the village beauty but sharp as a whip, and an excellent student. She met Nidal’s father at Damascus University, where he was a young and charming lecturer in pharmacy with a penchant for poetry, and she was a student of law, shy yet studious and having an intense passion for justice. They fell in love and married in early 1972. Nidal followed in 1973, just a month after the October war. Two years later Salwa died tragically in childbirth, along with Nidal’s baby brother, Marwan, stillborn. Nidal’s grandparents had died a few years before after the Naksa — from heartbreak, it was said — and a grieving Rashid had assumed the lease of the house in Mazenat al-Shahm for himself, Fatima, and her husband, Mahmoud, also a refugee from the Galilee. As Palestinians, they were not allowed to buy the home even though Rachid earned a respectable salary at the university and from his small pharmacy in al-Shaghour. When Nidal was only 9, her father was kidnapped in Lebanon in the aftermath of the Sabra and Shatila massacres. He’d gone to provide medical assistance to Palestinians wounded in the ongoing conflict and was stopped at a check point and never heard from again. He had been presumed dead, though Nidal secretly harbored thoughts that her father had escaped and would one day return. Dreams of return filled her days and nights as a child, and her darkest hours as a young adult. That was over 20 years ago. “Haaj, Baba. Enough. Time to come home,” she often says to him as an inner prayer.
Nidal was thus raised by her aunt Fatima back in the old house, along with her cousins Ahmad, Adeeb, and Hanan. Although she had moved away after finishing her university studies in literature and journalism, she would often return to the neighborhood to visit her aunt and uncle. It was the only homeland she had in a childhood marked by tragedy, but also the comforts of family. In the end it’s all anyone has.
The neighborhood hasn’t changed much over the years. Guided by the small street lamps, the moonlight, and her unfailing instinct, Nidal navigate the streets easily. She could find her way with her eyes closed, she thinks. The familiar smells and sounds would be enough — the bakery with the best breads in town on one corner, the little spice shop on the other with its barrels of cumin, cardamom, and cinnamon, and of course the cassette stand just across from the house. Tonight Wael Kfoury croons “Inta Habibi“ as some youth gather to watch a video on a portable player. “Marhaba shabab!” she calls to them as she passes, and they turn their heads briefly to acknowledge her then get back to their business. She has known them since they were children. Za’ran, sometimes, but essentially good kids.
Across the way an old man leans back in a black vinyl-covered chair, a white cloth draped about his neck, while a young attendant in a red smock threads away excess hair from his eyebrows. A radio crackles in the background as fluorescent lights spill out onto the street and illuminate the walls of the homes on the opposite side. Nidal turns one last corner and stops at a little grocery to buy a bag of fat oranges. They are for her aunt Fatima, her only link to her father and to a Palestinian home she never knew. To a history she scarcely knows how to read. Fatima is about 60 and still strong. She works part time as a nurse at the clinic in the Yarmouk camp. Her children have all left home – the two boys work as school teachers in Hama, and Hanan, who married young, now lives with her husband and three children in Aleppo. ‘Amu Mahmoud is in Hama visiting the boys and attending to some business; he deals in electric generators and industrial cables made in Iran. He will return in a few days, so ‘Amti Fatima is alone in the house.
Approaching the familiar house, she presses the doorbell. A loud and shrill sound echoes inside and Nidal waits for her aunt to open the door. Nidal likes to sit with her on a quiet evening and chat while her aunt peels the oranges in neat strips. As Fatima says, it’s a way of holding a piece of Palestine in the palm of your hand.