Bassam appears at the table, offers a hearty “Marhaba shabab!” and takes a seat. It’s been a few weeks since David last saw Bassam. Maybe it was a gathering at Samir’s, or possibly at Riwaq. They had grown friendly in recent weeks, and when Samir did manage to get out for an evening, it was almost always in the company of Bassam, so he often sees the two together.
“Sorry I’m late. I ran into some friends on the way at al-Nawfara.” The old cafe by the Great Mosque is a popular hangout for tourists, but many Damascenes go as well to have a tea or coffee, and of course to hear the hakawati. David had gone many times to hear the stories of ‘Antar wa ‘Abla, though he found the whole scene a little contrived, even if he still enjoyed it. Where else can you sit next to a 1000 year old fountain, sip an anise tea, listen to animated stories, and hear the adhan resound from the seventh century minarets?
“Wa la himmak! We were just talking with Nidal and Basma about her show. Have you seen it? And what do you want to drink?” Samir gets the attention of a waiter, who comes to the table. Bassam orders a coffee, ziyadeh, with lots of sugar.
“No, I haven’t seen it yet but we can go have a look. Is it good?
“Ya’ni,” says Samir, equivocating. “It’s not bad. Fi shi hilu …” and he catches himself with a smile as David laughs. It’s hard to talk about an artist named “Hilu,” sweet, without using her name all the time.
“And Daoud is in love!” Samir announces.
“No! Khalas, Samir. That’s enough!” David is embarrassed.
“Shu?” says Bassam. “What’s the story?”
“There’s no story at all, bnoab!” exclaims David, but he isn’t even convincing himself and begins to blush slightly.
“Ha! Fi shi akeed! There’s definitely something going on. Hey, she’s really great, Nidal. Bas, be careful.” Bassam arches his eyebrows. “Filisteeniyya, ya’ni.”
“What’s that supposed to mean, ‘Palestinian’?” asks Samir, in a light but insistent tone. “She’s more Syrian than you, ya muhajir! You weren’t even born here, but she was!”
Bassam is a “muhajir,” as Samir likes to call him, an “immigrant,” since he was born in Kuwait, where his father had been working as an Arabic teacher in the 1970s before returning to Damascus in the mid-1980s.
“I’m only kidding. She’s nice, but maybe a little hard to connect with. You know, aloof. Bas hilweh!”
Bassam offers David his open palm and they do that sort of combination high-five slap/hand shake thing that Syrian men like to do when they tell jokes. They both laugh because they know it’s true. David has had a hard time understanding Nidal. And she is beautiful. Hilweh kiteer.
“Khalas! Daoud already has one woman back home in New York, and one here! Pretty soon he’ll have a full hareem!”
Samir is clearly in a good mood now, and there isn’t even any ‘araq on the table (not yet, at least, David thinks). Marina would cringe at the very idea of having a harem. He, too, cringes a little, and predicts what comes next — the inevitable “four wives” scenario.
“You could convert to Islam and then you could marry four at a time!” Bassam laughs and tries to do the handshake/slap thing again, but David sits back and puts his hands up in the air, as if in resignation.
“One’s enough for me. Too much, sometimes!” he says. They all laugh.
“You know I’m just kidding. My wife would kill me if I even thought about getting a second wife!” He pantomimes a knife cutting across his throat.
“Mine too!” says Samir, as he fumbles with his nargileh, which doesn’t seem to be burning properly. He turns to call the waiter over to fix it.
“But you’re not a Muslim, so you can’t have four anyway! Plus Miriam is the best – mara wa nusf, a woman and a half! So don’t even think of it or I’ll tell Daoud to marry her!”
Samir snorts as he leans back with his revived nargileh in his mouth.
“Not that anyone I know has a second wife. It would be impossible.” Bassam shakes his head ruefully. “Imagine! What a headache!”
David scratches his head at the ongoing banter.
“Aie, and backwards, too!” says Samir.
“Now you’re sounding like George! How is that ajdab anyway?”
George and Bassam don’t get along very well, in part because of George’s habit of insulting Islam and Muslims at every opportunity, and in part because Bassam cannot keep his mouth shut and refuses to humor George simply because he’s his best-friend’s brother-in-law.
“The “idiot” as you call him, is fine. He’s busy fixing up his new house. It’s coming along well. We’ll go see it sometime.”
Bassam writes for one of the regional papers printed in Beirut. He mainly covers politics and economics and travels a fair amount in Syria, occasionally to Beirut, and once in a while to Cairo, Kuwait, or other Arab capitals to cover one story or another. He is currently writing a piece on corruption in the redevelopment of Beirut, which is tricky both because he’s a Syrian and hence an “outsider,” and also because the paper he writes for is financed in large part by the very people in Lebanon directing the redevelopment project. He also writes fiction and has published some poetry, though he discounts it is “haki fadi,” nonsense, since it doesn’t compare to the great Arab poets of yore.
“Take al-Mutanabbi, for example. Now that’s a poet. He was more modern in the tenth century than our so-called ‘modern’ poets today!” Bassam recites a few lines:
Ana al-ladhi nazara al-aʿma ila adabi
Wa asmaʿat kalimati man bihi samamu.
Al-khaylu wa al-laylu wa al-baydaʾu taʿrifuni
Wa as-saifu wa ar-rumhu wa al-qirtasu wa al-qalamu.
I, whose literature the blind perceive,
And whose words by the deaf are heard.
The horse, the night and the desert know me,
And the sword, the spear, the paper and the pen.
“Ya salam! Isn’t that great? Who can write anything like that today?” David doesn’t really understand it, and Samir just sits back and snorts again while the waiter arrives with a tray of ‘araq and begins to arrange the glasses, ice bucket and decanter on the table. Once he leaves, Bassam leans forward and, looking over both shoulders, whispers: “Abu al-Tayyib also once said, “If you see the teeth of the lion, do not think that the lion is smiling at you.” He raises his eyebrows suggestively. “Ya’ni, he didn’t mince his words, and paid for it with his life. No one would dare write that today. They aren’t multazimeen, not committed.”
“Hilu,” says Samir, preoccupied with mixing the ‘araq. “What do you think, Daoud? You’re a literary sort. Don’t we have any good modern poets?” David has little to say about what he so little understands, having devoted himself to the arcane texts of Ibn al-‘Arabi, but he offers a few names, platitudes really.
“Ma ba’rif,” he says. “I dunno. Nizar Qabbani? [thinking of his neighbor] Adonis? They are famous. And good, too, right? And Mahmoud Darwish? I have a book of his poetry, and some of his poems were made into songs by Marcel Khalifé. Those aren’t bad, are they?”
“Wallahi, you’re right. Aren’t they like modern Mutanabbis, khayo?” Samir uses the Aleppine term for brother, since Bassam had studied literature at Aleppo University.
“Yeah, they’re all fine and good – if you are a woman, or a student, or some ajdab politician pretending to be interested in the Palestinian cause, or a fake revolutionary singer. But when did any of them ever … what’s that phrase you use in America, Daoud? … Speak truth to power? These so-called poetic heroes of yours are always quiet when it counts, except maybe Darwish. At least he moved back to Ramallah and didn’t just hang out in Paris drinking café au lait and pretending to be a dissident. And don’t get me started with Marcel Khalife! None of these guys would put his life on the line like Abu al-Tayyib did. Or al-Ma’ari, or even Ibn al-Khatib, who was poisoned. Cowards!”
David looks a little lost hanging on a thread of poetry linking the tenth, fifteenth, and twentieth centuries. But as a friend once told him, these older poets still live in the minds of many Arabs. School kids memorize their verses so they remain familiar fare. At least in Syria. He thinks of his news-vendor friend Khalid. He’d know which poets were good, and which wrote “haki fadi.”
“Let’s not confuse Daoud with all this poetry and politics. Yallah, have some ‘araq and relax a bit. Want a nargileh?”
“Nah,” says Bassam. “I’m trying to quite smoking. My wife and I both are stopping. You know, to be healthy and all that haki… Yalah, ka’stak, ya Daoud. You too, Samir.” The three friends clink their glasses then drink, taking a breather from Bassam’s intensity. Samir might be intense too, but Bassam is even more opinionated and edgy to boot. It can be exhausting. Or thrilling.
After a moment of staring around the room, Bassam asks absently, “Hey, did you seen the news today?”
“What news?” asks Samir. David reaches into the inner pocket of his jacket and brings out the folded local paper he’d bought earlier in the day. ‘I got a paper today,” he says as he puts it on the table. “Maybe it’s here.”
Both Bassam and Samir laugh.
“What?” asks David.
“Not that news! Real news! You know, from al-Jazeera.”
Samir tells him that they’d watched a little news at his house over lunch but there was nothing out of the ordinary. Just the usual nonsense.
“This mornings there was a demonstration in Aleppo in front of the Internal Security Directorate demanding the release of political prisoners. They arrested 25 people, mostly women, and beat some kids who started chanting something against the governor.”
“We didn’t hear about that,” Samir says. “And it won’t be in the papers, Daoud. You can bet on that, ” he adds as David scans the headlines.
“Read the back pages and sports, but not the front page … or the arts page!”
Samir punches Bassam on the arm and they both laugh.
“Tell Bassam about what happened to you in al-Mazzeh” says Samir, slightly more seriously. While David is relieved that the two friends are in a good mood, he doesn’t really feel like talking about it, not in the large café. But Bassam wants to hear about it, and Samir encourages him, so he takes a swig of ‘araq and begins.
“You know I teach at that private language school in Abu Rummaneh.”
“How’s that coming along?” Bassam asks, but Samir cuts him off. “Let him finish his story, ustaz!”
“Well, in order to get the job, I had to have an interview with the Internal Security Directorate, you know, to get clearance so I could get my iqama. My boss arranged the interview. He said it was routine, ‘aadi, everyone did it, so I went.”
“Who’s your boss?” asks Bassam.
Giving Bassam that “Hold your horses!” gesture, Samir says, “Ma muhim meen al-mudir! It’s not important! Let him finish!” Bassam relents, leaning back in his plastic chair and grabbing his glass. “Tafaddal, Daoud.”
“So I went. It’s out in al-Mazzeh, you know, toward the hills a little.”
“We know it,” Samir says without enthusiasm.
“I had an appointment at 11:00 in the morning, so I took a taxi and arrived at about 10:30, 10:45, just to be early. I told the guard at the kolaba by the front gate that I had an appointment, and he said “Have a seat. I’ll go check.” There were no chairs or anything, so I asked him, “Where?” And he said “There, on the sidewalk!” So I went over and sat on the curb in the dust, watching the large gate, and waiting. After about an hour and a half the guard came out and said “Qumm! Get up, and come with me.” So I followed him through the gate.
“We went into the large building and up 4 flights of stairs to the top floor. The guard led me into a small room then left, shutting the door behind him. Another man was behind a plain looking desk, talking on the phone. You know, one of those types with the thick eyebrows and mustache.”
Samir and Bassam nod.
“Well, he didn’t tell me to sit in the chair or anything, so I just stood there. I heard him talking on the phone. He kept shaking his head and screaming thing like, “Just hit them! Hit them a thousand times until they talk. Use that new thing. Yalah, I don’t have all day.” He hung up the phone and looked at me for a minute. Then he asked me, “Shu biddak houn?” What do you want here?” I told him about my interview so I could get the job at the language school. He grunted then looked down at some folders on his desk, and grabbing one told me to follow him as he opened the door and went down the hallway. I followed.
“At the end of the hall there was a large wooden door. The guy knocked then entered and waved for me to come inside with him. We were in a large room with a nice carpet, some paintings on the wall, books, tables, and a giant desk. Behind the desk was some guy in a military uniform, a General, I think. They called him al-Liwa’. So this big guy with a huge kirsh came over from behind his desk and shook my hand then told me to take a seat. He seemed pretty nice, actually. The unibrow guy just stood in the back with his folder open while the Liwa’ asked me a bunch of questions, like “Where do you live?” “When did your grandmother leave Syria for America?” “What does your father do for work?” Those kinds of questions, though he already seemed to know a lot. We talked about New York, about Disney Land, since he had gone there with his daughter last year. He said he liked the older one in LA better, not the Epcot Center. He talked about traveling to Russia and China and when I told him I’d never gone, he said that I must. That I’d find a lot of interesting things there to write about.
“It was weird. He didn’t ask me anything about my work, or teaching. Then he looked over at the thuggish guy, who nodded, and that was it. He thanked me for my time, said “Welcome in Syria” in English, and that was it. I was able to go. So I went back out, down the stairs, past the gate, and took a taxi home. I got a call from my boss the next day, and we went and got my iqama papers in only a week. Isn’t that odd?”
“Shuf,” says Bassam. “Look, it’s all part of the show. They do this to scare you, all that talk about beatings and so on. And maybe you’ll go along with it and be scared. But they can’t touch you since you’re an American. Don’t worry. They can beat us, but not you.”
“I’m not worried about that,” David lies, since he was worried, “but it’s like the Liwa’ didn’t care what I did. It was like a little intellectual chat. A formality.”
“Of course not,” interjects Samir. “He doesn’t care. They were just testing you, trying to make sure that you aren’t a spy or a maybe a Jew. You know what happened to the last teacher?”
“No. No one ever told me.”
“He was also called David — imagine that — and had somehow gotten into trouble: I think he visited Israel or something, and was asked to leave Syria. So the mukhabarat were just checking you out, letting you know that they know who you are. Maybe scaring you a little.”
Or a lot, he thinks. David had been so nervous that he’d almost wet his pants. It’s not so much the interview that had frightened him as the thuggish man in the small room ordering his underlings to beat people – “a thousand times!” Maybe it was just all a show, but a message was sent. They were on to him, knew what he was doing, where he was from, that his father was an electrical engineer and worked in digital imaging. They knew everything about him, and he had only been in Syria a few weeks.
This whole situation was later confirmed by his one visit to Aleppo, when the receptionist at the Duchess Hotel told him that they had expected him a day earlier — even though he had not made a reservation but just showed up one afternoon inquiring if they had a room for the night. It was already reserved for him, the man told him. David had mentioned the trip and the possibility of staying at the famous old hotel only to Marina, and probably to Abu ‘Ali too, but the hotel already knew about his arrival and had a room waiting for him. He hadn’t understood why then, but after the incident in al-Mazzeh things began to click in his mind and he felt uncomfortable. He still does when he thinks about it.
“Shu Daoud? Wayn sharid? What are you day-dreaming about?” Samir asks as he leans across the table to touch his arm. “Ma’lish. Everything’s ok. Touta touta wa khilsat al-anbouba! The story’s over,” he adds. David smiles at the reference to the hakawati. Yes, it’s all behind him now. Or not. But what can he do about it anyway. Hayk id-dunya. That’s life.
The embers on the nargilehs are dying out, the ‘araq decanter sits empty, the ice cubes half melted. The clientele is switching from the early evening tea, coffee, and backgammon crowd, to diner guests, more family oriented. The waiter comes and asks if they need anything else, while others spread white cloths and place settings on the available tables.
“Yalah, let’s go!” says Samir, who has been alternately texting, sipping ‘araq, and puffing on his nargileh the whole time. He and Bassam have an appointment with a friend near the old Hijaz train station after 8:00. It’s now just past 7:30 and they have some time to kill, so he suggests they take a short walk across the city then up the main avenue. There is no question that David will join them. He must since Samir wants to show him something. And Bassam has a favor to ask.
So they settle their bill, Bassam insisting on paying and arguing so much with Samir it seems like they are fighting. The waiter smiles and takes the money, David puts on his jacket, and the three friends head out the door.