Ashraf sits in his living room, alone and deep in his thoughts. He has just woken up. His hair is messy, his eyes slowly adjust to the morning light. It is the time of day when he gets to indulge in his addictions: coffee and reading.
He looks down at his coffee mug. The colour of his coffee is dark brown and the texture is soft. He likes his coffee strong with cream – not milk, just cream, he insists. He picks up his book and starts to read. He is drawn to the writer’s wit and craft.
During his university years, as a social science student, Ashraf had been a member of the National Syrian Party that preached the unity of the Levantine countries of the eastern Mediterranean into a single political entity. These countries, formerly known in western countries as Greater Syria or Bilad AlSham in Arabic, include present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine.
Ashraf had been a staunch supporter of the party. He had hoped the party would be a platform to unify all Arabs. He was full of enthusiasm and hope for the future. As time went by, Ashraf realized that the political involvement was going nowhere and, like most political parties or movements that projected Arab unity, it was bound to fail. Now, he prefers the stability of a day job to the shallow promise of politics.
He walks up to the kitchen to fix his Mazaj mood with another cup of Arabic coffee. The smell of cardamom and Arabic gum is alluring. He inhales, the scent triggers recent images of Maysoune a. After dinner, he drives her home and presents her with a hand-printed indigo shawl. On the coffee table rested a book of love poems Maysoune had given Ashraf to read and think of her even in the earliest moments of his day. On the first page of the book with Maysoune’s flowery handwriting, it reads: “To the love of my life. Signed Maysoune.”
Ashraf takes a last sip of Arabic coffee, his mind turning to work and deadlines. His phone buzzes a few times with text messages, phone calls, and news-feed updates. After taking his morning shower, he heads down the bustling streets of Damascus. Entering his dusty underground shop, he surveys the work area and gives his team some tips on polishing and finishing the elegant furniture. A carpenter by trade, his university education complicates his life, especially at work. It makes him moody. He doesn’t think like a handyman but more like an intellectual or a fashion designer.
“Mr. Ashraf, I have been calling you for a month and you keep ignoring my calls. It’s been three months since I placed my order. You said it only takes six weeks to complete the bedroom set. Stop debating the ideas of Marx or Freud, or staring at Scarlett Johansen’s poster, and get to work. I saw you with a nice-looking lady near the university yesterday. You were sharing ice-cream. You’re with a different girl every time I see you. How many girlfriends do you have?” The young man stands before him, frowning. Ashraf feels bad about the situation. He looks down at his dusty desk. “OK, Habibi. I will have it done for you in exactly two weeks. Word of honour.”
The young man raises his eyebrow. “Word of honour? And what if one of your ladies calls you while you are working on my room? Will you go out with her or keep working on my order?” Ashraf fights back irritation and fixes a professional smile. Pen in hand, he scribbles on a piece of paper, then swings the narrow pen between his index and middle finger, the movement creating a shape that resembles large mosquito wings. “I promise I will get it done on time, OK?” The man seems placated and flashes a yellow smile. “OK, no problem Mr. Ashraf.” He shakes hands with Ashraf, fixes his jacket, and strides across the marble floor of the shop, kicking shreds of wood aside as he goes.
Ashraf’s team is working in the production section at the back of the shop, loading a shipment of wood that arrived from a coastal city the day before. Ashraf scratches the top of his head and calls out to his employees. “Listen up guys! My client is impatient. Tomorrow, first thing in the morning, you start working on the bedroom set. Yalla get back to work.” His employees nod and return to their work. Ashraf buries his face in his hands. His hair is black and wavy, carefully gelled. Eventually, he picks up his keys and wallet and takes off home. On the way, his phone vibrates in his pocket. It’s an unusually brief text from Maysoune. It reads, “Meet me for coffee tomorrow morning at the university, 9 am.” Ashraf messages to accept the invitation.
It’s been a week since they last met. Ashraf drives to the university district and spies Maysoune standing at the front gate of the campus. Her brunette hair is falling in waves around her shoulders. She’s wearing dark, tight-fitting blue jeans, a dressy grey top, and red high heels. “Hi!” she says, flipping her hair and adjusting her dark sunglasses. He smiles at her and asks, “Kifek Habibti, how are you my love?”
“I’m fine, I guess. I missed you,” she replies.
“I missed you too, sweetheart.” Ashraf says. They walk to the coffee shop and order hot chocolate, then find a corner table at the far end of the shop. “What’s so urgent?” Ashraf asks. Maysoune looks unusually serious today. “I don’t know! I wanted to see you. I want to talk about us…” She makes a gesture with her hand, pointing to both of them. Ashraf raises his eye brows and leans forward, an uncomfortable sensation in his stomach. “What about us, my gorgeous Maysoune? I love you and that’s all that matters.” Maysoune shakes her head. “Love is one thing and real life is something else,” she replies. “I get this feeling that I have to share you with many things in this world: your friends, your hobbies, politics, your books… And the kind of books you read…Marx and Freud? Who reads that crap anymore? Communism is over! You get that, right? It’s over!” She snaps the tip of her finger against her head to imply her frustration.
Ashraf feels defensive and sees no ground to her comments. “Communism may be over, sweetheart, but the ideas of Marx are not.” He waves his index finger in the air. “My sweet Maysoune, my lovely, my one and only. I know where you are coming from. I know! You think that engineers and scientists are better than artists and thinkers, because engineers build things and scientists find cures to diseases, but us artists hardly make any money, and in your view we do nothing. Mazbout, correct?”
“Which do we know better: the architect of the Sistine Chapel or the artist who laid on his back and painted its walls for many years, creating an epic piece of art for many generations to admire?” Ashraf fires back.
“We remember Michael Angelo more. You are right, you’re absolutely right-”
He interrupts her again. “The way I see Art and Science is how I see us; they complete each other. I couldn’t live without my gorgeous Maysoune – you are my better half.” Ashraf is calm now, feeling in control of the situation. Maysoune smiles and raises her eyebrows. “You are 100% crazy, you know that?” She shakes her head. “But I love you. You are my baby, even when you drive me nuts.” Her shoulders relax and Ashraf feels like he may have just dodged a bullet. They talk for a while, and then he drives Maysoune to her class on Structural Engineering.
A few days pass after he sees Maysoune. He feels the craving to smoke shisha and catch up with his closest friends – Omar and Tamim. The trio meet up and go to a coffee shop on the edges of Mount Kasioun. They smoke and talk about religion, politics, and women. “Guys! Have you seen Kate Blanchet’s performance in Notes on a Scandal? That was powerful,” Ashraf says. His friends chortle and Omar says, “Notes on a Scandal, ha! Ashraf, your scandals alone are enough. Why do you need to watch other people’s screw ups?” Tamim nudges Omar and says, “Remember that girl who threw the fancy gift at Ashraf in the middle of the street and walked away on him?” They all laugh.
Ashraf knows that Omar and Tamim are concerned about him and his expensive habits. Omar takes a sip from the cardamom-flavoured cup of tea steaming in the cool air. He drums his index finger on the fibreglass table, his right foot tapping on the patio pavement. The Umayyad mosque is in the middle of the city, illuminated by a hue of light green, all other minarets roaming around it like stars in the sky. The rich aroma of spiced tea is enchanting, mingled with the heavy smoke of shisha. Omar starts gently: “Ashraf I’ve been thinking about you and your expensive lifestyle. I know that we’ve talked about this before, but I see you drifting away more and more. This has to stop, buddy, for your own sake.” Ashraf nods, bites down his lips and looks downward. He doesn’t give Omar an answer. Omar looks directly at Ashraf and continues. “Enough, Ashraf, enough. Just stop this bullshit of your lavish lifestyle and get real. Who cares about Marx and what he says in Das Capital? Who cares about the economy, or the other freaking nonsense? And your alter ego, Mr. Freud. Ashraf…let’s be honest. How do those thinkers help you improve your life here and now in Syria?”. Friendship and family relations in the Middle East run deep, and the idea of privacy can sometimes melt like ice cream in the desert heat. An awkward silence falls upon the table. Omar adds, “Those books will not help you, and neither will your lady friends: they are after your money.”
“To each his own, Omar. There is more than one way to live life.” Ashraf says.
“You know what Omar? You like the traditional way of living…I do not. It is fine to live a traditional way of life. But there is a whole world beyond your shielded life.” Ashraf snaps, tired of the criticism. Omar strokes his hair then puts his hand on his forehead. Ashraf continues, “Even the United States elected a black man as president, the son of a Kenyan immigrant. How cool is that? Why can’t we change? We should learn from the examples around us. That’s how progress happens.”
“You are a funny man Ashraf, you talk about life. This is life.” Omar pulls his smartphone from his pocket and shows Ashraf a picture of his son Hasan. Ashraf looks down at the pavement beneath his shoes. The tea in the teapot starts to blacken and the taste becomes bitter in his mouth. “Omar, there are countless cultures outside of Syria: European, Scandinavian, North American, South American, Asian, Australian… Imagine if you could see all those countries. Listen Omar, I may not have a happy little family but at least I’m doing what I want, and I speak my mind. On that note, I’m getting hungry. Let’s have a bite to eat.” They drive off through the busy streets of Damascus and down to their regular Shawarma place.
Ashraf holds the Shawarma sandwich in his hands, takes a big bite, and nudges Tamim, who is busy on his phone, as a good-looking woman passes by them. Ashraf swallows quickly to comment on the evening’s sensation. She is wearing black leather heels, a white skirt with turquoise and brown flowers, and a turquoise shirt. Her silky straight hair falls squarely on her back. She stops at the corner of the street, flips her hair, checks her phone, and walks away. Ashraf winks, points towards the girl with a discreet gesture, and laughs. Omar, who admires Ashraf’s unfading passion for pursuing women, shakes his head and says, “You’re a hopeless case Ashraf! There is no way to change you…” They all share a good laugh.
“No mom! I’m not hungry. The opposite, in fact. I was out with my friends. I ate three Shawarmas and a Pepsi,” Ashraf replies as he strokes his belly and then washes his face with his hands. The fat has made it all the way to the top of his head. “Habibi! Do you want me to make you a cup of mint tea to wash down the dirty food from the market?” Ashraf combs his hair and places his foot on a coffee table in front of him. “Yes, mom, that would be great. Actually, can you put a piece of clove in there? Thanks mom. Yeslam Iydeki May peace come to your hands.” His eyes gloss over the countless books on the four walls of his room – there are so many that you can barely see the colour of the paint behind them. Old textbooks from university years, fancy leather bound books meticulously organized, a few worn out paperback editions of popular American fiction novels with coffee and olive oil stains on them… A woollen carpet lies on the floor, and a dusty fan is attached to the ceiling. Home & Decore magazine copies are stacked on his desk. Fancy books on architecture and furniture design were sent to him by his old friend Maher, from Brooklyn. Ashraf reads the books and magazines to gain inspiration for his work, especially when catering for expats who come back from their studies in Europe, North America, or Russia. They tend to have a different taste from the rest. They want the kind of furniture that reminds them of the places they live in, yet pays homage to their home culture.
His mother knocks then walks into the room. She has a tray in her hands; it contains a cup of tea in a French glass. A small plate of fresh mint is on the tray too. “I got some extra mint leaves for you rouhi, my soul, in case you wanted more. You don’t want to sit with us?” Before he has a chance to speak, his mother adds, “Your father is watching the news, and is on the phone with his business partner arguing about money, profit, and accounting.”
“No mom! I’m just going to stay in my room today, drink my tea, and maybe read this guy,” Ashraf says. He waves a copy of Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, translated into Arabic. The author became a household item in Syria after the glamorous success of The Da Vinci code. Ashraf places the book gently on his wooden table. “Tomorrow, Inshallah mom. I will take you to the old souk. You mentioned that you need some spices and other items from there.” Before his mother leaves the room, his phone vibrates on the wooden shelf next to him. He looks from a distance; it’s a text from Maysoune. His mother excuses herself, saying, “You want to drink tea and read a book, hmm? I see what you are doing.” After his mother has closed the door, Ashraf picks up the phone to see what Maysoune has sent him. It reads, “Where the fuck have you been? It’s been three days since I heard from you. What the fuck, man?” He holds the phone in his right hand, looking at the text message, his eyes half-awake. “Yup!” he says to himself, “I have been neglecting her.” He turns off his phone and throws it on the bed, so he won’t be bothered anymore.
He stares at the walls of books, then looks inwardly to an ocean of ideas, dreams, and aspirations. He wonders where life will take him in the next few years, as the Middle East grows more and more unstable, especially after the fall of Baghdad. His mind is like a fast techno tune that doesn’t seem to stop. He takes a last sip of tea and eats a bunch of mint leaves to help him digest. He keeps on wondering and dreaming.
* * *
Maysoune is frustrated. Over time, she has begun to care too much for him. She hates herself for that. In a traditional society, slowly opening up to the world, her future is filled with options. Will she let this man hold her back? Does she want to give him the power to make her miserable and frustrated? She sits in her room in her evening robe, fully made up, with an elegant hairdo. She wants to speak with Ashraf in her prepared state right now. “But of course, he is not there,” she says to herself. She draws a map for her future in her mind: places she wants to visit, people she wants to meet, and things she wants to do. She finally allows herself to acknowledge the truth. She whispers the words to her mirror. “Maybe he is not the right person for me. Maybe we are not meant to be together. Maybe…it’s best to move on.”
She stares at a still life painting by Louy Kayali, a prominent Syrian artist from Aleppo. Maysoune admires his style as she examines the nuances of his colour palette and reflects on the colours of her life. “When will the time come that we are set free like a bird, to go anywhere we want? When? When will we be able to change continents every season and see the world?” She buries her face in her hands, careful not to smear her makeup. Some time passes before she shakes her hair, fixes her appearance, and goes to sit with her family. She walks into the living room, gives her mom and dad a kiss, and sits to watch TV. Her mother strokes her hair and tells her, “You look amazing Habibti my dear.”
Maysoune replies, “Your eyes are beautiful. They see beauty and charm in everything.” Her father looks at her with a big smile on his face and says, “Maysounti, my Maysoune, you look like a princess. You just need a crown.” The family watches TV. Maysoune feels happiness and contentment settle upon her. It’s a time of love and togetherness.