Nidal walks into the courtyard, a large patio surrounded by trees with a small fountain in one corner, now dormant, and a string of colored electric bulbs stretched over the open space that cast red, blue, and white shadows across the stone floor. Some tables and chairs are scattered here and there, and despite the chill in the air a few die-hards sit outdoors, their glowing cigarettes and loud conversation defying the elements. On one side are some mailboxes for members of the Artists Syndicate, on the other the arched entrance to the bar and restaurant within. She strides across to patio, opens the glass door, and heads in. Whereas the patio is mostly deserted, the bar is packed. Tables crowd the space and a din of voices, clinking glasses and plates, and music coming from a television greet her ears as she stops to get her bearings. A few friends recognize her and wave her over to their tables, but spotting Basma sitting with some friends at a table near one corner, under an archway, she heads over to say hi.
“Marhaba! Hi everyone.”
“Marhabtayn, Ya Nidal! I thought I might see you here! Tafaddali! Have a seat! We were just talking about the show at Marmar.”
Basma slides over a bit and Nidal plops down into a chair. Basma is sharing a plate of falafel with two friends, Ahmad and Luay. Ahmad is a well-known writer and editor of a literary magazine in which Nidal had once published a short story. Luay paints and has exhibited throughout Syria and Lebanon, as well as once in Paris and Geneva. A cloud of cigarette smoke hangs over their heads, framing conversations made more fluent with the flow of ‘araq.
“Shu fi ma fi, Ahmad? What’s up?” asks Nidal. “Hi Luay.”
“Not much. Just working. And waiting for another story from you. That last one was good.”
“Good … but not great!” adds Luay, with a touch of malice. He had pursued Nidal in the days when she had been involved with Khalid al-‘Azm, and while he’d moved on — married now and with a young daughter — he remained bitter, not really even knowing why. But Nidal seems an easy target, so he lets his tongue loose when he has the opportunity.
“It’s only because Ahmad likes you that he published it in the first place.”
“La! Not at all! Nidal’s a very good writer. And at any rate her stories are better than your lousy canvases!” Ahmad interjects, mock punching Luay in the arm. Luay lets out a breath of air, sounding like a frustrated bull.
“Are you working on anything new?” Ahmad asks.
“Nah. I’ve been busy moving in to my new place and, you know, work. And I was just in Beirut.”
“No, I didn’t have any time. I only stayed one night and had to submit some stories, and then mostly went to bookstores. Maybe next time.”
“‘Ala ra’si, Saad’s great. But what do you mean Jouni’s not serious?” protests Basma. “He knows how to paint! He studied in Spain, you know, in San Lorenzo. And I like his work. Just because it’s not all dark and violent like yours doesn’t mean it isn’t good or serious.”
“You only say that because you stole from him and copy his style! And who cares about Spain?!” Luay had studied in Aleppo and Damascus, and aside from the few shows abroad had not traveled much. “Studying in Spain is no condition for being great. Mu shart.”
“Khalas, ya jamaa’. Cut it out, you guys! Stop!” says Ahmad, his hands making a time-out gesture like a referee. Then turning to Luay, he whispers loudly, so all can hear, “Shu bak? What’s the matter with you? Relax a bit!”
“Ma’lish,” Nidal adds, “I didn’t see it anyway… So what’s new in the world of poetry, Ahmad?”
“What do I know!” he laughs. “I’m too busy editing the magazine to read anything! But there are some good pieces coming out. Some young poets. Not bad. You should send me something else. I’ll work with you on it.” Ahmad has published five volumes of short stories, one that had been turned into a television mini-series, and he is widely respected as an author and editor.
“Minshuf, we’ll see,” she says as she pours herself a glass or ‘araq, then plops in two ice cubes. It’s the wrong order but at this point she’s more interested in the result, not the process. She sits back in her chair and takes a swig of the cool elixir.
Meanwhile Samir, Bassam, and David cross the mostly empty courtyard, shouting a perfunctory ‘Marhaba’ to the shadowy figures seated outdoors, then head into the bar. Samir stops at the door then excuses himself to go back to check his mailbox, where he receives some private mail and anything having to do with sculpture, expositions, and the like. So Bassam and David head inside and scout out a table in a far corner near the kitchen and under the large television monitor showing music videos. Kind of par for the course, David thinks as some Arab bimbo gyrates on the screen. You can’t escape Rotana these days. It’s a bit cacophonous in the corner, the music mixing with kitchen sounds and all the voices. He slides out of his winter jacket and settles in with his back to the room. Bassam follows suit and drags a chair over for Samir, who has just joined them at the table, carrying a fistful of letters and brochures in his hand. They order a carafe of ‘araq and some plates of mezzeh — hummus, falafel, mtabbel, and fried potatoes. David is famished and cannot wait to eat.
“Shu? Lots of mail?” Bassam asks.
“Mostly junk. A couple of love letters and some art supply catalogs. You know, the usual.”
Bassam laughs, knowing that Samir is joking about the love letters, but turning to David says, “Samir’s mal’aun. That devil has four lovers and he’s not even a Muslim!”
David doesn’t know if this is a joke but laughs anyway.
“I only have three — Miriam, my wife, and my mother-in-law’s oldest daughter! That’s enough for me!”
Bassam guffaws and it takes David a few seconds to figure out the joke, but his mind is mostly on the food. The smell from the kitchen has opened up his appetite.
The waiter brings the tray of ‘araq and Samir begins the alchemy.
“It’s crowded here tonight. I guess because it’s cold out. Bas, those guys outside are majaneen. You’d have to be nuts to sit out there on this cold night.” Bassam accepts a glass of ‘araq from Samir, who has mixed one for David as well.
“Yallah, sahtayn! To your health!” Samir raises his glass and they toast.
“To love!” says Bassam, with gusto.
“To food!” offers David, and they laugh at his crack.
“It’s coming. Don’t worry. You won’t starve! Hey, check out this brochure. It’s for the opening of Basma’s show at Bayt Sabri. They should have sent it to my newspaper office, since I only come here about once a month. I should probably go back and see it.”
“Let’s go tomorrow night. We’ll bring Daoud so he can see it too.”
“No, I have to stay home with Miriam,” says Samir. “Her sister is visiting and then they want to go see George’s house. Maybe in a few days.”
The food arrives and David, not waiting for his friends, digs in. Grabbing a piece of pita bread, he tears off a corner and grabs a falafel ball with it, dips it in the hummus, and scarfs it down. Samir and Bassam pick at the potatoes but seem less interested in the plates than in the glasses before them, which they raise with a certain frequency.
After a few moments, Samir leans toward David and says, “You know, you don’t have to get involved with that business with Ayman. The software and so on. You can let it drop.”
“This is not the place to talk about that, Samir,” interjects Bassam, holding a warning hand in the air. “But just think about it, Daoud. It could help us a lot. Wallahi, it could.”
David has food in his mouth, but grunts a little and nods his head while sipping from his glass. He puts down the glass and says “I’ll write to my father about it tomorrow. Tikram ‘uyunkum!” They laugh at his use of the familiar expression then let it drop. It’s not the best place to talk about this sort of thing. It’s surprising what sensitive ears can hear even over the most boisterous of noise.
“Shu had?” Samir cries, pointing at the television screen. “What is this nonsense?”
David and Bassam look up to see some guy in a fancy suit crooning while a young woman in a black evening gown walks up some grand staircase into what looks to be a palace. She looks over her shoulder with a hint of regret on her face, then joins some young stud waiting at the top. They lock arms then enter the palace together. The singer moans his broken heart on the pavement below while the tabla drum announces a shift toward a more folkloric rhythm and the scene cuts to a group of girls in flowing robes dancing the dabkeh.
“That makes no sense at all! These songs are getting worse all the time. I’d rather listen to Fairouz than this garbage!”
Bassam shakes his head. “They used to play Umm Kulthum here at night. I’ll see if I can get the waiter to change it.” He raises his hand and gestures to one of the servers, who comes quickly to the table. “Can’t you put on some nice music? We have a guest from New York here, and he wants to hear something good. Like Umm Kulthum or Sabah Fakhri.”
“Tikram, ustaaz. You’re right. I’ll ask the manager.” The waiter heads off.
After a minute the television goes silent and the speakers hanging in the corners come to life with Umm Kulthum’s al-Atlal.
“Ah! That’s much better! ‘Azeem!” Samir sits back and puts his arms behind his head, a smile on his face.
David cleans off the plate of mtabbel with a last fold of bread, and grin spreads on his face.
“Thanks!” he offers to no one in particular.
“For what?” says Samir. “The music?”
“Well, for that, but also for bringing me out tonight. It’s been a nice evening. I’d probably be at home reading if I hadn’t joined you tonight.”
“Basita. No problem. And it’s still early! You’re not going yet. Ibn al-‘Arabi can wait!”
David looks at his watch. It’s only about 9:30. “No, but I am going to the toilet. I’ll be back.”
He pushes away from the table and stands up to look around. The toilets are off in one corner, under an archway. He walks over, navigating among the tables and the gesticulating hands that dart out here and there. The yellowish walls are hung with little framed reproductions of works by Syrian artists as well as posters of past gallery shows. There is an exhibition space adjacent to the bar, though he has never been inside. He wonders if anyone ever goes there since he’s only sat in the bar or patio when he’s come.
He finds the cramped toilet and takes care of his business. Coming out he looks to the other side of the archway and sees Nidal seated with her friends. Her back is to him but he recognizes her nonetheless. Without thinking he stops and stares nervously. She doesn’t see him but Basma notices him standing there and, pulling an empty chair between herself and Nidal, asks David to join them.
He hesitates a moment — his friends are waiting for him across the room — but throws caution to the wind and joins them. Nidal turns as he arrives at the table and blushes, the glass of ‘araq poised at her lips.
“Marhaba!” he says eagerly as he takes a seat.
“Ahlayn, Daoud!” says Ahmad, who’d met David before.
“Ahlan! I’m Basma, and this is Luay, an artist. And you know Nidal. David’s an American but lives here now.”
“Hi, nice to meet you,” David says to Luay, then turning to Nidal says “Keefik?”
“Mineeha, I’m fine. Keefak intah?”
“Mashi al-hal. Ok,” offers David shyly.
“Ahlan,” says Luay. “What brings you here?”
“Oh, I came with some friends. We’re sitting over there.” He indicates Samir and Bassam with his head.
“No, I mean what brings you to Syria? What’s an American doing here? Are you with the CIA?”
David had heard this joke before, though it wasn’t always exactly a joke. But he had become accustomed to it.
“Yes, and he’s writing a report on bad artists!” jokes Basma.
“Then you’ll be at the top of his list!” retorts Luay.
“David’s from New York,” explains Ahmad. “He teaches at the American school here.”
“Ah, a jassous like the rest of them! We don’t need anymore spies here!” Luay says, leaning in aggressively. A shadow crawls across his face like a nebulous spider.
“Stop, Luay! David’s not a jassous! Leave him alone!” Basma says, but David interrupts her.
“No, I am. Really. But I’m a nice one!” says David, running with the joke that isn’t a joke. “I spy on your food, your ‘araq, and your music,” he says, sweeping his hands at the table. “So far so good, now that they put on Umm Kulthum. I’ll send in a report next week.”
Nidal laughs quickly, bringing her hand to her mouth, and Ahmad sniggers.
“Hilu, Daoud. We need more spies like you here!”
“I hate America.” Luay, still leaning into the table, looks balefully at David. He’s had a little too much to drink.
“How can you hate a place you don’t even know!” Basma cries.
“I know it. I was there three years ago, in Los Angeles. It was horrible. Fazee’ah.”
“Why?” asks David. “Most people like LA.”
“It was horrible. I left here and took a plane to Paris, then another one to California. I was in the air Eleven hours. Eleven! I started to cry when I thought how far away I was from my home. It’s far! Then I arrive at the Los Angeles airport. My sister lives there, so she had me come. I didn’t even want to go. So we land and it was like twenty hours after leaving Damascus. Imagine! Traveling for twenty hours and everything is different. The food is bad, shitty, ya’ni. No one speaks Arabic or Kurdish or anything but American.”
“You mean English, ustaaz Luay!” Nidal kids him. “They speak English in America.”
“No they don’t! No one can understand them. The British don’t! Wallah! They eat their words.” He makes a mock eating motion with his hands and gargles with his throat. “No one can understand them! Then I am going to get my suitcase and I go through this big door. How am I supposed to know it was an emergency exit? A bunch of alarms go off, lights and everything, and these three brutes come up and grab me. I started to shake. They took me into this room and interrogated me for a couple of hours – you know, they hate Muslims and Syrians. I tried to tell them it was just a mistake, but they wouldn’t listen to me. So I told them to just put me on the plane and send me back home. I didn’t even want to be there. But they were able to contact my sister, who came and got me. I spent two weeks and most of the time just sat in her house. I hate America! I’ll never go back.”
“Not after that! What kind of idiot walks through the emergency doors!?” Basma laughs, and this enrages Luay even more.
David is silent. He figures it’s best to let it go. He’s never had a problem with anyone in Syria just for his being American.
“Daoud is from New York, not LA, and plus his grandmother is from Damascus!” Nidal surprises herself by speaking in his defense. David too.
“Was,” offers David. “She died a long time ago. I didn’t really know her.”
“That doesn’t matter. New York. Los Angeles. Chicago. It’s all the same. You are all gangsters to me.”
“How’s your job?” asks Ahmad, hoping to change the subject.
“We have a little break this week, so I’m not working … just spying!”
Basma and Nidal laugh.
“What have you been doing on your break?” asks Basma.
Before David can answer, Samir is at his side and says “We’ve kidnapped him and are taking him to a secret location where he won’t be able to go back to America!”
“Hey, Samir,” says Ahmad. They are old friends from university. “Have a seat!”
“Why don’t you sit here?” Ahmad slides over and makes some room.
“I’m leaving anyway,” says Luay. “I have to get back to my studio.”
“And work on ‘serious art’?” Basma chides. Nidal laughs again. Luay glares at them both, then standing says “Yallah. Bye. Nice meeting you Daoud. Be careful with your spying,” and grabs his coat and heads out the bar.
David looks at Samir, then Nidal and Basma, and they all laugh.
“Majnun!” says Basma while Ahmad shakes his head.
“Wa la himmak, Daoud. He is just angry at the world. Let’s have some more ‘araq, and order your meats here.”
Samir waves to Bassam, who grabs his coat and David’s and brings them over to the table.
“Marhaba ya jamaa’ ” Bassam says as he grabs a chair and settles in next to Ahmad. Samir takes Luay’s seat across from Nidal.
Davis sits back in his chair. It’s an interesting start to the evening.