Go with the flow. David thinks of himself as someone who likes to go with the flow, but deep inside he is afraid of letting his fate go to chance. Serendipity for him is an ice-cream parlor in New York, not a philosophy of life or anything to count on. One can only go with the flow with proper planning, otherwise things get out of hand. At least they might. Even his coming to Damascus, though it struck his friends as a sudden change — “random” is how his buddy Dave had called the idea — was the product of careful research online, in books, and through talking with people (though not his father). David doesn’t like to leave anything to chance. It took a Syrian summer to cure him of the habit of stashing a small retractable umbrella in his backpack just in case it might rain.
Careful in life, careful in love, as they say. Although he has cultivated the appearance of being a romantic, falling in love dramatically — desperately, even — and with Hallmark consistency, David is unwilling to let himself go completely and give himself completely to another. Or to accept love completely. Marina has gotten closer than anyone to him, but even after three years she remains a stranger to his deepest thoughts and desires. His fears. Perhaps he is a stranger to them as well. She had suggested as much when he announced his plans to leave New York and head to Damascus. Having little interest in self-analysis, and even less in psychotherapy, David eschews thinking too deeply about his motivations, so as a result tends to find himself in situations of his own making, but at the same time is taken aback by them as if they were unforeseen, “random” events happening to him. Like he was cast in a soap-opera not of his own design or acting a role ill-suited to his temperament.
It doesn’t occur to him that sitting next to the beautiful Nidal on this winter evening, so far from home, far from his routine, is the culmination of weeks of subconscious planning and preparation, and not a little assistance by willing friends who can read his heart better than he. And serendipity. An inner voice tells him what he has known all along, that Samir and Basma have set up this evening’s encounter. But he has become expert at ignoring this voice, covering it with book learning, ideas, writing, and the flow work.
Go with the flow.
He grabs a few chunks of kebab with some bread and places them on his plate. Nidal sets a plate of olives between them and pushes a few onto his plate. He responds with a cursory “shukran.” She shrugs then stabs a fat green olive with a toothpick, plops it in her mouth, then demurely picks at her salad, saying nothing. Samir and Bassam talk on their side of the table, laughing over some private matter, while Basma and Ahmad continue their heated discussion of art and literature. One table, three corners.
David feels the weight of the silence between himself and Nidal, and after swallowing down a mouthful of meat, he sips some ‘araq then holds the glass thoughtfully before his face.
“I like this stuff,” he says, to no one in particular, though only Nidal can hear him. “They don’t really have it in New York, you know.” He looks over at Nidal, who is staring at him with that arch look in her eyes.
“You mean the ‘araq, or the kebab,” she finally says, somewhat flummoxed by his effort to open a conversational space. Of all things to talk about! In the company of others they have spoken of art, literature, even politics — tonight they are more or less alone, for the moment, at least, and all he talks about is food and drink. At least it’s not the weather.
“It’s odd how it started snowing this morning, but now it’s clear. But cold. Is it always this way in Damascus?” he asks his glass.
Nidal cannot contain herself any longer and bursts out laughing. It’s like a bad musalsal, with the characters talking past each other, about everything and nothing at all.
“What?” he asks, in mock surprise, a slight note of hurt in his voice.
“I mean, yes, the weather is like this in winter in Damascus. Changeable. You never know. And yes, ‘araq can be good, and how interesting to know that they don’t have it in America!” She laughs again.
“You’re an idiot!” he says to himself. “Here I am next to this woman I’ve been thinking about nonstop for weeks, and all I have to say is stupidities about ‘araq and the weather. Shit. It’s just like in New York.”
David is as much embarrassed at his lack of social skills as he is about sitting next to Nidal, for whom he feels a magnetic attraction.
“Hey, Daoud. Have some more ‘araq! Give me your glass.” Samir leans over with the pitcher. “Nidal, give him some ice, if you will. The bowl is over there.”
David hold up his glass while Nidal fills it with three small cubes, then Samir pours the ‘araq and some water, creating the milky white elixir. “Maybe this will loosen that ajdab’s tongue!” Samir thinks.
“That’s better!” David says to himself.
“I hope this gets better!” Nidal thinks.
Samir and Basma exchange glances across the table, then continue their conversations.
“Have you seen any good exhibitions recently?” David finally asks an interesting question. An opening.
Nidal turns in her chair and leans toward David. “Not a lot” she replies, “aside from Basma’s, which I guess Samir didn’t care for, and which you didn’t see either.”
“No, I did see it … sort of. You can see the paintings through the windows. But yeah, I didn’t have time to go. I’ll go back to Bayt Sabri and check it out, maybe tomorrow.”
“F-il mishmish,” she thinks. “Well, you should go, since it’s worth the visit. And not only because Basma is my friend. She studied with some good teachers, like Fateh Moudarres. Do you know his work?”
“No. I mean, I’ve heard the name, but don’t really know what his work is like. What’s it like? Do you know him?”
“He was great … he died a few years ago, the miskeen. But his paintings are excellent. He did a lot of rural scenes, you know, from the countryside. Peasants. And mostly Kurds. He was Kurdish, or at least his mother was, you know. Some of the paintings are very vivid, with old faces staring out, almost like Mesopotamian icons or statues. Have you seen those carvings at the museum?”
“No, but I saw some old animal statues in Aleppo, the ones made of black stone with white eyes kind of bugging out. Those?”
“No! Humans, not animals. More like the faces of the gods and goddesses depicted in ancient temples, but for peasants. You have to see them to know what I’m talking about.”
“OK. Where can I see them?”
“You can go to the museum or some of the galleries have some. I have a book with some of them that I can show you. His old studio also has a few of his works, sort of like a gallery. Have you been there?”
“No.” David is feeling like a rube now, while Nidal is opening up. He drinks the ‘araq and her tongue loosens. It’s a curious drink.
“Well he had this basement studio near Sahat an-Najma, ya’ni, in the center of town, not far from Sha’laan. Anyway, it was in the basement and had little light. He had stuff all over the place – books stacked on shelves, paint supplies in cans on the floor and on tables, and of course paintings and drawings lying around or on easels. It was a total mess! Fateh would hold court in his studio most mornings. You could go visit with him and talk, and smoke. I think there were more ashtrays than chairs! Even than paintings!”
David laughs. “Sounds interesting.”
“He was a real character, Fateh. Really smart. He studied in Europe and spoke lots of languages and knew all these famous people, like Sartre. He had a picture of Sartre in his studio.”
“When did he know him? Did he live in Paris?”
“I think he was there in the 60s, maybe earlier. I don’t know. But he liked to quote philosophy, literature, poetry, play the piano. He also had these pieces of paper hanging all over the studio with sayings on them, like obscure thoughts. I remember a coupe because I wrote them in my notebook one day. ‘That outlaw can draw the mountains with his voice,’ and ‘With one painting a man is able to found an entire nation.’ That sort of thing. No one understood any of it. We used to laugh that he was probably drunk when he wrote them, but I think he was above that. Drunk like the Sufis, you know, Daoud. You study that too, right? Sufism?”
“Yeah, I mean, sort of. I like to read Ibn al-‘Arabi and I used to go to dhikr in New York, but it’s not the same there. I mean, here, you have Ibn al-‘Arabi’s tomb and all the mosques, and the whole situation is different. It’s more normal. Everyone thought I was weird in New York.” By everyone David principally means Marina.
“I wouldn’t say it’s exactly ‘normal’ here either. Everything is so political that you have to be careful. Even praying can get you in trouble.” At least that has been her excuse for not praying or going to the mosque. “Everything is political here, Daoud. Even your ‘araq!”
“Here’s to politics!” he says as he raises his glass to hers. She smiles and raises hers as well. As she sips she can see Basma beaming at her from over the rim of the glass. She blushes a little too, annoyed at being the object of these designs, but pleased as well.
“Yallah, Daoud, you aren’t eating! Kull!” Samir piles some kebab on his plate and adds some bread.
“Ok, OK! That’s enough! I’m not that hungry!”
“But this is good meat. It’s not like what you get in Europe, you know, the mad cow meat. Or in America. I would starve there! Shi bikhawwif! It’s scary!”
“You could become a vegetarian, Samir!” Nidal cannot resist poking fun at him. “It might do you good.” She pats her stomach in jest.
“Hey! I’ve worked years on this kirsh!” says Samir as he rubs his somewhat rotund belly. “I’m proud of it. It’s a living sculpture!”
“Better than the ones you make in stone and clay!” Basma cannot resist a jab either.
Samir laughs good heartedly as Bassam stands up.
“Shu, ya Bassam? You’re not going, are you?” says Ahmad in protest. “Lissa bakeer! It’s still early!”
“Wallahi, I have to go home to my wife, but first I want to sing a song to my friend Daoud.” Everyone looks at David, who blushes from embarrassment.
“Why not? You come all the way to Damascus from America to spy on us. You teach us English. You drink our ‘araq and eat our meat. You sit with our women! Ya’ni, you are one of us. Li’uyounak ya Daouad. Here’s to you!” He raises his glass, as do the others, and they drink to David’s health.
Nidal looks over at David, who seeing her looking at him blushes even more. They both laugh. it seems so crazy. Samir is all smiles. Ahmad leans back in his chair with a sly grin on his face, while Basma stares incredulously at Bassam. He’s majnoun, but in a good way.
Bassam sets down his glass and stands for a moment, clears his throat, takes a long breath, then begins.
Going with the flow. Indeed.