A sticky patch
Tamara says that I am constantly on edge; she says that for people like me, meditation can help. “Meditate on what?” “On yourself,” she replies. “Look inside yourself.” There’s nothing there, Tamara, nothing to see; everything that crosses my mind lies outside me: Goya’s caprichos, the appalling translation of Bertrand Russell’s essays on epistemology I was reading yesterday, the over-vinegared salad I ate today. Perhaps this is my self, Tamara: nothing worth contemplating.
But you, you possess a treasure within; your mysticisms help you move forward. I know, you don’t like to call them that. You do yoga daily, you don’t eat meat; you’re always going on about balance, and three times a week you take yourself off to your French fool at the Buddhist Centre. This meditation, you say, helps you maintain a balanced personality.
I run my fingers over the sticky patch on the table, trace its edges. What is it? Sugared tea? Beer? I want to sniff my fingers, but people might see. Tamara says I worry too much about what people might say. Maybe. When she talks to her father on the phone, I have to smile. It isn’t his criticisms of her romantic partners and career choices that upsets her, so much as having to talk to him at all. She’s like someone trying to say something that remains unsaid. Ends each call telling him she’ll speak to him soon, at greater length. Meditation doesn’t seem to help you here, Tamara. Impulsively, I lift my finger from the table, then lower it back down, back to the stain’s outline.
To me, meditation is a void, the same void that’s keeping me awake. I lift my hand from the patch; some clings to my fingers. The café’s practically empty; no one would see me if I sniffed my hand. A paper or a book, that’s what I need. Contemplating ideas. This inner contemplation, though, it’s a waste of time.
Sometimes, I think I might be attracted to Tamara. She likes to wear neckties and strenuously objects to my insistence that she wears them because they make her sexier. My hand falls back to the table, moves quickly round the now-familiar outline. Tamara says I don’t take women seriously. She doesn’t know that I am talking to Lina. My hand rests on the table; the sticky patch touches my palm. Tamara says I don’t understand women, because I grew up in a Muslim country, because I’ve never lived with a woman. Says I’m still a Muslim. Tamara doesn’t hate Muslims; she just avoids them. I’ve told her to try and understand them, to make Muslim friends. “Not now.” She doesn’t have time to put others to the test. I press my hand down. Feel the patch stick to my palm.
Tamara likes walking by the lake. Talking passionately about nature while I beat the bushes with a stick. I’m on edge, she tells me: I need to relax, to understand the nature that surrounds us. I laugh. Tamara believes that humans are a part of the natural world, that there’s no fundamental difference between us and the animals. I nibble at the patch’s fringes with my fingernails.
I wake humming along to Nancy Ajram’s “Unless I Stroke and Spoil Him.” The song’s still stuck in my head. Lina loved it. It’s been years since I’ve gone out with Arab girls who like songs like this. I miss Lina’s straightforwardness, her kindness. She was separated from her husband, and five months ago the divorce went through. This table needs cleaning. I worry that I’ll come across as demanding if I ask the waiter to clean it. If it weren’t for the fact it would look ridiculous, I’d clean it myself. I snatch my hand away, bite my lower lip in vexation. Then I try to act natural. I need to relax—that’s clear.
Sometimes I find peace in reading poetry. Not all poetry. Last week, I failed to get through a small book of Sylvia Plath’s. I’m currently rereading Szymborska. I lay the back of my hand on the patch and slowly move it around. “Some people just don’t like poetry.” I pull my hand back and put it in my pocket. Lina doesn’t like poetry. It’s pointless to try.
Seems that meditation does nothing for me, Tamara.
I have to go home and finish translating the article before I travel tomorrow.
Morning. Out on the little balcony, I look down over Beirut. Mother comes out with her permasmile. Sometimes, I envy her that smile.
“The apartment is nice. Is it too expensive?”
“A little, but it’ll do while we work out whether we’re going to stay here or go to Egypt or Dubai instead.”
Mother takes out a cigarette. Balances it clumsily in her fingers and lights it. She smokes it quickly, like a teenager afraid her parents will catch them. Mohammed used to call it “women’s smoking.” Lina, like Mother, only smokes on high days and holy days.
“I’m giving up smoking, Mother. As you can see.”
“Pleased to hear it. Get that done and you’re flying. Lots of girls would like a boy like you. You’re young, you’re intelligent, you’re polite, and you know how to talk.”
“Don’t tempt fate. How’s Papa this morning? Feeling better?”
“Not yet. In God’s name, please don’t ruin his mood. We went to the doctor yesterday. Nothing’s seriously wrong, but he needs an operation on that right eye of his.”
“The thing you told me about on the phone?”
“The very same.”
“Let’s hope it’s nothing serious.”
She goes back in.
Always busy. Obsessed with cleaning.
I feel conflicted in Beirut. Mother hates the place, always has, but Lina loves it. Lina loves many cities. Tamara’s mother says that Beirut is full of terrorists, and that the Arabs, even when they dress like us, are different. Tamara says her mother only says these things when she’s with family. She’s not comfortable saying them in public. I feel my palm. I’ve washed my hands again and again, but I can still feel the stickiness. Has the pretty waitress wiped the table down? Did she bend over, exposing a sliver of her back and her behind? Or was it that meaty young man with the unkempt beard? She comes back out onto the balcony with the coffee.
“What do you mean, ‘don’t ruin his mood’?”
“Drink your coffee and keep quiet.”
She pours more coffee.
There’s an elegance in the way she moves her hands that never fades, however old they grow.
“Mama, why don’t you stay on another week? A fortnight’s not enough.”
“We’ll see… Abou Riyadh! Good morning, dear.”
My father, big-bellied, smiling, sits himself down.
“Good morning. Found yourself a wife yet, my boy?”
“Can’t find what I’m looking for.”
He starts talking politics. Analyzing and debating.
Tamara tells me I should let him know, once at least before he dies, that I disagree with him about absolutely everything.
I nod in agreement.
“Please, just stay out of trouble.”
“Don’t worry, Abou Riyadh.”
“And stop smoking.”
“That’s the plan.”
Mother gets up. Heads for the kitchen, muttering something about the prices going up.
Lazily, my father says, “A curse on the revolution and the regime both. Does it make you happy, the way your mother and I are shuffled about all over the place?”
“Trust in God, Abou Riyadh.”
Lina is in Beirut, too.
I pour coffee and hand him a cup. He isn’t really a coffee drinker.
“What matters is that you don’t get into trouble. Put my mind at rest and stop it with that nonsense you and your friends are always talking.”
I watch a car speeding along the Corniche.
What is it he knows, exactly?
“And when are we going to see you hitched?”
“When things are a little easier.”
He leans in. Voice lowered, with a conspiratorial grin, he says, “Tell me, though: Aren’t you tired of pimping yourself like this, you animal?”
“You know, Abou Riyadh, anyone who listened to you would think I spent my whole time pimping. It’s a job, but I’ve got other things to do.”
“That’s not what I mean. Just get yourself a girl to cook and wash and do the housework, a bright girl from a good family, and then you can pimp at leisure.”
He gets to his feet, facing me in his white undershirt. His belly looks like it has grown since my previous visit.
Tamara says I’ll never love truly if I don’t get my independence. Space for myself. She knows nothing about Lina. No one in the UK knows anything about Lina.
He arches his back. Rests on the handrail and peers out over the city.
“I want you to come and see Aboul Hakam with me today. Be ready at five.”
“But I’m meeting the others at six.”
As he walks inside, he delivers the last word.
“You’ll come with me. You can go on to the others later; we won’t be long. An hour’s all we need. Hour and a bit.”
Mother rushes out. “Go with him. Don’t upset him, for my sake. You can talk together in the car.”
“Mother, I never get to open my mouth…”
She scuttles off to the bedroom.
I light a cigarette. Maybe Tamara’s right.
The sounds of the street vendors and car horns are very loud.
I arrange the cups on the tray and carry it inside. His coffee cup’s still half-full. When I get to the kitchen, I see him sitting in the living room. For the first time I notice that his hand trembles as he sips from his glass of water. His breathing is labored. He puts his glasses on, better to read the directions on the side of the packaging. Five or six pillboxes are scattered across the tabletop.
“Father. Did you know that Mohammed was martyred?”
“I heard. God have mercy on his soul.”
He swallows down a couple of pills.
His hand quavers.
“God be praised,” he mutters.
He takes another pill, whispers, “God have mercy on us all.”
I hold my head in my hands. Try to say something. Mother raises the blinds. The sun comes into my eye.
His murmur, louder now.
“God be praised for all things.”
Tamara says that human beings are free when they are able to confront others. She says that a person’s freedom, their capacity to choose and to stand up for what they’ve chosen, constitutes the essence of their humanity.
I lean to one side, out of the sun.
He takes a fourth pill.
“It’s for the heart. Lord help us.”
Tamara told her father that she harbored a great sense of betrayal over the love affairs he’d conducted when she was a girl. She told him that he didn’t care about her, that he was reckless, that he was responsible for her psychological problems, that her mother deserved better than the Don Juan she’d got.
Mother brings him his shirt.
“God have mercy on his soul. God have mercy on all the young people. Do you want any cash to send his family? It’s no problem.”
For a moment, I hesitate.
“Thanks. Two thousand dollars will do it.”
“Consider it done.”
Tamara says that she isn’t completely liberated. Confronting her father with her true feelings was a first step, a necessary step, to being free. Now, she is trying to begin living her life as she wants it to be. She thinks she has left it a touch late—she’s in her late twenties—but she’s optimistic.
“God protect you. God protect each and every one of you. May He keep mothers in His care. What’s it all for, though?”
“What are we supposed to do, Father?”
“Mind your own business and pray that things calm down. Don’t do anything.”
Mohammed was thirty-two. Always a smile. The only one of my friends my father knew and remembered.
“Mayyada. Pass me an apple.”
She fetches an apple.
He bites into it. Savagely.
Mohammed said that the time he’d caught his father with another woman, he’d been eating an apple.
On the tabletop, a sticky patch glistens in the sunlight.
Standing over me with his big belly. “God protect you. God protect these kids. God protect us and grant us the best of endings.” His bulk obscures the sun’s dazzle. A tree that never ages.
It’s like this moment is timeless. Like a pastoral scene by one of the Impressionists. I shut my eyes so I can see its every detail.
“I can hardly see a thing out of my right eye.”
He drags himself off to the bedroom. I trace the edges of the sticky patch. Press down on it, then sniff my fingers. Something sweet. Tea, perhaps?
I go to the kitchen. Fetch a cloth. Wipe it up.
From the depths of sleep you snatch me
Taghrid sits in the food court of the Mall of the Emirates, watching a Pakistani family. The grandmother busy with the baby; the three girls chatting with the mother, who nods her head in agreement. Enter the father, carrying a tray piled with food. The youngest girl shouts, slaps the tray with her hand. Fizzy drinks fall to the floor. The father, standing helpless, almost in tears. The little girl, flitting to the adjoining table, where a young blonde woman, a European, sits in tight jeans and a blouse tighter still. She is on the phone, speaking French, and she slips a smile to the girl who has fled her way.
Taghrid thinks, Why can’t we all just live together in peace?
Someone’s staring at her.
Taghrid recognizes Ola. For a brief moment, she doesn’t know what she should do. Then she goes over and kisses her. Very briefly, they talk. Taghrid wants to see how Ola is doing, but she also needs to bring the conversation to an end quickly, before her mother and sister return with the food. A hasty goodbye to Ola, then she returns to their table.
Taghrid’s sister has seen her talking with Ola. She asks, disgruntled, “Who was that you were chatting to?”
“A friend from Syria.”
“Ola, isn’t it?”
Taghrid doesn’t answer.
“God damn her. Damn all those useless people.”
Scarcely audible, Taghrid protests: “God help her.”
Her sister persists with her abuse of Ola and her family. Taghrid asks her to drop it. Her sister refuses.
“If you had half a brain, you wouldn’t have had anything to do with that lot in the first place.”
In the end, their mother intervenes.
“Stop it, the pair of you. Taghrid knows what she needs to do.”
The frustration and anger sticks in Taghrid’s throat. She turns to her phone. Sends a message to Lana asking for Ola’s number in Dubai.
On the way home to her aunt’s, Ola gazes out at the city. Dubai by night is a city of dreams: the high towers and broad highways narcotize. She hadn’t seen Taghrid for maybe two years. A few months back, her niece sent her a short video clip from a Syrian satellite channel, showing Taghrid with Asma Al Assad. The rage returns. Taghrid has been Ola’s friend since high school, a favorite of her parents: the only girl her mother would allow to stay over. So what has happened? How did she become this brutal bigot?
Fairouz is playing in the background: From the depths of sleep you snatch me…. Mohammed hated this song, was always arguing the case that some of Fairouz’s songs weren’t hers to sing, that it was one of her great sins that she sang such things at all. Unlike Mohammed, Ola would put the song in Fairouz’s top ten. They’d argued about it for years. Ola asks her aunt to play it again and turn up the volume. She stares out at the inhuman towers. Your face never once left me. I tried to swim and it drowned me. A sad thought makes her smile: the love songs her brother loathed are all she has left of him. She forgets Taghrid and listens, taken, as though in a trance.
In her aunt’s apartment, Taghrid sits silently. The talk is of Daesh and Deir Ezzour. Needling, her sister says, “So why won’t you talk to us, Miss Taghrid? What, can’t you stop thinking about that headless fool you saw today?”
Taghrid retreats to the bedroom. Pleads a headache. Her mother looks in on her way to bed. She talks to Taghrid about Terrorism, about The Universal Conspiracy, about the Immortal Leader, about the Young President. Explains to Taghrid that if the opposition really had Syria’s best interests at heart, they would stand with Dr. Bashar in his war against America and Israel.
Taghrid nods. “You know, Mama, Mohammed really loved you so much.” She is trying to summon a sympathetic tone from her. Just a “God have mercy on his soul” would be enough.
Her mother’s response is automatic: “You keep that to yourself. Your father would have a heart attack if he heard that sort of thing being said.”
Taghrid tries to sleep. She recalls Ola and Mohammed’s bantering debate about Fairouz’s song. She had annoyed Ola by taking Mohammed’s side. Mohammed didn’t spend much time with the two girls, but he’d take his morning coffee with them now and then, the times Taghrid stayed over. Ola had accused them of having hearts of stone, and they had accused Ola of having superficial tastes, of Fairouz-worship.
She hasn’t thought about Ola since the day Mohammed was killed. She had accepted unquestioningly her father and uncle’s account, the official account, of what had happened, and had resolved to cut all ties with anyone who sympathized with terrorism. It would be a long battle, her father told her, and we must stand behind the president. The day Mohammed was killed, her father had forbidden her from calling Ola. Taghrid had been bewildered, but her mother’s tearful pleas had settled it, and from that moment on, Taghrid had lived the life her father wanted for her: an Alawite girl, committed to the preservation of the homeland, whatever the sacrifice.
Seeing Ola today has set all that confusion swirling in Taghrid’s chest once again. She tells herself she must call Ola, to pass on her condolences for Mohammed. A few weeks before the events in Deraa, Mohammed had asked Taghrid if he could see her: “To get to know her better.” She went out with him twice. The first time, he was tongue-tied, but on their second date, he was at ease. She’d never laughed as hard as she’d laughed that day. She didn’t fall in love, but perhaps she would have if he hadn’t stopped calling. It all happened so very quickly, as everything seemed to do those days. Over the phone, the last time he called, he’d told her that he was going to Douma, to pay his condolences to a friend over the death of his relative. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She’d done her best to remain civil. “Don’t do it. Douma’s full of terrorists and fundamentalists.”
She can’t remember what he said to that, exactly. Something about “the killers.” Something about her uncle.
She didn’t see or speak to him again.
Two weeks later, a sniper shot him in the head at a demonstration in Douma.
Ola doesn’t like phone numbers she doesn’t know. Some instinct always makes her expect the worst.
She steps out onto the balcony to answer the call. Hearing Taghrid’s voice, she tenses.
“Can we meet?”
Ola doesn’t want to see Taghrid, but she is civil. Too civil, as Mohammed would say, infuriatingly. Ola can’t say no. They agree to meet that evening. Maybe Mohammed was right. Sometimes Ola thinks that because she is polite, people take her for weak.
When she gets back inside, her nephew’s wife and her family are starting to lay the food out on the table. Ola feels confused. What would Mohammed do? Would he have wanted her to see Taghrid? Perhaps he would. He was open-minded about Alawites, enjoyed persuading them they were wrong, but then sometimes he was hostile towards them. Especially after the massacre in Deraa, where five of his friend’s family members lost their lives.
Mohammed hadn’t exactly been Ola’s friend, not in the simple sense, but they were close, and when she needed him, he was there for her, sincerely. In the normal run of events, though, he remained distant. After their father died, Mohammed had attempted to play the man of the house. She recalls how he’d been when her engagement had fallen through. How he’d taken her out to dinner and told her that everything was going to be fine, that there was no need for drama. He was open-minded. Had taken a photograph of her and that actor, Taim Hasan, together in the restaurant that very evening. She remembers how Taim had laid his hand on her shoulder, remembers Mohammed’s disapproving expression, and she smiles.
When she hears they’re serving meat stewed in yoghurt, shakereiya, she remembers how demanding Mohammed had been when it came to his food. The spoilt son. A mother’s darling. He’d hated certain kinds of food, like molokheiya, preferring dishes with dairy in them. Like shakereiya. Pears and peaches were not for him, but melons he loved.
It’s more than a year and half since Mohammed was buried, and Ola is used to the idea of him being gone, but she still finds it difficult to eat these foods. The shakereiya, the molokheiya.
The nephew’s wife and her family serve the food, complaining that the meat here is not as good as they get in Damascus. Ola says that she doesn’t like shakereiya. The mother of the nephew’s wife implores her to try it, just a small helping. No escape, it seems. Like the day of the funeral, when her niece instructed her to swallow a few mouthfuls of rice dumpling. Without warning, Ola is overcome by a sense of abandonment. A feeling that Mohammed had abandoned her when he was killed, had betrayed a promise. All alone, no brothers, no sisters, and now this plate of shakereiya. She longs to able to tell them all about Mohammed. About his love of shakereiya, for fatta with semna and lots of onion, about his secret passion for Nancy Ajram, about the old green shirt he refused to throw away. About his bad habits, too: watching television with the volume turned up, clipping his toenails in the living room, missing family meals on feast days, always forgetting to plug his phone in before bed. She doesn’t want to talk about him all the time, just on occasions like this one. It would be perfectly normal for her to tell them that shakereiya was one of his favorite meals, wouldn’t it?
From people’s expressions, Ola sees that, not for the first time, they have grown bored with stories of Mohammed. She stops talking. She breaks for the thousandth time.
And as she eats her shakereiya, she listens to her nephew describe his honeymoon in Malaysia.
After dinner, on the way back to her aunt’s house, Ola tries to keep her feelings in check. She is thinking of Taghrid with Asma Al Assad: the image that heads her page on Facebook. Taghrid looks overjoyed. Asmaa’s smile is lifeless, but Taghrid’s fills the room. It’s as though it’s Asmaa Al Assad who has requested to be photographed with Taghrid. To Ola, Taghrid looks like someone who is responsible for their actions.
She calls her.
“I don’t want to see you. I feel like it’s too soon. Mohammed wouldn’t approve. And you didn’t even come to the wake, ya Taghrid.”
“I wanted to come, Ola, I swear. My family wouldn’t let me.”
Taghrid begins to cry.
Again, Ola doesn’t know what to do.
“Taghrid, you said on television that we’re all behind the president, come what may. I heard you. I replayed that clip a hundred times. Come what may, ya Taghrid?”
“Do you know what you meant by ‘Come what may’?”
Taghrid is weeping bitterly.
“Taghrid, Taghrid, Taghrid… not a phone call. Not even a ‘God have mercy on his soul.’
What’s going on, Taghrid? Taghrid, what’s going on?”
“Ola, my family wouldn’t let me. They said you all want to slaughter us.”
“For God’s sake, Taghrid, spare me this nonsense. Mohammed wanted to slaughter people? Mohammed couldn’t slaughter a fly.”
“And the Alawites who were kidnapped? The people who were murdered in Maaloula? The Wahhabis in Douma?”
Ola ends the call.
Three days later, Taghrid returns to Damascus.
Ola will stay on in Dubai with her aunt. A difficult houseguest.
What Ola doesn’t know is that Mohammed, a few months before his death, had started listening to those songs he’d once loathed: “From the Depths of Sleep You Snatched Me,” “Last Days of the Summer Holiday,” “Green, My Country, Green,” “I Love You,” “My Lover Tender,” and others. He was also eating molokheiya in secret with his friends. Had wanted to be able to tell his mother that he ate molokheiya now.
At their last meeting, Taghrid promised Mohammed that she would cook him molokheiya, on the condition that he admit to Ola that “From the Depths of Sleep You Snatched Me” was one of Fairouz’s greatest songs. Mohammed had agreed.
With malicious glee, Taghrid had wondered what Ola would do with him when he confessed his defeat.
Taghrid and Mohammed’s raucous laughter, ringing through the streets of Bab Touma.
Odai Al Zoubi is a Syrian essayist, journalist, and translator living in Sweden. Having received bachelor’s degrees in both electrical engineering and philosophy, he went on to study for a doctorate in the philosophy of language at the University of East Anglia. His publications include the short story collections Windows and Silence, and The Lost Lamp of Umm Hashim, a book of essays. He is co-translator, with Muayyad Nashar, of a collection of essays by Noam Chomsky, and translator of a collection of Bertrand Russell’s writings.
Robin Moger is a translator of Arabic prose and poetry based in Cape Town, South Africa.