It’s about a quarter to eleven when David leaves Abu ‘Ali’s store. It doesn’t occur to him to question why no one is ever in the shop and yet it remains open. Abu ‘Ali is always generous with his time (often with his wares, too) and despite being occasionally za’lan with David, he has been a constant friend for a few months now, ever since David moved into the neighborhood. So he leaves it at that. Plus he knew Nizar Qabbani. Not too many people can say that.
The city struggles to wake up on this cold, snowy morning and David comes across few signs of life as he begins his descent into the city center. On his right he passes Riwaq, a nighttime hangout where artists, writers, and hangers-on come to talk, drink beer or ‘araq (sometimes both), eat pistachios and peanuts, smoke, and talk some more. Then they head out and do the same at someone’s apartment or studio until the next gathering. He’s gone there a few times, once with Samir to meet a young sculptor he wanted to write a piece on, and once just alone, where he ran into Nidal, a Palestinian journalist who had just returned from a day trip to Beirut, where she often submitted her stories. It was one of those encounters that changed his life, or nearly so…
But no one is at Riwaq this early, and he continues on, turning the corner near the French Embassy, which sports two kolabas out front, then crossing the street to see if the little bookshop has a newspaper. He wants one of the regional papers like al-Hayat, which usually has a good arts section and isn’t as partisan as the local papers tend to be. Like Abu ‘Ali, the owner tells him to come back since the roads are blocked and only the local papers have arrived. So he grabs a copy of al-Thawra, for which Samir writes, tosses a 5 lira coin on the counter, then heads out the door to the cold street. He sees a taxi making its way down the hill but decides to keep walking. He has plenty of time, the snowfall is letting up now, the day warming, and he likes his walks through the city. When he isn’t teaching or working on his little projects, it’s his favorite pastime. It was the same in New York – he walked almost everywhere, in almost any weather, even when the subway or a taxi was more convenient. It is one of the things that bound him to Marina, for she shared his fascination with the texture of urban life and the love of walking the city. The texture of Damascus is different, but there’s something about it that begs exploration. It’s not Pamuk’s magical Istanbul, but Damascus has its own secrets that she reveals to those who know where to look. And so he walks and explores. He can always grab a sirvees from downtown to Bab Touma, then hop out and walk to Abu Samra’s from there.
As he approaches Sahat al-Jisr al-Abyad, he stops to admire the mosque that occupies the northern side of the square. It’s reddish dome and square minaret with elegant wooden gallery are draped in a light blanket of snow. Behind it rise beige and grey apartment complexes of four and five stories, functional though not exactly beautiful, like the majority of housing in central Damascus. His flat is in a smaller but similar building. Satellite dishes and make-shift solariums dot the rooftops, but where one would usually find a flock of doves circling above the rooftops in their seemingly endless flights, today the skies are empty aside from the light snowfall. A few cars and minibuses traverse the intersection, their tires swishing and slushing as they pass. Beneath them runs a branch of the famed Barada river, long ago covered over by tarmac, though some of its course remains exposed as it meanders across Abu Rumanneh toward Rukn al-Din. He thinks about the white bridge (jisr abyad) that the neighborhood must take its name from, but has never seen or heard of one. The mosque sits in silence, seemingly unperturbed as the world passes by. When the traffic clears David ambles across the street with the intention of stopping for a coffee at his favorite café in the city center.
Turning onto one of the side streets he runs into Jalal the Sufi, who lives not far from the square. David calls him “The Sufi” because Jalal claims a special relationship to The Sheikh and presents himself as an expert in Sufism. Tall and skinny with receding black hair and intense, somewhat bulging eyes, he has a reputation for being a bit of a charlatan who developed an orientation toward mysticism. A marginal character, some claim he was once a petty thief, others that he is merely crazy. But David finds him a gentle if quirky soul, and an interesting source of insights on Ibn al-‘Arabi.
“Shu, Daoud, waynak?,” he says. “Where’ve you been? I’m za’lan since you never come and see me anymore.” It had been about a week since he last visited with him to go over a text.
“I’ve been busy, and I’m still working on that translation, but it’s hard,” replies David. “I’m not making any progress at all, bnoab! I need some help.”
“I’d like to help you, but I have to go to work now,” says Jalal. “A tourist bus arrives this afternoon and I need to translate for them.” Jalal works at a clothing and religious artifacts shop in al-Marjeh that specializes in Iranian pilgrims coming to see the city’s Shi’a shrines. Jalal claims to have miraculously learned to speak Farsi without ever having studied it. “I woke up one morning after dreaming of The Sheikh,” he claimed when they first met, “and I found that I could speak Farsi. I didn’t even know what language it was, I was just speaking it. That same day I went to the shrine of Sitt Zaynab to say some prayers, and then I starting talking with the people there, who were mostly from Iran. They told me I was speaking their language, so I knew it was Farsi. That’s where I met the store manager. He doesn’t really speak it well, so I helped him to get them to go to his shop. He hired me that same day, and I’ve been working there for about four years.”
David could not make heads or tails of the story, but Jalal was convinced in his “miracle” and seemed to have acquired a great store of information about The Sheikh. Over the past few months they’d had many discussions of his theology. “You have to stop reading if you want to be one of the elect (khawwas),” Jalal had admonished him. “Otherwise you will always remain one of the ordinary people (‘awwam). You have to experience The Sheikh, not read him. Then you’ll understand him.” David still could not give up on the books – after all it was his livelihood as an editor and writer – but every time he met with Jalal they’d have the same argument, he wishing to clarify a phrase or even a single word, and Jalal wanting him to throw the books aside and talk about his dreams. “Yalah, I’ll call you tomorrow and we can talk.” With that he hurries off, pulling the hood of his sweatshirt over his head and running to catch a passing sirvees.
David continues on his way and heads toward al-Salhiyya. It is about a quarter past eleven and he still has a few hours to kill. And he needs another coffee. He walks down Abdel Nasser Street then crosses just before the Italian hospital from which the neighborhood takes its name, Tiliyani. Avoiding the subterranean passage because it is full of water, he hops the little white fence and heads across the street toward the Salhiyya park. Large billboards announce Naf Naf and other higher end stores that operate in Syria today. To one side of the park stands a gigantic and somewhat grotesque statue of the former president on a small raised platform cordoned off with chains. The grim-faced statue lifts its right arm and reaches up and out, not so much to wave but as if to pet an enormous, invisible dog. The stone sculpture behind the statue is a cacophony of angles evoking the Syrian flag atop a pedestal wrapped with barbed wire. It’s an odd, even disturbing, work of art, and David passes by without taking a look. Instead he heads down the main drag of Souq al-Salhiyya, a pedestrian mall flanked by low buildings with numerous shops. Many are closed today because of the weather, but at one of the larger kiosks set up in the middle of the mall an artist paints oil portraits. He doesn’t seem bothered by the weather and sips from a small glass of tea. A canvas hanging from the little doorway looks oddly familiar to David, so he stops to take a look. It’s an Orientalist painting depicting turbaned men praying in an elaborate columnated mosque not unlike the Mezquita of Cordoba. A group of doves gathers on the floor behind a row of faithful, while a nearly naked water seller raises his hands in prayer. In the foreground a nobleman with an elaborate scabbard on his chest prays on a rug while his attendants stand behind him. The artist pops his head out the door and David says “Marhaba!”, to which the artist responds “ahlyan, ahlayn, tafaddal! Welcome!” David tells him he likes the painting and that he thinks he’s seen it somewhere before, maybe in a museum. “Shu biya’rifni! What do I know!” says the artist. “I just copied it from a book. Look!” and he reaches into his kiosk, extracts a well-worn copy of the Blue Guide to Syria, and points out the painting spread over two pages in the center. David has the same one on his bookshelf. It’s a decent rendition of the painting, but he doesn’t feel like shelling out 3000 lira for it, even if it’s only 60 bucks. The man invites David to join him in a cup of tea, but he declines the offer and says goodbye. Perhaps another time.
He continues on down the main street, passing the old Martyrs’ Mosque and some dilapidated buildings with colorful but cracked stained-glass windows. There are more and more people on the streets now, men dragging on cigarettes as they walk briskly to an appointment, women dragging young children behind them as they shop. At the end of the mall a group of youth sell knock-off Levi’s jeans and Nike shoes, their cries of “bwat! jeens! bwat! jeens!” filling the air. One of them looks over at David and says, “Nice boots!” David nods, says “shukran,” and continues to the end, then turns left toward the Firdaws Cafe.
The Firdaws is among the more popular cafes in central Damascus – not as chic as the cafe in the Jasmine Hotel, but also not as expensive. It sits across from the Syrian Parliament, an elegant neo-Oriental structure adorned with delicate marble work. Two giant portraits of the President hang from either side of the ceremonial entrance. A high-tech guard booth stands behind a high gate: a super-kolaba. Although he’s seen broadcasts of speeches from its chambers, David has never seen anyone come or go from its gates. A ghost Parliament.
Stepping inside he finds the cafe relatively deserted. None of the regulars is there – perhaps because of the snow, but more likely because the usual gang comes in the early evening before going up to Riwaq or to someone’s apartment for an evening of food, drink, and politics (they go together in this city). He takes a seat at a small table near the enclosed courtyard and orders a traditional coffee with medium sugar (wasat). He knows better than to order it sweet (hilu), since it will come so sugary as to be nearly unpalatable. The waiter, who looks to be about 15 and wears a multicolored, traditional-style embroidered vest, nods and walks briskly off toward the kitchen. “Wahad wasat,” he calls out to someone in the back. The waiter’s accent is light and slightly clipped, and David cannot place it. Kurdish? Armenian? He is getting better at recognizing the various Syrian dialects, but it’s not easy, there are so many and the nuances are often slight. After a few minutes the waiter returns with the little copper rakweh and a glass of water on a tray, then pours the coffee into a small cup and places it before David. “Sahtayn, ustaz,” he offers, then retreats. The little pleasantries of everyday life always make David smile. He imagines the surly waiters at Caffé Regio or Dante saying, “To your health!” Fat chance.
Aside from the periodic gurgle of the nargilehs and the click clack of backgammon pieces striking game boards, silence reigns. The few men – and they are all men – who are not smoking or playing read newspapers or sit and talk quietly. The noon call to prayer begins to sound in the distance, creating an interesting polyphony – the gurgle of the nargilehs mixing with the odd shout in the kitchen, the thumping backgammon pieces, and the mellifluous runs of the muezzin. The call to prayer is a cherished art form in Syria, and even at the small local mosque it is quite beautiful. As the muezzin finishes his call, the more faithful among the cafe denizens shuffle from their chairs as they head out for prayer. It’s just past noon.
The coffee has warmed him up a bit so David opens his newspaper and scans the headlines. It’s the usual daily fare: the President doing one thing or another; a moderately critical piece dealing with sewage and waste-water treatment in the Ghouta; in-depth coverage of football games and the latest iPhone; and on the back page some Op-Ed pieces, gossip on international stars, and curious news from around the world. A boy in Germany falls into a zoo enclosure and is almost eaten by a crocodile. A woman gives birth to septuplets. Nancy ‘Ajram talks about her Coca Cola sponsorship. And so the world turns. Samir has a short piece in the corner on an exhibition at a new gallery that opened recently in a converted home in the former Jewish Quarter of the Old City. The article doesn’t much recommend a visit, but then again Samir is an art snob and doesn’t like much of anything he sees or hears. He’ll pay a visit tomorrow – there’s always time bukra.
He gets up to head to the restroom, passing the small vestibule where the waiters prepare the nargilehs. A brazier of hot coals and a tangle of hoses stand beneath a shelf of elegant glass water pipes with their long, spindly brass necks. He has smoked a few and enjoyed it. Bassam even told him that, unlike cigarettes, smoking a water pipe is “good for your lungs – it’s exercise, like jogging,” pumping his arms in the air to prove his point. David doubts this very much but nonetheless indulges from time to time, just not today. When he emerges from the toilet he finds that his newspaper is gone – someone must have picked it up; ma’lish, it wasn’t that interesting anyway. So he sits down with his coffee and, reaching into his jacket pocket, pulls out his notebook and pen.
It’s a medium size diary with ruled pages and a red cover – his “red book.” Marina had given him a pack of three when he left so he would have something to write in and also remember her by, and he keeps her letters to him inside one of the flaps. In New York they had communicated almost entirely by email and text message, even when they were in the same apartment, sometimes the same room – it was nuts. David does not have internet access at home in Damascus – he could order it but chooses not to – and so far he has resisted getting a mobile phone, to the chagrin of his director, his friends, especially Samir, and of course his family and Marina back home. He wanted to free himself from the obligation of checking emails and messaging people. It always seemed to him that New Yorkers walk about with their Blackberries and iPhones as if they were divining rods, searching for some lost bliss or hidden treasure, and scarcely looking up to see who might be in front of them on the sidewalk let alone enjoy the world they inhabit. He’d been knocked off his bike twice in the previous year because of texting jaywalkers not looking where they were going. Not having a device in hand feels liberating to him. He can send emails from the various internet cafes around town (when the connections work), and he has rediscovered the pleasure of opening up old-fashioned, hand written letters, though Marina still insists on typing hers as if they were emails.
Her last letter had come in yesterday’s post and unlike the others does not seem to have been opened and resealed. Marina seems to be struggling a bit. Her studies are going well enough even if her professors hit on her all the time. She’s used to that. It’s just that she’s not sure that she wants to finish her doctorate. It seems so futile – ten years of work and then if she’s lucky she might land a job in Kansas or Oklahoma. She sometimes thinks of moving back to Mexico City where her mother still lives (her father having died a few years ago). She has an apartment there and could always find freelance work translating and writing. She’s confused and for the first time she says she misses him, and not only in that perfunctory way to close a letter. This time she spells it out. She misses his presence, his level-headedness, his touch. She wonders when he will come back, and why he doesn’t write or email more often. It sounds like she’s a bit za’lana with him too. Then she drops the bomb: she wants to come for a short visit to see the enchanting city that he has so raved about in his letters and short phone calls. The city that keeps him captive. David smiles. He doesn’t feel so level-headed any more. A lot of his convictions have been turned around in the nine months since his arrival in Syria. He hadn’t expected to stay this long, hadn’t even planned for more than a two week visit. But one thing led to another and he finds his life both richer and less anchored than in New York. Even if he thinks of her a lot – with her dark features she could be a Syrian – he’s not sure he wants to mix the two cities and hesitates before Marina’s wish to know when would be a good time for her to come.
Then there’s the problem of Nidal.
He sighs, folds up her letter and places it in the notebook, then leaves some coins for the waiter and rises to head out the door. So much for writing. His head isn’t clear enough. He decides to walk over toward Saba’ Baharat Square and grab a sirvees to Bab Touma. He has about an hour to go. Plenty of time.