A faint smell of snow in the air greets him as he wakes, along with the usual morning chill. Throwing on some clothes, he peeks out the window to find the streets covered in snow, a blanket of new flakes falling gently on the city. A rare occurrence in this semi-desert.
The city is silent save for the occasional footfalls as someone walks past on the sidewalk below. Across the street Abu ‘Ali opens his store, the metal shutter momentarily breaking the silence with its rude clattering. Then all falls silent again. The occasional car leaving slushy tracks and muffled sounds in its wake.
An old man selling Butagaz walks through the snow, his horse-drawn cart piled high with the tanks of cooking gas. He bangs out a quick rhythm on one of them with his wrench to notify his customers. It’s a trademark beat, two quick raps followed by three longer ones, reminiscent of the hit song “Habibi Ya Nour al-‘Ayn.” The wheels of the cart creak as it rolls through the snow. The horse snorts then lumbers to a stop as a woman steps gingerly into the snowy street to order a tank. They exchange a few words, then the old man pulls a tank down from the side of the cart and, bending over, places it on his shoulder and hauls it over to her building.
The wind blows down in short, angry gusts from Jabal Qasiyun, the mountain lying veiled in white as it surveils the city, impassive guardian of time.
No doves circle in the morning sky today.
No children play in the streets.
No one dreams of spring jasmine or summer roses.
Only the drip and hiss of mazout in the sobia as it warms the room, and in the distance the old man’s hollow beats.
A wintry day in Damascus …
He decides to make a pot of tea and puts on the radio. The morning programs feature either the latest pop songs, which he finds a little too loud and a little too frenetic for a quiet snow-filled morning, or boring news programs. He reaches instead for his collection of cassette tapes that he keeps in a cardboard box on the small shelf below the television set, selects a tape, pops it into the machine and hits Play. It’s a recording from the 1930s of Mary Jubran performing a suit of traditional songs in the minor mode known as Nahawand. Long instrumental preludes give way to Jubran’s dulcet voice bemoaning lost love and thwarted desire. She soars and dives with melismatic dips and turns, while the instrumentalists strive to keep up with her in a melodic pursuit of great beauty. No wonder the Arabs refer to their singers with such epithets as “Nightingale” and “Lark.” She is a songbird bringing some life to a cold, lifeless morning.
The music makes him pensive – it is perhaps more suited to evening listening than to morning – but he leaves it on anyway as it fits his mood. He removes the now steaming tea kettle from the top of the sobia and pours out a mug, then folds his lanky frame into the small sofa, takes a few tentative sips, and plots his day. Too cold for a walk in the park. Nothing needed from the store or market down the street. No appointments, and the academy is closed for the Christmas holidays. Maybe a run for a newspaper, though the kiosk may not yet be open. It’s only 7 am after all, and the snow may have delayed delivery. Outside the window the snow still falls and the world is calm. “Best to stay indoors and work,” he thinks, then grabs his notebook and pen from the coffee table and begins to review his work from the night before.
David is a second generation Arab-American working as an English teacher at a private academy in Damascus. Most of his students are businessmen trying to improve their English as Syria opens slowly to the West, as well as a few young men and women getting extra help so they can pass their university exams in English Literature. The pay is decent and the job allows him not only to rent a nice furnished flat up in Muhajireen but also ample time to pursue his real interests in literature, music, and Sufism. He was never very religious but there was always something about Sufism that attracted him, though he wasn’t sure what.
Marina had faulted him for being a “goofy Sufi” after he attended some dhikr ceremonies at a little mosque in SoHo.
“How can you go and do something you don’t even believe in?” she’d asked him. “It’s hypocritical. You’re not a Muslim. You’re barely even an Arab! You’re just pretending you believe in all that touchy-feely stuff about God and, I dunno, ‘divine spirit’ or whatever you call it. And you’re just leading them on. They probably think you’re a convert, or that they can convert you.”
He didn’t really have an answer for her. “Marina, I’m not converting, or anything, he said, “I just go and follow along. And by the way, only like two of the people there are even Arabs, the rest are from all over, so it doesn’t matter who you are. You could come too and see for yourself.”
“Yeah right!” she’d replied. “Give me a break, David. You know I’m not into spiritual stuff. 12 years of Catholic school was enough to totally turn me off of religion. Even yoga class pushes it when the teacher starts chanting and talking all that mumbo jumbo. Since when did you get so damn holy?”
And so it went on for months, straining a relationship that had initially sprouted from shared interests in avant-guard cinema, the New York Review of Books, and Cognac. But in the end not even Lars Von Trier, Salman Rushdie, and Rémy Martin were enough to keep them together. One day when she derided his desire to travel and see more of the world – “You are such a dreamer, sometimes, David. Get real!” – it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, and he left her behind with her Marxist literary criticism, thick glasses, and short black hair, booking a flight to dreamland … via Paris, destination Damascus. He was 28, had a little money in his pocket saved from his last editing job, a visa good for two weeks, and no real plan.
The encounter at the bookstore changed all of that. After a few days wandering around Damascus, he’d stopped in a small shop across from the Jasmine Hotel to browse for poetry collections when the owner engaged him in conversation. Soon they were sipping cups of Nescafé together in the Cafe al-Kindi across the street, one thing led to another, and he had an interview with the bookshop owner’s friend who ran a private language school in the city. They needed a new teacher since one had left abruptly and returned to his home in Los Angeles. There was a whiff of scandal about his departure, but it suited David perfectly. The job would provide him not only with a small income, but more importantly with an iqama or residence card valid for a year, with renewal if he remained on the job. Without the iqama he’d be obliged to renew his tourist visa every two weeks, and after a few trips to the visa bureau it became not only tedious but also unlikely to be renewed. David was in the right place at the right time. It would not be the first time in his life.
He rises from the sofa and goes over to his cramped desk by the window, mug of tea in hand, to resume his translation of a short essay on the great mystic Ibn al-‘Arabi that he plans to submit to in a newsletter published in Cambridge. It’s a tough essay on an even tougher Arabic text, but he’s making some progress. Stacks of paper vie with dictionaries, scattered pens, and open books for space on the desk top. Suddenly the phone rings. He turns down Mary Jubran and picks up the receiver. It’s his friend Samir, who invites him to lunch at his apartment across town. It would be a bit of a trek in the snow, but Samir, or “Abu Samra,” as he is known, likes to entertain. “Abu Samra’s like the Ka’aba,” Bassam had told him recently. “Yuzar wa ma yazur, He is visited but doesn’t visit!” Abu Samra is an art critic for one of the state newspapers and also publishes poetry and dabbles a bit in sculpture. They’d met a few months earlier at an opening at Gallerie al-Fayha’, one of the several modern art spaces in the capital. Samir’s wife, Miriam, is an accountant at the Ministry of Culture and they live comfortably if not extravagantly in an apartment in the Qassa’ neighborhood just outside the Old City ramparts. If the past were any indication, “lunch” with Samir would extend through the afternoon and into the evening hours with glass after glass of sweet coffee, followed by not inconsiderable amounts of ‘araq or that sweet wine he gets from the monks in Ma’loula, and plates of grilled meats. The conversation would be all art, which is to say, all politics, and Abu Samra was a master of both. “I’ll be there at two,” David tells him, then gets up to reheat some mana’ish za‘tar from the day before — the olive oil-soaked bread lathered with herbs the perfect accompaniment to morning tea. Ibn al-‘Arabi can wait.
He finishes his breakfast, rearranges the papers on his desk for the tenth time that morning, then decides that he isn’t going to make any more progress on the translation, so might as well do something else. You can only hit your head against a wall so many times before you give up, and the ideas in Ibn al-‘Arabi’s texts are often so dense that they prove formidable barriers to comprehension, let alone translation. “I have to find another way,” he says to himself as he gets up from his desk.
The Mary Jubran cassette has stopped playing, but he doesn’t feel much like listening to anything else, so stands by the window looking out across the sleepy city. His apartment is located on the slopes of the mountain, a couple of streets up from the main drag, Nazim Basha, which until not long ago still bore traces of the tramway rails that led down toward the center of town. All that’s left of the trams today are images on old postcards at tourist shops in al-Marjeh. Today one has to walk or grab a sirvees or a taxi, though with the growing traffic it’s often easier just to walk – the price of “progress” in this modernizing world. Off to the left he can just make out the minaret and dome of the mosque of Ibn al-‘Arabi, whom locals refer to simply as “The Sheikh.” The lively market just beyond the sanctuary is where he usually gets his food since he likes to pass before the shrine, and sometimes steps in for a few moments of reflection. Below his window the city spreads out like a patchwork quilt of residential neighborhoods sprinkled with minarets, the remnants of gardens for which Damascus was once famous, government buildings, and in the distance the Old City and its gem, the Umayyad Mosque. Samir lives over on the opposite side, a ways to the left, perhaps an hour’s walk from Nazim Basha. Off to the right, the dark outlines of the Presidential Palace loom ominously on a solitary promontory overlooking the city. The President also has a residence in the neighborhood just below his, al-Maliki, just a stone’s throw away from the American Embassy. David tends to avoid the area when possible, not only because of the plain-clothes guards hanging about, but because he doesn’t like the look of the American compound and prefers to stay away. Past the hills in the distance lie the streets of Mezzeh, shrouded in white mystery. He seldom ventures there, but for that fateful interview some months ago that he’d much rather forget about.
Shaking off the memory, he decides to head out to find a newspaper then go downtown to see who might show up at the cafes on this cold morning. He throws on his warmest jacket, a little wool cap, and the hiking boots his mother had sent him for his birthday last month upon hearing that he lived on a mountain – Jabal Qasiyun, that is, where no one would really venture a hike today. She’d also sent him some bottles of vitamins, making for interesting conversation with the man at the customs house who thought, hopefully, that they might possibly be Viagra pills and confiscated one for himself. At least the boots would come in handy today. David hoped the B-Complex pills did something for the customs agent as well.
He locks his door behind him takes the three flights of stairs to the ground floor, then heads out the entryway. His building has sprouted what so many others around the city have these days, a colorful kolaba, or guard shack, sort of like those old British phone booths but made of wood and often painted in the colors of the Syrian flag. Some VIP from the police or Ministry of Something moved in, and voila, the kolaba. The guard never says anything to him, barely even looks up from his little perch, where he sits most mornings staring at the wall or sipping little cups of tea he makes on the small electric kettle he keeps inside. Today he is huddled inside and the flimsy door is shut, only his bare head showing through. He doesn’t look out when David passes by.
The steps down to the street are uneven and a bit slippery. Abu ‘Ali is out in front of his shop sweeping away the snow with an old broom, and waves. “Marhaba, Daoud!” he cries. “Tafaddal! Come in!” so David lumbers over, stepping uneasily as he crosses the slushy street. “Nice boots!” Abu ‘Ali remarks, as he opens the shop door for him to enter. David takes a seat in his habitual spot at the table as Abu ‘Ali settles in on the other side. Abu ‘Ali is a small man in his fifties, with a shock of wispy, greying hair on his head, and a thin mustache over his lip. He is always impeccably dressed, with pressed slacks, crisp white shirt, and brown cardigan sweater, even in the heat of summer. He repairs and sells old radios, clocks, and watches in his shop, which consists of a front room stacked floor to ceiling with his wares — old Bakelite and wooden radios from the 40s and 50s, pendulum and Cuckoo clocks — and a back room with a work table, a hotplate with a rakweh pot for making coffee, and a small cot, “for my siestas.” The clocks all show different hours of the day, their ticking and random chimes offering a confusion of temporal possibilities. David has never seen anyone in Abu ‘Ali’s shop, yet he is there every day and seems to know everything about everyone in the neighborhood.
“Ahlayn, ahlayn, Daoud! Where you going? To see the Sheikh?” He knows of David’s interest in Ibn al-‘Arabi and they often talk about Sufism and David’s translation projects. But more often than not they talk about music, and inevitably Nizar Qabbani. The famous poet had a home just behind his, and when Abu ‘Ali wasn’t calling him “Daoud” (Arabic for David), he’d call him “Abu Nizar” or “Abu Nazra,” in reference to the poet. “He lived right behind you! I used to see him every day. He’d come into my shop and sit right where you are,” he’d tell him. David heard the story every time he visited with Abu ‘Ali. He invites David for a coffee and the two settle in for their little routine: Abu ‘Ali asks about his plans for the day, David talks about his lunchtime appointment and his search for a newspaper. “You won’t find one now,” says Abu ‘Ali. “The roads from Lebanon are still blocked, but you might try later in the day.”
David knows not to show too much interest in the clocks, watches and radios in the shop, or Abu ‘Ali will give him one. He made this mistake once when Abu ‘Ali showed him an old watch that he had just repaired for a customer who, it turns out, had passed away when it was in the shop and “didn’t need to tell time anymore, Allah yarhamuh.” David pronounced the watch “hilweh,” very nice, and at that Abu ‘Ali gave it to him. There was no refusing the gift, and Abu ‘Ali seemed increasingly za’lan (angry) when David said he couldn’t take the watch. “He’s dead. He won’t need it. Please, take it. I insist!” he said, attempting to place it on his wrist. So David accepted the gift, though for some days Abu ‘Ali remained “za’lan” with him for having initially refused. It seemed like everyone was za’lan with him at one point or another, usually for nothing more than not calling, not visiting, not eating everything on his plate, not staying longer, not coming sooner, not drinking another coffee. Everyone in Damascus is za’lan.
The coffee is very sweet and David sips it slowly. In the background Umm Kulthum sings from an old radio that Abu ‘Ali has just brought back to life – an old Bakelite model with an elaborate dial listing all the cities with broadcasts, from Aleppo to Baghdad and beyond. It’s a work of art, but David is careful not to pay it too much attention and instead comments on the song. “God bless that voice!” he exclaims, knowing that almost everyone loves the famous Egyptian diva and also that Abu ‘Ali prefers her older repertoire. “It’s an old song, Sharraf Habib al-’alb,” he informs him. “Your uncle Daoud Husni composed it back in the 30s.” Daoud Husni was a famous Egyptian composer and singer, and one of the many early contributors to modern Arab song that just happened to be Jewish. David knows that Abu ‘Ali knows that he knows this, but he says it anyway. “He was Jewish, you know,” his eyebrows raised suggestively.
It is not the first nor the last time that Syrians will suspect that he’s Jewish because of his given name. He’s already gone to lengths to shore up his “Arab” credentials — his father’s mother was from Damascus, though his other grandparents were Scottish and English on both sides, some having arrived in America generations ago, and thus he grew up as a plain old “American” without any ethnic identity. This was partly because in the 1970s it didn’t really pay to be different, and certainly not “Arab.” His father himself had endured years of abuse as a school child because of his “ethnic” mother — the house always smelled strongly of cardamom and cumin and featured strange foods cooked in yoghurt, let alone dishes of raw meat. His mother would also sell her home-made Arabic sweets at the Church benefits. The family was thus “weird” for 1950s Middle America and his father had internalized a certain shame in his non-“white” ancestry. Yet, the only time he had ever struck David was when he had used the term “camel jockey” to refer to his father’s Arab business partner, using a phrase he often heard at school himself and which he thought was just what one said when referring to Arabs. That was New Jersey in the 1970s. Today things are different. In a way.
“Yes, I know he was Jewish, like Layla Murad,” David says. Abu ‘Ali sits back and, raising his hands, says, “I have no problem with the Jews. If they don’t occupy my land, I have no problem with them.” Then he leans forward and grabs David’s coffee cup – a slender vessel with Arabic script written around its borders – and says, “If I take your coffee, you’ll be za’lan with me, right?” David knows where this is headed – usually it’s a pen or a book or a newspaper that is the stolen object. “But if I give it back, all is well. You’re not za’lan anymore. We can be friends.” And he slides the coffee back. “Daoud Husni and Layla Murad occupy my ears, not my homeland, so I love them.” If only the world were so simple, David thinks.
David has tended to avoid politics all his life (along with avoiding any attachment to an ethnicity). This always irked Marina, who was if anything hyper-political. Everything was political to her, and deeply personal too. She had been raised in Mexico City by an American father who had gone there after college to avoid being drafted in the Vietnam War, and a Mexican mother who was a descendant of Spanish Republicans fleeing Franco’s forces during the Civil War. This explained not only Marina’s Marxism (she described it as a “normal” perspective for an intelligent person), but her strong identity politics – a sort of Neo-Marxist Feminist Chicana cocktail that was bound to explode in your face at some point. He had loved her passion, commitment, and intellect, and she had loved his steadiness, his calm, and his groundedness. But she could not understand why he didn’t get more politically involved. The “Arab” part didn’t count, since for David it was essentially about weekly shopping at Sahadi’s to stock up on zaytun, tabbuleh, burghul and labneh, or the occasional trip to Rashid’s for old LPs and the latest CDs. “If you’re going to be an Arab, at least do something useful with it.” Like what? he’d thought. What’s more useful than good food and music? But living in Syria was making him more political by the hour, and he often thought of what Marina would make of his conversations now. His ideas.
He sips the rest of his coffee and tells Abu ‘Ali that he is late for lunch (even though he has over three hours to go) and takes his leave. “Minshufak bukra, ya Daoud. See you tomorrow.” He waves back, then walks over to the corner, then heads down the steep side street toward ‘Afif and al-Jisr al-Abyad, looking out for a newspaper stand. The snow has let up slightly but there is a chill in the air and the city barely moves.
It’s about a quarter to eleven when David leaves Abu ‘Ali’s store. It doesn’t occur to him to question why no one is ever in the shop and yet it remains open. Abu ‘Ali is always generous with his time (often with his wares, too) and despite being occasionally za’lan with David, he has been a constant friend for a few months now, ever since David moved into the neighborhood. So he leaves it at that. Plus he knew Nizar Qabbani. Not too many people can say that.
The city struggles to wake up on this cold, snowy morning and David comes across few signs of life as he begins his descent into the city center. On his right he passes Riwaq, a nighttime hangout where artists, writers, and hangers-on come to talk, drink beer or ‘araq (sometimes both), eat pistachios and peanuts, smoke, and talk some more. Then they head out and do the same at someone’s apartment or studio until the next gathering. He’s gone there a few times, once with Samir to meet a young sculptor he wanted to write a piece on, and once just alone, where he ran into Nidal, a Palestinian journalist who had just returned from a day trip to Beirut, where she often submitted her stories. It was one of those encounters that changed his life, or nearly so…
But no one is at Riwaq this early, and he continues on, turning the corner near the French Embassy, which sports two kolabas out front, then crossing the street to see if the little bookshop has a newspaper. He wants one of the regional papers like al-Hayat, which usually has a good arts section and isn’t as partisan as the local papers tend to be. Like Abu ‘Ali, the owner tells him to come back since the roads are blocked and only the local papers have arrived. So he grabs a copy of al-Thawra, for which Samir writes, tosses a 5 lira coin on the counter, then heads out the door to the cold street. He sees a taxi making its way down the hill but decides to keep walking. He has plenty of time, the snowfall is letting up now, the day warming, and he likes his walks through the city. When he isn’t teaching or working on his little projects, it’s his favorite pastime. It was the same in New York – he walked almost everywhere, in almost any weather, even when the subway or a taxi was more convenient. It is one of the things that bound him to Marina, for she shared his fascination with the texture of urban life and the love of walking the city. The texture of Damascus is different, but there’s something about it that begs exploration. It’s not Pamuk’s magical Istanbul, but Damascus has its own secrets that she reveals to those who know where to look. And so he walks and explores. He can always grab a sirvees from downtown to Bab Touma, then hop out and walk to Abu Samra’s from there.
As he approaches Sahat al-Jisr al-Abyad, he stops to admire the mosque that occupies the northern side of the square. It’s reddish dome and square minaret with elegant wooden gallery are draped in a light blanket of snow. Behind it rise beige and grey apartment complexes of four and five stories, functional though not exactly beautiful, like the majority of housing in central Damascus. His flat is in a smaller but similar building. Satellite dishes and make-shift solariums dot the rooftops, but where one would usually find a flock of doves circling above the rooftops in their seemingly endless flights, today the skies are empty aside from the light snowfall. A few cars and minibuses traverse the intersection, their tires swishing and slushing as they pass. Beneath them runs a branch of the famed Barada river, long ago covered over by tarmac, though some of its course remains exposed as it meanders across Abu Rumanneh toward Rukn al-Din. He thinks about the white bridge (jisr abyad) that the neighborhood must take its name from, but has never seen or heard of one. The mosque sits in silence, seemingly unperturbed as the world passes by. When the traffic clears David ambles across the street with the intention of stopping for a coffee at his favorite café in the city center.
Turning onto one of the side streets he runs into Jalal the Sufi, who lives not far from the square. David calls him “The Sufi” because Jalal claims a special relationship to The Sheikh and presents himself as an expert in Sufism. Tall and skinny with receding black hair and intense, somewhat bulging eyes, he has a reputation for being a bit of a charlatan who developed an orientation toward mysticism. A marginal character, some claim he was once a petty thief, others that he is merely crazy. But David finds him a gentle if quirky soul, and an interesting source of insights on Ibn al-’Arabi.
“Shu, Daoud, waynak?,” he says. “Where’ve you been? I’m za’lan since you never come and see me anymore.” It had been about a week since he last visited with him to go over a text.
“I’ve been busy, and I’m still working on that translation, but it’s hard,” replies David. “I’m not making any progress at all, bnoab! I need some help.”
“I’d like to help you, but I have to go to work now,” says Jalal. “A tourist bus arrives this afternoon and I need to translate for them.” Jalal works at a clothing and religious artifacts shop in al-Marjeh that specializes in Iranian pilgrims coming to see the city’s Shi’a shrines. Jalal claims to have miraculously learned to speak Farsi without ever having studied it. “I woke up one morning after dreaming of The Sheikh,” he claimed when they first met, “and I found that I could speak Farsi. I didn’t even know what language it was, I was just speaking it. That same day I went to the shrine of Sitt Zaynab to say some prayers, and then I starting talking with the people there, who were mostly from Iran. They told me I was speaking their language, so I knew it was Farsi. That’s where I met the store manager. He doesn’t really speak it well, so I helped him to get them to go to his shop. He hired me that same day, and I’ve been working there for about four years.”
David could not make heads or tails of the story, but Jalal was convinced in his “miracle” and seemed to have acquired a great store of information about The Sheikh. Over the past few months they’d had many discussions of his theology. “You have to stop reading if you want to be one of the elect (khawwas),” Jalal had admonished him. “Otherwise you will always remain one of the ordinary people (‘awwam). You have to experience The Sheikh, not read him. Then you’ll understand him.” David still could not give up on the books – after all it was his livelihood as an editor and writer – but every time he met with Jalal they’d have the same argument, he wishing to clarify a phrase or even a single word, and Jalal wanting him to throw the books aside and talk about his dreams. “Yallah, I’ll call you tomorrow and we can talk.” With that he hurries off, pulling the hood of his sweatshirt over his head and running to catch a passing sirvees.
David continues on his way and heads toward al-Salhiyya. It is about a quarter past eleven and he still has a few hours to kill. And he needs another coffee. He walks down Abdel Nasser Street then crosses just before the Italian hospital from which the neighborhood takes its name, Tiliyani. Avoiding the subterranean passage because it is full of water, he hops the little white fence and heads across the street toward the Salhiyya park. Large billboards announce Naf Naf and other higher end stores that operate in Syria today. To one side of the park stands a gigantic and somewhat grotesque statue of the former president on a small raised platform cordoned off with chains. The grim-faced statue lifts its right arm and reaches up and out, not so much to wave but as if to pet an enormous, invisible dog. The stone sculpture behind the statue is a cacophony of angles evoking the Syrian flag atop a pedestal wrapped with barbed wire. It’s an odd, even disturbing, work of art, and David passes by without taking a look. Instead he heads down the main drag of Souq al-Salhiyya, a pedestrian mall flanked by low buildings with numerous shops. Many are closed today because of the weather, but at one of the larger kiosks set up in the middle of the mall an artist paints oil portraits. He doesn’t seem bothered by the weather and sips from a small glass of tea. A canvas hanging from the little doorway looks oddly familiar to David, so he stops to take a look. It’s an Orientalist painting depicting turbaned men praying in an elaborate columnated mosque not unlike the Mezquita of Cordoba. A group of doves gathers on the floor behind a row of faithful, while a nearly naked water seller raises his hands in prayer. In the foreground a nobleman with an elaborate scabbard on his chest prays on a rug while his attendants stand behind him. The artist pops his head out the door and David says “Marhaba!”, to which the artist responds “ahlyan, ahlayn, tafaddal! Welcome!” David tells him he likes the painting and that he thinks he’s seen it somewhere before, maybe in a museum. “Shu biya’rifni! What do I know!” says the artist. “I just copied it from a book. Look!” and he reaches into his kiosk, extracts a well-worn copy of the Blue Guide to Syria, and points out the painting spread over two pages in the center. David has the same one on his bookshelf. It’s a decent rendition of the painting, but he doesn’t feel like shelling out 3000 lira for it, even if it’s only 60 bucks. The man invites David to join him in a cup of tea, but he declines the offer and says goodbye. Perhaps another time.
He continues on down the main street, passing the old Martyrs’ Mosque and some dilapidated buildings with colorful but cracked stained-glass windows. There are more and more people on the streets now, men dragging on cigarettes as they walk briskly to an appointment, women dragging young children behind them as they shop. At the end of the mall a group of youth sell knock-off Levi’s jeans and Nike shoes, their cries of “bwat! jeens! bwat! jeens!” filling the air. One of them looks over at David and says, “Nice boots!” David nods, says “shukran,” and continues to the end, then turns left toward the Firdaws Cafe.
The Firdaws is among the more popular cafes in central Damascus – not as chic as the cafe in the Jasmine Hotel, but also not as expensive. It sits across from the Syrian Parliament, an elegant neo-Oriental structure adorned with delicate marble work. Two giant portraits of the President hang from either side of the ceremonial entrance. A high-tech guard booth stands behind a high gate: a super-kolaba. Although he’s seen broadcasts of speeches from its chambers, David has never seen anyone come or go from its gates. A ghost Parliament.
Stepping inside he finds the cafe relatively deserted. None of the regulars is there – perhaps because of the snow, but more likely because the usual gang comes in the early evening before going up to Riwaq or to someone’s apartment for an evening of food, drink, and politics (they go together in this city). He takes a seat at a small table near the enclosed courtyard and orders a traditional coffee with medium sugar (wasat). He knows better than to order it sweet (hilu), since it will come so sugary as to be nearly unpalatable. The waiter, who looks to be about 15 and wears a multicolored, traditional-style embroidered vest, nods and walks briskly off toward the kitchen. “Wahad wasat,” he calls out to someone in the back. The waiter’s accent is light and slightly clipped, and David cannot place it. Kurdish? Armenian? He is getting better at recognizing the various Syrian dialects, but it’s not easy, there are so many and the nuances are often slight. After a few minutes the waiter returns with the little copper rakweh and a glass of water on a tray, then pours the coffee into a small cup and places it before David. “Sahtayn, ustaz,” he offers, then retreats. The little pleasantries of everyday life always make David smile. He imagines the surly waiters at Caffé Regio or Dante saying, “To your health!” Fat chance.
Aside from the periodic gurgle of the nargilehs and the click clack of backgammon pieces striking game boards, silence reigns. The few men – and they are all men – who are not smoking or playing read newspapers or sit and talk quietly. The noon call to prayer begins to sound in the distance, creating an interesting polyphony – the gurgle of the nargilehs mixing with the odd shout in the kitchen, the thumping backgammon pieces, and the mellifluous runs of the muezzin. The call to prayer is a cherished art form in Syria, and even at the small local mosque it is quite beautiful. As the muezzin finishes his call, the more faithful among the cafe denizens shuffle from their chairs as they head out for prayer. It’s just past noon.
The coffee has warmed him up a bit so David opens his newspaper and scans the headlines. It’s the usual daily fare: the President doing one thing or another; a moderately critical piece dealing with sewage and waste-water treatment in the Ghouta; in-depth coverage of football games and the latest iPhone; and on the back page some Op-Ed pieces, gossip on international stars, and curious news from around the world. A boy in Germany falls into a zoo enclosure and is almost eaten by a crocodile. A woman gives birth to septuplets. Nancy ‘Ajram talks about her Coca Cola sponsorship. And so the world turns. Samir has a short piece in the corner on an exhibition at a new gallery that opened recently in a converted home in the former Jewish Quarter of the Old City. The article doesn’t much recommend a visit, but then again Samir is an art snob and doesn’t like much of anything he sees or hears. He’ll pay a visit tomorrow – there’s always time bukra.
He gets up to head to the restroom, passing the small vestibule where the waiters prepare the nargilehs. A brazier of hot coals and a tangle of hoses stand beneath a shelf of elegant glass water pipes with their long, spindly brass necks. He has smoked a few and enjoyed it. Bassam even told him that, unlike cigarettes, smoking a water pipe is “good for your lungs – it’s exercise, like jogging,” pumping his arms in the air to prove his point. David doubts this very much but nonetheless indulges from time to time, just not today. When he emerges from the toilet he finds that his newspaper is gone – someone must have picked it up; ma’lish, it wasn’t that interesting anyway. So he sits down with his coffee and, reaching into his jacket pocket, pulls out his notebook and pen.
It’s a medium size diary with ruled pages and a red cover – his “red book.” Marina had given him a pack of three when he left so he would have something to write in and also remember her by, and he keeps her letters to him inside one of the flaps. In New York they had communicated almost entirely by email and text message, even when they were in the same apartment, sometimes the same room – it was nuts. David does not have internet access at home in Damascus – he could order it but chooses not to – and so far he has resisted getting a mobile phone, to the chagrin of his director, his friends, especially Samir, and of course his family and Marina back home. He wanted to free himself from the obligation of checking emails and messaging people. It always seemed to him that New Yorkers walk about with their Blackberries and iPhones as if they were divining rods, searching for some lost bliss or hidden treasure, and scarcely looking up to see who might be in front of them on the sidewalk, let alone enjoy the world they inhabit. He’d been knocked off his bike twice in the previous year because of texting jaywalkers not looking where they were going. Not having a device in hand feels liberating to him. He can send emails from the various internet cafes around town (when the connections work), and he has rediscovered the pleasure of opening up old-fashioned, hand written letters, though Marina still insists on typing hers as if they were emails.
Her last letter had come in yesterday’s post and unlike the others does not seem to have been opened and resealed. Marina seems to be struggling a bit. Her studies are going well enough even if her professors hit on her all the time. She’s used to that. It’s just that she’s not sure that she wants to finish her doctorate. It seems so futile – ten years of work and then if she’s lucky she might land a job in Kansas or Oklahoma. She sometimes thinks of moving back to Mexico City where her mother still lives (her father having died a few years ago). She has an apartment there and could always find freelance work translating and writing. She’s confused and for the first time she says she misses him, and not only in that perfunctory way to close a letter. This time she spells it out. She misses his presence, his level-headedness, his touch. She wonders when he will come back, and why he doesn’t write or email more often. It sounds like she’s a bit za’lana with him too. Then she drops the bomb: she wants to come for a short visit to see the enchanting city that he has so raved about in his letters and short phone calls. The city that keeps him captive. David smiles. He doesn’t feel so level-headed any more. A lot of his convictions have been turned around in the nine months since his arrival in Syria. He hadn’t expected to stay this long, hadn’t even planned for more than a two week visit. But one thing led to another and he finds his life both richer and less anchored than in New York. Even if he thinks of her a lot – with her dark features she could be a Syrian – he’s not sure he wants to mix the two cities and hesitates before Marina’s wish to know when would be a good time for her to come.
Then there’s the problem of Nidal.
He sighs, folds up her letter and places it in the notebook, then leaves some coins for the waiter and rises to head out the door. So much for writing. His head isn’t clear enough. He decides to walk over toward Saba’ Baharat Square and grab a sirvees to Bab Touma. He has about an hour to go. Plenty of time.
Turning out the door, David stops to say hello to Khalid, the newspaper vendor who has a small kiosk next to the cafe. Khalid is dressed in a dark winter coat and sports a small woolen Yankees hat pulled down over his ears against the cold. David stops and laughs. “You look like Derek Jeter!” he says, but Khalid doesn’t get the reference. “I’m a real New Yorker today!” says Khalid, a wry smile lighting up his weathered face. Khalid has sold newspapers and magazines here for over 20 years, six days a week, morning through evening, just as his father had done for the previous 20 years before retiring back home in Homs. It’s a family business of sorts. “Kayf al-hal, ustaadh Daoud? How are you?” asks Khalid, in flawless Classical Arabic. David is always surprised by how even the seemingly simplest Syrians can not only speak good Classical Arabic, but also recite poetry – Arabic, of course, but sometimes in English as well. There was the hotel worker in Aleppo who regaled him with Hart Crane’s “To the Brooklyn Bridge” when he learned that David was from New York: “How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest/The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him.” Of course he had read the poem in college but had not bothered to memorize it, yet here was some guy in a Syrian hotel reciting it to him and going on and on about Walt Whitman as if he were an Arab poet. Khalid too had often asked him about American literature, who was popular, what was the current trend, and so on. Not only had he been genuinely curious, but Khalid also has a lot of customers who read the literary Arabic journals, many of which also feature articles on international literary movements. He’s a long way from New York, that’s for sure. They talk for a few minutes about the weather, how his teaching job is going, how his family is doing – Khalid knows just about everything about David’s life by now – and what his plans for the weekend are. David asks about the newspapers, is told that they will not be coming until much later today, if at all, then buys one of the Arabic literary magazines to see what’s new and heads off. “See you later,” says Khalid as he retreats into the relative warmth of his kiosk.
David continues down the street toward Saba’ Baharat, passing along the way a number of appliance stores and shawarma shops. A group of youth eat their tasty little sandwiches on the corner, and as Davis walks past he recalls what he’d read or been told about the categories of people who in the olden days were not allowed to give testimony in court: thieves, dove trainers, and people who eat on the streets. He could understand thieves not being reliable witnesses, but dove trainers and people who ate on the streets? It seemed curious to him. He’d asked Samir, who said that because dove trainers hang out on rooftops, they can look into their neighbors’s courtyards and “yifdah harishhun” – scandalize their womenfolk. He wasn’t sure about street-food eaters… Perhaps it was yet another issue of social class, which in Damascus remains a very powerful presence. The sight of the shawarmas makes David a little hungry, so he pops over to the small bakery at the intersection of Pakistan Street and side alley. There’s always a line here, but it’s worth the wait for some of the city’s best manaqish za’tar and spinach fatayer. When it’s his turn David orders two spinach pies, which come nice and warm and wrapped in paper. He pays the 20 lira and begins walking toward the square, munching on the pies and looking over his shoulder for an approaching minibus, and feeling a little guilty that he now cannot testify in court…
He arrives at Sahat al-Saba’ Baharat, the “Square of the Seven Fountains.” It is a large square at the intersection of six main roads, with a large fountain in the center that was erected by the French and which had, not surprisingly, seven fountains. Today a larger number of jets spray water over a terraced fountain with the seven main fountains. At night it is often illuminated with multicolored lamps. Today some wag has dumped dye in the waters, making the fountain run a murky red. On one side stands the rather imperial looking Central Bank of Syria, set back behind a large fence. Behind it lies the beautiful Arsouzy Park, which David had discovered a few months back and seemed relatively unused, and hence a peaceful place to stroll on a warm day. On the other side are various residential and government buildings. He crosses May 29th Street toward Baghdad Street, the main avenue leading to the Old City. On the corner sits a government office building with a flotilla of cars and jeeps parked helter-skelter out front. Small speakers hang from the facade issuing crackling versions of nationalist jingles. Must be some sort of holiday. People come and go but no one seems to be listening to the songs. A group of the ever-present silkscreen portraits of the late president hang from a wire across the facade, billowing in the slight wind, and dampened by the snow that has now turned to a light rain. They remind him of those Andy Warhol portraits of multiple Liz Taylors or Marilyn Monroes. “Ten Hafezes.” He wants to collect some to take home one day but hasn’t figured out yet how to do it.
A sirvees careens around the corner and David flags it down. It comes to a stop and the door slides open. A young man bounds out as David approaches and, since it’s headed to Bab Touma, David hops in. The minibus holds about 15 people, but with his 6’4″ frame David finds it hard to squeeze in. Today the bus is crowded and he is obliged to fold down a supplementary seat by the door, which suits him fine as he is not obliged to squish himself into one of the cramped benches and it offers him a little leg room. The sirvees jumps back into traffic and they are on their way. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a 50 lira note, then passes it to a man in the front row, who then gives it to the driver. The fare is 10 lira. The driver places the note under a little rug draped across the dashboard then reaches into a small can in his lap and removes some coins, which he passes back to the man, who then gives the change to David. It’s an interesting system, money flowing up and down the sirvees and everyone cooperating.
The radio plays the latest song by the Lebanese pop star Julia Boutros, who croons about romance in a way that strike David as formulaic. But it’s a catchy tune and helps mark time as the passengers zoom down the broad avenue. Baghdad Street runs past a number of middle class neighborhoods, government offices, a large Muslim cemetery, the famous French Laïque school, and numerous commerces. Off to the left is the neighborhood of al-‘Adweh, where Nidal recently got a flat after moving from the Mukhayyim or Palestinian camp, in reality a residential neighborhood, not a camp ground. They’d met by chance again outside the Arab Cultural Center there last week, where he’d gone to hear a poetry reading and she was returning from shopping to furnish her flat, which she was sharing with a friend. They’d spoken briefly then, and awkwardly, and promised to get in touch again soon. To say that the situation was awkward would be an understatement, as David thought of her almost non-stop and wondered what was going on. Did she think of him?
They’d first met up at Riwaq soon after his arrival. David was with Samir then, getting used to ‘araq and trying his best to follow the discussion about sculpture and national identity with the group of artists gathered at the table. Nidal had popped in to say hello to a fellow journalist friend on her way back from Beirut, where she had gone to submit some stories and to pick up some books. Samir pulled her over to the table to meet David.
Nidal was tall and thin with long dark hair that framed an angular face, deep, almost black eyes, and thin lips that traced a wry smile. She wore a simple casual outfit – a dark green overcoat over black slacks, but David noticed her Nike running shoes, which were incongruous. None of the Syrian women he knew exercised and they all took great pains to dress to the nines, even when (or especially when) heading out to run errands. Jogging or even breaking a sweat seemed about the last thing a Syrian woman would want to do. Nidal, however, seemed fit and undisturbed by the dictates of fashion. She remained standing, somewhat aloof, but they spoke briefly – did he speak Arabic? What was he doing in Damascus? How long was he staying? She seemed surprised to find an American there, even one with Shami roots, and even a little suspicious. She left almost as quickly as she had come, in a whirlwind, and David was left wondering what storm had just passed over his heart. They’d run into each other there again a few weeks later, this time unaccompanied by Samir, and had sat together briefly until the friends she had come to meet arrived, and David had to go home to make a call to Marina, one that he wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about making after all.
The last time they’d met was at Gallery al-Bustan, where they had both gone to see the opening of a retrospective of the works by the late Syrian master Fateh Moudarres. While admiring Moudaress’s rich canvases they’d spoken a bit about art in Syria, the difficulties that artists faced in an oppressive society – not only because of the government, which was bad enough, but by a society that tended to reject art, which was even worse. Her passion was literature and she made frequent trips to Beirut to get books, even though she had to borrow a Syrian friend’s ID to pass the border: as a Palestinian, even though born and raised in Damascus, she did not have travel documents or a passport and would otherwise be stuck in Syria. Fortunately she and her friend looked enough alike that she could pass as Soraya Hamdan and not Nidal Khatib. After the opening they’d walked out together toward the center of town. On an impulse he invited her to coffee at Firdaws, but she merely smiled and said that she couldn’t but hoped they’d see each other again. It was awkward: for him because of his on again off again relationship with Marina, and for her, since he was American and she had significant misgivings about US policies in the region. Add to that her delicate position in Syrian society, and it was hard for her. But behind her aloof shell was a warm spirit, and a certain undeniable chemistry linked them, as well as a love for literature and art. As the sirvees passes al-‘Adweh, he looks over his shoulder and wonders if she is at home, what she might be doing at that very moment.
The sirvees continues down Baghdad Street, through the al-Qusuur neighborhood, then skirts along the old city wall until it reaches Sahat Bab Touma. The former gate or bab to the Old City stands in the middle of the square, draped in festive lights. A Christmas tree stands in front, replete with lights and bulbs, for this is the entrance to a predominantly Christian quarter. A music store on the square plays Fairouz through a large speaker, her dulcet voice blanketing the chaotic square like the melting snow. David unfolds himself from the minibus and crosses the street to get a little juice from the stall located inside the old gate. Freshly squeezed pomegranate juice is a delight on a summer’s day, but in winter the slightly acidic yet rich flavor is a rare treat. He finishes the juice then heads over to Jubran Sweets to get some hulwiyat for Samir and his wife. The sweets shop is just beyond the police station, where more Warholesque portraits hang, this time “Eight Bashars.” He orders a mix of mabroumeh, balloriyyeh, lisan ‘asfour, and baqlawa, which the server – a pretty young woman with those intensely dark eyes the Arabs call hawra’ – wraps delicately in a box.
He has about half an hour or so to kill, so decides to wander a bit in the neighborhood. The pavement is slick from the melting snow, the sidewalks are crowded with people heading home for lunch, so he ambles over to the bridge that spans the Barada river. Looking down into its litter-strewn bed he finds it hard to believe that Arab poets once apostrophized its beauty and clear waters. Even with the melting snow it is little more than a creek most of the time, the buildings on its edge practically falling into it. The city began renovation efforts years ago, with mixed results – a cement river bed to prevent flooding in the spring, and restoration or demolition of a handful of dilapidated homes, but the plastic bags and bottles remain. It could be worse, David thinks, but they should write elegies now, not encomiums. Damascus was known since antiquity for its jasmine-festooned gardens, sweet natural springs, and the Barada river with its seven branches. “Intaza’at al-sham,“ a friend had remarked when they walked in the Old City during the fall; “The city has been ruined.”
David cannot help feeling a little nostalgic for a city and history he didn’t know except through his grandmother’s stories, passed on by his father. She had died when David was still young – from “heartbreak at the loss of Palestine,” everyone had said. He was only two years old at the time and didn’t understand what that meant. His father later told him that it was merely a stroke cased by too many sweets and hard work. She had not gone back to Syria after she had left with David’s great-grandparents in 1917 at the age of 12. The family home had long ago been lost, the small grocery store closed due to the war, and they had left to America carrying their hopes, dreams and recipes in their hearts. David looks down at his box of sweets and thinks of the grandmother he never really knew, and feels a little closer to her, even if he knows she probably would not recognize the Damascus of her youth in the modern city. The clock on the office building across the street says 1:45, so he crosses the bridge and heads toward Samir’s apartment. He looks forward to the visit.
The streets are mostly empty now as he makes his way into Qassa’. The many clothing and mobile phone stores have shut for the afternoon and the few area restaurants are full of hungry workers – mostly commuters far from home taking a needed break before heading back to their jobs. He passes Ibn Haytham’s, his favorite restaurant for fatteh – the soupy mix of soft chickpeas, tahineh, and yoghurt served with lemon and crispy pita bread that has become a staple of his diet. David finds it fantastically filling, tasty, and also cheap. Twenty-five lira for a large bowl and he’s good for hours. Well, a little qahweh next door at the Barada Cafe doesn’t hurt. He has time for neither today as he’s expected at Samir’s in five minutes. So he walks on, crossing the main street and taking a right turn into the side street where Samir lives. There are street and number plaques in many neighborhoods now, but no one seems to use them. Samir still tells people, “Head up the main street in Qassa’ from Bab Touma, keep the fatteh restaurant on your left hand side, then turn right at the shoe store. It’s the third building on the left, apartment 6. Ring the buzzer.” He rings the buzzer and waits. It is just past 2:00. After a few moments the heavy iron and glass door buzzes and he pushes it open, entering the somber entry hall. He hits the switch on the wall to the right and the lights come on. If he’s lucky he can get to the second floor before the timer turns off, and Samir lives on the third, but since there’s still daylight it isn’t really a problem. Each apartment or tabiq takes up half of each floor of the building. The light goes off as he bounds up the stairs toward the third floor, the bag of sweets bumping into his legs as he ascends. He reaches the door and finds it already open. “Tafaddal ya Daoud” he hears Miriam call out from within when he knocks. So he wipes his wet boots on the mat and enters.
Samir’s flat consists of a small entry that gives onto two sitting rooms. The first, lying directly in front of the entryway, is formal and decorated with an ornate sofa, long, billowy satin drapes, and a number of velvet-covered chairs along the two side walls. It is used for receiving guests on special occasions, like the days of mourning when Samir’s mother died last year. The other, off through a doorway to the right, is less formal but more comfortable, featuring two large sofas and a stuffed armchair arranged around a large coffee table, at the end of which stands an enormous flat-screen television with DVD player and satellite box. This room, which Samir calls the “salon,” is used by family and close friends. Just beyond it lies the rest of the apartment. David has never ventured there, though he knows that there is a kitchen, bath, and at least two bedrooms, for Samir says he has converted one into a home office. He does his sculpting in a shared studio space in the center of town. The walls in the formal sitting room are adorned with reproductions of European still lifes – a bouquet of roses in a vase, a platter of fruit, some fowl hanging in a kitchen – and an Orientalist-style work featuring a turbaned man astride an Arabian stallion. The floor is covered by a multicolored and intricate Persian-style rug, though it was made in a factory in Damascus. The salon, however, features works of art by Syrian artists, portraits and abstract canvases, as well as some small pieces of sculpture on the bookshelf in the far corner – results of Samir’s passion. The floor is covered with marbled white tiles of the type found throughout Syria. At the threshold of the two rooms a colored portrait of Samir’s late mother, Najmeh, hangs below a large crucifix draped with a wooden rosary. Some old sepia-tone prints of ancestors are arranged here and there on the walls and atop the various small tables. The bookcase on the far side of the room contains a number of volumes in Arabic, French, and English and the coffee table is laden with stacks of magazines and newspapers – and ashtrays, of course, for Samir is an inveterate smoker. Off to the left, the salon gives onto a small balcony from where one can view a small section of the Barada and, further on, what remains of the Ghouta and its many neighborhoods, including the ever-expanding Jaramana. It’s a nice view.
Samir and Miriam have no children, as yet, having married within the last two years. Samir is waiting for the “right time,” and even at forty he is not the youngest “newly wed” in the neighborhood. Many of his Christian friends have yet to marry even well into their forties. By contrast, Jalal the Sufi, who is only 30, has been married twice and has three children. Miriam comes from a large Damascene family. Her older brother George still lives in Damascus, though the youngest have now emigrated – Majid to Argentina, Munir to Los Angeles. Her sister Rima has moved to Ma’aloula to be with her husband, but they visit often with their two daughters, Layla and Salma. Samir is an only child and was born as well in Damascus. His father, Hikmat, died when he was a teenager, and he was raised by his recently departed mother with the help of his paternal and maternal uncles, who supported him throughout his university studies and provided him with the apartment when he married.
Setting his boots in the entryway, David removes his coat and hat and hangs them on a rack, leaving his red book and magazine in the inner pocket, then crosses the formal room into the salon. Miriam comes from the back area to greet him. “Marhaba Daoud! Samir’s late, but he’s coming. You don’t have a mobile, so he couldn’t call you!” she says. He hands her the box of sweets, and she tells him that he didn’t have to go to the trouble to get them. She says this every time he comes with something – “laysh a’zabt halak?” – yet he brings them anyway, for he knows that she loves the baqlawa from Jubran. Despite the ritual protest, she accepts them willingly. Her brother George has joined them for lunch, bringing his 7 year old son Majid. They are both installed in one of the large sofas in the salon and watching the television. David enters and greets George and Majid. “Hi Hari!” says Majid. He likes to call David “Harry” after Harry Potter, because of his wire-rim glasses with round lenses that give him a sort of Hogwarts look, but it comes out as “Hari Butter.” George laughs and rises to kiss him on the cheeks. “Shlonak, Khairy?” he asks, using his name for David: Khairy al-Bittar. In one of those moments straight out of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” though with an Arabic twist, George claims only half facetiously that Khairy was the original name for JK Rowlings’ eponymous hero, but that her editors knew that an Arab hero wouldn’t sell books, so they changed it.
“Waynak ya Khairy? I’m za’lan with you; you don’t visit us any more.” It’s true, he had last been to see George about two weeks ago when he was wandering in the Old City on one of his weekend jaunts and had ran into him near Bab Sharqi. George bought a house within the Old City walls last year, not too far from where his own grandmother was raised. That house is long gone, having collapsed after a flood over 90 years ago and then replaced by an annex to the Armenian church, which owned much of the land in the area. George’s house is near Bab Kiswan, the wall where St. Paul is thought to have been lowered to safety in a basket. He intends to renovate it and maybe open a restaurant, like so many entrepreneurs in the Old City. George and Miriam were not raised in the walled city but rather in a large apartment in Qassa’ that their parents had bought after selling their somewhat worn Arab house with its small courtyard, toilets in the far corners, noisy neighbors, and odd roaches here and there. The home didn’t have the conveniences of modern life, so they, like so many ambitious families, sold it and moved into a modern apartment. Now George was hoping to return the family to its “juzur” – its roots. He wasn’t alone. These sorts of enterprises were popping up all over the place – restaurants, cafés, art galleries, boutique “hotels de charme,” and the like.
Because Samir is late, Miriam puts some light foods on the table, including a bowl of pistachios, a platter of pickled vegetables, a carafe of water and some small glasses. Miriam is in her early thirties and dark complexioned, a little short and not exactly thin, but not unattractive either. She has a shy and bookish demeanor and is a master of numbers, having graduated at the top of her high school class in mathematics and studied math and accounting at the university before taking a position at the Ministry of Culture, where she has worked for over eight years as an accountant. It’s hard work but the pay is stable if not great, and being efficient she tends to finish early enough to allow her time on most days to do the shopping, clean the apartment, and cook the lavish meals that Samir loves, and for which she is rightly famous in her circle of family and friends. Even her late mother-in-law, with whom she had at first a tense relationship – who could ever be good enough for her little “Samoura,” as she called Samir – had come to accept her after a few years of her exquisite cooking, and they had bonded over the secrets of great kibbeh bisannieh, mjadara, and shanklish, and, of course, through their shared love for baqlawa: like Miriam, “Imm Samir” had a well-developed sweet tooth.
Before she leaves the salon Miriam asks after David’s health, his mother, his job, and so on, then turns off the TV, puts on a Fairouz CD, and heads back to the kitchen to warm up the food. She knows David loves music. George turns to David and asks, “So Khairy, Shu fi ma fi? What’s new?” David tells him how in his short break from teaching he’s been working on some translation projects and just relaxing. He doesn’t mention Ibn ‘Arabi with George, since it’s a sensitive topic. George had teased him the first time they’d met about his interest in Islam and Sufism. “How can you respect a religion that has you pray by sticking your ass up in the air higher than your head?” he’d said. David wasn’t exactly religious, and neither was George, but his comments went well beyond the question of belief. David had tried to defend not only his own research but his Politically Correct attitude of multicultural tolerance that he’d imbibed in college. George would have none of it. “I mean, you have to enter a room with your right foot, or your damned! Their women are all covered up. Everything is in sh’allah this and in sh’allah that. They’re crazy! Are you going to grow a beard now?!” Samir had intervened to say that David was an “Orientalist” just doing some research, but David was equally uncomfortable with this. He’d read his Edward Said and didn’t want to be placed in that camp, though it wasn’t the first time and would likely not be the last. Because he saw no polite way out of it, he just shut up and let George go on. And on. Today David only mentions that he’d bought an Arabic literary magazine to see what’s new, but George counters, “There’s no Arabic literature today! After Gibran it’s all crap! Believe me!” Majid, who is leafing through an arts magazine that was on the coffee table, interjects to ask, “Hari, do you know this singer?” “Eh,” says David. “It’s Najwa Karam” – the Lebanese pop singer. Majid loos up. “Do you like her? She’s pretty, no?”
David is about to respond when Samir finally arrives, out of breath and all excuses. “La takhizouni! Forgive me!” he yells as he rushes in. It’s about 2:40. Tossing his coat on a chair and flipping off his loafers (he refuses to wear the boots Miriam has bought him since they are harder to put up on his desk when he is at his office “thinking”), he enters the salon and greets first David then George with kisses on each cheek and the command to sit and relax. Then he grabs Majid and swings him in the air, showering him with kisses. He pulls a little caramel out of his pocket and hands it to him. “For you, habibi!” He and Majid have a close relationship, Samir often taking him to his studio to play with clay and make little statues while he works on a project.
“Shu sar ma’k? What happened with you?” asks Miriam, as she rushes into the salon. It is not unusual for Samir to be a little late, given the unpredictable nature of his work, but almost three-quarters of an hour is unusual, especially when there is food and drink involved. He seems a little shaken but tries to act as if it were nothing. “Wa la himmik, Don’t worry. I had to go meet with my boss about that review I wrote yesterday on the shitty exhibit.”
The artist, it so happens, is connected somehow to an authority in the ruling party, and his boss had pressured him to change his review before it went to press to avoid problems. He’d initially refused to change a single word – the artwork was at best second rate and the exhibition space cramped and poorly lit – but the editor had not only insisted on some changes – a positive note here, some flattering there – but had even subtly threatened Samir with certain consequences if he didn’t comply. “Now is not the time to ruffle feathers,” he’d said. “Plus, given your position, I wouldn’t want this to become another issue.” Samir had already been in a bit of hot water a few years ago for having signed the so-called “Manifesto of the ’99″ that called for political openings after the death of the late president and the election of the new one. “Hereditary election,” that is, as Samir often reminded David. He’d only barely avoided a prison term by leaving one of the political salons he attended just before some thugs came in and shut it down and took everyone in for questioning. Some of his activist friends had served short sentences, others were still juwa, “inside,” even as the government promised reforms and closed certain prisons, like the notorious one in Mezzeh. Samir had been summoned to Internal Security and asked to testify against his friends, but refused. As a result Miriam was passed up for a promotion in her office, and Samir knew that he was walking on thin ice with his editor at the newspaper, even if they often shared views on the current situation. So he had acquiesced and made a few cosmetic changes to the review, calling the artwork “promising” (rather than “stale”), and the exhibition “worthy” (rather than “pointless”).
Samir had told David many times about how things worked in Syria. Strings were pulled, and it was your connections, your wasta, and not talent that determined how far you went in life. As an art critic and journalist he often felt pressure to write positive reviews of artists who were linked to powerful people, and it was surprising how many artists were. He could refuse only so many times before it got delicate. The whole affair seems to have unnerved him slightly, so, affecting nonchalance, he says, “Yallah, let’s eat. I’m hungry. Who wants some ‘araq? But change that music, Miriam! Shu had? I am sick of Fairouz! She makes me want to puke! It’s too sweet, ziadeh, ya’ni!” He imitates the singer with an exaggerated, drawn in look on his face, rolling his eyes and whining nasally. David laughs, but George snorts his disapproval – like his sister, he is a huge fan, and it borders on sacrilegious to criticize Fairouz, especially for a Christian Arab. Samir rises to get the drinks, but George grabs his arm and pulls him back to the couch, saying, “Sit down, relax. I’ll take care of the ‘araq,” then heads to the kitchen to fetch some cold water, an ice bucket, and the bottle of al-Rayyan.
Off toward the kitchen Miriam and George exchange words in subdued tones, then Majid gets up and runs to join them. “Baba, I’m thirsty!” he cries. Miriam gets him a soda then comes back to the salon with a plate of pickled turnips and carrots, another with lettuce, mint, and raw onions, followed by George with the drinks tray. As Miriam heads back to the kitchen, Samir grabs an onion and presents it to David. “If you want to avoid getting sick in a new land,” he says, “You need to eat the onions and drink the ‘araq! It’s prophetic medicine. Muhammad says this in a hadith.” George, mixing himself a drink like an alchemist, says “Don’t listen to him, Khairy! Its nonsense!” “No, It’s true!” protests Samir. “I read it somewhere!” David is somewhat incredulous – did they even have ‘araq back then? – but takes a bite into the small yet powerful onion anyway, then chases it with a swig of the milky-white ambrosia. “There, how’s that? Feel good?” David nods at Samir while George laughs, sits back, and sips his drink. It’s an odd combination, onion and ‘araq, but why not?
Samir continues, “Why don’t you have a mobile phone, akhi?! I’m going to get you one! I would have called you to tell you I would be late, but no one can reach you. Do I need to call your secretary? Or Nidal?” he says, raising his eyebrows suggestively. He knows about their little story but tactfully doesn’t push it. David just raises his shoulders a bit, as if to say, “We’ll see,” while Samir turns off the CD player, switches the TV back on, and tunes in to al-Jazeera. The TV is almost always on at Samir’s, as in most other homes David had visited in Syria. The news serves as a sort of sonic decor, and there’s the expectation that guests will want to watch. David finds this annoying since he usually wants to talk to people, but it’s hard to have a conversation when everyone is focused on the screen or the volume is loud. They watch a few minutes of a political talk show featuring a Kuwaiti scholar and a shaykh debating women’s rights to vote and stand for elections in the local parliament. The scholar argues that the new laws point the way for other Arab countries, while the shaykh decries it as an unorthodox innovation that will lead to social disorder. The host, an elegantly-dressed and toughminded woman, tries not to take sides but has some pointed questions for both the scholar and the shaykh, though the religious man refuses to look at her when he answers, instead muttering into his lap.
“See what I mean?” cries George. “They are all backwards.” Samir sighs, saying, “Politics, politics. We drink, eat, and breath politics here!” He flips through the channels again before settling on a Syrian drama set in the French Mandate period. In the scene a bunch of men dressed in traditional garb – baggy shirwal pants, knitted vests, short skull caps, and copious mustaches – gather outside a dry-goods shop and plot a revolution against the French occupiers.
“We should get you some of those clothes!” jokes George. “You belong in that time. No mobile phones. No TV. No cars. Nothing but bread, za’tar, and debkeh dancing! Just for you!”
“Maybe,” says David. He had actually fancied getting some of those pants, just for fun, but couldn’t find them in the souq and was too embarrassed to ask. “But If there’s ever a revolution in Syria,” he jokes, “you’ll all be ready. All these shows are about history and popular uprisings!” Samir laughs half-heartedly, then directs a weary look at David. “Yes, Daoud, but it’s like fifth grade history, nothing but nationalist haki fadi, nonsense. You think these poor guys could really do anything against the French or the Ottomans?” He leans forward and practically whispers, “You think anyone today would dare to rebel?” George is texting someone and does’t pay attention. “You’ve been here, what, nine months? and you don’t know how things are? You don’t know our history? Everyone here is either mabsout and content sitting in his chair watching TV, or too busy looking for a little bread to eat or running to the mosque to think about revolution. We can’t do anything about it.” “Mazbout,” says George, who is listening after all. “Forget about all that.” Samir sighs, picks up his glass, and, raising it to David’s, clinks it and says, “Sahtayn! Daoud! To your heath!”
Back in the kitchen Miriam has been working for the last hour preparing the lunch. In a way it’s good that Samir is late since it affords her the opportunity to catch her breath a bit and focus on the task at hand, even through she was worried when he’d called to say he had to meet with his editor about a recent piece. His boss was almost as much of a creep as hers and she was worried he was in trouble again. It didn’t seem so serious this time, at least. Another disgruntled artist with connections. But every time he has a run in, she seems to pays the price, not him. She’d been passed over twice for promotions despite having more experience and earning the new Arab CPA certificate. And she has an impeccable work record and only missed a few days when Samir’s mother died. Amal had gotten the last promotion despite having only worked there for two years, and she’s a sloppy bookkeeper to boot. Now she runs their small division at the Ministry and tends to treat the others as beneath her. Miriam knows it’s best to ignore it – that’s what Samir always says – but it rancors within her and she cannot let it go. Not every time.
Samir may think of himself as the artist in the family – the journalist, writer, and sculptor – but Miriam, despite her accounting skills and precision, or perhaps because of them, sees herself as an artist in her own right. And not only an artist in the kitchen. How many times had she heard that at work, or from relatives and friends: “Miriam al-Tabbakha! Miriam the Chef!” She is sick of that. Sure, she takes pride in her cooking and spends a lot of time scouring books and websites for new recipes and techniques. She also sees herself as a sort of culinary oral historian, gathering tidbits of kitchen magic from her mother, aunts, and elderly neighbors – when they deign to share their closely guarded family treasures, that is. It reminds her of the brouhaha surrounding the enforcement of the intellectual property rights laws in Syria and how the Ministry has had a hard time handling the enforcement of copyright laws for older recordings, paintings, and other things that people just assume are their tradition, and therefore public property. In the same way the old women jealously protecting their artistic rights, and Miriam has to resort to all sorts of ploys to get at their trade secrets, cajoling, begging, and sometimes outright stealing to get what she wants. She has a great memory for detail and is always making mental notes.
Above all Miriam sees herself as a Time Artist, juggling her job and her household responsibilities without cracking. It doesn’t help that Samir takes this magic act for granted. That she expected. He’s a Syrian man, after all. They don’t live in one of those American soap operas where the men cook and clean and the women run around shopping or hanging around on their sofas talking. Or worse. She lives in the real world and has very few delusions. It is more that she feels obliged to do this eternal juggling to remain sane. Some of the unmarried girls at the Ministry bring little lunches with them, or eat out a lot. The married ones don’t last more than a year before leaving: “retiring,” as one joked. For Miriam, the tradition of sitting down for lunch en famille is sacred. She remembers lunching with her parents, four siblings, and aunts almost every day, running home from the Laïque School, tossing her book bag on the sofa, and rushing to the kitchen to help her mother and sister get the dishes ready while the boys fooled around in the small yard behind their apartment building. Like her own mother she loves the challenge of making it seem effortless, the meal as an act of love, of transubstantiation. In this city you need such small miracles just to deal with the daily indignities: the packed sirvees, the peeling paint in the Ministry halls, the petty office gossip, her overbearing boss, and above all the general situation, like a leaden blanket hanging over their lives. Then Samir gets in trouble every so often because he can’t keep his mouth shut. His problems easily become her problems too.
At least Samir takes her out from time to time, even if the outings are usually work related – an opening at one of the new galleries, a concert at the French Cultural Center, a lecture, or a dinner in honor of one visiting foreign artist or another. They’d gone out to dinner at the Sheraton a few times, and even enjoyed weekends up in Zabadani (taking the old small-gauge train once), or with her sister in Ma’loula. So that helps. But still.
Miriam shakes her head as if to clear the distracting thoughts, looks at the countertop, and focuses on the magic she has to enact today. The menu is simple, but as ever imprinted with her special touch. They’ll start with some tabbouleh, mtabbal, and fresh za’tar salad in olive oil, then they’ll taste a little of her famous shanklish with pomegranate seeds. They’ll finish things off with kefta bil-karaz, grilled meats with roasted cherries – – a new addition to her repertoire borrowed from a visit to Bayt Wakil in Aleppo when Samir had gone to review an exhibit in Aleppo.
The Time Artist has already prepared much of the meal in advance. Last night she’d roasted the eggplant on the stove top and set it aside to marinade in some of her secret spice blend. She’d carefully peeled open the pomegranate and emptied its seeds into a bowl of dibs ruman and ma’ ward: the pomegranate molasses and rose water were an innovation taken from her neighbor’s mother, who had mistakenly invited her into the kitchen during a visit a few months ago. Nothing escaped her eyes, or her palate. Shanklish with pomegranate? It was unorthodox, to say the least. But why not? She’d picked up the cheese on the way home from Abu ‘Adel’s in Sha’alan. Fresh za’tar, baqdunis, and kuzbara grew in small pots on her balcony – store-bought thyme, parsley, and cilantro just weren’t the same. She had also picked up some sumac and the special dried za’tar mix as well from that little shop next to Abu ‘Adel’s. The lamb for the kefta was already ground and waiting in the fridge, and she had roasted the cherries last night to save time. Khubz? Check. Dried figs, almonds, and dates? Check. Water, juice, and soda? Check. ‘Araq? That was Samir’s department. Fresh fruit for dessert? Check. She is all set. Everything is in its place. Except the music. She realizes that Samir has turned off the Fairouz CD in the salon – why does he always do this? – so she puts on the little iPod she keeps in the kitchen and selects her Fairouz playlist. She cannot cook without Fairouz and believes that the sweetness of her voice infuses her cooking. Fairouz hasn’t failed her yet.
The tabbouleh is always the first and longest preparation. Some of her friends have taken to using food processors to chop the parsley, but Miriam knows that this is a disaster. Instead, she prepares it fresh. Out comes the old wooden cutting board with the round depression in the middle, then the long, curved chopping blade that her grandmother had used until she died some years ago. Miriam remembers sitting next to her on the kitchen floor watching the blade go back and forth, the agile hands chopping the parsley and at the same time scooping it into a small wooden bowl off to the side. Artistry. She repeats the motions, then drains the bitter juices and then adds some chopped tomatoes, some fine burghul, a little chopped mint – not too much, as it gets bitter too – and mixes it slowly with a little juice squeezed from a lemon. She then adds a pinch of sea salt, and a small amount of olive oil. It doesn’t need to be so oily. That was her grandmother’s way. She mixes it in a bowl then scoops it into another already lined with fresh leaves of lettuce. A little lemon wedge on the side gives it a nice touch.
Mtabbal is easier. She had already placed the roasted eggplant spiced with baharat out on the counter to warm when she’d arrived. Now she just has to blend it with some tahineh, a little laban, chopped garlic, a dash of sumac for a little lemony taste, and olive oil. She scoops this into another bowl and adds a swirl of olive oil and a dusting of dried za’tar. To prepare the other salad she rinses and tosses some fresh za’tar leaves in a bowl, throws in some excess parsley from the tabbouleh preparation, a little chopped red onion, and a splash of olive oil. Then she slowly drizzles some of the dabs ruman-ma’ ward mixture and a little ground chili pepper to give it some zing, then sets it aside. Stepping back she sees that the first course is ready. Fairouz sings Marmar Zamani, and Miriam is content. Happy, even.
She arranges the dishes on a serving platter, plops a few loaves of khubz that she’s heated up in the toaster oven in a wicker basket, then, removing her headphones, brings it all out to the salon and places it on the coffee table. George has already poured the ‘araq, Majid has his soda, Samir smokes – he was supposed to quit this year, but it doesn’t look like it will happen – and David sits back listening and tentatively sipping on his ‘araq. Miriam likes David, even if George gives him a hard time about his interest in Islam. Why should she care? It’s his life. Plus he always brings some sweets when he visits – especially baqlawa – and is always so polite, if a little shy. Samir enjoys his company, or rather his being an audience. Samir always enjoys an audience. She clears a space for the bowls, places them around the table, and sits with them for a moment.
Seeing Miriam come in, Samir sits back but says nothing. David admires the feast and Majid leans forward to sniff the cheese. “What’s this, ‘Amti?” he asks. “It’s shanklish with pomegranate, habibi. Try it.” So Majid takes a piece of bread and dips it into the bowl, then touches it to his tongue. “I don’t like it!” he proclaims, and George says, “You didn’t even try it! Yallah, Eat some!” But Majid sits back on the sofa, crosses his arms, and says “La!”
“Fadallou!” says Samir, gesturing to David somewhat grandly with his outstretched arm. “Sahtayn!” adds Miriam. She retreats to her kitchen and her Fairouz. And the small glass of ‘araq that George had poured her before taking the bottle into the salon. She’ll leave the men to their politics, plus she still has to make the kefta bil-karaz. The artist has to focus on her craft.
Back in the salon they eat with gusto. Not only is the food delicious but being rather late in the day, they are quite hungry. The shanklish is a bit of a challenge for David, let alone for Majid, because it combines the saltiness of the aged and dried goat cheese with the somewhat sour yet sweet taste of the pomegranate and rose water. It’s hard to place. He’s never tasted anything like it before. Samir and George don’t seem to mind at all and scoop it up with pieces of bread in between long sips on their tall glasses of ‘araq, which George remixes from time to time with alchemical precision.
The television is tuned to al-Jazeera, as usual, and now the program features headlines from the region: explosions near the Green Line in Baghdad; another scandal concerning the American occupation forces; strife in Sana’a; protests by unemployed university graduates in Rabat; allegations of fraud in Egyptian parliamentary elections; an American drone crashes in Afghanistan; UN nuclear inspectors leave
Tehran after a stalemate with the president over access to sites. And so the world turns.
Normally Samir would offer a running commentary on these events – how they fit into the larger Western conspiracies in the Middle East to secure dwindling supplies of oil and control profits from drug and arms trafficking. But tonight he seems subdued, distracted. After a few desultory comments about how the world is kharban, messed up, he turns off the set and instead they just eat and talk about David’s work, his translation projects, and Arabic poetry. David mentions his having read some Nizar Qabbani, and George interrupts him to say, “You should translate him instead of wasting your time on Sufism.” Samir holds his right hand out to George in that classic Arab gesture with the fingers pointing up and touching, meaning “hold your horses!”
“Tawal balak, ya George! Let him eat,” he says, so George acquiesces and, raising his glass, says, “li-sahat Nizar! To Nizar’s health!” David can drink to that.
David thinks of Marina and how she and George shared the same antipathies toward his interests in religion. The two would get along all right. Nidal, when they’d spoken of his work on Ibn ‘Arabi, never said much of anything but had just nodded her head quickly with a slight look of incredulity on her face. He is an anomaly in her world. George, sensing Samir’s annoyance, turns the talk to music (avoiding Fairouz), what TV programs David has watched, and if he’s gone to the cinema at all. David has only attended one showing at the fancy Jasmine Hotel theater. Otherwise he mostly stays home and reads. “You should come watch some with us!” offers George. We have the Harry Potter movies! You’ll like them. Majid perks up at the mention of his hero and asks, ” Can ‘Amo Hari come over to watch tonight!”
“No, Baba, we have plans tonight, but maybe ‘Amo Khairy can come visit the house later.” They agree to head to George’s house after lunch to see the renovations he’s been doing, and maybe watch Harry Potter another time.
George turns back to David and asks about the school where he teaches, how the students are, if he’s paid enough. David isn’t exactly enthusiastic about the school, or its director – especially after the friendly little interview he was subjected to at Internal Security just to get the job. But it does allow him to stay in Damascus, and while teaching English is a lot harder than he’d thought, still, he enjoys it well enough, and some of the students are interesting and he’s learning a lot from them, too. Samir feigns interest in David’s projects, asking perfunctory questions and nodding knowingly, but mostly just sits and smokes.
Majid, having had his fill of mezze, hops up and runs to the kitchen to join his aunt. He is her favorite nephew, polite and handsome, and she loves to spoil him. She sees him come in and turns off Fairouz and holds him to her in a quick hug. Then she pops a roasted cherry dripping with sugary juice in his mouth. His eyes widen with delight at the sweet and sour taste. She has just finished chopping the onion and cilantro. She places the herbs and ground lamb in a bowl and mixes them together with her secret spices. Then, wetting her hands, she forms the kefta into little logs. But instead of moulding them around skewers, she places them in a George Foreman grill, one of the compromises with modernity in her kitchen. But it’s faster and the heat more even. She invites Majid to turn on the grill and turn the kefta when they get brown, then remove them with aluminum tongs.
Miriam has prepared a platter with some warmed bread slathered with sumac, za’tar, and some chopped parsley. She instructs Majid to lay the meats on the bread, interspersed with the roasted cherries, and then to cover them before they get cold. He is eager, even proud, to be helping “‘Amti” in the kitchen. When it is done, she brings the platter to the salon. Majid joins her and proclaims, “Look what I cooked, Baba!” and they all laugh. Samir tussles his hair, says “Bravo!” and they settle in for the meat course.
David has been a vegetarian for some years, but it has proved hard, nay impossible, to continue in Syria. So he decides to go with the flow and takes a piece of kefta and a few cherries and puts them on his plate with some of the bread. Miriam clears off the salad bowls, places them on the platter, and returns with them to the kitchen.
The kefta is extraordinary: the tender and juicy meat enhanced by the rich, dark cherries. Samir and George grasp the meat and cherries with pieces of spiced bread. Politics seems far away as they revel in the tastes. David thinks back to the Saturday lunches he’d share with his parents at the local Lebanese restaurant. After his grandmother had passed away, his father, who had not learned to cook the dishes, would take him and his mother to the al-Homsi restaurant in Paterson for fattoush salad, kibbeh nayyeh, and fasulia bil-zeit. It was their monthly ritual, until his mother got tired of it and declared that she would rather just eat “American food” on the weekends. It later became a special father-son treat to sit over a platter of raw kibbeh – “Arabian Steak Tartare,” his father had called it – and talk about anything, everything, and nothing at all. His father didn’t seem to have acquired the taste for ‘araq but loved to order elaborate fresh-squeezed juice concoctions. David did as well.
The silence at the table is a bit awkward, but David senses that Samir is preoccupied and not only hungry, so he says nothing. They finish the kefta, Miriam clears the table with the help of her assistant Majid, then they return with a platter full of fresh fruits. Peeling an orange is a philosophical endeavor for Samir – he concentrates on the motion of the knife, making sure the cuts are even, then portioning out pieces of the fruit to Majid and David, a slight smile on his lips. When they’ve had their fill, Miriam comes back with a pot of tea and the box of sweets that David had brought – minus the baqlawa, of course, which she had set aside for herself and already eaten – and though stuffed they do their best to sip the tea and munch on a few sweets.
Sitting back in the sofas, George look over at his son and says, “Yallah Baba. Let’s take ‘Amo Samir and ‘Amo Khairy to the house.” Miriam decides to stay home and rest. It’s about 4:30 when they rise and get their jackets and shoes on. Samir fiddles with his mobile phone, David thanks Miriam once more, and the four of them depart.
They leave the apartment and head out on their little mishwar to George’s. As the door closes, Miriam lets out a small sigh, not so much of relief as of resignation. What trouble will he get into this time? She heads back to the salon, puts on the Fairouz CD, and cranks up the volume. Khay, Peace at last! She falls into the arm chair then leans forward to grab the remnants from the box of sweets. Another glass of ‘araq won’t hurt. Maybe a cigarette on the balcony too. It’s Thursday. No work tomorrow. She closes her eyes and savors the lady fingers, dripping with honey oh so sweet.
Samir doesn’t like to go out much unless it’s for work (as Bassam had told him, yuzar wa ma yazur), and Miriam likes him to stay home too, especially after the recent events. But he needs to see someone tonight. He fiddles furtively with his mobile phone as they head out to the street. The snow has stopped and turned into a light rain. They decide to take George’s car, which he has parked in a lot near Bab Touma. It’s perhaps a fifteen minute walk to his house, but George likes to drive anyway. Plus he has his new Hyundai to show off. Sleek and black, it puts to shame the old Mazda that he had once proudly steered through the city streets. David is not sure exactly where George gets his money: a car like his, while not exactly fancy, still costs thousands of dollars. Most Syrian he knows don’t own cars. The taxes and fees are too high and even old clunkers can cost a small fortune. George operates a small company that imports dental-related appliances and equipment to Syria. His wife, Colette, is a dentist, and while she earns a good income from her general dentistry practice and the little cosmetic work she also performs (more and more in recent years), Samir had once implied that they mostly lived on George’s business endeavors. He hadn’t dared to ask more, and Samir let him know that it was best not to get any deeper into the matter.
George has traveled extensively in Europe and the US, partly to accompany his wife when she has done training abroad, partly for business. Always for pleasure. He boasts of his trips and knowledge of the US. “I know your country better than you do!” he had proudly claimed to David when they had first met. He was probably right. David had scarcely left New Jersey and New York except on a school trip to Boston and Washington, and of course the few vacations with his father’s family in Detroit. They’d never traveled to Syria together as a family. His mother had no interest – it was too far away and his father worked all the time, anyway. He’d gone to Vegas once with Marina for a conference of hers, and while he actually enjoyed the spectacle, the kitschy thrill of the casinos (and the free drinks), she found the city depressing, especially in the mornings. So it wasn’t much of a memory. He’d also gone to Florida for Spring Break during high school, but that’s a trip he’d rather not recall. “I can tell you every major road through Iowa and Nebraska!” George offered. “Well, Bravo!,” David thought at the time, though he was impressed. George means well. Ma’lish.
They walk down the main drag in Qassa’, much livelier now as the shops reopen, pass the fatteh restaurant, also busy, then cross the bridge toward the parking lot. George has them wait by a little kolaba while he gets the car with Majid. As they wait Samir continues to look at his mobile phone while David stares longingly at the cafes – he could use a little blast after such a filling meal. After a few minutes George toots his horn and they turn around to see him pull up. Samir hops in the back of the Hyundai and tells David to ride up front, so he opens the door and settles in. No sooner has he pulled the door shut then the car lurches forward and George speeds around the old gate then darts off onto the road that traces the Old City ramparts toward Bab Sharqi. They arrive in no time, the minaret towering above the old arched gateway a familiar landmark. George pulls over past the gate next to a barren lot enclosed by a low chain. An old man shuffles over to the car, and George puts down the window and hands him a note. The man then lays the chain on the ground so George can drive over it and park the car. “Shukran m’alem!”he says to the man, then “Yallah, Let’s go!” to his passengers as he bounds out of the car. They follow him through a small arched passage on the side of the gate and into the Old City, Majid running to keep up with his energetic father.
David has often taken walks in this neighborhood.
He sometimes meets friends for dinner or drinks in the new restaurants and bars, including a crazy night last month when a young poet gave an impassioned reading of his work, and things had progressed to the point where people had danced on the tables, even on the bar itself. Definitely not the Damascus he’d read about in books. He and Samir had met once at Café Zaytoun to drink coffee, play backgammon, and smoke (or “sip,” as they say)nargilehs. But tonight they skip all of this and instead head down the Street Called Straight (though it isn’t exactly straight), pass the collective for Palestinian crafts, some small shops and juice stands, then turn left into Harat al-Zaytoun.
His grandmother’s natal home was a bayt ‘arabi in this very hara. It had been located in the small space between the Armenian, Syriac Catholic, and Greek Orthodox churches – a triangle of power, and discord, that did not fare well after torrential rains almost a century earlier. The family had long abandoned the home when the roof and one wall had collapsed because of the water damage. Not long afterwards the whole structure was demolished to make way for the construction of a church annex and a small plaza. He always stopped when he passed this area to see if he felt any special connection, a ghost-like memory from the distant past fluttering in his heart. He never did. Tonight he stops to look at a poster announcing a forthcoming exhibition in one of the churches. The evening call to prayer begins to resound across the city, first from a distant mosque, then from the old speakers dangling from the minaret over Bab Sharqi. The chorus of voices reverberates in the alleyways from small mosques here and there.
“Ruh tsalli!” Says George. “Go pray, Khairy!” Samir gives George that hand gesture again, then says, “Daoud is trying to remember his roots. Wasn’t your family from here?” David replies that, yes, his paternal grandmother’s family was from the same area as the church annex (he has taken to differentiating the paternal and maternal relatives, since the former tend to “count” more than the latter in his attempts to prove his “Arabness” in Syria).
“‘An jadd?” asks George. “Really? Bayt miin? Which family?”
David tells him about the Haddad’s of Paterson who came from Harat al-Zaytoun in Damascus 100 years ago. It seemed positively exotic to him in his youth, but to George it seems normal. “I met a lot of Haddad’s in Iowa City. Are you related to Fairouz?” David is surprised by the question.
“Why?” he asks.
“Because Fairouz’s real name is “Nouhad Haddad” Samir informs him. David has no idea if they are related. Maybe. Majid seems interested. David might have a famous relative.
They turn through a series of small alleys, then find themselves before a nondescript wooden door framed by cracked plaster walls grayed by dust and age. George presses the door bell and a bird chirps from inside the house. Majid jumps up to hit the button again, then George hoists him so he can play with the doorbell. A cacophony of canaries resounds in the interior, barely muting the sound of footsteps rushing to the front of the house. An exasperated Umm Majid opens the door, then laughs when she sees it’s her son hitting the button. “Shu, Mama? You love birds that much?!” George puts Majid down, who runs to his mother, then introduces her to David. “This is the famous Khairy al-Bittar we’ve told you about!” he says. David says “Nice to meet you, I’m Daoud,” but Colette replies in only slightly accented English, “Welcome, David! Don’t pay any attention to these jokers! They only kid you because they like you. Come on in! Tafaddal!”
She opens the door wide and they make their way through the small entry hall and out to the courtyard. The house consists of several rooms on two stories surrounding the courtyard. On the far side is the summer liwan, a raised outdoor sitting area with some old benches and a work table with some boxes lying on it. Next to it through a small door is the enclosed winter liwan, a more formal reception hall laden with Oriental carpets and low banquettes. The courtyard once sported a fountain in its center, as well as some fruit trees, but years of neglect by prior owners – some benign, like a lack of restoration skills, some malign, like the sale of the old marble fountain to a restaurant – had stripped the home of many of its original features. The home was among the larger ones in the hara, and, as George liked to point out, had “a lot of potential.” It also needed vision and a lot of money. George and Colette seemed to have the latter in abundance, and had hired a local architect for the former. Together they were coming up with a plan for the house. Among the first orders of business was the removal of the styrofoam panels that covered the walls of the courtyard in imitation of the alternating black, white, and red stonework found in many of the ancient buildings. David cannot believe his eyes when George peels one off for him to see. It had been a fad many years ago – a cheap way to recreate the older style. “Neo-Mameluke kitsch,” George pronounces. “Garbage!” Colette laughs, then turns to the kitchen to prepare some coffee.
They walk around the various rooms on the ground floor – store rooms for the workers tools, a bath under renovation, a small eating area off the kitchen. The upper floors are their living quarters and personal storage, as well as George’s home office, but despite David’s curiosity they don’t go up. Instead they remove their shoes and install themselves in the winter liwan, which George had insisted on restoring first. The walls are ornamented with faded paintings of Doric columns and flowers – not exactly an Oriental style, David thinks, but nice anyway. There are books scattered on some shelves, a television in one corner, though it is off, and some low tables here and there. One of the banquettes is covered in toy cars and trucks, and George calls Majid to come and clean them up. Colette soon follows with an old copperrakweh and a tray of small cups and a bowl of sugar. Kicking off her sandals, she walks over to them with a cheerful “Tafaddalu!”
David accepts a cup of black coffee from Colette, then turns to George and says “Mabruk! The house is beautiful!”
“Ahlan wa sahlan ya Khairy, My house is your house! Bayti baytak!” he replies. Marina used to say the same thing to friends in New York: “mi casa es su casa.” It became a running joke with them any time they visited someone with a larger apartment: “Just think, su casa es mi casa now!” she’d whisper in David’s ear. She’d be impressed with George’s house, that was certain.
As they sip their coffee, George outlines his plans for the house. Instead of converting it into a restaurant, he had decided to keep it as a real home for his family and instead invite people over for “Damascene evenings.” “What do they call that in America, Colette? Undercover eating?”
“No, habibi!” she laughs, “they call them “underground restaurants.” We went to one in San Francisco last year. Do they have them in New York, David?” she asks in English. He isn’t sure but guesses that they must.
“Whatever,” George says with a wave of his hand. “We’ll have tables in the courtyard in summer, or here in the winter, and serve traditional foods. I’ll get some guy to sit over in the corner and play oud or qanun. It will be like a home-cooked meal from the olden days, without the artificial atmosphere of a restaurant. And all the boring people too. We will only accept the best people!” David has an inkling of whom George has in mind.
As they finish their coffee, Samir says “Da’imey, Umm Majid! We have to go.” Colette protests, “This doesn’t count as a visit! Stay for dinner!” “Ma’lish,another time. Yallah Daoud.” He gets up from the banquette, and George and David follow him out the door into the courtyard. “Minshufak, Khairy!” says George, patting him on the back. “Majid, say bye to Uncle Khairy!” and Majid runs over and gives David a high five. “Bye Hari!” Colette makes him promise to return and have a meal. “In sha’allah,” replies David. “Stop the “in sha’allah” business!” cries George. “Let’s go. I’ll walk you to the door.”
At the street they thank him again. “Where are you going?” asks George. Samir looks at David, then George, and says, “Oh, just a little visit in the neighborhood. I want to take David to see the new gallery.”
“I’d come with you but I have to make some calls,” says George, “but I’ll see you soon.” With that he closes the door and they stand alone under a small street lamp. Samir turns to David and says, “Off we go. You don’t have anything to do, do you?” and grabbing David’s elbow navigates him toward the corner. “I have to meet Bassam later, and he wants to see you too.” David never seems to have anything better to do than follow Samir on his errands. “OK, sounds good to me,” he says, so they turn at the corner and begin walking arm in arm down the darkened alleys into the heart of Harat al-Zaytoun.
It’s about 5:45 when they turn the corner and head off through Harat al-Zaytoun, following a dark street in the direction of Bab Sharqi then doubling back along a winding alleyway toward the former Harat al-Yahoud or Jewish quarter. David hasn’t much wandered here, but Samir tells him that a couple of cafes, galleries and artist studios have opened up in the last year, and he wants to check one out since he might have to write about it anyway. The occasional street lamp and the interior lights of homes and restaurants spill out onto the irregular cobblestones as they pass in silence. Samir seems preoccupied and David, as usual, tries to take in everything. A young man zooms past on a noisy scooter leaving a cloud of acrid exhaust in his wake. Samir coughs but keeps walking, occasionally checking his phone. A chill hangs in the damp air and David brushes his arms a bit against the cold and pulls his hat down over his ears. “Bardaan? Cold?“ asks Samir, but before he can answer he stops and turns toward David.
“This is Harat al-Yahoud.” He gestures slightly with his hands to both sides. “The gallery is just off to the right. Let’s go.”
David looks back down the alley and sees a small kolaba with a bright light coming from within.
“What’s that for?” He indicates the distant kolaba with a jerk of his head as they turn toward the gallery.
“Wa la himmak, Daoud. Don’t worry about it. It’s the old synagogue. No one goes there anymore, but they have a guard shack there. ‘Aadeh, It’s normal.”
“Why, if no one even goes? Are there still Jews here?”
“Ya’ni, a few families, but not really in this neighborhood, at any rate. Maybe. Most live barrah, in the new areas, or ‘indkum, in America! But tourists sometimes come and the government protects the synagogue, and so they put the kolaba there. It’s not a big deal. Yallah, the gallery is here, just around the corner.”
“Protect the synagogue from what?” he wants to ask, but instead lets it drop. They walk on.
Some weeks ago David had walked in the area and noted what looked like Hebrew writing over the lintels of a few buildings off the Street Called Straight (which isn’t really straight) and nearby in Harat al-Amin. Walking up to the doors he heard little except the occasional sound of sewing machines inside. It sounded to him like sweatshops or workshops of some sort. The only Jew he’d met in Syria was an American graduate student doing research on something having to do with French colonialism in Syria. But Mike wasn’t exactly religious and also was careful about advertising his identity as a Jew. With good reason, as David had later found out. When it comes to things Jewish, David is never sure whether or not to broach the topic since a lot of people are already suspicious of him as an American, or even as possibly Jewish, given his name. With Samir, however, he felt he could talk about most things.
“‘Aadeh,” Samir repeats as they walk on. “They are like you and me, mithli mithlak. But whatever. That’s not our problem. Shu dakhalna fihun. Here’s the gallery.”
Gallery Marmar occupies a former bayt ‘arabi or “Arab” home, though in this case it was once the home to a moderately prosperous Jewish family of merchants and shop-owners. Like many Syrian Jews the Nakkash family had departed Damascus in the years before the establishment of Israel, leaving first for Istanbul and then Brooklyn, and more for economic than ideological reasons. The Second World War had decimated trade with Europe and the conflict in Palestine had increased tensions in the city between Jews and non-Jews, though it wasn’t always so bad. Or so great, either. The Nakkashes followed scores of others, leaving behind not only their homes and shops, the furnishings often still standing, but also rapidly fading memories of a certain co-existence with their Damascene neighbors. Only a handful remain, though Samir tells him stories, apocryphal perhaps, of Syrian Jews returning to Damascus because they couldn’t adjust to living elsewhere. “They probably missed the hummus, or the waters of ‘Ayn Fijeh!” he’d joked. David has a tap of the cold and slightly sweet-tasting spring water in his apartment. It would be worth coming back for.
The former home still sports its large courtyard with a substantial fountain — perhaps the one from George’s house? — trickling with water and festooned with flowers. A small well stands off to one side, covered with a wooden board and supporting a tray full of bottles and glasses. Surrounding the courtyard are four interconnected rooms – two on each side — forming the gallery space: two for exhibitions, two for the office and storage. Like George’s house, Gallery Marmar has winter and summer liwan-s. The first had been converted years ago into a workshop and is now a sculptor’s studio. Many small bronzes rest on shelves and pedestals in the summer liwan. Traditional music emanates softly from speakers hanging from a long wooden beam spanning its arched ceiling — perhaps an old Sabah Fakhri recording, or perhaps some tracks by one of his many imitators. It’s hard to tell, but not at all bad for sonic decor. At least it’s not Fairouz again, he thinks.
A dozen or so sharply dressed individuals, mostly in their late twenties and thirties, mill about the courtyard talking, checking each other out, texting, and occasionally ducking into the exhibition spaces, drinks in hand. An air of privilege hangs about them. David doesn’t recognize anyone even though he’s gone to many exhibitions before. None of the artist types seems to be there. Samir walks over to an older woman, apparently the owner, pulling David along with him.
“Marhaba ya Abu Samra! Ya hala! Ya hala!” she exclaims. “Shu jaybak huun? What brings you here?” she pretends to ask, for she knows why Samir is there. It’s not a gallery opening without Samir. The owner, Roula Makhlouf, smiles broadly when Samir introduces to her to David and they exchange some pleasantries — the usual questions about who he is, where he’s from, if he’s an artist, if he speaks Arabic, why he speaks it, if he loves Syria, and so on. The full interrogation. After a moment they reach one of those awkward pauses and Roula, looking over her shoulder, smiles toward a recently arrived group of guests, then, with an over-hearty “Sharafu!” tells Samir and David to have a look around as she turns to join the new arrivals, her high-heels clicking as she traverses the polished marble tiles of the courtyard.
They go to the well and grab drinks — David a glass of white wine, Samir red — then have a look around. The gallery rooms are small but well-lighted and each features a different artist. Upon entering the first room David picks up a small brochure from a table. It has some information on the artist, a young woman working primarily in oils and acrylic. Her style can best be described as “ethnographic.” The small and medium size canvases feature what David now recognizes as the familiar clichés of contemporary Syrian art: street scenes from the Old City; an old man in a red tarboush smoking a nargileh; a dove circling above a minaret. The works are rendered in earthy tones with a certain amount of skill. His father might like to put one on his wall (perhaps not his mother, since she was sometimes so anti-Arab it surprised him). Marina would laugh, but she has little patience for conventional arts. If it isn’t revolutionary, it’s not worth creating let alone looking at. While not unpleasant, these works aren’t much different from the paintings he sees at other galleries, or in the street kiosks of al-Salhiyyeh, for that matter. Even in the best of circumstances David isn’t much moved by painting. He takes a final cursory glance around the room, smiles at the young woman standing expectantly in the corner — probably the artist — then finds his way past some onlookers into the next room. Samir lingers to chat a bit with the woman.
The next room is much like the first: small, somewhat crowded, well-lighted, and decorated with small canvases, this time not so much landscapes as abstract forms. The modern decorative style dominates: muted, dark tones, vaguely calligraphic swirls of the brush, the hint of a face peeking from one, an animal from another. Boring. The artist hands David a brochure and attempts to explain his influences and what he was trying to do, but David excuses himself politely and heads out the other door back into the courtyard. Samir is already over at the well availing himself of another glass of wine. Roula hovers nearby with her entourage.
Before David can even ask him what he thinks, Samir whispers, “Ma fi shi bi-fishsh al-’alb. Ya’ni, Nothing to write to your girlfriend at home about.” David senses his hesitation as Roula approaches — Samir has had enough run-ins for a day and raises his voice a bit to say, “This is great. What do you think, Daoud?” David gets the message and says “Hilu kiteer! I enjoyed it. Very interesting and important. I’d like to come back and see more when it isn’t as crowded.”
“Ya hala! Ya hala! Any time! Sharafna, Sayyid Daoud! Come back!” Roula has now joined them with a few hangers-on at her side. “Shu rai’kun? Mu hilu? Isn’t it nice?” What else can they do but agree with her, smile pleasantly, and sip their wine.
Samir suddenly looks down at his watch and says to everyone in hearing distance, “I have an appointment at 6:30 at the Jasmine Hotel, so I have to leave. Let’s go, Daoud!” David knows nothing of the appointment but he puts his wine glass down on the ledge of the fountain, takes his leave from Roula, and follows Samir out the door.
“Where are we going?” David asks. Samir, more energetically than usual, says “We’re going to see Bassam. I need to talk to him about something. Plus I think you’ll like where we are meeting him. You don’t have anything to do, right?”
“No problem. It’s the weekend. Let’s go.”
They leave the gallery and traverse the upper portion of Harat al-Yahoud toward al-Amin, avoiding the street that passes the synagogue and its eerie kolaba. After wandering a bit, they cross the Street Called Straight (which is not really straight) by the old Roman arch, and at St. Mary’s Cathedral plunge back into the depths of al-Qaimariyya, a mostly Muslim quarter of older residences, shops, mosques and sabil-s. Rounding a corner, David hesitates before a shop where a few weeks ago he had found for sale an old Arabic typewriter. Ever since seeing Naked Lunch he’d wanted to collect one – if not the “Mujahideen” model of the film, then some older model with Arabic keys. He’d never had any luck, not in the antique stores of the East Village or Atlantic Avenue, not on eBay. By chance — was anything by chance in this city? He was beginning to wonder — this little shop had one, and in almost pristine condition.
It had a missing key and “Oliver” and not “Mujahideen” was written on the back plate (that was probably an addition for the film anyway). It seemed an incredible find, though the owner showed somewhat less enthusiasm for it than he. Nonetheless the old man wanted what David considered to be an outrageous sum: 25,000 lira, about 500 dollars. David, thinking that like almost anything else in Syria he’d get it for next-to-nothing, expressed surprise, so the old man calmly reached into a drawer and, pulling out a sheet of paper, handed it to him.
“Shuf, ustaaz. Have a look yourself.” It was a print-out listing a number of rare typewriters and their approximate value in dollars. Sure enough, the 1922 Arabic-language Oliver Model #9 was worth at least $500. While David looked over the price-list, the old man went to the back of his shop and brought back a Remington portable of more recent vintage. “You can have this one for only 5,000 lira,” he announced. But even that seemed too much to throw at a whimsy, especially if it wasn’t what he really wanted. “What’s your final price for the Oliver?” David had asked, hoping to avoid a lengthly bargaining session, but the old man wasn’t willing to let it go for less than 22,000 lira, so David had walked away from it, but not without regret. He still feels a small yearning in his heart every time he passes the shop, and so tonight he stops to see if he can still make out the typewriter through the window.
“Shu, Daoud? Fii shi? Is something wrong? Do you want to go in the store? It’s mostly old junk.” David only tips his head back with a quick nod and clicks his tongue in that gesture that means “No” and with a “Yallah!” they continue on their way.
Samir stops at a little dukkan to buy some cigarettes. His mood is decidedly lighter than it had been just a few minutes earlier, as if the anticipation of meeting with Bassam had lifted his spirits. Or maybe the pack of Gitanes. A stubby cigarette dangles from his lips as he motions David with his head to follow him into a narrow alleyway. Squeezing past some bicycles and old metal crates they navigate the passageway then emerge onto a side street. A small mosque with green Christmas lights ornamenting its doorframe stands to their left, but Samir leads them right, ducking under a low arch festooned with electrical wires until they emerge onto al-Sawwaf Street. The cafe is off to their left, just past two or three boutique hotels. Samir smiles and raises his eyebrows as if to say “Voilà!” as he takes a drag on his Gitane. David wonders how people know their way around the Old City streets. He’s already a little lost. In a moment they arrive at Bayt Sabri, a combination cafe-restaurant-gallery.
“Do you know this place?” Samir asks.
“I’ve never been here but I’ve heard of it. Nidal mentioned it once, for the gallery. I tried to come a few weeks ago but couldn’t find my way.”
“Basita! It’s easy! You just go the Umayyad Mosque from Souq al-Hamidiyya then follow it around to the other side, you know, where al-Nawfara is. Then go down the street off on your left hand side until you come to Maktab ‘Anbar. Then it’s right over here. There are even signs. Or ask Nidal to take you!” he smirks.
“Basita!” David laughs.
Samir pushes open the door and holding it for David invites him to head inside.
David heads through the open door and enters the cafe, with Samir just behind. They emerge into a large, well-lighted and busy courtyard occupied by tables and chairs arranged around a central marble fountain. It’s a former bayt ‘arabi, but much larger than any he’s seen before. The central fountain is the size of a small swimming pool, and inhabited by large goldfish. Citrus trees rise along the walls to one side, while aromatic and flowering plants hang from terraces above. The walls, in the old ablaq style of alternating black, white, and light red stone, are decorated with frames of old photos, small birdcages, old lamps, swords, and the like. The high ceiling is covered by a retractable roof made of sheets of canvas to keep out the cold and rain, though Nidal had told him that in summer it is quite pleasant to sit in the courtyard with the roof open to the sky. David feels like he’s in the bowels of a dream-like ship, the sails floating above. Just to the left past the entrance are two interconnected rooms that house the café’s gallery space. The kitchen and administrative rooms occupy the other side. At the far end lies the large summer liwan with its soaring arched ceiling. Ornate portals on either side lead to sumptuous private dining rooms.
Spotting an empty table off to the right, they walk over and take seats. On the wall just above them the former and current presidents stare balefully from the obligatory double portrait. Samir turns his chair so his back is to the wall, and David slides in next to him, taking in the view. With the roof closed over their heads the courtyard is quite noisy with the bustle of waiters, the sound of backgammon pieces slapped against tables, intermittent laughter, and music from the flat-screen televisions, tuned, of course, to the music video station Rotana. The smoke of nargileh-s hangs in the air.
The clientele are not much different from those at the gallery in Harat al-Yahoud – young, hip, well-dressed, though not formal, and perhaps less stuffy. There are even muhajabat, probably young women students taking a break from their studies. The veil doesn’t stop them from smoking nargileh-s and bantering with their friends, even young men. The latest mobile phones grace the tables, sometimes lined up along the backgammon sets. A young man at a nearby table opens a netbook to share some photos with friends. Waiters in those ubiquitous embroidered vests and black shirwal pants buzz around, trays on their finger tips. Bayt Sabri has a pleasant atmosphere: light-hearted, busy, certainly, yet somehow self-contained and serene at the same time. Even self-satisfied. David marvels that plants can flower indoors in winter, but they seem to have stepped into a sort of time warp – modern yet timeless. There is only one season in Bayt Sabri – Joy Spring.
A waiter comes over and they order some coffee. As the waiter is about to leave, Samir says “Let’s get some nargileh-s and play backgammon, shu ra’yak?” David hesitates a moment but Samir places the order and David just shrugs and goes with the flow.
A few moments later the waiter returns with a medium size rakweh, followed by a second man lugging two nargileh-s under his arms, the hoses dangling from his mouth as he fires them up. It’s a delicate business. The waiter places the two pipes near their chairs, then sucks on the long hoses to get the airflow going, causing the water in the glass to burble. He uses steel tongs to adjust the charcoal sitting on the mu’assal — a mix of tobacco and honey-infused fruit — then when he is satisfied with the result hands Samir and David some plastic mouthpieces sealed in little bags, which they open and stick in the ends of the hoses. Samir drags on his nargileh for a few moments, an air of concern about his face, then sits back when all is well and good. Letting out a puff of smoke, he turns to David. “Shu? Ma hilu? Isn’t this nice?” David is trying to get his pipe to work – the charcoal seems to have fallen over a bit and the smoke comes up thin and acrid. He coughs, then forces a smile. “Aeh. It’s great. This place is huge!” and coughs again. Samir laughs and, leaning over, slaps him on the shoulder. At least he’s in a good mood again. The waiter comes back and makes some adjustments to the charcoal and the pipe works well for the moment. David sits back and tries to feel comfortable with the nargileh. It’s an acquired taste, an art. No wonder they call Samir m’allem.
David met Samir a few weeks after he first arrived in Damascus. Leaving the American Consulate one day, where he had to get some papers stamped for his teaching job, he had wandered through Abu Roumanneh and come across an art gallery. Deciding to have a peek, he wandered in. The gallery was installing its latest exhibition but the owner, an older woman, was showing Samir around. When David appeared at the door, she invited him to come in even though they were not really open at the time. They’d gotten to talking and perhaps out of curiosity or genuine interest, Samir had invited him for a coffee at Firdaws afterward, and they had met regularly since. That was over nine months ago. Today Samir is his best friend in Syria; his best friend in the world, it sometimes seems.
Samir is short, trim and energetic — frenetic even — and with his thick and wiry dark hair has an intense look about him. While serious in his work — too serious so far as the artists are concerned — he is at heart fun loving. And political. To Samir, everything is political and personal. He has been involved in various pro-democracy movements since the transfer of power to the new president a few years ago, and while he hasn’t been jailed (yet), he has had enough run-ins with authorities that he has earned a bit of a reputation as someone with connections, with wasta. How else could he get away with being so honest and direct? Some thought it must be his brother-in-law George and all his money and the protection that can buy, others his being Christian, though Samir is hardly religious. Even if David cannot entirely figure Samir out, he has proven to be a fast friend and often introduces him to interesting people, including Bassam … and Nidal, of course.
Another waiter comes over to the table with a backgammon set and they unfold the box between them and set the pieces straight. David is no slouch when it comes to backgammon – his father had taught him when he was only 6 to play and he thinks himself fairly expert – but Samir is variously called “al-Malik,” the King, or simply “al-M’allem,” according to everyone. For him backgammon is not only a fun pastime, but an obsession. A tool for domination. David cannot match Samir’s aggression on the board. He’ll mix a rapid opening blitz with careful anchoring on his board, and then just when David thinks it safe to open up his own runners, Samir will trounce him with a series of attacks. David had studied various opening strategies as a teenager, but Samir combines them in unorthodox ways, and there seems little David can do but watch as Samir’s pieces pile up off the board.
After Samir has beaten him for a second time, they sit back and laugh. Between sips of coffee, Samir remarks on some of the various characters who have come to the café that evening. As they talk David surveys the room. He loves these kinds of places and doesn’t feel the least bit like an Orientalist for it. Or, rather, he doesn’t feel the least bit ashamed for his admittedly Orientalist leanings when it comes to certain things like Syrian food and architecture, and possibly religion, though he has his doubts about that. Marina had thought him a little over the top when he’d called once and enthused about his walks in the Old City. She had even suggested that he was being too nostalgic. “After all, isn’t Syria a dictatorship?” she’d asked, and he’d reminded her for the tenth time to be careful not to talk about certain things on the phone. You never knew who might be listening. He’d heard some guys boasting at a cafe about how they’d spent their military service listening in on friends’ phone lines. So you have to be careful what you say on the phone. Because Marina’s parents and grand-parents had suffered through years of strife in Spain, Mexico, and the US as a result of their political views, she is sensitive to the issue – at once too sensitive, and insensitive. She doesn’t understand Syria or how he can love it so much. Perhaps she is a little envious too – after all, she only studies, works, and writes, then studies, works, and writes. He has a nice week off from teaching and can spend his days doing as he pleases. It won’t last for long, though. He’ll have to return to the school in a few days, back to his routine.
He wonders what Marina would like in Damascus were she to come, as she’d hinted she might do: the Old City or the newer areas? The food? A woman sitting with a friend at a table across the room looks vaguely like her from behind: the long dark hair, some of the mannerisms. He imagines a Syrian Marina, until the woman gets up. It is Nidal, who has been drinking coffee with her friend, the painter Basma al-Hilu, whose works hang in the gallery.
Seeing David and Samir, Nidal walks over to say hello. She is always dressed simply yet smart – tonight in a black turtleneck and pants with a light gray jacket and colorful silk scarf. And her Nikes, which she always seems to wear no matter what the weather or the occasion. She also always seems to wear an ironic grin on her face, at least when David sees her. Samir asks her to join them and she responds with that little backward tilt of the head, as if to say, “I know what you are up to, az’ar!” “No thanks,” she says. “I have to go. I was just talking to Basma about her show. I might write about it. Did you see it?” She directs this at David, who is a bit tongue-tied, but he manages to say that he had peeked in and found it “hilu,” though he realizes too late the unintended pun. They all laugh together, though he is embarrassed. “I mean, I found it interesting,” he clarifies. She looks at him for a moment with that smile on her face, then with a quick “yallah, minshufkun” heads out the door.
David follows her with his eyes, his heart stuck halfway up his throat. Samir chuckles and slaps him on the back. “Ya salam, Daoud ‘ash’aan! David’s in love!” But before David has a chance to deny it, Bassam appears at the table with a hearty “Marhaba shabab!” and takes a seat.
The evening is just beginning…
Heading out the door, she brushes past a tall man pushing his way in as if in a hurry, then she and Basma wander in the alleyways for a while, enjoying a walk in the cool Damascene night air. The sky is clear and a gibbous moon shines over the sleepy city, casting shadows on grey walls and reflecting in the small panes of glass in the upper stories. The friends pass Maktab ‘Anbar and they reach the Street Called Straight (which is not exactly straight).
“Want to join me at Marmar?” Basma asks as they turn the corner and stop to let some cars and a little delivery truck pass. “There’s a new show there and the vernissage is tonight. It’s supposed to be pretty good.”
“Nah, I think I’ll head home.” Nidal puts her hand on her friend’s shoulder. “I have some errands to run first in Madhat Basha, and then I might head out to Riwaq for a drink if feel like it. But it’s been a long day. Another time.”
“Who was that guy?” asks Basma, looking up at Nidal.
“You know who I mean. The tall guy with glasses sitting with Samir in Bayt Sabri. You spoke with him before we left. He was fumbling with his nargileh.”
“Ah, You mean David? … He’s no one. Ya’ni, he’s an American and works as a teacher here. I’ve seen him a few times here and there, at galleries. He likes art, but I don’t really know him.”
“That’s all?” Basma asks, with a knowing smile. “He was blushing when you asked him about my show. I don’t think he even saw it! He could hardly speak!”
“How should I know what he thinks?” Nidal lies, for she knows that David is always tongue-tied when they meet, and it’s not just his sometimes faulty Arabic. She knows he likes her. It’s obvious. But she only laughs lightly then says, “It’s complicated!”
“Aie, complicated, but he’s hilu, no?” Basma pokes Nidal in the arm and they both laugh. “Yes, hilu kiteer,” she thinks. Very handsome indeed.
“Bas, ma fi shi baynatna! There’s nothing going on between us! I don’t really know him. I think we’re just friends.”
“You think you’re just friends? ….” Basma grins. She knows her friend Nidal and how she always closes up with men, but she senses something more this time. Her awkward smile speaks more than her words. But she decides not to push it tonight.
“Yallah, we’ll talk later. I’m going to Marmar.” Basma kisses Nidal on the cheeks then heads off toward the gallery.
“Yallah, bye” says Nidal as turns down Madhat Basha.
She wanders for a few minutes then enters a small, dark side street in the Mazenat al-Shahm neighborhood, in the direction of al-Shaghour.
Nizar Qabbani had spent his childhood here, as had she … before everything fell apart.
Nidal’s family traced its origins to the Palestinian city of Safed – a religious and commercial center in Galilee in the North of Palestine. Her grandfather, a certain Marwan al-Safedi, had been a wealthy merchant as well as local religious leader during the first half of the twentieth century. He and his wife, Faidah Sharabi, bore two children, Rashid and Fatima, and they lived in a spacious home toward the edge of the southern part of the city. Then came the Nakba, the “Calamity.” The family was forced to flee Safed in May, 1948, following Operation Yiftah, a plan by Jewish paramilitaries to take over Safed as part of the broader conflict that resulted not only in the establishment of the State of Israel, but also in the flight and exile of many of thousands of Arabs from Safed and neighboring villages. The Safedis and the Sharabis first joined relatives in the Golan, then settled in one of the numerous Palestinian camps operated by UNRWA in Damascus. After a few years they were able to rent a home in the middle-class neighborhood of Mazenat al-Shahm in the Old City. Jiddu Marwan ran a small shop in the neighborhood and contented himself with quiet contemplation in the evenings. Sittu Faidah could be found most evenings sitting in a wicker chair in the courtyard, peeling oranges and listening to the radio.
Not unlike many Palestinian children of their generation, young Rashid and Fatima grew up looking up at the deed to their parents’ Safedi home hanging in a frame on the wall, the original skeleton key to the front door dangling from a chain above the faded parchment written in Arabic, English, and Hebrew, and dated June, 1941.
In his retirement Marwan would often take the key off its hook and stare at it with an empty look in his eyes then, with a small shake of his head and a deep sigh, replace it on the hook and retire to the comfort of his armchair. The frame and dangling key announced not only a memory of past ownership, but also the hope of an eventual return. Rashid, when older, had asked his father, “Baba, don’t you think the Jews have already changed the locks, and the key won’t work anymore?” and his otherwise placid father had gone red with silent rage. Little did they know that the home had been demolished years earlier to make room for an expansion of the main artery linking Safed to new settlements encircling the town. To boot, a trendy architect from Tel Aviv had converted the mosque where Marwan had sometimes lead the dhikr prayers into a cafe and art gallery for cosmopolitan Israelis. Rashid had thus grown up with the contradiction of a hoped for return to a homeland he scarcely knew, and the realization that there was perhaps no return after all. There was no home.
Nidal’s mother, Salwa al-Khalidi, grew up in the village of Jubata al-Zayt in the Golan. She and her family fled the shells of the advancing Israeli army during the Naksa or “Setback” of the June 1967 War, arriving in Damascus on foot with nothing but a few sacks of clothing, the jewelry she and her mother wore on their arms, and a heart full of memories. For a time they had lived in the home of her father’s cousins in Jaramana, a situation they thought temporary. When the following year they heard stories of the razing of their entire village by the Israeli occupying forces and its eventual repopulation with colonies of settlers – a fate shared by hundreds of Palestinian villages — they rented a home of their own in Duweila’. There was no going back. They had to create a home in a cartography of absence.
Salwa was not only the village beauty but sharp as a whip, and an excellent student. She met Nidal’s father at Damascus University, where he was a young and charming lecturer in pharmacy with a penchant for poetry, and she was a student of law, shy yet studious and having an intense passion for justice. They fell in love and married in early 1972. Nidal followed in 1973, just a month after the October war. Just two years later Salwa died tragically in childbirth, along with Nidal’s baby brother, Marwan, stillborn. Nidal’s grandparents had died a few years before after the Naksa — from heartbreak, it was said — and Rashid had assumed the lease of the house in Mazenat al-Shahm for himself, Fatima, and her husband, Mahmoud, also a refugee from the Galilee. As Palestinians, they were not allowed to buy the home even though Rachid earned a respectable salary at the university and from his small pharmacy in al-Shaghour. When Nidal was only 9, Rashid was kidnapped in Lebanon in the aftermath of the Sabra and Shatila massacres. He’d gone to provide medical assistance to Palestinians wounded in the ongoing conflict and was stopped at a check point and never heard from again. He had been presumed dead, though Nidal secretly harbored thoughts that her father had escaped and would one day return. Dreams of return filled her days and nights as a child, and her darkest hours as a young adult. That was over 20 years ago. “Haaj, Baba. Enough. Time to come home,” she often says to him as an inner prayer.
Nidal was thus raised by her aunt Fatima back in the old house, along with her cousins Ahmad, Adeeb, and Hanan. Although she had moved away after finishing her university studies in literature and journalism, she would often return to the neighborhood to visit her aunt and uncle. It was the only homeland she had in a childhood marked by tragedy, but also the comforts of family. In the end it’s all anyone has.
The neighborhood hasn’t changed much over the years. Guided by the small street lamps, the moonlight, and her unfailing instinct, Nidal navigate the streets easily. She could find her way with her eyes closed, she thinks. The familiar smells and sounds would be enough — the bakery with the best breads in town on one corner, the little spice shop on the other with its barrels of cumin, cardamom, and cinnamon, and of course the cassette stand just across from the house. Tonight Wael Kfoury croons “Inta Habibi“ as some youth gather to watch a video on a portable player. “Marhaba shabab!” she calls to them as she passes, and they turn their heads briefly to acknowledge her then get back to their business. She has known them since they were children. Za’ran, sometimes, but essentially good kids.
Across the way an old man leans back in a black vinyl-covered chair, a white cloth draped about his neck, while a young attendant in a red smock threads away excess hair from his eyebrows. A radio crackles in the background as fluorescent lights spill out onto the street and illuminate the walls of the homes on the opposite side. Nidal turns one last corner and stops at a little grocery to buy a bag of fat oranges.
They are for her aunt Fatima, her only link to her father and to a Palestinian home she never knew. To a history she scarcely knows how to read. Fatima is about 60 and still strong. She works part time as a nurse at the clinic in the Yarmouk camp. Her children have all left home – the two boys work as school teachers in Hama, and Hanan, who married young, now lives with her husband and three children in Aleppo. ‘Amu Mahmoud is in Hama visiting the boys and attending to some business; he deals in electric generators and industrial cables made in Iran. He will return in a few days, so ‘Amti Fatima is alone in the house.
Approaching the familiar house, she presses the doorbell. A loud and shrill sound echoes inside and waits for her aunt to open the door. Nidal likes to sit with her on a quiet evening and chat while her aunt peels the oranges in neat strips. As Fatima says, it’s a way of holding a piece of Palestine in the palm of your hand.
Bassam appears at the table, offers a hearty “Marhaba shabab!” and takes a seat. It’s been a few weeks since David last saw Bassam. Maybe it was a gathering at Samir’s, or possibly at Riwaq. They had grown friendly in recent weeks, and when Samir did manage to get out for an evening, it was almost always in the company of Bassam, so he often sees the two together.
“Sorry I’m late. I ran into some friends on the way at al-Nawfara.” The old cafe by the Great Mosque is a popular hangout for tourists, but many Damascenes go as well to have a tea or coffee, and of course to hear the Hakawati. David had gone many times to hear the stories of ‘Antar wa ‘Abla, though he found the whole scene a little contrived, even if he enjoyed it nonetheless. Where else can you sit next to a 1000 year old fountain, sip an anise tea, listen to animated stories, and hear the adhan resound from the seventh century minarets?
“Wa la himmak! We were just talking with Nidal and Basma about her show. Have you seen it? And what do you want to drink?” Samir gets the attention of a waiter, who comes to the table. Bassam orders a coffee, ziyadeh, with lots of sugar.
“No, I haven’t seen it yet but we can go have a look. Is it good?
“Ya’ni,” says Samir, equivocating. “It’s not bad. Fi shi hilu …” and he catches himself with a smile as David laughs. It’s hard to talk about an artist named “Hilu,” sweet, without using her name all the time.
“And Daoud is in love!” Samir announces.
“No! Khalas! That’s enough, Samir!” David is embarrassed.
“Shu?” says Bassam. “What’s the story?”
“There’s no story at all, bnoab!” exclaims David, but he isn’t even convincing himself and begins to blush slightly.
“Ha! Fi shi akeed! There’s definitely something going on. Hey, she’s really great, Nidal. Bas, be careful.” Bassam arches his eyebrows. “Filisteeniyya, ya’ni.”
“What’s that supposed to mean, ‘Palestinian’?” asks Samir, in a light but insistent tone. “She’s more Syrian than you, ya muhajir! You weren’t even born here, but she was!”
Bassam is a “muhajir,” as Samir likes to call him, an “immigrant,” since he was born in Kuwait, where his father had been working as an Arabic teacher in the 1970s before returning to Damascus in the mid-1980s.
“I’m only kidding. She’s nice, but maybe a little hard to connect with. You know, aloof. Bas hilweh!”
Bassam offers David his open palm and they do that sort of combination high-five slap/hand shake thing that Syrian men like to do when they tell jokes. They both laugh because they know it’s true. David has had a hard time understanding Nidal. And she is beautiful. Hilweh kiteer.
“Khalas! Daoud already has one woman back home in New York, and one here! Pretty soon he’ll have a full hareem!”
Samir is clearly in a good mood now, and there isn’t even any ‘araq on the table (not yet, at least, David thinks). Marina would cringe at the very idea of having a harem. He, too, cringes a little, and predicts what comes next — the inevitable “four wives” scenario.
“You could convert to Islam and then you could marry four at a time!” Bassam laughs and tries to do the handshake/slap thing again, but David sits back and puts his hands up in the air, as if in resignation.
“One’s enough for me. Too much, sometimes!” he says. They all laugh.
“You know I’m just kidding. My wife would kill me if I even thought about getting a second wife!” He pantomimes a knife cutting across his throat.
“Mine too!” says Samir, as he fumbles with his nargileh, which doesn’t seem to be burning properly. He turns to call the waiter over to fix it.
“But you’re not a Muslim, so you can’t have four anyway! Plus Miriam is the best – mara wa nusf, a woman and a half! So don’t even think of it or I’ll tell Daoud to marry her!”
Samir snorts as he leans back with his revived nargileh in his mouth.
“Not that anyone I know has a second wife. It would be impossible.” Bassam shakes his head ruefully. “Imagine! What a headache!”
David scratches his head at the ongoing banter.
“Aiy, and backwards, too!” says Samir.
“Now you’re sounding like George! How is that ajdab anyway?”
George and Bassam don’t get along very well, in part because of George’s habit of insulting Islam and Muslims at every opportunity, and in part because Bassam cannot keep his mouth shut and refuses to humor George simply because he’s his best-friend’s brother-in-law.
“The “idiot” as you call him, is fine. He’s busy fixing up his new house. It’s coming along well. We’ll go see it sometime.”
“‘Azeem!” says Bassam as he looks around the room. “Can’t we get any ‘araq around here? Where’s that waiter?”
Bassam writes for one of the regional papers printed in Beirut. He mainly covers politics and economics and travels a fair amount in Syria, occasionally to Beirut, and once in a while to Cairo, Kuwait, or other Arab capitals to cover one story or another. He is currently writing a piece on corruption in the redevelopment of Beirut, which is tricky both because he’s a Syrian and hence “outsider,” and also because the paper he writes for is financed in large part by the very people in Lebanon directing the redevelopment project. He also writes fiction and has published some poetry, though he discounts it is “haki fadi,” nonsense, since it doesn’t compare to the great Arab poets of yore.
“Take al-Mutanabbi, for example. Now that’s a poet. He was more modern in the tenth century than our so-called ‘modern’ poets today!” Bassam recites a few lines:
Ana al-ladhi nazara al-aʿma ila adabi
Wa asmaʿat kalimati man bihi ṣamamu.
Al-khaylu wa al-laylu wa al-baydaʾu taʿrifuni
Wa as-saifu wa ar-rumhu wa al-qirtasu wa al-qalamu.
I, whose literature the blind perceive,
And whose words by the deaf are heard.
The horse, the night and the desert know me,
And the sword, the spear, the paper and the pen.
“Ya salam! Isn’t that great? Who can write anything like that today?” David doesn’t really understand it, and Samir just sits back and snorts again while the waiter arrives with a tray of ‘araq and begins to arrange the glasses, ice bucket and decanter on the table. Once he leaves, Bassam leans forward and, looking over both shoulders, whispers: “Abu al-Tayyib also once said, “If you see the teeth of the lion, do not think that the lion is smiling at you.” He raises his eyebrows suggestively. “Ya’ni, he didn’t mince his words, and paid for it with his life. No one would dare write that today. They aren’t multazimeen, not committed.”
“Hilu,” says Samir, preoccupied with mixing the ‘araq. “What do you think, Daoud? You’re a literary sort. Don’t we have any good modern poets?” David has little to say about what he so little understands, having devoted himself to the arcane texts of Ibn al-’Arabi, but he offers a few names, platitudes really.
“Ma ba’rif,” he says. “I dunno. Nizar Qabbani? [thinking of his neighbor] Adonis? They are famous. And good, too, right? And Mahmoud Darwish? I have a book of his poetry, and some of his poems were made into songs by Marcel Khalife. Those aren’t bad, are they?”
“Wallahi, you’re right. Aren’t they like modern Mutanabbis, khayo?” Samir uses the Aleppine term for brother, since Bassam had studied literature at Aleppo University.
“Yeah, they’re all fine and good – if you are a woman, or a student, or some ajdab politician pretending to be interested in the Palestinian cause, or a fake revolutionary singer. But when did any of them ever … what’s that phrase you use in America, Daoud? … Speak truth to power? These so-called poetic heroes of yours are always quiet when it counts, except maybe Darwish. At least he moved back to Ramallah and didn’t just hang out in Paris drinking café au lait and pretending to be a dissident. And don’t get me started with Marcel Khalife! None of these guys would put his life on the line like Abu al-Tayyib did. Or al-Ma’ari, or even Ibn al-Khatib, who was poisoned. Cowards!”
David looks a little lost hanging on a thread of poetry linking the tenth, fifteenth, and twentieth centuries. But as a friend once told him, these older poets still live in the minds of many Arabs. School kids memorize their verses so they remain familiar fare. At least in Syria. He thinks of his news-vendor friend Khalid. He’d know which poets were good, and which wrote “haki fadi.“
“Let’s not confuse Daoud with all this poetry and politics. Yallah, have some ‘araq and relax a bit. Want a nargileh?“
“Nah,” says Bassam. “I’m trying to quite smoking. My wife and I both are stopping. You know, to be healthy and all that haki… Yallah, ka’stak, ya Daoud. You too, Samir.” The three friends clink their glasses then drink, taking a breather from Bassam’s intensity. Samir might be intense too, but Bassam is even more opinionated and edgy to boot. It can be exhausting. Or thrilling.
After a moment of staring around the room, Bassam asks absently, “Hey, did you seen the news today?”
“What news?” asks Samir. David reaches into the inner pocket of his jacket and brings out the folded local paper he’d bought earlier in the day. ‘I got a paper today,” he says as he puts it on the table. “Maybe it’s here.”
Both Bassam and Samir laugh.
“What?” asks David.
“Not that news! Real news! You know, from al-Jazeera.”
Samir tells him that they’d watched a little news at his house over lunch but there was nothing out of the ordinary. Just the usual nonsense.
“This mornings there was a demonstration in Aleppo in front of the Internal Security Directorate demanding the release of political prisoners. They arrested 25 people, mostly women, and beat some kids who started chanting something against the governor.”
“We didn’t hear about that,” Samir says. “And it won’t be in the papers, Daoud. You can bet on that, ” he adds as David scans the headlines.
“Read the back pages and sports, but not the front page … or the arts page!”
Samir punches Bassam on the arm and they both laugh.
“Tell Bassam about what happened to you in al-Mazzeh” says Samir, slightly more seriously. While David is relieved that the two friends are in a good mood, he doesn’t really feel like talking about it, not in the large café. But Bassam wants to hear about it, and Samir encourages him, so he takes a swig of ‘araq and begins.
“You know I teach at that private language school in Abu Rummaneh.”
“How’s that coming along?” Bassam asks, but Samir cuts him off. “Let him finish his story, ustaz!”
“Well, in order to get the job, I had to have an interview with the Internal Security Directorate, you know, to get clearance so I could get my iqama. My boss arranged the interview. He said it was routine, ‘aadi, everyone did it, so I went.”
“Who’s your boss?” asks Bassam.
Giving Bassam that “Hold your horses!” gesture, Samir says, “Ma muhim meen al-mudir! It’s not important! Let him finish!” Bassam relents, leaning back in his plastic chair and grabbing his glass. “Tafaddal, Daoud.”
“So I went. It’s out in al-Mazzeh, you know, toward the hills a little.”
“We know it,” Samir says without enthusiasm.
“I had an appointment at 11:00 in the morning, so I took a taxi and arrived at about 10:30, 10:45, just to be early. I told the guard at the kolaba by the front gate that I had an appointment, and he said “Have a seat. I’ll go check.” There were no chairs or anything, so I asked him, “Where?” And he said “There, on the sidewalk!” So I went over and sat on the curb in the dust, watching the large gate, and waiting. After about an hour and a half the guard came out and said “Qumm! Get up, and come with me.” So I followed him through the gate.
“We went into the large building and up 4 flights of stairs to the top floor. The guard led me into a small room then left, shutting the door behind him. Another man was behind a plain looking desk, talking on the phone. You know, one of those types with the thick eyebrows and mustache.”
Samir and Bassam nod.
“Well, he didn’t tell me to sit in the chair or anything, so I just stood there. I heard him talking on the phone. He kept shaking his head and screaming thing like, “Just hit them! Hit them a thousand times until they talk. Use that new thing. Yallah, I don’t have all day.” He hung up the phone and looked at me for a minute. Then he asked me, “Shu biddak houn?” What do you want here?” I told him about my interview so I could get the job at the language school. He grunted then looked down at some folders on his desk, and grabbing one told me to follow him as he opened the door and went down the hallway. I followed.
“At the end of the hall there was a large wooden door. The guy knocked then entered and waved for me to come inside with him. We were in a large room with a nice carpet, some paintings on the wall, books, tables, and a giant desk. Behind the desk was some guy in a military uniform, a General, I think. They called him al-Liwa’. So this big guy with a huge kirsh came over from behind his desk and shook my hand then told me to take a seat. He seemed pretty nice, actually. The unibrow guy just stood in the back with his folder open while the Liwa’ asked me a bunch of questions, like “Where do you live?” “When did your grandmother leave Syria for America?” “What does your father do for work?” Those kinds of questions, though he already seemed to know a lot. We talked about New York, about Disney Land, since he had gone there with his daughter last year. He said he liked the older one in LA better, not the Epcot Center. He talked about traveling to Russia and China and when I told him I’d never gone, he said that I must. That I’d find a lot of interesting things there to write about.
“It was weird. He didn’t ask me anything about my work, or teaching. Then he looked over at the thuggish guy, who nodded, and that was it. He thanked me for my time, said “Welcome in Syria” in English, and that was it. I was able to go. So I went back out, down the stairs, past the gate, and took a taxi home. I got a call from my boss the next day, and we went and got my iqama papers the next week. Isn’t that odd?”
“Shuf,” says Bassam. “Look, it’s all part of the show. They do this to scare you, all that talk about beatings and so on. And maybe you’ll go along with it and be scared. But they can’t touch you since you’re an American. Don’t worry. They can beat us, but not you.”
“I’m not worried about that,” David lies, since he was worried, “but it’s like the Liwa’ didn’t care what I did. It was like a little intellectual chat. A formality.”
“Of course not,” interjects Samir. “He doesn’t care. They were just testing you, trying to make sure that you aren’t a spy or a maybe a Jew. You know what happened to the last teacher?”
“No. No one ever told me.”
“He was also called David — imagine that — and had somehow gotten into trouble: I think he visited Israel or something, and was asked to leave Syria. So the mukhabarat were just checking you out, letting you know that they know who you are. Maybe scaring you a little.”
Or a lot, he thinks. David had been so nervous that he’d almost wet his pants. It’s not so much the interview that had frightened him as the thuggish man in the small room ordering his underlings to beat people – “a thousand times!” Maybe it was just all a show, but a message was sent. They were on to him, knew what he was doing, where he was from, that his father was an electrical engineer and worked in digital imaging. They knew everything about him, and he had only been in Syria a few weeks.
This whole situation was later confirmed by his one visit to Aleppo, when the receptionist at the Duchess Hotel told him that they had expected him a day earlier — even though he had not made a reservation but just showed up one afternoon inquiring if they had a room for the night. It was already reserved for him, the man told him. David had mentioned the trip and the possibility of staying at the famous old hotel only to Marina, and probably to Abu ‘Ali too, but the hotel already knew about his arrival and had a room waiting for him. He hadn’t understood why then, but after the incident in al-Mazzeh things began to click in his mind and he felt uncomfortable. He still does when he thinks about it.
“Shu Daoud? Wayn sharid? What are you day-dreaming about?” Samir asks as he leans across the table to touch his arm. “Ma’lish. Everything’s ok. Touta touta wa khilsat al-anbouba! The story’s over,” he adds. David smiles at the reference to the hakawati. Yes, it’s all behind him now. Or not. But what can he do about it anyway. Hayk id-dunya. That’s life.
The embers on the nargilehs are dying out, the ‘araq decanter sits empty, the ice cubes half melted. The clientele is switching from the early evening tea, coffee, and backgammon crowd, to diner guests, more family oriented. The waiter comes and asks if they need anything else, while others spread white cloths and place settings on the available tables.
“Yallah, let’s go!” says Samir, who has been alternately texting, sipping ‘araq, and puffing on his nargileh the whole time. He and Bassam have an appointment with a friend near the old Hijaz train station after 8:00. It’s now just past 7:30 and they have some time to kill, so he suggests they take a short walk across the city then up the main avenue. There is no question that David will join them. He must since Samir wants to show him something. And Bassam has a favor to ask.
So they settle their bill, Bassam insisting on paying and arguing so much with Samir it seems like they are fighting. The waiter smiles and takes the money, David puts on his jacket, and the three friends head out the door.
The door opens and there stands ‘Amti Fatima, arms open, a grin on her face. “Ahlayn ya habeebti Nidal! Waynik ya amira? Ishtaqtilik kiteer! I’m za’lanawith you, I haven’t seen you in so long! Come in. Tafaddali!” It had been just over a week since Nidal last visited her aunt, but as Fatima always said, “When you love someone, a week is an eternity.” “Ahlayn wa sahlayn. Come in! Come in! You should come more often! I miss you!” As much as Nidal expects this show of love and mock anger, it always brings a shy girlish smile to her lips. ‘Amti Fatima is like a mother to her, and the last link she has to her absent father. She loves her perhaps more than anyone in the world.‘Amti Fatima is her world.
Nidal embraces her aunt and kisses her on the checks, and then they walk through the passageway to the courtyard. “It’s too cold to sit out here tonight,habeebti, so let’s go inside where it’s warm.” They walk up a couple of step into the small sitting room off the kitchen. Nidal kicks off her shoes and steps into a pair of pink fuzzy slippers that are always waiting for her at the threshold. She hands the bag of oranges to her aunt, then collapses onto the sofa while Fatima goes to the kitchen to rinse the fruit, place them in a bowl, and get her familiar paring knife. She returns, places the oranges on the small coffee stable, then glancing at the door, asks, “Are you still wearing those sports shoes? Why don’t you wear nice shoes? They can’t be warm enough in this weather.”
Nidal smiles. No one understands her running shoes. They have become in a way her trademark.
“I got them in Beirut, ‘Amti. They were very expensive, so I like to wear them to get my money’s worth!” Fatima laughs and shakes her head in disbelief. “Expensive? Why? there’s nothing to them – no leather, no buckles, no heels. Bafhamsh, habeebti. I don’t understand.”
She’d purchased the blue and red Nike Air Pegasus on her last trip to Beirut, about 3 weeks ago. Impulse Shoes had a sale – “only 90,000 Lebanese Lira,” as the chic young salesclerk had announced. $60 may have been a good price, but it was an extravagance for Nidal. 3,000 Syrian Lira was half her rent. But she bought them anyway. On an impulse. Plus they were much better than the shoes she could get in Damascus, even if they were three times as expensive. They were worth it.
Nidal likes to jog, even though there are few places in the city – or anywhere in Syria, for that matter – where a woman can jog and expect to be left alone. She used to go to al-Jahiz Park near the national library, where others often jog, though it was usually men she encountered there. In the last three years she’d only seen about half a dozen women jogging in the park (or, more usually, walking and talking) and while most times no one said anything, she had been hit on enough times by sweaty and overweight men huffing and puffing around the small lanes as they tried to get into shape that she decided to find a new place. Tishreen Park was much more expansive and would be an ideal place to jog – lots of paths, and interesting statues placed here and there – were it not for the guards and creeps hanging around by the trees, not to mention the Presidential Palace looming above. So that wasn’t an option. She didn’t feel safe.
One late afternoon a few years ago she had decided on a whim to jog through Abu Rummaneh then up ‘Afif to Riwaq, then back home – at the time she was living with her friend Mona in a small flat on a side street in al-Malki. It was only a short jog to the river, and since it was a pleasant stroll on the sidewalk alongside it, why not a little jog? The whole loop would take maybe 30 minutes, 45 max, and the route was a little hilly too. Not a bad workout.
Putting on her loose jogging pants – she didn’t dare jog in shorts, having learned that lesson already – and a cotton top, Nidal laced up her shoes and did a few perfunctory stretches. She was eager to get going – the heat of the summer day had abated, and one of those magical Damascene nights was beginning to unfold, the cloudless sky turning a slight lavender shade and the doves beginning their curious early evening peregrinations above the rooftops. Putting her long hair up with a scrunchie, she headed out the door. By the time she reached Sahat al-Malki she was beginning to break a sweat. Turning right she navigated the plaza then crossed to the river-side of the street and began making her way along the riverbank toward Rawda. After only about five minutes, however, she was stopped by a police officer, who ran across the street and blocked her way on the sidewalk. Nidal, not understanding what he was after, veered into the street, but the policeman lunged and grabbed her by the arm, yelling “Stop!”
“What are you doing here, Sister? What are you running from?” he said as she struggled to free herself from his firm grip. Only when she stopped squirming did he relent a little and let go.
“Nothing. I’m just jogging. Fi shi?“
“Show me your ID,” he asked brusquely. When she said that she’d left it at home, he offered to walk her there so she could retrieve it. Sensing that he was less interested in her ID and more in an adventure, she claimed that the apartment was far, past the Sheraton Hotel toward al-Mazzeh, which was easily 25 minutes away by foot.
“Then I’ll have to take you down to the precinct and give you a summons,” he claimed, “… unless you agree to meet me here tomorrow and we can go have a coffee together. Tomorrow at this time, here over by the bridge. Mashi?You’ll come, right?” Nidal was stunned. Not knowing what else to do, and not wanting to spend any time in a police precinct, she agreed, so he let her go. “Bas, stop running so much. Girls don’t run.” She walked away warily, then when she saw that he had continued on his way, slowly began to jog, and then when she had turned a corner ran home, sprinting the last few hundred meters. By the time she reached the door she was in tears.
“Shu sar?!? Shu baki?!?” asked Mona when she came through the front door. “Are you OK, Nidal?” All Nidal could do was go to her room and slam the door behind her.
And keep running.
Nidal always seemed to be on the run. When her mother died her aunt Fatima had watched over her. She was not quite two years old, with no mother to care for her and a father who worked two jobs. ‘Amti loved her like she were her own child, but there were other children to care for, Ahmed and Adeeb, then a few years later Hanan. So it wasn’t ever the same. The old house was large enough that there was room for everyone – “A narrow house will welcome a thousand friends,” as her father had often said. Her mother’s death had left a hole in her heart, but Nidal quickly took to her aunt, and her father, Rashid, did his best when he was home.
When he disappeared, Nidal was nine, a bright schoolgirl attending a local Syrian school – a privilege for a Palestinian refugee. As a result her life was thrown into turmoil. She stopped eating and for months afterward was a brooding and dark presence in the house, confining herself mostly to the small room she shared with her cousin Hanan when she was not at school. ‘AmtiFatima did her best to coax her back to life, preparing her favorite sweets –kanafeh nabulsiyya and muhalabiyya – but also feeding and encouraging her day-dreams with stories about a different life, an eventual return to their true home in Palestine. Nidal also dreamt of a reunion her father, who she, like so many in their community, felt was only lost or held captive in Lebanon. He’d come back one day. Nidal was certain of it.
The years passed and Rashid did not reappear, neither did they return to Palestine. Dreams die hard, and Nidal felt alone, abandoned and at times bitter. As an orphan and a Palestinian, she had little protection in the city – nowasta, no connections – so she had learned to survive on her own, developing a fierce independent streak as well as a reputation for being aloof. She found salvation in her books and her studies. Like her mother, she excelled in every subject, but chose literature as her specialty, with the aim of becoming a journalist and a writer to raise awareness of her people’s cause. After she left home Nidal remained close to ‘Amti Fatima, her cousins when they came to Damascus, a few friends from university, and several of the artists she had written about, such as Basma al-Hilu. Otherwise she was reserved, kept to herself, and tried to stay under the radar. Safe. Always ready to run if necessary.
Nidal slides over to make room for her aunt on the small sofa. Fatima plops down with an “Ouf!” then reaches for an orange and begins to peel it.
“You always remember to bring me oranges, habeebti! So thoughtful. They bring me home, even if it looks like I will never go back…”
‘Amti Fatima was only 5 when the family was forced to flee Safed, but she still remembers the old home, the neighborhood children, and the school she had just started to attend when they had abruptly left. She tries to retain ties to Safed, but it has gotten harder over the years as the few childhood friends she has kept in touch with – most had settled in Damascus, some in Hama, and even a few in Jordan – had died or moved to America. Food and music are her last and perhaps most vivid connections to the land she scarcely recalls. She often sits on the sofa listening to Radio al-Quds, or playing old cassettes of Mustafa al-Kurd, al-’Ashiqeen, and Sabreen. In her closet she still has the embroidered robe she wore for her wedding day celebrations, the intricate patterns and colors – red, saffron, blue – identifying her region. And of course the food, not only the desserts that Nidal still loves, but traditional plates of musakhkhan, manaqeesh,and kibbeh nayeh – azka akel bi-dunya, the tastiest food in the world. The aromas and flavors took her home again, time after time after time.
Mahmoud doesn’t really understand her perpetual longing for a home she hasn’t seen in over fifty years. A few weeks ago, he’d caught her crying silently while listening to “Mawtani” on Radio al-Quds and fingering her masbaha.
“Khalas, Umm Ahmad. We aren’t going back. There’s nothing to go back to anyway – they took it all and destroyed the rest. This is our home now. Let’s make the best of it, ‘Azeezti.”
“Perhaps he’s right,” she thinks, “but it’s so hard to forget, to let go.”
The framed house deed and door key hang from a nail on the wall above the television. Photos of her parents and Rashid hang nearby in a simple black frame. It is hard to forget.
When Nidal visits her, ‘Amti is often sad and angry at the news from Palestine, but unlike many Palestinians she harbors little anger for Jews per se. She had even known a few as a child, before all the problems began. But she hates Israel and its continuing oppression of her people. “Mu tabee’i,” she’d say as she watched yet another news report on a bombing raid in Gaza, the occupation of a home in East Jerusalem, or the razing of an olive grove in Jenin. “Laysh hayk? It’s not natural that a people that was oppressed would come and oppress us! What did we ever to do deserve this? And they cut down the olive trees. Haram, wallah! Mu tabee’i abidan.“
Nidal had heard the family saga a thousand times from her father, from ‘Amtiand ‘Amo Mahmoud, and of course from all her classmates at the UNRWA school, and later at the university when she got involved in the Palestinian Students Union. But she feels little attachment to the land other than through her aunt. She was born in Damascus and feels – and speaks – Syrian, not Palestinian. But Palestine, even if remains an unreachable paradise for some, is not something so easily run from, in her case because it is inscribed on her ID card. And because until recently she had been denied the right to a passport and had been unable to travel outside Syria. For this reason she resorted to borrowing her friend Mona’s ID when she traveled to Beirut – they were the same age and looked like they could be sisters – and even though the travel restrictions had been lifted, she still borrows Mona’s ID, partly out of habit, partly out of fear of getting hassled for being a Palestinian, and partly to keep some connection to Khalid.
“How about you, my love? Keefik? How is your health? And are you still working for that newspaper?”
Nidal tells her about her new apartment, her recent article on an exhibition of sculpture, and her own fiction writings – stories about Palestinian refugees in Syria.
“Well, we certainly have a lot of stories. You aren’t going to tell mine, are you? Don’t scandalize us!”
They laugh, knowing that there’s nary a scandal in the family, so careful have they all been to be decent people both in their public as in their private lives. You can’t be too careful, and some of the neighbors have “long tongues,” as Fatima liked to say.
“No, ‘Amti. Don’t worry! It’s mostly stories about the people in the camps here and in Lebanon. You know, the sad stuff, the problems. Not us!”
“You are just like your father, always trying to do something for our people. May God protect him.”
Nidal looks down, unable to tell her aunt that she writes for herself, not as a political mission, though perhaps there’s some of that too. But any mention of her father she finds troubling, even after all these years.
“So, al-muhim, when are you going to get married and start a family?” It is always the same. They’ll sit and reminisce about the house, her departed father and his generosity with everyone – opening the home to her and Mahmoud and the children, feeding the poor, teaching at the university – her fading memories of Palestine, all the while peeling oranges and maybe listening to the radio. Then ‘Amti will ask “the Question.”
“Whatever happened to that nice man who used to come around asking for you? Shu sar ma’uh?“
Nidal feels a sharp pain in her chest and has to catch her breath before answering.
What can she say about Khalid?
They’d met at the university. Mona’s older brother, Khalid was studying engineering and also involved in the Arab Students Union. His father hailed from the prominent al-’Azm family – his grandfather was the cousin of the former Prime Minister, after whom he was named – and his mother was a Palestinian from Haifa, her parents having settled in Damascus in late 1948 and gradually built up a small textile empire. Thus Khalid was raised both comfortably and with the expectation that he’d make something of his life. He and Nidal had mutual acquaintances at the university and would meet from time to time at social gatherings, but Nidal was “terminally shy,” according to Mona, and never had any luck with men. But Khalid had noticed her and over the course of a few weeks had fallen in love, asking his sister about her nearly all the time, and even having her arrange a meeting at a cafe, though Nidal was hesitant and didn’t know how to proceed. Khalid was nice enough, polite and handsome, and no doubt he had a bright future before him, but she didn’t know what he saw in her and she scarcely knew how to proceed. She was afraid of her growing feelings for him, and this made her withdraw even more. Nonetheless they saw more and more of each other, especially after graduation when Nidal moved in with Mona in her flat in al-Malki, where Khalid would come visit his sister … more frequently than he had ever done in the past!
It seemed destined to work out: he was from a good family, had Palestinian roots, his family loved her like a daughter, and he had a promising future as the top graduate in engineering from Damascus University, having landed a position as an apprentice engineer with a foreign telecommunications firm that had opened an office in the capital. Then a year later Khalid had been accepted into a graduate program in electrical engineering at the University of Edinburgh. He stayed in Damascus through the summer, then left, leaving Nidal behind but with promises that he’d write and call often, and come visit when he could. At first all went according to plan: Khalid emailed almost daily, and when he came home for visits he called on Nidal, and they’d go for walks in Tishreen Park or stroll in the Old City. After awhile she felt a gulf open up between them. Nidal knew that she would never be able to travel with him, not only because she didn’t possess a passport, but because she was so close to ‘Amti Fatima that it was impossible for her to imagine living anywhere else. Who did she know in Scotland, anyway? What did they eat? Damascus was her home, and she intended to stay there, even if she liked her clandestine trips to Beirut and sometimes dreamt of visiting Paris, or Cairo. Edinburgh seemed far away. She had looked it up online.
Mona of course wanted her to wait for Khalid, telling her to be patient, that he’d come back for her soon. She passed along messages from abroad and relished the role of matchmaker between her brother and best friend. But after the second year away Khalid had gradually stopped writing and didn’t come by to visit on the few occasions when he did return home to see his family. Mona had more or less stopped talking about him too, and Nidal took this as a sign that something had changed, either for Khalid or for their family. As it turned out, Khalid had accepted a position with a multinational telecommunications company based in Los Angeles once he graduated, and a few months later had become engaged to then married a Syrian-American neurologist who operated a private clinic. His parents had set them up on a visit to London. And so khalas, end of story. Until it was all over Nidal hadn’t realized the extent to which she had been secretly wrapping her dreams in the fabric of a life shared with Khalid. She felt abandoned again and soon began looking for another place to live. That was going on five years ago, but the pain lingered. And lingers still.
She sighs, and her aunt puts her arm on her shoulder. “Tabkeesh, habeebti. Wa la himmik. You’ll meet someone. Someone good for you. Maybe a nice Palestinian boy.” Nidal laughs at the use of the word “boy” – she’s thirty and hardly thinks of the men who hassle her as “boys,” but she allows her aunt this innocence.
“Allahu ‘alam, Who knows? I’m too busy anyway, ‘Amti. Who has time for ‘boys’? I’m still trying to do my work, my writing, meet deadlines, take care of myself. And I just moved to another apartment over in al-Adweh. The “boy” can wait.”
“Don’t wait forever, ya hilweh! I’m not getting any younger. I want to be able to dance at your wedding and teach your children the dabkeh!” Fatima wiggles a little on the sofa and they both laugh at the image of ‘Amti in her Palestinian dress kicking and shuffling her feet. She gives her aunt a big hug, nestling into her side like she’d done as a young child, then after a few moments rises to her feet.
She looks down at her watch. It is now about 8:30 and Nidal has something else in mind – a quick taxi ride to Riwaq for a drink. It’s been one of those days.
“I have to go, ‘Amti.”
“You can’t go now,” protests Fatima. “It’s still early, and you didn’t eat anything. All you had was some orange slices. Bikafeesh. Let me fix something for you to eat. At least stay for some tea.”
“I’m tired and want to go home and rest. But I’ll come again soon and we can talk some more.”
Fatima relents but makes Nidal promise to come back soon … and as she sees her putting her running shoes back on, to promise to get some “proper” shoes.
Nidal laughs lightly.
“Allah yiwafik, ya binti. Take care, my daughter.”
She hugs and kisses her aunt, then steps out the door into the dark street.
The three friends head out the door into the chilly evening. The moonlight casts long shadows across the alleyways as they make their way down Sawwaf Street toward Maktab ‘Anbar, a restored bayt ‘arabi now serving as a cultural center. David had gone there once to see an exhibit on old photographs of Syria curated by a young photographer named Nouri Salameh. He recalls the aging Daguerreotypes and sepia prints of castles, mosques, ruins, and portraits of everyday life, like women baking bread or – a cliché, no doubt – a donkey in a market. He’d even bought a few of these in the form of postcards and stereoscopic viewer cards, which he’d framed and hung on the wall of his bedroom. Looking on them he recalls his grandmother, the fading memories of her cast in sepia tones. Blue and purple lights from television screens shimmer in window panes casting multicolored moon shadows on the walls. The faint sound of cutlery clicking against plates and serving bowls and the low murmur of conversations announces the onset of the evening meal. Somehow they missed the evening ‘adhan – the call had come while they were in Bayt Sabri enjoying the nargileh-s and backgammon.
They pursue a small alley that zig zags around the back side of the ‘Azm Palace – another Damascene treasure that David has visited often – then leads into the Souq al-Buzuriyya. David has always found this market fascinating, the aromas of ground cardamom, cumin, and various herbs mixing and mingling in his nostrils. He’d had a similar experience as a child in the storeroom of the Italian food shop that his best friend Johnny’s father owned, and where they would sometimes go after school to find the small stash of candy that Johnny kept hidden there from the prying fingers of his younger sister Theresa. The small shops of the Buzuriyya are starting to close up for the day and he stops to take a deep breath through his nose. Bassam pops into a shop and returns after a minute with some pistachio and nougat sweets, which he offers to David and Samir.
“You’ll never find anything like this in New York, Daoud! Enjoy! Sahha!“
David wants to tell him about the sweets at Sahadi’s or Shami Bakery in Brooklyn, but Bassam’s right – there is no comparison to eating the crunchy-chewy mixture in an ancient market, surrounded by a swirl of aromas, sounds, and people. Damascus is unique in this way; inimitable. Atlantic Avenue leaves much to be desired …
Samir heads across the way and grabs a bag of roasted seeds and offers some to David and Bassam. David has never been able to figure out how to eat them – there is an art to crushing them between the teeth, extracting the seeds, and spitting out the shells. He invariable crushes and eats the shells as well, which is a messy as well as distasteful practice. Plus, how would it mix with the nougat? So he declines as Bassam grabs a handful.
“Suit yourself,” Samir says with raised eyebrows, then tosses another few into his mouth and deftly spits out the shells. “Kiteer tayyibeen! They are delicious!”
They walk through the market toward the Great Mosque, passing first through the Goldsmith’s Market, which is mostly closed up at this hour.
“Lahza, there’s Mousa,” Bassam says, and he crosses the street to greet an older man pulling shut his shop’s metal grate with a clatter. They exchange some pleasantries, then Bassam rejoins Samir and David as they continue toward the mosque.
“That’s Mousa, an old friend of my father’s.” Turning to David he adds, “He’s one of the last Jews left in Damascus. His family all left for America a long time ago but he decided to stay. Ya’ni, I guess he’s happy here. He has a little house not far from Gallerie Marmar.”
“I know him,” Samir says. “I got my wedding band from his shop. Miriam bought some her bracelets from him too. He’s very adami, a nice guy.” David is too busy looking up at the minarets to pay much attention.
They arrive at the southern wall of the Great Mosque. The back entrance to the sanctuary is off a little ways to the left, topped by its curious octagonal minaret. The elegant “Jesus Minaret” (tradition says that the Second Coming will begin here) is off to the right, in the direction of al-Nawfara café. But instead of going to hear the hakawati they head to the left. As they pass David peeks through the large portal into the prayer hall.
“Ruh, Daoud. Go in if you want. We’ll wait for you,” says Samir who, unlike George, is sincere. David feigns indifference, even though he almost always visits the mosque when he comes to the Old City. He usually goes on weekends and sits at al-Nawfara to hear the hakawati telling stories, then goes and wanders in the marbled courtyard and cool prayer halls of the mosque. On a hot day it is a pleasant retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city. All it takes is a “as-salamu ‘alaykum” and the guys at the portal don’t give him any trouble. Tourists are supposed to enter at the northern portal and pay a small fee, but David just brandishes the wooden rosary that he keeps in his pocket and makes a move to remove his shoes, and he’s never had a problem. In the end no one cares if he is Christian or Muslim, though he has cultivated the ability to pass as either, depending on the occasion. Except with George, of course.
They walk around to the western entrance, where they all stop and have a look around. It really is a remarkable building, over 1300 years old and sitting on a site that has housed a religious temple of one variety or another for millennia. The government has opened a large plaza in front of the mosque and widened the access streets around it — some say the better to park tanks there and control the area in case of an uprising — and the illuminations of the ancient walls and minarets form a background to children playing, adults eating small sacks of steamed chickpeas, and shoppers running last minute errands in the souq before heading home for dinner. Despite the evening chill it is a pleasant space for a stroll.
Samir and Bassam have other business in mind, so they do not linger but instead walk under the Roman arches at the entrance to the Souq al-Hamidiyya. David’s stomach growls a little as they enter the old covered market as he senses the gradual crescendo of the pounding from Bakdash’s – the pistachio ice-cream and mahalabiya shop he absolutely adores. He often goes there for their special folded ice cream, even in winter. Why not? Like the pistachio nougat, it’s impossible to get this same experience in New York, even in Brooklyn. He goes whenever he gets the opportunity. Despite himself a smile creeps to his face in anticipation of a little visit.
Just last week he’d dreamt that he was sitting at Bakdash’s savoring a small bowl of ice cream, the sound of the large wooden mallets echoing through his head as the young men pounded them into the large caldrons, their muscular arms tearing out of their white and red uniforms. As they pounded and pounded, the sound got louder and louder … until David woke up and realized that someone was knocking on his door. It was Abu ‘Ali from across the street, notifying him of a reported gas leak in his building and asking him if he smelled anything. In the end it has been a false alarm, but as ever Abu ‘Ali had his eye on the neighborhood. Though he was sleepy, after closing the door on Abu ‘Ali David had the distinct taste of pistachio in his mouth and wondered what was the dream, what the reality?
He’d had many odd dreams after moving to Damascus. At first it was a matter of language – Arabic mixing with his broken Spanish as he gained fluency in the local dialect. He’d once dreamt of Ibn al’Arabi after struggling with the Futuhat Makiyya, and Jalal thought this was a sign when David recounted the dream, but neither of them could make heads or tails of it.
“That’s how it goes with the Shaykh,” Jalal had offered. “He comes and goes and it is up to us to make sense of it. But he always comes for a reason.” David could never make sense of it.
The linguistic and religious dreams then gave way to more political ones. After his interview with the Liwa’ at Internal Security, he’d dreamt of Hafez al-Asad. The late president stood near a fighter jet and asked him to fly a mission with him. David found himself holding a pilot’s helmet and dressed in fatigues, but was speechless and unable to answer the president. The dictator approached closer and closer, his eyes getting larger and larger, until David awoke from the dream-nightmare, his pillow under his arm and sweat on his brow. He did not recount this dream to anyone, not even Marina.
“Dir balk, Ya Daoud! Watch out!” yells Samir as he pushes David to the side while a large group of Iranian pilgrims dressed all in black shove past on their way to the shrine of Sayyida Ruqayya. Once the pilgrims pass they enter the main souq just after the Souq al-Misk with its the stalls of religious texts and CDs. Bassam stops before a display of belts and socks that a street vendor has piled in the middle of the street and checks out the merchandise. A man never has enough socks. It is dark but many of the shops are still open and doing a good business. Pop songs play from many kiosks and stores. There is a festive air about the market. An elegant woman and young girl walk past arm-in-arm. They look Syrian but are speaking in English. “I want some buza mama!” says the girl. “Can we get some? Pleease?” and the mother, kissing her on the head, says “Tikrami, habibti, we’ll stop for a little, but we can’t stay for long. We have to get home. Yallah.” David looks over at them. Kindred spirits.
While Bassam buys some socks and Samir sends a text, David has a look around. Three larger than life portraits of the president, his late father, and his “martyred” older brother — his “martyrdom” consisting in crashing his car at high speed on the airport road — hang from the market roof. The president stares sternly into the distance, the father smiles whimsically, and the brother sits astride a horse. David has become accustomed to these portraits so scarcely notices them anymore — aside from the Warholesque silk-screens — but Bassam, having made his purchase, looks over and with a quick nod of his head jokes, “He looks like he needs new glasses since he’s squinting, and the horse looks tired from all the jumping.” Samir laughs.
“Hey,” says Bassam, “Want to hear a Homsi joke about a horse? I just heard this one.”
“OK, go ahead,” says Samir, a little suspiciously. There aren’t too many good ones after all.
David ignores them, as his mind and stomach are focusing on a quick stop at Bakdash’s.
“So, a Lebanese guy and a Homsi are walking along the Corniche when they happen upon a beautiful girl riding on a horse. The Homsi says to her, ‘If only God had made me a horse, then you could ride on my back!’ The Lebanese tells him, ‘The era of miracles is over!’ and turning to the girl, winks and says ‘Would you consider riding on a donkey instead?’” He slaps
David on the back and cries “Isn’t that funny?”
David smiles meekly while Samir snorts in disgust. “That’s the worst one I’ve heard in a long time! But here’s one. A Homsi gets a new mobile phone and goes to his friend’s house to show it off. You know, one of those iPhone things. He places it on the coffee table and sits back while his friend admires it. Suddenly his wife calls him and he answers it, shouting ‘How did you know I was here? Leave me alone!’ then hangs up. Hah!”
Bassam laughs a little but says “That’s even worse than mine!” Samir laughs and linking his in David’s they begin to walk together. David wonders,
“What’s up with the Homsi jokes?” He can never get a straight answer from anyone. They always seem kind of dumb to him.
As they approach Bakdash’s the sound of pounding gets louder, but Samir and Bassam take a left into a side street, past the Khan Jumruk, and into the shoe and lingerie market.
“Let’s take this short cut. The souq is too crowded tonight,” Samir says as he pulls David along. David hesitates but goes along, disappointed as the sound of the pounding mallets fades away. He’ll come back another time soon. Tomorrow, in fact.
They pass the dangling shoes and some lingerie stalls — David cannot believe his eyes and ears at the wares on sale there — then pass a falafel and juice stand festooned with body-building photos.
“Tafaddal ustaaz!” shouts the vendor as he presses an orange juice. ”Want to try again?”
“Not tonight, I’m in a hurry. Maybe tomorrow!” says David, and they move on. Samir asks him how he knows the juice vendor and David tells him that he has sometimes gotten a quick meal there, or a juice, and the young man always challenges him to arm-wrestling. It has become a sort of ritual every time he passes the small stall. “‘Ajeeb!” offers Bassam. “Does he beat you?”
“Of course!” says David. “Did you get a look at his arms? I think all he does is press juices and arm-wrestle all day. He’s like superman!”
They all laugh, then follow a course down a darker back street through al-Hariqah, the neighborhood named after the French bombardment that let much of it in ruins. Reaching the end of the street, they continue out of the Old City, crossing the busy street and dodging taxis and cars. Samir looks at his watch and quickens his step, yelling a crisp “Yallah, we’re late! Let’s go!” They pass the Darwish Pasha mosque, head over in the direction of al-Qanawat, then up Fakhri Baroudi St toward the Hijaz train station. David is beginning to wonder why he is with them in the first place.
They amble up Fakhri al-Baroudi Street toward the old Hijaz train station. The quaint building was built at the end of the Ottoman era and linked Damascus with Medina, passing through Jordan with a branch to the Palestinian cities of Haifa and ‘Akka.
Lawrence of Arabia famously sabotaged its tracks during World War I, so it never reached Mecca, as planned. Until recently the station was the starting point for the old narrow gauge steam trains that plied the route between Damascus and the mountain resorts of Zabadani and Bludan — the so-called “Zabadani Flyer.” David had gone on one of the last of its excursions in the Fall with his students and the Director. The three hour ride in the old wooden carriages was fun and he’d spent the time talking with many of the students about their families and lives, eating peanuts and sipping plastic cups of Lipton tea. The Director mostly kept to himself and talked on his mobile phone, though he took David aside when they stopped briefly at ‘Ayn Fijeh so the conductor could refill the water tanks of the old locomotive. The engine seemed a piece out of a museum — antediluvian with its tubes, gears and oddly shaped levers. It dated from 1896 and was among the older live steam engines still in active use in the world. The conductor looked European, not Syrian, wearing soiled overalls and a small cap over his greying hair. Pointing to the locomotive, the Director talked about the importance of tradition and how even the steam engine was proof of
how Syria never let go of its past, even as it marched into the future. It didn’t make sense to David at the time — a march forward on a century old European steam locomotive — but he merely nodded his head and said “Hilu.”
Once in Zabadani they disembarked and spent the afternoon wandering around the small town perched along the flanks of the the snow-capped Anti-Lebanon mountains. Afterwards they picnicked in a shady grove in a park not far from the center of town. David had brought some mana’ish but they had gotten cold and soggy during the ride, so he and another student ran to get falafel sandwiches at a small stand near the park. On the other side a group of Boy Scouts marched around engaged in some sort of drill. David hadn’t expected to see Scouts in Syria, though the Director came over to him and told him about the long history of Scouts in the Arab lands. Another sign of their modernity. “Mitil Amerka!” He’d exclaimed with pride.
Today the train station is covered in scaffolding as it awaits its transformation into a planned shopping mall and hotel complex. The Flyer no longer runs, though tourist groups can charter it for a shorter excursion from the main train station a few kilometers to the south. Samir leads them past the small plaza in front of the statin and around the corner toward the cafe on the other side.
With a nod of his head he says “Another Saudi deal that probably will never get finished!” “Khisara, since they stopped running the old trains. A real shame. Ever take it, Daoud?”
David tells him of his trip last Fall with the school, and that it was long but fun.
“Did you see the conductor? Was he the old guy?”
“Yes, I think so, ” replies David, recalling the weathered face and the grey hair.
“Well, they say he was a former Nazi soldier who came here when the French controlled Syria. Ya’ni, during the Vichy era, and then stayed after Hitler was defeated. People called him al-Swisri, “The Swiss,” but he is about as Swiss as you are! He’s a Nazi!”
“That’s just haki fadi,” retorts Bassam. “Don’t believe everything you hear, and definitely don’t believe everything this joker tells you!” He slaps Samir on the back and they laugh.
“Bas, ‘an jadd! I’m serious! That’s what I heard, and from one of the train employees too!”
They arrive at the café, which has a large enclosed terrace, though on this cold evening the clientele are stuffed into the small interior sitting room on the far side away from the street. Samir sends a text while Bassam buys a newspaper and leafs through it. They have an appointment with a friend who operates a print shop across the way. David stands awkwardly, shuddering slightly against the cold wind that has picked up. He begins to wonder why he has come along at all, then tells them that he’ll be going on his way since it’s late and he wants to go eat, but Samir asks him to stay.
“I want you to meet Ayman and see his shop. I think you’ll find it interesting. He’s nice and it won’t take long, then we’ll go get something to eat together. Can you wait a little?”
David has been practically starving since the close encounter with Bakdash’s – the pistachio nougat didn’t really fill him up and it’s been several hours since lunch. But he can wait.
“Yeah, I can wait a little, ya’ni, shwayya.“
“‘Azeem!” says Samir. “And here’s Ayman.”
Samir introduces him to David and they shake hands.
“Ahlayn, Daoud! I’ve heard about you from Samir,” says Ayman. “Welcome in Syria!” he adds, in English. David laughs. He’s used to this by now.
They decide not to head in for coffee – it’s too chilly to sit outside and the indoor space is too smoky, even for Samir. Plus Ayman seems a bit rushed, so they head across the street to the press, taking a pedestrian bridge over the main road. A young man on the bridge hawks bootleg CDs of the latest pop recordings: Nancy ‘Ajram, Wael Kfoury, ‘Ali Hajjar, Diana, George Wassouf. The superstars sell for only 50 lira a piece. Cheap merchandise.
They descend to the sidewalk then head into a dark alley along the side of a row of low but long buildings lining the broad street, one of which houses Ayman’s press. He has already closed the shop, and they enter through the back door off the alley.
Sensing something surreptitious in their movements, David feels a little nervous. He has never been one to break rules or get in trouble, and he doesn’t want to start now. The “other” David, as he had learned, had done so somehow and had been deported for it. He doesn’t want to make the same mistake. “Don’t worry,” Samir whispers to him as they enter the back of the shop. “It’s just easier this way so no one sees us all going into the shop from the front. We aren’t doing anything wrong. Relax.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” he thinks, but heads inside anyway.
Ayman closes the door behind them then flips on some lights. The back of the shop is a storeroom stacked with boxes of paper, cartons of toner and ink, some old file cabinets, and a stack of folding chairs. A partial wall separates it from the back office area with its desks, fancy new PowerMac computers and various printers. A faded poster depicting
various English fonts hangs from one wall, while another has a workflow chart in colored inks. It’s a busy shop and they do a lot of printing and copying for private industry, and of course the government, whether they like it or not. The front of the shop has several self-service copy machines and two large Epson poster printers and a Xerox printer used for architectural drawings and prints. The walls are decorated with a number of framed floral prints, a French circus poster — Le Nouveau Cirque de Paris — and the obligatory
photo of the President staring out somewhat cross-eyed into the distance. David picks up a small invitation to an event at the French Cultural Center featuring a modern dancer specializing in “aerial arts.” He scratches his head, then puts it down and starts toward the front of the shop but Ayman calls them over to a side room. There they find a stairwell heading down to the basement, where most of the heavy printing takes place.
They follow Ayman down the stairs and find themselves in a large, cavernous space, perhaps 50 feet by 30 feet, laden with devices of all sorts: modern copy machines, enormous printing presses, banks of computers, scanners, and other tools for digital imaging. Large ventilation ducts traverse the high ceiling and fans on the wall keep the air circulating. David is a little surprised at how advanced it all looks. Toward the back and on a small mezzanine level a few feet above
the main floor are a number of vintage printing presses, some dating from the late 19th C. Ayman collects these old machines — like the steam locomotive of the Zabadani Flyer, elegant testaments to human ingenuity, as well as, in this case, the dedication to disseminate knowledge, or at least opinion. David heads over to take a look, since they remind him of his fascination (near obsession?) with the “Mujahideen” typewriter.
Seeing David admiring his collection, Ayman says, “This is my little printing museum. All I’m missing is Gutenberg’s press! And maybe one of those American steam presses. Have you seen one? I have a copy of a Stanhope press in that corner, but it doesn’t
work. I need to replace some parts. We used the mechanical screw presses in the olden days and I have two over in that other corner. But the old electric presses are my focus.”
David pauses before the machines, complex devices with the simple task of printing and reproducing words. Turning to Ayman, he asks, “Do they still work?”
Ayman glances over at Samir and hesitates.
“Ya’ni, some of them can be made to work. But it’s not easy. They break down a lot and it’s hard to get parts for them. I have to order them from Germany, France, and America, but that’s getting harder to do, so I sometimes have the parts made here. I studied Engineering, and can usually figure out what needs to be done to get them to work. But not all of them. I mostly just collect them. That’s more my interest at this point.”
In fact, Ayman had used one of these very relics to print the leaflet which landed Samir and his friends in hot water a few years ago. What had started as a gag — reviving an old press that had been used to print leaflets against the French occupation in order to demand more freedoms today — had turned into a witch hunt as the mukhabarat had scoured every press in the country looking for the combination of paper, ink, font and page layout found in the leaflet. They had come directly to Ayman, knowing of his old collection. He’d just had time to clean off the ink from the old machine, remove some gears, and even douse it in some dust he’d swept off the floor so that when they came it looked as it usually did — standing like the others unused and unusable in a corner.
“Everyone is moving toward digital imaging anyway, so what we need more are new computers and software. I have some Macs and those printers upstairs, but they cost a lot and there’s no service here any more. I paid $20,000 for that big Xerox machine, but it doesn’t even work and they won’t send anyone from Beirut to repair it for another month. Bas, al-Hamdu li-llah. I thank God for my family and this little shop which lets us eat.”
While Ayman and David talk, Bassam and Samir sit at a desk to one side and go over some papers, speaking in hushed tones.
“My father is an engineer too, and he worked in digital imaging research for a few years. Now he’s with Ariadne Communications and does telecom support.”
“Wallah!” says Ayman in mock surprise. “You didn’t want to study Engineering too?”
“Me? Engineering? Bnoab!” laughs David. “No way! I mean, it seems interesting, but my dad works all the time and it’s hard. He’s never at home.”
“It’s good to work!” replies Ayman. “Here it is 8:30 and I’m still here. A man has to work to support his family.”
David thinks of his mother, whose job in PR earns her a salary almost twice his father’s. They both work all the time. He’d chosen a different path.
“I like literature and writing, and teaching. It’s not so bad.”
“But you can’t feed a family on words, Ya Daoud! But if you are happy, mashi al-hal, that’s fine. You aren’t married, are you?”
“No, but he’s in love!” shouts Samir from the desk. He’s overheard their conversation.
“Wow!” says Ayman enthusiastically. “‘Arabiyyeh? Suriyyeh? Amerkiyyeh?”
“Filistiniyyeh! wa khateera jiddan!” says Bassam. “A dangerous Palestinian!” meaning very pretty. “You’d die for her!”
“No! No!” David protests. “I have a girlfriend in New York … sort of. She might come for a visit.”
“Wow! says Samir. “Two girlfriends in the same place! Sounds like an Egyptian soap opera!”
“Hey,” says Ayman, raising his eyebrows, “there’s nothing wrong with that. You could have four….”
David cuts him off before he can go into the “four wives” thing, by saying, “If you need some software or something, my dad could probably get it for you. You know, for the computers or printers. He still does consulting in that field.”
Ayman suddenly looks serious, glances at Samir and Bassam, then says, “‘An jadd? Really? I don’t want to bother him. But do you think he could?”
“Maybe. I can ask him. It depends on what you need.”
“It’s some software that I can’t get here. And I can’t order it from abroad.”
“What software do you need? There’s a shop in Sha’lan that sells software for cheap. I got a lot of stuff there for like 250 lira.”
Ayman laughs. “I know the shop. It’s my cousin’s. But even he can’t get the software I need. It’s special.”
“What is it?” asks David naively.
Ayman hesitates then looks again at Samir.
Samir looks a little nervous, shy, but gets up from the table and comes over to David.
“Shuf, Daoud. You know I like you. We’re friends, right?” He places his arm on his shoulder. “There’s nothing between us. I trust you, and I hope you trust me.”
“Yes,” David says, not sure what is happening.
“Ayman here has done us a lot of favors in the past, you know, printing things for us, helping the cause. Ya’ni, he’s with us, but it’s getting difficult.”
The silence of the room is only interrupted by Bassam’s adjusting his chair. David stares at Samir.
“We have a hard time here, and a lot of people want to change the government, this dictatorship, but are afraid to do anything. We aren’t rich and we aren’t powerful, so what can we do? Shuf, Bassam and I are just journalists. Writers. We deal everyday with these politicians telling us what to say, where to say it, and when. If you don’t do what they ask, then they bother you – sometimes it’s small. You know, your paycheck doesn’t come on time or maybe you don’t get asked to a dinner or function, or someone else gets assigned to a good story. Sometimes it’s more open, like family members getting hurt. Ya’ni, you know what I mean. You’ve been here and you’ve seen a lot. Like what you heard at al-Mezzah, but every day, all the time. This is what we live with. This is our life.”
David looks uncomfortable, so Samir pulls him over to the desk and they all sit down, except Ayman, who remains standing, his arm resting on an old press.
“Imagine, I almost went to jail just for signing the Damascus Manifesto a few years ago. They all talked about how the new president was more open, how we had this Damascus Spring and everyone was hopeful. But it turn out to be just another winter! They let people out of jail and then told them they could run their political salons and so on, only to spy on them and figure out who was working with whom. Then they cracked down on us. People went back to jail, salons were closed. It was over. If it weren’t for George and his wasita I’d probably be in jail. Bassam too … and Ayman, if they knew he was the one printing our materials on his old machines. It would have been worse for him. It was just this one page newsletter that we’d distribute to people. We called it “Sawt al-Huriyya” — “The Voice of Freedom” — and it wasn’t even really radical. Bassam wanted it to be more radical but I thought we had to call for small changes first then gradually remake the society.”
Bassam interjects, “You’re right. Sahh. The newsletter called for little changes, cosmetic changes — ya’ni, new freedoms for journalists, new laws for public gatherings, that sort of thing. We thought it was simple, but the regime found it threatening, and it got us all in trouble. All we did was call for new laws to guarantee freedom of speech and public gathering. We didn’t even call for the end of the laws we’d like to see taken away, like the Emergency Law. But that was enough for the regime, and they went after us. We should have gone farther!”
“I got caught with a copy of the last Sawt al-Hurriyya,” continues Samir. “I lied and told them that I had found it on the street and hadn’t even read it, but they searched my apartment, and even brought Miriam in for interrogation — they didn’t touch her, thank God — but she was scared and I got in trouble with her for that. That’s worse than getting in trouble with the regime!” They all laugh nervously.
“I had gotten rid of all my copies except the one I had in my bag. They couldn’t figure out who had printed it since we used one of these antique presses with old ink and paper, and very old looking type. That was Ayman’s idea. But they almost got him too.”
“I’m too smart for them,” says Ayman. But he looks worried. “Of course they knew it was me — no one else really has this kind of equipment, except one guy in Aleppo and
some shops in Beirut — but they couldn’t prove it because I made the machines look like they don’t work. So they went after all the other shops to try to find out who was the ring-leader. They didn’t know that it was us, or weren’t able to prove it. But they are watching us. Always watching.”
David is a but taken aback. He’d heard of these things — the Damascus Spring, its hopes and then frustrations. He’d also heard ad nauseum from Marina about political oppression in Latin America and the US, and how the CIA was behind all sorts of atrocities. But he had never been so close to it before. It made him feel a little sick.
“Wow” is all he can say. “But if they know it’s you, then how can you do anything else? You’ll get in trouble.”
“Not if we go digital,” says Bassam.
“We have to outsmart the regime with technology,” adds Ayman, “but not only the old stuff, which they are now on to, but the newer stuff. With mobile phones and computers, it’s easier to send things on the Internet or by email or SMS. But the government can track everything online and all the communications companies are run by his cousin. You know that guy. He has his hands in everything. So we need ways of encrypting the messages, new ways that they don’t have. This is the software we need, and you can’t get it here. I tried in Europe but it’s too hard.”
“What exactly do you need?” asks David. “Maybe my dad can get it. I’m not sure, but I can ask him.”
“Don’t ask him on the phone!” they all chime in at once. “Your phone is bugged. You have to do it another way,” adds Samir.
“I dunno. He could send it to me through the Embassy mail, which I think is safe. I don’t think they touch that. Or he could bring it over if he comes for a visit. He might in the Spring, if I am still here.”
“What do you mean ‘If I am still here’?” asks Samir. “You are going to stay! You can’t leave Nidal, can you?” he grins mischievously.
“Look, Daoud. I don’t want to get you involved, so you can just say no. But it would be great if you could help us a little. It’s just some software, but we can’t get it here. The regime doesn’t have it either, so if we had it we could make all of our communications coded and they wouldn’t know what we were saying and even who sent it. You know, like anonymizing software. I can give you the names. But it’s expensive and only specialists can get it.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” offers David tentatively. He’s unaccustomed to sticking his neck out for anything, or anyone. But it seems harmless. Kind of. Ayman scribbles a name on a piece of paper, then some numbers on another, and hands them to David.
“Keep them separate. One is the model, the other the version. Your father will probably recognize it. But don’t talk about it on the phone. Send him a letter through your Embassy mail. That will be safer.”
David agrees, and the atmosphere, while still tense, lightens a bit.
“Yallah, let’s go eat!” says Samir, rising from the desk. “All this talk has made me hungry.”
“Me too!” says Bassam, pushing his chair away. David’s stomach has been growling for over an hour, and he gets up too.”
“You guys go ahead. I have to go home to my family,” says Ayman. “‘Ala kulli hal, Let’s keep in touch, Daoud. Let me know what your father says and how much it will cost. Shukran.”
Ayman leads them up the stairs then out the back. He looks into the alleyway before letting his friends out, shutting the lights and locking the heavy door behind them. He waves his hands in the air as he continues in silence down the back alley, while Samir, Bassam, and David circle back to the main drag.
“Shu ra’ykum, shall we go grab a bite to eat at Riwaq? It will be a nice way to forget about all this stuff.”
Bassam and David agree and they flag down a taxi. Samir opens the front door for him while Bassam hops in the back.
“You have longer legs and need the room. Tafaddal!“
He pulls the door shut and off they go.
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 hate 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.
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.”
“Did you see the Hassan Jouni show?” Basma asks. “I think it’s at Gallerie Alwan.“
“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.”
“Bah, his work is just folklore anyway. Haki fadi, ya’ni,” sneers Luay. “It’s not serious art. Saad Yagan is a hundred
“‘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.
A number of people clap their hands as they hear the familiar opening strains. Umm Kulthum remains the preferred soundtrack to their evening machinations.
“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.”
David decides not to take up the “Chicago Gangster” thing that people still seem to believe, almost a hundred years after Al Capone.
“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!”
“No, we have a table over there.” He indicates Bassam, who waves. “We were about to order some more food, Daoud, if you want to come back. Some grilled meats. But we can wait.”
“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.
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’aun! 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 fadiabout 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.
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.
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!
Laysh inteh jeet, wa ma jibt al-’oud.
Inteh jassous, ma ‘indak baroud.
Laysh inteh jeet, wa ma jibt al-’oud.
Inteh jassous, ma ‘indak baroud.
Ahh wayn bitrouh, inteh mawjoud.
Tadiqq ‘al-abwab, manak marfoud.
Ahh wayn bitrouh, inteh mawjoud.
Tadiqq ‘al-abwab, manak marfoud.
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. Somineeh. 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!
After a couple of hours in the musty warmth of Riwaq, the brisk, wintry air wakens them as they step into the dark courtyard and head toward Ahmad’s car, which he had left a few steps from the front. It’s an older model VW van — a dark grey and not a little dented up here and there — but nonetheless a status sign of sorts. Even the oldest vehicles cost a small fortune when one takes into consideration the considerable taxes that often triple the usual price. Ahmad had purchased it years ago when he’d sold some of his family’s lands along the coast. While far from wealthy, he came from a rural family with significant holdings, and land was as good as cash in this economy, a sure source of income or something that could be easily exchanged for a small apartment on the outskirts of the city, or perhaps a decent used car. The VW was rather expensive when he’d bought it, but he already had an apartment inherited from an uncle, so why not? He had always been generous with it and over the years not only most of his friends but a fair number of future ministers and statesmen had piled into it. They approach the car and Basma lets out a sigh.
“Do you think this heap of trash can get us up the hill? Maybe we should take taxis, or just go home.”
Ahmad responds by opening the sliding door and gallantly offering his hands to the women so they can take their seats.
“Tafaddalou! Ahmad’s Van at your service!”
David hesitates but Samir has already grabbed the front seat as Ahmad swings around to the driver’s side.
“I’ll ride up front, Daoud. You sit in the back.”
He steps into the van and sees that it only has one bench — the rear seats having been removed to make room for several boxes of magazines and various books and papers — and Basma has taken the window seat, leaving Nidal to sit between them.
“Yallah Daoud!” says Basma. “Get in and close the door. It’s cold!”
He steps in gingerly, sits, then turns to slide the door closed with a bang.
“Hey Superman. Watch it with the door! You’ll break it off!” shouts Ahmad from the front as he starts the engine. Or rather tries to start it. The engine groans as the starter turns and turns.
“Great! Now we’re not only freezing in here, the thing won’t start!” moans Basma.
“Tawwal balik, Basma,” says Samir, a bit agitated and rubbing his hands. “Relax. It will start. Leave Ahmad alone.”
David is aware that his left hip is brushing ever so slightly into Nidal’s right hip. He squirms a little in his seat to make a little space, as does Nidal, but they end up where they were before, if not imperceptively closer. He can feel the orange in his pocket pressing into her side and he leans slightly away, embarrassed. Why did he put the orange in his pocket?
The engine roars to life and Ahmad pounds the dashboard. “There we go! She never fails me! Yallah!“
Nidal turns toward David and says, “Ahmad’s car is so old that he needs a permit from the Ministry of Antiquities to drive it, or they’ll put it in the museum!”
David laughs and Basma snorts a little.
“That’s right!” says Ahmad. “I have the permit in the glove box! Yallah, let’s go!” He lets out the clutch and eases the van away from the curb. He has to make a U-turn and does so after a few yards, pulling the van over to one side of the road, then backing toward the other. The van stalls and a taxi coming up the hill honks in annoyance. Ahmad turns the key in the ignition and after a moment the VW comes to life again. He reverses a little more then yanking the wheel around pulls up and away. The transmission strains slightly as they ascent Nazem Pasha but eventually they are on their way heading across the lower parts of Muhajireen. The heater has started to make a dent in the cold. Samir turns on the radio and Fairouz warbles from an aging cassette.
“Ouf! Not her again! Don’t you have any good music Abu Mazin?”
“Ma fi ahla min Fairouz! Nothing’s better than her, but take a look in that box on the floor. There are some more in there.”
Samir rummages through the box of cassettes, tossing most of them back in but keeping a few on his lap.
“Isn’t this where you live, Daoud?” asks Basma.
“Yeah. Back a little ways, up the hill, over there.” He points with his finger.
“Over by Nizar Qabani’s house, right?!” says Nidal in a sarcastic tone. “That guy lived everywhere!”
“Well, that’s what I was told, at least. Shu biy’arfni ana? What do I know?”
“He did live in Muhajireen, Daoud. Don’t worry about it. Do you like your apartment?” Basma leans over Nidal to ask him.
“It’s not bad. I mean, it’s small but it’s just for me, so I don’t mind. And it has a nice view over the city. I can see almost everything, even the Umayyad Mosque. And it’s only for now. I might find another place eventually.”
“Eventually…?” asks Basma, but Nidal interrupts her with a quick elbow to her side. “Shu!? I’m just asking! You don’t mind, Daoud, do you?”
“No. Why should I?”
“Aha, this is good” says Samir as he shoves a cassette into the radio. Miles Davis’s “Some Day My Prince Will Come” blows smoothly over the passengers.
They speed down the avenue, past the various falafel and video shops, the Spanish Cultural Center, and a small squat mosque, and then out into the large square that leads down to the city, and up over the hills to the neighborhoods of Doumar and beyond. The mountain looms above them, the apartment lights forming a girdle of illumination along its upper waist.
The VW grinds its way up to the top of the square, where they are stopped by a road block. A police officer saunters over to the van and Ahmad rolls down the window to speak to him.
“Fi shi m’allem? Is something going on?”
“No, brother. Where are you going?”
“To the mountain for some tea.”
“Isn’t it too cold?”
“For tea? No. That’s why we are going for tea, because it’s cold out.”
“Hmm. Give me your papers. Yallah, awwam! Hurry up!”
Ahmad reaches into the glove box and retrieves his papers, pulls out his driver’s license from his wallet, and hands them to the officer. David notes a small bill sticking out slyly from behind the license. The officer grabs them in one hand then shines his flashlight on them with the other.
“Hmm. And who are they?” he indicates the passengers with the flashlight. For a moment the light rests on David’s face, then over to the women, where it lingers. Too long.
“Just fiends. We won’t be long. I have to get to work tomorrow morning. We’re just going for some tea and then home. Mashi al-hal? Ok?”
The officer hands Ahmad his papers back — minus the bill, David seems to think — and walks away.
“Yallah, open it up for them. Siir! Go!”
Ahmad guns the motor, perhaps too energetically as it whines and races, and then rolls the VW through the checkpoint and up the long drive to the road that leads to the mountain.
David leans forward and asks Samir, “What was that about?”
“‘Aadeh, normal. It’s the end of the month. Ya’ni. Just a little check. Wa la himmak.“
Everyone sits back in awkward silence for a few moments.
After a minute the crest a short hill and stop to take in the view. Off to the left sits the Presidential Palace, illuminated with faint streaks of yellow and green. David thinks of Darth Vader’s Death Star and half expects a space ship to land on it. Ahead and slightly to the right is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a vast arch surrounding a helmet-like concrete dome with a band of gold and green inscriptions at its base.
“On your left, a memorial to power, and on your right, a memorial to death,” Ahmad intones in a mock tour-guide voice.
“They are both memorials to death, Abu Mazin … past death and future death. Have you been up here before Daoud?” says Samir.
“No. But it’s interesting, I guess.”
“Interesting,” says Nidal sharply. “Interesting? Whatever. Let’s get some tea, I’m cold.”
Basma grabs her elbow lightly and whispers something in her ear.
“Yallah,” says Ahmad as he lets out the clutch and turns to head up to the mountain. It’s a long and steep climb with a zig and a zag to the left then right. The venerable Volkswagon strains on the grade as Miles Davis blows on “Teo,” with its vaguely Arabian air. The night seems a shade more sinister than it had just moments earlier.
After a few minutes they pull over after a row of brightly lit kiosks set at the side of the road. A few cars are scattered here and there in the distance, but it is not at all crowded due to the cold.
‘This guy makes the best tea and coffee up here. Let’s go!” says Ahmad as he turns off the VW and hops out of the van. Samir gets out as well and David slides open the door and holds it while Nidal and Basma unfold themselves from the back seat. He gently shuts the door then turns to take in the view. The road cuts across the mountain about two-thirds of the way up. Above a series of transmission towers and a weather station survey the city. A largish sign spells out ‘Eid Sa’eed in Arabic, meaning Merry Christmas, in multicolored lights. David had seen it announce everything from International AIDS awareness day to the October War celebrations. The mountain face is barren rock. Beyond the line of kiosks the eternal city unfolds in swath after swath of light, broad avenues radiate off into the distance, meeting at traffic circles then branching off toward the horizon. The green lights of mosques illuminate the cartography like jewels on a tapestry. The vast Umayyad Mosque sits in the midst of the Old City, just beyond the still busy downtown area. An airplane rises in the distance.
David walks over by Samir, who shivers a bit, then says, “Here’s our city — al-Sham. A Paradise on earth. There is a story of the Prophet Muhammad coming here when he worked as a merchant. Do you know it?”
“I may have heard something,” says David.
“Well, his caravan stopped up here on the mountain, Jabal Qasiyun, and when they started to head down, he refused, saying, ‘I will only enter Paradise once, and I choose the Eternal Paradise, not the earthly one.’ And so he didn’t go down. That’s because Damascus was considered to be a Paradise, with its springs and rivers and gardens, you know. And beautiful women!” he nudges David. “That’s all gone now, except maybe the women.”
“Are you proselytizing Ya Abu Samra?” asks Ahmad? “Let’s get some coffee before we freeze to death.”
Basma and Nidal have already staked out a small plastic table with four white plastic chairs in one of the enclosed kiosks. There is a clear tarp that offers a view over the city while protecting from the cold wind. The owner has set up a gas heater and it’s cosy enough.
“Shu bidkun tishrabou? What will you have?” asks the owner as Ahmad, David, and Samir join them.
Basma and Nidal order zuhourat then David, Samir get coffees, and Ahmad orders a regular tea. David sits across from Nidal on the side nearest the edge, Samir sits across from Basma. Ahmad grabs a chair from a nearby table, then sits and says, “Anyone want a nargileh?“
Samir turns to David and says, “Shu ray’ik? Want to try one?”
“Nah. Well, maybe, why not?”
“They are better at Bayt Sabri. We aren’t staying long anyway, right Ahmad? I have to get to bed.” Nidal seems a little annoyed, or is perhaps just a little tired and cold.
The drinks come and they all hover over them, warming their faces from the evening chill. Pop music crackles over the small boom box set on a plastic stool, sonic decor for the kiosk.
“OK, no nargileh. But show us where your new place is, Nidal.”
“You’ll see soon enough since you’re dropping me off, right Ahmad?”
But it’s in Adweh, kind of over there to the left. You can see the Thawra Bridge, and then the Dar al-Shifa’ Hospital. It’s there. You know, by the Arabic Cultural Center.”
“Hilu!” says Ahmad. “I know it well.”
“How about you, Samir.”
“Umm, well, it’s in Qassaa’, by Bab Touma. So that would be over there.” He points vaguely with his hand to the left of the Umayyad Mosque. But it’s hard to see.
“Daoud? Can you see your place from here?”
David leans over a bit to look out through the tarp but cannot see much through the reflected lights.”
“It’s down there somewhere. Off to the left a little, I guess before you see the American Embassy over there by the Rawdeh mosque.”
“‘Azeem, so you can just run down the hill and I won’t have to drive you!”
“It would be a little steep but I guess I could just roll down, or slide on a blanket!”
They laugh. It would be a difficult slide, and then all the apartments in the way. David wonders if there is a way to walk up the mountain, a path maybe.
“‘Am bamzah ma’ak. Of course I’ll drive you! I was just joking!”
Basma fumbles in her pocketbook for a cigarette, and says, “You can just drop me off by Samir’s since my place isn’t far from his.” Samir and Ahmad adjust their chairs, which sit awkwardly at the edge of the mountain pass.
David smiles then looks over at Nidal. She seems distracted and stares off into the distance.
“Shu, Nidal? Fi shi? What is it?” he asks her gently.
“Wa la shi, it’s nothing.” She had been starting at the Presidential Palace, then the lights of Mashrua’ Doumar, and the dark hills, beyond which lay Beirut, where here father was last seen over twenty years ago. He’d probably taken the Beirut Road, which ran parallel to the one they’d take to get up here. And not come back.
“I was just thinking of traveling, that’s all. Being up here gives you a sense of freedom, of possibility, like you could fly away like a bird and be at the Mediterranean in the morning. But then I remember all the things that keep us here, all these memorials” — she sweeps her hands toward the Presidential Palace and where the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier would be — “and it’s a little sad. But I’m used to it.”
He wants to reach out and touch her hands encircling the small tea glass, but he hesitates, and she looks away.
“Yallah, are we ready? I’m getting cold again and it’s late!” says Ahmad as he stands up.
“OK,” they all say, and begin to get up from the table.
Samir pays the owner for the teas and coffees, then they head back to the van.
David stops short and touches Nidal by the elbow. She turns to face him, a quizzical look in her eyes.
“I’ve had a great evening with everyone. I mean, with you. Umm, maybe if you have time we could meet for coffee or go to a gallery? Or a jog?”
Nidal looks down briefly, then up to his face, catching his eyes. Laughing softly she nods her head and says, “With great pleasure, David” — she never calls him Daoud. “Give me a call.” She reaches into her purse then puts a small card in his hand. He places it surreptitiously into his pocket, along with the orange.
They file back into the van, which Ahmad conjures back to life. Miles Davis’s “I Thought About You” comes on, slow and sultry.
They pull away from the curb, advance a few yards, then do a U-turn, to head back down the mountain — past the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Presidential Palace, past the check point, where they slow down so Ahmad can salute the guard, who gives a half-hearted salute in return — before turning onto Nazem Pasha street. After a few minutes of relative silence, they near the Cuban Embassy and David tells Ahmad he can stop and let him off there.
“My place is just up the street about two minutes from here.”
“I can take you to your door, if you want. It’s cold out.”
“Nah. It’s complicated. The streets are all one way and it’s hard to get around. I’ll just walk. Thanks. Yallah, bye everyone!”
He says goodbye to Basma, reaches up to shake Ahmad’s hand, then turns to Nidal.
“Minshufik, Nidal. See you later.”
“Yes, minshuf ba’na al-ba’d. See you soon.”
He gets out, and Samir rolls down the window.
“Hey, aza’r. What about me?!”
David laughs and walks over to the door.
“Thanks for a great day. I had a really good time. Say hi to George, and thank Miriam again for the lunch. See you.”
“Ouf, that lunch seems a hundred years ago! Take care, ‘aziizi, and be good!” He raises his eyebrows suggestively. “I’ll call you.”
David just laughs then waves back at the van as it heads off. He thinks he sees Nidal turning toward him and offers a small wave, just for her.
Turning left he starts up the hill to his street. The orange in his pocket jostles against his side as he crosses the street. He senses Nidal’s card smoldering there like a hot ember and feels faintly as if he’d had a few glasses of ‘araq and not just a small Turkish coffee.
He turns the corner and passes Abu ‘Ali’s shop. A light burns from within, though the shutters are closed. ”That guy never seems to sleep,” he thinks as he walks up the steps to his building. As he passes the kolaba the guard peeks out and asks, “Qaddaysh as-saa’a? What time is it?” It’s he first time the guard has ever spoken to David. He looks at his wrist watch then says, somewhat gruffly, “About 12:30.”
Without another word he crosses to the heavy door, pushes it open, and fumbles for the light switch. He climbs the three flights to his apartment, making the last several steps in darkness, the faint moonlight through the stairwell window guiding him to his door. He puts in the key, turns the knob, takes a breath, and walks in.
The phone begins to ring.
He turns on the lights, closes the door behind him, and puts his bag down on the sofa, not moving. The phone rings and rings and rings, but he doesn’t answer it. Then it stops. He sits to pull off his heavy boots, removes his jacket and tosses it on the sofa, then leans back. The phone rings again, but he ignores it. Reaching over to his jacket he pulls out the card and reads it.
“Nidal al-Safadi, Journalist/Writer/Critic” and her phone number below, written by hand.
He then takes out the orange and holding it to his nose, sniffs deeply. So fresh, so juicy in his hands.
It has been a long and incredible day, one he will not likely forget.
Placing the orange on the table in front of him, he picks up his notepad and pen and begins to write.
“Dear Dad. Greetings from Damascus, Paradise on Earth! Today was an amazing day. I wish I had the time to tell you every detail. I’ll call soon. But there’s something important I need for you to do….”
Finishing the letter he crosses to the bedroom, throws off his clothes and collapses onto the bed, his arms folded behind his head on the pillow. He listens out the window but hears nothing but the faint, intermittent whine of a neighbor’s satellite dish tracking desire from the rooftop. A dog barks. The stars shine in the clear night sky. Across the city children dream of white tigers in green ribbons. An old guard stands nearly frozen in his boots, warming his hands in his pants while the barrel of his rifle leans into his stomach. A street lamp flickers a few times then turns off. A car rumbles past, trailing wisps of music. The wind gently rattles the window panes. David drifts off to sleep.
Another quiet wintry evening in Damascus.