He decides to make a pot of tea and puts on the radio. The morning programs feature either the latest pop songs, which he finds a little too loud and a little too frenetic for a quiet snow-filled morning, or boring news programs. He reaches instead for his collection of cassette tapes that he keeps in a cardboard box on the small shelf below the television set, selects a tape, pops it into the machine and hits Play. It’s a recording from the 1930s of Mary Jubran performing a suite of traditional songs in the minor mode known as Nahawand. Long instrumental preludes give way to Jubran’s dulcet voice bemoaning lost love and thwarted desire. She soars and dives with melismatic dips and turns, while the instrumentalists strive to keep up with her in a melodic pursuit of great beauty. No wonder the Arabs refer to their singers with such epithets as “Nightingale” and “Lark.” She is a songbird bringing some life to a cold, lifeless morning.
The music makes him pensive – it is perhaps more suited to evening listening than to morning – but he leaves it on anyway as it fits his mood. He removes the now steaming tea kettle from the top of the sobia and pours out a mug, then folds his lanky frame into the small sofa, takes a few tentative sips, and plots his day. Too cold for a walk in the park. Nothing needed from the store or market down the street. No appointments, and the academy is closed for the Christmas holidays. Maybe a run for a newspaper, though the kiosk may not yet be open. It’s only 7 am after all, and the snow may have delayed delivery. Outside the window the snow still falls and the world is calm. “Best to stay indoors and work,” he thinks, then grabs his notebook and pen from the coffee table and begins to review his work from the night before.
David is a second generation Arab-American working as an English teacher at a private academy in Damascus. Most of his students are businessmen trying to improve their English as Syria opens slowly to the West, as well as a few young men and women getting extra help so they can pass their university exams in English Literature. The pay is decent and the job allows him not only to rent a nice furnished flat up in Muhajireen but also ample time to pursue his real interests in literature, music, and Sufism. He was never very religious but there was always something about Sufism that attracted him, though he wasn’t sure what.
Marina had faulted him for being a “goofy Sufi” after he attended some dhikr ceremonies at a little mosque in Soho.
“How can you go and do something you don’t even believe in?” she’d asked him. “It’s hypocritical. You’re not a Muslim. You’re barely even an Arab! You’re just pretending you believe in all that touchy-feely stuff about God and, I dunno, ‘divine spirit’ or whatever you call it. And you’re just leading them on. They probably think you’re a convert, or that they can convert you.”
He didn’t really have an answer for her. “Marina, I’m not converting, or anything,” he said. “I just go and follow along. And by the way, only like two of the people there are even Arabs, the rest are from all over, so it doesn’t matter who you are. You could come too and see for yourself.”
“Yeah right!” she’d replied. “Give me a break, David. You know I’m not into spiritual stuff. 12 years of Catholic school was enough to totally turn me off of religion. Even yoga class pushes it when the teacher starts chanting and talking all that mumbo jumbo. Since when did you get so damn holy?”
And so it went on for months, straining a relationship that had initially sprouted from shared interests in avant-guard cinema, the New York Review of Books, and Cognac. But in the end not even Lars Von Trier, Salman Rushdie, and Rémy Martin were enough to keep them together. One day when she derided his desire to travel and see more of the world – “You are such a dreamer, sometimes, David. Get real!” – it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, and he left her behind with her Marxist literary criticism, thick glasses, and short black hair, booking a flight to dreamland … via Paris, destination Damascus. He was 28, had a little money in his pocket saved from his last editing job, a visa good for two weeks, and no real plan.
The encounter at the bookstore changed all of that. After a few days wandering around Damascus, he’d stopped in a small shop across from the Jasmine Hotel to browse for poetry collections when the owner engaged him in conversation. Soon they were sipping cups of Nescafé together in the Cafe al-Kindi across the street, one thing led to another, and he had an interview with the bookshop owner’s friend who ran a private language school in the city. They needed a new teacher since one had left abruptly and returned to his home in Los Angeles. There was a whiff of scandal about his departure, but it suited David perfectly. The job would provide him not only with a small income, but more importantly with an iqama or residence card valid for a year, with an extension if he remained on the job. Without the iqama he’d be obliged to renew his tourist visa every two weeks, and not only were trips to the visa bureau tedious, he was also unlikely to get a renewal after a second or third time. David was in the right place at the right time. It would not be the first time in his life.
He rises from the sofa and goes over to his cramped desk by the window, mug of tea in hand, to resume his translation of a short essay on the great mystic Ibn al-‘Arabi that he plans to submit to in a newsletter published in Cambridge. It’s a tough essay on an even tougher Arabic text, but he’s making some progress. Stacks of paper vie with dictionaries, scattered pens, and open books for space on the desk top. Suddenly the phone rings. He turns down Mary Jubran and picks up the receiver. It’s his friend Samir, who invites him to lunch at his apartment across town. It would be a bit of a trek in the snow, but Samir, or “Abu Samra,” as he is known, likes to entertain. “Abu Samra’s like the Ka’aba,” Bassam had told him recently. “Yuzar wa ma yazur, He is visited but doesn’t visit!” Abu Samra is an art critic for one of the state newspapers and also publishes poetry and dabbles a bit in sculpture. They’d met a few months earlier at an opening at Gallerie al-Fayha’, one of the several modern art spaces in the capital. Samir’s wife, Miriam, is an accountant at the Ministry of Culture and they live comfortably if not extravagantly in an apartment in the Qassa’ neighborhood just outside the Old City ramparts. If the past were any indication, “lunch” with Samir would extend through the afternoon and into the evening hours with glass after glass of sweet coffee, followed by not inconsiderable amounts of ‘araq or that sweet wine he gets from the monks in Ma’loula, and plates of grilled meats. The conversation would be all art, which is to say, all politics, and Abu Samra was a master of both. “I’ll be there at two,” David tells him, then gets up to reheat some mana’ish za‘tar from the day before — the olive oil-soaked bread lathered with herbs the perfect accompaniment to morning tea. Ibn al-‘Arabi can wait.