The streets are mostly empty now as he makes his way into Qassa’. The many clothing and mobile phone stores have shut for the afternoon and the few area restaurants are full of hungry workers – mostly commuters far from home taking a needed break before heading back to their jobs. He passes Ibn Haytham’s, his favorite restaurant for fatteh – the soupy mix of soft chickpeas, tahineh, and yoghurt served with lemon and crispy pita bread that has become a staple of his diet. David finds it fantastically filling, tasty, and also cheap. Twenty-five lira for a large bowl and he’s good for hours. Well, a little qahweh next door at the Barada Cafe doesn’t hurt. He has time for neither today as he’s expected at Samir’s in five minutes. So he walks on, crossing the main street and taking a right turn into the side street where Samir lives. There are street and number plaques in many neighborhoods now, but no one seems to use them. Samir still tells people, “Head up the main street in Qassa’ from Bab Touma, keep the fatteh restaurant on your left hand side, then turn right at the shoe store. It’s the third building on the left, apartment 6. Ring the buzzer.” He rings the buzzer and waits. It is just past 2:00. After a few moments the heavy iron and glass door buzzes and he pushes it open, entering the somber entry hall. He hits the switch on the wall to the right and the lights come on. If he’s lucky he can get to the second floor before the timer turns off, and Samir lives on the third, but since there’s still daylight it isn’t really a problem. Each apartment or tabiq takes up half of each floor of the building. The light goes off as he bounds up the stairs toward the third floor, the bag of sweets bumping into his legs as he ascends. He reaches the door and finds it already open. “Tafaddal ya Daoud” he hears Miriam call out from within when he knocks. So he wipes his wet boots on the mat and enters.
Samir’s flat consists of a small entry that gives onto two sitting rooms. The first, lying directly in front of the entryway, is formal and decorated with an ornate sofa, long, billowy satin drapes, and a number of velvet-covered chairs along the two side walls. It is used for receiving guests on special occasions, like the days of mourning when Samir’s mother died last year. The other, off through a doorway to the right, is less formal but more comfortable, featuring two large sofas and a stuffed armchair arranged around a large coffee table, at the end of which stands an enormous flat-screen television with DVD player and satellite box. This room, which Samir calls the “salon,” is used by family and close friends. Just beyond it lies the rest of the apartment. David has never ventured there, though he knows that there is a kitchen, bath, and at least two bedrooms, for Samir says he has converted one into a home office. He does his sculpting in a shared studio space in the center of town. The walls in the formal sitting room are adorned with reproductions of European still lifes – a bouquet of roses in a vase, a platter of fruit, some fowl hanging in a kitchen – and an Orientalist-style work featuring a turbaned man astride an Arabian stallion. The floor is covered by a multicolored and intricate Persian-style rug, though it was made in a factory in Damascus. The salon, however, features works of art by Syrian artists, portraits and abstract canvases, as well as some small pieces of sculpture on the bookshelf in the far corner – results of Samir’s passion. The floor is covered with marbled white tiles of the type found throughout Syria. At the threshold of the two rooms a colored portrait of Samir’s late mother, Najmeh, hangs below a large crucifix draped with a wooden rosary. Some old sepia-tone prints of ancestors are arranged here and there on the walls and atop the various small tables. The bookcase on the far side of the room contains a number of volumes in Arabic, French, and English and the coffee table is laden with stacks of magazines and newspapers – and ashtrays, of course, for Samir is an inveterate smoker. Off to the left, the salon gives onto a small balcony from where one can view a small section of the Barada and, further on, what remains of the Ghouta and its many neighborhoods, including the ever-expanding Jaramana. It’s a nice view.
Samir and Miriam have no children, as yet, having married within the last two years. Samir is waiting for the “right time,” and even at forty he is not the youngest “newly wed” in the neighborhood. Many of his Christian friends have yet to marry even well into their forties. By contrast, Jalal the Sufi, who is only 30, has been married twice and has three children. Miriam comes from a large Damascene family. Her older brother George still lives in Damascus, though the youngest have now emigrated – Majid to Argentina, Munir to Los Angeles. Her sister Rima has moved to Ma’aloula to be with her husband, but they visit often with their two daughters, Layla and Salma. Samir is an only child and was born as well in Damascus. His father, Hikmat, died when he was a teenager, and he was raised by his recently departed mother with the help of his paternal and maternal uncles, who supported him throughout his university studies and provided him with the apartment when he married.
Setting his boots in the entryway, David removes his coat and hat and hangs them on a rack, leaving his red book and magazine in the inner pocket, then crosses the formal room into the salon. Miriam comes from the back area to greet him. “Marhaba Daoud! Samir’s late, but he’s coming. You don’t have a mobile, so he couldn’t call you!” she says. He hands her the box of sweets, and she tells him that he didn’t have to go to the trouble to get them. She says this every time he comes with something – “laysh a’zabt halak?” – yet he brings them anyway, for he knows that she loves the baqlawa from Jubran. Despite the ritual protest, she accepts them willingly. Her brother George has joined them for lunch, bringing his 7 year old son Majid. They are both installed in one of the large sofas in the salon and watching the television. David enters and greets George and Majid. “Hi Hari!” says Majid. He likes to call David “Harry” after Harry Potter, because of his wire-rim glasses with round lenses that give him a sort of Hogwarts look, but it comes out as “Hari Butter.” George laughs and rises to kiss him on the cheeks. “Shlonak, Khairy?” he asks, using his name for David: Khairy al-Bittar. In one of those moments straight out of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” though with an Arabic twist, George claims only half facetiously that Khairy was the original name for JK Rowlings’ eponymous hero, but that her editors knew that an Arab hero wouldn’t sell books, so they changed it.
“Waynak ya Khairy? I’m za’lan with you; you don’t visit us any more.” It’s true, he had last been to see George about two weeks ago when he was wandering in the Old City on one of his weekend jaunts and had ran into him near Bab Sharqi. George bought a house within the Old City walls last year, not too far from where his own grandmother was raised. That house is long gone, having collapsed after a flood over 90 years ago and then replaced by an annex to the Armenian church, which owned much of the land in the area. George’s house is near Bab Kiswan, the wall where St. Paul is thought to have been lowered to safety in a basket. He intends to renovate it and maybe open a restaurant, like so many entrepreneurs in the Old City. George and Miriam were not raised in the walled city but rather in a large apartment in Qassa’ that their parents had bought after selling their somewhat worn Arab house with its small courtyard, toilets in the far corners, noisy neighbors, and odd roaches here and there. The home didn’t have the conveniences of modern life, so they, like so many ambitious families, sold it and moved into a modern apartment. Now George was hoping to return the family to its “juzur” – its roots. He wasn’t alone. These sorts of enterprises were popping up all over the place – restaurants, cafés, art galleries, boutique “hotels de charme,” and the like.
Because Samir is late, Miriam puts some light foods on the table, including a bowl of pistachios, a platter of pickled vegetables, a carafe of water and some small glasses. Miriam is in her early thirties and dark complexioned, a little short and not exactly thin, but not unattractive either. She has a shy and bookish demeanor and is a master of numbers, having graduated at the top of her high school class in mathematics and studied math and accounting at the university before taking a position at the Ministry of Culture, where she has worked for over eight years as an accountant. It’s hard work but the pay is stable if not great, and being efficient she tends to finish early enough to allow her time on most days to do the shopping, clean the apartment, and cook the lavish meals that Samir loves, and for which she is rightly famous in her circle of family and friends. Even her late mother-in-law, with whom she had at first a tense relationship – who could ever be good enough for her little “Samoura,” as she called Samir – had come to accept her after a few months of her exquisite cooking, and they had bonded over the secrets of great kibbeh bisannieh, mjadara, and shanklish, and, of course, through their shared love for baqlawa: like Miriam, “Imm Samir” had a well-developed sweet tooth.
Before she leaves the salon Miriam asks after David’s health, his mother, his job, and so on, then turns off the TV, puts on a Fairouz CD, and heads back to the kitchen to warm up the food. She knows David loves music. George turns to David and asks, “So Khairy, Shu fi ma fi? What’s new?” David tells him how in his short break from teaching he’s been working on some translation projects and just relaxing. He doesn’t mention Ibn ‘Arabi with George, since it’s a sensitive topic. George had teased him the first time they’d met about his interest in Islam and Sufism. “How can you respect a religion that has you pray by sticking your ass up in the air higher than your head?” he’d said. David wasn’t exactly religious, and neither was George, but his comments went well beyond the question of belief. David had tried to defend not only his writing but his Politically Correct attitude of multicultural tolerance that he’d imbibed in college. George would have none of it. “I mean, you have to enter a room with your right foot, or your damned! Their women are all covered up. Everything is in sh’allah this and in sh’allah that. They’re crazy! Are you going to grow a beard now?!” Samir had intervened to say that David was an “Orientalist” just doing some research, but David was equally uncomfortable with this. He’d read his Edward Said and didn’t want to be placed in that camp, though it wasn’t the first time and would likely not be the last. Because he saw no polite way out of it, he just shut up and let George go on. And on. Today David only mentions that he’d bought an Arabic literary magazine to see what’s new, but George counters, “There’s no Arabic literature today! After Gibran it’s all crap! Believe me!” Majid, who is leafing through an arts magazine that was on the coffee table, interjects to ask, “Hari, do you know this singer?” “Eh,” says David. “It’s Najwa Karam” – the Lebanese pop singer. Majid looks up. “Do you like her? She’s pretty, no?”
David is about to respond when Samir finally arrives, out of breath and all excuses. “La takhizouni! Forgive me!” he yells as he rushes in. It’s about 2:40. Tossing his coat on a chair and flipping off his loafers (he refuses to wear the boots Miriam has bought him since they are harder to put up on his desk when he is at his office “thinking”), he enters the salon and greets first David then George with kisses on each cheek and the command to sit and relax. Then he grabs Majid and swings him in the air, showering him with kisses. He pulls a little caramel out of his pocket and hands it to him. “For you, habibi!” He and Majid have a close relationship, Samir often taking him to his studio to play with clay and make little statues while he works on a project.
“Shu sar ma’k? What happened with you?” asks Miriam, as she rushes into the salon. It is not unusual for Samir to be a little late, given the unpredictable nature of his work, but almost three-quarters of an hour is unusual, especially when there is food and drink involved. He seems a little shaken but tries to act as if it were nothing. “Wa la himmik, Don’t worry. I had to go meet with my boss about that review I wrote yesterday on the shitty exhibit.”
The artist, it so happens, is connected somehow to an authority in the ruling party, and his boss had pressured him to change his review before it went to press to avoid problems. He’d initially refused to change a single word – the artwork was at best second rate and the exhibition space cramped and poorly lit – but the editor had not only insisted on some changes – a positive note here, some flattering there – but had even subtly threatened Samir with certain consequences if he didn’t comply. “Now is not the time to ruffle feathers,” he’d said. “Plus, given your position, I wouldn’t want this to become another issue.” Samir had already been in a bit of hot water a few years ago for having signed the so-called “Manifesto of the ’99” that called for political openings after the death of the late president and the election of the new one. “Hereditary election,” that is, as Samir often reminded David. He’d only barely avoided a prison term by leaving one of the political salons he attended just before some thugs came in and shut it down and took everyone in for questioning. Some of his activist friends had served short sentences, others were still juwa, “inside,” even as the government promised reforms and closed certain prisons, like the notorious one in Mezzeh. Samir had been summoned to Internal Security and asked to testify against his friends, but refused. As a result Miriam was passed up for a promotion in her office, and Samir knew that he was walking on thin ice with his editor at the newspaper, even if they often shared views on the current situation. So he had acquiesced and made a few cosmetic changes to the review, calling the artwork “promising” (rather than “stale”), and the exhibition “worthy” (rather than “pointless”).
Samir had told David many times about how things worked in Syria. Strings were pulled, and it was your connections, your wasta, and not talent that determined how far you went in life. As an art critic and journalist he often felt pressure to write positive reviews of artists who were linked to powerful people, and it was surprising how many artists were. He could refuse only so many times before it got delicate. The whole affair seems to have unnerved him slightly, so, affecting nonchalance, he says, “Yalah, let’s eat. I’m hungry. Who wants some ‘araq? But change that music, Miriam! Shu had? I am sick of Fairouz! She makes me want to puke! It’s too sweet, ziadeh, ya’ni!” He imitates the singer with an exaggerated, drawn in look on his face, rolling his eyes and whining nasally. David laughs, but George snorts his disapproval – like his sister, he is a huge fan, and it borders on sacrilegious to criticize Fairouz, especially for a Christian Arab. Samir rises to get the drinks, but George grabs his arm and pulls him back to the couch, saying, “Sit down, relax. I’ll take care of the ‘araq,” then heads to the kitchen to fetch some cold water, an ice bucket, and the bottle of al-Rayyan.
Off toward the kitchen Miriam and George exchange words in subdued tones, then Majid gets up and runs to join them. “Baba, I’m thirsty!” he cries. Miriam gets him a soda then comes back to the salon with a plate of pickled turnips and carrots, another with lettuce, mint, and raw onions, followed by George with the drinks tray. As Miriam heads back to the kitchen, Samir grabs an onion and presents it to David. “If you want to avoid getting sick in a new land,” he says, “You need to eat the onions and drink the ‘araq! It’s prophetic medicine. Muhammad says this in a hadith.” George, mixing himself a drink like an alchemist, says “Don’t listen to him, Khairy! Its nonsense!” “No, It’s true!” protests Samir. “I read it somewhere!” David is somewhat incredulous – did they even have ‘araq back then? – but takes a bite into the small yet powerful onion anyway, then chases it with a swig of the milky-white ambrosia. “There, how’s that? Feel good?” David nods at Samir while George laughs, sits back, and sips his drink. It’s an odd combination, onion and ‘araq, but why not?
Samir continues, “Why don’t you have a mobile phone, akhi?! I’m going to get you one! I would have called you to tell you I would be late, but no one can reach you. Do I need to call your secretary? Or Nidal?” he says, raising his eyebrows suggestively. He knows about their little story but tactfully doesn’t push it. David just raises his shoulders a bit, as if to say, “We’ll see,” while Samir turns off the CD player, switches the TV back on, and tunes in to al-Jazeera. The TV is almost always on at Samir’s, as in most other homes David had visited in Syria. The news serves as a sort of sonic decor, and there’s the expectation that guests will want to watch. David finds this annoying since he usually wants to talk to people, but it’s hard to have a conversation when everyone is focused on the screen or the volume is loud. They watch a few minutes of a political talk show featuring a Kuwaiti scholar and a shaykh debating women’s rights to vote and stand for elections in the local parliament. The scholar argues that the new laws point the way for other Arab countries, while the shaykh decries it as an unorthodox innovation that will lead to social disorder. The host, an elegantly-dressed and toughminded woman, tries not to take sides but has some pointed questions for both the scholar and the shaykh, though the religious man refuses to look at her when he answers, instead muttering into his lap.
“See what I mean?” cries George. “They are all backwards.” Samir sighs, saying, “Politics, politics. We drink, eat, and breath politics here!” He flips through the channels again before settling on a Syrian drama set in the French Mandate period. In the scene a bunch of men dressed in traditional garb – baggy shirwal pants, knitted vests, short skull caps, and copious mustaches – gather outside a dry-goods shop and plot a revolution against the French occupiers.
“We should get you some of those clothes!” jokes George. “You belong in that time. No mobile phones. No TV. No cars. Nothing but bread, za’tar, and debkeh dancing! Just for you!”
“Maybe,” says David. He had actually fancied getting some of those pants, just for fun, but couldn’t find them in the souq and was too embarrassed to ask. “But If there’s ever a revolution in Syria,” he jokes, “you’ll all be ready. All these shows are about history and popular uprisings!” Samir laughs half-heartedly, then directs a weary look at David. “Yes, Daoud, but it’s like fifth grade history, nothing but nationalist haki fadi, nonsense. You think these poor guys could really do anything against the French or the Ottomans?” He leans forward and practically whispers, “You think anyone today would dare to rebel?” George is texting someone and does’t pay attention. “You’ve been here, what, nine months? and you don’t know how things are? You don’t know our history? Everyone here is either mabsout and content sitting in his chair watching TV, or too busy looking for a little bread to eat or running to the mosque to think about revolution. We can’t do anything about it.” “Mazbout,” says George, who is listening after all. “Forget about all that.” Samir sighs, picks up his glass, and, raising it to David’s, clinks it and says, “Sahtayn! Daoud! To your heath!”