Last Friday evening I leave late with my friend Ghaith for Homs, his home city, two hours north of Damascus. He is a little disappointed – he would have liked to leave earlier, because he wanted to show me the countryside and a village. But I had meetings with other friends all day, and couldn’t get away.
Ghaith is like all my Syrian friends in that he is desirous of my time and utterly generous at the same moment, demanding a lot from me and giving me even more. There is no reasonable request to which he would say no. He and others try to give me money, insist I eat from their refrigerators when they had little, use their cell phones, act as if they were personally insulted when I tell them how a cab driver overcharged me.
Ghaith complains about the condition of Christians in the Arab world. He also clearly loves Arab cultures. He is enthralled with old poetry and romantic songs. Arabic is his mother tongue, and the only language he speaks fluently.
We take turns testing each other’s translation skills by listening to songs on my iPod on the bus to Homs. I play him “Imagine,” by John Lennon, and he likes it a lot, though he seems not too sure about the line “imagine no religion.”
We get into Homs by 10:30, in time to eat dinner with Ghaith’s family. They are barbecuing on the tiny balcony of their small apartment in a nondescript block of housing somewhere in the sleepy city.
The breeze is blowing, a fact about which Homsis seem proud.
“Fi buroud bi Homs, ma?” Ghaith says with a smile. There’s coolness in Homs, no? (Something those big-city Damascenes can only dream about: Homs is on a high, cool plain.)
I sit on the couch and watch Turkish soaps dubbed into easy Arabic with his sister. Every so often Ghaith taps on the glass sliding doors and insists that I eat a succulent morsel from the kebabs.
We eat dinner with glasses of araq on the rocks. Ghaith’s father, a craggy man with a prominent pot belly, gnarled strong limbs and a bottlebrush mustache, tries to crack jokes with me in broken English, which makes the Arabic in between that much harder to understand.
Ghaith’s mother, a stout, dark-haired, doting woman, keeps emerging with more plates of skewered meat, onion and tomatoes. Slight beads of perspiration form on her brow.
Afterward, while the women do all the cleaning up (I try to insist on helping, an idea greeted as ridiculous for the double reason of me being a male and a guest), the father regales me with tales of his time in the United States, where he spent several multi-year periods.
His face is a grizzled, sun-burnt crimson above his A-shirt as he tells of the time robbers put a gun to his friend’s head in an L.A. convenience store where he was working and he had to get the “Mexican woman” next door to call the police. He has been to Las Vegas “many times.” One time the police pulled him over and he told them he was French, and they let him go. He switches to English to mimic, rather unconvincingly, the voice of the woman who “wanted to marry” him when he worked at “the store” in L.A. He calls black people “abeed,” which I hate. (It means “slaves” in Arabic and older people often use it.)
“You can’t say that, Dad,” Ghaith says, knowing I am offended.
The father says America is beautiful, wallahi al-azeem. He can’t go back now because he overstayed his last visa.
Ghaith’s father’s physique and presence would seem to be the result of a peculiar combination of habits. He smokes two packs a day and generally does not eat vegetables if they are not accompanied by meat. He also rides his bicycle 10 kilometers a day to and from work.
Then, in the dialect of the Bedouin, he can recite beautiful poems called Baghdadis. His family is from eastern Homs governorate, on the edge of the desert. When he was a child – and the family had already moved to the city of Homs – bards would sing these songs, and he would memorize them. The poems have several lines ending in a word that sounds the same but has a different meaning in each case. They deliver an emotional punch even when I have no idea what they are about.
I imagine the father as a small Christian boy at the feet of a roaming bard in a dimly lit village, hanging on every word, as his whole family and I are doing now. No one besides the mother understands the Bedouin dialect in which the father sings the poems, and he must explain them.
The foreign words bring to mind the vastness of a dark desert, a place where the stars are the brightest thing at night, and life’s longing is undisguised. The songs are about lost love.
Back in his room in Damascus, Ghaith plays for me Bedouin songs that he has saved on his mobile phone.
“You understand that one?” he grins. “That one’s impossible.
“He’s saying that he is in love with a girl and wanted to marry her. She agreed, with the condition that he break his relationship with his mother.”
The singer wails and repeats the line.
“He’s saying that when your mother sees your silhouette in the desert from afar, she cries from camp to greet you. She doesn’t care about how you look or what you have done.
“But when the girl sees your silhouette in the desert, she tries to reckon your appearance before she rises to greet you.
“The girl is beautiful, she has the choice of many men in the world; for your mother, there is only you.”
What does the suitor do in the end?
“Ha, he stays with his mother,” Ghaith says. He clicks off his phone and reaches for hot water, to fill our glasses of yerba mate.