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Bassam clears his throat, then making sure that he has everyone’s attention, places his right hand next to his ear, closes his eyes, and begins to sing:

Ouf! Ouf! Ouf!

Everyone at the table cracks up. It’s the traditional start of rural songs, and Bassam hams it up.

“Aywah ya muhajir! Ghanni!” Samir shouts, as he lights a another cigarette. “Sing, Immigrant!” using his nickname for Bassam.

Ouf! Ouf! Ouf!

Ah yaa Daoud!
Ouf! Ouf!

Laysh inteh jeet, wa ma jibt al-‘oud.
Inteh jassous, ma ‘indak baroud.
Ouf! Ouf!

Laysh inteh jeet, wa ma jibt al-‘oud.
Inteh jassous, ma ‘indak baroud.
Ouf! Ouf!

Ahh wayn bitrouh, inteh mawjoud.
Tadiqq ‘al-abwab, manak marfoud.
Ouf! Ouf!

Ahh wayn bitrouh, inteh mawjoud.
Tadiqq ‘al-abwab, manak marfoud.
Ouf! Ouf!

Yaa Daoud!
Ouf! Ouf!
Yaa Daoud!
Ouf! Ouf!

[Oh David,
Why did you come and not bring the oud?
You are spy but don’t have a gun.
We love you here, don’t go back home.
Wherever you go, there you are.
You knock on doors, and aren’t refused.]

He finishes with a melismatic phrase and a dramatic flourish of his hands. Basma and Ahmad laugh while Nidal claps her hands and smiles at David. He doesn’t really get it and is embarrassed by the attention. The waiter has turned off the radio — Bassam beats out Umm Kulthum if only for the novelty of his singing — and a few patrons shout out, “Aywah ya ustaaz! Allah! Allah!”

Samir is less impressed, but laughs anyway. He takes the cigarette from his mouth and says, “Shu had, khay? That’s ridiculous! You just made that up! That’s not a song!”

“Ma’loum!” Bassam replies. “Of course I made it up! Daoud deserves his own song! What do you think, Daoud?”

“Hilweh!” he offers, gamely, though he didn’t really understand much. Secretly he is pleased that he is the object of attention, of a song. In New York no one sings songs to him, for him. In Damascus he has become special.

“But he doesn’t even play the ‘oud and what’s this about a gun, and being a spy! ‘He knocks on doors and isn’t refused?!’ What’s that about?” Samir spreads his hands out wide and raises his eyebrows in mock offense.

“But what else rhymes with Daoud? khuloud? mazout? No, not that. Umm … quloub, maybe? ‘aboud? ma’roub? ma’khoud? ma tuzbut. Those words don’t work.”

“Whatever. Sing us something else, ya’ni, a real song! He has a good voice!” he says to everyone and no one in particular. Bassam was known for his strong voice in his days at the university, when he would sing songs at parties and sometimes at political rallies. Now he mostly keeps to himself and only sings when prompted from time to time.

Basma adds her voice to the appeal. “Go on, Bassam! Sing us something from the Gulf, or from Suwayda! Yallah, for God’s sake. Give us a song!”

Bassam had spent his mandatory military service in the Houran region of southern Syria. Two years of penance in the dry foothills, but he had grown to love it there.

“Ok, Ok. Just a moment … OK, Here’s one I like. It’s also for David.”

He clears his throat again, then stops to take another sip of ‘araq.

“How’s it go again?” He looks off to the side, mouthing some words and moving his hand in synchrony with his lips, then with a little nod of the head says, “OK, I remember it now. Yallah.” He clears his throat again and takes a deep breath. All eyes are on Bassam, though Nidal steals a glance at David from the corner of her eye.

Yaa Yaa Yaa
Yabaa Yabaa Yabaa…

His arms wave about, a drop of sweat forms rolls down his brow, and the room explodes in “Ohs” and “Ahs.” Samir leans back in his chair and drags on his cigarette, looking self-satisfied. That’s his friend singing. He and Basma share a quick look, and Samir raises his eyebrows a bit while tilting his head slightly in the direction of David and Nidal, who sit silently next to one another — trying to hear Bassam over the noise of their heart beats.

Yaa Yaa Yaa
Yabaa Yabaa Yabaa…

Galbi ana biyhibbaha, wa ya ma ta’ib bi-hubbaha.
Galbi ana biyhibbaha, wa ya ma ta’ib bi-hubbaha.

Ma bahibb ghayrha, bil-bashar wa biyiltift ila lahaa.
Ma bahibb ghayrha, bil-bashar wa biyiltift ila lahaa.

la lahaa la lahaa.
la lahaa la lahaa.

la lahaahaa la lahaa.
la lahaahaa la lahaa.

[O my heart, I love her. And no matter how I tire, I love her.
I don’t love anyone else on earth, and no one else turns my head.
None but her, none but her.
None but her, none but her.]

He finishes the last phrase with a flourish then waves his hands around as he sings the words “la lahaa.” When he finishes several people in the restaurant applaud and a few shout encouragement.

Samir jumps up and slaps him on the back. “Aywah, ya rouhi!Azeem! That’s more like it! That’s a great song!” Then he looks over at David and grins. “Shu, Daoud? Ma hilweh? Isn’t it great? Did you understand it?”

It’s a well-known song by the late Fahd Ballan, but David doesn’t know it or really follow anything but the words “hubb” and “galbi,” “love” and “my heart.” Bassam affects a “jabali” or mountain style of singing, with its distinctive consonants and vowels.

Sitting across from Bassam, Nidal had blushed when she realized the song was about her, but she doesn’t seem to mind and claps loudly. David claps too but is confused. He looks at Nidal and shrugs. What was the song about? Why is Basma practically leering at him?

Samir looks at Ahmad. “Not bad for a muhajir, huh?! Who composed that song anyway?” Ahmad laughs and at the same time gives Samir the Syrian high-five hand slap.

Wallah, I don’t know,” says Ahmad. “Probably ‘Abd al-Fattah Sukkar. He did most of Ballan’s songs. A great composer. It’s a good song. And Bassam has a great voice. I had forgotten! You should come more often and sing for us, Basoumeh!”

“I don’t have time, ya Abu Mazin,” he says, using Ahmad’s nickname “Unlike you, I have a job and can’t spend all day at this dive!” He slaps him on the shoulder as Ahmad laughs. It is well-known that if you want to find Ahmad, he holds regular hours at Riwaq most nights from 8:00 until closing. Tonight is no exception.

“Anyway, that was for you, Daoud! I’ll give you a cassette of it tomorrow. Now it’s time for me to go, ya jamaa’ . My beautiful wife is waiting for me to sing to her. She will get jealous if I only sing to Daoud!”

Everyone at the table laughs, and a waiter comes over to remove the remains of the meat platter while another sets down a bowl of fruit.

“Anyone want coffee or tea to go along with the singing tonight?”

David is about to order a coffee to wake him up a bit but Ahmad interrupts his thoughts with a proposal.

“Hey, I have an idea. We’ll eat some fruit, and then I’ll drive us up to the mountain and we can get tea at one of those little stands up there. What do you guys think?”

“Sounds good, and then you can drive me home!” says Samir. “It’s impossible to find a taxi here at night, especially when it’s cold out.”

“OK, I can drive you all home, no problem!”

“That’s if your car will even start!” Basma starts the digs again, as arms reach for fresh fruit from the platter.

Wa la himmik! You can always push us if it doesn’t, Basma!”

Samir tosses a banana to Bassam. “Khud, az’ar. Here’s a banana. Take it home. I’ll see you tomorrow. Text me when you are ready and I’ll come over.”

The two friends always seem to have some sort of business going on.

“OK, yallah, bye everyone! ”

Bassam takes his leave, but not before stopping to shake David’s hand. Leaning over closely, he says, “Don’t forget Ayman”

“I won’t. ‘ala ra’si! I swear!”

‘Azeem!” says Bassam. He looks up at Nidal, winks, then turns and strides across the floor toward the door, stopping to shake a few hands along the way.

Nidal selects a large orange, then hands it to David with a smile on her face.

“Eat one! They help you digest the meat.”

He takes it in his hands with a shy “shukran.” Nidal doesn’t know why she offered him the fruit but it felt right to do so. She thinks of ‘Amti Fatimah and her oranges. Home in the palm of your hand.

When she turns to Basma to say something David slips the orange into his coat pocket. Samir has already piled two bananas and an apple on a napkin in front of him and hands him a knife.

Yallah, Daoud. Kull. Eat so we can get out of here.”

“OK.” David grabs the knife and begins to peel the skin of an apple, one long stroke at a time.

It’s been a curious few hours. He is at once unsettled and joyous. Time seems to stop in Damascus, and then before you know it a thousand years pass in the blink of an eye.

***

Nidal carefully peels an orange. She knows that Basma has had hand in setting up the evening – she had hinted as much at Bayt Sabri when David and Samir had appeared at a nearby table. It wasn’t a coincidence that they had run into each other there tonight, and that they should all end up here at Riwaq – Basma and Samir had arranged it all via text. It wouldn’t be the first time they had conspired to set her up with someone. A few months ago it was Samir’s colleague from the paper, a political correspondent with bad teeth and worse breath. Basma thought that he was “nice” and came from a good family and had an apartment in the center of town. Nidal had been angry with her. Like she was going to be with someone so lacking in charm. And he wasn’t even very interesting to talk to. Basma had even once proposed her cousin ‘Arif, but Nidal couldn’t see past his ties to the government. ‘Arif had been at university with the young president’s cousin, and hence had certain connections that he was proud of flaunting. Easy access to various ministries. A certain stake in a mobile phone company. Invitations to exclusive parties. Not Nidal’s sort of scene, not what she envisioned for her life.

Aren’t there any normal men in Damascus, ones not already married (of married ones there were plenty of offers)? Who aren’t caught up in the messy business of politics? It doesn’t seem so to her, and especially after the fiasco with Khalid she wasn’t holding her breath. Better off alone, she always says to herself. And she has her aunt to watch over. And watch over her.

David is another matter altogether, and she still doesn’t know what to make of him, of the situation. She decided tonight to let her feelings guide her for a change. As a result she is having a good time, even if she feels a little pressured, and not a little bit in the spotlight. He also seems a little ill at ease but in a charming way. Cute, even. And why did he put that orange in his pocket?

***

Basma cannot figure out her friend. She has set her up with a dozen men, all worthy, but it never works out. She is too darn picky. Snobbish, is what everyone else says. “It’s her Palestinian pride,” Layla had said. “They think they’re too good for Syrian men, or even Lebanese.” Basma had defended her friend, but wondered if perhaps there was something to that. Nidal never seemed happy with anyone. With David she was always aggressively dismissive. An American. Only here for a year. Has a girlfriend… Some girlfriend if he is willing to leave her for a year and hang out in this place. Samir thinks he likes her, but who knows with these foreigners? Tonight she seems a little more at ease with him, and they finally got to talking though it was like pulling teeth. Some people are so dense! Then Bassam almost ruined it with his song, but they seemed to like it and now are talking again. So mineeh. All is good.

***

Ahmad knows he’ll have to give a report to the mukhabarat after tonight’s get together — part of his agreement with the authorities for allowing him to publish his magazine. He thinks he’ll leave out David and focus on Bassam singing a little drunk. Why get the American involved? He seems nice enough, and Basma says that Nidal likes him. Yet Bassam had called him a spy, so maybe they know something he doesn’t. And that whisper as he left. What did Bassam mean, ‘Don’t forget Ayman’?

He’ll have to think about this. But time to get out.

Yallah. let’s get out of here! Jahizeen? You all ready?”

He calls the waiter over and tells him to put the bill on his tab. Samir protests and they argue briefly, but Ahmad insists, placing an arm on Samir’s shoulder. “It’s David’s night! Let’s just go. You can get it another time.”

Samir shrugs. “What am I going to do with this guy? You are too generous Abu Mazin.”
Wa lau! It’s nothing. Let’s go!”

They all push out from the table and get their jackets on before heading out the door. David feels the orange in his pocket and smiles.

It’s been a nice evening. Very nice!

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