Monday, December 02, 2013

Heroic Feats

Who is more to be pitied, a writer bound and gagged by policemen or one living in perfect freedom who has nothing more to say.
-Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., novelist (1922-2007)

A light bulb exploded somewhere nearby. The glass shattered into a shower of tiny fragments, and as they cascaded in the abyss of time, the filament burned in a flash of glory and died. I lay silent in front of the keyboard, staring at the blinking cursor and wondering what to do next, what to write.

23-year old Ernesto Guevara de la Serna wrote in the opening sentence of The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey, “This is not the story of heroic feats, or merely the narrative of a cynic; at least I do not mean it to be. It is a glimpse of two lives running parallel for a time, with similar hopes and convergent dreams.” In 1952, while still attending medical school, he and his 29-year old friend Alberto Granado started on a nine-month epic voyage across the South American continent from their home in Buenos Aires, Argentina to Caracas, Venezuela on board a 1939 Norton 500cc. The journey helped transform Ernesto Guevara from a care-free, middle-class university student into a Marxist revolutionary, who ultimately died as Che Guevara, one of the twentieth century most profound symbols and compelling heroes.

I'm by no means the reticent type, yet I had only blogged seven posts in 2013. It's easier to keep my rhetorical turmoil confined within. There will come the day when I can blab it all, of that I have little doubt. It would be too late then for my words to make a difference, but they were never meant to anyway. For you see, although I admire “Che” for what he lived and died for, I wasn't made of heroic material. I may have started this blog in 2006 as a care-free, middle-class, middle-aged Abufares, but I never expected a dramatic ascent to fame, nor a footnote in an obscure book of history.

Aris Messinis /AFP/Getty Images

While the future of my homeland is being deliberated upon over a slow-burning, yet scorching fire, thousands of my compatriots continue to die, meaningless numbers to an apathetic world, acceptable losses to the powers that be, victims to the modern day pecking order. What started as a deep sigh to breathe a lungful of the unsullied air of freedom has turned into a vicious war whose embers are continuously fed with coals of apotheosis and fanaticism.

This eighth post could be the last one of the year, so I might as well tell the “regulars”, who still pay my blog the occasional visit, that I've been writing behind their backs. Last month, I submitted an entry to the 2013 Writer's Digest Short Story Contest. I have no idea how it will rank among the more than five thousand other entries. It will be published if it makes it as one of the Top 25 finalists. If not, you'll be unfortunate enough to read it here. I'm currently working on a second short story, but my progress is even slower than Ban Ki-moon's expression of dismay, or was it disgust, over the "tragic" events taking place in Syria. This is not the time, nor the place, for cheery writing, and I'm afraid I don't make a decent commentator on world politics and current events. Since there only remains the truth that's worth writing about, I find myself caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Work has come to an almost complete stop here, but unlike those I once ignored and now despise, I haven't debased myself by blaming everyone but the perpetrators. Will next year, the one after, and those to follow be the same? If I have learned anything from the books I've read over the last eleven months, or from the wear and tear of growing older, it's that nothing lasts forever. Eventually, I will ignore those I despise, and fall head over heels in love with the ones I already love. I know that my own words will come back to haunt me for not being brave enough to have unleashed them when they would've counted for something, but in true existential form, I find myself stuck in this time and place with nowhen or nowhere to go. The least and most I can aspire for in my future is inherited liberty, for the price of pure freedom is too high for ordinary folks to pay. My consolation is that one day, truly free children will be born, but not until our guilty conscience is buried deep with us. Perhaps, I should write about them, the yet unborn, and the future they will forge, instead of lamenting a past that was never as rosy as I once led myself to believe. Happy Holidays Season Everyone!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Los Colores de mi Amor

Instead of cursing the darkness, light a candle.
~ Benjamin Franklin


I burn books and etch their words on the walls of my mind. I crave my reading with a ravenous hunger. I want to slow myself down to cherish the tastes of characters, styles and plots, but I'm unable to. Late at night, letters twirl around inside me. Abandoned phrases with orphaned paragraphs perform a sacrificial dance to a soundless music. A silent chuckle reverberates in my head, followed by a dry tear down my cheek. Together, they chase away the remnants of sleep as I accidentally knock the glass of water on the night-table over, spilling my dreams in a puddle on the floor. With the advent of dawn, they evanesce, leaving a fugue of bittersweet memories.

The Frères Maristes taught me French very well and made me hate it too. I was barely six when the twisted priests drilled French in my head with a quill. They force-fed me francophone ink to obliterate what little Arabic I knew. They, however, couldn't touch my imagination no matter how hard they tried. I dreamed in Arabic, fantasized, skimmed the cloud tops, soared over mountain and sea in that beautiful poetic language. If English is my public face, Arabic is my very soul.

I forgave the French their misanthropy and returned to the bosom of a perfectly sublime language. They made it second class to English only through their misgivings and their xenophobic cultural protectionism. I am re-learning French on my own and advancing in elated leaps and strides. I can't wait till I embrace its profound literature again and resume reading classic fiction.

In college, I came across an uncounted number of Latinos. No, to be precise, I didn't have a single Latino friend but had plenty of chicas latinas as my best amigas. These were magnificent women, who, over the course of our companionship, had uplifted my spirit and infused me with an inextinguishable joie de vivre. Spanish became background music to my ear, but alas I never learned it. A little over a month ago I chanced upon a small ad in a local paper. A teacher at the University of Lattakia was giving Spanish lessons in her office for beginners, here in Tartous. I called and joined her class.

Last week, and after mi profesora cubana explained a few short Federico García Lorca's poems (no less), she asked her class of neophytes to write a "colors inspired" poem in Spanish. As I struggled with restlessness that night, begging both Hypnos and Morpheus to have mercy on me, my very first Spanish inspiration ran smoothly down the gullies of the Broca's area in my brain. And I wrote this:


Los Colores de mi Amor

La nieve se vuelve blanca
ya que toca el rostro de mi querida

Las estrellas están pintadas de azul
cuando ella las mira

El cielo se llena de vida con mi alma
porque mi amante está conmigo

Su pelo se mueve al viento y
pinta la noche con tonos mágicos

Entonces... nuestro amor despierta y
sale el sol

---
Looking forward my very first Spanish fiction read -10 años con Mafalda

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Taking a Leak


Dear Diary

I distract myself by taking a leak over a morbid reality. It hisses and reeks of urea, but isn't completely extinguished. The stench keeps me out of harm's way, I tell myself. I have a roof over my head and a loaf of bread to put on the table. I wake up early then go to sleep earlier. In between, I fill my time with physical chores to burn the bland calories I swallow to stay alive. I'm learning a new language and brushing up on an old one. I untether my mind to roam in an imaginary world with two moons which have become more real than the here and now. I drown myself in fiction about love and despair. Human nature eludes me, so I work hard to be normal.

My back is stiff with the burden of conscience. Had those I care about chose to leave it all behind and go somewhere else to start anew, I wouldn't have to keep my mouth shut. It pains me that I can't write what I long to put into words. The biggest insult is to be looked upon as a neutral, for no one out there is so twisted as to imagine that I could be one of them Arab elitist, leftist, liberal mother-fuckers who mushroom in the sordid cesspits of tyranny. As for neutrals, in this day and age, they are but neutered little shits, miserable sons of bitches, fuckheads, partners in crime against humanity.

I'm a man of two worlds, caught and torn between duty and dream, missing the line inscribed by Occam's razor and... waiting.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Broiled Syrian Chicken with Sumac

I like to think of myself as daring in love and spunky in the kitchen. That doesn’t imply that I’m terribly astir in the pursuit of either, but it does hint to a certain spasmodic talent. Or so I believe.

I rose to the occasion today, well at least on the culinary front, when I found myself facing the task of preparing lunch for my daughter and myself. Like a listless airline steward, resigned to asking his trite question, I cleared my throat and marveled out loud: “What would it be Nadia, pasta or chicken?” It was perhaps the fact that she didn't actually care and that she left me to my own devices that set me on the path to prepare and cook, the perfect Broiled Syrian Chicken with Sumac.

The very first time I heard that there's such an entree was in 1984 in Lafayette, Louisiana, of all places. I was driving on a side, obscure street, in the downtown area, when I saw a nondescript sign advertising Syrian Chicken. I parallel parked across from the olden structure and went in. A young lady, in her mid-seventies, greeted me with a smile that brought the charm of the Tartous countryside to southwestern Louisiana. Her parents came from Daher Safra, she confided, but she was born in the USA. She'd been home to Syria just once in the 1950's. She did speak a little Arabic though, and she knew how to cook Syrian food. I ordered her specialty, Broiled Syrian Chicken with Sumac, as per her recommendation. I don't think I ever tasted to this day any poultry dish that even comes close to her simple masterpiece. All I remember, however, is that it was served in a paper plate with onions and potatoes and that it tasted brazenly of sumac.

The idea of recreating this dish struck me. I was challenged by my daughter's indifference, and I intended to leave an immutable mark on her palate. I daresay that I exceeded my own expectations and most certainly hers with the outcome.



I cook by the seat of my pants. The list of ingredients below was compiled out of what I found in the fridge and the kitchen cabinets. Don't bother yourself with exact measurement. Follow your nose and eye, trust your delish memories, and have balls (or whatever the proper politically correct female equivalent are).

List of Ingredients:

  • 1 chicken cut in pieces
  • 4 medium sized potatoes (½” slices)
  • 2 medium sized onions (cut in rings)
  • 2 medium sized tomatoes (1/2” slices)
  • Bell peppers: 1 green, 1 red, and 1 orange (cut in rings)
  • A few jalapenos (if you're so inclined; cut in rings)
  • Garlic (as much as you want; peeled and finally chopped.
  • Every imaginable spice and dry pepper possible, or whatever you happen to have. I used cinnamon, cumin, black pepper, oregano, thyme, and red pepper flakes.
  • Sumac, plenty of.
  • 1 liter of red wine or balsamic vinegar
  • Salt
  • Ketchup, HP sauce, mustard, Tabasco, soy sauce... whatever, eh!


Preparation:
  • In a bowl, marinate the pieces of chicken, after cutting them diagonally in the wine or vinegar, adding all the spices listed above and salt. Cover and leave in the fridge for 3 hours.
  • Spread the potatoes, onions, tomatoes, peppers and garlic in a pan. Place the pieces of chicken on top.
  • Top each piece with ketchup, HP sauce, mustard, Tabasco, soy sauce and sprinkle with plenty of sumac. Wipe them evenly with a knife.
  • Pour the spicy marinating wine or vinegar in the pan making sure it covers the veggies but not the pieces of chicken.
  • Cover and seal pan with aluminum foil, place in oven at 185ºC for 1 hour.
  • Remove aluminum foil and turn top heat in oven on for 15 minutes.
  • Serve and enjoy.




Monday, June 03, 2013

Tipcat of Tartous

The European Football (soccer) season came to a close at the end of May. From then until the first week of September, a 53-year-young boy would go crazy without a day-to-day sport spectacle to watch. Fortunately, there are the occasional whatchamacallit tournaments and various competitive track and field events. Yet, these competitions don’t provide a reclining-seat jockey with enough sustainable action to keep him, or his Martini glass at least, sweating. Not unless it’s women’s tennis, but alas, there’s never enough of that. This is when baseball comes to the rescue, and just in the nick of time. I’m a baseball fan, and I look forward to a long and lazy summer of idle involvement. You see, I don’t really care who wins the World Series. As long as these big overpaid athletes keep chewing and spitting, scratching themselves and hitting the occasional ball, I’m happy. I’m not absolutely certain if I’m the only one in Tartous who follows Major League Baseball on television, but it pretty much could be the case. A few nights ago, I stumbled upon the NCAA Softball Women’s College World Series. Washington was playing Nebraska in a very tight and competitive game. I remembered the one time in my life I actually played baseball. It was 1978, in a park in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois with a bunch of college kids. I batted a few times and got a hit or two, but then I had to pitch. I wish I didn’t, as my very first throw knocked the batter (a very nice girl I knew) unconscious after it smacked her straight in the head. I smiled, despite myself, for the wonderful ride down memory lane this mental keepsake had put me on. But then, I remembered another game, one I played much earlier right here in Tartous, and for a brief moment I was a kid again, grinning from ear to ear.

By the end of May, schools in this part of the world slam their gates shut too, before the brutal summer crawls into the classrooms and indiscriminately claims the souls of both innocent and mischievous kids alike. They take to the streets in droves, shedding their beige uniforms of submission and conformity. Jumping down a flight of stairs in a leap or two, or climbing down the drainpipe from my bedroom window, I sneak my way to one of the shaded alleys that sprung from Al Mina Street, like the skinny legs of a giant centipede. While my folks nap in the blast of a Parkinson’s inflicted pedestal fan, I keep cool by running into the relative wind of my perpetual motion.

AL-Mina Street, 1958
Tartous, where I grew up, and its scrawny backstreets are no longer what they used to be. They are filled with cars battling to park or to pass through. The broad sidewalks were heartlessly cleaved to make room for more asphalt, so that more cars can battle for a parking space or for their right of passage. Children of Tartous, unlike those of most of Syria today, are lucky they haven’t lost their homes yet. They settle down with whatever electronic device they’re hooked on, shut off the bland reality of their presence, and play in a space and time that exist until their devices run out of charge, or the power goes down, inevitably. If they make it through the raging war that is consuming the country, they will grow up without memories. These are the lucky ones, of course. I can’t even write about the others.

Forty years ago, in an alley behind my home by the sea, a bunch of motley boys with scraped knees met every afternoon, when their shadows outgrew their bodies, and played Assa wa Da’as (العصا والدأس). Amazingly, I have not thought about this game since I was a teenager. During all of these years of living in the United States and/or in Tartous, the similarity between Baseball and Assa wa Da’as never struck me until I saw those young girls playing in that Nebraska field.

It was late at night when the softball game was over, but I couldn’t sleep until I got to the bottom of it. What was that game we played, and who invented it? How did it make it to Tartous and become such a fixture in my growing up years, then entirely disappeared as if it never happened?  My Arabic search on Google only brought frustration. Assa means stick (or bat), Da’as means absolutely nothing, but that’s what we called the game in Tartous. I have no idea whether it was played in other parts of Syria and/or the Middle East in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, but it could’ve. If you, the reader, have any pertinent information, please share it by email or in a comment on this post.

Assa wa Da'as (Bat and Tipcat)
I needed an English word for Da’as, which simply is a short  4” to 6” wooden stick, chamfered (or tapered) on both sides. If the da’as is struck with the Assa (bat) on its tapered edge it is propelled into the air; and once airborne, it’s hit hard, again with the bat, to cover the longest distance possible. Finally, I struck gold on Google; our backstreet Tartoussi game was invented in the 17th century in Britain and is considered, along with Rounders, as the origin of modern-day baseball. It even has a name: Tipcat!

Tipcat, according to most sources, was very popular in Great Britain starting from the 19th century and in North America and the colonies from the early 20th century. It’s a street game played under different rules, all made up by kids to accommodate for their local topography and street layout. In 2005, Ron Hughes of Birmingham wrote about his memories as a boy in WWII People’s War - An archive of World War Two memories - written by the public, gathered by the BBC: “Other times we’d play Tipcat. Do you know what that is? You needed a small piece of wood, about 4 inches long by 2 inches, chamfered at both ends. You put this on the road and then tap the pointed end with a bat saying: ‘tip, tip, CAT!’ On ‘cat!’ you hit the pointed end really hard and spun the small piece of wood up into the air. As it flew up, you hit it hard with the bat and sent it flying off down the street. Or if it was me, I’d hit it straight into a window. I learnt to run fast playing that game!

Tipcat
I don’t think I ever broke any windows but I still remember our rules of the game, vaguely. Tartoussi Tipcat was played by 2 teams of an undetermined number of players each. One batter from Team A approaches the home base, which was made up of two rocks the size of cocounts, where the tipcat lay perched in between. He will then place his bat underneath and flip the tipcat up and away. Fielders from Team B will try to catch it before it hits the ground, and if they succeed, the batter is out. If the tipcat does fall on the ground without being caught first, a fielder will “underarm-pitch” it from the spot, in an attempt to strike the home base (either or both rocks). The batter has to defend the home base with his bat. If the tipcat strikes the home base, the batter is out. If the batter intercepts the tipcat with his bat, or better yet, hits it away, the game continues. Now here is where my memory begins to get a little sketchy, but I’m still very close to the essence of the game we played. The batter taps the tipcat with the bat and hits is as hard as possible to cover the longest distance. This action is repeated 3 times, after which he will call the number of leaps it will take him to cover the total distance from the tipcat’s last position to homebase. The captain of the fielders will either allow the batter to go for it or accept to take the challenge (himself or one of his fielders) in a fewer number of leaps. If he allows the batter to go ahead, the latter makes the jumping leaps and if he succeeds to cover the distance in the declared number of leaps or less, his Team A is credited by the called number. If the batter fails, the points are awarded to Team B. On the other hand, if the captain of Team B accepts the challenge, he or one of his fielders attempts to cover the distance by the lesser number of leaps he challenged with. If he fails, the full original number (points) are awarded to Team A. If Team B makes it, they earn the points instead. The two teams then reverse positions. That was one hell of a competitive game and probably explains the scraped nonhealing knees.

We played this game for hours on end. We obviously didn’t think much about its origins or who brought it to town. Based on the online research I conducted, I’m inclined to believe that a returning expatriot teeanager, most likely from North America, brought it back and taught the other kids how to play. I don’t have enough to go on, under the current conditions in Syria, to seek answers from other cities. I can’t put an exact timeframe about the Tipcat’s earliest emergence in Tartous, but I estimate it to be around at least the late 1920’s since my father remembers playing it in the 1930’s. The British didn’t occupy Syria, and I couldn’t find evidence that the game was played in France. Accordingly, I’m omitting the possibility that the French introduced it here. It’s all conjecture on my part, of course, but I think I have presented the most plausible explanation.

Recently, Fares, my boy, joined me in watching baseball. As soon as he grabbed the complex rules, he began to enjoy it. The Yankees are already his favorites, since he likes New York as a city he’d never set foot in, and since their uniforms are “cool”. Until he goes to the USA one day, he won’t get a chance to play baseball, I don’t think. “Next time you’re there, get me the Major League Baseball 2K12 for the PS3.” He said. I told him about the Tipcat his grandfather and I played but he offhandedly dismissed it. “Nah, just get me the real thing”, he said, “ I saw it on Youtube and it’s so real, it’s realer than real.” As long as we have electricity, I thought, and a roof over our heads. ‘Tip, tip, CAT!’

References:
http://boston1775.blogspot.com/2007/07/how-to-play-tip-cat.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tip-cat
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilli-danda
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/596709/tip-cat
http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/41/a3909341.shtml
http://www.greaterkashmir.com/news/2011/Nov/6/tip-cat-my-pastime-4.asp
http://www.libdemvoice.org/opinion-free-our-children-to-play-tipcat-25112.html
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/596709/tip-cat
http://museums.leics.gov.uk/collections-on-line/GetObjectAction.do?objectKey=273976
http://fairetymetoys.com/pmwiki.php?n=Main.TipCatNative
http://books.google.com/books?id=DBCt7IZfGv8C&pg=PA129&lpg=PA129&dq=origin+of+the+tipcat+game&source=bl&ots=r_dZYP9BZI&sig=4rSM5BIf7p-jFiTKBMzU4dpFyH4&hl=en&sa=X&ei=irWpUY6UNcz40gXPmoGADw&ved=0CGcQ6AEwBw#v=onepage&q=origin%20of%20the%20tipcat%20game&f=false
http://www.inquiry.net/outdoor/games/beard/tipcat.htm



Thursday, May 09, 2013

Helmi Habbab - Master of Calligraphers

In the fall of 1977, while waiting for admission at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, I enrolled at the College of Fine Arts in Damascus University. I knew that my tenure was only temporary, and that I would leave as soon as the paperwork was completed and my visa issued. Yet, the four months I spent there, from September till December of that year, make up for one of the most spirited periods in my life.

The building where the College of Fine Arts was housed was far removed from the main campus of the Damascus University. In fact, it was located at one of the peripheral roundabouts, in a more or less residential area. The photo above was taken from the Fine Arts building itself, and this is exactly how I like to remember Damascus, not the subsequent mutation and eventual aberration. Although I was neither talented as an artist, nor serious as a student, I did get up to my elbows in work. I took Drawing, Sculpture, Advertisement and Calligraphy in my first and only semester there, and somehow managed passing grades in all of my projects and even excelled in one or two.

It was a time when Fine Arts students were reputed to be the Bohemians of the Damascene academic realm. For all I know, it may still be the case today, assuming there remains any semblance of academia amid the mayhem and destruction. University students had not yet succumbed to the systematic eradication of individuality, which ultimately defaced younger generations into mere bricks in the wall. The cafeteria on the roof of the building was city-renowned for its avant-garde atmosphere. We were the envy of Medical, Engineering, Law and every school out there. Green with jealousy, the brainy nerds consoled themselves with the conviction that nothing good would come out of us, libidinous art students. We were indeed good for nothing bums, but who needed purpose, when we had all the fun.

I lived at my aunt's in Azbakieh, at the end of Baghdad Street, (about a mile off to the right, in the photo above). I remember waking up early in the morning and walking to college, clumsily carrying my supplies and tools with a lit cigarette dangling between my lips. I also remember being among the last to leave in the evening when Saber, the doorman, had to lock the place down. The Fine Arts building was the center of my universe, and I spent every waking moment there, either in class or on that unforgettable roof.

Although those were endearing times, I haven't thought about them in years. I lost contact with everyone, and I have no idea what had become of my friends. I remember Majed, Mona, Haifa and Maha as my closest buddies. I remember Salma, the gorgeous petite, and the way she played with her ponytail, as I sweet-talked her in vain. I remember the doorman whom we called Ammo Saber; some of the teachers, pretentious and sincere; but I mostly remember Master Helmi Habbab.

Helmi Habbab (1909- 2000) was honored with the title of “Master of Syrian Calligraphers, شيخ الخطاطين السوريين” in 1997, upon reaching his 88th birthday. I believe that Mr. Habbab is the best modern Arabic Calligrapher, a claim a few critics would be able or willing to challenge. I was disheartened when I found so little information about him online, which was mostly in Arabic. This, of course, is not a shortcoming of his, but rather of an unavailing Ministry of Culture, a knavish government, and a corrupt media machine that’s only good at fomenting, feeding and fostering a cult of personality.

For scholars and historians, interested in the Art of Calligraphy, Helmi Habbab is a household name. An astute observer can find the artist’s great work in many parts of Damascus, among which is the sublime calligraphy at the Othman Mosque and the uncounted official placards and signs on public buildings and institutes. I was first introduced to his work years before I had the honor of meeting him in person. In the early 1960’s, Syrian Television started its daily programming at 5:30 PM with the National Anthem, followed by fifteen minutes of Quran reciting. The heavenly voice belonged to Sheikh Abdul Baset Abdul Samad of Egypt. The calligraphy on every cascading tile was always signed in Arabic, at the bottom left corner with a dot-less Helmi.

The sexagenarian man with the white hair and goatee entered the small auditorium and it instantly rippled with a Mexican wave of silence. He was known for his sternness and zero tolerance for the follies of smart-ass students. But, he was also known for having a soft spot. He loved them, young and pretty coeds, and took advantage of the fact that he was hard of hearing. He would lean very close to listen to them when they talked (he taught me that trick). Thirty seconds after walking in, and having secured our absolute and undivided attention, he started with a story.

I was an apprentice in 1933 when I was commissioned to calligraph the giant sign on the main facade of the Khoumassieh Company building. I used a special wooden pen with a long thin handle and a 40 cm (16”) round tip. While propped on a scaffold, I looked down and saw a group of French dignitaries standing in silence and observing. Although I didn’t appreciate people looking over my shoulder as I worked, I wasn’t exactly sitting at a desk in the privacy of my study. Eventually, I climbed down and was immediately surrounded by the Frenchmen and their Syrian interpreter. “Mais monsieur, vous êtes un artiste!” exclaimed the fat one, as he vigorously shook my hand. The interpreter faithfully translated the short statement, uttering the word “artiste” in French for lack of a synonym in Arabic.
“You and your mother are the artists, you dirty French Pig.” I yelled back and almost clubbed him with my giant pen. The interpreter and a whole bunch of people, who appeared out of nowhere, had to restrain me until the gendarme arrived. I did attack a French citizen, and this came with at least a jail sentence. It took awhile, and a lot of persuasion, from good-willers to convince the visitors how and why I was so offended and infuriated by being called an “artiste”. After all, for us Arabs in the 1930’s, and up until today, the only artists we know of are the showgirls working in nightclubs and cabarets. This is how most people would look at you, young boys and girls if you don’t make a name for yourselves. So if you’re not absolutely sure you love the Arts and are ready to make sacrifices, you don’t belong in the College of Fine Arts.

Some time between Christmas and New Year, I saw my professor Helmi Habbab for the last time. He was sixty eight. I was two months short of my 18th birthday. But in the span of a few months, we have become good friends. I had told him about my intention to travel to the United States to study to become a City Planner, something he personally considered as a heroic undertaking on my part. He grew up and lived all of his life in Damascus. Traveling across the ocean tickled an unrealized dream that he buried deep in his heart. He encouraged me and gave me valuable advice. In return, I treated him with utmost respect and reverence. My buddies couldn’t understand how I, known as one of the most jocular kids in college, and Master Habbab, known as the strictest and most serious of professors, could have stricken such a formidable friendship. He thought the world of me and took me for a son. He was a father figure, who taught me that no matter how fatuous I was, I would always honor my teachers and mentors.



In April of 1978, and in response to a letter I sent him from America, Helmi Habbab calligraphed his reply on a sized paper. He used a bamboo pen and Chinese ink to scribe his words of encouragement and wisdom on what became my personal treasure. I don’t think I deserve most of the praise, but I’m honored nevertheless. I owe him a tome of gratitude that would take a lifetime to put down on paper or on a screen. My handwriting, like my calligraphy, are still mediocre, but despite the many ups and downs, I would’ve still made him proud of me. I fared well in America but always kept Syria, the one he taught me, in my heart. Rest in Peace Good Master. When our true history is written, your name will be calligraphed in letters of gold.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Sgian Dubh


I woke up with a jolt, gasping for air. Where am I? I couldn't tell. Sparks flew, as the burning wood crackled in the fireplace, then hissed and sizzled. I was hot, my skin was burning. I kicked at the covers and took my pajamas off and threw them away.

Never in my life had I set foot in Scotland. Oh, how I longed for the Highlands in an inexplicable, almost salmonlike obsession. There it was, undeniably imbued in my bone marrow, an arduous crossing that would land me there one day. I would hike uphill, across formidable terrain, with rocky peaks and broad precipices, until my lungs would scream for mercy in the confinement of a finite ribcage. I would sit down as close as I dared near the edge of a cliff and breathe the unsullied air.

I heard the tings from afar. The bellwether led the climb, followed by a flock of a hundred sheep. A black and white border collie ran the flanks, keeping a tidy queue along the narrow path. A fair shepherdess of seventeen or so, wearing a dress of white wool, pranced with a gamesome gait until she saw me. She hesitated for a moment, her red hair whirling in the wind like a fire on a lighthouse from centuries past, before she bravely resumed her walk. The collie’s ears perked up. It assumed an undaunted stance and wedged its way between its mistress and me. I slowly rose, took my tam off and in a friendly tone addressed the lass. Latha math, I said in Gaelic. Good day. I had no idea whence the words came from or what they meant until they were uttered.

Latha math, she replied, Co às a tha thu, coigreach? Where are you from, stranger?
I come from a distant land. I think I’m lost.
Dè an t-ainm a th'ort?
Abufares of Tartous
Tha mi toilichte do choinneachadh. She was pleased to meet me. Is mise Fionnaghal. A bheil an t-acras ort?
Hello Fionnaghal. What a beautiful name you have! Yes, I’m hungry indeed.

She signaled for me to follow. Not more than a mile ahead, beyond a bend, we started to descend. By dusk, we reached a village where the smoke rose from the chimneys of houses built of stone. A younger boy, carrying Fionnaghal’s genes, greeted us and took charge of the flock after exchanging a quick word with her. She led the way to a row of single story homes and came to a stop near a quaint blue door. She pushed it open and ushered me in. A big man sat behind a table near the fire. Fionnaghal introduced me to her father. He stood up and met us halfway across the room. He welcomed me with a huge grin on his face and asked me to join him at the table. Once little Dàn corralled the sheep and came in, dinner was served.

We ate Cullen Skink and Haggis, and the old man and myself drank a single malt made in heaven. I entered this house famished and cold, but now I was full and warm. We talked the night away, Fionnaghal’s father instructing me in the history of the Highlands, while I told him of my wounded country. Around midnight, he apologized for having to go to bed. He had to leave early in the morning on an errand. He carried Dàn, who had long fallen asleep, and wished me good night.

Fionnaghal transformed the sofa into a bed and fed more wood to the fire. "This will keep you warm for the night", she said. It was her brother’s turn to take the flock out tomorrow. She’ll prepare coffee and breakfast and pack enough food to carry me through the day. She left the room long enough for me to change into the flannel pajamas her father had brought. The trousers were ridiculously large and I had to hold them around the waist to keep them from falling. She folded my kilt and waistcoat and neatly placed them on a chair. My washed shirt and hoses she hung by the fireplace to dry.

"Where’s your Sgian Dubh?" she asked, alarmed. I admitted that I didn't have one. A Sgian dubh (prounced Skeen Dhu) is a Scottish flat edge knife or dagger worn in the top of the right stocking (hose). It literally translates to black knife (Dubh: black) and (Sgian: knife). In darker, more treacherous times, it was worn concealed under the armpit as a backup and secret weapon, thus the double-meaning of Dubh (black or concealed). I couldn’t but marvel about the fact that Skeen meant Knife in Arabic too. Fionnaghal brought me out of my reverie. "You can’t wander around alone and unarmed", she said, sounding like a worried mother. She went into her room at the back of the house and returned a minute later with a folded silk hankie. From within, she produced a beautiful Sgian Dubh. Standing close, I could smell the earth scent of her hair and skin. I was transfixed by the blue of her eyes and the red of her lips as she tucked me in. "You need to rest for the long walk tomorrow", she whispered. Gently, she lifted the pillow underneath my head and hid the knife there.

Promise you always keep it near you.
Mesmerized by the moment, I did.
She kissed my forehead and lulled me to sleep.

I woke up with a jolt, shivering in a pool of sweat. When am I? I couldn't tell. A feeble glow remained as the last log crumbled and fell dead in the fireplace. I was naked and cold. I desperately fumbled in the darkness underneath my pillow until my fingers came in touch with the familiar shape of the Sgian Dubh. I sighed, then closed my eyes and fell back into a dreamless sleep.