I last spoke to Abu Musa in March 2003, the week the Iraq war began. It was late afternoon, Syria time, when I called from my apartment in Washington, DC. I waited several minutes while the shopkeeper across the hall—the only resident in Abu Musa’s building with a telephone—summoned my former music teacher from his apartment.
I might have caught Abu Musa in the midst of a nap; he made me repeat my name three times.
At last, he laughed. “It can’t be,” he said. His voice, low-pitched, buoyant, was thick with cigarettes and fatigue. “Where are you? Are you still in America?”
When I said I was, I felt him smiling in disbelief. “You could be next door,” he said. “You could be down the street.”
I heard the sounds of his neighborhood through the line: children shouting and clattering on the sidewalk; cars honking and backfiring; a sesame vendor chanting to passersby down the block.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “About what’s happening.”
He let out a dry laugh.
“It’s not your fault. You’re not in charge.” I pictured him leaning in the shop doorway, squat and muscular in his draw-string cotton trousers and the “Don’t-Mess-With-Texas” T-shirt a mutual friend had given him as a joke. His grey hair was probably tousled from sleep. “We’re fine here,” he said. I heard a note of wry regret in his voice. “Everything’s exactly the same.”
We spoke of our families, his health, life in America since my return, my memories of Damascus. We prolonged the conversation for as long as we could. But the shopkeeper in Abu Musa’s building needed his telephone back, and my long-distance charges were adding up. “You’ll come back to us?” my teacher said at the end. “You’ll come back and see us?” I told him I would, as soon as I found the time and money.
“Wait,” he asked me just before we hung up. “Are you practicing every day?” I promised that I was.
I had met Abu Musa two years before that, in January 2001. I was in my mid-twenties, teaching English in Damascus and improving my Arabic. Abu Musa was somewhere in his fifties, living in a smog-choked neighborhood of the city across from a crumbling state hospital.
An American musicologist friend had introduced me to him after I’d expressed interest in learning the oud, or Arab lute. “He’s the best in the city,” she’d said. Abu Musa had taught oud at the Damascus Conservatory until one day in the late nineties, when an army general driving his Jeep on the sidewalk had rammed into him and left him with injuries to the head and chest. The officer was from a powerful family, and so Abu Musa did not seek restitution. As he explained to me later, he had lost the stamina to work long hours and had fallen into depression, finally resigning his post at the Conservatory. His misfortunes then grew: his widowed brother, Ahmad, who had difficulty holding down a job, moved into Abu Musa’s two-room apartment with his new wife and twelve children. Abu Musa was left to support them, his own wife, and himself on the private lessons he gave to whomever trickled in.
Abu Musa’s apartment was at the bottom of a steep stairway leading down from the street. The living room smelled of diesel exhaust and backed-up sewage drains. Two subterranean windows let in a grayish-yellow light. Abu Musa and his wife radiated shy warmth and amusement that first day, asking the same questions I’d heard from everyone I’d met in Syria. What was I doing here? Why I had I left America, of all countries, to live in a place like Damascus? My boyfriend had made the trip with me to Syria, and I replied with our stock explanation: Damascus was one of the most storied cities in the world; we had found great jobs teaching English; we had both recently completed Master’s degrees in Arab Studies, and what was the point of all of our work if we didn’t spend time in an Arab country?
What I did not say was that in moving to Damascus, at least for a couple of years, I was seeking a rupture with the life I had known. At twenty-five, I had found myself at an impasse. I’d become disenchanted with the prospect of a career in academia, but I had no idea what awaited—only that whatever I did next was tied somehow to learning more Arabic, and perhaps to writing, and to studying music. I already played guitar; something about the oud’s sound, both mournful and celebratory, had led me to fantasize about learning the instrument.
When Abu Musa’s wife placed an oud in his hands, urging him on, he seemed embarrassed at first. But soon he was lost in his playing. I don’t remember the piece, only that the notes, halting and hovering between pitches, seemed to strain for something beyond themselves, and I left his home that day certain I had come to Damascus for the right reasons.
The oud is legendary for exacting endless tests of patience from players. Round-backed, with a short, fretless neck and five, sometimes six doubled strings, the instrument sets subtle traps for even the most seasoned practitioners. Oud players love recounting stories of entire days spent tuning, disasters on stage where a string refuses to stay on pitch, years devoted to learning one particular piece just right. Stray a hair too far and you miss the note, or you lose the minute variation in tone that gives the piece its expressive power. A serious player, Abu Musa’s friends said only half-jokingly, must commit to a lifetime of suffering.
Despite these warnings—or perhaps because of them—I felt a certain charge in the air whenever I turned up the dusty avenue leading to Abu Musa’s street. It was an inkling, difficult to articulate at the time, that I was on the verge of unearthing some knowledge of the world previously hidden from me. My teacher, an insomniac, was often dozing on the couch after a restless night. But once I arrived, he would sit up and improvise a melody based on one of the oud’s maqams, or melodic modes designed to express a range of emotions, from fear and envy to pride and love. He would strum harried chords, fall silent, strike a note over and over until it seemed to spawn new notes just out of earshot; and it seemed to me that the sound should fill the streets and that everyone outside should stand still and pay attention. The friends who hung about the apartment, mostly other musicians, would sigh and shake their heads.
“He’s got the truth right there,” Hisham, a bone-thin, chain-smoking man in his forties told me. “If you don’t have the truth, you have nothing.”
Abu Musa rolled his eyes at me as his friends spoke. Most of the time, he was more interested in playing than talking.
“Listen.” He would improvise another line, waiting for me to echo him. Then he would add another phrase, and another, sometimes throwing in new motifs and key changes as I tried to keep up. Even when I got lost—which happened most of the time in the first few months—I still felt exhilarated afterwards. I was chasing after the ineffable; I had found a language for the amorphous fears and longings and secret aspirations I felt roiling in the air around me as I walked about the city, visited my friends, and commuted to work. Sometimes after Abu Musa and I finished playing, we would both grow suddenly bashful, as if we’d just exchanged some confidence too large for the room to hold.
I had arrived in Damascus a few months after Hafiz Al-Asad, Syria’s long-ruling dictator, had died and left the presidency to his son, Bashar. The atmosphere in the country was one of deep uncertainty and muted hope. My friends and students—young businessmen, college students, housewives—waited, despite everything they knew, for the new president to usher in reforms that would, as one friend put it, “allow Syria to join the world.”
Nonetheless, the air remained thick with paranoia and suspicion. The vast secret police network filled every public space, and friends continued to share stories of relatives and classmates who had been trailed or arrested for criticizing the regime. At the same time, the city hummed with brightly lit shops and markets, and on warm nights and holidays the streets of my neighborhood were clogged with families eating ice cream and friends shopping and lingering in late-night restaurants. Everywhere I went, people sought out a party, their eagerness for fun and friendship defying the climate of fear—and perhaps, in other ways, stoked by it. I would run into a friend on the street and end up at their family’s apartment for a long dinner. Or a shopkeeper I knew would magically produce a tray of pastries and we’d spend an hour drinking tea and exchanging stories with the other customers who drifted in. “You don’t do this in America, do you?” a jubilant clerk at a bakery laughed one night when, on a whim, he offered free desserts and tea to me and a group of Syrian friends. “You should!”
A year into my stay, I noticed Abu Musa’s health deteriorating. Weeks in a row, I arrived at his apartment to find him lying on the sofa, taking in painful breaths.
“No, no, no, I’m fine,” he protested when I asked if I should fetch a doctor or, at the very least, come back later. “This is normal since the accident,” he said. “And let’s remember, Farid Al-Atrash played until the end of his life, despite his doctors’ orders.” He often invoked Al-Atrash, an Egyptian-Syrian virtuoso who had battled heart problems throughout his career. “But maybe you’ll say that’s what killed him.”
“He’d probably have died earlier,” I said, “if he’d stopped.”
Abu Musa looked at me. “Exactly.”
I left Syria in July 2002. My family was starting to ask questions about my career plans—as was I—and had grown more and more nervous as news reports predicted war in Iraq. Abu Musa sent me home with an armload of oud books and cassettes and sheet music and the directive to practice. Our goodbye was quick and shy, a hasty kiss on both cheeks at the bottom of his steps.
Back in Washington, I took a full-time job as an Arabic news analyst. I looked for an oud teacher but couldn’t find one. I joined a band and concentrated on singing and guitar. And then, daily life just took over. After a year or two of working through the books Abu Musa had given me, I began to practice less and less. A few years after I spoke to him in 2003, I had stopped playing altogether.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2010 that I found myself with the time and resources to visit Damascus again. My husband and I spent two weeks there, visiting old friends and eating at chic new rooftop restaurants and wondering at the city’s lopsided, uneasy economic boom. The question of whether to look in on Abu Musa gnawed at me each morning. I had thought of buying him a gift, but nothing seemed adequate. I had lost the telephone number for the shop across from his apartment. Finally, on the day before my flight home, I decided to reproduce my old walk across the city to his building.
When I reached his block, I stood on the other side of the street. For a moment I considered knocking on his door. My Arabic was rusty, my oud rustier. I would have to confess to him that I no longer played. Would he even recognize me? It had been eight years, after all. Would we even know what to say to each other? I imagined us sitting in his living room and struggling through a stilted conversation before we said goodbye again. Or I’d find him ill and exhausted. Or, worst of all, I would learn he had passed away years before. The truth was, I didn’t want to know. I wanted things to remain exactly as they had been: me still playing the oud, Abu Musa carrying on, the two of us still in each other’s lives. And so I turned around and walked back to my hotel, and the next day, I boarded my flight back to America.
Regret gripped me as soon as I landed. I resolved to save up money again and return to Damascus within a year or two—this time with a proper gift, this time unhindered by cowardice or fear. But nine months later, popular uprisings broke out in southern Syria; by the summer of 2011, Asad’s forces were driving tanks into cities and villages across the country, and by now the story has grown familiar.
Each morning now, and each night, I check the news from Syria. I wait for messages from friends still in the country, a few cursory lines slipped into sporadic emails: “I am still alive,” or “I’m so glad you don’t have to see it this way.” Sometimes, there are silences I don’t know how to read. I listen to reports of new fighting between government forces and rebels in Abu Musa’s neighborhood, and I wonder where he has gone. I think of my former students, and the shopkeepers on my street, and all the others, too: the near-strangers I met in shops or on buses, whom I never expected to see again, but whose brief conversation or small kindness altered the shape of my life at that instant. You meet such people, you gather them into yourself, and you can’t hold them all. But for a while, you believe they remain with you; however naïve it sounds, the thought of them living their lives, at this moment, somehow keeps you joined.
I often think back to one night in the spring of 2002, when Abu Musa took me to an oud concert at Damascus University. The show featured one of his former students, Muhammad, who was a few years older than me. His songs, mostly original compositions, were dark and thrilling, full of plaintive bass runs and leaping crescendos that brought the audience to its feet.
“You know, you could be like him,” Abu Musa told me afterwards, as the two of us were walking along the stagnant Barada River toward the bus station. Cars and taxis roared by. The rotting stench of the water clouded the warm night air. “You just have to practice every day,” he said.
I laughed. Never in a thousand years could I imagine playing like Muhammad.
Abu Musa turned to me. “I’m serious.”
My time in Damascus was ending soon. I had promised everyone back home that I would buy my return ticket within a few weeks. But all of that was still in the future, at least for a short while.
A line of buses streaked by along the bridge. Abu Musa lit a cigarette as he watched them, then he looked at me. “Every day,” he said after a minute. “Okay?” He smiled, nudged my shoulder. “Every single day.”
Note: The names of all the people in this essay have been changed, for their privacy and safety.
Tricia Khleif has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, where she is now a lecturer, and is the recipient of a MacDowell Colony Fellowship.
Photo by Tricia Khleif