Culture and Ideas Gold Winner: Some Vague Stars to the South

By Dave Zoby

Syria, and the ancient lessons of friendship.

Dust-covered aluminum satellite dishes rimmed the rooftops. During the heat of the day, electrical circuits popped audibly, faltering all afternoon. Mid-day, the bakers came out in their floured aprons to read the state paper in the shade of their doorways. There was the sweet-shop, the pharmacy, the place to buy shoes, a booth for a haircut. And always the joyful roar of farm tractors strumming the streets, the farmers seated at the wheel, a load of watermelons stacked on a wobbly trailer. We snapped the requisite photos of the Omayyad Palace in Damascus—even me, in a half-hearted way, with a cheap camera my mother had leant me. There must be hundreds of images from our meeting with the Grand Mufti: the Mufti in the middle of the group, the Mufti smiling, looking serious, pious. I memorized his famous quote: There is no holy war. Only peace is holy. The government sent their own photographer, and I stood in the back row. You can almost make me out.

This was 2007. All the businesses displayed banners with the president’s face. From the looks of it, it seemed Syrians adored Bashar Al Assad. And because I didn’t understand one-party politics, because, out of the group, I was certainly the least knowledgeable about the country, I often posed by these banners and asked my fellow scholars to snap my photo. You may call it naiveté, but that’s not exactly correct. My traveling companions, amateur historians specializing in literature of the Ottoman Empire, people who knew enough Arabic to spell their names, a few flirting with Islam, they didn’t dig the posters of Assad. They never said why. Instead, they quoted Epictetus: If you desire to be good, begin by believing that you are evil. They read from Rumi in study groups, and pointed out that this archway or this winding street whispered pre-Ottoman. But I couldn’t accommodate them. I was an idiot in these topics, and many more.

It’s fair to question how I was able to procure this competitive grant. How did I pull it off? I’ll tell you: I cashed in my grandfather’s Syria lineage. In the application, I wrote that I had a “true connection” to the Middle East, a “natural curiosity” about the culture. I claimed I wanted to learn more about Islam.  I was surprised to get the call from the program leader saying I had been selected. As the chaos next door in Iraq tumbled out of control, it’s quite possible that the list of willing candidates had dwindled, leaving only me, and the truly hardcore.

As a boy I had been exposed to Middle Eastern food, rooms full of Arabs, and semi-Arabs, a few covert drams of whiskey. My grandfather and father were journeymen in the kitchen. They didn’t mind butchering their own meat in our kitchen sink. They poached small game in little twists of forest within the city limits. They ate kibbe raw, off their fingers, and couldn’t stay away from various Syria desserts.  Garden tomatoes, eggplants, and fig trees where subjects which sent them into long mesmerizing conversations. I remembered my Arab uncle making a fool of himself by flipping coffee cups upside down and pretending to read the future in the rivulets and seeps, the intricate designs you see in such simple things. He did this, principally, for the attention of young women. He was bullshitting the whole time, talking shit about the space between light and dark, the ravens he saw in there, the steps to a castle, and the wavy lines he interpreted as instability. He couldn’t be stopped. He said he could only see forty days into the querent’s future. He suggested she sit in his lap. Putting his thumb in the cup and twisting, he always ended the reading by what he called “opening the heart.”  I could do this too, if things got rough.

~ ~ ~

My airfare and hotels were all covered by the grant. Various mosques and extravagant venues were carefully chosen by the organizers. Textbooks, food, and other expenses paid in full. Tours of ruins, V.I.P. treatment at Damascus’s National Theater with snacks provided by the city’s two oldest bakeries. It was an astonishing thing to receive, certainly a thing that required a great deal of grace to accept. I received some training in St. Louis, where the trip originated. We discussed the Battle of Kadesh and learned to say As-salamu alaykum. Vaguely, the professor described the early Syrians, as “The People of the Sea.” We talked about some of the important dates of Islam. The very tone of the orientation, the smell of new carpet in the lecture halls, the coolness of the untouched textbooks, suggested that I was way over my head. One of my classmates said, “When the Muslims conquered Egypt and got their hands on all of the world’s supply of papyrus, that’s when the ideas started to fly, man.” I agreed, but I had no idea what he was talking about. I worried that, sooner or later, I’d be exposed as a fraud, and be expelled from the group. I thought maybe I should bow out. But how do you come clean once you’ve begun?

My assigned roommate sat beside me on the multiple legs of the journey. A professor in Digital Media from Tennessee, he was a photographer with several phallic lenses. He opened a padded cased and showed me a fleet of 8gig camera cards which he meant to fill with images of what-have-you. He told me he slept naked and warned me that he snored.

Remedial, jet-lagged, sweating out the Heinekens I had consumed on the jet, I suffered in a classroom adjacent to the National Heritage Museum. I had not been studying Islam for years, as many of the others had. I didn’t think much of calligraphy. The frequent and insidious tea breaks could not resuscitate me. One Syria scholar was shocked that I knew nothing of the Hittites. It seemed, at first, when we met, he had such high hopes for me. He had come to American and completed his dissertation in Syrian history. Stanford alum, he gave up on me, as did the others, one by one, as they learned I knew nothing, or close to nothing. The professors demurely lectured toward the other students, not me. And I remain grateful that they left me alone. Suhail, a wiry Syrian who served as a sort of fixer for our group, sat beside me outside the lecture hall during one of our breaks and smoked a cigarette. I pretended to go over my notes.

“You are only homesick,” he said out of nowhere.

“Not me,” I said

We sat in the heat and watched the traffic melt by.  Racing pigeons were flaring above the various government buildings like mercury. When it was time to return to the lectures, Suhail patted my knee.

~ ~ ~

The lectures were brutal. I knew zero about the scientific advancements that came from this part of the world. Saladin? Forget it. A hipster from Cleveland who went about central Damascus with a t-shirt depicting Nasrallah, a shirt you wouldn’t dare wear in the States in 2007, sat with me and Suhail by the National Museum. We were all having hot tea in 100 degree heat. The hipster grilled me—politely—about my credentials. And though he never said it, I could tell he was puzzled by my very existence, my attendance in the mandatory classes on the civilizations between the Euphrates and the Tigris.  He was a part-time cartoonist, and dedicated activist. He did yoga in his room each morning. He kept a ponytail. His life’s dream was to visit the Golan Heights, which you could see rising over the city, a camelback of black brush and sand. Why would anyone want to go up there?

Each night, at various restaurants in Damascus, I excelled in eating and lounging about for long hours over Turkish coffee. Everyone went to sleep, while I strolled the streets of the Old City, or read from the textbooks under the pools of light spilling from the convent where we stayed. The second week of the program, I tried to read the coffee grinds of Dr. Kelly Grimm, a beautiful professor of ceramics from some Midwestern university I had never heard of. This was my only capital, my single chance for program romance. The coffee leaked upon the white tablecloth. A waiter shyly tried to intervene. Dr. Grimm found it all uninteresting, anticlimactic. She went out to smoke with another woman just as I was opening the heart.

Suhail winced when he saw me attempting to read coffee grinds. He came along on most nights and ate with us, though his appetite was nothing like mine. He was a teacher at a high school adjacent to the Old City. He, it was pointed out, dabbled in poetry, and at one time had a minor publishing career. He blushed when he talked about his poetry collection, Straight Street Poems. He wanted to talk more than eat. The night after my feeble attempt to woo Dr. Grimm with tassology,  Suhail and I strolled to a narghile bar where we smoked apple sisha into the wee hours, the traffic trickling until you could walk across interchanges which only hours before were teeming with buses and traffic. We closed the place down. Then we walked all over vacant Damascus. We crossed footbridges spanning trickles of waste water and trash.  Camels and cows lowed from within the city holding pens. The six-lane intersections were as quiet as roses. I reached down and touched the pavement. It was still warm from the day’s sun. The smell of jasmine took over where the diesel left off. I sat down in the street and looked up at the stars.

“Why are you doing this?” said Suhail. “People will think you’re crazy.” But he was smiling, looking up at the heavens too.

The next morning in class, I took no notes and just allowed the words to wash over me as Dr. So and So discussed the Romans and Greeks, and their competing influence on the country, the ruins they left behind, the art, the alphabet, and the bits of colored pottery you can simply bend down and pick up nearly everywhere. I was almost sleeping, listening to the sounds of traffic and street vendors outside the lecture hall. Had the boy who sold colorful twists of candy made a sale? Had the women selling little sour fruits found refuge in the shade? We were three tea breaks from dinner, where I could reclaim my station as gourmand, daring provocateur of calf brains, and idiot for organ meats. On my hands, I could still feel the heat of those hot streets, the vibration of buses and micros, and farm tractors carrying all types of produce, and even a disinterested cow riding toward the souks where she’d become meat in a few minutes, her liver displayed on hooks, her purple spleen, her shocking lungs.

~ ~ ~

Nothing puzzled Suhail more than learning that I had no children, no sons in particular. He asked if I was healthy, and nodded toward my crotch. I told him I was okay. But it didn’t make sense to him, no sons. He asked me questions about my Syrian surname. I tried to throw him off by ordering strawberry shisha, apricot. Where, exactly, was my family from? What mountain town or river drainage? Was I in touch with them?
I had to come clean. While the boy attendant was refreshing our narghile with lumps of charcoal, I told Suhail that I really didn’t have a connection to the land or people, that I had bullshitted the application. I had no idea where my Syrian family came from. I’m no scholar, I told him. I’m from a long line of hucksters. I had just come along for the ride. I grinned and hit the narghile.

“It’s not true,” he said.  “You are certainly one of us.” This was the first time I had ever seen him irritated. But he quickly recovered and we went to some courtyard and watched teens playing goblet drums. Between sets he told me it was better to be a live sparrow than a stuffed hawk. With this in mind, we continued our friendship and ventured into the dark, curled and ancient streets of a city that may or may not exist.

He took me around to see the National Theater, a private tour. He brought me wandering with his brothers, who were clerks and bankers, dedicated narghile smokers, readers of Shakespeare, fishermen who fished up north with hand-lines with simple stones tied to the end as weights. When his brothers learned I had no sons, they whispered a bit in Arabic and then argued.

We continued our nocturnal sojourns of the city. There were immense fountains blooming amid flowered intersections; there were columns of long-gone Roman palaces rising up from random streets, glimpses of ruins here and there. Suhail wanted me to see it all. He suggested, if I was willing, that we go look for some of my Arab relatives. The problem with Suhail is that he wanted so desperately to believe in a general goodness of humanity. Each night he sought me out.  He had a hunch on how to reconnect me with my lost family. “Down south,” he said. “That’s where they are. They are wheat farmers, growers.”

Suhail lavished me with parables of wealthy sheikhs who gave everything they owned away to the poor. I was polite enough to listen, but just barely. He suggested that I was related to these great and generous men. “David, you need to know these people,” he said. “Their gift is for growing things in the desert.” But allegory has always left me cold. Still, I found myself spending more and more time with Suhail, and almost no time with the Americans. What I liked about Islam was my indifference toward it, the way I seemed to float above it. I like seeing myself this way, impervious to a force that sucked in billions. Suhail suggested I was more Syrian than American, and that explained our friendship.

I wanted him to understand me too. I enjoyed my life as a half-assed agnostic, first world fuck-off, and I told him so. I’d hate, I explained, to pass myself off as something I was not, even though I had done exactly that to get into the program. Whenever I expressed self-doubt or humility, Suhail went crazy for it. After one such occasion, he even showed me photos of his two daughters and his son, but never his wife.  I had come to Syria to smoke shisha, to, perhaps, strike up an academic love affair with someone from another city. I had come to be far away from America where things had not been going well for me. But the idea was always to go back to the same point and start again exactly where I had left off.  Suhail’s persistent pursuit of my soul was a drag, an annoyance. I decided to change the subject.

He was nipping on the water pipe, drinking a juice when I asked him about The Prophet (peace be upon him). I wanted to know how devout Suhail was. He shrugged and kept smoking. When I brought up President Assad, he rolled his eyes. Suhail was more interested in my life. He asked again and again, “No wife, not ever? No girlfriend?” Should I tell him about the Russian house flipper back in America who I frequently slept with in half-finished condo units, buckets of stucco and grout lying about, the smell of fresh paint, rug burns, cigarettes left over from the plumbers who had checked in earlier that day? Should I tell him about her refusal to use articles of speech, as in: You come with wine bottle, and afterward paint stairway. I had been offering free labor as a way of getting out of love-making. I tore out ancient carpet and ferried defrocked toilets to the city dump in exchange for my freedom. Suhail didn’t need to hear about any of this. This was our last night together, and I didn’t want to spoil it.

After smoking, we went to a bakery and ate some kollaj with cheese with some young Imams who were going to the city holding pens to butcher. They wrapped their knives in canvas bags, and you could hear the heavy blades grind upon one another when the men went up the street laughing. Suhail and I sat on the cool marble steps of a mosque. He walked with me through the gates of Old City, down Bad ash-Sharqi, to the Christian Quarter where I had my room. I told him that I had been having trouble sleeping.

“For how long have you had this problem?” he said.

“Most my life.”

He paused on the sidewalk, thought for a moment, and offered that what I was experiencing was merely God seeking me. He had experienced the same thing several times in his life, once when his oldest daughter was gravely ill. He picked at a jasmine bush. And then we said goodbye, shook hands. I thought I’d never see him again. The next day I was leaving for a two-week spin of the country, complete with scholars and multiple all-night bus rides.

~ ~ ~

That night my insomnia was worse than ever. My roommate, the shutterbug, snored with incredible conviction. I caught glimpses of his fuzzy scrotum in the slants of light pouring in from Bad ash-Sharqi. He farted outrageously.

I gathered my textbooks and sat on the stoop of the convent. I read about Islam, particularly intrigued by the section in the Qur’an where Muhammad (peace be upon him) learns to read. He’s off by himself when the angel Gabriel bursts in on him and commands him to read. The boy says he is not one who can read. The angel, undaunted and apparently hearing none of it, seizes the boy and commands him to read. He refuses. So the angel embraces the boy until he passes out. When he awakes, the angel is gone and he discovers that he can read.

I heard the static of speakers as The Call to Prayer rang up over the city. I noticed that there was a nun in the garden, in the eerie first light, snipping at jasmine, hunched over and watering flowers. How long she had been there I could not say. City birds, dusty and nondescript, came out and fluttered about the church spires, nesting here and there in the speakers strung upon the domes of mosques. In a few hours we were taking off to Aleppo. We were stopping at various sites along the way: a Bedouin encampment where we’d eat, as a group, an entire lamb, the Dead Cities, the beehive villages, Qala’at Samaan, Palmyra, various French Crusader castles. We’d sleep in the desert, have long conversations with sects of ancient Christians. But it was Aleppo in which I was most interested.

~ ~ ~

As I entered the bus the next morning, still groggy from the strawberry shisha, the heavy pastries, there sat Suhail. He had a tiny backpack in his lap, a camera strung on his neck, a packed lunch. He had shaved and put on a dark blue button-up shirt. He was saving a spot for me, courting my soul again. During the night, amid a terrible bout of insomnia, he had decided to come along. He said he had prayed about it. God had told him to follow me into the desert

“And your wife? You just said you were going without asking?” I said.

“Some of these things you are going to see, I have never seen for myself,” he said, softly. There were enough seats on the bus for everyone to have their own space, but he insisted we sit together.  He had some sort of date bread wrapped in a tissue and he offered it to me. He wanted none for himself. He just wanted to watch my face while I tasted the first bite. On his face was the urge to apologize, soft eyes the color of beer that searched mine. I had mentioned date bread three days earlier, and now my lap was full of it, still warm. Outside, the desert was flowing by, sand hummocks laced with motorcycle tracks, flocks of distraught and panting sheep, young shepherds grabbing slices of early shade and yakking on their mobiles.

At Palmyra I tried to shake Suhail between the tea kiosk and the groups of children selling camera batteries. He caught up to me. He wanted badly for me to understand something.  Leaning close to me, sometimes resting his hand on my shoulder, he read the descriptions of textiles behind the glass. The faces of men and women carved on the sarcophagus are the faces of city officials, rich people who helped build the city, he said. He wanted to take my picture by the Sun Temple, walk with me along the streets where the priests led the animals to slaughter two thousand years or so earlier (I was no good at dates.) At the midnight feast, Suhail boldly picked through the carcass of the lamb to make sure I received the best bits.

I had had enough. I had to pull away from this embrace of my soul, this gift of friendship, because, quite honestly, I hadn’t asked for it. I abandoned Suhail at a rest stop near Homs. I approached a high school administrator from the Twin Cities, and began to pal around with him, leaving Suhail to grasp about for conversation at the roadside tea huts, the flimsy food stands where women made khubz mohala over stick fires. I found my own seat in the bus and pretended to read. Suhail sat alone. Now when he caught up to me and walked along, he clasped his hands behind his back and let me do the talking. He had a book for me—Omar Khayyam—which he had written the following inside the jacket: My friend, you have a pure heart and a curious mind. He underlined friend twice. He presented this to me on a Roman road, in the middle of nowhere.

When we entered the great marble courtyard of the hotel that would serve as our headquarters in Aleppo, I gave the entire group the slip and ascended the landing where I could look out over the city alone, the great Citadel strung with banners depicting Assad, spindly pigeon stalls roosting atop clay-colored apartments, clay-colored people. The Call to Prayer went up over the city, and so rose the birds. I waited for the group to filter out of the lobby, then, I went down and booked my own room. I wanted to be alone.

I flopped on my bed and watched Egyptian music videos for the rest of the afternoon. I was a no-show for the city tour, ditched the lecture on the Citadel. Instead, I snuck out to the souks, sat for long hours in antique shops pretending to be interested in swords. I acted as if I wanted to buy a curved steel dagger from the 1800s.  I drank tea with shop keeps until we all nearly burst. We played checkers, or a game kind of like checkers. I found out-of-the-way narghile bars where the proprietors sent a boy out for Heinekens. I drank the beer in paper bags to avoid scandal. If God was seeking me—using Suhail as his spokesman—he was doing a pathetic job, for I avoided Suhail, the whole group really, for three days, telling them I was sick, and sneaking into Aleppo at nightfall.

Of course, hearing I was ill, Suhail appointed himself as my nurse. He burst into my room one afternoon with a bag full of medicines and bottles of purified water. He watched music videos with me while I experimented with painkillers and over-the-counter opiates. Things improved. The Call to Prayer burbled through the haze of the evening, the voices echoing and doubling over rooftops as far as you could see. Racing pigeons filled the buttery sunset. I admitted that I had been faking sickness and having marvelous adventures in the souks. I wanted to show Suhail some of these places. In the depths of the markets, I bought exquisite tapestries, baggies of spices, carved jewelry boxes inlaid with mother of pearl, and handfuls of almonds and dates for Suhail and me. I was doing what I had seen so many of my American counterparts do: collecting mementos that proved I had been somewhere.

Then we saw a necklace made of coral and sterling and it stopped me in my tracks. Perhaps it was the drugs, or the fact that I was going home in a week, but I imagined buying this necklace and giving it to my sister, or my mother, or even the Russian, who had grown in esteem and beauty now that I hadn’t seen her in months.  Suhail noticed me looking at the coral and intervened in my behalf. The merchant had been speaking to me in Arabic. We were whisked away by some young men, taken up a winding staircase to a tearoom where we were seated beside an old man with a white beard. The room was full of silver urns, delicate glassware, red-eyed racing pigeons in gold cages, a taxidermied desert cobra posed as if striking. The room had everything but the necklace I wanted to purchase. Suhail told me to be patient. We drank mint tea. I refused the raw deer’s milk. The man with the beard said the pigeons were worth one thousand American dollars, but they were not for sale. Suhail translated. Merchants came in with necklaces made of turquoise, amber, and hammered sheets of gold so thin I was afraid to touch them. This went on for hours. I saw so many pieces of jewelry that I nearly forgot what the original coral necklace looked like. Suhail was calm, while I was growing annoyed. Finally, the coral necklace appeared in a silver box. It had already been decided that I would buy it. The price was now the only concern.

The old man looked up from his pipe. He said in perfect English, “Who is this for? A sweetheart?”

“My mother,” I said.

He smiled, smoked the narghile.

“Your friend tells me you come from farmers, so I will give you a special price.”

Later, we went into a mosque off a side street. It was small, cool inside, tiled with turquoise designs. Suhail and I sat on the floor, leaned back against the marble columns. I was tired. There were some other men talking quietly, asquat here and there. You could hear the city outside gnawing on the final hours of the day. Suhail was sleeping, a suggestion of a smile on his face, the same button-up he had been wearing for days. Beard stubble was rising on his chin. He had all of my packages gathered around him, his fingers looped in the satchel that held the necklace. The merchant who sold us the necklace came in and sat across from me. This was somehow arranged, part of the transaction. He asked me if I knew what the name Suhail meant in Arabic. He didn’t wait for me to guess. It meant the calm, or the stars you can see in the south.

“But only from Syria,” said the man. “You won’t see them when you go back to America.”
I made a pillow of the many scarves I had purchased. I sat back and stared up at the ceiling, the endlessness of the design. In my hands were prayer beads, and though I believed in nothing, I worried them, turning them over and over.

~ ~ ~

There was a problem with my visa in Frankfurt. I was delayed, while the others went back to the States. I hugged the cartoonist goodbye. Dr. Grimm pressed my hand automatically. I was put up in a gray, rained-upon hotel by the airport. My luggage was elsewhere, so I had to beg for a toothbrush. The German bartender asked me if I was homesick. I wasn’t sure. After nearly three days in airports, I took a taxi to my house on Lincoln Street. The porch looked dilapidated, earthen. The yard was dead from lack of water. It was like walking on straw. But, in my absence, three huge dusty sunflowers had risen up mysteriously on the shady side of the house. Their broad black leaves drooped like robes. Their ancient heads leaned stoically. My luggage, full of spices and beautiful scarves, my camera, and even the coral necklace, which now seemed like a huge mistake, was lost somewhere between Frankfurt and Denver.

I turned on my cell phone for the first time in months. There were messages from my mother, too many. There was a dental appointment I had missed badly. My mailbox sagged with artifacts of pizza companies, mattress sales, local elections, phony keys that promised I had won a car. I tossed it all away while I listened to the voice messages. The Russian said: Hello, you have been gone long time. I have new electrician boyfriend. Goodbye. The condiments in my refrigerator had moldered into gneiss.

At night my insomnia was back. I read the Khayyam in bed until I couldn’t stand it anymore. God was pursuing me again, this time with the toilet ghost flushing, and this idea that Syria and all of the people I saw in the streets was something I made up in my mind. An illusion, I decided. Or at least I had no way of proving any of this. I got up, half dressed, went out into the yard. To the south you couldn’t see any stars, just sagging powerlines and haze. I yanked the sunflowers out, their roots showering my bare feet with clots of dirt, their black seeds spraying here and there.


Dave Zoby’s essays have appeared in The Sun, The Missouri Review, Fourth Genre, and other publications.

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