They amble up Fakhri al-Baroudi Street toward the old Hijaz train station. The quaint building was built at the end of the Ottoman era and linked Damascus with Medina, passing through Jordan with a branch to the Palestinian cities of Haifa and ‘Akka. Lawrence of Arabia famously sabotaged its tracks during World War I, so it never reached Mecca, as planned. Until recently the station was the starting point for the old narrow gauge steam trains that plied the route between Damascus and the mountain resorts of Zabadani and Bludan — the so-called “Zabadani Flyer.” David had gone on one of the last of its excursions in the Fall with his students and the Director. The three hour ride in the old wooden carriages was fun and he’d spent the time talking with many of the students about their families and lives, eating peanuts and sipping plastic cups of Lipton tea. The Director mostly kept to himself and talked on his mobile phone, though he took David aside when they stopped briefly at ‘Ayn Fijeh so the conductor could refill the water tanks of the old locomotive. The engine seemed a piece out of a museum — antediluvian with its tubes, gears and oddly shaped levers. It dated from 1896 and was among the older live steam engines still in active use in the world. The conductor looked European, not Syrian, wearing soiled overalls and a small cap over his greying hair. Pointing to the locomotive, the Director talked about the importance of tradition and how even the steam engine was proof of how Syria never let go of its past, even as it marched into the future. It didn’t make sense to David at the time — a march forward on a century old European steam locomotive — but he merely nodded his head and said “Hilu.”
Once in Zabadani they disembarked and spent the afternoon wandering around the small town perched along the flanks of the the snow-capped Anti-Lebanon mountains. Afterwards they picnicked in a shady grove in a park not far from the center of town. David had brought some mana’ish but they had gotten cold and soggy during the ride, so he and another student ran to get falafel sandwiches at a small stand near the park. On the other side a group of Boy Scouts marched around engaged in some sort of drill. David hadn’t expected to see Scouts in Syria, though the Director came over to him and told him about the long history of Scouts in the Arab lands. Another sign of their modernity. “Mitil Amerka!” He’d exclaimed with pride.
Today the train station is covered in scaffolding as it awaits its transformation into a planned shopping mall and hotel complex. The Flyer no longer runs, though tourist groups can charter it for a shorter excursion from the main train station a few kilometers to the south. Samir leads them past the small plaza in front of the statin and around the corner toward the cafe on the other side.
With a nod of his head he says “Another Saudi deal that probably will never get finished!” “Khisara, since they stopped running the old trains. A real shame. Ever take it, Daoud?”
David tells him of his trip last Fall with the school, and that it was long but fun.
“Did you see the conductor? Was he the old guy?”
“Yes, I think so, ” replies David, recalling the weathered face and the grey hair.
“Well, they say he was a former Nazi soldier who came here when the French controlled Syria. Ya’ni, during the Vichy era, and then stayed after Hitler was defeated. People called him al-Swisri, “The Swiss,” but he is about as Swiss as you are! He’s a Nazi!”
“That’s just haki fadi,” retorts Bassam. “Don’t believe everything you hear, and definitely don’t believe everything this joker tells you!” He slaps Samir on the back and they laugh.
“Bas, ‘an jadd! I’m serious! That’s what I heard, and from one of the train employees too!”
They arrive at the café, which has a large enclosed terrace, though on this cold evening the clientele are stuffed into the small interior sitting room on the far side away from the street. Samir sends a text while Bassam buys a newspaper and leafs through it. They have an appointment with a friend who operates a print shop across the way. David stands awkwardly, shuddering slightly against the cold wind that has picked up. He begins to wonder why he has come along at all, then tells them that he’ll be going on his way since it’s late and he wants to go eat, but Samir asks him to stay.
“I want you to meet Ayman and see his shop. I think you’ll find it interesting. He’s nice and it won’t take long, then we’ll go get something to eat together. Can you wait a little?”
David has been practically starving since the close encounter with Bakdash’s – the pistachio nougat didn’t really fill him up and it’s been several hours since lunch. But he can wait.
“Yeah, I can wait a little, ya’ni, shwayya.”
“‘Azeem!” says Samir. “And here’s Ayman.”
Samir introduces him to David and they shake hands.
“Ahlayn, Daoud! I’ve heard about you from Samir,” says Ayman. “Welcome in Syria!” he adds, in English. David laughs. He’s used to this by now.
They decide not to head in for coffee – it’s too chilly to sit outside and the indoor space is too smoky, even for Samir. Plus Ayman seems a bit rushed, so they head across the street to the press, taking a pedestrian bridge over the main road. A young man on the bridge hawks bootleg CDs of the latest pop recordings: Nancy ‘Ajram, Wael Kfoury, ‘Ali Hajjar, Diana, George Wassouf. The superstars sell for only 50 lira a piece. Cheap merchandise.
They descend to the sidewalk then head into a dark alley along the side of a row of low but long buildings lining the broad street, one of which houses Ayman’s press. He has already closed the shop, and they enter through the back door off the alley.
Sensing something surreptitious in their movements, David feels a little nervous. He has never been one to break rules or get in trouble, and he doesn’t want to start now. The “other” David, as he had learned, had done so somehow and had been deported for it. He doesn’t want to make the same mistake.
“Don’t worry,” Samir whispers to him as they enter the back of the shop. “It’s just easier this way so no one sees us all going into the shop from the front. We aren’t doing anything wrong. Relax.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” he thinks, but heads inside anyway.
Ayman closes the door behind them then flips on some lights. The back of the shop is a storeroom stacked with boxes of paper, cartons of toner and ink, some old file cabinets, and a stack of folding chairs. A partial wall separates it from the back office area with its desks, fancy new PowerMac computers and various printers. A faded poster depicting various English fonts hangs from one wall, while another has a workflow chart in colored inks. It’s a busy shop and they do a lot of printing and copying for private industry, and of course the government, whether they like it or not. The front of the shop has several self-service copy machines and two large Epson poster printers and a Xerox printer used for architectural drawings and prints. The walls are decorated with a number of framed floral prints, a French circus poster — Le Nouveau Cirque de Paris — and the obligatory photo of the President staring out somewhat cross-eyed into the distance. David picks up a small invitation to an event at the French Cultural Center featuring a modern dancer specializing in “aerial arts.” He scratches his head, then puts it down and starts toward the front of the shop but Ayman calls them over to a side room. There they find a stairwell heading down to the basement, where most of the heavy printing takes place.
They follow Ayman down the stairs and find themselves in a large, cavernous space, perhaps 50 feet by 30 feet, laden with devices of all sorts: modern copy machines, enormous printing presses, banks of computers, scanners, and other tools for digital imaging. Large ventilation ducts traverse the high ceiling and fans on the wall keep the air circulating. David is a little surprised at how advanced it all looks. Toward the back and on a small mezzanine level a few feet above the main floor are a number of vintage printing presses, some dating from the late 19th C. Ayman collects these old machines — like the steam locomotive of the Zabadani Flyer, elegant testaments to human ingenuity, as well as, in this case, the dedication to disseminate knowledge, or at least opinion. David heads over to take a look, since they remind him of his fascination (near obsession?) with the “Mujahideen” typewriter.
Seeing David admiring his collection, Ayman says, “This is my little printing museum. All I’m missing is Gutenberg’s press! And maybe one of those American steam presses. Have you seen one? I have a copy of a Stanhope press in that corner, but it doesn’t work. I need to replace some parts. We used the mechanical screw presses in the olden days and I have two over in that other corner. But the old electric presses are my focus.”
David pauses before the machines, complex devices with the simple task of printing and reproducing words. Turning to Ayman, he asks, “Do they still work?”
Ayman glances over at Samir and hesitates. “Ya’ni, some of them can be made to work. But it’s not easy. They break down a lot and it’s hard to get parts for them. I have to order them from Germany, France, and America, but that’s getting harder to do, so I sometimes have the parts made here. I studied Engineering, and can usually figure out what needs to be done to get them to work. But not all of them. I mostly just collect them. That’s more my interest at this point.”
In fact, Ayman had used one of these very relics to print the leaflet which landed Samir and his friends in hot water a few years ago. What had started as a gag — reviving an old press that had been used to print leaflets against the French occupation in order to demand more freedoms today — had turned into a witch hunt as the mukhabarat had scoured every press in the country looking for the combination of paper, ink, font and page layout found in the leaflet. They had come directly to Ayman, knowing of his old collection. He’d just had time to clean off the ink from the old machine, remove some gears, and even douse it in some dust he’d swept off the floor so that when they came it looked as it usually did — standing like the others unused and unusable in a corner.
“Everyone is moving toward digital imaging anyway, so what we need more are new computers and software. I have some Macs and those printers upstairs, but they cost a lot and there’s no service here any more. I paid $20,000 for that big Xerox machine, but it doesn’t even work and they won’t send anyone from Beirut to repair it for another month. Bas, al-Hamdu li-llah. I thank God for my family and this little shop which lets us eat.”
While Ayman and David talk, Bassam and Samir sit at a desk to one side and go over some papers, speaking in hushed tones.
“My father is an engineer too, and he worked in digital imaging research for a few years. Now he’s with Ariadne Communications and does telecom support.”
“Wallah!” says Ayman in mock surprise. “You didn’t want to study Engineering too?”
“Me? Engineering? Bnoab!” laughs David. “No way! I mean, it seems interesting, but my dad works all the time and it’s hard. He’s never at home.”
“It’s good to work!” replies Ayman. “Here it is 8:30 and I’m still here. A man has to work to support his family.”
David thinks of his mother, whose job in PR earns her a salary almost twice his father’s. They both work all the time. He’d chosen a different path.
“I like literature and writing, and teaching. It’s not so bad.”
“No, but he’s in love!” shouts Samir from the desk. He’s overheard their conversation.
“Wow!” says Ayman enthusiastically. “‘Arabiyyeh? Suriyyeh? Amerkiyyeh?”
“Filistiniyyeh! wa khateera jiddan!” says Bassam. “A dangerous Palestinian!” meaning very pretty. “You’d die for her!”
“No! No!” David protests. “I have a girlfriend in New York … sort of. She might come for a visit.”
“Wow! says Samir. “Two girlfriends in the same place! Sounds like an Egyptian soap opera!”
“Hey,” says Ayman, raising his eyebrows, “there’s nothing wrong with that. You could have four….”
David cuts him off before he can go into the “four wives” thing, by saying, “If you need some software or something, my dad could probably get it for you. You know, for the computers or printers. He still does consulting in that field.”
Ayman suddenly looks serious, glances at Samir and Bassam, then says, “‘An jadd? Really? I don’t want to bother him. But do you think he could?”
“Maybe. I can ask him. It depends on what you need.”
“It’s some software that I can’t get here. And I can’t order it from abroad.”
“What software do you need? There’s a shop in Sha’lan that sells software for cheap. I got a lot of stuff there for like 250 lira.”
Ayman laughs. “I know the shop. It’s my cousin’s. But even he can’t get the software I need. It’s special.”
“What is it?” asks David naively.
Ayman hesitates then looks again at Samir.
Samir looks a little nervous, shy, but gets up from the table and comes over to David.
“Shuf, Daoud. You know I like you. We’re friends, right?” He places his arm on his shoulder. “There’s nothing between us. I trust you, and I hope you trust me.”
“Yes,” David says, not sure what is happening.
“Ayman here has done us a lot of favors in the past, you know, printing things for us, helping the cause. Ya’ni, he’s with us, but it’s getting difficult.”
The silence of the room is only interrupted by Bassam’s adjusting his chair. David stares at Samir.
“We have a hard time here, and a lot of people want to change the government, this dictatorship, but are afraid to do anything. We aren’t rich and we aren’t powerful, so what can we do? Shuf, Bassam and I are just journalists. Writers. We deal everyday with these politicians telling us what to say, where to say it, and when. If you don’t do what they ask, then they bother you – sometimes it’s small. You know, your paycheck doesn’t come on time or maybe you don’t get asked to a dinner or function, or someone else gets assigned to a good story. Sometimes it’s more open, like family members getting hurt. Ya’ni, you know what I mean. You’ve been here and you’ve seen a lot. Like what you heard at al-Mezzah, but every day, all the time. This is what we live with. This is our life.”
David looks uncomfortable, so Samir pulls him over to the desk and they all sit down, except Ayman, who remains standing, his arm resting on an old press.
“Imagine, I almost went to jail just for signing the Damascus Manifesto a few years ago. They all talked about how the new president was more open, how we had this Damascus Spring and everyone was hopeful. But it turn out to be just another winter! They let people out of jail and then told them they could run their political salons and so on, only to spy on them and figure out who was working with whom. Then they cracked down on us. People went back to jail, salons were closed. It was over. If it weren’t for George and his wasita I’d probably be in jail. Bassam too … and Ayman, if they knew he was the one printing our materials on his old machines. It would have been worse for him. It was just this one page newsletter that we’d distribute to people. We called it “Sawt al-Huriyya” — “The Voice of Freedom” — and it wasn’t even really radical. Bassam wanted it to be more radical but I thought we had to call for small changes first then gradually remake the society.”
Bassam interjects, “You’re right. Sahh. The newsletter called for little changes, cosmetic changes — ya’ni, new freedoms for journalists, new laws for public gatherings, that sort of thing. We thought it was simple, but the regime found it threatening, and it got us all in trouble. All we did was call for new laws to guarantee freedom of speech and public gathering. We didn’t even call for the end of the laws we’d like to see taken away, like the Emergency Law. But that was enough for the regime, and they went after us. We should have gone farther!”
“I got caught with a copy of the last Sawt al-Hurriyya,” continues Samir. “I lied and told them that I had found it on the street and hadn’t even read it, but they searched my apartment, and even brought Miriam in for interrogation — they didn’t touch her, thank God — but she was scared and I got in trouble with her for that. That’s worse than getting in trouble with the regime!” They all laugh nervously.
“I had gotten rid of all my copies except the one I had in my bag. They couldn’t figure out who had printed it since we used one of these antique presses with old ink and paper, and very old looking type. That was Ayman’s idea. But they almost got him too.”
“I’m too smart for them,” says Ayman. But he looks worried. “Of course they knew it was me — no one else really has this kind of equipment, except one guy in Aleppo and some shops in Beirut — but they couldn’t prove it because I made the machines look like they don’t work. So they went after all the other shops to try to find out who was the ring-leader. They didn’t know that it was us, or weren’t able to prove it. But they are watching us. Always watching.”
David is a but taken aback. He’d heard of these things — the Damascus Spring, its hopes and then frustrations. He’d also heard ad nauseum from Marina about political oppression in Latin America and the US, and how the CIA was behind all sorts of atrocities. But he had never been so close to it before. It made him feel a little sick.
“Wow” is all he can say. “But if they know it’s you, then how can you do anything else? You’ll get in trouble.”
“Not if we go digital,” says Bassam.
“We have to outsmart the regime with technology,” adds Ayman, “but not only the old stuff, which they are now on to, but the newer stuff. With mobile phones and computers, it’s easier to send things on the Internet or by email or SMS. But the government can track everything online and all the communications companies are run by his cousin. You know that guy. He has his hands in everything. So we need ways of encrypting the messages, new ways that they don’t have. This is the software we need, and you can’t get it here. I tried in Europe but it’s too hard.”
“What exactly do you need?” asks David. “Maybe my dad can get it. I’m not sure, but I can ask him.”
“Don’t ask him on the phone!” they all chime in at once. “Your phone is bugged. You have to do it another way,” adds Samir.
“I dunno. He could send it to me through the Embassy mail, which I think is safe. I don’t think they touch that. Or he could bring it over if he comes for a visit. He might in the Spring, if I am still here.”
“What do you mean ‘If I am still here’?” asks Samir. “You are going to stay! You can’t leave Nidal, can you?” he grins mischievously.
“Look, Daoud. I don’t want to get you involved, so you can just say no. But it would be great if you could help us a little. It’s just some software, but we can’t get it here. The regime doesn’t have it either, so if we had it we could make all of our communications coded and they wouldn’t know what we were saying and even who sent it. You know, like anonymizing software. I can give you the names. But it’s expensive and only specialists can get it.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” offers David tentatively. He’s unaccustomed to sticking his neck out for anything, or anyone. But it seems harmless. Kind of. Ayman scribbles a name on a piece of paper, then some numbers on another, and hands them to David.
“Keep them separate. One is the model, the other the version. Your father will probably recognize it. But don’t talk about it on the phone. Send him a letter through your Embassy mail. That will be safer.”
David agrees, and the atmosphere, while still tense, lightens a bit.
“Yalah, let’s go eat!” says Samir, rising from the desk. “All this talk has made me hungry.”
“Me too!” says Bassam, pushing his chair away. David’s stomach has been growling for over an hour, and he gets up too.”
“You guys go ahead. I have to go home to my family,” says Ayman. “‘Ala kulli hal, Let’s keep in touch, Daoud. Let me know what your father says and how much it will cost. Shukran.”
Ayman leads them up the stairs then out the back. He looks into the alleyway before letting his friends out, shutting the lights and locking the heavy door behind them. He waves his hands in the air as he continues in silence down the back alley, while Samir, Bassam, and David circle back to the main drag.
“Shu ra’ykum, shall we go grab a bite to eat at Riwaq? It will be a nice way to forget about all this stuff.”
Bassam and David agree and they flag down a taxi. Samir opens the front door for him while Bassam hops in the back.
“You have longer legs and need the room. Tafaddal!”
He pulls the door shut and off they go.