n o t e s  f r o m  l a t t a k i a   

g r e t c h e n  m c c u l l o u g h 

amuel watches from the balcony. As I stroll near the gate of his white, shabby villa, I feel him inch closer to the edge of his upstairs balcony. A half glass of straight Scotch rests near his chair; his throat is raw, but he swills the rest. He grabs the bottle and pours himself another swig. His wife, Miriam, will shout at him later when he is drunk, but he doesn’t care. He gapes, as if he is watching a blonde Russian stripper in a leopard skin bikini bare her sensuous breasts at one of the downtown dives. After he imagines she has flung away the last shred of her skimpy outfit, she moons him with her fleshy haunches outside the gate to his villa.

Voom! Snap to me, in my careful clothes, black jeans and long-sleeved jacket, no flesh visible. Samuel, cool enough, has tossed modesty into the breeze: he is wearing a white cotton muscle shirt and boxers. His bulging belly touches the railing of the balcony as he peers over for one more peek before I go inside. I pull out my key and open the heavy metal gate, meant to keep out intruders. He calls out, “Helloooo,” as if he is on a ship. “Hello,” I call from below. Because Karim, my lover, who is an Alawite Muslim, is not with me, Samuel, my landlord, who is Christian, is friendly this evening. I imagine Samuel with a telescope, able to view, across vast, blue stretches of time and space, me and all my wondrous sins with foreign men: the broad-shouldered Yemeni, Moataz, lithe François from the Ivory Coast, hard-calved Mubaco from Ghana. (Not to mislead, there have also been lonesome, dry spells.) Samuel probably sees me too, when I am nude at Karim’s flat, even after I have escaped from the rented flat downstairs. Did he watch his own daughter, Omneia, with the same single-minded fascination? But she is married, tucked away in suburban Connecticut; I am single, in my late thirties — teasing the edge of respectability in Lattakia, a provincial town on the Mediterranean coast of Syria.

Samuel also listens. Does he pretend he is spying for the Syrian Secret Police, the Mukhabarat? Or is he really getting a cut? Cash for a few embellished crumbs: Gretchen and the Alawi strolled around Lattakia for seven hours and then sauntered downtown to eat syrupy kanaffa, crammed with sweet goat cheese at the sweet shop, Magnun Leila. After they gorged on the ambrosial kanaffa, they had wild, orgiastic sex on the thin foam mattresses in the Arabic coffee room downstairs. Or, the Alawi helped her set mouse traps for the rat who had nibbled half an onion from the basket next to her stove, plucked two ripe figs from on top of the refrigerator, and pushed over her cinnamon, before performing his grand finale: rings of rosy pellets around the burners of the stove. (For bait, Gretchen and the Alawi used Miriam’s stuffed grape leaves, made with the fat of bone marrow, the heads of fried perch, and honeyed, nutty baklava. Not surprisingly, the dog-sized rat knocked over the shrimpy traps. Anyway, what respectable rat would eat day-old food? Like any rat, he wants his food fresh.) But maybe, Samuel, shrewd goat that he is, only thinks of Karim as the Alawi, but in his report it is Karim, since the current administration is Alawite. (The Assads are Alawites, a sect of Shi’a Islam. Sunni Muslims are the majority in Syria.)

I must be a lucrative tenant, or at least, an entertaining one. Maybe his watching is just the voyeurism of a bored, old man. But then, why should profit and pleasure be exclusive? In Syria, watching is serious business, and a good many people supplement their incomes by snitching on their neighbors.

After two years, I have come to realize: being watched all the time is an immense psychological burden. I could not stand a lifetime of this intense scrutiny; I don’t think I could even manage a third year. I feel as if I have been swimming underwater for too long, and I can’t breathe.

For fun, a few days before I left the country, I attended the 4th of July Embassy Party in Damascus. The well-kept grounds of the Ambassador’s house were festooned with stars-and-stripes streamers. I even snapped a photograph of a woman wearing a red, white, and blue hat-shaped umbrella. Ice chests were crammed with cold Budweiser and Michelob and platters piled high with hot dogs, hamburgers, potato salad, pickles, watermelon, and ice cream — a good old-fashioned picnic. Americans and Syrians were lining up for food; I savored my cold beer. Karim was chatting with Jim and Sally, an American couple, who were sitting at another table. A DJ cranked oldies and goodies, like, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

Only seven months before, in December 1999, a mob had stormed the inside of the Ambassador’s house, smashing glass bookcases, ripping out the pages of precious books, and tossing furniture out windows. Behind the iron door, Christine Crocker, the Ambassador’s wife, had listened and waited. The minutes must have seemed like years as she wondered what would happen if the mob did get into the safe room. The Damascus Community School and the British Council had also been trashed.

The government-organized demonstrations had spun out of control: retaliation for the U.S. bombing of Iraq.

U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East was senseless and capricious: I did not agree with the bombing of Iraq, or the sanctions against that nation, or our unqualified support for Israel, or our stance toward the Palestinians.

Still, as a citizen, I could complain without fear. Vote for another President. Write what I wanted.

The July 4th crowd gathered to watch the flag ceremony. Three Marines, carrying the American flag, marched out across the manicured green grass, to salute the American Ambassador, Ryan Crocker. I heard the familiar lyrics: “Oh, say can you see / by the dawn’s early light….” Karim was standing next to me, but he did not know the anthem. But why would he since he was Syrian? I remembered how Mrs. England had made us place our hands over our hearts and sing our national anthem every day in fifth grade; I had become bored and cynical about this routine. But this time, I wept. Political and personal freedom were very dear.

In Syria I was watched because I was a Fulbright Lecturer, an American, affiliated with the Embassy in enemy territory; and I was a single woman, living in an Arab country. The political and the personal intertwined and crisscrossed, like a nautical knot.

Sometimes, I talked loudly over my landlord’s, Samuel’s, heavy breathing on the telephone. He wasn’t even sneaky.

“I have it now. Thank you,” I said, but he stayed on the line, anyway. I knew he could hear. Should I shout louder?

Was someone also listening to Samuel? The fourth party, who listened to the third party listening to the first and second party? If I hadn’t seen the absurdity and humor in all this fruitless vigilance, I might have driven myself crazy. Just how many people were watching me?

Karim also sensed when Samuel was listening in, and talked in an obvious code: “You know, we have visitors.” “For our third party.” Or, “We will discuss this later without the ears.”

I doubt we fooled cagey Samuel.

If I was in a good mood, I found this heavy-handed secrecy amusing, as if I were actually living in Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana. Should I have told Karim, “My Daddy caught a diamond at the circus”? Or, “Not till the fat lady sings”?

That riddle might have kept someone at the Mukhabarat office busy. However, I was usually annoyed by the lack of privacy: Samuel was always listening. The party line we shared was ideal for eavesdropping.

Samuel had spliced his own phone line so that I could have a phone. An elaborate rig of wires, lines, and silver electrical tape bellied down the side of his villa, climbed through the window, stole underneath the Oriental rug in the living room into my bedroom, and snaked up onto my rickety bedroom table. The phone was a heavy black one, a rotary dial, with a hearty ring. The system we had agreed to was this: I would not answer the phone; if the call was for me, they would ring a buzzer upstairs. Samuel’s buzzing was insistent and impatient: where are you? His wife, Miriam, usually buzzed three times, quick, a lighter touch. If I was there, I picked up the phone. Miriam and Samuel were erratic about passing on messages, unless the Embassy called. In that case, Samuel taped a note, written in loopy, old-fashioned cursive, to the door of my flat. You must call Leesa from the Embassy at once. And then signed, the formal yours sincerely, Samuel.

The Cultural Attaché, Leesa, who was in charge of the Fulbrighters in Syria, had said, “Make sure you rent a flat with a phone.” Yet every dark, dingy flat with heavy, gilded furniture that I had seen had no phone. (Most rented flats in Syria do not have phones, because landlords are afraid of being left with huge phone bills by their tenants.) If in trouble, should I send a smoke signal to Damascus?

After ten days of viewing grim flats without phones, I had visited the Public Relations Officer, Simon, at the University. I was reassured by the fragile, lopsided plant perched on a tiny table in front of his office desk. Someone had tied a thin red ribbon around the edge of the pot.

“You could always stay in the hotel. It’s cheap,” he said.

“For the entire year,” I replied, incredulous. My stomach wrenched from diarrhea cramps and homesickness. I started to cry.

“You don’t want to stay in the Faculty flats?”

“Too isolating. There’s no phone,” I said.

“I don’t blame you.”

Simon ordered tea and handed me a Kleenex. He was sitting in a large comfortable brown chair beside me. He had a Masters in Counseling from the States; he had spent five years there as a young man. Now he was close to retirement. He was fair, with gentle, hazel eyes. His straight, grayish hair was brushed to the opposite side, to hide bald spots, but in the back he had a few luxuriant curls, like my father. He was swaybacked; this emphasized his stomach; otherwise, he was trim. Surprisingly, he was wearing practical, rubber-soled walking shoes, not formal leather ones.

“You know, I always wanted to stay in the States. I often wonder what my life would have been like if I had stayed there,” Simon said, smiling. He was nostalgic, but not bitter.

Because of Equal Opportunity, the job he had applied for had gone to a black woman. How quirky fate was: he was listening to me now in Lattakia, Syria, instead of working in the Admissions Office at Connecticut College.

“Yes, your life would have been quite different,” I said, sipping the dark brown tea he ordered for me.

I had stopped crying. I wondered what it would be like to work at Tishreen University for my entire career.

The campus was considerably more gruesome than many of the flats than I had seen. After the university gate, were endless rows of tall, gray, tenement-like student housing. Further into the compound were two-story faculty flats, deserted, sand-colored condominiums, Sixties-style, with opaque, moon-shaped windows. The Dean had said, a little too brightly, “As you know, we’ve promised to provide you with housing. They are changing your sheets just now.” Leesa had insisted on seeing the flat. As we trooped past the sad swimming pool with brackish water at the bottom, she gave me a meaningful look.

Since the Dean was too busy, he sent Khaleel, the Director of the Language Institute, to show us the flat.

“Does anyone live here?”

He bowed. “Oh, yes. There’s one man and his family who would live next door to Gretchen. He works in the accounting office.”

“Do they speak English?”

Khaleel shrugged. I took that as a NO. “But good practice for your Arabic,” Khaleel added, smiling at me.

“Is there a phone?”

“Unfortunately, there is no phone. But the flat is free,” Khaleel said.

“Well, it looks like you guys have dropped the ball on this one,” Leesa said, shading her eyes to look inside the moon-shaped window.

“Pardon me?”

“We’ll have to find Gretchen somewhere else to live,” Leesa said.

“I don’t want to be across from the boy’s dorms. No privacy,” I said, looking up at the rows of tenements. Many young Arab men were peering down at us.

“We’ll discuss this later,” Leesa said, as we picked our way through the mud back to the car.

But Leesa had returned to Damascus, and I still had not found a decent flat. I was staying in the Zenobia, a small, clean hotel a few blocks from the university. The friendly, sympathetic staff had even brought me medicine for my diarrhea. “You like our country?” they asked often. I nodded, although it was difficult not to hide my gloom. Lattakia was the bush. I was touched by their generosity and concern; however, my queasy stomach was not helped by my daily expeditions to the university.

Just beyond the Sixties-style condominiums and the abandoned swimming pool, the university loomed like a Soviet prison with faceless cement blocks. A few tendrils of grass sprouted on the muddy lawn. Yellow bulldozers hummed back and forth along the side road to the campus. (What were they doing?) Each Faculty building was color-coded with faded pastels of yellow, green, and pink. My landmark for the Faculty of Arts, though, was the pile of shredded aluminum metal, which looked like an installation, at the entrance. Otherwise, I could not distinguish one corridor or one entrance from another. Inside, there were long, cavernous hallways, which led further and further into a maze. The open spaces, were crowded with hundreds of students, who drifted together in small packs. Not one piece of furniture anywhere, except for a few dusty benches. Students sat on the top of the benches to avoid being covered in dust.

The campus had no decoration, except for the same picture of Hafez il-Assad, again and again, hung by the Ba’ath Party, who ran the university. Odd, but Assad looked mild with his half-smile and affectionate eyes, a Good Daddy, not the one who had squashed the fundamentalist Muslim uprising in Hama in 1982, killing approximately/an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 Syrian civilians. Further into the labyrinth was a golden, Roman-like bust of Assad in an enormous, vacant hall. If I reached the bust, I was close to Simon’s office and not too far from the Post Office, both oases.

I studied the weak plant that Simon had placed in front of his desk. Except for in his office, I had not noticed a single plant anywhere inside the university.

“My sister, Miriam, has a flat. It’s not that good. No one has stayed there for a long time. I will have to ask her,” Simon was saying.

“Okay.” I was sure this would be another flat without a phone.

It was.

And yet tangerine roses were blooming in the garden outside. I was tempted by the white granite balcony, close to the roses which twined up the side of the villa. Along the narrow walkway were hibiscus bushes and, further back, some citrus trees. Inside, the flat had a Mediterranean feel, with high ceilings and large windows. Yes, the floors were dusty and the furniture a little tacky, with faded, oversized flowered slipcovers but I sensed the possibilities of light and air and space. This would be a wonderful place to write.

And I was charmed by Samuel, Miriam’s husband. He gestured with his thick, knuckled hands, “We will share the phone line. Run the phone line down to your flat. We will bring you a television. Is there anything else you want? Dishes. We will bring you dishes. What else, my dear? I am sorry for my bad English.”

“Your English is fine,” I said.

A tad disingenuous, since he hadn’t made a single grammatical error.

“I taught myself,” Samuel smiled broadly, and then winked at me. He was balding and had keen, mischievous eyes. Short, with a broad stomach, in his late sixties or early seventies. He reminded me of Danny DeVito.

I imagined he would tell me hundreds of wild stories about his experiences as a sailor, worldly anecdotes about his life as a customs inspector in Lattakia, and war tales about fighting for the Free French in World War II.

All of us were sitting on the balcony, and it was hot. Miriam offered me a purple drink. She carried the drinks on a silver tray.

Shokron,” I managed, but the rest of my Arabic deserted me.

“This is tut. Do you know tut?” Samuel asked.

It was very sweet, and reminded me of KoolAid.

“Mulberries. Fresh. Miriam made it.”

“Do you speak Arabic?” Simon said.

“Some.” But when Simon and Miriam spoke in Arabic, I understood nothing. It was far removed from the Modern Standard, my Iraqi Arabic teacher, Medeha, had insisted on at the University of Alabama. All that washed up: uhawal. I am trying, but when I used this verb, Miriam didn’t understand. I did not pronounce the “h” correctly.

Samuel re-translated my Arabic.

She shook her head and smiled. “Biddik tanyi?”

I had no idea what she was asking.

Samuel translated, “Would you like more of this delicious fresh drink?”

“Yes, please,” I said, although I was not sure it was good for my stomach.

She took my empty glass to the kitchen and returned with more sweet tut. She was wearing a light cotton housedress and slippers. Her calves were thick and strong.

“Syrian dialect. You will learn it with time,” Simon said. I did not see how this could possibly be true. My stomach wrenched again from cramps.

“How much do you want for the apartment?”

“Two hundred dollars. In dollars. Everything is included,” Samuel said.

“You can look at some other apartments. Take a few days to make your decision,” Simon suggested.

But I wanted to settle in. And I chose Miriam and Samuel’s flat because Samuel was colorful. My instincts for good fiction and atmosphere prevailed over the practical: hot water, a decent washing machine, better furniture. Why didn’t I notice that there was no hot water in the kitchen? I would spend the next two years boiling hot water for dishes in a witch’s cauldron. The irascible washing machine was thirty years old, one Samuel had dragged out of an old flat somewhere. It didn’t work well, so I washed my clothes at Karim’s flat. A row would have happened had I no alternative. Miriam and Samuel always insisted the machine worked like spanking new.

“I’ll take it.”

“You will be like our daughter. None of our children live in Syria. Two live in the States and the oldest is in the Emirates.” Samuel said.

I became Samuel’s new project. How could he be anything but what he was: an Arab Father? From his point of view, I was a single woman far from home, living under his roof, and needed to be protected, even from nice men. When Karim called, he growled, “Shu biddak?” What do you want? Not Please, or May I ask who’s calling?

When he finally told me that Karim had called, he did not say, “Karim called,” but “Some man called for you.”

Later, when I disappeared for a day with Karim, he rang my doorbell for a full report.

“Where have you been? I was very worried about you,” he said, standing in the entry of my flat.

How could I wiggle out of my new identity as Arab Daughter?

“That’s very kind of you to be concerned, but I was not in any danger.”

“But you, my dear, are my responsibility,” Samuel said.

I did not correct him. Three interrogations later, however, I said, “I appreciate your concern, but I am thirty-seven years old. I am an adult and capable of taking care of myself.”

Though he had a tough veneer, I saw from the look on his face that he was hurt. But maybe his paternalism was a respectable disguise for voyeurism. Did Samuel fantasize about my adventures when I disappeared from his flat downstairs?

The Syrian government wasn’t embarrassed about their nosiness. All information was considered crucial to internal security.

One day when Karim and I were dallying at his place, I wondered if his apartment was bugged. The moment might not be private. Someone might see into this heavily curtained room after all. It was not out of the realm of possibility. I imagined Tamer, the head of security at the university, with headphones on: alone, envying our jokes and intimacy. But Tamer didn’t know enough English to sift through our conversations, as he searched for the tiniest offhand remark about Israel, like a small pebble in the rice, or listened for some casual comment about the office politics at the American Cultural Center.

“Maybe Tamer is listening to us,” I said.

Karim laughed and gestured upward with his hand. “Someone higher than Tamer.”

Living in Syria had made Karim cunning: he distrusted most people.

His six years in Great Britain had not been a holiday from the third party’s penetrating gaze, either. The Muhabarat knew all the details of Karim’s involvement with a well-connected Syrian woman while he was a student in England.

“Syrians are always reporting on each other. Especially from abroad,” he said.

Even though Karim had been living in a more democratic society, he had not been free of Syrian suspicion and paranoia. He could never escape the fear that someone would inform, wherever he was. I remembered the taunt at the playground: “Nanny-nanny-boo-boo. I’ll tell if you do.” But the Syrians were telling the Secret Police, not the teacher.

Their relationship had turned ugly when Karim had refused to let Amina copy off his exam paper.

“I refused to be her slave. If she tried to cheat in Syria, it would have been harder to refuse. Besides, I didn’t want to jeopardize my own chances — I had worked hard to get the scholarship. She couldn’t behave the same way she had in Syria. Could she do the work or not?”

She could not do the work.

So the Mukhabarat had been informed because Karim had refused to help Amina cheat on a university exam in Britain.

More juicy gossip for the report: Amina had threatened him with some toughs. Karim had gotten into a bar brawl.

“She thought she could bully me. I refused. That’s all. In England, at the university the examiners wanted to see what you knew. They didn’t care if you were connected to the Assads or not.”

“It sounds like a terrible experience,” I said.

“I was so lucky I escaped. If I had slept with her, I would have had to marry her, too. She was always trying to tempt me.”


“Inviting me to her room and taking off her clothes. Then I knew she planned to tell her family that I had taken advantage of her. She would no longer be a virgin.”

“Was she attractive?” I asked.

“Very beautiful.”

“I can’t imagine trapping someone into marrying me,” I said.

“You are different.”

I did not come from a culture which based family honor on the idea of female purity, either.

Samuel watched me because he was an Arab male. No matter, that I was not a nubile virgin and he was not protecting his family honor. It was his habit to watch, supervise, oversee, protect, and dominate women. Karim watched, too. However, his watching felt like devotion. He helped me with household chores, like shopping, cooking, washing clothes; we shared meals; he called; he listened; he comforted me when I was depressed. However, he did not hover. Although I had noticed that Karim also watched his handsome sister, Yasmine, in the same way Samuel watched me. As busy as Karim was, he still found time to call his parents’ apartment to ask if Yasmine had returned from the university.

“Wen ha?” he demanded of his mother. Where was she? Ironically, his mother who had nine children at home, didn’t have the energy for surveillance. She was too busy cutting off the heads of okra for the next meal.

If my relationship with Karim became permanent, would his watching become oppressive like Samuel’s? Too much watching implied distrust; not enough was indifference, or a lack of care.

My landlord, Samuel was not indifferent. He often appeared at my door with stuffed figs, homemade hummus, and sackfuls of lemons and oranges from the trees in his garden. And he wooed me with invitations for drinks, lunches, and breakfasts.

Immediately after I moved in, he invited me to have lunch in their home. He was excited, like a small child.

“You will take lunch with us. And you will have the most delicious food in Syria. Miriam is a wonderful cook. But I, I will prepare the kebab,” he said.

They had prepared enough food for a small army: grilled kebabs on skewers, rice with giblets, chewy, hot bread, a fresh salad of tomatoes and cucumbers, stuffed olives, and plates of assorted pickles. For dessert, she brought out bunches of fat grapes.

Throughout the entire meal, Samuel took skewers from the small metal tub. To keep the meat hot, he had covered the meat with pita bread. With his bulbous thumb, he pushed the kebabs off the skewers onto my plate.

“Really, I can’t eat anymore,” I said.

“You are our guest. It is our duty to feed our new daughter.”

After the meal, when we were drinking Turkish coffee, Samuel said, “Do you want to see my green card?”

He was very proud of the green card. “Very nice,” I said. I had heard a great deal about green cards, but not actually seen one.

“I can work in the States if I want. If it were just me, I would move there in a minute. But Miriam doesn’t like the lifestyle. And she doesn’t speak English.”

Shu?” Miriam asked.

Samuel translated what he had just said.

“I also have a son. About your age,” he said.

He showed me pictures of his son, the engineer who lived in Connecticut. Not bad, but he had a goofy smile. He was posing for the camera.

Miriam smiled, “Biddik Zouaj?”

“Don’t you want to get married?” Samuel translated.

“Well, I just…” I said. I just didn’t feel like explaining myself.

Miriam said, smiling, “Lesh la?” Why, not?

“You are the same age? Don’t you think he is handsome?” Samuel said, pushing for an answer.

I hedged. “He’s fine. I’m sure he’s a nice person.”

“You will meet him when he comes to visit,” Samuel said, enthusiastic.

Shu?” Miriam asked.

“What was it like fighting for the Free French?”

“Do you want to see my picture? I was a devil,” he said, winking at me.

He went into the bedroom, and returned with a shoebox.

He fished a black and white photo of himself out of the box, saying, “You see, I was a devil.”

“Yes, you were.” I said. I looked at a picture of a much slimmer man in a sailor’s uniform with a healthy shock of brown hair.

“You see why Miriam fell in love with me,” he said. Without waiting for Miriam to ask, he translated.

She laughed.

“Now, I will show you how I learned English,” he said. He set the shoebox on the couch. Looking through a small bookshelf, he pulled out a worn red book with a tattered spine.

“This was how,” he said, holding up the book: HOW TO TEACH YOURSELF ENGLISH IN FORTY DAYS.

“That’s wonderful. Amazing. Such motivation,” I said.

“I left school at eighteen. I also had chances to speak with people from all over the world when I was in the navy. And the radio, always, I listened to the BBC. Of course, I speak French, too. In those days, they taught French in school,” he said.

“Most students at the university don’t have that kind of motivation. You must really have wanted to learn.”

“I made sure my children had a university education. My son, Wafik, I sent to the United States for his education. It was expensive, but I managed it.”

I admired Samuel’s resourcefulness. During the first few months, I had lunch with Miriam and Samuel almost every week. Later, I was busier and didn’t see them quite so often.

When I was getting to know Karim, he said, “You are being invited a lot, and that is good. I am not trying to interfere, but does anyone ever try to get you to talk about politics?”

“Sometimes it comes up,” I said.

Karim said, “Don’t say a word. No matter what you feel. Even if they criticize the government. They will try to get you to agree and then they will run and tell the Secret Police. This is an old trick.”

On the evenings when Samuel invited me for Scotch the conversation turned sour.

After a few neat drinks, he ranted against the government. I could not tell if this was a trick; I wasn’t practiced at sniffing out duplicity. His frustration seemed genuine.

I did not want to believe Samuel was an informer.

However, he did listen to my phone calls and watched my movements. Had he also nosed through my notebooks when I was in Damascus?

Suppose Samuel had been told he would have to report on me, even if he had not wanted to. Forget about the cut, the profit. There was no choice.

This speculation made me feel better. Less betrayed. The overtures of friendship had not been a pretense. Or was this speculation simply self-delusion?

Yet Samuel was dissatisfied enough with the country to encourage all of his children to emigrate from Syria for a better life somewhere else. The price for such unselfishness was great: Samuel and Miriam rarely saw their grown children.

Occasionally, the phone would ring at five-thirty in the morning with a call from Amerika.

On those mornings, Miriam would interrupt my writing to bring me roses from her garden. How could I be angry when she presented me with lovely, fragrant roses?

Miriam hoped her children would return to Syria. She did not understand the attraction of the States. Amerika was dangerous. Amerika was too competitive. Amerika was expensive. There was no community in Amerika. The tomatoes didn’t taste good in Amerika. They didn’t sell small eggplants in Amerika. How could she make her mahshee, stuffed eggplants if she went there? And even though her daughter, Omneia, was an Arabic teacher, her grandchildren couldn’t speak Arabic. Worst of all, her children had abandoned Syrian traditions to fit into America.

When, and how often, Miriam and Samuel should see their children in the States was a source of tension between them.

One night I heard shouting upstairs, late at night. She was softer and more tactful than Samuel, but she was not weak.

She wanted to go the States; Samuel said they didn’t have the money. If they didn’t go this summer, they would have to wait another year.

Sena tanyia, waqt tawil, tawil,” she said. Another year would be a long, long time.

The two children who lived in the United States could not visit them in Syria, either. They were waiting for their citizenship: they must stay in the United States for so many months without leaving the country. If her son, Wafik, returned, he would be conscripted into the Syrian Army.

When Miriam wondered why her children did not return, Samuel said to me in English, “Why should they return for good? What is there for them here?”

Samuel talked about his children, but he never told me any wild stories about his life as a sailor or a customs inspector.

Whenever I asked about the port, and the way it was run, he became evasive. His expansive manner would vanish. The most he would say was: “Sometimes it takes five months to get a ship through the port. Too many government regulations. You can see why nobody wants to dock here. They will lose money.”

Instead, he relished stories about Muslim conspiracy. Chewing on a shallot, he’d begin, “You see how we are being squashed by the Muslims. And they are even taking over the world.”

I had not heard this conspiracy theory. Still, Christians were a minority in Syria. They felt threatened; they did not rule the country.

Samuel was probably hostile to Karim because he was an Alawite Muslim. However, Karim’s family was poor and had no real influence. Whatever his reason, I did not like the rude way Samuel treated him.

The second year, I declined Samuel’s invitations for Scotch. When I tried to speak to Miriam in Arabic, he re-translated what I said. He corrected my Arabic so often that I could never finish a sentence. And his conversation was desultory and gloomy: more of, the Muslims were taking over the world; the government was corrupt; the daily news about Israel was a distraction from the problems within Syria. Always the same diatribes — no new ideas.

The appearance of the rat in my flat diverted him from his dispirited talk about Syria. I had forgotten how hilarious he could be.

He rang my doorbell every morning, like a travelling salesman. He was more excited about the rat than about his recent trip to Switzerland for the shipping company he worked for.

“Any news?”

“No corpse, if that’s what you mean,” I said.

“Since the poisonous candy failed, we will try this,” he said, holding up a large brown jar, a picture of a skull and crossbones on the label. “Enough poison to kill a hundred rats.”

“I don’t think he’ll bite. This is the smartest rat I’ve ever seen.”

He laid Handiwrap on the floor with meat and onion bull’s-eye center. Next, he doused the meat with poison.

“Believe me, when the rat knows he is going to die, he will go home,” he said.

“You think so?” I asked.

The next morning, Samuel rang my doorbell at seven-thirty.

“Any news?”

“He ate the meat,” I said.

“He is gone,” Samuel said, waving his thick hands. “Finished.”

A few mornings later, the rat scurried across my feet while I stood at the kitchen sink. I drew back the curtain, which hid the drainpipe. But there was no drainpipe! Two rubber hoses, one for the washing machine that didn’t work; the other for the kitchen sink, disappeared into a hole. The rat was nimble enough to squeeze past the rubber hoses.

I marched upstairs for a conference with Miriam.

She came down to investigate. Droppings covered the floor near the drain.

Musebe,” she muttered. Disaster.

Per Miriam’s instructions, he bought a sackful of cement and mixed it on the street. He plugged up most of the hole with cement.

Had Samuel drawn out the killing of this rat because he was lonely?

A few days before I left Syria, I heard murmuring outside my window. Samuel and Miriam were together, picking lemons from their tree in the garden. Miriam, on the ladder, was wearing a cotton housedress, with flowery print. Samuel wore a yellow hard hat. He was holding the ladder and was pointing to branches.

A minute later, he turned around and headed for the window.

“Take these, my dear,” Samuel said, handing me a fistful of lemons that I didn’t have time to eat.

My cheap camera in hand, I rushed out to the garden to take their pictures. I might not see them again.

The day I left Syria, I hugged Miriam and Samuel goodbye. Miriam stood next to the gate, waving, until the taxi was out of sight. But Samuel’s eyes welled with tears and he ducked inside the villa.

I was touched.

Undoubtedly, a despotic government such as Syria’s based on informers, secrets, and mistrust created a negative, unpleasant atmosphere. And yet, the government couldn’t completely control people’s emotions and thoughts, even watching day and night. Perversely, it wasn’t that they watched too much, but that they couldn’t watch enough. No matter how hard the Syrian government tried to make all relationships political, personal relationships would flourish and defy the rule of power.

Maybe Samuel had been an informer. But maybe not. I would never know for certain.

Even if he was, his emotion was genuine. Samuel was going to miss me.

Tenderness and affection were more noble than those other toxic emotions I had become too familiar with, suspicion and cynicism.

Like his children, I was leaving Syria, for opportunity elsewhere.

And most probably I wasn’t coming back.



See also:
Syria: Living in Wild and Marvelous Stories



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