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.