Bassam tosses David his jacket then settles down next to Ahmad and across the table from Nidal. Samir sits next to David, who after putting his coat on the back of his chair slides over a little closer to Nidal. She doesn’t move but sits somewhat awkwardly in her chair. Basma smiles at her, nods at Samir, then, glancing briefly at David, says, “Shu jaybak la huun, Samir? What brings you here?”
“Daoud is always hungry!” says Samir. “We couldn’t keep him out all night without feeding him! You see how tall he his. He has to eat!”
They all laugh, though David is a bit embarrassed at finding himself the center of attention.
“Why didn’t you just eat at Bayt Sabri? The food there is good, it’s clean. You were already there, mkayyifeen, having a good time. It would have been easier to stay.”
“Well, yes, but we had to meet a friend somewhere, Ayman, you know him,” he says in a somewhat serious tone. “Plus, there’s no place like Riwaq. And I had to check my mail. Get a load of this brochure.” He hands her the invitation to the opening of her show opening at Bay Sabri.
“So, I see that you actually get these invitations, even if you don’t always come! Mal’aon! By the way, did you go to Marmar?”
“Yeah, I popped in with Daoud but had to keep him out of Roula’s clutches.”
Basma laughs and says, “Oh God, Roula! I’m glad you escaped, Daoud! But what did you guys think of the exposition?”
“Ya’ni, it was ok. I told Daoud there’s nothing to write home about. You know, the usual stuff. Like yours!”
“Hey, be nice for a change!”
Basma and Samir enjoy a gentle rivalry — less that of a cat and a mouse, and more that of two cats fighting over the same territory. They went to school together, from elementary through high school, and share too much history to let anything slide. Even if she doesn’t always agree with him, Basma respects Samir’s opinion. Samir, for his part, likes Basma well enough — their parents were from the same village — but thinks her paintings are superficial. Her main art teacher at the university had said this to him in an interview, though Samir has never actually told her this. That would be mean. Still, he has a habit of provoking her, and doesn’t mince his words. As they banter, both lean slightly across the table. Nidal and David, a bit crowded out, draw back in their chairs, look over at each other, then smile and laugh nervously.
“I though you were going to order some food!” Ahmad interrupts them all. “Look, I have an idea. My car is parked around the corner. I know a place in al-Midan that has really clean meats. It’s kind of a working class grill, but it’s really good. And cheap. I could drive us all there. How many are we? 1, 2, 4, 6!” He counts aloud. “We can fit. It’ll be tight, but we can make it. It’s only 15 minutes away anyway. Then we could go to this haqeer dive bar I know near Bab Touma. Shu raykun? What do you think?”
“You actually think we’d all fit in your old junker?” asks Bassam. “That VW wouldn’t make it down the hill, let alone to al-Midan!”
“No, it’s totally fine!” protests Ahmad. “I just had it repaired. And if it doesn’t start we can just roll it all the way down the hill to al-Midan anyway! Yeah, it’s small but we could fit. Who wants to go?”
Samir says that David can’t wait to eat and nudges his friend with his elbow, but David says he’s more or less full, having eaten most of the hummus and bread by himself.
“Come on, don’t you want a little meat? You look hungry to me!” Samir gives him a funny look, as if to say, “What’s the matter with you?”
“Me, I’m too tired to go,” Nidal interjects. “Plus I’m trying to become a vegetarian. It’s supposed to be better for you than all these meats. I have to leave soon anyway. I need to get home and go to bed.”
“I used to be a vegetarian in New York,” David says, “but here’s it’s hard. Everyone eats meat all the time, and its hard to refuse. People get angry!”
David doesn’t like to offend anyone and tends to go with the flow. “But they taste good, better than in New York!”
“What do mean you were a vegetarian?” says Samir. “You ate the kebabs that Miriam made today, and we’ve had kebabs here before. And shawarma! Give it up, Daoud. You like meat!”
“Well, I used to be a vegetarian. It’s easier there, in New York. There are restaurants and lots of people are vegetarians, so it’s kind of normal. A lot of my friends are vegetarians.”
David is thinking primarily of Marina, but doesn’t want to mention her in the current context.
“But here no one really understands it, like why I wouldn’t want to eat meat in the first place. But yes, Miriam’s kebabs were really delicious.” He turns toward Nidal for no reason and says, “She’s a great cook, really. She made kebabs with cherries, and also some cheese with pomegranate seeds!”
“Like in Aleppo. They do that in Aleppo.”
“She’s never even been to Aleppo,” says Samir with a dismissive wave of his hand. “It’s just her imagination. Or her neighbor who she steals recipes from. Maybe she’s from Aleppo. She seems kind of ghaleeza.”
“Stop, Samir!” says Basma. “You’re the crude one! Plus you’ll give Daoud all sorts of ideas about us.”
“Oh, I already know about that sort of competition between the cities, ya’ni, which one is the oldest, and who has the best food, whose women are the prettiest. I don’t really get it. They both seem like nice places to me.”
“So, which city has the prettiest women?” Bassam chimes in. “Tell us, Daoud. You’re the m’allem. You’ve been to both cities!”
He shrugs and says, “Shu ba’rifni? What do I know? You’re the m’allem, Bassam!”
Samir laughs and gives him the Syrian high-five shake, and Bassam sits back in his chair and laughs.
“Don’t pay any attention to them.” Nidal addresses him. “They always joke like this, don’t you know by now? But I agree. All that nonsensical haki fadi about Aleppo and Syria is tiresome! I mean, people talk like it’s 2000 BC or something! But they do have special foods in Aleppo. You should try them, like karabeej halab.” David has never had the distinctive walnut-filled cookie from Aleppo.
“Hey, all this talk about food is making me hungry!” says Bassam. “Let’s just order here and then we can go somewhere for a drink later.”
Everyone agrees so he calls over a waiter and places an orders for some grilled meats — sha’af, kefta kebab, and sheesh tawouq. Nidal orders an olive and za’tar salad as well. They ask for another large carafe of ‘araq for the table.
The waiters leaves and Ahmad turns to Basma and talks to her about the show at Marmar. Samir and Bassam hunch over a cell phone, texting and discussing something seemingly important. David and Nidal sit more or less alone at the table.
After an awkward moment during which David stares at the half-full glass of ‘araq in front of him and Nidal twirls her hair absentmindedly, they turn toward one another almost at once, and each begins to ask the other,
They laugh nervously at the false start, then David breaks the ice by asking her how her new apartment is turning out.
“Oh, it’s ok, mashi al-hal,” she says. “Small but nice. It’s the first time I’ve lived alone, so it takes some getting used to. But I like it.”
“Where is your family? What do they think about your living alone?”
Nidal shyly mentions that she was orphaned when she was nine and raised by her aunt and uncle, and that they support her move. She had been living with girlfriends in the last few years but wanted some privacy.
“In terms of my family, I only really have ‘Amti Fatimah. Some people think my father might still be alive in Lebanon, but I guess it’s too late for that. It’s been over twenty years. So only my aunt is left. In fact I just came from visiting her in the Old City. That’s where I went after seeing you guys at Bayt Sabri. My aunt is all alone this week since my uncle went to visit my cousins, his sons, ya’ni, in Hama. They have a business. So she was happy to have some company tonight.”
She sips from her glass then stares at the table.
“Where in the Old City does she live?”
“It’s a hara called Mazenet al-Shahm. Not far from Bayt Sabri, about a ten minute walk down Medhat Pasha past the Buzuriyya, sort of in the direction of al-Shaghour.” She puts the drink down and looks at David, meeting his eyes for the first time this evening. He has a gentle look about him, she thinks. Nice.
“I don’t know that area at all,” he says. I’ve been in the Buzuriyya a lot, and there’s that old hammam there, whatever it’s called. ‘Nouri Pasha’ I think? I went there once!”
“You and all the tourists! I hear it’s nice though I never went inside. I think mostly men go. But Mazenet al-Shahm is pretty traditional. Everyone knows everyone. It’s where I grew up. Nizar Qabbani lived there when he was a child.”
“I thought he lived in Muhajireen. That’s what I was told.” David seems genuinely puzzled, as if the location of the poet’s home gives meaning to everything else about his life in Damascus.
Nidal laughs. “Well, maybe later on he did, but he spent his childhood in Mazenet al-Shahm. He wrote poems about it, about his house, his school, about Damascus and its gardens and jasmine. Do you know them?”
David shakes his head.
“He couldn’t have written that about Muhajireen! No offense, Daoud, but it’s not the same!”
David laughs then describes his apartment in Muhajireen — the three little rooms, the sobia, its proximity to where Abu ‘Ali claims Nizar Qabbani also lived at some point, just across the street.
“It’s not bad up there. It’s quiet and I like looking at the mountain and down over the city at night from the windows.”
“Bas ba’eeda! It’s far! She raises her eyebrows in a mocking way. The atmosphere between them, once fraught with tensions, has lightened considerably. They both seem more comfortable, and the others at the table let them be. Samir steals furtive looks from the other side, and Bassam smiles over at Basma, who winks back. A conspiracy of confederates is afoot.
“My apartment’s not far from here. I walk by Riwaq all the time when I go downtown. I tried to get a place in the Old City but all I could find were tiny single rooms in Bab Touma, or a room in a house with a big family. I mean, I like family and all. I grew up with my parents and my grandmother in the house! But I didn’t want to come here and experience New Jersey all over again!”
Nidal laughs then asks about his grandmother, if he had known her. “She was from Damascus, right?”
“Yes, but she went to America when she was young, I think ten or twelve, and never came back to Syria. She talked about it all the time and was always telling stories and cooking for us. My grandfather died a few years before I was born, so I didn’t know him at all. My sittee died when I was a kid, about 14. I think she was about 70 or 75. So she had an ok life, but she missed Syria.”
“What was she like? Do you remember much?”
“Oh yes, I spent a lot of time with her. We were very close. She was kind of short and skinny, with really long black hair. She had intense eyes and she liked to laugh a lot. She had a great sense of humor.” He pauses to sip on his ‘araq, then continues. “She more than my father taught me Arabic. She used to cook a lot, you know, mostly Syrian dishes, meats too! So that’s what I learned most. Food. And some music too. She used to sing songs. I liked it but my friends always thought it was weird. Even my mom did. She’s a ‘normal’ American.”
“Were your friends Americans or Arabs?”
“They were mostly regular Americans like my mom. I mean, English, German, Irish, Italian, you know. The usual people. I think there was one Albanian kid, or maybe he was Armenian. Everyone else was white. There were maybe some Arabs but not many. Not like today! New Jersey is like Little Arabia now.”
The arrival of the meat tray interrupts their conversation. David sits back and leans a bit toward Nidal so the waiter has room to place the enormous platter on the table. His cheek brushes against her long hair as their heads approach. A tingle of excitement shoots up his spine, but he quickly sits back straight in his chair.
“Now there’s a plate to scare the vegetarians!” says Ahmad, and they all laugh. Samir mixes the carafe of ‘araq with attention, and Bassam sends another quick text then rubs his hands together in anticipation of his meal.
“I’m crazy about meat!” he shouts. “Go on, be a vegetarian, Daoud. You too, Nidal. But look what you’re be missing!” He waves his hands at the platter of meats, covered with warmed pieces of pita bread and sprinkled with sumac and parsley. “Ya salam!”
There are no plates or cutlery, just the large platter, 2 baskets of bread already cut into quarters and wrapped in plastic, and a box of tissues. The waiter returns with a tray of lettuce, mint, and raw onions, as well as Nidal’s salad.
Samir puts out his cigarette and digs in. “Tafaddal ya jamaa’ Dig in!”
“Sahtayn!” says Ahmad as he raises his glass. David’s eyes are on Nidal as he lifts his
mostly empty glass. She waves at the platter of meats and says, “Go ahead! The meat’s good here. Or have some of my salads if you want.”
David is already reaching for a chunk of meat with a corner of bread while Samir refills his glass. Go with the flow.