We met in a bar in old Damascus. He introduced himself as Nabil, an expat visiting home for the first time in five years. “Would you like a cigarette with that Scotch”, he asked, sitting on the next stool. We were almost touching shoulders in the noisy and crowded joint. “Well I’ve quit, but thank you anyway. Actually, I never smoked more than one or two cigs a day and only when I drank” I replied. “My name is Abufares”, I extended my hand. He had a strong and confident grip. A very handsome sexagenarian with wavy hair brushed back like the mane of a white stallion. He had deep blue eyes, beaming with intelligence and vitality. A man equally at ease in a board meeting in a western capital or in an undersized jam-packed bar in the oldest city in the world. “Have we met before? You’re not a Shami (a Damascene), where are you from?” he stared intensely at my face. “I would’ve remembered you if we had. I’m a Tartoussi”, I said. He smiled big time: “Then let me buy you a drink and let’s meet now.” I accepted but insisted that we alternately buy rounds. He graciously agreed and… and there was something in his demeanor that told me that we’re in for a long and out of the ordinary evening.
He drank straight Chivas 18 while I stuck to my Black Label on the Rocks. Despite the loud music, the hot chicks wedging their bodies in between us to order their drinks and even an unusual grab of my butt by a nymphomaniac Métis with exotically scented firm breasts shoved up my face, we talked and maintained our compelling dialogue for hours. “Are you sure you want to listen to my blabbering instead of getting laid with that woman there?” he bemusedly asked. I raised my glass to his, “I’ve given up on that as well”, I laughed as he roared in a fit of hilarity. Then he cleared his throat, looked solemn for an instant and said: “I am here for a woman Abufares.” He seemed to be probing the depth of my eyes for an internal reaction. “Ah, cherchez la femme”, I exclaimed.
Nabil’s plane landed in Damascus airport at 7:00PM. He has reserved a room in one of the finest restored hotels in the old city which he had discovered through the Internet. He owns a large apartment at Al-Malki but didn’t want to stay there. He checked in, showered, got dressed (rather elegantly yet very casually) then walked the alleyways in search of a drinking hole. “Aren’t you tired?” I asked. He disregarded my question and brushed it aside. “I’ve slept well from Toronto to Paris. And I miss Damascus so much. And I need to drink. And I was lucky to run into you. You seem like a good listener. Do you want to hear my story Abufares?” I grinned: “You’re here for a woman Nabil. There’s nothing I’d like to hear more.”
I’ve been living in Toronto for the last twenty three years. I left Damascus in 1986 when everybody was immigrating to Canada. I had a very small shop in Salhieh selling men’s clothes with a partner. I sold my share, packed and left in a fortnight when my petition was accepted. My pregnant wife wasn’t thrilled but she and my baby girl came along anyway. I have two daughters now; Nagham is twenty five and Sahar twenty two. We didn’t own a house back then. We were renting in Barzeh. I left Damascus for a woman I lost and I return now to try to win her back.
Oh, I love Canada. It’s my home now. It’s a beautiful country, amazing scenery, wide expanses, plenty of opportunities if you know where to look. Nice people from all over the world, hardworking, fair, nonviolent in general, merging up agreeably and forming a colorful society. Nagham got married last month to a Palestinian doctor. He’s a good guy. Sahar is engaded to a young man from Damascus. I knew his father back when we were still here. I knew of him that is, a jerk from one of the fine old Damascene families. I was a nobody here you understand. May be that’s why I left. I mean my father was a high school teacher, very respectable, very honest, but you know how it was in Damascus. Well from what you’ve been telling me it’s even worse now. People tend to value your money more than your integrity.
I lived with my wife and daughters in a beautiful home in one of Toronto’s finest suburbs until we divorced three years ago. My wife and I had our separate worlds. We shared the same large space of course but we had nothing in common. She changed over there. She became more independent, which is good for her, and lost all interest in us. Well, I did too and had more affairs than I care to remember. We never really loved each other but cared and were respectful of our relationship in the beginning. She is twelve years younger than me and she eventually continued her college education. Then with all the money I (We)’ve had she was most comfortable when I was not around. She got half of everything I owned. That made her happy. It made me happier. In the beginning we were wary of what other Syrians thought of us over there. But once we’ve become rich enough we didn’t give a shit about them anymore. We moved to a different level. My wife, she has her own circle of affluent women. My younger daughter too, she’s so much like her mom. Nagham, no, she’s something else, so independent yet humble. Believe it or not, I’m like that. I’m a very simple man who happened to have worked his ass off and became very rich.
On a hot summer day in 1980 a young regular customer entered my small boutique in Salhieh with his even younger sister. Hala was twenty two. I was thirty one. She was wearing a light summer dress with short sleeves and a floral pattern with purple shades. Her brown soft hair was gathered into a bun. She was so white, almost pale. She had wide brown eyes. Eeehhh (sigh) after all these years I can still picture her as if she’s walking in right this minute. She was the most beautiful girl I've ever seen and the summer heat made her cheeks blush and her arms glisten with a thin film of perspiration. I showed her brother what he had asked for but I was absolutely mesmerized. I kept stealing glances at her and she finally caught me. Let me tell you this, I was a very handsome young man and I could sense that her blushing had nothing to do with the heat anymore. The shop was cool with the air conditioning running full blast. My store was so small it didn’t have a fitting room and her brother was in between us as I was thinking of a way to reach her. I took one of the plastic bags with the printed name of the store and with a pen drew a circle around my phone number for her eyes only. I wasn’t sure whether she saw me do that or not. She didn’t show any reaction and minutes later walked out the door with her brother. Then she glanced over her shoulder and ever so slightly I saw her smile. She didn’t call until the next evening and when she did it took us five minutes to fall in love.
For the next two years we stole our precious moments alone. We loved each other with total abandon away from her parents’ watching eyes. We knew that I didn’t have a chance being accepted by her father if I asked for her hand. She came from a very wealthy family and as far as her father was concerned the highest I could aspire for was to be a driver for them. Despite our extremely slim chances, I went to him and after waiting for over an hour was admitted to his office room. It took me less than ten minutes to get kicked out. I was humiliated and threatened. I was told that if I ever contemplated, if I ever dreamed of approaching Hala again I would simply disappear.
I was devastated. I couldn’t see or talk to her again until I learned, a couple of months later, that she had been sent to France or Switzerland. In less than a year she got married to someone worthy of her damn father. Her wedding was a legendary show of extravagance and wealth, so I’ve been told. The son of a bitch who married her was even richer than her old man. Kess Ekht Hal Balad! Can you believe that? We were ripped apart because I was not worthy.
I lived my remaining few years in Damascus and eventually got married too to someone from my class and mediocrity. I’m the youngest in the family and the only one who did not go to college. We never had anything in common, my wife and I, except class and mediocrity. Well she did go to Damascus University for a couple of years before quitting and that made her more educated than I am. Something she kept reminding me of for years, especially after she received her degree in Canada.
I followed Hala’s news from afar. After I became rich, and believe me I’m so goddamn rich now that half of the filthy moneyed in Syria would love to work for me, it became much easier to gather all the information I needed on her. She too has two daughters and lives in Al-Malki. Her husband, although very wealthy to start with had been working as a pimp for some Saudi Sheikh and became even wealthier. That should tell you something about the good old families in this time and age. Some of them don’t mind carrying the towel if you know what I mean.
I was here exactly five years ago when I ran into Hala at the Sheraton. She was attending some social affair with a bunch of siliconed and botoxed women trying to appear half their real age. She stood out like a princess among the bitchy hags. When she finally got on her way out to leave, I followed her to her car. As she was getting in behind the wheel she saw me standing there. She hasn’t seen me in over twenty five years. I have seen a few of her photos during that time. She stepped out, almost hypnotized without ever blinking. Her eyes were still wide and enchanting, her face the most beautiful in the entire world, her body compact and perfectly proportioned. She placed her hand on the top of the open door and I covered her fingers with mine. She hesitated as if she wanted to withdraw her hand but did not. We just stood there looking at each other then I told her that I still loved her the same way I loved her when she walked in my Salhieh store. I could feel her emotions rushing to the surface while she struggled with the lid. “I’ve never loved anyone but you Nabil but I can’t…” She withdrew her hand to get back in the car again but I grabbed it this time and brought it to my lips. “I’ll be back Hala, even if I had one day left in my life. I’ll be back for you.” Tears swelling in her brown eyes were the last I saw of her.
Well Abufares, Kasak, the son of a bitch, her husband died four months ago. I knew about it since and I have been patiently waiting. Tomorrow morning I will go to her and ask her to marry me. Do you understand now why I miss Damascus so much? Why I need to drink? Why I was lucky to run into you? I have never told this story to anyone until now, now that I finally hope to be with Hala again. Twenty five years of our lives were robbed from us, just like that, because a selfish man thought that I was not good enough for his daughter, because our entire culture permits such inhuman atrocity. I’ve been waiting for tomorrow for twenty five years Abufares. I will give it all up for her. I will live in this hypocrite shithole if she wants me to. We will go together to Canada if she accepts. I will move to Afghanistan just to be with her. Tell me Abufares, how do I look? I know she still love me. I’m sure that she must be thinking about me right this moment, but how do I look?
“She will find you irresistible Nabil, I know she will”, I convincingly said. He beamed at me with that overwhelming smile of his. “Bartender, get us another round”, he called. We were virtually alone with the man behind the bar. Almost everybody else had left. There was a couple making up in a corner. Our fresh drinks were brought and placed in front of us unobtrusively and in a fraction of an instant so that our drinking wasn’t interrupted at all. He seemed to be assessing me before he asked: “Tell me about you my friend. What’s your story?” “Ahhh, mine is too complicated to tell”, I managed to say before we burst out laughing like a pair of youngsters with their life, full of promise, ahead of them.