He finishes his breakfast, rearranges the papers on his desk for the tenth time that morning, then decides that he isn’t going to make any more progress on the translation, so might as well do something else. You can only hit your head against a wall so many times before you give up, and the ideas in Ibn al-‘Arabi’s texts are often so dense that they prove formidable barriers to comprehension, let alone translation. “I have to find another way,” he says to himself as he gets up from his desk.
The Mary Jubran cassette has stopped playing, but he doesn’t feel much like listening to anything else, so stands by the window looking out across the sleepy city. His apartment is located on the slopes of the mountain, a couple of streets up from the main drag, Nazim Basha, which until not long ago still bore traces of the tramway rails that led down toward the center of town. All that’s left of the trams today are images on old postcards at tourist shops in al-Marjeh. Today one has to walk or grab a sirvees or a taxi, though with the growing traffic it’s often easier just to walk – the price of “progress” in this modernizing world. Off to the left he can just make out the minaret and dome of the mosque of Ibn al-‘Arabi, whom locals refer to simply as “The Sheikh.” The lively market just beyond the sanctuary is where he usually gets his food since he likes to pass before the shrine, and sometimes steps in for a few moments of reflection. Below his window the city spreads out like a patchwork quilt of residential neighborhoods sprinkled with minarets, the remnants of gardens for which Damascus was once famous, government buildings, and in the distance the Old City and its gem, the Umayyad Mosque. Samir lives over on the opposite side, a ways to the left, perhaps an hour’s walk from Nazim Basha. Off to the right, the dark outlines of the Presidential Palace loom ominously on a solitary promontory overlooking the city. The President also has a residence in the neighborhood just below his, al-Maliki, just a stone’s throw away from the American Embassy. David tends to avoid the area when possible, not only because of the plain-clothes guards hanging about, but because he doesn’t like the look of the American compound and prefers to stay away. Past the hills in the distance lie the streets of Mezzeh, shrouded in white mystery. He seldom ventures there, but for that fateful interview some months ago that he’d much rather forget about.
Shaking off the memory, he decides to head out to find a newspaper then go downtown to see who might show up at the cafes on this cold morning. He throws on his warmest jacket, a little wool cap, and the hiking boots his mother had sent him for his birthday last month upon hearing that he lived on a mountain – Jabal Qasiyun, that is, where no one would really venture a hike today. She’d also sent him some bottles of vitamins, making for interesting conversation with the man at the customs house who thought, hopefully, that they might possibly be Viagra pills and confiscated one for himself. At least the boots would come in handy today. David hoped the B-Complex pills did something for the customs agent as well.
He locks his door behind him takes the three flights of stairs to the ground floor, then heads out the entryway. His building has sprouted what so many others around the city have these days, a colorful kolaba, or guard shack, sort of like those old British phone booths but made of wood and often painted in the colors of the Syrian flag. Some VIP from the police or Ministry of Something moved in, and voila, the kolaba. The guard never says anything to him, barely even looks up from his little perch, where he sits most mornings staring at the wall or sipping little cups of tea he makes on the small electric kettle he keeps inside. Today he is huddled inside and the flimsy door is shut, only his bare head showing through. He doesn’t look out when David passes by.
The steps down to the street are uneven and a bit slippery. Abu ‘Ali is out in front of his shop sweeping away the snow with an old broom, and waves. “Marhaba, Daoud!” he cries. “Tafaddal! Come in!” so David lumbers over, stepping uneasily as he crosses the slushy street. “Nice boots!” Abu ‘Ali remarks, as he opens the shop door for him to enter. David takes a seat in his habitual spot at the table as Abu ‘Ali settles in on the other side. Abu ‘Ali is a small man in his fifties, with a shock of wispy, greying hair on his head, and a thin mustache over his lip. He is always impeccably dressed, with pressed slacks, crisp white shirt, and brown cardigan sweater, even in the heat of summer. He repairs and sells old radios, clocks, and watches in his shop, which consists of a front room stacked floor to ceiling with his wares — old Bakelite and wooden radios from the 40s and 50s, pendulum and Cuckoo clocks — and a back room with a work table, a hotplate with a rakweh pot for making coffee, and a small cot, “for my siestas.” The clocks all show different hours of the day, their ticking and random chimes offering a confusion of temporal possibilities. David has never seen anyone in Abu ‘Ali’s shop, yet he is there every day and seems to know everything about everyone in the neighborhood.
“Ahlayn, ahlayn, Daoud! Where you going? To see the Sheikh?” He knows of David’s interest in Ibn al-‘Arabi and they often talk about Sufism and David’s translation projects. But more often than not they talk about music, and inevitably Nizar Qabbani. The famous poet had a home just behind his, and when Abu ‘Ali wasn’t calling him “Daoud” (Arabic for David), he’d call him “Abu Nizar” or “Abu Nazra,” in reference to the poet. “He lived right behind you! I used to see him every day. He’d come into my shop and sit right where you are,” he’d tell him. David heard the story every time he visited with Abu ‘Ali. He invites David for a coffee and the two settle in for their little routine: Abu ‘Ali asks about his plans for the day, David talks about his lunchtime appointment and his search for a newspaper. “You won’t find one now,” says Abu ‘Ali. “The roads from Lebanon are still blocked, but you might try later in the day.”
David knows not to show too much interest in the clocks, watches and radios in the shop, or Abu ‘Ali will give him one. He made this mistake once when Abu ‘Ali showed him an old watch that he had just repaired for a customer who, it turns out, had passed away when it was in the shop and “didn’t need to tell time anymore, Allah yarhamuh.” David pronounced the watch “hilweh,” very nice, and at that Abu ‘Ali gave it to him. There was no refusing the gift, and Abu ‘Ali seemed increasingly za’lan (angry) when David said he couldn’t take the watch. “He’s dead. He won’t need it. Please, take it. I insist!” he said, attempting to place it on his wrist. So David accepted the gift, though for some days Abu ‘Ali remained “za’lan” with him for having initially refused. It seemed like everyone was za’lan with him at one point or another, usually for nothing more than not calling, not visiting, not eating everything on his plate, not staying longer, not coming sooner, not drinking another coffee. Everyone in Damascus is za’lan.
The coffee is very sweet and David sips it slowly. In the background Umm Kulthum sings from an old radio that Abu ‘Ali has just brought back to life – an old Bakelite model with an elaborate dial listing all the cities with broadcasts, from Aleppo to Baghdad and beyond. It’s a work of art, but David is careful not to pay it too much attention and instead comments on the song. “God bless that voice!” he exclaims, knowing that almost everyone loves the famous Egyptian diva and also that Abu ‘Ali prefers her older repertoire. “It’s an old song, Sharraf Habib al-’alb,” he informs him. “Your uncle Daoud Husni composed it back in the 30s.” Daoud Husni was a famous Egyptian composer and singer, and one of the many early contributors to modern Arab song that just happened to be Jewish. David knows that Abu ‘Ali knows that he knows this, but he says it anyway. “He was Jewish, you know,” his eyebrows raised suggestively.
It is not the first nor the last time that Syrians will suspect that he’s Jewish because of his given name. He’s already gone to lengths to shore up his “Arab” credentials — his father’s mother was from Damascus, though his other grandparents were Scottish and English on both sides, some having arrived in America generations ago, and thus he grew up as a plain old “American” without any ethnic identity. This was partly because in the 1970s it didn’t really pay to be different, and certainly not “Arab.” His father himself had endured years of abuse as a school child because of his “ethnic” mother — the house always smelled strongly of cardamom and cumin and featured strange foods cooked in yoghurt, let alone dishes of raw meat. His mother would also sell her home-made Arabic sweets at the Church benefits. The family was thus “weird” for 1950s Middle America and his father had internalized a certain shame in his non-“white” ancestry. Yet, the only time he had ever struck David was when he had used the term “camel jockey” to refer to his father’s Arab business partner, using a phrase he often heard at school himself and which he thought was just what one said when referring to Arabs. That was New Jersey in the 1970s. Today things are different. In a way.
“Yes, I know he was Jewish, like Layla Murad,” David says. Abu ‘Ali sits back and, raising his hands, says, “I have no problem with the Jews. If they don’t occupy my land, I have no problem with them.” Then he leans forward and grabs David’s coffee cup – a slender vessel with Arabic script written around its borders – and says, “If I take your coffee, you’ll be za’lan with me, right?” David knows where this is headed – usually it’s a pen or a book or a newspaper that is the stolen object. “But if I give it back, all is well. You’re not za’lan anymore. We can be friends.” And he slides the coffee back. “Daoud Husni and Layla Murad occupy my ears, not my homeland, so I love them.” If only the world were so simple, David thinks.
David has tended to avoid politics all his life (along with avoiding any attachment to an ethnicity). This always irked Marina, who was if anything hyper-political. Everything was political to her, and deeply personal too. She had been raised in Mexico City by an American father who had gone there after college to avoid being drafted in the Vietnam War, and a Mexican mother who was a descendant of Spanish Republicans fleeing Franco’s forces during the Civil War. This explained not only Marina’s Marxism (she described it as a “normal” perspective for an intelligent person), but her strong identity politics – a sort of Neo-Marxist Feminist Chicana cocktail that was bound to explode in your face at some point. He had loved her passion, commitment, and intellect, and she had loved his steadiness, his calm, and his groundedness. But she could not understand why he didn’t get more politically involved. The “Arab” part didn’t count, since for David it was essentially about weekly shopping at Sahadi’s to stock up on zaytun, tabbuleh, burghul and labneh, or the occasional trip to Rashid’s for old LPs and the latest CDs. “If you’re going to be an Arab, at least do something useful with it.” Like what? he’d thought. What’s more useful than good food and music? But living in Syria was making him more political by the hour, and he often thought of what Marina would make of his conversations now. His ideas.
He sips the rest of his coffee and tells Abu ‘Ali that he is late for lunch (even though he has over three hours to go) and takes his leave. “Minshufak bukra, ya Daoud. See you tomorrow.” He waves back, walks over to the corner, then heads down the steep side street toward ‘Afif and al-Jisr al-Abyad, looking out for a newspaper stand. The snow has let up slightly but there is a chill in the air and the city barely moves.