Nidal hugs and kisses her aunt, then steps out the door into the dark street. She makes her way over to Medhat Pasha, winding through the old neighborhood, then comes to Bab al-Jabiya at the intersection with the main avenue circling the Old City. The elegant Sinan Pasha mosque stands to one side — its delicate green enameled-brick minaret a stark contrast to the ugly architect cropping up in and around the city, mosques included. And not only in Damascus. She was shocked on her last trip to Beirut to see the plans for the Grand Mosque – a parody of Ottoman styles that looked to her more like an enormous toad squatting in Martyr’s Square, rather than an elegant testament to faith.
She stops to observe the mosque. The minaret is lightly illuminated from the moon and passing cars, but unlike so many mosques today no green lights dangle from its gallery, sparing it this garish headdress. She can make out the large dome rising above the striped stone walls. Her father had taken her there when she was just a child, not so much to pray, though he was moderately faithful, especially for a man of science, but to enjoy the tranquility within. Although she hasn’t been to a mosque in years and only says her prayers in passing, she remembers fondly the moments she spent in its inner courtyard, so much like the old palaces she’d visited as a schoolgirl — expansive, cloistered from the outside hustle and bustle — and yet embodying a different sort of energy. Perhaps that’s what the faithful call the “spiritual,” though she’d left her devotions behind with her childhood home. But the traces of that education remain, and the memories.
She looks at her watch: 8:45. She’s tired and should probably go home and sleep, but the idea of stopping for a quick drink at Riwaq has a greater hold on her imagination at the moment. She feels a slight twinge of guilt for even considering this while standing before the centuries-old mosque, then dismisses it with a quick shake of her head and looks down the street for a taxi. At this hour there are few, since the drivers, having finished their long days, will be at home eating and watching television, or sleeping. A few cars and a couple of those little Suzuki delivery trucks zoom into Medhat Pasha on their way toward Bab Sharqi, but there are surprisingly few people on the street tonight. Perhaps it’s the cold, or the nearly full moon, but she feels a preternatural urge to wrap herself up in a blanket and just float up to Riwaq, like a witch.
After a few moments of waiting a taxi stops and she opens the rear door, hops in, and closes it gently behind her.
David slams the taxi door shut and the driver protests, “Hey, tawwal balak, ustaaz! You’ll break my car!” David apologizes meekly then fumbles for his seatbelt. The driver laughs.
“Wa la himmak, ustaaz. I’m a good driver. I’ve never had an accident. Plus there is no seatbelt!”
It’s a modern Chinese taxi, cramped and noisy, but already customized à la Syrienne. A red and white kufiyah covers the small dash, topped by a wobbly-head dog figurine. Colored lights illuminate the doorjambs and headliner, as well as the glove box and radio. Various air fresheners hang from the rearview mirror, creating an olfactory symphony of pine, cinnamon, lemon, and Allahu ‘alam, along with a rosary and mini-Qur’an dangling on a green string. To top it all off, the stereo blasts some folksy music at near-deafening volume.
“Can you turn that down, please?” yells Samir from the back. I can’t hear myself think.”
“Tikram, ustaaz,” the driver says as he lowers the volume. “But who needs to think?” Turning to David, he asks, “Where to, m’alem?” and speeds off into the night.
David tries to tell the driver where, but says “‘Afaf” instead of “‘Afif,” and they all have a little laugh at his expense.
“Shu, m’alem. Wayn hay ‘Afaf? I’ve been driving the streets of Damascus for 25 years and I only know ‘Afif!”
David stammers, “I mean ‘Afif, of course, ya’ni, up by the French Embassy.”
“Ah!” the driver responds. “‘Afeeef. Not ‘Afaaaaf! ‘Azeem! Shu, do you live up there? Fransi, inteh? Do you work at the Embassy?”
“Leave him alone! He’s not from here!” says Samir, then he returns to chatting with Bassam chat in low voices in the rear.
The driver, looking over at David, says, “Tayyib, min wayn hadratak? Where are you from, then?”
“I’m from New York, but my grandparents were from Damascus. I live here now.”
“Amerka! Wow! New York! What’s your work? Do you work here or are you just visiting?” The driver stops at a light.
“I’m a writer and sometimes teach. I work at the new American school here, out in al-Mezzeh.”
“Mineeh. So, tell me. How much does one need to live in Amerka. Ya’ni, how much each month?” The light turns green and they continue, passing over the river and up a short hill toward downtown Damascus.
David has heard this question a million times, and answers, “New York’s expensive. You need about $2000 for rent and another $2000 to live on. That’s just to get by.”
“Ma’ul? Really? $4000 a month in New York? Basita. I make that here,” he says, adding “No problem!” in English.
“Ya’ni, It’s expensive. Kiteer ghaliyya.”
“But you have a good life here, no? Shu bidna bi-New York! They must pay teachers a lot at your school.”
“Not really, but it’s ok,” says David. “It’s enough for me.”
“Muslim wa la Masihy? Muslim or Christian?” asks the driver, somewhat cheekily.
“Khalas! Leave him alone!” shouts Bassam from the back. “Shu dakhlak? What’s it your business?”
“I’m just talking,” says the driver. “It doesn’t matter. I’ll still take you to your “‘Afaf” no matter what your religion! I have nothing against Christians.”
They drive in silence for a few minutes, then the driver continues.
“It’s a disaster in Iraq, ustaaz. Why did your president send all those soldiers to kill us for? They don’t have those weapons of mass destruction. Saddam is an ajdab, an idiot. He can’t have those weapons, no way. Bas, that Bush, now he’s a real nimra. That zalimeh has a ‘tongue of mass destruction.’ All he has to say is ‘aha’ and he destroys us!”
“Shu biya’rfni?” says David. “What do I know? I’m against war at any rate. I’m with you. It’s a disaster. We should’t have gone.”
At this the driver attempts one of those high-five hand slaps, but has to grab the steering wheel to avoid missing the turn from Yousef al-‘Azmeh toward the Jasmine Hotel. They make the turn then speed along the street, mostly empty at this hour.
“‘Azeem! Bas, laysh tahkri ‘arabi inte? Why do you speak Arabic?”
It was the familiar routine: where he’s from, why he speaks Arabic, sometimes if he’s a Muslim, and then the questions about his personal life, and the inevitable four wives scenario he’s heard 1,001 times. To avoid this, David tells the driver, his voice a firm monotone, “I’m from New Jersey. I learned Arabic from my father, and also at the university. I have one girlfriend but I don’t want four. One’s enough. Khalas.”
The driver looks over at him like he’s a little crazy. “Mashi, ustaaz. Khaleena nrouh. Let’s go. So, ‘Afif, near the French Embassy.” The driver turns up the music slightly and they continue their route in silence.
“It worked after all!” David thinks.
Marina sits in front of the desk, her iPhone ringing in her hand. After a few seconds she sets it down and frowns. The travel agent asks, “So? Any news? Have you decided? I can get you the Damascus flight now but there aren’t many seats left at this fare. There isn’t much time.”
“He’s not answering so I don’t know if it’s a good time to go. I’ll have to try later.”
David hardly ever picks up the phone, even when he’s there. She can’t understand why he refuses to get a cell phone. It doesn’t cost anything there to receive a call from the States, and she wants to make this reservation. He hasn’t answered her last letter and they didn’t talk about it the last time they spoke, about 10 days ago. She’s tried all morning and now it’s almost 3:00 and she has the seminar Uptown at 4:00. She can’t sit there forever. Where the heck is he anyway?
She sighs, brushes her hair back over her ears, and looks around the room. Her eyes stop on a flyer hanging in the window announcing seasonal fares to Mexico City.
“How much to the D.F?” she asks.
“Excuse me?” says the agent.
“How much to Mexico City? The same dates.”
“I thought you wanted to go to Syria? Now it’s Mexico?!”
“Yeah. My family is there. I’m from there too. I haven’t been back in over a year.”
Maybe it’s best to go visit her family, sin David. She needs a break from the City anyway, and has 3 weeks off in January from school. And David has been so weird. She understands that he needed to make the trip, to take some time for himself, even if the “getting to know his Syrian roots” thing was a little sophomoric. But now he’s got a job there and talks about staying … that is, when she can talk to him. He’s so hard to pin down. It’s not like she had pressured him to get married or even to move in together. That wasn’t her thing. He was the one who brought it up anyway. But in the months before he left they had grown apart and argued more than ever before. He hated his job, and the ‘goofy-Sufi’ charade irritated her, and now he’s doing some Ibn al-‘Arabi “project.” What project? Sometimes he is too much. Mexico seems like a good place to get away to. She needs a break.
“OK, let me check.” The agent fiddles with her computer for a moment then announces, “For those dates it would be $525 roundtrip or $400 oneway. There are still seats left. Do you want to book it?”
Marina looks at her watch again, tells the agent to hold on a second, then picks up her phone and dials her mother. Perhaps this is best.
Nidal slides into the seat and tells the driver, “‘Afif, please, just up from the French Embassy.”
“Tikrami,” says the driver, an older man dressed in a traditional robe, with a checkered kufiyah around his neck. Nidal sits in her own thoughts while the driver puts the car in gear and turns off into al-Qanawat. The older model Fiat is sparsely decorated, and only a simple rosary hangs from the rearview mirror. David Bowie sings somewhat incongruously from the stereo.
“Ma’lish, binti, if I listen to this? My son gave me this cassette. He bought it in Europe. Does it bother you?” he asks. While Nidal doesn’t much care to listen to “Modern Love” at this particular moment, she assents.
“No, ‘Amo. It’s fine. Thanks.”
“Yallah,” he says, as they come to the intersection with Khalid Ibn al-Waleed Street. He looks over this shoulder then heads toward the Hijaz train station, now covered in scaffolding but illuminated by the growing moon. Nidal had never taken the ld train up to the mountains, and now it was too late.
Nidal’s thoughts turn to David. “It’s crazy,” she tells herself. “I don’t even know this guy.” And yet she finds herself thinking about him more and more. Why? He’s handsome, alright, and always very nice. He seems smart and has interesting things to say, on the rare occasion when he opens his mouth since he’s so khajoul, so shy. She smiles faintly as she recalls how he had stammered and blushed earlier in the evening when they had met at Bayt Sabri. Cute, in a way. There’s a certain chemistry between them. That’s undeniable.
“But it’s impossible!” she tells herself with that same quick shake of the head. “Mustaheel! He’s an American, even if his grandmother was from here. He’ll eventually go back home. And he’s Christian too.”
Not that she really cares about religion, but how could she face her family? And at any rate a Muslim woman can’t marry a non-Muslim man in Syria unless he converts. Even if David seems more than a little bit interested in Sufism and Islam, it seems far fetched to her. Plus he’s an “Amerki!” What would her father think? ‘Amti? And why is she even thinking about these things? Marriage? Who is she kidding? She barely knows him.
And what does David see in her anyway? She’s just a Palestinian journalist. Samir mentioned once that he has some fancy girlfriend in New York, so God knows what he’d wants with her.
“Khalas, Nidal. Insaah. Forget about him,” she tells herself. But she can’t bring herself to forget. Fi shi. There’s something there. She just doesn’t know what. What to say. What to do. She’s had her heart broken already. The pain of Khalid’s rejection still stings, even years later. Someday her situation will improve.
Someday. That’s what ‘Amti always said. But when? Like the long-promised ‘awdeh to Palestine, it seems far off. “Someday” may never come.
They pass Damascus University and she almost tells the driver to stop and take her home instead, but decides against it. It will be nice to get out. She could use a drink. So as “Suffragette City” plays on the stereo the driver crosses Jisr al-Rayees and continues up toward al-Rawda.
David glances at his watch. It is nearing 9:00. Marina said she’d call today, but instead of her he’s thinking of Nidal and how tongue-tied he got when he saw her at Bayt Sabri. “What are you getting yourself into?” he asks himself. “You don’t even know her. Yeah, she’s pretty — beautiful, even — and seems interesting, nice. But your being stupid again, David. It’s impossible. You can’t even go out on a date here without getting married first. So that’s crazy. And she’s a Muslim too … Whatever. Probably only George would make a deal out of it. What’s his problem anyway?” David’s mind wanders.
“Hey, do you guys want to stop at Firdaws first, or go straight to Riwaq?” asks Samir as the taxi passes the Jasmine Hotel. “We might meet someone there, or we could go to Lanterna instead.”
“No, I’m hungry,” replies Bassam. “We can go to Firdaws another night. Let’s just go to Riwaq. Jayy ‘ala bali ashuf al-fananin. I feel like seeing some artists.”
“Yeah right!” rejoins Samir. “How about you, Daoud? You said you were hungry.”
“Aiy, let’s go to Riwaq,” David chimes in. “I’m hungry too and want to eat something.” He has food and Nidal on the brain now.
“Mashi,” Samir says, “it was just an idea.” So he sits back and they continue on their trajectory up al-Hamra Street.
At al-Rawda Square the taxi shoots up al-Ma’ari Street, navigates a few sides streets, then emerges onto Nazem Pasha Street.
“It’s just over here on the right, ‘Amo,” says Nidal. The driver pulls over and as Nidal pays the fare he says, “Intibihi ‘ala halik, ya binti. Take care of yourself, my daughter.” Nidal smiles warmly at him,says ‘Shukran,’ then opens the door and steps into the street. The night air is cold but refreshing. She braces herself and walks into the courtyard. You never know who will turn up at Riwaq.
At al-Jisr al-Abyad Square they zoom past the French Embassy.
“Lak wayn, ustaaz? Where to now?” asks the driver.
David hesitates but Samir announces, “Just up ahead on the left, where that other taxi has stopped.”
The driver pulls over.
“Yallah, ya jama’, have fun. Bas mu kiteer, just not too much!”
Bassam and Samir argue over who will pay, but David slips the driver some bills and opens the door.
“Shu, Daoud. Ma biseer! You can’t do that! Don’t take his money!” But David steps out into the cool evening air and stretches his arms up. Too late.
“It’s a beautiful city, even if everyone is a little nuts,” he thinks. “I guess me too!”
Samir and Bassam walk around the front of the taxi and join him on the sidewalk.
“I’m za’lan with you!” Bassam says. “You didn’t have to pay! You’re our guest here!”
“Basita!” says David. “It’s nothing.”
“Yallah,” says Samir, “but I’m getting the first drink!” and they walk quickly into the courtyard.
You never know who will show up at Riwaq.