They leave the apartment and head out on their little mishwar to George’s. As the door closes, Miriam lets out a small sigh, not so much of relief as of resignation. What trouble will he get into this time? She heads back to the salon, puts on the Fairouz CD, and cranks up the volume. Khay, Peace at last! She falls into the arm chair then leans forward to grab the remnants from the box of sweets. Another glass of ‘araq won’t hurt. Maybe a cigarette on the balcony too. It’s Thursday. No work tomorrow. She closes her eyes and savors the lady fingers, dripping with honey oh so sweet.
Samir doesn’t like to go out much since he is often out and about all day for work (hence, as Bassam had told him, yuzar wa ma yazur). Miriam likes him to stay home too, especially after the recent events. But he needs to see someone tonight. He fiddles furtively with his mobile phone as they head out to the street. The snow has stopped and turned into a light rain. They decide to take George’s car, which he has parked in a lot near Bab Touma. It’s perhaps a fifteen minute walk to the house, but George likes to drive anyway. Plus he has his new Hyundai to show off. Sleek and black, it puts to shame the old Mazda that he had once proudly steered through the city streets. David is not sure exactly where George gets his money: a car like his, while not exactly fancy, still costs thousands of dollars. Most Syrian he knows don’t own cars. The taxes and fees are too high and even old clunkers can cost a small fortune. George operates a small company that imports dental-related appliances and equipment to Syria. His wife, Colette, is a dentist, and while she earns a good income from her general dentistry practice and the little cosmetic work she also performs (more and more in recent years), Samir had once implied that they mostly lived on George’s business endeavors. He hadn’t dared to ask more, and Samir let him know that it was best not to get any deeper into the matter.
George has traveled extensively in Europe and the US, partly to accompany his wife when she has done training abroad, partly for business. Always for pleasure. He boasts of his trips and knowledge of the US. “I know your country better than you do!” he had proudly claimed to David when they had first met. He was probably right. David had scarcely left New Jersey and New York except on a school trip to Boston and Washington, and of course the few vacations with his father’s family in Detroit. They’d never traveled to Syria together as a family. His mother had no interest – it was too far away and his father worked all the time, anyway. He’d gone to Vegas once with Marina for a conference of hers, and while he actually enjoyed the spectacle, the kitschy thrill of the casinos (and the free drinks), she found the city depressing, especially in the mornings. So it wasn’t much of a memory. He’d also gone to Florida for Spring Break during high school, but that’s a trip he’d rather not recall. “I can tell you every major road through Iowa and Nebraska!” George offered. “Well, Bravo!,” David thought at the time, though he was impressed. George means well. Ma’lish.
They walk down the main drag in Qassa’, much livelier now as the shops reopen, the reflection of their colorful lights glittering on the set pavement. They pass the fatteh restaurant, also busy, then cross the bridge toward the parking lot. George has them wait by a little kolaba while he gets the car with Majid. As they wait Samir continues to look at his mobile phone while David stares longingly at the cafes – he could use a little blast after such a filling meal. After a few minutes George toots his horn and they turn around as he pulls up. Samir hops in the back of the Hyundai and tells David to ride up front, so he opens the door and settles in. No sooner has he pulled the door shut then the car lurches forward and George speeds around the old gate, then darts off onto the road that traces the Old City ramparts toward Bab Sharqi. They arrive in no time, the minaret towering above the old arched gateway a familiar landmark. George pulls over past the gate next to a barren lot enclosed by a low chain. An old man shuffles over to the car, and George puts down the window and hands him a note. The man then lays the chain on the ground so George can drive over it and park the car. “Shukran m’alem!” he says to the man, then “Yallah, Let’s go!” to his passengers as he bounds out of the car. They follow him through a small arched passage on the side of the gate and into the Old City, Majid running to keep up with his energetic father.
David has often taken walks in this neighborhood.
He sometimes meets friends for dinner or drinks in the new restaurants and bars, including a crazy night last month when a young poet gave an impassioned reading of his work, and things had progressed to the point where people had danced on the tables, even on the bar itself. Definitely not the Damascus he’d read about in books. He and Samir had met once at Café Zaytoun to drink coffee, play backgammon, and smoke (or “sip,” as they say) nargilehs. But tonight they skip all of this and instead head down the Street Called Straight (though it isn’t exactly straight), pass the collective for Palestinian crafts, a number of small shops and juice stands, then turn left into Harat al-Zaytoun.
His grandmother’s natal home was a bayt ‘arabi in this very hara. It had been located in the small space between the Armenian, Syriac Catholic, and Greek Orthodox churches – a triangle of power, and discord, that did not fare well after torrential rains almost a century earlier. The family had long abandoned the home when the roof and one wall had collapsed because of the water damage. Not long afterwards the whole structure was demolished to make way for the construction of a church annex and a small plaza. He always stopped when he passed this area to see if he felt any special connection, a ghost-like memory from the distant past fluttering in his heart. He never did. Tonight he stops to look at a poster announcing a forthcoming exhibition in one of the churches. The evening call to prayer begins to resound across the city, first from a distant mosque, then from the old speakers dangling from the minaret over Bab Sharqi. The chorus of voices reverberates in the alleyways from small mosques here and there.
“Ruh tsalli!” Says George. “Go pray, Khairy!” Samir gives George that hand gesture again, then says, “Daoud is trying to remember his roots. Wasn’t your family from here?” David replies that, yes, his paternal grandmother’s family was from the same area as the church annex (he has taken to differentiating the paternal and maternal relatives, since the former tend to “count” more than the latter in his attempts to prove his “Arabness” in Syria).
“‘An jadd?” asks George. “Really? Bayt miin? Which family?”
David tells him about the Haddad’s of Paterson who came from Harat al-Zaytoun in Damascus 100 years ago. It seemed positively exotic to him in his youth, but to George it seems normal. “I met a lot of Haddad’s in Iowa City. Are you related to Fairouz?” David is surprised by the question.
“Why?” he asks.
“Because Fairouz’s real name is “Nouhad Haddad” Samir informs him. David has no idea if they are related. Maybe. Majid seems interested. David might have a famous relative.
“Shu biy’arifni!” he replies. “Who knows?”
They turn through a series of small alleys, then find themselves before a nondescript wooden door framed by cracked plaster walls grayed by dust and age. George presses the door bell and a bird chirps from inside the house. Majid jumps up to hit the button again, then George hoists him so he can play with the doorbell. A cacophony of canaries resounds in the interior, barely muting the sound of footsteps rushing to the front of the house. An exasperated Colette opens the door, then laughs when she sees it’s her son hitting the button. “Shu, Mama? You love birds that much?!” George puts Majid down, who runs to his mother, then introduces her to David. “This is the famous Khairy al-Bittar we’ve told you about!” he says.
“Nice to meet you, I’m Daoud,” David says, but Colette replies in only slightly accented English, “Welcome, David! Don’t pay any attention to these jokers! They only kid you because they like you. Come on in! Tafaddal!”
She opens the door wide and they make their way through the small entry hall and out to the courtyard. The house consists of several rooms on two stories surrounding the courtyard. On the far side is the summer liwan, a raised outdoor sitting area with some old benches and a work table with some boxes lying on it. Next to it through a small door is the enclosed winter liwan, a more formal reception hall laden with Oriental carpets and low banquettes. The courtyard once sported a fountain in its center, as well as some fruit trees, but years of neglect by prior owners – some benign, like a lack of restoration skills, some malign, like the sale of the old marble fountain to a restaurant – had stripped the home of many of its original features. The home was among the larger ones in the hara,and, as George liked to point out, had “potential.” It also needed vision and a lot of money. The latter George and Colette seemed to have in abundance; as for the former, they had hired a local architect to supervise the renovations. Together they were coming up with a plan for the house. Among the first orders of business was the removal of the styrofoam panels that covered the walls of the courtyard in imitation of the alternating black, white, and red stonework found in many of the ancient buildings. David cannot believe his eyes when George peels one off for him to see. It had been a fad many years ago – a cheap way to recreate the older style. “Neo-Mameluke kitsch,” George pronounces. “Garbage!” Colette laughs, then turns to the kitchen to prepare some coffee.
They walk around the various rooms on the ground floor – store rooms for the workers tools, a bath under renovation, a small eating area off the kitchen. The upper floors are their living quarters and personal storage, as well as George’s home office, but despite David’s curiosity they don’t go up. Instead they remove their shoes and install themselves in the winter liwan, which George had insisted on restoring first. The walls are ornamented with faded paintings of Doric columns and flowers in elaborate vases – not exactly “Oriental,” David thinks, but nice anyway. There are books scattered on some shelves, a television in one corner, though it is off, and some low tables here and there. One of the banquettes is covered in toy cars and trucks, and George calls Majid to come and clean them up. Colette soon follows with an old copper rakweh and a tray of small cups and a bowl of sugar. Kicking off her sandals, she walks over to them with a cheerful “Tafaddalu!”
David accepts a cup of black qahweh saada from Colette, then turns to George and says “Mabruk! The house is beautiful!”
“Ahlan wa sahlan ya Khairy, My house is your house! Bayti baytak!” he replies. Marina used to say the same thing to friends in New York: “mi casa es su casa.” It became a running joke with them any time they visited someone with a larger apartment: “Just think, su casa es mi casa now!” she’d whisper in David’s ear and he’d laugh. She’d be impressed with George’s house, that was certain.
As they sip their coffee, George outlines his plans for the house. Instead of converting it into a restaurant, they’d decided to keep it as a residence and instead invite people over for “Damascene evenings.”
“What do they call that in America, Colette? Undercover eating?” George asks.
“No, habibi!” she laughs, “they call them “underground restaurants.” We went to one in San Francisco last year. It was advertised on Craigslist and we went with some friends. Do they have them in New York, David?” she asks in English. He isn’t sure but guesses that they must. Marina would know. She had her finger on things like that.
“Whatever,” George says with a wave of his hand. “We’ll have tables in the courtyard in summer, or here in the winter, and serve traditional foods. I’ll get some guy to sit over in the corner and play oud or qanun. It will be like a home-cooked meal from the olden days, without the artificial atmosphere of a restaurant. And all the boring people too. We will only accept the best people!” David has an inkling of whom George has in mind.
As they finish their coffee, Samir says “Da’imey, Umm Majid! We have to go.”
“This doesn’t count as a visit! Stay for dinner!” Colette protests.
“Ma’lish, another time. I have some work to do. Yallah Daoud.”
He gets up from the banquette, and George and David follow him out the door into the courtyard. “Minshufak, Khairy!” says George, patting him on the back. “Majid, say bye to Uncle Khairy!” and Majid runs over and gives David a high five. “Bye Hari!” Colette makes him promise to return and have a meal. “In sha’allah,” replies David. “Stop the “in sha’allah” business!” cries George. “Let’s go. I’ll walk you to the door.”
At the street they thank him again. “Where are you going?” asks George. Samir looks at David, then George, and says, “Oh, just a little visit in the neighborhood. I have to see that new gallery David wants to see it too.”
“I’d come with you but I have to make some calls,” says George, “but I’ll see you soon.” With that he closes the door and they stand alone under a small street lamp. Samir turns to David and says, “Off we go. You don’t have anything else to do, do you?” and grabbing David’s elbow navigates him toward the corner. “I have to meet Bassam later, and he wants to see you too.” David never seems to have anything better to do than follow Samir on his errands. “OK, sounds good to me,” he says, so they turn at the corner and begin walking arm in arm down the darkened alleys into the heart of Harat al-Zaytoun.