David heads through the open door and enters the cafe, with Samir just behind. They emerge into a large, well-lighted and busy courtyard occupied by tables and chairs arranged around a central marble fountain. It’s a former bayt ‘arabi, but much larger than any he’s seen before. The central fountain is the size of a small swimming pool, and inhabited by large goldfish. Citrus trees rise along the walls to one side, while aromatic and flowering plants hang from terraces above. The walls, in the old ablaq style of alternating black, white, and light red stone, are decorated with frames of old photos, small birdcages, old lamps, swords, and the like. The high ceiling is covered by a retractable roof made of sheets of canvas to keep out the cold and rain, though Nidal had told him that in summer it is quite pleasant to sit in the courtyard with the roof open to the sky. David feels like he’s in the bowels of a dream-like ship, the sails floating above. Just to the left past the entrance are two interconnected rooms that house the café’s gallery space. The kitchen and administrative rooms occupy the other side. At the far end lies the large summer liwan with its soaring arched ceiling. Ornate portals on either side lead to sumptuous private dining rooms.
Spotting an empty table off to the right, they walk over and take seats. On the wall just above them the former and current presidents stare balefully from the obligatory double portrait. Samir turns his chair so his back is to the wall, and David slides in next to him, taking in the view. With the roof closed over their heads the courtyard is quite noisy with the bustle of waiters, the sound of backgammon pieces slapped against tables, intermittent laughter, and music from the flat-screen televisions, tuned, of course, to the music video station Rotana. The smoke of nargileh-s hangs in the air.
The clientele are not much different from those at the gallery in Harat al-Yahoud – young, hip, well-dressed, though not formal, and perhaps less stuffy. There are even muhajabat, probably young women students taking a break from their studies. The veil doesn’t stop them from smoking nargileh-s and bantering with their friends, even young men. The latest mobile phones grace the tables, sometimes lined up along the backgammon sets. A young man at a nearby table opens a netbook to share some photos with friends. Waiters in those ubiquitous embroidered vests and black shirwal pants buzz around, trays on their finger tips. Bayt Sabri has a pleasant atmosphere: light-hearted, busy, certainly, yet somehow self-contained and serene at the same time. Even self-satisfied. David marvels that plants can flower indoors in winter, but they seem to have stepped into a sort of time warp – modern yet timeless. There is only one season in Bayt Sabri – Joy Spring.
A waiter comes over and they order some coffee. As the waiter is about to leave, Samir says “Let’s get some nargileh-s and play backgammon, shu ra’yak?” David hesitates a moment but Samir places the order and David just shrugs and goes with the flow.
A few moments later the waiter returns with a medium size rakweh, followed by a second man lugging two nargileh-s under his arms, the hoses dangling from his mouth as he fires them up. It’s a delicate business. The waiter places the two pipes near their chairs, then sucks on the long hoses to get the airflow going, causing the water in the glass to burble. He uses steel tongs to adjust the charcoal sitting on the mu’assal — a mix of tobacco and honey-infused fruit — then when he is satisfied with the result hands Samir and David some plastic mouthpieces sealed in little bags, which they open and stick in the ends of the hoses. Samir drags on his nargileh for a few moments, an air of concern about his face, then sits back when all is well and good. Letting out a puff of smoke, he turns to David. “Shu? Ma hilu? Isn’t this nice?” David is trying to get his pipe to work – the charcoal seems to have fallen over a bit and the smoke comes up thin and acrid. He coughs, then forces a smile. “Aeh. It’s great. This place is huge!” and coughs again. Samir laughs and, leaning over, slaps him on the shoulder. At least he’s in a good mood again. The waiter comes back and makes some adjustments to the charcoal and the pipe works well for the moment. David sits back and tries to feel comfortable with the nargileh. It’s an acquired taste, an art. No wonder they call Samir m’allem.
David met Samir a few weeks after he first arrived in Damascus. Leaving the American Consulate one day, where he had to get some papers stamped for his teaching job, he had wandered through Abu Roumanneh and come across an art gallery. Deciding to have a peek, he wandered in. The gallery was installing its latest exhibition but the owner, an older woman, was showing Samir around. When David appeared at the door, she invited him to come in even though they were not really open at the time. They’d gotten to talking and perhaps out of curiosity or genuine interest, Samir had invited him for a coffee at Firdaws afterward, and they had met regularly since. That was over nine months ago. Today Samir is his best friend in Syria; his best friend in the world, it sometimes seems.
Samir is short, trim and energetic — frenetic even — and with his thick and wiry dark hair has an intense look about him. While serious in his work — too serious so far as the artists are concerned — he is at heart fun loving. And political. To Samir, everything is political and personal. He has been involved in various pro-democracy movements since the transfer of power to the new president a few years ago, and while he hasn’t been jailed (yet), he has had enough run-ins with authorities that he has earned a bit of a reputation as someone with connections, with wasta. How else could he get away with being so honest and direct? Some thought it must be his brother-in-law George and all his money and the protection that can buy, others his being Christian, though Samir is hardly religious. Even if David cannot entirely figure Samir out, he has proven to be a fast friend and often introduces him to interesting people, including Bassam … and Nidal, of course.
Another waiter comes over to the table with a backgammon set and they unfold the box between them and set the pieces straight. David is no slouch when it comes to backgammon – his father had taught him when he was only 6 to play and he thinks himself fairly expert – but Samir is variously called “al-Malik,” the King, or simply “al-M’allem,” according to everyone. For him backgammon is not only a fun pastime, but an obsession. A tool for domination. David cannot match Samir’s aggression on the board. He’ll mix a rapid opening blitz with careful anchoring on his board, and then just when David thinks it safe to open up his own runners, Samir will trounce him with a series of attacks. David had studied various opening strategies as a teenager, but Samir combines them in unorthodox ways, and there seems little David can do but watch as Samir’s pieces pile up off the board.
After Samir has beaten him for a second time, they sit back and laugh. Between sips of coffee, Samir remarks on some of the various characters who have come to the café that evening. As they talk David surveys the room. He loves these kinds of places and doesn’t feel the least bit like an Orientalist for it. Or, rather, he doesn’t feel the least bit ashamed for his admittedly Orientalist leanings when it comes to certain things like Syrian food and architecture, and possibly religion, though he has his doubts about that. Marina had thought him a little over the top when he’d called once and enthused about his walks in the Old City. She had even suggested that he was being too nostalgic. “After all, isn’t Syria a dictatorship?” she’d asked, and he’d reminded her for the tenth time to be careful not to talk about certain things on the phone. You never knew who might be listening. He’d heard some guys boasting at a cafe about how they’d spent their military service listening in on friends’ phone lines. So you have to be careful what you say on the phone. Because Marina’s parents and grand-parents had suffered through years of strife in Spain, Mexico, and the US as a result of their political views, she is sensitive to the issue – at once too sensitive, and insensitive. She doesn’t understand Syria or how he can love it so much. Perhaps she is a little envious too – after all, she only studies, works, and writes, then studies, works, and writes. He has a nice week off from teaching and can spend his days doing as he pleases. It won’t last for long, though. He’ll have to return to the school in a few days, back to his routine.
He wonders what Marina would like in Damascus were she to come, as she’d hinted she might do: the Old City or the newer areas? The food? A woman sitting with a friend at a table across the room looks vaguely like her from behind: the long dark hair, some of the mannerisms. He imagines a Syrian Marina, until the woman gets up. It is Nidal, who has been drinking coffee with her friend, the painter Basma al-Hilu, whose works hang in the gallery.
Seeing David and Samir, Nidal walks over to say hello. She is always dressed simply yet smart – tonight in a black turtleneck and pants with a light gray jacket and colorful silk scarf. And her Nikes, which she always seems to wear no matter what the weather or the occasion. She also always seems to wear an ironic grin on her face, at least when David sees her. Samir asks her to join them and she responds with that little backward tilt of the head, as if to say, “I know what you are up to, az’ar!” “No thanks,” she says. “I have to go. I was just talking to Basma about her show. I might write about it. Did you see it?” She directs this at David, who is a bit tongue-tied, but he manages to say that he had peeked in and found it “hilu,” though he realizes too late the unintended pun. They all laugh together, though he is embarrassed. “I mean, I found it interesting,” he clarifies. She looks at him for a moment with that smile on her face, then with a quick “yallah, minshufkun” heads out the door.
David follows her with his eyes, his heart stuck halfway up his throat. Samir chuckles and slaps him on the back. “Ya salam, Daoud ‘ash’aan! David’s in love!” But before David has a chance to deny it, Bassam appears at the table with a hearty “Marhaba shabab!” and takes a seat.
The evening is just beginning…