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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Hands

I woke up at 4:42AM, three minutes before the alarm went off. I showered quickly, drank my espresso, ate a cookie and went downstairs to the waiting taxi. Normally, the trip to Damascus drags forever but the two hours and thirty minutes drive to the airport flew by so fast I couldn’t believe it when I found myself in front of the terminal. I checked in, a good time ahead of my flight and waited indifferently in the boarding area. I had The Great Gatsby with me, a gift from a dear friend, but saved it for the flight just in case I needed a distraction. Sure enough, the plane was full of babies, nervous mothers, weary looking men and a wild bunch. It always amazes me how aviation, the most regulated industry of all, permits the airlines to provide travelers with such ridiculously uncomfortable seats. All airlines CEO’s and airplane designers should be forced to sit for the rest of their lives in these miniature stools. I endured the ordeal like a sardine in a tin box while the two passengers I was stuck in between snored all the way to London. F. Scott Fitzgerald provided me with a much welcomed escape.

Heathrow is not an airport to be enjoyed. The mammoth structure of terminals is too spartan to exude any sense of creature comfort. I was relieved when I was finally able to walk out in the cloudy English sky. The series of meetings I was to attend was held in a business hotel not far from the airport. I stood patiently waiting for the shuttle bus to take me to my final destination with a group of worn-out travelers, one of which stood right next to me, totally oblivious to my presence. From behind my foggy eyes I took notice of her deep blue ones, of her elegant stance, of her small body, of her proud breasts, of her curved butt, of her shapely legs, of her manicured toes but most appreciably of her sculptured hands.


Normally, any man in my position would notice and appreciate these minute details. But when a single woman is endowed with them all the perception turns into a sort of passion of such a nature that it feeds upon itself. I just had to keep looking. Oh My God, she is gorgeous. There is no way on earth that such a tranquil beauty is not matched by a splendid and formidable mind, I thought. I went even further in my private musing; this woman must be a poet, an actress, a novelist, an artist of a sort, a … doctor?

A hematologist she turned out to be. We checked in together, a different clerk handling each. "Welcome Dr. McDonald", I heard hers say. For the first time since my twenty minutes journey with the most gorgeous doctor in the world started, she glanced in my direction. "And you’re here for the Shipping Meeting Mr.…. Abufares", my clerk smartly yet unnecessarily announced. Oh, damn it, I cursed under my breath. There she was, a specialist in the disorders of the blood no less, attending a conference with internationally distinguished specialists from all four corners of the globe while I was to spend the next two days with a bunch of ex-seamen turned penguins in business suits. I didn’t mind the washed out sailors. As a matter of fact, they were the jolly lot in the group. What I dreaded most were the business suits who had never wetted their feet.

We walked together to the elevator, the good doctor and I. Like the true gentleman I wanted her to believe me to be I gave her way first. "Thanks", she said. Her voice sounding more like little birds giggling and making love than an ordinary human voice. I couldn’t keep my eyes off of her hands all the way up. I mean, there I was, in a six by four confined space with a woman that defied description and all I could stare at were her hands. She must’ve thought that I was the timid and shy type. She wouldn’t believe that despite her astonishing beauty I chose to be infatuated with her hands. We emerged from the elevator and headed in the same direction. The corridor stretched on and on forever. I was walking a step behind and her butt swayed left and right with perfect rhythm. No, she was not joggling nor jiggling. Her butt was merely quivering under the comfortable khaki cotton pants. She then came to a stop in front of her room door and I did the same in front of mine. They were across from each other, our doors, our rooms. I fumbled with my plastic key as she did with hers. She dropped hers on the floor as I dropped mine. We bent to pick them up and we couldn’t keep the insouciant façade any longer as we both burst out laughing. She was one second faster than me in opening her door and as she disappeared with her bag behind it our eyes met then... The last I saw of her was the crimson polish on her nails… on her pulchritudinous hand.

I showered under a stream of deliciously hot water. The fluent spray fingered my neck and shoulders, the small of my back, my thighs and legs like a pair of expert hands, Doctor McDonald’s own hands. I closed my eyes and surrendered to the tantalizingly arousing reverie. Only if we humans were truly transparent, I reflected. How different the world would have been if our emotions and feelings were extraneously projected for all to see. I tossed and turned in bed as I always do on my first night in a new one. The mattress engulfed my body like a warm womb while the pillows swallowed my head with comfort and delight, yet I could not sleep. The two hour time difference didn’t help either and no sooner than I had a shut eye than the clock brought me to tomorrow.

She came in as I was having breakfast. She was dressed in a stunning suit that made her unreachably good-looking. From the distance, I was fascinated with her calves. They were white and slender and led to her unbelievably attractive feet. I could glimpse her pedicured toes while my scrambled eggs waited then got cold in my plate. She sat not far but she obviously hadn’t seen me. I watched her nibble her fruits of the morning and drink her milk. Oh, how she drank her milk. Then as graciously as she walked in she stood up and left the room. I fumbled with my napkin, fork and knife but was already too late.

The morning session dragged on and on. I struggled to keep my eyes open, I resisted with all my force a complete brain shut down until with the mercy of God we were granted a 15 minute break. I didn’t want to leave the meeting room at first but then decided to step out and have a change of scenery. Coffee and cakes were served near the entrance and next to the shipping throng there stood a group of well dressed hematologists, mostly men, peppered with the presence of a few stylish women. My doctor stood on the side speaking to a colleague, smiling ever so mystifyingly and holding a cup of something in her hand. I walked toward her as if drawn by a magnet. I only wanted her to see me walking toward her and she did. I can smile mysteriously as well I wanted her to read in my eyes and I was egotistic enough to believe that she did.

The rest of the day ate me alive. I was burning to get out of the room. There was an enclosed swimming pool I noticed earlier with an open bar. I went craving a glass of Scotch on the Rocks but there at a corner table she sat alone. She had already changed into something more comfortable yet no less tasteful. She saw me all the way from afar this time and didn’t even attempt to hide her smile. I was a few feet away when she said at last: “You know I have seen more of you since WE got here than I saw any of my colleagues in the conference.” “Did you see the guys I’m spending my time with?” I asked. “I‘d better keep running into you or I will lose my mind.” She extended her hand smiling: “I’m Fenella McDonald,” she said, “and you are Captain …?” “Hands”, I replied, “Abufares I mean.” I held her hand in mine and thought of distances stretched across thousands and thousands of miles, erased, nullified, annihilated by a mere touch.

Would you care to join me,” she asked. I did and the gloomy weather of London turned out to be much more bearable after all.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Syria is...

"In 800 words or less, please finish the statement "Syria is…" You may choose to focus on a personal story or a singular historical event that you feel embodies the essence of Syria for you. Or, you may choose to think more about Syrian history at large or what it stands for."

I received an invitation from Creative Syria, one of the more interesting Syrian sites on the internet, to participate in writing a personal assay about the land of my birth. I am honored of course that my article was published along with 7 excellent mind and heart inspiring pieces of the highest caliber written by acclaimed and accomplished Syrians from around the globe.

The illustrious list of fellow countrymen included:

Hassan Raymond Tahhan, M.D. - United States
Elie Elhadj, Ph. D., Author - London
Nour Chammas, Attorney - Cleveland, Ohio
Mazen Salhi, Engineer - Canada
Jamal Mansour, Author - Canada
Offended, Architect - U.A.E.
Ayman Hakki, MD/Prof Georgetown University - United States
Bisher Imam, Ph.D., Prof UC Irvine – California
And yours truly, Abufares the architect from Tartous

Please take your time to read all of these entertaining and enlightening compositions by topnotch Syrian professionals and me then leave your comments there where they truly belong.

My special thanks go to Camille Alexander for being kind enough to invite me to partake in this most enjoyable endeavor in the first place.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Sandstorm

The road from Amman to Damascus was straight, as the crow flies, stretched and tedious like a lackluster argument. A sandstorm blew from the east kidnapping the asphalt ahead, swallowing up the car in a fugue of uncertainty. A herd of camels materialized to the right for an ephemeral instant then disappeared before I had time to be sure. I was sitting in the back seat of a taxi, head resting rearward in a stupefied daze. The tiny earphones isolated me further from the rest of the world, pounding my head with a tidal wave of drumbeats. Layer upon layer of primal composition building up then followed by a disembodied voice:

oh
I needed to believe in something
I need you to believe in something
I needed to believe something
I need you to believe in something
I needed to believe
I needed to believe

I was a lonely man rediscovering a new age of music, grasping the refrains of an English duo by the name of The Chemical Brothers, feeling anesthetized yet alive at last.



I reached with my hand, the tips of my fingers wiggling their way to the wetness of a lake beckoning at me, calling me to plunge inward apex first, dipping toward the warmth of a womb, sufficiently spacious to hold me, tight enough to etch the passage of time and space on my whole being with indescribable pleasure. Then I woke up.

I was tired, drained and as weary as I could be after days and years of traveling the desert roads with strangers. My lengthy journey into certainty had barely begun. Every turn of the wheel gets me closer to my destiny, still way ahead in the distance, barely discernible but for the power of the mind and the will of the heart. I have been quiet for so long, waiting for my time to come. The yellow nothingness surrendered me and I almost vanished before Pink Floyd brought me back to existence.

Hey you, out there in the cold
Getting lonely, getting old
Can you feel me?
Hey you, standing in the aisles
With itchy feet and fading smiles
Can you feel me?
Hey you, don’t help them to bury the light
Don't give in without a fight.

It came to me that I was most unlonely when I was truly alone. Uuuuuummmmm, I breathed the scent that only I can ever smell. I looked at my own eyes, Eyouni, gazing at me with love and want. I leaned on my shoulder and felt the comfort of togetherness. Delicate fingers ran through what little hair I had left, caressing my scalp, dissipating my worries, revivifying my dreams.

I only had to wait but I no longer had to fear. Led Zeppelin trespassed my thoughts. I welcomed the intrusion and I sang along, Stairway to Heaven.

There’s a feeling I get
When I look to the west,
And my spirit is crying for leaving.
In my thoughts I have seen
Rings of smoke through the trees,
And the voices of those who standing looking.
Ooh, it makes me wonder,
Ooh, it really makes me wonder.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Fellowship of the Scotch

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.

Friday, April 03, 2009

The Cave



Toward the end of October 1096, the Count of Toulouse, Raymond de Saint Gilles (1041– 1105) left his native land never to return. Driven by religious zealotry and material aspirations, Saint Gilles, by far the oldest and richest Crusader, dreamed of dying in the Holy Land. On his way to fulfilling his failed destiny in 1101, he took control of Tortosa, a little burg by the sea. Known today as Tartous, Tortosa offered safe harbor as an entrepôt for military provisions and was ideally close to Cyprus and Antioch. Before the old Count died he managed to transform it into a magnificent military bastion which eventually became one of the most interesting old Mediterranean cities for researchers and historians.



Nine hundred years later, the remains of the Crusader era still form the core of the historic center of Tartous. They have survived centuries of earthquakes, hostilities, neglect and negligence. The splendid cathedral of Our Lady of Tortosa (1123) endured the ravages and the elements of time almost intact. A banqueting hall, originally known as La Salle Des Chevaliers, has lost most of its arched ceiling and houses within its walls scrounging and contiguous abodes. A nearly roofless chapel with a stone lock carrying the sign of the Rose, a testimony to the Knights Templar who dwelled and worshiped within the high walls of Tortosa, has all but succumbed to vandalism and defacement. And to the West, facing and defying the incalculable number of waves thumping incessantly against their sloped outer walls, lay the dungeons, where offending natives were imprisoned, tortured and eventually executed.



The Old City is located at the very beginning of the Corniche, a 2.5 km wide boulevard by the sea ending at the Ghamka River to the south. Most of Tartous’ restaurants and cafes are sprawled along the way and they vary from the mediocre to the admissible. Yet there is one so unique that it transcends all other restaurants in Syria and is possibly among the most distinctive anywhere in the world. It’s called The Cave and it occupies the northernmost dungeon.



The Cave is an unobtrusively restored 900 year old dungeon turned restaurant by none other than my best friend. He did not start the business. In fact, The Cave is one of the oldest restaurants/bars in town but last year he took over and embarked on his ambitious restoration dream. No expenses were spared and the painstaking work was brought down to a halt time and again by City officials and the pen pushers of the Antiquity Department. The Antiquity Law in Syria is even more archaic than the ruins it protects. In the wrong hands of bureaucrats any legislation can bring an entire country to a standstill. My friend persisted stubbornly and was finally awarded with the realization of his vision: a high-end joint in Tartous serving the best sea food and a la carte entrées this side of the Mediterranean. The ambiance is inimitable, the attention to details impeccable, the food delectable, the drinks ambrosial.



Next time in town and looking for a delightful gastronomical experience give The Cave a try. You can of course tell them Abufares sent you. Knowing my friend, don’t expect any discount but you will sure be treated like a Count.