“Sabah el kheir.” Her voice startled me. The shop had been here for centuries, or so it seemed. How it stayed in business no one ever really knew. We gossiped that the family was secretly wealthy, perhaps descendants of some powerful magistrate or rich merchant, or maybe they had some less than legitimate business on the side that allowed them to live comfortably while the store made no money for them at all. Until recently it had been an antiquated book store. Although I had never gone in, I'd heard rumours that it was dim and dusty and a generally unpleasant place to be. The old book dealer was rarely ever seen around town. No one really knew who he was. If it weren't for the sign over the store, Nader's Bookstore, no one would even have known his name.
“Sabah el nour.” The words barely escaped my lips. She was stunningly beautiful, bright...like a polished gemstone. Her smile radiated a love of life and of people. She could endear anyone within mere moments of meeting her...at least, she had me. She was placing baskets of cut flowers just outside the shop doors as I was passing by. At first, I was oblivious to the anomaly, but when she spoke to me, I suddenly became extremely conscious of the fact that everything had changed at this little corner of town.
“Would you like a flower for your wife? Or a girlfriend perhaps?” She handed me the most brilliant pink rose and nodded encouragingly for me to take it.
“Please. It's on the house.” She winked playfully.
Oh what a goddess! I needed to recover and quickly. “I've never seen this place looking so...attractive.”
“Thank you.” Her smile became even more luminous and I felt my knees weaken. “I've taken over the shop from my father - tried to give it a bit of a face lift, you know.” She glanced at the shop behind her. I, too, gave it a closer look. The windows were gleaming, not dingy as they had been previously. A bright new sign hung over the freshly painted door, “Nader's Flowers and Books”, accompanied by a warm “Welcome” placard just below.
“Indeed. You have succeeded quite nicely.” I found myself smiling back at her with an enthusiasm I hadn't felt in a long time. “So you are still selling the old books?”
“Well, Father's collection is exceptionally rare. I didn't have the heart to disperse them in an auction or something. I spent a lot of time categorizing them and reorganizing the store to display them nicely. I also wanted to make room for my flowers - have the books and flowers compliment one another or at least co-exist pleasantly.”
Now my curiosity was piqued. “Would you mind giving me a tour? I've never been in the shop.”
“Certainly. Come in!” She opened the door for me which I quickly took from her and insisted that she enter first. As she turned, her long hair swung with the movement of her body and threw a glorious scent in my direction. Her body was plump in the most exquisite way. Every curve was accentuated deliciously in her floral dress. I feasted on her with my eyes until she turned to speak to me again. “Well, what do you think?” She thrust her arm toward the new displays but I was unable to look at anything else but her with any attention.
“It is exquisite.”
She giggled at my response knowing full well that I wasn't talking about her shop. “Well, Mr...”
“Mr. Bassem,” she continued.
“No. Bassem, please, not mister.”
“Bassem.” She looked at me with direct delight, not bashfully as many women might. “Thank you. Perhaps you would like a coffee while you look around?”
“That's a nice touch.”
“I thought so.” She smiled again and then busied herself behind the counter with my coffee. I tore my attention away from her in order to look around with earnest. After all, if she had created the displays with her own hand, it would certainly reflect her mind. The books had mostly been moved to the back of the shop and surrounded a cozy reading nook. A comfortable set of chairs sat facing one another with a small table in between. On the table was a bowl with several vibrant, fuchsia flowers floating in water. It was a perfect centerpiece to unify the shop's merchandise - the flowers with the books. The front of the shop was dedicated to all kinds of cut flowers and an unusual assortment of handmade pottery vases and hand-blown glass ones. The walls and display furniture was very simple, but the way she had coordinated colour and texture brought an ethereal quality to her shop - a quality completely befitting of her.
I had a keen interest in the titles that might be on the book shelves but as I wandered toward them, I suddenly looked at my watch and discovered that I was already late for work. I quickly returned to the front and to her.
“Miss...”, I started.
“Fatina.” The sound of her name played like a song in my heart.
“Fatina.” I repeated softly. “I'm afraid I must be getting to work. Could I stop by again when time is more leisurely, maybe after lunch, for that coffee?”
“Oh certainly, Bassem. Of course.” She laughed happily. “I should have realized.”
“No, I am the one who lost track. Your...hospitality was very...distracting.” Now I smiled mischievously.
“Well, you're my very first visitor...”
“Customer.” I quickly corrected her and released a glorious bouquet of mixed flowers from their container. “Have you got a vase?”
She looked at me curiously. “Yes.” She took one that would be exactly the right size from underneath her counter and placed it on top.
“How much – including the vase?”
“Twenty dollars, please.” She smiled bashfully now. “Someone is a lucky woman.”
I paid her and placed the flowers in the vase. “You may need some water.” I smiled and exited the shop before she could respond. Out in the street my smile spread across my face from ear to ear. It would be a long day at work, but the reward at the end of it would make the waiting all worthwhile.
In my office the single pink rose adorned my desk and enchanted my soul.
Monday, May 24, 2010
I had a week to forget and I will. Over its course I had suffered from mild and acute pains in the butt. I had to talk to, and even smile at, some people whom, under normal circumstances, I would totally ignore. I have also turned a blind eye toward lost souls hiding behind bitter words, too Gallus gallus domesticus to be fucked by me.
Only yesterday a dear friend wrote to me: "This is a dirty, dirty business..." In real life and online it's becoming increasingly true. However, we have to accept that evolution is far from perfect and that imbeciles are an unavoidable but necessary fact of life. We have to thank them for if it were not for them we could've never shined in the first place.
I want my kids to grow up and spread their wings on their own even if it means that I'll lose some precious time. It's like being young again in that stage in life, without all the sex. I can practically do whatever I want to if I remember what it was. Most importantly there will be no stopping grumpy old me when I run into a humanoid hemorrhoid, again: "Rub some Preparation H on your ugly face and get out of here you chicken shit." Then to Mildred*, as tender and soft as my wrinkled skin looks and feels: "Bring me my goddamn dentures and the prunes... Then sit in my lap you sexy old hag!"
Sunday, May 16, 2010
I often write about a Tartous that is no more, about a time that treads on the fringe of anamnesis. I might be a nostalgic old dude but I am neither bitter nor grumpy. I simply miss a past that is far too beautiful to be laid to rest then forgotten.
Until the 1980's Al-Mina street was the crown jewel of my city. I was born right there, where I planted the red arrow on this photo dating back to the early 1960's. It was taken from the roof of the Awkaf building looking north. I remember every single building in that photo, a few of which still stand after almost five decades.
The Roman port, which was later obliterated, is visible right across the street from my home by the sea. So is the open field we called Al-Bayader with a tin roof cafe that was the compelling gathering place for all the Tartoussi men in the evening. During the day it served as playground for us kids. We played ball, rode our bicycles and made up games of unimaginable simplicity. Women with their children strolled down the long street as ice cream vendors carried their big thermoses on their backs and roasted corncob outcriers pushed their colorful carts with blazing fires.
There was a short-haired pointer dog in almost every house down the street. Men and boys hunted year round. Game birds were abundant and lunch invariably included quails, thrush, shukkar partridges or doves. Anyone who did not own a felucca had a fishing rod. A small piece of dough was all the bait needed to catch the most magnificent specimens of Buri fish. Sure they sold lamb at the butcher shop but red meat was something reserved for special occasions and shunned at in our everyday Mediterranean diet.
Less than a handful of cars cruised the sleepy town. The mayor had an automobile of course and so did the doctor. There were three or four taxis people shared to go to Tripoli on a jaunt or to travel to Damascus for an overwhelming need. However, the streets of Tartous were teaming with Vespas, Lambrettas and bicycles. Oh, and we had quite a few tumbors (wooden carts pulled by donkeys or mules) which adequately fulfilled the roles of delivery trucks and utility vehicles. As a kid I never found a compelling reason to venture beyond Al-Mina. Inland Tartoussis, those who did not live on the front row facing the sea, came to us instead. Everybody knew everybody else. Everyone had a nickname and it was used to call him by. The houses of the rich had more rooms than those of the less fortunate but there were no significant visual clues setting people apart. A wealthy person who took himself seriously stood to lose most. Nobody liked him and all the money in the world could not buy him an ounce of respect.
During summer break and unless a kid was sick he rarely stayed at home. Our parents had no reason to worry about us. We were always to be found somewhere by the sea. Most of us learned how to swim before we could take our first steps. We were obviously as safe outdoors as we were inside our own homes but it was much more fun. The visible thin line in the background of the picture is the foundation for the northern breakwater of what later became the Port of Tartous. We went there, searched for and found Batlouness (mussels) on the submerged rocks. We would spread them on a piece of discarded tin, collect splinters of wood from ill-fated boats and cook them on the spot. They provided more lunch than any raucous kid needed to keep him going for the rest of the long day and they were tastier than the fanciest restaurant in the world could ever dream of presenting.
I grew up there, on that stretch of road. I wore high rubber boots in the winter and an orange parka over my uniform. A ten-minute walk due east put me in school but I never followed a straight course. From a distance, I shadowed the girl next door to her school, just in case some backland lad was fool enough to cross her path. I also gazed at her cute little butt in the tight Foutouweh Khaki pants every single step along the way. I had my first kiss on the roof of one of these buildings. Her cheeks turned red when we kissed and her lips tasted of strawberries. We both trembled as I gathered my courage and cupped her breast. It was smaller and firmer than a crunchy apple and infinitely more scrumptious.
In a trance, I stare at the frozen moment captured in this old photograph. Phantasms from my past flicker on a screen in my mind. The laughter of the dead echos against the walls, memories of those who sailed West shimmer on the facades and the twinkle in the eyes of my remaining companions reassures me that it was all real, that I am neither bitter nor grumpy. We had all known better times... on Al-Mina Street.
Wednesday, May 05, 2010
That we cannot freely and entirely express ourselves here is a well-known fact of life. However, when mushrooming zealots seek to stifle freedom of expression and rowdily promote a fake carbon copy of a traditional and devoutly pious Syria, one which had never existed, it is high time I lash back. On the popular level, their extraneous brand of petro-Islam was sanctioned by an innate feeling of resentment and bitterness toward the dark years of the Bush administration and the whorish demeanor of Israel. Our religiously driven addicts took advantage of the prevailing frustration and sense of helplessness and earnestly pursued their social and political assumptions and ambitions, which incidentally nestle perfectly within the neo-cons' and the Zionist overall master plan for this region and the rest of the world. The writings were all over the wall and if left unchecked they would stop at nothing short of transforming Syria into a mutated Saudi mongrel.
There are over twenty-two millions of us Syrians as per latest available statistics, thanks to a government that continuously looks the other way, if not encourages us to breed like rabbits, and to an ecclesiastical gang-raping of native Levantine culture. In 1977, when I took my Bakaloria exam, the population of Syria was around eight millions. We have increased by a whopping 275% in 32 years, we have reduced green and forested areas to a third and we have decimated the chances of younger generations to find and pursue a better future. Being alienated from a West that treats them with suspicion and lured by a well-funded canonical machine our youth have but a limited number of options to choose from. Slowly but surely a bony temperament, buried in an alien and dusty past, beckons as a viable lifestyle.
My daughter is in 9th grade. This is a very significant point in the lives of fifteen-year-old Syrian students as they have to take a national exam (Brevet) which affects their academic fate. Excellence is measured by how much they remember word by word of the archaic curriculum. They are discouraged from making decisions or voicing opinions. Our educational system emphasizes total subservience and uniformity and represses creativity and divergence. Among the various subjects they have to memorize by rote, two in particular stand out for not only negating one another thus making them a total waste of time, but for being absolutely absurd as instruments to measure scholastic attainment. Teenagers, the age of budding roses, carry the dual burden of "learning" National Socialist Education and Religious Education (Muslim or Christian). "Scientific thought defeats ignorance and outdated traditions, frees us from all forms of awkwardness: Economic, social and cultural and rids us of illogical and indisputable bigotry.” Quite a brilliant quote from the National Socialist Education book, isn't it? Then how about these gems taken from the introduction of the Islamic Education textbook about the purpose of the course: “The presentation of scientific material in a simple manner and detailed explanation in order for students to memorize it... Relying on scientific sources in order to prove the selected scientific material.” Our children are being taught the value of the scientific method by failed national socialists and science by a moronic clergy.
Nonsense and idiocy are riddling our daily existence and I have never been blind to them. Every once in a while when I feel overwhelmed by the obnoxiousness of the emerging literate crowd I strike back. This is the voice of a secular humanist from Tartous, a simple man walking the once enlightened and bustling street, turned silent and bereft in these times of parasitic noise and groveling babble. This blog is about my Syria, the way it was and the way I want it to be. I will continue to write about the good life and the delicious food of the Levant, the rich history and the swaying butts of our gorgeous women, the music, the mountains and the sea of a Syria that is far too modest to flaunt her beauty for the rest of the world to see. A princess once told me (Yes, there is a princess among my readers) that if it were not for me she would have never heard of Tartous. If that is all I have done in four years, I am satisfied that I have done enough. There still is plenty to come from this old tartoussi troubadour in the times ahead. Just stay tuned, Your Highness... and the rest of you.