A dead man hangs from the portal of St Paul's Chapel in Damascus. He was a Muslim officer and he was murdered. But when Detective Barudi sets out to interrogate the man's mysterious widow, the Secret Service takes the case away from him. Barudi continues to investigate clandestinely and discovers the murderers motive: it is a blood feud between the Mushtak and Shahin clans, reaching back to the beginnings of the 20th century. And, linked to it, a love story that can have no happy ending, for reconciliation has no place within the old tribal structures.

Rafik Schamis dazzling novel spans a century of Syrian history in which politics and religions continue to torment an entire people. Simultaneously, his poetic stories from three generations tell of the courage of lovers who risk death sooner than deny their passions. He has also written a heartfelt tribute to his hometown Damascus and a great and moving hymn to the power of love.

Rafik Schami

The Dark Side of Love

PRAISE FOR The Dark Side of Love

‘At last, the Great Arab Novel — appearing without ifs, buts, equivocations, metaphorical camouflage or hidden meanings. Schami’s book is exceptional not only in the scope of his ambition, but also in its ability to juggle a vast cast of characters in a complex structure. Despite its length, the book is a compulsive read.’

— The Independent

‘The picture of Syrian life and recent history is the great strength of this novel. Schami would not have achieved it without considerable skill… With its feuds, lovers, murders, villains and assorted heroes and heroines, this is a novel to enjoy and to ponder.’

— Washington Times

‘In The Dark Side of Love, Rafik Schami exploits all the resources of the classic realist novel and then goes a little further, forging a new form out of Syrian orality…Schami’s Mala is on a par with Márquez’s Macondo for colour and resonance. The Dark Side of Love illumines almost every side of love, as well as fear, longing, cruelty and lust. Darkness and light alternate like the basalt and marble stripes on Damascene walls, and the novel’s structure is just as strong. A book like this requires a less limiting title. I suggest something as expansive, as comprehensive, as War and Peace.’

— The Guardian

‘In Anthea Bell’s deft, witty translation, each of Schami’s 853 pages and 304 chapters is a pleasure to read.’

— The Observer

‘Anthea Bell’s translation is…remarkable, sure-handed and lapse-free. Schami is a wonderful storyteller.’

— The Nation

‘…a joyous book…Schami, a major international talent, has a broad range, from the scatological to the sexually comic to the painful’

— Publishers Weekly

‘A masterpiece! A marvel of prose that mixes myths, tales, legends, and a wonderful love story…’

— Die Zeit


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchase.


For two great women,

Hanne Joakim and Root Leeb




Olive trees and answers both need time.


1. The Question

“Do you really think our love stands any chance?”

Farid asked this question not to remind Rana of the blood feud between their families, but because he was feeling wretched and could see no hope.

Three days ago his friend Amin had been picked up as he left home and taken away by the secret police. Witch-hunts against communists had been in progress ever since the union of Syria and Egypt in the spring of 1958, and 1959 was a particularly bad year. President Satlan had made irate and inflammatory speeches denouncing communists and the Iraqi dictator Damian’s regime. There was no let-up as the year drew to its close; jeeps raced down the streets of the capital even by night carrying victims of the secret service. Their families were left weeping with fear. Tales were told of the bloodshed on New Year’s Eve. Rumours went from mouth to mouth, creating even more fear of the secret service, which seemed to have its informers in every home.

Love seemed to Farid a luxury that day. He had spent a few hours with Rana in his dead grandmother’s house, undisturbed. Here in Damascus, every meeting with her was an oasis in the desert of his loneliness. Very different from those weeks in Beirut, where they had hidden eight years ago. There, every day began and ended in Rana’s arms. There, love had been a wide and gentle river landscape.

His grandmother’s house hadn’t been sold yet. Claire, his mother, had given him the key that morning. “But your underpants had better stay on,” she laughed.

The sun was shining, but it was a bitterly cold day. Musty damp met him as he entered the house. He opened the windows, letting fresh air in, and finally lit the stoves in the kitchen and bedroom. Farid hated nothing more than the smell of damp, cold stagnation.

When Rana arrived just before twelve, the stoves were already red-hot. “Was it at your grandmother’s house we were going to meet, or in the hammam?” she joked.

As always, she was enchantingly beautiful, but he couldn’t shake off a sense of impending danger. While he kissed her, he thought of the Indian who sought safety from a flood on a rooftop and slowly sank to a watery death. Farid clung to his lover like a drowning man. Her heart beat against his chest.

In spite of the heat he was freezing, and her laughter — the wild laughter that kept breaking out of her and leaping his way — released him from his fear only for seconds at a time.

“What a model of proper behaviour you are today,” she teased him as they left the house again a few hours later. “Anyone might think my mother had told you to keep an eye on me. You didn’t even take off your…” And she uttered a peal of laughter.

“It’s nothing to do with your mother,” he said, wanting to explain it all to her, but he couldn’t find the right words. He walked along the narrow streets to Sufaniye Park near Bab Tuma beside her. Every jeep made him jump in alarm.

The President’s words boomed out from café radios, declaring implacable war on the enemies of the Republic. Satlan had a fine, virile voice. He intoxicated the Arabs when he spoke. The radio was his box of magic tricks. With a population that was over eighty percent illiterate, the opposition had no chance. Whoever controlled the radio station had the people on his side.

And the people loved Satlan. Only a tiny, desperate opposition feared him, and after that pitiless wave of arrests a strange anxiety held the city in its grip. But the Damascenes will soon forget it all and go about their business again smiling, thought Farid as they reached the park.

His fear was a beast of prey gnawing at his peace of mind. He kept thinking of Amin the tiler, who must now be suffering torture. Amin wasn’t just his friend. He was also the contact man between the communist youth group that Farid had been running for the last few months and the Party in Damascus. Only a few days ago he had assured Farid that he had gone to ground, cutting all the links leading to him. Amin was an experienced underground fighter.

A few weeks ago, Farid’s mother had suddenly said over her morning coffee that the death of her parents, aunts, and uncles made her feel both sad and naked, for when the defensive wall of the older generation was gone, you came closer to the abyss yourself. Now he was naked too and looking down into the abyss. The ground beneath his feet was giving way. His friend Josef, a fervent supporter of Satlan, railed against the “agents of Moscow”, as the President called communists. Farid was on the wrong side, said Josef, he was the only real human being among a bunch of totally heartless people, it was high time he left the Party. How could Josef say such things?

Rana was Farid’s great good fortune. He loved her so much that he almost wished them to part so that she would be in no danger of persecution. He looked at her ear. He had to love her if only for that innocent ear.

Rana was silent for a long time. She seemed to be watching the children playing in the park, but in fact only one girl attracted her attention, a child staging a performance on her own, a little way from a group. Dancing, she twirled in a circle, then suddenly stopped and sank to the ground as if hit by a bullet. A few moments later she rose again and went on dancing, only to drop to the ground again quite soon.

It was a long time since Damascus had seen such weather: all the good work of the winter rains was undone by this springtime cold. Flowers and buds froze.

This was the first sunny day after a damp eternity. Pale and coughing, the inhabitants of the Old Town streamed out of their mud-brick houses, which weren’t built for cold weather, and went to the parks and gardens outside the city walls. The adults held barbecues, drank tea, played cards, told stories, or smoked their water-pipes and stared quietly into space. Their children played noisily, boys with balls, girls with the hula hoops that had just arrived from America, instantly taking Damascus by storm. Hips swaying, the girls tried to keep the plastic hoops in motion around them. Most of them were still bad at it, but a few could already keep the hoops circling for minutes on end.

The girl dancing alone didn’t seem to mind the cold. Her movements had a strange, summery composure. Rana looked at the child’s neck and wondered, if a bullet really did hit the little girl, what sign her blood would paint in the air. When her aunt Jasmin died, the jet of blood on the wall had traced a number eight lying on its side, the symbol of infinity. That was ten years ago. Jasmin, Rana’s father’s youngest sister, had come back from Beirut, where she and her Muslim husband had been hiding from her family’s wrath for a long time. But she was homesick for her native city of Damascus and her mother. A smile appeared on Rana’s lips for a few fleeting seconds, only to vanish again instantly. It must be in the family, she thought, we all elope to Beirut when we’re in love.

One summer day Aunt Jasmin had invited her to the famous Bakdash ice cream parlour in the Suq al Hamidiye. Sitting there, she had said in a perfectly matter-of-fact and cheerful tone, “Time out of mind, life in Arabia has moved between two sworn enemies, love and death, and I’ve decided in favour of love.” But death did not accept her decision.

Jasmin’s nephew Samuel shot her outside a cinema. Her companion fled, uninjured. Samuel didn’t fire after him, but stood over his aunt as she bled, calling out to the passers by, almost shrieking it, “I’ve saved my Christian family’s honour after my aunt dragged it through the dirt by marrying a Muslim.” And many of the passers by applauded.

Samuel, Aunt Amira’s spoilt son, had been sixteen at the time and still a minor. He was released after a year in custody, and his relations, their voices raised in song, carried him home on their shoulders in triumph to his parents’ house, where more than a hundred guests celebrated his heroic deed until dawn. Rana’s father Basil was alone in staying away from the festivities. They were too primitive for his liking, but even he could understand the shooting of his own sister. He thought she had brought shame on the family.

Only Samuel’s grandmother, Samia, made it clear to the boy and his mother that she would curse him every day when she rose in the morning, and every night before she went to bed. Jasmin had been her favourite daughter, which was probably the reason behind the rumours that, never mind exactly who commissioned Samuel to kill his aunt, the act was fuelled by his mother’s resentment. She had always felt slighted.

After that Rana never spoke to her cousin again. Whenever he came to see her brother Jack, she stayed in her own room. Nor did she ever set foot in her Aunt Amira’s house. But she hung Aunt Jasmin’s photograph in her little room, next to the picture of the Virgin Mary.

Rana was silent for a long time that cold March day, holding Farid’s warm hands tight.

The little girl dropped to the ground once more, very elegantly this time, and lay there for a while before her hands began to flutter like a butterfly, showing that life had come back into her prostrate body.

In the distance, someone happily sang lines steeped in melancholy and despair: “I forced myself to part with you / So that I might forget you.” They were from the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum’s latest song. Ahmad Rami, the shy, sensitive author of those verses, had written over three hundred songs for Umm Kulthum in his fifty years of unrequited love for her.

“I need time,” said Rana, “to find an answer to that question.”


Questions are the children of freedom.


2. A Body in the Basket

A warm wind swept down Ibn Assaker Street from the south. Day had not yet shed her grey mask. Behind the walls of the Old Town, Damascus woke from sleep as unwillingly as a much-indulged girl.

The first buses and vans were clattering noisily as they drove down the long street, taking labourers from the surrounding villages to the many building sites in the new quarter of the city. One of the construction workers, a short little man, was walking up and down beside the road, going a few steps from Bab Kisan, near the doors of the Bulos Chapel, towards the eastern gate and back again. He was waiting for his bus. Like all labourers from the country around Damascus, he carried a bundle of provisions wrapped in faded blue cloth in his left hand. With his right hand, he was gesticulating vigorously as if engaged in earnest conversation with some invisible partner. The loop he traced as he walked grew longer and longer, as if he were willing the bus to appear when he next turned around.

Just as the sun began shedding golden light on the top of the old city wall, he turned once more. As he did so, he looked briefly southward. His glance fell on the large basket hanging over the entrance to the Bulos Chapel, where according to legend Bulos himself, the sainted founder of the Church, had escaped from his pursuers over the wall in a basket after his revelation on the Damascus road.

A hand that might have been a drowning man’s hung out of the basket, which was still in the shadows. The construction worker immediately knew that the man attached to the hand must be dead. Suddenly he was indifferent to all else: the bus, the tiles he had to carry up three sets of steps on his back, even his quarrel with his skinflint of a boss.

“There’s a body in the basket!” he shouted excitedly, and when a policeman finally came along, cycling sleepily towards the police station by the eastern gate, he accosted him so vigorously that the stout officer only just managed to keep his balance. An expression of alarm came over the policeman’s face as the little man shook his handlebars like one demented, shouting over and over again, “A body! A body!”

“What do you mean, a body? Are you crazy? Let go of my bike!” In his thirty years of service he had seen dead bodies everywhere: in bed, in the canal, even hanging in toilets, but never in a basket on top of the city wall. “Calm down!” he tried telling the man. “That’s not a body. The Christians are celebrating the memory of their apostle Bulos. He escaped over the wall right here, that’s all there is to it.” And he glanced once more at the basket, which had been hanging over the gateway for weeks.

But instead of boarding the bus when it finally arrived, the construction worker went on shouting excitedly. He clung to the policeman’s bicycle. “And I’m telling you there’s a body in that basket,” he bellowed hoarsely.

The bus driver, his curiosity aroused, switched off the engine and climbed out of his vehicle. Several passengers followed him. They all surrounded the policeman, backing up their colleague and his suspicions.

At last the police officer gave in and promised to notify the Criminal Investigation Department, but he also insisted on naming as a witness the man who had ruined his morning. He wrote down the construction worker’s details, and told him to be ready to make himself available at any time. Then he cycled off again. The bus driver continued his journey north.

3. Police Commissioner Barudi

The CID specialists found a man with a broken neck in the basket. A folded piece of greyish paper was stuck into the breast pocket of his pyjama jacket. It said: Bulos betrayed our secret society.

Young Commissioner Barudi looked at this note. The writing was a scrawl, but legible if you made an effort. The paper had been torn from a large sheet of the kind used in the Old Town’s many souvenir shops to wrap glass vases or expensive, delicately inlaid wooden boxes. The writer had tried to neaten up the torn edges.

Around ten o’clock a policeman drove the old and visibly alarmed janitor of the Bulos Chapel to the gateway. The basket hadn’t been his idea, the man explained, it was young Father Michael who had thought of it, keen as he was to remind passers by how the founder of the Church had fled. He added, despairingly, that every day for the last two weeks he himself had had to clear away the rubbish that young people threw into it: bottles, dead rats and cats.

The corpse, a man in his late thirties, was wearing pale blue pyjamas. The medical examiners established that death had occurred around midnight, and the body’s hair and clothing contained large numbers of fibres from a jute sack, in which it had probably been transported to the place where it was found.

Three days later the corpse was identified, thus raising the next question: the man was Major Mahdi Said, so who was the Bulos mentioned in the note?

Commissioner Barudi conducted an initial interview with the man’s beautiful young widow. She was composed, cool, and monosyllabic. Either she really knew nothing about her husband, or she knew too much. Asked if she hadn’t noticed his absence, she responded with chilly irony. “It was normal for him to be away for days or weeks on end. His profession was his mistress. I was only his wife.”

The commissioner felt sure that the dead man’s wife had constructed a defensive wall of cold indifference to conceal either pain or burning hatred. He found her erotically arousing, and would have liked to catch a glimpse of whatever lay behind her façade. After all, he was a bachelor, and lonely.

He told his scene-of-crime team to search the attic storey above the apartment, where the major had been murdered in his bed. He must have struggled with his killer or killers, but it seemed that the widow had heard nothing because she slept one floor lower down, and at the other end of the apartment. Her husband sometimes used to make a lot of noise right into the small hours in the attic above the marital bedroom, playing music, telephoning, pushing his chair back and forth. This had been a trial to her for a long time, because the slightest little noise woke her, so about a year earlier she had been forced to exchange the brightly lit bedroom with its balcony for a dark but quiet one at the back of the apartment.

Her husband’s attic had its own entrance. A small flight of steps led from the big second-floor balcony to the top storey under the roof. Here the major’s domain consisted of two sparsely furnished rooms and a modest bathroom. He slept in one of the rooms and used the other, smaller room as an office, with a desk and a metal filing cabinet in it.

“The murderer must have come up from the street,” said First Lieutenant Ismail, leading the scene-of-crime team, when the commissioner asked for his first impressions. Barudi and Ismail got on well. They were both new to Damascus, and quite often went out late in the evening to eat together.

They were standing on the balcony in front of the steps leading up to the attic. “We found obvious marks left on the old ivy. The murderer climbed up it to the balcony, then just went upstairs to the top floor,” explained Ismail, his right hand pointing. “And then,” he continued, leaning on the balustrade, “he must have taken the body through the balcony room and out of the front door of the apartment. We found fibres from the sack on the sharp metal edge of the safety lock. He went down the main staircase and into the street.”

“Why do you say he? Are you sure it was a man? And are you certain he was acting on his own?” asked Barudi, his eyes tracing the way from the street back up to the balcony.

“That broken neck is clearly a man’s work, no woman did it, but of course there could have been several men,” replied Ismail.

“So why not a man and a woman?”

The expert smiled. “That may sound likely, but if the murderer had the wife helping him, he was a fool. Far too risky to climb the ivy into the apartment if you can just walk through the front door unnoticed.” He paused briefly. “No, I have a feeling that the murderer didn’t care about anything, even being arrested himself, so long as he killed the major. There’s a whiff of bitter vengeance about this, not cold-blooded murder by the wife’s lover.”

“And suppose the whole thing was planned well in advance? It seems our man had a sensitive position in the secret service. I don’t know details yet, but he was a major, after all, and such men live dangerously,” said Barudi.

“We can’t rule that out. The climb itself wouldn’t take a real pro more than two or three minutes,” replied Ismail, going thoughtfully up the steps to the top floor, just as the widow came to tell the commissioner that his adjutant Mansur wanted him on the phone.

It was after eleven by the time he left the widow’s apartment. He couldn’t help thinking of her. “Major Mahdi, my husband, had many enemies,” she had said straight out, only quarter of an hour into the interview. And Barudi had the impression that she herself didn’t much like her husband either. She didn’t even bother to pretend she did. Instead, she always called him Major Mahdi, like a stranger, and then, quietly and almost as if ashamed of it, added the explanatory “my husband.”

What was the woman’s secret? How dead inside must a man be, the commissioner kept wondering, to sleep alone in a rundown attic instead of in the soft arms of this beauty? He could find no answer.

A ravenous hunger for bread was gripping his guts. The widow had served him coffee and sweetmeats five times. He drove his beat-up Ford to Iskander’s delicatessen shop in Straight Street, near Abbara Alley and, as usual, ordered a flatbread filled with thinly sliced pas-turma. Iskander knew this delicious air-dried beef with its piquant crust of sharp spices was his favourite food, but nonetheless, every day he asked politely, “The usual?” And as usual the commissioner had a flatbread sandwich and a glass of cold water. Together they cost a lira, and while the commissioner ate his sandwich Iskander quickly made two coffees, hoping to hear some tale or other about the depravity of human nature. His wish was quite often granted. Commissioner Barudi liked talking to the little man, although on condition that he never asked for names.

Today the commissioner said, “No coffee, thank you. I’ve drunk five already and I feel quite dizzy.”

The man could tell that the commissioner didn’t plan to tell him anything, so he kept quiet and hoped the net of his silence would soon catch a bigger fish.

Omar the ironer had stepped out of his little shop opposite Iskander’s for a moment, to get a breath of fresh air. On seeing him, Barudi remembered that he wanted to bring the ironer his own laundry. What a terrible job Omar’s was! He seemed to be nothing but skin and bone. His shop was small and stuffy, and he stood at his ironing board all day, emaciated and sweating, pressing other people’s laundry with his hot, heavy iron. And all for a few paltry piastres.

Commissioner Barudi paid, finished drinking his water, and hurried back to his small apartment. On days like this he despaired. He felt he was doing everything wrong. Moving to the capital without a wife had been a mistake, and he blamed himself for it every morning. There was no one here to look after him. He even had to do his own laundry, and now he must take it to the ironer instead of sitting in the office thinking about this murder case. Every morning he made his own coffee and drank it alone in the kitchen, with a view of an ancient, yellowed calendar on the wall. What was he to do? Nadia had chosen the village schoolteacher instead. “He won’t rise far, but he won’t fall far either,” she had said, when Barudi threw his future as a high-ranking police officer into the balance against the poor elementary schoolteacher’s expectations. But the prospect of the good life hadn’t weighed with her. Barudi could offer no more. The teacher was a handsome man with a captivating voice.

At this point in his morning lamentations he always looked at his face in an old mirror hanging on the wall above the table. It was half blank where the silvering had flaked away. He had never admired his own looks. His Creator, he thought every day, must have been drunk or short-sighted, and he smiled.

He had spent four years with the Criminal Investigation Department in the big northern city of Aleppo. His boss had liked him, and when the job with the homicide squad in Damascus fell vacant he pulled strings. Barudi had been in the post for a year now. He found his task in the capital demanding, sometimes too demanding for a young commissioner. However, he tried hard to learn, and he was industrious. His working day was twelve hours, sometimes fourteen, but he didn’t complain. In general he was glad to be at police headquarters doing something. The mountains of files familiarized him with a city that still puzzled him, a farmer’s son from the south. The one fly in the ointment at work was his boss, Colonel Kuga, a vain, chilly diplomat. “Things are different in the capital,” his kindly boss in Aleppo had told him when he left, “but you’re a hard worker, you’ll soon show them.”

Barudi felt as if Kuga ignored his achievements on purpose, so he was hoping for a difficult case to come his way at long last. Then he might be able to shine by solving it.

The front door of the building was left unlocked, as usual. In the Christian quarter of Damascus, people lived as serenely as if their alleys still had gates that were locked at night in the fashion of the last century. From a modern criminologist’s viewpoint, leaving the door of a building unlocked was pure carelessness.

He was his old landlady’s only tenant. Two small rooms and a kitchen on the first floor, not a bad place. However, he had to share the toilet and bathroom with her. He knew he could live a bachelor life here, and out of the kindness of her heart the old widow cleaned his apartment for him. She regarded him as a good, well-brought-up boy from a Christian village, who never had visitors, paid his rent in advance, and neither smoked nor drank. He wasn’t interested in women, and no woman seemed to be interested in him. He was short, wore thick glasses, and had gone prematurely grey, all three of them factors likely to put off the girls of Damascus.

His landlady had only one fault to find with him. Like her, he had been baptized a Catholic, but he never showed his face in church. When she reproved him, he had replied that he didn’t commit any sins. And then he had laughed, adding that he had no spare time for sinning.

Today he gave her a hasty greeting. She looked up briefly from the old dress she was mending. Soon he was on his way out of the apartment again with his laundered shirts and trousers stuffed into a big bag.

“But you’ve only this moment come home,” said the widow.

“I just dropped in for my laundry. There’s a lot going on right now. You’ll have heard about the murder in the Bulos Chapel,” he replied, secure in the knowledge that nothing, absolutely nothing that happened within a radius of two kilometres escaped the old lady. Her house in Ananias Alley wasn’t far from the entrance to the Bulos Chapel.

“People don’t fear God at all these days. A murder in church! Whoever would think of doing such a thing?”

“I only wish I knew,” sighed the commissioner.

4. In the Jungle

As Commissioner Barudi sat down at his desk, he remembered the note found on the body. He took it out of its folder, examined the words, absorbed them, closed his eyes and repeated them. Then he said, quietly, “It’s as if the murderer wanted to leave a clue.” He recollected a case discussed as part of the syllabus while he was studying at police academy: a murderer who kept returning to the scene of the crime and even offered to help the police. They kicked him out because he was hampering their investigations. Until one clever commissioner took notice. He accepted the man’s offer of assistance, and very soon the murderer had his statements all tangled up and gave himself away. He wasn’t even upset when he was arrested, he was finished with life, all he wanted was peace.

Barudi’s friend First Lieutenant Ismail had said jokingly, as they parted, “Cherchez la femme.” Absently, the commissioner sniffed the paper. The smell was faint, but reminded him slightly of furniture polish. Or was it perfume after all?

‘This piece of paper could well put us on the right track,’ he said to himself, but loud enough for it to seem as if he wanted to communicate his confidence to Adjutant Mansur.

However, Mansur rolled his eyes. “There’s something weird about the case. A Muslim, and what’s more a Muslim major in state security or whatever it is, hanging in a basket over the Bulos Chapel with a note giving a false name in his pocket? My nose tells me it stinks to high heaven. Don’t get too excited. Hang around a while, or you could burn your fingers on this case.”

After a year of Mansur, Barudi was sick and tired of his adjutant’s scepticism and caution. He was just waiting for a good moment to remove the old nuisance from his office and appoint a young policeman with a more optimistic cast of mind. Mansur didn’t merely irritate Barudi, he turned his stomach. His heart was as rotten as his teeth. The man was obsessed with the notion of destroying all the mice in the world. On Commissioner Barudi’s very first day at work, Mansur had told him all his mouse-catching theories, and showed him the infernal devices he himself had developed over the years and set every evening. Barudi had to be careful not to trip over one of those cruel traps himself.

He felt he was in a madhouse. Everyone else seemed keen on Mansur’s machines. Even the boss Colonel Kuga, from whom the recent solving of an almost perfect murder by a prosperous widow hadn’t drawn so much as a weary smile, whinnied with delight when he saw the executed mice.

Commissioner Barudi had already tried all sorts of ways of getting rid of Mansur. But the old wretch had over thirty years of service behind him, and knew all the tricks of the trade. He never laid himself open to attack, for he carried out every task stolidly but strictly to rule.

At five in the afternoon — eight hours after the corpse had been identified — the commissioner was facing Colonel Badran. Badran, President Amran’s youngest brother and head of security, cancelled Barudi’s authority to continue investigating the case of Major Mahdi Said. It was a political murder, he said, and as such not within the remit of the CID. He spoke quietly and unemotionally, as if discussing no more than a sip of water. Major Mahdi Said, he added, had been his best man, and he was going to track down and eliminate the murderer. Colonel Kuga kept nodding like a wound-up clockwork doll. Barudi was surprised not just by the security chief’s rigour and his vanity but also by his high rank, for he had learned to be wary of all who were too young for their rank in the services. They usually belonged to the inner circle of power, men who had carried out a coup or the sons of such men, the kind ready to stake everything on a single throw of the dice, and at the age of thirty they ended either on the gallows or in top government posts. In the last five years alone there had been eleven uprisings, four successful and seven failures, there had been coups, men who rose to power and men who fell from power, there had been victors, and young officers executed in a hurry.

But the hierarchy of the authorities forced the young commissioner to keep his mouth shut. The secret service was at the very top of the pyramid of power, just below the President, and many even whispered in private that the President himself ruled only by permission of the secret service. The CID occupied a very lowly position in the hierarchy. It was authorized to deal with criminals so long as they didn’t belong to the upper crust of society, or the military caste, or the ruling Ba’ath Party.

“Only night watchmen have less power,” said Mansur the cynic.

Barudi was forced not just to call his men off, but to assure the colonel meekly that so far as he was concerned the dead man no longer existed. And within twenty-four hours Barudi was told to bring Colonel Badran, head of the secret service, all the results of his investigations in person. There was no mistaking the threat contained in that emphasis.

5. Mansur

“Knowledge,” stated Adjutant Mansur, “is a lock, and the key to it is a question, but we’re not allowed to ask questions in this country. And that, my dear Barudi,” he added portentously, “is why there isn’t a single good crime novel in Syria. Crime novels feed on questions.” And he grinned. “Remember the anti-corruption campaign announced by President Amran in spring 1969? He set up a committee of eminent scholars and judges to ask everyone the standard question, ‘Where did you get that?’ Still laughing, the President told the committee right there, in front of the TV cameras, ‘And gentlemen, do by all means start with me.’ But the committee decided to start with the most corrupt Syrian of all time: the President’s brother Shaftan. They sought him out and politely asked him their question. ‘Where did you get that?’ Shaftan was the second most important man in the state, commander of the dreaded special task force units. He immediately threw all the committee members into jail and kept them there until they publicly stated: ‘Allah gives boundless wealth to those he loves.’ Only then were the men set free.”

The commissioner had indeed heard of the President’s corrupt brother, but he didn’t see what this had to do with the present murder case. He glared angrily at his subordinate.

“One more word and you’ll be up in court for slandering the President. And in future I’m not your dear Barudi, I’m First Lieutenant Barudi. Do you have that straight, Adjutant Mansur?’

The adjutant nodded in silence. He knew these young fellows only too well. A few months at police academy and they strutted like generals. He would have liked to tell this greenhorn that his information about the local lack of crime novels and the questions that were never asked came from no less than Agatha Christie, whom he had once accompanied through Syria. Her archaeologist husband Max Mallowan had been travelling in the northeast of the country during the early 1940s, carrying out excavations.

At the time Mansur was almost dying of starvation. Drought and a plague of mice such as had never been seen before had destroyed all his village’s stocks of provisions. Agatha Christie took a fancy to the lad, and in spite of her husband’s dislike of him employed him. Later he became their head boy, and Agatha Christie called him “our Number One boy” in her memoir Come Tell Me How You Live. He looked after them, he fixed their accommodation and catering. She was a refreshing character, fourteen years older than her husband, but with a much better sense of humour, she’d laugh at everyone, most of all herself. Mansur often had to translate her comical remarks. “My dear,” she had told his sister Nahla, when Nahla invited the English couple to a meal, “I advise you to marry an archaeologist. Then the older you get, the more interesting he’ll think you.”

Shortly before the couple left, Mansur had found a post in the police force, which was just being built up at the time. When the Mallowans said goodbye he was already in uniform.

That had been thirty-one years ago.

For safety’s sake, however, Mansur said no more about his knowledge of crime fiction, which had been his second passion in life since his encounter with Agatha Christie. Here, in this very room, he had worked for sixteen officers who passed by leaving no more trace than summer clouds, and in the process he had learned when to keep his mouth shut. He still had three years to go before he drew his pension, and getting transferred to some lousy village in the south would be a catastrophe. That fate was the usual penalty for quarrelling with a senior officer.

For the first time in years he suddenly felt afraid. When he cracked a joke, no superior had ever before threatened to inflate it into an insult to the President. That could easily earn him a prison sentence, might even cost him his pension. From the start, however, he had thought this first lieutenant too ambitious, and thus dangerous.

6. Colonel Badran and the Course of Events

As Colonel Badran saw it, the case was clear. The murder of Major Mahdi Said had a political background. He thought the note was proof that the major had to die because he knew too much about some conspiracy, the work of a secret society whose members either feared betrayal, or had already condemned Mahdi as a traitor. The colonel assumed that the name Bulos on the note was a cover name. Probably because the major used to be a Christian and had lived in the Christian quarter until his death. Badran knew that the murdered man’s original name was Said Bustani, but as he had been so badly treated by his stepfather as a child he didn’t want to be known by the same surname in his new life as a Muslim. Consequently, when he converted to Islam, he had called himself Mahdi Said, the happy follower of the right way.

As the dead major’s immediate superior, Badran’s first reaction on hearing of his best officer’s violent death was horror. Mahdi Said had been ambitious, reliable, and tough as steel. He had been the only friend on whom Badran could count in a fix.

When the horror died down, a suspicion surfaced that made the colonel uneasy. Suppose the ambitious Mahdi Said had betrayed him, making contact with plotters behind his back? The idea kept Badran awake at night. He was so obsessed by it that two days later he dispatched a whole troop of his best men to collect all the information they could about Mahdi Said. He himself led the small special unit that examined the dead man’s home in microscopic detail.

Day after day he sat in the young widow’s drawing room, let her serve him lemonade, coffee, and sweetmeats, and turned on the charm, trying get past the veil of indifference surrounding the woman by dint of clever questions. His men took the attic storey apart, searching the major’s little upstairs apartment inch by inch.

Soon Colonel Badran’s suspicions seemed to be confirmed: an inconspicuous little notebook in the dead man’s safe contained names in code. They were deciphered by methods taught to the Syrian secret service on certain courses given by East German and Russian officers. The six people whose names were decoded were in the highest ranks of the army and the secret service. Mahdi had entered himself under the name of Bulos. Badran was triumphant: his presentiment had been correct.

After interrogation and torture, one general confessed that he and five other officers had founded a “Secret Society of Free Officers” to fight for the Fatherland.

“You mean you were planning a coup, you bastard!” the colonel shouted at the general, who whispered despondently and in terror, “Anything you say, my lord.”

Knowing he faced execution, the general pinned his tiny remaining scrap of hope on that obsolete honorific. Perhaps the colonel would feel royally flattered, perhaps he would magnanimously overlook the torture victim’s little lapse, which hadn’t affected the state adversely in any way at all.

However, the only effect his servile “my lord” had on Badran, whose rank was far lower than the general’s, was to convince him that the man was a slimy hypocrite.

They had contacted Mahdi Said a year ago, the general continued in a low voice, because he himself and the other officers thought there were too many Russians and too many German communists around in their proud land of Syria. They’d wanted to save the Fatherland, and what they admired about Mahdi Said was his implacable hatred for communism as well as his brains and his tough stance. At first the major had not disliked the idea of saving the country, but three months ago he had suddenly backed out, and would have no more to do with the officers and their secret society.

“And for that you broke his neck!” said the colonel rather more calmly, almost quietly, because now he knew he was on the right track. At the same time he felt a malicious satisfaction when he thought of the dead man. For at this same moment Badran realized that Major Mahdi Said had indeed been a traitor. He should never have kept such a conspiracy secret from the colonel. He could have been sure of a decoration for revealing it, a golden order, whereas now his reward was a broken neck. The colonel smiled at this reflection, and thought of the widow’s soft knees. Like all modern women, she was wearing miniskirts that year.

The general began weeping pitifully. Never in their lives, he pleaded, had they dreamed of hurting so much as a hair of the major’s head, for he and the others had soon realized that the whole idea of the coup was absurd, and the new government under the brothers Amran and Badran was as patriotic as it could possibly be. At the very latest when he, Colonel Badran, had sent the Russians and East Germans packing, they had all agreed that when Mahdi Said backed out he had opened their eyes and liberated them from the clutches of the devil. As a result…

The colonel rose to his feet and left. He paid no attention either to this eulogy or to anything else the general went on to say. Outside, he gave the man on duty orders to torture the high-ranking officers until they all confessed to Mahdi’s murder and signed their confessions.

“And how far may I go?” asked the man on duty, holding the car door open for his master.

“As far as death,” replied the colonel, and he got into his limousine and drove away to visit Major Said’s widow.

A week later the six high-ranking officers went on trial. They were found guilty of planning a coup against the government and murdering, with malice aforethought, a former fellow conspirator whose remorse and love for the Fatherland had caused him to withdraw his support for them. The trial was held in secret in an empty barracks in Damascus. The condemned men were shot the same day.

Badran made this conspiracy an excuse to purge and reorganize the secret service. A wave of arrests rolled over the entire network, and men who had been powerful only a day before suddenly found themselves interned with their enemies in dreary prison camps. All secret service contacts were closely checked. From now on, absolute obedience was required throughout the whole system.

Under Colonel Badran, the East German and Russian advisers on military matters, torture, and the running of a secret service also had to accept drastic cuts in their authority. He expressly banned the arrogant tone that these experts had allowed themselves in their dealings with Syrian officers since the devastating defeat of the Arabs in the Six Days’ War with Israel. The Russians had treated Syrian army officers like stupid schoolboys.

The colonel also forbade them to intervene directly in the affairs of the army and the secret service. His declared aim was to preserve state secrets. His arguments were logical, and convinced the political leadership. The experts, Badran argued, had come to Damascus to answer questions about technical matters, not to ask questions of their own, and definitely not to express political opinions. It wasn’t easy to keep a close eye on their informal, politically wide-ranging involvement, so there was a danger of information trickling through to Israel at some point. The colonel was standing in front of a blackboard in a small room as he made these points. Three men sat around a table listening to him: his eldest brother President Amran; his cousin General Sadan, the Minister of Information; and Sadan’s son-in-law Colonel Hardan, the Interior Minister. Soon after he had spoken to them, the three most powerful men in the country gave Badran the go-ahead for any measures he thought necessary.

The Russian experts, who had patronized him as a man overeager for advancement when, in a memo of the previous year, he had politely asked them to adopt a friendly tone with Syrian army officers, now had to stand by and see one of their generals taken by night from his villa in the upper-class quarter of Abu Rummanah and humiliatingly flown home to Moscow in his pyjamas, because an hour earlier, while drunk, he had insulted a young Syrian officer. And once the Russians knuckled under, the East German, Bulgarian, and Romanian experts crawled to the resolute colonel too. He himself reacted to these concessions not with satisfaction but with even greater suspicion. That day, however, the officers of the Syrian army and secret service had found a hero who restored to them the honour they had lost in the war against Israel.

In the Christian quarter, on the other hand, it was whispered in private that the widow and Colonel Badran themselves were behind the murder. The rumour was that one day Mahdi Said had discovered the relationship between his wife and his superior officer. In revulsion, said the neighbours, he had separated from his wife, preferring to sleep alone in the attic storey. He had not raged and ranted, nor had he beaten his wife, as most men would, but in secret he had plotted to murder Badran. Only then would he revenge himself on her. In the process, however, he had made a fatal mistake. His wife, according to this version of events, had found a note in the waste bin listing all the stages of his plan in detail and even giving the date. She alerted her lover, whereupon the colonel had hidden with her. That night the two of them had gone up to the attic, and together they strangled her husband in his bed. A neighbour, the goldsmith Butros Asmi, claimed to have seen a short, sturdy figure with a sack over his shoulders going downstairs. He couldn’t identify the man, he said, because it had been dark, but after all, Badran himself was short and of athletic and muscular build.

As evidence for this macabre theory the neighbours adduced the fact that, only a week after the major’s death, Colonel Badran was brazenly spending nights with the widow. His bodyguard stood outside the building, searching everyone who went in or out of the place, which had a number of tenants.

However, when the sole witness, that same goldsmith Butros Asmi, died in a strange accident, the building where the murdered major had lived in Marcel Karameh Street, in the middle of the Christian quarter, suddenly became a desert island cut off from the rest of the world by an ocean of fear.

The case of Mahdi Said’s murder was officially closed on 19 March 1970, and the three fat files containing the records of the investigation, the evidence, and the witness statements, as well as the indictment of the high-ranking officers and the court’s verdict on them, found their way into the secret service archives. The little note with the handwritten scrawl lay neglected inside transparent film in the first file.

Commissioner Barudi learned about the murdered major’s Christian past from his contacts. Now he was sure that the name Bulos and the note were the compass he must use to give him his bearings as he followed the trail leading to the murderer. Before handing over his own thin file on the case to the colonel, he had photocopied all the results of his investigations, and cut a strip about twenty centimetres long and a finger’s breadth wide from the note found with the body. He stored all these things carefully away in a secret compartment that he built into his desk one night.

Barudi believed that the murder victim’s childhood would lead him to the murderer. He felt certain of solving the case if he set about it carefully.

And he did set about it carefully. The trail he was following would finally prove to be the right one, but he had no idea where his curiosity would lead him just six months later.


Love is poverty that makes you rich.


7. The Fire

Claire woke him. There was alarm in her voice. When Farid sat up in bed he heard screams in the village. He ran out on the balcony, with his mother following him barefoot in her nightdress.

He guessed at once that his father was already among the crowd by the village well, and he knew inside him why. Astonished, he looked at the burning elm tree on the distant hill.

The icy wind made him shiver, and only slowly did he realize that he himself was responsible for the fire. Its distant flames shone like a mighty torch, bathing the village in an infernal light.

Some of the peasants hurried across the village square and past the Mushtak house. One young man stopped opposite the balcony and stood there for a moment staring up at him, then shook his head angrily, spat on the ground, and hurried on. The inhabitants of Mala were well known for their gloomy reticence. Farid knew the spitting was meant for him.

His mother’s cold hand made him jump. All her life Claire was a chilly mortal, just like his girlfriend Rana. He led his mother back to bed and lay down beside her. She fell asleep at once, and soon he heard her rhythmic breathing. Her features were finely drawn: she had smooth black hair, a delicate little nose, almond-shaped eyes under those closed lids, and skin as white as snow. Farid stroked his mother’s face.

He lay awake, looking up at the ceiling.

8. Strangers

The Mushtaks were a powerful clan, but they were still strangers in Mala. George, the founder of the family, had taken refuge in this Christian mountain village forty-five years ago. Farid and his many cousins were only the third generation. You didn’t really belong in the village until the seventh generation. That was the time it was supposed to take before you could speak the village dialect without any accent, and feel the characteristic pride deeply embedded in the hearts of even the poorest of the poor in Mala.

Farid had grown up in Damascus, and since his mother was a Damascene he had always spoken Arabic rather than the harsh dialect of Mala, which he understood without any difficulty but could never speak faultlessly. Nor was he for a moment proud of the village. Why would he be proud? Just because the ancestors of its modern inhabitants were said to have known Jesus in person, having fled from Galilee after his crucifixion? After that, as if obsessed by a secret mission, the peasants of Mala had defended their religion with their lives. You might have thought the fate of world Christianity depended on this one little village’s readiness to fight for it.

Farid felt something of a stranger in the village church. And the gruff, silent villagers were strange to him too; they seemed to be in perpetual mourning in their black peasant garments, they smiled only rarely, but could always find an excuse for drinking and brawling. Even less did he understand the fanatical mutual hatred of the Mushtaks and Shahins, the two most powerful families in the village. And least of all could he see why deep-rooted hostility existed between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church in Mala. It was not uncommon for Muslims to mediate between quarrelling Christians.

One incident in particular had shaken Farid badly. A retired teacher and ten or twelve young people had renovated a dilapidated but attractive stable, put in new windows, doors and bookshelves, and wired it for electric light. The stable belonged to the Orthodox convent of St. Thecla, and the abbess had let the man have it free. The teacher, who had no children of his own, was a great booklover. He installed a village library in the renovated stable, donated all of his own seven thousand volumes as its basic stock, and then, over a period of months, went begging more from publishers and booksellers in Damascus. He finally came back with a truckload of books. By the time the library opened in the summer of 1950, he had accumulated twenty thousand volumes.

But the library was closed down again a month later, for the teacher had forgotten two things. He was related by marriage to the Shahin family, and in addition he was Orthodox. The Mushtaks and their Catholic supporters moved quickly. The teacher had been a communist in his youth, they claimed, he used to give the children candy and whisper that it came from Uncle Stalin. It was also said that he would take pretty children on his lap and indecently assault them.

None of this was true except that the teacher really had been a member of the Communist Party for three years. The rest of the claims were all malicious lies, but they spread like wildfire, because they had half the village behind them. After a short talk with Lieutenant Marwan, the new police chief, the abbess dropped her support for the teacher. The Mushtaks, and many other Catholics with them, celebrated the closing of the library with dancing, music, and wine.

The last remnants of any sympathy for the dusty village died in Farid that day.

Embittered, the old teacher withdrew to his little house, to come out of it again for the first and last time six years later — in a coffin. No one but his wife followed it, by her husband’s express wish. He did not want either friends or relations at his funeral.

Farid’s family didn’t visit Mala only in summer, to escape the sultry air of the capital city of Damascus so that they could sleep at night in the mountains; year after year they also came for a whole week at Easter to commemorate the founder of the family. Friends and relations prayed with them for the soul of that first Mushtak, not just in church on Easter Sunday but for all the seven days of Easter, hoping that in God’s bosom he would find the peace he had never known in life. Most important of all, however, the guests, friends and strangers alike, were royally entertained for an entire week. Life in the village seemed to be one long orgy of guzzling. Columns of peasants converged on Mala from the countryside all around. Beggars and tricksters, gypsies and craftsmen, everyone came to join in the week of celebrations.

Easter week was very much the Mushtak family’s affair. Christmas, however, was firmly in the hands of the Shahin clan, which was involved in a blood feud with the Mushtaks. The village was split: half its inhabitants followed the Greek Orthodox rite and with it the rich Shahin family, while the other half belonged to the Roman Catholic Church. In Mala, the Roman Catholic Church was almost entirely financed by the Mushtaks.

Since the two churches celebrated their festivals according to different calendars, Easter often presented an extremely macabre spectacle. No soon had Jesus risen from the tomb and ascended into heaven by the Western, Gregorian calendar of the Catholics than the Orthodox Christians were having him arrested, tried, and crucified on Good Friday by the Eastern, Julian calendar. The Muslims had cause for mirth every year.

At Christmas, however, the windows and the church in the Orthodox quarter were brightly illuminated, and the Shahins celebrated all week until the second of January. Family members even came all the way from America just to be at the party. The Mushtaks’ houses, on the other hand, remained dark at Christmas, and the Catholic church celebrated the day as modestly as if Jesus were only some third-rate saint.

Farid’s mother, a typical city dweller, regarded the whole thing, her husband’s behaviour included, with some amusement as earthy peasant folklore. In all these years, she had never found her way to anywhere near the true soul of Mala. Nor did she want to. Instead, she made the villagers respect her for her generosity, and she also distanced herself from the Mushtaks. She was the only woman in the clan known everywhere by her first name, as “Madame Claire”.

The local dishes of Mala, which always smelled of sheep or goat urine, were not to her taste, nor were the cakes baked there, and certainly not the dried fruits that the village people offered visitors. She amused herself by watching the comings and goings in the streets and the village square from her balcony as if she were in a theatre. Claire loved vaudeville drama.

Together with autumn, Easter was the best season in Mala. There was summer sunshine, but without the disadvantage of summer heat. A fresh breeze blew from the mountains of Lebanon, still snow-covered at this time of year. Nature was already in full bloom, and the picturesque rocks on the outskirts of the village were surrounded by young green shoots.

But Farid felt ashamed of his father, who underwent a metamorphosis every Easter. The man who played the part of distinguished and elegant city gentleman in town, larding his Arabic with French words, changed on arrival in Mala and became a grunting, bawling, quarrelsome peasant who staggered home night after night on the verge of alcohol poisoning. At home he seldom laughed; in the village street he was a clown and a tiresome, sentimental groper of women.

Farid was embarrassed when he was with the villagers because, particularly when drunk, they were free with their comments and gibes, always on the same subject: his father’s affairs with women and the outsize thing that Elias had between his legs. The assembled men of the village often laughed at Elias’s shy son. Only Sadik the village miller, who was hard of hearing, never bothered him with sly digs — but talking to Sadik was hard work. You had to shout the whole time. Sadik was funny when he was telling secrets. He acted like a man whispering, but in fact he broadcast his allegedly confidential news at such loud volume that even the dead in the distant cemetery must have heard it.

“The ones who laugh loudest are the men whose wives your father’s already screwed,” Sadik had shouted in his ear at the barber’s last year. Farid had gone red in the face, and hated the village, where life seemed to consist solely of working in the fields, guzzling, drinking, and crapping everywhere. The villagers were also puffed up with pride because Jesus Christ had, allegedly, saved them from ruin.

“If I were Jesus,” Farid had said to his mother when he was only ten, “I’d appear above the altar on Sunday — even if it was only for a minute — and shout in their hypocritical faces: ‘You can all kiss my arse, you and your horrible Christianity.’”

9. Rapprochement

Farid could always find interesting children to play with in Mala in summer. They came to spend the vacation here with their parents, prosperous city dwellers. In the company of those children, he could feel that the village was a place for adventure after all. They turned the rocky landscape into the film set of a Western, and played cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers all day, quite often riding real horses and donkeys.

But at Easter he thought Mala a dreary place. He was just nine when his mother saw him hanging around the apartment one day, counting the hours until they went back to Damascus. She suggested taking a nice picnic and going for a long walk with some of the village children, saying they could show him the local countryside and the trail of his forebears.

At first he didn’t want to, but then he joined the other children after all, and soon they were out and about in the mountains every day. The village boys hadn’t the faintest notion of his forebears or the history of the place, but Farid, whose physical speed and stamina were considered outstanding back in Damascus, had to admit that hard as he might try, he couldn’t compete out here in the wilderness. In the village square these boys looked slow and ponderous, but out in the open country they suddenly became lithe and fast. They ran like young gazelles, scrambled up smooth, erect tree trunks like lizards, chased hares and rock partridges like hounds. Thirteen-year-old Abdullah could kill any living creature, however swift, with a pebble from his sling. His first catch when Farid went out with them was a rock partridge. Soon after that he brought down a hare. The boys fell on his prey, and within a very short time the partridge and the hare had been plucked, skinned, neatly gutted, and washed. They broiled the meat over a fire near the old elm tree, throwing thyme and other herbs into the flames, and a pleasant aroma rose into the air. Farid had never tasted such deliciously seasoned meat before.

Matta, a notably taciturn and simple soul, was as strong as an ox. He could tackle all the other four boys on his own, throwing them over on their backs and pinning them down on the ground. He also picked up rocks weighing over fifty kilos and held them above his head without visible effort. But the really amazing thing was the ease with which he could climb trees just like a bear. As if his hands and feet had made all the trunks, branches and twigs their own, they fitted every tree. He seemed to glide upward, and then he swung from branch to branch and tree to tree like a monkey.

Matta idolized Farid and was glad to call the pale-skinned city boy his friend. He never guessed that Farid admired him too, as if he were some strange and wonderful creature.

Claire gave her son’s friends lavish presents. Year after year, each of them received an Easter gift: expensive penknives, ingenious little tools, picnic sets for their expeditions, and large quantities of chocolate. Soon they were looking forward eagerly to Farid’s arrival at Easter and in the summer. They felt strangely attracted to the pale city boy, who might not be able to aim a stone accurately enough even to hit a mountain, but was never at a loss for words. His gift of the gab seemed to them positively miraculous. Not only did amusing remarks just bubble out of him, he could harness his tongue and ride it away in a style that left the others breathless. Farid told a story so well that you could see it all before your eyes. That was the miraculous part, for the boys weren’t used to such stories. They were told hardly any stories at home, and those they did get to hear were steeped in morality and soon bored them. Farid’s words, however, were colourful, fast-moving and intriguing.

He carried them away with those words to a strange world, a world of beautiful women where mere daily survival wasn’t the only thing that mattered, where the year consisted not just of sowing and harvest, but of three hundred and sixty-five days and nights when something exciting was always going on.

Oddly enough, however strange the stories he told them, they trusted him implicitly and believed every word he said. And the provisions that Madame Claire gave them for their picnics were even more like something out of a fairy tale. They enjoyed the good food as they listened to Farid, and soon they didn’t know whether the storytelling or the picnic was the greater attraction.

They had never really been children themselves, had never owned a toy, hadn’t eaten the brightly coloured sweetmeats of the city. They couldn’t build and fly kites, or make little paper boats and sail them on the water. Farid could do all those things with magical dexterity. The village boys, on the other hand, had learned at the age of four to tell weeds from blades of wheat and pull them up with their little hands. They could say what creature lived in every nest and every hole in the ground, and they knew a great many secret hiding places among the rocks.

At first they brought their own picnics with them, if only out of pride. On their walks they would always kill a hare or several rock partridges along the way. Then they would go off to the ancient elm, broil the meat, and brew strong black tea over the embers of the fire. After that they listened, spellbound, to the enchanting tales from the city.

In time, however, the boys overcame their inhibitions and left their dry bread, salty sheep’s milk cheese, and wrinkled black olives at home. They still hunted hares and partridges, but only because that was a short cut to broiling the meat, drinking their tea, and hearing Farid’s stories. All the months he was away, they kept looking forward to the hours they would spend with him under the ancient elm tree next time he came to Mala.

The narrow path wound its way through a dry, hilly landscape, only sparsely planted with vines. Here and there you saw old almond trees, elms and wild brambles; apart from that there were just stones, thistles, and more thistles. The village of Mala was no more than three hours’ walk from the Lebanese border. Many of the farmers earned more money from smuggling than agriculture.

The mighty elm, which was surrounded by legends, stood on top of the highest hill. Not far from it there was a small spring famous for its fresh water. As well as the refreshing spring, another reward awaited you when you reached the tree, for a dreamlike panorama spread out before the beholder’s eyes. The view extended over several gently rolling hills to the village square of Mala down in the valley, and on clear days all the way into the Syrian steppes. Like an eagle, you could see the smallest movement on the plain below from that hill. It was even better after Claire gave Farid an expensive pair of German binoculars, so that he could watch birds and animals in their natural habitat.

After that the boys derived mischievous glee from spotting the bare backside of every peasant woman squatting somewhere because she couldn’t put off doing her business any longer. Once they turned the binoculars on a newly married farmer who interrupted his work in the fields three times to mount his wife quickly, and then went back to work. His wife stayed put, lying under the walnut tree. After each time, she adjusted her dress and then seemed to go to sleep.

10. The End of Childhood

Later, wondering when his childhood had ended, Farid thought it must have been in the spring of 1953. That was when he learned that love in Arabia depends more on what your identity card says than the feelings of your heart. Only adults know that.

The cause of this discovery of his lay a little further back in the past. Two months before going to Mala for Easter he had visited his school friend Kamal Sabuni, a rich but ingenuous Muslim student. Kamal’s family owned not only extensive landed estates but also large financial interests in the modern textiles industry near Damascus. In addition, his father was the king of Saudi Arabia’s chief economic adviser, a rather unusual and entirely mysterious profession at the time, and it made him millions. His family, however, wouldn’t for the world have exchanged Damascus for the hot desert sands, so Kamal and his sisters stayed on in the Syrian capital with their mother, while his father shared a house in Saudi Arabia with two slave-girls. The boy often laughed at his father, who was such an old goat himself but wrote him pompous letters preaching morality. And although his father always waxed enthusiastic about Damascus, he never came home except for weddings and funerals.

It was at Kamal’s house that Farid first saw the girl called Rana. He had often visited the wealthy Muslim family before. A year ago, his school friend had invited him and a few of their fellow pupils to hear the new gramophone records he had just been sent from Paris.

Farid had felt very curious about the family. When he rang the bell, a black maid opened the door. He asked to see Kamal, and was amazed by the respect in the elderly woman’s voice when she spoke of “the young master”. Then she went quietly away. Soon after that, he heard his friend calling, “Come on in — what are you doing standing there in the doorway?”

As a Christian, Farid had learned not to enter Muslim houses without his host’s permission, and not to let his eyes wander but keep them on the person he was talking to. When you passed open doors it was forbidden to look at the rooms inside them; you had to cast your eyes down as you followed your host. And you must call out, “Ya Allah!” at frequent intervals as you went along, giving any careless women around the place a last chance to hide from a guest’s eyes.

The Sabuni house in Baghdad Street was not so very far from the street where Farid lived, but once inside it he entered a completely different, foreign world. At the age of eight he had realized that his Christian quarter was only a tiny part of a great Muslim city. Up till then he had believed what their neighbour Nassif so often said when he was drunk. “The world isn’t America, the world isn’t Africa, it’s this quarter, and even if it has just ten inhabitants, then eight will be Christians, one a Jew and one a Muslim, and out of those eight Christians you’ll find just one decent man to talk to.”

The Jews lived in a nearby alley, so Farid had thought that somewhere in the city there must be another little alley for Muslims. In time, however, he discovered that Nassif wasn’t to be relied on, for arrack had eaten the man’s brain away. None the less, it was years before he first set foot in a Muslim home. That was at a party given by Ali the master baker, who had worked for his father for many years.

Farid had suddenly felt something unusual. Ali’s modest house was an entirely different world. People’s voices were louder there, they wore brighter clothes, and they ate much heartier food than his mother ever cooked. Even Muslim tea was stronger and sweeter than in the Christian quarter. And if anyone at home had ever slurped it as noisily as the Muslims did at Ali’s party, Claire would have fainted away with shame.

An odd feeling came over Farid. It was a mingled sensation of fear, curiosity, closeness and distance. He felt attracted to it, as if part of his soul were at home in these surroundings. He had never known such closeness in any Christian house. After that his fascination led him to accept any invitation from a Muslim fellow pupil, in the hope of discovering the secret of that mysterious attraction.

Kamal Sabuni didn’t really stand out at school, where he was considered rich but dim. For that very reason, his mother and siblings were glad to meet the pale boy Farid who, so Kamal had told them, was top of the class. They wanted him to come back often, and visit by visit he learned to know more about the differences between the lives of Christians and Muslims. The Sabunis had been textile merchants since the Middle Ages, so they were seriously rich. They dressed like Europeans, but still seemed a hundred times more Arab than his own parents. Strange how near and yet how far they often appeared to him. It wasn’t like visiting his friend Josef, whose home lost all interest for him as time went by; when Farid stood at Kamal’s door it was always like visiting for the first time. The maid knew him well, but every time she impersonally asked what he wanted.

Here, as in no other Muslim house, all rooms were open to him, even the most private, and in no other family was he so confused by the switch from Islamic to European ways and back again. The same family that strictly segregated the sexes in public enjoyed sensuous physical contact within their own four walls. Once Kamal’s eldest sister Dalal even became so aroused by flirting with her husband during a meal that she had to leave the room with him. When they had been away for some time Farid guessed what was going on. To make sure, he asked to go to the bathroom, and on the way heard Kamal’s sister moaning in orgasm. The bed creaked, and his heart raced. He felt guilty, like a child who has stolen something entrusted to him. In the bathroom he calmed down, and finally went back, hoping to hear more, but this time all was quiet. The couple took their time, and no one else at table paid any attention to their absence. They didn’t return until the dessert course, and although their hair was combed and they were freshly perfumed, they looked a little drowsy.

Baker Sahed, a well-known painter who was President of the Damascus Academy of Art, had spend months portraying members of the family. He sat at his easel in the drawing room and painted and painted; his work never came to an end. Farid had a feeling that the artist was going slow on purpose to keep up his intimate association with the family and their rich friends, and in fact many commissions were said to have come his way through the Sabunis.

Kamal couldn’t stand the painter. The man was a closet gay, he told Farid, and kept pawing him “down there” as if by accident. There was something feminine about the artist’s movements, his voice was high as a eunuch’s, and the look in his eyes betrayed his desire for young men. As for his elaborately phrased request — how would the young gentleman like to pose naked in his studio, as model for the statue of Youth that he was planning? — Kamal could only laugh nastily. Strangely, his mother had no objection to the idea at all. Somehow, thought Farid, Muslims have a healthier attitude to their bodies than we Christians do, they enjoy them more. They wash themselves before cleansing their souls, evidence in itself of their high regard for the body.

After that first visit when Kamal proudly played his latest records, Farid went to see him almost every week, and his family made it very obvious that they approved of his friendship with their son. For one thing was clear to them: Kamal didn’t take school seriously, or his teachers either, men whose salaries were less than his own pocket money. His mother, however, realized that his classmate was ambitious and her son respected him. Farid enjoyed the affection of the Sabuni family. Soon they wanted him to stay for a while when he called, even if Kamal had forgotten that they were to meet and was out somewhere in Damascus. One of his three sisters Dalal, Latifa and Dunia, or their mother would insist on his coming in to drink lemonade or tea before he left again, and they kept him company meanwhile. Sometimes this was rather too much of a good thing for Farid, because he could see how agitated the family usually became when a man visited. With him, however, the sisters would begin to wander around casually after a while, often clad only in a thin neg-ligée or a see-through house dress, which always made him leave in a hurry, to avoid feeling that he was sexless and they didn’t need any protection from him.

One day in January 1953 Farid went to help Kamal with an essay. The black maid, indifferent to him as usual, took him to the drawing room. This time Dunia, the youngest of the three sisters, was sitting for the painter. A group of four or five young people were fooling around and making faces to tease her. The artist despairingly appealed for peace and quiet. Kamal was leader of the gang. Suddenly, Farid saw Rana. He later found out that this was her first visit to her friend Dunia’s home.

Curiously enough, he took her for a Muslim girl at first, and she too took him for a Muslim. Unlike purely Muslim names such as Muhammad, Ali, Ayesha, and Fatima, or the typically European names like George, Michael, and Therese that were given to Christians, the names Farid and Rana said nothing definite about anyone’s religious affiliations. Farid means unique, valuable, and Rana means the beauty who attracts the gaze.

She thought he was related to the Sabuni family. She was particularly fascinated by his voice and his hands, but then she felt sudden alarm, painfully aware that she was stumbling into something for which her aunt Jasmin had paid the bitter price of death. Jasmin too had first fallen in love with her Jalal’s voice and hands. When he spoke, so she had told Rana just before she was murdered, she felt weak, and when he touched her with his finely shaped fingers she was lost.

Rana tried to ignore Farid. Ever since her arrival she had been busy keeping Kamal at arm’s length anyway, while he made eyes at her and indulged in suggestive remarks. He claimed boldly that if a Christian like Rana loved him, he’d convert to Christianity at once even if it cost him his life. And he laughed brazenly and said then at least he’d be a true martyr to love. Rana didn’t like such jokes. She took very little notice of Kamal, but did not answer back sharply either, not wishing to risk her friendship with his sister. For secretly Dunia was opposed to her family’s Westernization. Following the Islamic tradition, she wanted to marry a powerful Muslim and look up to him. “Everything passes — love, virility, beauty. What matters to me is feeling deep respect for a fine man,” she had told Rana even before she was fourteen. She was one of those people who know, by the time they are ten, exactly what they want and who they will be.

But unlike Kamal, this other boy couldn’t simply be overlooked. Soon the essay was finished, and the two of them came back to the drawing room. Farid was preceded by his laugh, infectious laughter that almost pushed the windows open. The whole room suddenly seemed full of fresh air. Even years later Rana often remembered that moment, and how ever since then she had thought of her love for Farid as opening a window to let in fresh air. He surrounded her with his laughter, beguiled her with his attentions, bewitched her with his brilliant talk. It was strange, but she felt both restless and at rest when he was there, and after her first two meetings with him she caught her heart racing whenever she was visiting the Sabunis and the doorbell rang. And if Farid really did come through the door she felt the blood shoot into her face, and didn’t know where to look.

As either chance or her friend Dunia would have it, Rana and he sat beside each other at one of these encounters, when everyone was drinking tea.

“Where are you from?” asked Farid circumspectly, for whatever part of town she named could be a clue to her religion. Something Kamal had said made him wonder whether Rana was a Muslim after all.

“We live in the Salihiye quarter,” she replied. It was a high-class district where both Christians and Muslims lived. “What about you?”

“In Bab Tuma, not far from the gate,” said Farid. His answer was not strictly accurate, for the Bab Tuma gate was over fifteen hundred metres from his house. He should really have named the eastern gate, Bab Sharqi, less than a hundred metres from the entrance to their alley. But saying “Bab Sharqi” told no one anything. All religious communities lived together in that part of town, whereas Bab Tuma was the quintessentially Christian quarter. The reply did not fail to take effect. Rana pricked up her ears.

“Oh, so you live among Christians?” she asked, smiling.

“What do you mean, among them? I am a Christian,” he replied. Rana’s heart was racing. She began to laugh.

“What’s so funny?” he asked, surprised.

“Nothing. I’m laughing because I thought you were a Muslim. I’m a Christian too,” she said quietly, so that only he could hear her. She blushed.

“I’m glad, although religion doesn’t really make any difference to me,” Farid replied. His relief made his assumed indifference less than plausible.

“I feel the same, although it makes a difference to the rest of the world,” said Rana, and grief immediately came into her face. Farid looked at her, and at that moment he was lost. He had to take a deep breath in case his heart stopped beating.

He sought her hand under the table, and when he touched her Rana jumped, just for a moment, but then placed her hand firmly in his. And for a minute the earth stood still and the world became a place of infinite peace. At that moment there were only two people in all Damascus, sitting there holding hands. A deep calm hovered almost audibly above their heads. Then the normal world came back, with its noise and the tea-drinking and Rana’s friend’s laughter.

“The rest of us are still here too,” whispered Dunia with a meaning look as she handed the two of them their tea. Rana and Farid woke up, quite shocked to find that the world was still in full swing. Even before leaving the Sabuni house, they had arranged to meet again in Sufaniye Park near Bab Tuma.

He had picked up the information that her father was a lawyer and her surname was Shahin. As Shahin is a common name in all Middle Eastern countries, it told him nothing at first, but later that night he was overcome by anxiety: could Rana be a daughter of the Shahin clan of Mala, his family’s arch-enemies? The forty-year-old feud between them had only recently flared up again. Since January, in fact, all hell had been let loose, and his father was now triumphantly celebrating some severe setback or other suffered by the Shahins.

Farid tossed and turned uneasily in bed. He woke early next day. His mother was surprised by his grave face, and even more by his first remark to her.

“Do you know which of the Shahins are on bad terms with our family? Is one of them a lawyer?” he asked even before taking his first sip of tea.

Claire stroked her son’s head. “If you’ve lived with a Mushtak for as many years as I have, you know about their enemies the Shahins from great-grandson to great-great-grandfather. Why?”

“Oh, nothing. I was only asking. I met someone whose surname is Shahin,” he said, glossing over the facts. She smiled at his poor attempt at camouflage.

“There are Shahins everywhere, but it’s only the Mala family that the Mushtaks hate. Let me think,” said Claire. “Yes, I believe one of them is a lawyer or a judge. I don’t know for sure, but I could soon find out. A friend of mine knows him. Shall I ask her?”

“No, no, never mind,” replied Farid. He had made up his mind to ask Rana himself.

He was absent-minded all day. His chemistry teacher was the first to notice. “Our promising chemist has gone missing today,” he said, when he had asked the class a question and Farid just went on staring into space. This remark too passed him by. Only the laughter of the class roused him.

“What? Why?” he stammered.

“I was asking about the difference between olefins and paraffins,” said the teacher patiently, without a trace of sarcasm.

“Paraffins are saturated hydrocarbons and olefins are unsaturated.”

“Correct,” said the teacher, admiring Farid’s ability to come up with the right answer even when his mind was on something else, while the rest of the class were concentrating hard and still couldn’t reply. That boy will be a chemist some day, he thought to himself, smiling with satisfaction.

11. An Obstacle

He couldn’t eat lunch. Claire had laid the table for him and then went to her neighbour’s, to help prepare the house for the arrival of a hundred mourners in a few hours’ time. Faris, the neighbour’s husband, had been fifty-nine and sound as a bell when his head suddenly dropped on his chest as he drank his morning coffee. “Faris! Oh God, Faris!” his wife cried out, full of foreboding. But her husband had taken her cry away with him into eternity.

Many of the neighbouring women were hurrying to the house to help. Some cooked food, others brewed huge quantities of coffee. Claire and her friend Madeleine were busy arranging borrowed chairs in the inner courtyard, with a sofa and an armchair for the bishop and the priest. The late Faris had been an important man in the Catholic community of Damascus, sitting on almost all the church committees.

Farid smartened himself up and finally rubbed his face with some of his father’s eau de toilette. It had a pleasantly fresh orange-blossom scent. When his mother came home in the afternoon, she found his lunch untouched.

Sufaniye Park is next to the Christian Bab Tuma quarter. Farid gave himself plenty of time to get there, and still it took him only ten minutes. He was sweating. It was March, but almost as hot as summer. There was no sign of Rana anywhere.

After a while she came walking through the park, and saw him sitting lost in thought on one of the benches. She thought he looked wonderful in his white shirt, white trousers and beige leather shoes. His brown skin gleamed in the sunlight. Tall and thin as he was, he looked almost like an Italian, as if he might be a foreigner among the other rather stout figures out in the park on this warm day.

Suddenly Farid looked up. He saw her, and they both laughed. He kissed her for the first time, though only on the cheek, but his lips briefly brushed her mouth.

“Ooh, look, he kissed her,” a boy told his mother, who was playing cards with him on a brightly coloured quilt spread on the grass.

“They’re brother and sister. Anyone can see that. Your turn to play a card,” she reproved him.

Farid was slightly disappointed when he told Rana how his thoughts had kept him awake last night, and heard that she herself had slept better than ever before. Obviously the question of his own surname hadn’t yet occurred to her. Damascenes were not particularly interested in surnames. He asked what her father’s first name was.

“Basil. Why are you interested?”

“Because I want to know which Shahins you are,” he replied. And he felt even more vexed with himself as he mentioned his suspicion that she might be one of the Shahin clan from Mala, his own family’s enemies.

“So you come from Mala? And you’re one of those Mushtaks?” asked Rana in surprise.

He nodded.

“I thought you were half-European. So my feet haven’t carried me very far from that dunghill of a place,” she said, with disappointment in her voice.

“You’re from Mala too?” asked Farid, barely audibly, because he already knew the answer.

She nodded in silence. Her laughter was gone.

He took her hand. It was cold, and he felt that Rana was trembling.

“He’s not her brother,” Farid heard the boy on the quilt tell his mother.

“Play your cards,” she crossly told her son. “It’s none of our business! Are you playing cards or setting up as a marriage broker?”

Rana looked at Farid. She saw longing and sorrow in his eyes, and although she was very much afraid, she knew for certain at that moment that she wanted to live with him. But next minute she remembered her mother’s words: “A Muslim is still a human being, but the Mushtaks are rats! Rats! Rats!” The voice echoed through her head.

“Did you hear about my family’s latest catastrophe?” she asked.

He nodded, and he realized she knew that the Mushtaks were held to blame for the arrest of Rana’s uncle and the financial ruin of the entire Shahin family.

She didn’t know much about the feud between the two clans, she was just aware that there was one name her parents always repeated when they wanted to suggest something ugly, malicious, contemptible and hateful, and that name was Mushtak.

“Why does life have to be so complicated?” asked Rana.

“Because I’m a walking disaster area,” he replied. There were tears in his eyes, for at that moment he saw the mighty wall that was rising in front of him, and he was in despair because he couldn’t get over it.

She kissed him, and he didn’t know what to do. Her lips were cold; it was a strange feeling. He wasn’t carried away as much as he had expected; instead, he saw himself like an actor on screen and tried to embrace Rana as an actor would. She laughed. He kissed her on the mouth.

“That’s not the way a brother kisses his sister,” said the boy. His mother took no notice. She was dealing the cards again.

12. In Love

That spring of 1953 Farid didn’t want to go to Mala for Easter, not at any price. He claimed that he wasn’t well and wanted to rest. Couldn’t his father, he asked, make an exception just for once?

Elias Mushtak wouldn’t hear of any exceptions or compromises. The entire family must go to the village and publicly commemorate his father. They would also celebrate the latest ignominious defeat inflicted on his enemies of the Shahin clan.

“You can wear the city around your neck like a jewel the rest of the year, but we all belong in Mala for this one week,” he said calmly but implacably. Any further argument, as usual, was futile. What Elias said was law. Even Claire seldom protested.

So Farid obeyed, and went up into the mountains with the others in a very bad temper. That year he noticed for the first time how dangerously his father drove along the winding road. Three times, he almost crashed into vehicles coming the other way. Farid pictured himself falling into the abyss. It was always his father’s fault, but Elias Mushtak cursed the other drivers at the top of his voice.

The higher up the mountain road the car made its way, the bleaker and more unattractive the boy found the landscape. And it seemed to be reflected in his face. A moment came when his mother noticed the grief in it as he stared at their surroundings. It was very unusual for him to look like that. He’s in love, she thought, unhappily in love. And Claire was not wrong.

13. Scruples

All the Mushtaks arrived in Mala on Good Friday, in relays, and light and music filled their long-deserted houses again.

As if they had been waiting all winter for this solemn moment, the five village boys came to the Mushtak villa in their best clothes next morning, making a rather shy and restrained noise under the big balcony until Farid heard them and asked them in for a lemonade, as he did every year. They liked it very much, particularly with ice cubes from the only electric refrigerator in the village at that time, which of course belonged to the Mushtaks. Sticking to their usual custom of the last few years, as they drank their lemonade on the balcony they decided to go for a picnic under the huge old elm tree on the hill after church on Easter Sunday. From that vantage point, you could think of the village as charmingly small and insignificant, the way the boys liked it. Furthermore, no one could catch them smoking up on the hill. They kept watch through the binoculars on anyone and anything moving further down. They didn’t really have anything to fear during Easter week, for no one else felt like going up to the distant elm tree when festivities were in full swing in the middle of the village.

So next day, soon after church, Farid and his five friends set off uphill to the elm tree. His mother had packed as much food as if he and all the others were emigrating to America. The contents were pure delight for the Mala boys, who these days brought nothing with them but their appetite for any number of strange delicacies.

When they reached the elm they lit a small fire on the spot where shepherds, stopping to rest on the hill, had lit their fires for decades. Farid wasn’t hungry, and gave the other his sandwiches. But he drank the strong, smoky tea and enthusiastically described the beautiful women of the capital city to his friends. The farmers’ sons relished his exciting descriptions, and couldn’t get enough of them.

They sat there for hours, feeding the fire with stout branches and thistles, and warming themselves even more on the women’s bodies delivered up by Farid to their wild imaginations.

But suddenly the usually silent Matta said this was the last time he’d be with them. Hesitating slightly, he poked the embers of the fire with a twig. “My father’s a distant cousin of the new abbot of some monastery in the north. I have to go into it. They need novices, and there are hardly enough priests these days for all the Christian villages. But I don’t want to go.” And then he fell silent again.

“Oh, come on, what’s the matter with that? It’s better than this dump. All you can do here when you finish school is feed goats, grow wheat, and have children. It’s worth leaving Mala for the good life in the monastery. I’ve heard everyone has a bed to himself there,” said Simeon the beekeeper Isaak’s son, trying to encourage his friend.

“That’s true, it’s something to look forward to.” Butros, son of the shepherd Fadlu, joined in the conversation. “It’ll be worth going into the monastery just to get away from your brothers and sisters farting at night.”

But Matta shook his head.

“No, really,” Butros persisted, “you ought to be glad. You’ll get clean clothes and enough to eat. And you’ll learn a lot more than in our lousy school here. What else do you want?”

Simeon went on cheering him up. “Yes, and these days priests live like millionaires.”

“But what’s he going to do with the prick between his legs? Those monks in black aren’t allowed to marry,” pointed out Ghassan, the vegetable dealer Tanius’s son. Matta smiled grimly.

“Oh, he can put it in olive oil to keep it fresh and crisp,” joked Butros, “until one of those randy women comes along confessing that she needs three men a day plus her own husband or she can’t sleep at night.” He turned to Matta himself. “And then she asks you, ‘What am I to do?’ And you say, like the man of God you are, ‘My daughter, consider your husband and the other three your main course, and have me for dessert.’”

Butros laughed a lot at what he considered his own excellent joke. The other boys laughed too, and even Matta smiled faintly. Only Farid was quiet.

“What’s the place called?” he asked.

“The monastery of St. Sebastian.”

Farid knew that it was on the Mediterranean coast. “It’s a good one,” he said, pretending enthusiasm out of sympathy. But Matta’s face remained unmoved. He looked as if he were desperately trying to find a way out of an invisible maze.

When the sun set they rose to go home. Instead of fetching water from the nearby spring to put out the embers, the five others lazily pissed on the ashes. Only Farid refrained.

The boys laughed at him. He didn’t dare piss just because he was superstitious, they said. For in the village it was thought that if you pissed on a hearth your pee would hit the Devil, who likes to swelter in any fire, and he’d be so angry that he’d strike men impotent and light an inextinguishable fire in their wives’ cunts, forcing the women to cuckold their husbands. The goatherd Habib, who used to screw not only his wife and his maidservant every week but his forty goats too, had been impotent, so rumour had it, ever since he drank too much tea one night and was too lazy to move a few steps away from the fire on the hearth. Then the Devil hissed with anger, and his hairy hand shot out of the embers and scratched Habib’s glans. The poor man jumped and felt a strange chill in his limbs, like a snowstorm sweeping through his bones.

Next day, so the story continued, he felt unwell and went to Damascus to be examined and cured. In vain. A week later his prick was dried up, wrinkled, and dark brown. It looked like an old fig. Ten days later it simply fell off. Habib didn’t even feel any pain. He saw his prick lying in bed beside him early in the morning. At first he thought it was a black olive, but then he wondered how an olive could have come into his bed. All he had left was a hole above his testicles. And after that, so the tale went, his wife went flitting about like a fairy every night — in search of a man.

Later, a distant aunt told Claire the true story of the goatherd. Farid pretended to be asleep on the sofa, and heard that the wily man had served up this tall story about pissing on the fire to his simple-minded wife so that she wouldn’t discover the truth.

“And what was that?” asked Claire, amused.

“The fact was that the goatherd was insatiable and visited the whores in Damascus every month. There he met the famous Nariman. All the citizens of Damascus are in awe of her, and it’s not for nothing they call her She Who Sucks You Dry. And it was Nariman, of all people, whom the miserly goatherd refused to pay one day, saying she hadn’t given him a good time. So she sucked his penis away to punish him, and sent him off with nothing but the husk of it,” said the aunt, laughing. “Now he has only a limp rag between his legs — you could dry your hands on it, but there’s no pleasure to be had from it any more.”

Up on the hill under the elm, however, superstition was not Farid’s reason for holding back. He was violently lovesick for the first time in his life. His lovesickness not only took away his appetite and left him sleepless at night, it even made him unable to pass water that day. But he couldn’t and wouldn’t tell the village boys about his love. They were between fourteen and sixteen, they’d have laughed at him and insulted Rana with their coarse remarks. Love doesn’t tolerate coarse tongues, and the tongues of the village boys were coarser than a rasp.

However, there was another reason for him not to breathe a word about his love. Rana had sworn him to silence, for if the secret of their love came to light she feared for her life. And Farid knew from the evidence of his own eyes that her fears were not exaggerated. The previous summer young Ayesha had indeed paid with her life for love. She was a butcher’s daughter, and the whole village was talking about her relationship with the bus driver Bassam, whose family were at daggers drawn with Ayesha’s parents. Both families were Muslims, part of a small minority in the otherwise Christian village of Mala. Their dispute, which began over a large consignment of smuggled cigarettes, had led to three dead and over ten injured on both sides within the space of five years. The original cause of it, the cigarettes, retreated entirely into the background. The blood that had been shed now lay between the two families.

Ayesha’s parents, relations, and friends urged her to leave Bassam, but he was the only man she wanted. In the end they wrote a letter to her brother, who was earning his living as a labourer in Saudi Arabia, and he came back in a hurry. He offered her immediate marriage to his school friend Hassan, who was in the police, but Ayesha wouldn’t hear of it, and met Bassam secretly to tell him about her brother’s threats. She hoped they would induce her lover to flee abroad with her until tempers had calmed down again, but she didn’t guess that her brother was in the barber’s on the village square at that very moment, keeping watch on her. Bassam drove out of the village with his lover. It was afternoon, and he had an hour’s break before the next journey to Damascus. Where he took Ayesha no one knew, but an hour later they came back in the bus.

Farid was standing on the balcony drinking tea when Ayesha climbed out of the bus in the village square. Her brother marched out of the barber’s shop opposite the bus stop, crying, “Treacherous woman, you have let an enemy of our family defile you!”

He fired three shots. Farid’s glass fell from his hand. The bus driver, realizing his danger, stepped on the gas and saved his own life. Ayesha uttered a loud and terrified scream. “Mother, help me!” Then she died, there in the middle of the square.

14. Atonement

The fire wasn’t extinguished until midday. Then the crowd came home exhausted and dirty. Many of them, without naming names, were cursing “the boys”, meaning Farid and his friends.

Farid’s father wouldn’t say a word to him for two hours. Elias showered, dressed, and then went to the café in the village square, where the men discussed the matter until early evening. It was more the shock than any material loss that upset most of the farmers. Some of them were merely amused to think that one of the Mushtaks’ own offspring had spoiled their Easter for them, others thought none of it worth mentioning. But the Shahins were triumphant.

Elias Mushtak didn’t come back from the café until it was time for the evening meal. His face was grey and set. He muttered something to Claire, and she guessed that he had already come to a decision.

“After the summer vacation you’re going into the monastery of St. Sebastian,” he shouted at his son. “And you can be glad I don’t murder you on the spot. You’re the first Mushtak ever to burn down a sacred tree. You’ve dragged the name of the Mushtaks through the mud, and you must atone for it. And when you’re a priest later, saying your prayers, I hope you’ll remember that you owe the village something.”

“But I don’t want to go into a monastery,” said Farid, looking his father straight in the eye. Elias slapped his face. He fell over on his back, hitting his head on the floor.

“Stop it!” cried the horrified Claire. She began crying, ran to her son and helped him up.

“I didn’t do anything!” he told his father, with tears in his eyes. The second slap hit him. Farid stumbled.

“If I say you’re going into a monastery then you’re going into a monastery, and you don’t say another word, not even ‘yes’. Understand?”

“It’s all right,” wailed Claire, “he’ll do it, but don’t kill him.”

Farid wanted to shout that he wasn’t going to leave Damascus and Rana for a single second, but fear of his father paralysed his tongue.

His mother gently pushed Elias into the bedroom, where she talked to him for a long time. But Farid just heard his father repeating, over and over, that the monastery would do him good. Claire wept again. For a moment he was furious, and it occurred to him for the first time that he’d have to murder his father some day.

15. Suspicion

Next day, from the balcony, he saw his friends outside the house. They were playing marbles in the village square. He quickly dressed, but when he went to join them, they froze and avoided his eyes. Finally they quietly went away without a word. Only Matta stayed, smiling at him.

“What’s the matter with them?”

“They’re afraid.”

“Afraid? Why?”

“Because they’re cowards. They don’t want to be seen with you any more and be thought of as fire-raisers,” replied Matta.

“What about you?”

“To hell with the village. You’re my brother,” said the boy quietly, almost indifferently.

“I want to go up to where the fire was again. Coming?” asked Farid.

“Of course,” said Matta, almost cheerfully.

Two hours later they were at the top of the hill, where a great surprise awaited them. The elm had been growing as two different halves for a long time. One half was fresh and strong, the other old and dried up. Now Farid and Matta saw that only the dried-up part of the tree had burned. The other part was intact, slightly blackened with soot, yes, but otherwise not even singed. The really surprising thing was that the unharmed part of the tree was the one right next to the site of their fire.

“That’s odd, don’t you think? The spark must have flown past this half of the tree in a semicircle and then set the other half on fire. That’s practically a miracle,” said Matta, staring into space.

“Yes, it really is funny,” Farid agreed. His thoughts were with Rana again. Where are you? he whispered deep inside himself. I need you.

At that moment she was talking to her best friend Dunia Sabuni, because otherwise her thoughts would have choked her. She was telling Dunia about the feud between the two families, but she was disappointed by her friend’s down-to-earth approach.

“That’s all very well in a movie, but it doesn’t work in real life. The family is stronger, it will crush you both. And then I’m afraid it’s not as good as the stories of Madjnun Leila or Romeo and Juliet. You’d better steer clear of that boy and find a steady respectable man, one your parents will admire, and then they’ll leave you alone and no one can stop you warming yourself on the memory of this romance of yours,” she said, with a sudden clear peal of laughter. “But only in your thoughts,” she was quick to add. “Everything else will be your husband’s, understand?” And she laughed again, but this time with much meaning.

At that moment Rana heard Farid’s voice, and she cried almost indignantly, “But he needs me, and you can’t just run away and let someone down.”

“What poet said that? Tell me his name and I’ll show you how he let those fine sayings loose on the world, and then stayed with his wife like a good boy. No, my dear, you’re a dreamer, and it’s my thankless task to wake you up.”

Farid heard a voice inside his head, saying: I’m here with you.

“And where’s the shame that Ghassan was talking about just now?” Matta brought him back to the hilltop and the elm. “This dry half belonged to the Mushtaks anyway. The other half, the living one, belongs to the church of St. Giorgios. But never mind, the main thing is no one was hurt and no fields were damaged either.”

At these simple words, Farid himself suddenly couldn’t understand why his father had been talking about a sin. Surely not just for a chunk of rotten wood, he said to himself.

When word went around in Mala that the fire had spared St. Giorgios’s half of the tree, many people took it as a kind of final proof from heaven. It was the work of Providence that a descendant of old George Mushtak, of all people, had burned his part of the tree.

A week after the fire, Farid’s father spoke normally to his son again. At lunch he suddenly asked in a perfectly friendly tone, “Pass the water jug, would you?”

Claire had insisted that Elias must be reconciled with Farid, and then she herself would back the idea of sending the boy to the monastery, although only to ensure that he had a good education. She had agreed when she learned that the monastery of St. Sebastian was run by Jesuits. But her mind was firmly made up on one point: her son was not going to become a priest.

Encouraged by his father’s friendliness, Farid told him what he had seen on the site of the fire.

“That doesn’t mean anything. There was a strong wind, it could have blown a spark on to a dry thistle, and then the thistle started the fire that burned everything around the tree, but fire doesn’t have much chance with green wood. A rotten part is different,” replied Elias calmly.

“Saliha the dairywoman thinks one of the Shahins was behind the fire. She says they wanted to spoil our Easter,” Claire told him.

Elias dismissed the idea. “We mustn’t look for Shahins behind every silly trick. What your son and his friends did was …” Elias hesitated as she cast him a warning glance, “… was a stupid, childish prank,” he finished, toning down what he had been about to say.

This conversation didn’t help matters. Apparently his father had had the monastery plan in his head for a long time, and was just waiting for an opportunity to carry it out. And when the fire burned the elm tree, that opportunity seemed, in a strange way, to have fallen right into his hands.


Women are like elm trees, beating them does no good.

DAMASCUS, MALA, 1907 — 1920

16. Sarka’s Laughter

At noon on a clear, cold spring day, two strangers came riding down the dusty road to Mala in great haste. Even before they reached the mill on the way into the village, most of the villagers could see that the couple needed help.

The riders stopped outside the church of St. Giorgios. The barber came out of his shop and offered them fresh water.

“What’s the name of this church?” asked the elder of the two.

“The church of St. Giorgios,” said a young shepherd who happened to be in the square outside it.

The barber thought the stranger on his fine white mount must be about fifty. A woman dressed in man’s clothing was sitting on the vigorous black horse. She had blue eyes, so blue that you couldn’t look at them for long without smiling in confusion. She was very young, and the villagers took her for the man’s daughter.

He asked to see the village elder. There was no pleading note in his voice. The man he wanted, Mobate, lived in the big house opposite the mill on the way into Mala. For generations, village elders had been drawn from the Mobate clan. They were good at dealing with friend and foe alike, and had shrewdly found out how to settle quarrels between the other clans and avert the despotism of the Ottoman authorities while always staying on top themselves.

Old Daud Mobate had died a year before. A week later, the most powerful men in the village elected his forty-year-old son Habib to succeed him. He was even wilier and a smoother operator than his father, who had been jokingly nicknamed “The Eel” in his lifetime.

At that time, as prescribed by the Arab law of hospitality, a stranger could stay in the village as the elder’s guest for three days without a word to explain why he was on the road.

“George Mushtak,” replied Mobate’s guest when an old farmer civilly asked his name. “And this is my wife Sarka,” he added. The woman laughed, a clear sound, and laid her head against her husband’s arm. He was sitting beside her on the rug, like everyone else present. Her new name amused her. Every time they met anyone her lover invented two new names, one for himself and one for her. But she particularly liked the sound of Sarka, the blue woman.

Jusuf Shahin, the richest man in the village, cast a disapproving glance at the woman. He thought her laughter unseemly. Later he used to say he had known at that moment that the devil was in her.

On the other hand, he liked the man. He seemed mature and courageous, and said little, but what he did say came swift as an arrow from his mouth and hit its mark.

George Mushtak told them straight out that he had fled here because of the woman at his side. He and she were Christians, he said, but a rich Muslim farmer was determined to marry Sarka by force. He, Mushtak, had chosen to come to Mala because even as a child he had heard of the chivalry and hospitality of the village.

Mobate sat up and took notice. He knew that his grandfather had once found himself in considerable difficulties when he granted the protection of the village to a fugitive. Soon after that, Mala had been surrounded. Its attackers wanted the villagers to surrender the man they were after. Their leader hated him so much that he didn’t even respect the sacred Arab custom which obliges a host to deliver himself up to death sooner than his guest.

The village held out against the attackers for weeks, until their leader and his exhausted warriors finally withdrew. After that, however, the men of Mala had urged their village elder to look twice at the next stranger before giving his word and plunging them all into misfortune again.

“You may have your three days, but do your pursuers know you rode to Mala?”

“No,” replied George Mushtak grimly, “or I wouldn’t have come. I went a long way round, and there’s been no one on my trail for days. I give you my word.”

“Good,” said Mobate, “then in three days’ time I’ll tell you whether you can stay here. Now let us eat and make you welcome.” He clapped his hands, and the meal was immediately carried in, as if the women had been just waiting on the other side of the door. Sarka laughed.

While the guests enjoyed the stranger’s stories and admired his wife’s beauty, the village elder sent three reliable young men to the lookout posts on the mountains, where they could see down into the plain leading to Mala.

When there was still no sign of pursuers three days later, he felt reassured. His guest did indeed seem to have been cautious. They granted him the right to stay in Mala. Only then did the man ride away once more, leading his wife’s horse behind him. Sarka stayed in the Mobates’ house.

The women there liked the beautiful girl, but they were surprised to see that she never prayed. She didn’t say grace with them before or after meals, just sat there smiling. One of the women, feeling suspicious, asked Sarka if she was a Christian. “No,” she said. Nor was she Jewish.

“A Muslim?” asked another woman. Sarka cheerfully shook her head.

“Then what in the world are you?” cried Mobate’s sister Badia.

“Love, love is my religion,” replied Sarka with her clear laugh. And the women were charmed by her sense of humour, never guessing that she spoke the truth.

It was almost a day before George Mushtak came back and carried two heavy saddlebags into the house. They were full of gold coins.

Mobate was very pleased, since a rich man was a godsend for both the village and himself. Soon George Mushtak bought four old houses on the village square, had them pulled down, and instead built a large new property with a grand house, a garden and outhouses. Mobate helped him to acquire fields, barns and threshing floors, and before two years were up George Mushtak could compete with Jusuf Shahin, until now the richest man in the village. But it wasn’t long before the original friendship between the two men turned to enmity. There was much speculation about the reason.

The Catholics in particular were delighted to have the newcomer there. Not only did he get the Catholic church renovated at his own expense, he also backed the Catholics against the hitherto dominant Orthodox Christians. But their delight was premature.

17. Laila’s Decision

In her later years, when Sarka was alone in the house feeling sad, or wandering around at night in the dark, she always remembered herself as a little girl running through the orchard and splashing about in the brook near her parents’ home. She had been called Laila then, the world had been a game, her heart was free and unscarred. It hadn’t yet suffered the wounds of love or worn the chains of fear.

But her memory of the hammam warmed her more than anything else. The details of visits to that splendid bathhouse had remained more vivid in her mind than all the weddings, circumcisions and religious festivals of which she retained only a vague idea. Going to the hammam in Damascus with her mother had been a great event for her, one that came only two or three times a year. Over ten women and twenty girls from the neighbourhood travelled in the big cart driven by a bearded old man. Laila had felt excited anticipation whenever she saw her mother packing everything up: food, sweetmeats, tobacco secretly abstracted from her husband’s supplies, combs, soap, henna and bath towels, although they never used the towels because there were much better ones in the hammam.

Laila could still see it before her eyes: those beautiful rooms, the dome, the tiny windows letting coloured light shine in, and then all the fun of sliding around on the soapy marble floors with the other girls. And the women sitting together, and their stories, the laughter and all that food. Laila was scared the first time she saw the fat lady who was always putting leeches on her breasts, belly, and legs. For a moment she thought they were worms growing out of the woman’s body.

Only later, when Laila noticed her breasts beginning to swell, did she suddenly notice the glint in men’s eyes out in the street, and the women’s whispers in the hammam intensified and became a definite plan. Her mother was the first to say anything to her straight out. Hassan, son of the big farmer Mahmud Kashat, had his eye on her. The old midwife Fatima had told her so. He’d met Laila and liked her. Now he was going to indulge himself by taking her as his fifth wife.

“How many hearts does this man have?” Laila had asked, out of sheer curiosity.

“He’s rich enough to keep ten wives, child, just like his father. With him you’ll be able to fill your belly, wash in clean water every week, lie down in a bed without bugs and lice, and sleep easily. That’s not bad payment for the bit of pleasure you give a man. Look at me. I have to bear that burden by myself, and slave for your father at home and in the fields as well. But you’ll be sharing Hassan Kashat with four other women. His slaves will feed you and pamper you like a princess. And all that for a little carrying on every fifth night,” said her mother, who had lived through years of famine and bloodsucking insects.

The old midwife Kadriye, who was visiting that day, drew on the water pipe that Laila’s mother had prepared for her. Water gurgled in the belly of the pipe. “And his thing isn’t as big as all that. There’s nothing for you to fear. Besides, he’ll go far in the world. A famous soothsayer has prophesied a great future for Hassan. When she saw him,” said the midwife, suddenly waxing enthusiastic, “she seized his hand and kissed it. Alarmed and nauseated, the young gentleman pushed the woman away from him, but she clung to his cloak saying she must do it, she wanted to be the first to kiss the hand of a future king of the Arabs. The young gentleman, oh, wasn’t he just astonished! He gave her a lira and thought she would run off with the reward for her flattery, but the woman looked him straight in the eye and said she didn’t want his money, but he was not to forget her when he became king, as he would one day. Now she was holding both his hands. He would have to climb over a thousand dead bodies to reach his throne, she said, but he was to marry a fifth wife whose sign was the moon and whose name was the night, and that’s you, my child,” the midwife ended her eloquent speech in a kindly tone of voice. She knew that Laila had a birthmark shaped like a crescent moon above her heart.

Laila knew the rich farmer Kashat’s son. He was short, and had a long, dark beard and big ears which didn’t seem to fit his almost dwarfish face at all. His eyebrows were comically crooked. He had an ugly mouth, with the huge lower lip split like a camel’s. Although he was always elegantly dressed, as if he were going to a party, he never laughed, and always walked with a stoop, as if he had all the cares of the world on his shoulders.

And that dwarf wants me as his fifth wife, thought Laila, fretting. “But I want to be the first,” she said, and didn’t understand why her mother was horrified.

“For God’s sake, my child!” replied that gentle and devout woman.

Laila hardly knew her father. She addressed him as “sir”, and knew that his name was Muhammad Khairi. He was hardly ever there, and when he did come home he didn’t want to see his children. He ate alone, slept alone, and talked to no one. Laila’s mother, on the other hand, slept in a small room with the children. Sometimes she slipped into her husband’s room in the night, and then her daughter heard the wooden bedstead creaking while her mother groaned in pain. Laila had hated her father for that.

He dealt in spices and dried fruits, and often had to make long journeys to see his suppliers. Their large orchard and vegetable patch, however, was left to the care of Laila’s mother and the children. Although Laila had never known the real hunger that plagued many families, they had sometimes been forced to live on meagre rations.

When she told her father that she wanted to be a first wife he didn’t answer at all. But her mother told her that he had already given Hassan Kashat his word. That night Laila was so scared that, for the first time, she found it difficult to breathe. You’re going to die, an inner voice had whispered to her. I must run away, Laila told herself. At that moment her mother came over to her to pick bloodsucking bugs out of the bed. She was holding a small oil lamp in one hand, and she plunged the plump bugs in a bowl of water.

“Oh, child, you’re awake,” she had said in surprise. In the darkness Laila’s eyes looked to her larger, unfathomable.

“Tell me, Mother, how many hearts does Kashat have?”

Her mother did not reply.

Laila could no longer remember when she had first seen Nassif Jasegi, but oddly enough, on the day he spoke to her she immediately saw that this was the only man who could save her. He was the son of a rich Christian who was not particularly good at managing his fortune. The peasants cracked jokes about the “unbeliever” who had served the Sultan so long, and in return was given landed property but didn’t know what to do with it. His farm lay only a few hundred paces from Laila’s home, but her family kept its distance from the “impure” Christians.

Laila heard that these Christians prayed to blocks of wood, ate pigs and drank wine. Their shameless women sat unveiled in the company of men, and they never let their husbands take a second wife.

“Mother,” Laila had said, “those unbelieving men have only one heart, just like Muslim women.”

Her mother was scared almost to death. Her husband was asleep in the next room. She took the girl by the ear and hauled her outside. “Child, you’re out of your mind. It’s better if you marry soon. I’m dying of fear for you,” she whispered.

When Laila, undeterred, told her father for the second time that she wanted to be a first wife, he slapped her face. After that her brothers Mustafa and Yunus beat her, although they were younger than she was. Their blows came thick and fast as mosquitoes on the humid summer nights of Damascus, and as they increased and multiplied so did Laila’s questions. Her mother wept. “Child, you’re playing games with your life. We can’t break the word your father has given.”

And the midwife, seductively, told her, “Once you have a husband, you know, you’ll have his fortune, and you can send your mother lovely things every day.”

Ganging up together, they told Laila that what little prosperity her grandfather Mustafa Khairi had achieved came only because he kept his word and gave the governor of Damascus the hand in marriage of Laila’s beautiful Aunt Balkis, her father’s sister. She was the governor’s twelfth wife, but then she had turned the old man’s head with her charms and her skill in the art of love, and in less than a year he had promoted her to be his first wife.

A voice inside Laila, cold as night, told her that this story was a lie. If Balkis had been the governor’s first wife, then why did she kill herself at the age of twenty-five? Laila’s cousin Fatmeh didn’t believe Balkis had been happy either. Her grave was quite close, and Fatmeh’s family often made a pilgrimage to her resting place.

I want to come first and I want to be happy, Laila kept telling herself, and she swore not to marry Hassan Kashat.

18. Laila and the Madman

“What’s your name, lovely one?” were the first words she had heard Nassif Jasegi say. He came riding along beside the stream. She hadn’t noticed him at all, being far away in her thoughts again while her hands pulled weeds out of the radish bed. She started, and turned around. A window opened in her heart. She took a deep breath, and felt the relief of fresh air blowing in.

“Laila,” she replied. “And yours? What do they call you?”

“They call me Nassif, the Righteous Man, but I’m not righteous at all,” he replied, smiling.

“What are you, then?” she asked.

“I,” said the man, “am Madjnun Laila.”

Like all Arabs, she knew the legend of the unrequited love of her namesake Laila and the poet who went mad for love of her, singing his beloved’s praise until the day he died. His poems made the woman immortal. Very few knew his real name, and he was known simply as Laila’s madman, Madjnun Laila.

“And are you really mad?” she asked.

“Only for you,” said the man.

“You don’t look like a lunatic,” she said, examining him from his shining shoes to his clean white headcloth. Hamdi, her crazy cousin, screamed like an animal in his room with its barred window, threw his filth at everyone, and kept banging his head against the wall.

What happened next opened three more windows in her heart. Nassif Jasegi, so elegantly mounted on a noble Arab horse, said softly, “I’d run mad three hundred times over to hear you laugh.” And he jumped off his horse, stood on his head in the brook, leaped to his feet again, made faces like a monkey, climbed a tree like a cat, and from there jumped back on to his horse which, apparently used to such extraordinary behaviour, hadn’t moved from the spot.

Laila laughed out loud, and when Nassif stood on his saddle, flapped his arms and cried, “Look, I’m a little sparrow,” she could no longer keep on her feet. With a single leap he was down beside her. He squatted on the ground and looked into her eyes. He was a playmate, even though he looked like a man of mature years.

“And how many hearts do you have?” she asked quietly, and he touched her lips.

“Only one, and you have filled it entirely,” he replied.

“Nassif,” said Laila, in an almost pleading tone, and he immediately understood everything.

Years later the wild joy of those days was still fresh in her mind. Even when her brain was almost entirely eaten away she remembered the happiness of that time, an eternity ago. But when Laila met her madman and the world seemed to shake beneath her feet, what she didn’t know is that joy is very treacherous.

Her brother Mustafa was the first to see her happiness in her face. Clumsily, like a careless puppy, it gave everything away. He faced Laila, and his knife flashed. But although death was staring at her from that knife she wouldn’t deign to give it so much as a glance. Nassif alone lived in her eyes.

“You marry Hassan or you die,” said Mustafa. He was not fifteen yet, but as the firstborn son he bore his grandfather’s name and acted like a pasha. He had spoken to Hassan, said bandy-legged, snot-nosed little Mustafa, and he acted as if Kashat were a friend of his. Mustafa’s face, so like Laila’s own, was suddenly as grave as if the “jug-eared dwarf”, as Laila called Hassan Kashat to herself, had unloaded on her brother some of the grief that kept his back bent all the time. The boy had learned the words he spoke to her by heart, the way he could chant the words of the Koran sura by sura, without understanding them.

“Love or death! One is in my hand, the other in yours,” she whispered softly. Their mother, coming back from a neighbour’s at that moment, threw herself on her son, and pleaded with him until he gave her the knife.

Nassif just nodded when Laila told him all this.

Three days later a horseman muffled in a heavy cloak attacked Hassan Kashat on his way home from hunting gazelles. He struck both Hassan’s hands with a stick for so long that one of them, the left hand, was permanently crippled.

An extensive search for the man who had done it came to nothing. Only Laila knew who he was, and she smiled, but this time secretly under the covers, for she was afraid that her delight would give her away again.

The wedding was to be in March, when the almonds were in blossom. But one cold morning in February Laila, disguised as a man, mounted the black horse that Nassif was holding for her not far from her house. They rode south for two weeks, and Nassif intentionally left a trail leading to Jerusalem. Then they crossed the Holy Land going north, and continued their journey in Lebanon, but now without leaving any trail at all. Arabia was an Ottoman province at the time, and Sultan Abdulhamid had ruled with an iron hand until he was deposed in 1909, but the French had exerted pressure and Lebanon eluded his grasp. Nassif knew that, but he didn’t guess that his rival had seen through his clever idea. Kashat’s men went on hunting Nassif in Lebanon. Their master wanted him alive. By now he had found out that the horseman muffled in the cloak was none other than that Christian man from his own neighbourhood.

Laila and Nassif only just escaped a trap set for them by a monk whom Kashat had bribed. But they got away. They rode through the mountains by a circuitous route in order to reach Mala.

Only years later did Nassif discover that on one of those nights when he desired his lover, and was embracing her tenderly in their warm bed of furs, his entire family had been butchered. His two younger brothers Butros and Fuad were killed in a shoot-out, his mother and his sister Miriam were brutally murdered. The family’s possessions were robbed, and their farm burned down to its foundations. The slaughter had been carried out by Laila’s brothers and Kashat’s men. Laila’s family had thereby saved its honour in the eyes of its neighbours, and atoned for its guilt to the powerful Kashat.

Later, when Kashat mustered a whole army to try bringing as many villages as possible under his control, the girl’s brothers Mustafa and Yunus were his lieutenants and marched at the head of the troop.

And on one of the nights that Laila and Nassif spent under assumed names in inns, with Bedouin, in caves, or with village elders, she suddenly sensed something inside her. It began to throb. She took Nassif in her arms and kissed his eyes. “What will we call our son?” she asked, as if she were sure it would be a boy.

“Salman,” replied Nassif, with tears in his eyes. “The name of my father, who died far too young. I will conquer death with my son’s birth.”

On the rest of their journey Laila laughed a great deal with the man who always had death riding hard on his heels, but still thought up countless crazy ideas for his lover’s delight. He claimed that her laughter sounded like the gurgling water of a brook, and whenever he heard it he was thirsty for her. She once said, later, that during those months before they arrived in Mala, she had used up all the laughter that was meant to last her life.

19. Hyenas

Wherever they rode they met with misery and starvation. The tax collectors of the Sultan in Istanbul drained the last coins from the people’s purses, for Sultan Abdulhamid was deep in debt to the West. But a pitiless drought had descended on many parts of his Ottoman Empire, and there was nothing to be harvested but dust. Epidemics had spread, tuberculosis, plague and cholera were raging, and whole areas of the country were already depopulated. No talisman offered any hope of an end to these hardships. People were dying like flies.

Laila and Nassif had not known such wretchedness in the lush countryside south of Damascus, which was like a garden. But on their flight north, the roads were full of people who didn’t know where to go to escape the cholera. Malaria drained the light from children’s eyes.

A few young men were making their way fast in the direction of Damascus, hoping that salvation might yet be found there. It was winter. In spite of the cold weather, they walked barefoot, carrying their shoes on a string tied around their necks to save the leather. When they came close to the city they were going to wash their feet and then put their clean shoes on again. They firmly believed that they would attract more attention with a good pair of shoes.

Laila and Nassif turned away from the main roads. Their journey to Mala took them over high mountains, down through deep ravines again, and from there along winding paths up to the top of the next mountain. The winter landscape made nature harsh and forbidding. The cold was unbearable. Laila had never known anything like it. The further they wound their way into the mountains, the more she froze, yet they had only reached a thousand metres, and they would have to climb almost as high again. Laila’s heart failed her at the thought of it.

Nassif joked with her, saying that there were wolves and bears in the mountains, creatures who would eat a human being up within seconds. She begged him to stop, but he went on teasing her until the day the hyenas appeared. They were on a mountain ridge, letting the horses follow the path slowly. In many places it wasn’t even a metre wide, and the ever-hungry maw of the abyss gaped to their left. Nassif was riding a little way in front of Laila, singing softly and gazing into the distance.

The morning light had banished enough of the darkness of night for them to be able to see across the valley to the top of the next height. Suddenly Laila saw the hyenas on the other side of the abyss. They had attacked a woman walking to the nearby village with a bundle of firewood on her head. To the eye, the rising ground lay so close that not only could Laila count the hyenas, she could also see the woman’s face clearly.

“Nassif,” she screamed in horror. Startled out of his thoughts, he stopped his horse, but could not turn it. He carefully dismounted and turned to Laila, and at that moment he too saw the hyenas.

The woman was trying to drive the beasts off with a stick. They retreated briefly, then attacked again, and through their greedy howls, which sounded like laughter, the two travellers heard cries for help.

Nassif shouted and cursed, but only a single hyena looked back at him in surprise, while the others attacked the woman yet more fiercely, and no one came to her aid. Laila had no strength left. She slipped from her saddle. Nassif tied his horse to a bush, went to her and held her tight.

“I love you, Laila,” he said, and kissed her. His kiss made her frozen blood flow again.

“Can you go on?” he asked. She nodded. He helped her back into the saddle, then remounted his own horse, and sent it trotting slowly down the narrow, dangerous path. She followed him. It was the last time he ever called her Laila.

Three hours later they reached Mala. Later she said that the hyenas had been the warning sign that her days in Mala would begin with misfortune and end in misfortune too, but she ignored the sign.

20. Sarka’s Fever

After her early death in 1920, the villagers spoke ill of Sarka. Years before her death, they said, she had betrayed George Mushtak and Mala by encouraging the reapers to revolt. But Sofia the midwife defended her, saying it was her husband’s fault. A week before the birth of her first child, Sarka had fallen sick with a strange fever. It lasted two days, and she had talked nonsense. Then, soon after the delivery of the baby, she fainted and lay unconscious for hours. That had been with Salman, and later it was the same with her second child Hasib. And at Hasib’s birth, said Sofia, when the young woman came back to her senses after several hours, she herself had heard her making sounds like a wounded animal for half a day. No one could understand her. With her third child, her daughter Malake, Sarka fell into a dreadful state of derangement for a while. She screamed that her husband would hate the girl and kill her because she had the mark of a crescent moon just below her left breast, like her mother. As an experienced midwife, Sofia told George Mushtak that he should either stop getting his wife pregnant or take her to doctors in the city, but he just said angrily, “Women’s foolishness!” Sarka, he said, had nine lives, like a cat, and could bear twenty children. At the birth of their fourth child Elias, however, she fainted away again, and when she regained consciousness she didn’t recognise anyone for a while. After that she was afraid of the baby, and cried out that he was an elephant. At this point Sofia guessed that the woman had lost her wits, but George Mushtak still wouldn’t hear of it.

“The fever’s eaten her brain away,” said the midwife, and she thought that was the only reason why Sarka’s husband was able to forgive her everything later. “When she came back she was out of her mind, just a miserable creature deserving not punishment but pity.”

21. The Elm Tree

The great elm tree, with the rotten half that burned down at Easter in 1953, had a story that had imprinted itself like no other on the collective memory of the village.

Sarka had felt unwell in Mala from the first. The climate was too harsh for her, the peasants too crude, and George Mushtak didn’t love her any more now that hatred of his rivals increasingly filled his heart, leaving no room for his wife any more. Obsessed by that hatred as he was, he was no longer the Nassif who loved her laughter and understood every stirring of her emotions. Instead, he followed his instinct, which no longer saw the difference between his beloved Laila and any other woman. Hatred also left its mark on his pride, for he realized that the more women he took, the more virile he would seem to the men of the village.

A year after Salman’s birth, chance or the devil took her to the granary where George was making love to Saliha, the barber’s wife.

Sofia the midwife told anyone who would listen that she didn’t understand the man, whoring around like that but still consumed by jealousy. He ought to have been a Muslim, she said, then he would have hidden Sarka from all eyes behind a veil. He felt wretched when other men looked at his beautiful wife and she let them share in her clear laughter. But Sarka loved him alone, and as long as she could still put two and two together she was faithful to him. She had a heart as pure and transparent as glass. When her lover betrayed her, however, that glass was left with a crack the size of a star in it. She wept for four days. “You don’t love me, you don’t love me,” she repeated countless times, long after he had left the room, and she flung her head back and forth and took no notice of anything going on around her.

But George Mushtak realized that his love for her crippled him. She wasn’t well, she complained and wept all the time, as if Laila had died and Sarka was only her wretched husk. He didn’t know what to do. When he was with her, she begged him not to go away. But life outside wouldn’t wait. He couldn’t sit at her bedside for ever, holding her hand, while that bastard Jusuf Shahin was trying to destroy him.

Jusuf had married a clever woman from Aleppo. She was his closest confidante, and the secret leader of the anti-Mushtak campaign. Her name was Samia. She was a witch, but she lent her husband wings, whereas Sarka had been like a leaden weight clinging to George’s feet ever since their arrival in Mala. When little Salman began crying at night, he had another room prepared for her, on the first floor at the other end of the house, and from then on he slept more peacefully.

One night soon after the birth of her second son Hasib she felt that she couldn’t breathe. She rose from her bed and quietly went out. The wind refreshed her face. She took deep breaths of night air. The moon was shining brightly; you could almost hear the silver silence. Suddenly the yard gate sprang open, and she felt a strange current drawing her away. Like a feather with no will of its own, she flitted through the gateway and on past the church of St. Giorgios to the terraced fields. Only when she reached the distant threshing floor did she realize that she was barefoot. She turned and went back to bed, and next day she would have thought the whole thing was only a dream, but for the thistles still clinging to her dress.

A little while after that, people began whispering about a ghost that haunted the fields on nights of full moon, softly singing nursery rhymes. Those who heard that song, they said, fell victim to a spell that turned them too into children and led them to their ruin.

Sarka was indeed always out and about now when the moon was full. One night she was walking over the hill near the graveyard when she noticed a man following her. She stopped and turned to face him. He stood rooted to the spot in the moonlight. He was slender, and as beautiful as a youth. Sarka went on singing, and he listened to her song like a child.

“What do you want?” she asked. He trembled with fear, and stammered as he said he had never touched a woman yet, he would like to lay his head in her lap just once. She laughed and reached her hands out to him, but then he ran away.

He came back every night when the moon was full, but he never ventured to touch her. Instead, he always whispered, “Holy Virgin, stand by me.”

After that the villagers of Mala spoke of two ghosts. At first they laughed at the strange couple, but when the shepherd Ismail was found hanged close to the graveyard one morning the peasants were afraid. Three days before, Ismail had been saying that he was going to listen to the nocturnal singing. The ghost was a friendly one, he said, and surely they could see that nothing had happened to him yet.

The shepherd died a month after the birth of Malake, Sarka’s third baby. George Mushtak took a dislike to the child from the first, and his arch-enemy Jusuf Shahin knew why and was happy to tell other people what he thought. The baby’s father, he said, wasn’t Sarka’s husband but the handsome shepherd Ismail, who had hanged himself for love.

But many in the village believed that the ghost who wandered the fields had turned the shepherd’s wits, and they felt fear weighing them down. For it was at this of all times that they had to go out at night, because the water from the spring was running short, and was shared out between families according to a precise timetable. That way, every farmer could irrigate his field at an allotted time, and those times alternated between day and night.

So after the shepherd’s tragic death they stopped up their ears with wax by night, and if they heard a sound all the same they exclaimed, “Holy Virgin, stand by me!” As they couldn’t hear how loud they were speaking, their cries rang out from the terraced fields and echoed all the way down into the valley.

After the difficult birth of her fourth child Elias, Sarka was unwell for a long time. The midwife Sofia had to spend the night with her, in case she was needed. George Mushtak paid her generously, but he refused to listen when Sofia said it would soon be impossible for his wife to be left alone. And when the catastrophe happened, it was too late.

One hot June day in 1916, Sarka suddenly appeared in the large field. Itinerant reapers always came to Mala for the wheat harvest at the end of June, and found plenty of work for two weeks. They were badly paid, but poor pay was still better than starvation. This was the middle of the First World War, and poverty and misery reigned in the Ottoman Empire.

George Mushtak was a harsh taskmaster. Not only did he pay badly, he didn’t hesitate to whip his reapers if he caught them idling — or what he took for idling. On the other hand, he gave them employment from the first to the last day of the harvest, and he paid money, which was better for many of the reapers than the usual payment in kind. These itinerant workers went from village to village with their womenfolk, offering their services. There were many tales about the women reapers who earned five piastres for ten hours’ work by day, but three times as much by night. In Mala, harvest was also the fornication season, and for many young men it was the one chance they had in the year to satisfy their sexual urges. They saved up their piastres for those last two weeks in June.

So on that hot June day Sarka came to the field where the reapers were at work. She looked with feverish eyes at the men bending, sickle in hand, to cut the blades of wheat and lay them on the ground in bundles. Younger men then gathered them into larger sheaves, and finally carried them to the threshing floor on the backs of donkeys.

Suddenly Sarka crouched down, and to the horror of the reapers raised her dress, bared her buttocks, laughed out loud and pissed. The men looked away. One of the shocked women asked, “Aren’t you ashamed to bare your backside in front of men, mistress?” Sarka laughed and cried, “I’m never ashamed in front of cockroaches. What does it matter if they see my backside?”

“Cockroaches?” cried several of the reapers. “Cockroaches?”

“Yes, what else are you? They whip you, they screw your women, and as for you, you twirl your moustaches with pride in the evenings, thinking of the money your wives will bring home!” cried Sarka in a hoarse voice.

At that the men suddenly all shouted at once. They felt that they and their wives had been mortally insulted. A little later they killed two of George Mushtak’s men in their rage, and set his fields and some others on fire. That was the beginning of the biggest riot in the history of the village.

The reapers went through Mala, looting and murdering, setting fire to houses and to the church of St. Giorgios. The blaze quickly ate its way through the dry wood of the buildings. The villagers had difficulty keeping the flames in check and saving any neighbouring houses. As if by a miracle, however, the church survived, and only the porch and a part of the east wing burned down. The fire went out in front of the altar of its own accord.

There was fighting everywhere, and crowds of reapers from nearby villages hurried in to help their comrades. On the third day, they were clearly in the majority as they faced the men of Mala. Mushtak only just escaped an attempt on his life.

Infuriated, he gathered his loyal supporters together, and with the help of Mobate’s men he attacked the reapers. Jusuf Shahin and other rich farmers now joined the fray too. The fighting went on for days, and over seventy of the itinerant workers were killed.

There was no police station in Mala at the time, and the Ottoman governor of Damascus refused to send reinforcements. He was afraid of being thought a traitor if his troops defended a Christian village against Muslim workers.

The reapers took plenty of loot. They went off with horses, jewellery, money, furniture, and crockery. All they left behind was their dead, who lay lifeless and nameless in the streets.

Many of the farmers were left lamenting the destruction of their entire harvest. Others had lost their houses and all the valuables in them. But it was worst of all for Mushtak. The news that Sarka had disappeared hit him harder than the loss of his possessions. She was not among the dead, nor could she be found anywhere else.

Sofia the midwife helped Sarka’s housekeeper to look after the four children. The firstborn, Salman, was just eight, and Elias the youngest was not yet two years old.

All attempts to trace Sarka failed. Two years passed, and Mushtak never had a good night’s sleep. When he closed his eyes, he saw her lying naked on a heap of wheat. During the day he longed for her fragrance. Sofia saw him pace up and down her room and heard him crying out in pain. He would take out Sarka’s clothes, smell them, tear them up and then gather the pieces together and put them in a big box. When lovesickness began to cut him like a knife, he went to the church of St. Giorgios, where he opened his shirt and showed the Catholic priest, Father Timotheus, a deep cut in the region of his heart.

Timotheus was the son of a rich Damascene family who had fled from the world to find peace in Mala. The villagers regarded the monk as a saint, and it was said that he sometimes levitated, hovering in the air for over an hour while praying. Just before Easter his hands always showed the stigmata of Our Lord, and bled. Timotheus was both modest and stern with himself. That day he laid his hand on the suffering George Mushtak’s wound.

“No, not that wound, reverend Father, not that one,” said Mushtak. “Pray for Sarka to come back to me, and I’ll give the church my thousand-year-old elm tree.” Everyone knew the elm that stood on a distant hill, easily visible from the village square.

“If your prayers help me to warm myself on Sarka again, then the firewood from that ancient tree will keep the church and the presbytery warm for years,” Mushtak told the priest as he left.

And Sarka did come back three days later, as if out of a clear blue sky. She was wearing plain but clean peasant clothes, but her mind was hopelessly deranged. Her husband welcomed her with tears of joy.

No one knew where she had been all that time, or how she found her way home. She never spoke another word until the day she died. All she did was wander around the village looking for something. Whenever she heard children’s voices she ran towards them, only to collapse in disappointment and shed tears.

Legend upon legend formed around Sarka, but all the tales were just gossip. Some people claimed to have seen her with one of the reapers who had been wounded, going about with him looting and burning. Others were sure she had been abducted out of revenge by the brother of a reaper who had been murdered in the village, and was then driven to madness by poison.

Sarka brought George Mushtak no joy now. He would lie silently in his room, weeping. And so time passed, and the church never got a single branch of that elm tree. When the monk lost patience and reminded the forgetful Mushtak of his promise, Mushtak roared indignantly across the village square, “All that your saints gave me back was a lunatic. She’s only half a human being, and for that you’ll get only half the tree!”

That very night lightning struck the distant hill. For several long minutes, Mala was as brightly lit as if a thousand suns were shining. The elm tree was struck by the lightning and split in two. In time, one side dried up while the other remained green. Over the years, the two assumed a strange shape. The dead half looked like a waning crescent moon, the green half like a waxing moon. Rain, sun, and human hands carved the split down the middle of the tree into a kind of cave, where lovers and children liked to hide.

Sarka often spent days on end there. Travellers and peasants, passing the elm, had a shock when she suddenly emerged from inside the tree.

Just before her death there were rumours that she had borne a son, but hid the child for fear of her husband, and now she had forgotten where, hence her desperate searching. Children ran after her pulling at her dress and crying, “Here’s your son, you blind madwoman!” And they crowed and hit her and threw stones. When she was near the Mushtak property no one dared molest her, but as soon as she was a little way from the walls of the house she became a target for all who really wanted to hurt the founder of the clan, but dared not attack him openly himself. However, when a boy hit the crazed woman with a stone, everyone applauded. Sarka cursed the stone-thrower in her heart, and you could see the hatred in her eyes, but her mouth remained mute.

This time, said Sofia, was the hardest of Mushtak’s life. His enemies rejoiced at his suffering, and encouraged everyone to tell more tales of his wife.

Two years after Sarka’s return to the village, a peasant woman going to quench her thirst at the little spring near the elm found Mushtak’s wife inside the tree. She seemed to be sleeping with a blissful smile on her face. But she never woke again.


Arab clans and pyramids ignore the passing of time.


22. The Gulf

The gulf between the Mushtak and Shahin families was deep. Later, no one could say just how their hostility had begun, but even the children of both families were convinced that they would sooner make friends with the devil than one of the enemy clan.

George Mushtak had met Jusuf Shahin on the evening of his arrival in Mala. The two men were almost the same age. They drank together in the house of the village elder Mobate, who had invited all the notables of Mala to meet the stranger seeking shelter there. It was said that George and Jusuf made friends quickly that evening, but came to blows a few days later because Shahin had slighted Mushtak’s young wife Sarka and treated her roughly. He didn’t like women, in particular blue-eyed women with quick tongues who laughed a lot. Sarka combined all those qualities.

Mobate managed to reconcile the two men, and there was peace for a while. Then came the christening party for the village elder’s firstborn son. The christening wasn’t even over, so the tale went, before trouble flared up between the two rivals. Apparently Jusuf had made a coarse joke at Sarka’s expense; because of her blue eyes he was said to have asked whether her mother had conceived her with a Frank, his term for all Europeans. “Oh yes,” Sarka was reported as replying, “at the same time as your mother conceived you with a donkey.”

“Whore!” he spat at the young woman. Then there was a riot. Jusuf was about to slap Sarka’s face, when George Mushtak came between them. Several others tried to part the two men. Jusuf left the house. He had been the only Orthodox Christian at the party anyway.

George Mushtak was deeply offended and swore revenge. Perhaps the origin of all the hostility that followed lay in his disappointment. He had liked Shahin, and had great hopes of their friendship.

When the priest spoke to him, trying to smooth matters over, he merely spat. “If I ever forgive that dog I’ll lick my spittle off the ground.”

From then on he was always at pains to show who was the most powerful rooster on the Mala dunghill. Many tales were told of his wily tricks in buying everything he could lay hands on, until at last he owned a hectare of land, a house, a horse, a cow, a sheep, and a threshing floor more than his arch-enemy Shahin.

From the very first day Jusuf’s wife Samia had seen more in Mushtak than just the threat of a rival for power in the village, which was Jusuf’s view of him until that christening party. Then she met the stranger for the first time, and later she told her husband that in his company she felt he was a beast of prey. He had an acquisitive, bloodthirsty look in his eyes, she said. She felt as if her skin were scorching when Mushtak looked at her, and she found his presence uncomfortable.

Shahin’s pride was wounded by his initial misjudgement of his opponent. It was only Sarka whom he had despised from the first. So now he used her to strike his next blow at Mushtak. He claimed she was a Muslim woman, the stranger had brought her with him from a brothel, and that was why she never went to church. She didn’t even know how to cross herself. That taunt went home.

Mushtak wanted to provide evidence to the contrary next Sunday, but Sarka refused to set foot in the church. They quarrelled bitterly; it was said that he had been very abusive to her during their argument, and that was why she had done all the things she did later, which ultimately led to her early death.

But before that sad event hostility between the two rivals went on steadily growing, and the village split into two clearly divided camps, the supporters of Mushtak and the supporters of Shahin. Attack after attack fuelled rage and hatred on both sides.

For instance, a young man once went to work for Shahin as a groom. After a year he disappeared one night with five of his master’s most expensive Arab horses. When it came to Jusuf’s ears that George Mushtak had hired the runaway groom, Mushtak’s barn burned down two nights later with that year’s entire harvest inside it.

In addition, the growing enmity between the two rivals ultimately gave their adherents, Catholic on one side and Orthodox on the other, a clear focus for their mutual dislike, and it took up permanent residence in their minds. Soon the village elder, Mobate, seemed only a pathetic mediator always trying to keep the two real rulers of Mala apart. But there was no chance of that, for the hostility between Catholics and Orthodox Christians is over a thousand years old in the Middle East. Too much blood had flowed in Mala now, and both clans had an excellent memory. Every grief suffered by one side was celebrated as an occasion for joy by the other.

But one of the bitterest defeats ever suffered by George, as founder of the Mushtak clan, was the work not of a Shahin but of his own son Elias, Farid’s father. Or perhaps old Mushtak inflicted that defeat on himself, and his son was only the involuntary means to the end.

23. Elias Leaves

The Mushtak clan might be small in numbers, but to the peasants of Mala it seemed infinitely powerful. Its power came not only from its wealth but from its bold determination. Peasants hesitate. The Mushtaks made decisions swiftly and without fear of losses. They always acted with discretion, unlike their arch-enemies the Shahins, who were constantly letting the village know which government minister or high-ranking army officer was now friends with them. It was merely suspected that the Mushtaks had secret links with the men in power in Damascus.

They owned many houses in the capital, but however much those buildings were worth, what mattered to the people of Mala was that they owned the biggest farm in the village and the finest houses on the village square. The most handsome building of all, indisputably, was Elias’s summer residence. Farid’s father built it in 1950, three years after the death of George Mushtak, founder of the clan, as if to show the village that he had returned victorious. Fifteen years earlier his father had disowned him and disinherited him, for Elias had married not the village elder’s daughter Samira Mobate, in line with the patriarch’s plans, but Claire Surur from Damascus. However, that was only the official explanation of the war between them, and as in all wars there was another story behind their bitter struggle.

It was long assumed that the striking likeness between them had led to their mutual dislike. Elias was the image of his father, wiry, small, and dashing, like George. But in one thing he was very different.

George, the founder of the clan, had felt sick with envy when he first set eyes on his newborn youngest son. The midwife Sofia said that even at his birth Elias had an erect penis as long as her middle finger. And whenever she told the story, at this point in it she would always spread her large hand and show that impressive finger.

The founder of the clan had slept with half the women in the village, but all his life he fretted because his penis was so small. The women simply called it “Mushtak’s olive”, which tells us all we need to know about that insatiable skirt-chaser’s shame. So on the day of Elias’s birth he just looked at the boy with revulsion and left the room, cursing, without a single kind word to his wife.

The boy’s prick always horrified his father. At the time, most of the children in Mala used to run about naked or at the most very sparsely clad. Not so Elias. George Mushtak had ordered first Sarka, and after her death the housekeeper, never to let his son go out without trousers and a stout bandage worn under them.

Sarka didn’t particularly like Elias either. She felt sorry for him, but quite often she was afraid of him too, because whenever she suckled him that alarmingly erect penis would stick up from his frail little body, to macabre effect. It was hard as a rock and had a strangely penetrating tarry smell, even when she had bathed the baby three times with soap and massaged his penis with pure rosewater.

But obtrusive as Elias’s prick appeared, he himself grew to be a handsome, delicately built boy who showed a great gift for languages, even in first grade. Yet he never went to school without feeling apprehensive. In those days, children were beaten daily by their teachers, and indeed parents would encourage the schoolmasters with the proverbial saying: “His flesh and skin are yours, just leave us the bones.”

George Mushtak handed Elias over to Father Philippus with those very words. But the boy gave no one much of an opportunity to punish him. He was industrious and obedient, clean and courteous. After less than six months he was teacher’s pet, which annoyed his fellow pupils. They took him behind a bush at break and beat him up. The boy trembled at the prospect every morning. He saw the peasants mercilessly beating their little donkeys, and often thought he might be related to those animals. Indeed, the schoolboys who saw his prick shouted, “You’re not a boy, you’re a donkey!” Elias felt immense love for the donkeys.

In the summer of 1924 Father Julian Baston turned up in Mala, looking for talented boys to join the Jesuit order. Baston was tall and athletically built. A Frenchman by birth, he had thick grey hair and clever little eyes. He was around forty, but looked much older.

Father Julian spotted the ten-year-old on a visit to St. Giorgios elementary school, which all the Catholic village children attended. Elias’s bright face in itself was a pleasure to see, among the other scarred and dirty countenances. After talking to the delicate boy, the Jesuit visited Mushtak’s house. George received him with great dignity, and was delighted to find that Father Julian spoke perfect Arabic.

Julian Baston was frank. He confided his secret to Elias’s father: the country needed more trained priests than the wretched handful left behind by the now defunct Ottoman Empire. “They’re not priests, they’re Antichrists,” said the Jesuit, “they’ve let our Christian faith degenerate into an Oriental orgy of eating and drinking shrouded by incense fumes. They don’t understand a word of the sacred texts they parrot, so anyone who hears the word of Islam won’t hold out against it for long.”

Father Julian explained his thinking at length. The region was awash with mineral oil, and one day it would be a major centre of the international economy. But Islam was not in any position to manage such wealth. To that end, it was time to begin setting up elite Christian schools. And such schools called for intelligent, well-educated priests.

“We have renovated and reopened several tumbledown monasteries. There’s a beautiful Dominican institution that we’ve refurbished in Damascus. If you agree, that’s where Elias would live,” the Jesuit went on, in friendly tones.

“But don’t the Muslims give you any problems?” asked George Mushtak, sceptically.

“No, we have good relations with several Sunni families who help us get access to the important decision-makers. Our only problems are with the Orthodox Christians, because they realize that Catholicism is gaining ground.”

“Ah, they’re worse than the Muslims. Here in Mala we have those crafty devils the Shahins to deal with. The man Shahin is a Judas who ruled the whole village before I arrived, and was in league with the local Muslims to enslave good Catholics. Now he can’t live with the fact that I, a Catholic, have taken over as leader here. Have you seen our church?”

“Yes, yes, indeed, and I know that your donations and your determination alone made all those repairs possible, all those wonderful frescos. But we in Damascus need your help too, we need your generosity so that our students can get the teaching they need to become good priests. For with all due respect to Islam …”

George Mushtak hated Islam. He was glad to hear that educated Europeans shared his views. So he interrupted his guest. “I can feel no respect for a gang who murdered my mother and my sister! For cowardly reasons of revenge! Just because a Muslim woman threw in her lot with a Christian man.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” said the Jesuit quietly.

“No one can understand it,” replied Mushtak, and his eyes grew damp.

The visitor, a clever man, sensed that his host was struggling with a bitter memory and trying to keep his composure. All was suddenly still in the large drawing room where cool twilight reigned behind the drawn curtains. George rose to his feet, opened the door, and called to his housekeeper to make some good coffee flavoured with cardamom for his distinguished visitor. Then he closed the door again and returned to the guest, forcing himself to smile.

“Forgive the strength of my reaction, but some memories keep coming up again, like undigested food repeating.”

“We must learn to forgive, however,” said the priest.

“I can forgive anything but the murder of my mother and my sister.”

During his training, the Jesuit had read a great deal about guilt and atonement, revenge and clan feeling among the Arabs, and he knew there were subjects better not discussed with an Arab if you were or wanted to be his friend.

“I understand you,” replied the experienced priest. Mushtak felt that he had triumphed. One of the greatest miracles on earth, as he saw it, was to make a European who was also a scholar and a churchman understand well-justified hatred.

Soon after this the fragrant coffee was brought in. The housekeeper had added a plate of butter cookies.

“Elias is a rose who cannot flower among the thistles of Mala,” said the priest, returning to his request.

“A rose maybe,” replied Mushtak, “but with a huge thorn of a prick. I’ll give you the boy and a hundred gold lira.”

The priest’s wish was like manna from heaven to George. For more than seven years to come he would sleep more easily than ever before, since he wasn’t at all interested in what his son did behind the high monastery walls.

Elias didn’t mind parting from his family either. He was sorry only for his sister Malake, who shed tears whenever she mentioned his imminent departure. When it was time to say goodbye, his father reluctantly gave the boy his hand. Elias kissed it and pressed it to his forehead, as custom ordained, but George did not return the kiss. The proffered hand was not a bridge, but acted like a barrier keeping his son at a distance. The boy’s father went no further than the front gate.

That made Elias feel deeply humiliated. Accompanied by his big brother he reached the bus, gave his case to the conductor, and found a window seat.

“Don’t let it bother you. He’s not in a good mood today,” Salman consoled him. But Elias felt angry with his father, who had given such threadbare reasons to explain why he couldn’t take him to the monastery in Damascus himself.

“That’s all right,” he said, close to tears. He looked over his brother’s head, and at that moment he saw his sister, who was four years older than him. She was trying to reach him to say goodbye. But their father slapped her face, pushed her back into the courtyard and quickly closed the door so that she couldn’t get out again.

“Look after Malake. Our father will kill her yet,” Elias said quietly to his brother. Salman glanced at their father, standing stiffly in front of the gate of his property, and smiled.

“Father wouldn’t kill anyone, but Malake is a stubborn goat,” he replied.

Their father had never liked Malake either. There had been frequent beatings, but only for the two of them. Just two days ago he had hit Malake during a meal for secretly taking a bite of his own piece of bread. Mushtak had strictly forbidden that kind of thing. Everyone’s share of bread was handed out. Not that there was any shortage of food, but Malake’s father believed you took years off another person’s life if you bit into his bread. Elias thought this superstition was ridiculous, but Malake didn’t. “It’s not superstition. I’m always eating his bread in secret. Sometimes he catches me at it, that’s all.”

The bus driver, who had hooted five minutes ago and was now roaring his engine, switched it off and went to have another cup of tea with the barber.

“This could go on for ever,” said Salman.

“You don’t have to stick around,” replied Elias, who was finding his brother’s presence more and more of a nuisance, and as if Salman had just been waiting for him to say so he shook hands and hurried back home.

Just then Elias saw his sister running out of a side street. He admired her for her dauntless courage. Malake was beaming all over her face when she came up to him. Old Mushtak, however, gave a start of surprise on seeing her and spoke to Salman, who had just that moment reached him. His eldest son turned briefly, then took his father’s arm and led him into the house.

Breathless, Malake flung her arms around Elias’s neck and wept. “He didn’t want to let me say goodbye properly. But you’re my own dear brother.” And she sobbed out loud. He began to weep too, not with emotion, not because they were parting, but with the fury of desperation because he couldn’t protect his sister. Elias knew that when Malake was home again all hell would be let loose. She had defied her father’s orders to stay indoors and climbed over the wall. Several men had certainly seen her do it, and would have laughed at Mushtak. If a girl made her father look ridiculous, that was reason enough to kill her.

Malake seemed to guess what he was thinking. “Oh, my dear brother,” she said. “‘I don’t feel the blows. I pray while he’s beating me.”

“You pray?” asked Elias, surprised.

“Yes, I pray, I beg the Virgin Mary to make his hand decay and drop off while he’s still alive. And then, while he’s hitting me, I think how miserable he’ll look sitting there and begging me for a sip of water.”

The engine of the bus was revving up as she kissed him for the last time. Then she jumped out of it, and for the first time he saw that she was barefoot.

24. A Reception

There was unrest throughout the country, and uncertainty everywhere. The French and the British had taken the Arabs for a ride. In the secret Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 they had divided up the Middle East between them, even before the Arabs could enjoy the fruits of their revolt against the Ottoman Empire. The countries were recolonized, with Arabia chopped up on the negotiating table in the interests of the two great powers.

One dusty July day in 1920, French troops marched into Damascus, and they stayed until 1946 — a quarter of a century of uprisings, banditry, and fighting between powerful clans.

A week after the French arrived, their High Commissioner, General Gouraud, invited all the important sheikhs and clan chiefs to a reception. And they all came, for it made no difference to them whether the ruler in Damascus spoke Turkish, Arabic, or French. What mattered was that their own clans were not enfeebled and passed over in favour of others. They suspiciously scrutinized the seating order and the presents that the general gave them. They understood not a word of his brief address, and still less could they get their heads around the fact that all the French officers had brought their wives to the reception, as if to give the ladies a look at the defeated natives. Gouraud even had his daughter with him too. The women were pretty and silent, like little Chinese porcelain figures.

The general gave each clan chief a new French sporting gun and a compass, and his guests were as delighted as children with these amazing little clocks that always pointed north. Many of them were playing with their magical devices even during the reception, turning them around and around and roaring with laughter.

It was high summer, and the big table groaned under the weight of the delicacies prepared by Arab cooks. To the horror of the Frenchwomen, the Arabs ate with their bare hands. They slurped and smacked their lips, and soon the tables had grains of rice, pieces of bread and food stains all over them. But none of the Arabs touched the red Bordeaux that was served with the meal.

“Why do you drink only water?” General Gouraud asked the man next to him, Sheikh Yassin Hamdan, head imam of the Ummayad Mosque. He himself raised his glass and drank with relish.

The question surprised Sheikh Yassin. He wondered for a moment if the general could really be as ignorant as he sounded.

“Because the Koran forbids us to drink wine,” he replied through his interpreter.

The general grinned, and pointed to the red grapes that the sheikh was eating.

“It is His Excellency’s opinion,” said the interpreter, “that you eat grapes, yet wine comes from grapes.”

The sheikh glanced at the general, who was looking at him blurry-eyed after his eighth glass.

‘True, wine comes from grapes. But his daughter comes from his wife. Does he therefore sleep with his daughter?”

This bon mot later went the rounds of Damascus as if the sheikh’s answer had crushed Gouraud. However, the general remembered nothing of what was said that evening. He was too drunk.

His mission had been to win over the clan chiefs to accept French rule, for if they were well disposed then their subjects would make no more trouble. So he told his adjutant to telegraph Paris, saying: “Mission completed. Clan chiefs well disposed to France. Said not a word about their dead.”

25. The Novice

It was late in the evening when Elias finally reached Damascus. The bus had had problems all the way, and its inexperienced driver had been unable to do anything but swear at the engine. About twenty kilometres outside Damascus the bus finally broke down. Beside himself with fury, the driver began throwing stones at his own vehicle and cursing his mother.

Finally, all the passengers had moved to the load area of a truck where twenty sheep had to make room for them. Elias was disgusted because one of the animals had diarrhoea, and the stinking floor of the truck was filthy with it.

The truck driver had to deliver the sheep to various different destinations, disappearing into the house each time for a tea, while his passengers waited in the hot truck.

Elias was drenched with sweat and tired when he finally knocked at the monastery gate. An inscription in Latin letters over the entrance said: Omnia ad maiorem Dei gloriam. He didn’t understand a word of it. While he waited he thought of his sister Malake and prayed for her.

A monk opened the gate. He smiled at Elias. “We were worrying about you. I hope you didn’t have an accident?’ he said in a gentle voice, and introduced himself as Brother Andreas.

With those words a time began for the boy that Elias was to describe, later, as “the happiest days of my life.” In the monastery all was peace and calm, discipline and cleanliness. No one beat him, no one called him names. Above all, no one told tales of him to the man who had been less of a father to him than prosecutor and prison warder combined. He had enough to eat, and he was taken seriously, although he was still little more than a child. Elias worked hard, and here too he was top of the class in most subjects, but he wasn’t teased or beaten up for it. He showed particular talent for maths. After two years Father Samuel Sibate, a mathematical genius himself, let him join his higher mathematics study group. About ten of his students met every Thursday and tried, with Father Samuel himself, to solve those great mathematical problems that still baffled the world. Elias was the only one in the group who was still of school age.

A year after his arrival in Damascus, there was a great uprising against the French occupiers in the south of Syria. The word was that the British would help the rebels against the French. But for a long time all that passed the monastery walls by, and Elias too. Instead, the boy learned to play the piano and speak fluent French with a perfect accent.

He didn’t want to spend his vacations with his family, though he could have gone home every other year. To the delight of his teachers, he preferred to go on industriously learning Latin and Spanish, and even the heat of summer in the city couldn’t keep him from his books.

Not until seven years after he entered the monastery, in the summer of 1931, did he take two weeks’ vacation to go to his brother Salman’s wedding back in Mala. His teachers were happy to let the clever, devout novice enjoy this brief period of rest and relaxation.

Elias didn’t care about the wedding one way or other, and he probably wouldn’t have gone if Malake had not written him a letter in secret, saying she absolutely had to talk to him because a crucial change in her life was imminent.

After three weeks in Mala he came back again, silent and distressed. He was transformed. Suddenly he had lost all interest in the life of the monastery, but no one ever found out why.

In the years before Salman’s wedding, however, a great deal had happened in Mala, and that story must now be told.

26. How Mushtak Won Honour

As early as the end of July 1925, soon after the beginning of the rebellion in the south, George Mushtak foresaw that the fighting would spread and affect Mala. Anxious about his second son Hasib, who was clever but not brave, he first sent him to a boarding school run by Jesuits in Beirut. The boy was safe there. Later, when he had taken his high school diploma, the plan was for him to study medicine at the American University of Beirut.

Once all that was fixed, Mushtak felt freer. Elias and Hasib had left. He now had with him only his courageous fifteen-year-old daughter Malake, and his firstborn son Salman, aged seventeen. George loved and admired Salman. Even as a child, the boy had shown an interest in the farm, and by now he was an experienced agriculturalist. He had blue eyes like his mother and her bold heart too. From the other side of his family he inherited his father’s taciturn disposition, and he acted even more discreetly. It was on his eldest son that George Mushtak pinned all his hopes of making the clan the most powerful family in Mala in the near future.

But in his heart of hearts he loved Salman most because he was the only child he had given Sarka during their days of stormy passion. All the others bore the mark of the hatred that Sarka had later come to feel for her husband.

Hasib was brilliant, but crazy with jealousy. He saw red if anyone so much as touched his mother, and threw a tantrum if any of the other children were better treated. Malake had inherited her mother’s epilepsy and her wild disposition, as if she too were afflicted by the devil who had taken possession of Sarka’s soul. She was wilful and stubborn. Later, when a stranger took a fancy to her and was prepared to wait until Salman married, George was pleased with that solution, although he thought the man a fool. As for Elias, he had a prick like a donkey’s which turned even George’s stomach, and nothing in the world usually daunted him. In addition, the boy was moody, like his mother, and could spoil everything at just the wrong moment.

Only Salman, the son of innocent love, had not only inherited from him, George Mushtak, his strength of character, temperament, and firm disposition, but also had the most beautiful eyes in the world: the eyes of Sarka.

At this time there were rumours going around that bandits were making use of the unrest for their own ends. They avoided big cities so as not to clash with the French. Instead, they attacked rich or Christian villages, killed the men, and raped the women.

Alarmed by these stories, a delegation from Mala set off for Damascus. It consisted of the village elder, the priest, and several other important men, and they were going to ask the French governor to protect the village.

The bus set off at dawn. George Mushtak, accompanying the party, argued on the way with the Catholic priest, who really believed that the French would send a peace-keeping troop as soon as they heard that a Christian village of people who loved France was in danger.

When they arrived at about nine, he paid all their fares. Then he told Mobate that he was going to have a quiet breakfast in the Venecia restaurant while they went to put their case to the governor. They were welcome to join him when the governor had thrown them out, he added.

Around twelve they came in with their tails between their legs. The governor had laughed at them, they said, and recommended them to convert to Islam, saying that he for one couldn’t spare any soldiers. The rebels were already threatening the southern suburbs of Damascus.

Mushtak smiled, and invited the delegation to lunch. While they were still eating dessert, a man of perhaps thirty at the most came over to their table. George introduced him as Ahmad Tarabishi. The young man stood there a little stiffly in his European suit and red felt hat as he took George’s order for a hundred Mauser rifles. Mushtak put his hand in his pocket, brought out a small velvet bag, and put it on the table. “Here are fifty gold lira; you’ll get the other fifty when you deliver them. And if there’s anything wrong with a single one of those rifles you’ll be sorry, because I will personally knock your skull in.”

“You can rely on me, sir, as always,” said the dealer quietly. He took the bag, kissed Mushtak’s outstretched hand as he took his leave, and hurried away. Speechless, the men of Mala looked at their mysterious companion with admiration.

“You took me in when I was in need, and I promised you then that George Mushtak never forgets anything,’ he said dryly, almost grimly.

“Are you sure the man won’t just abscond with such a large sum of money?” asked Father Johannis.

“Oh, I’ve done business with his father in the past. Fifty gold lira are small change to the Tarabishis.”

“How can I ever repay you?” asked Habib Mobate. But Mushtak did not reply. He never expected gratitude from his subjects.

Friday was market day in Mala. Many farmers from the surrounding villages arrived with their chickens, horses, lambs, and olives. Others came from the distant villages on the plain, where all varieties of melons and mulberries grew and flourished.

One Friday in the late summer of 1925 a farmer stopped there with his horse-drawn cart, which was heavily loaded up with watermelons. The farmer asked for the Mushtak family’s residence. He, his cart, and his two horses disappeared through the great gateway, and when he came out again hours later the cart was empty. Soon the village elder learned that the hundred German Mauser rifles had arrived, together with a hundred crates of ammunition.

That winter was bitterly cold. But a volcano was seething in Mushtak’s soul. Not until spring 1926 did he finally see his time coming, and that was just when everyone else in the village was sure he had backed the wrong horse. When rumour said that seventy thousand French soldiers had landed in Syria, armed to the teeth, and law and order would soon prevail again, he disputed it. Now of all times, he told them, when the rebels and bandits would be withdrawing to all four points of the compass, Mala must be on its guard.

But most of the village elder’s friends thought as he did: Mushtak just didn’t want to admit that his purchase of the weapons had been a mistake. They whispered behind his back that loneliness since his wife’s death had embittered him, and his hatred for Muslims had made him blind. Not a few laughed to themselves to think of the high price he had paid for those guns.

Only one man did not laugh: Jusuf Shahin, his arch-enemy. He didn’t think that bandits would attack Mala either, but when he heard of the rifles in his adversary’s house he had a number of weapons brought over the mountains of Lebanon and, after discussion with the Orthodox convent of St. Thecla, he had them stored in the grotto there.

“May St. Thecla bless the guns,” he said to the abbess as he took his leave, placing a friendly hand on her arm, “and guide the bullets on their way to the hearts of Christ’s enemies.” And then he smiled, because he was sure she thought he meant the Muslims. As he saw it, however, there was no greater enemy of Christ than Mushtak.

Summer passed slowly; the air was hot and dusty. George did not feel inclined to go out in the village square. The other men cast him malicious glances, for it had never been as peaceful in Mala and its surroundings as it was that year. Even in the village itself, people were friendlier to each other than usual these days.

He wondered whether it might not have been wiser to go about the matter as his arch-enemy did. Very few people knew about the large quantity of guns stored in the convent.

At the end of August he woke from a nightmare, bathed in sweat. Day was only just dawning. The children were still asleep. He dressed and left the house with his revolver and his field glasses strapped to his belt. It was still dark when he reached the gate. He looked left, as if he knew that someone over there was watching him. His manservant Basil, relieved, waved from the window of the little hut where he lived in the yard of the property. He kept better watch on the place than the three dogs who roamed free there at night. Mushtak could sleep easily now that he knew nothing escaped Basil’s eyes. He had given him a gun and permission to shoot any intruder. His blood feud with the Shahins left no room for any carelessness.

Soon word of this arrangement had gone around the village, and when two young men tried to play a trick on the watchman, apparently for a bet, Basil fired his gun without warning. He hit the pair of them in the buttocks. They had to endure the mockery of the villagers for weeks on end, and from then on no one ventured to set foot in the yard without sending word first. Even when a complaint was laid with the police and they came to search the place, the police chief politely informed Mushtak the day before, telling him that the CID from Damascus was going to search his property for hashish in the morning.

Three jeeps drove down the quiet street to the house at dawn. The ten policemen had brought chisels, a large axe, and saws to dispose of any obstacles they might find in their way. But the gate was open and the dogs in their kennel. Sullenly, the officer went all over the property with his men, but of course they found nothing.

“George Mushtak has dealt in anything that makes money, but never hashish. It is beneath his dignity,” George told the police officer, “and so whatever bastard laid that complaint knows.” He always spoke of himself in the third person when addressing a social inferior.

The officer, disappointed by his failure, said nothing. He drank the coffee that the housekeeper had given him, and as he left gratefully pocketed the ten lira pressed into his hand by Mushtak, who said almost paternally, “Buy your children some candy.” The police officer took the strong hand of the master of the house and whispered, “Jusuf Shahin.” George Mushtak merely nodded.

The CID officer knew that by giving away the name he might cause a murder, but he hated peasants and the very smell of them. In the city, he would never have revealed the identity of a man who had laid a complaint, not for all the money in the world.

That incident was now two years in the past. Ever since, Mushtak’s men had been doing their utmost to repay Jusuf Shahin in his own coin, but none of what they had suggested so far pleased their master. He didn’t want his enemy’s horses or barns, his house or his yard, all he wanted was to strike him to the heart so that the scoundrel would finally keep quiet.

That morning at the end of August 1926, when Mushtak set out at dawn, he closed the gate behind him and walked towards the ravine. It was very quiet, but his mind was seething. He quickened his pace. He was sweating. Soon he was struggling for breath, for the path climbed more steeply all the time.

It was half an hour before he reached the top of the rocky ridge. Mala lay in its shadow, and he had a wide view from here. Still breathing heavily, he raised his field glasses and turned them south. His dry lips moved. Almost inaudibly, he said, “I know you’re coming. Here I am, come along. You’ll find your grave here. I know you’re coming!” There was a pleading note in his voice.

But the distant prospect disappointed him. The rising sun swept the grey from the sky, and a soft blue replaced it. George Mushtak, however felt nothing but an oppressive emptiness. He lowered the hand holding the field glasses, looked around him, and walked slowly home.

Resistance in the south of the country was weakening by the day. The men who had assembled in the village elder’s house heard the news on the radio, and breathed a sigh of relief. Two days later, when even Great Britain officially stepped in against the fleeing rebels, ranging itself on the side of France, the entire rising collapsed.

Mushtak withdrew into his property and kept to his darkened bedroom. His son Salman was anxious, but Malake reassured him: the old patriarch was sound as a bell, she said, it was just that his heart was full of longing for something, and none of them, not even she, knew what it was. This time at least it was nothing to do with Shahin. It seemed as if he wanted to answer someone back, settle an old score with him, and he was sick with that longing because he feared he would take it to the grave with him unsatisfied.

One afternoon in September he emerged from his room, sat down on the bench outside the house, took a deep breath and said, “They’ll soon be here.”

“Who’ll soon be here?” asked Salman, who was mending a rent in a saddle on the terrace. He was planning to ride out and pick a basket of ripe grapes. The best grapes in Mala were September grapes, which tasted like drops of honey surrounded by a thin, aromatic skin.

“The bandits. They attacked Daisa today, plundered the village and set fire to the convent of St. Mary. It was on the radio. Those ungodly villains shot fifty men and abducted over twenty women,” replied his father almost cheerfully.

“Who was it? And what did the French do?” asked Malake, stirring a spoonful of honey into her peppermint tea.

“It was Hassan Kashat, who else?” replied her father, looking into the distance and shaking his head. “The French, ah, well, the French,” he added.

“You know Hassan Kashat, am I right?” asked Salman. He knew that his father hated the man, but not why.

‘You’re right,’ replied Mushtak, and his eyes narrowed. “I know him very well, and I hope he will make the mistake of coming to Mala. But you children wouldn’t understand that,” he added, dismissing the subject.

Two days later, on the fourteenth of September, the village celebrated the Feast of the Holy Cross. The village elder came to the great bonfire, together with Imam Yunis from the nearby district town of Kulaifa, and Muhammad Abdulkarim, head of the Rifai family, one of the most powerful Muslim clans in the country. Their residence was in the village of Aingose, ten kilometres from Mala. The village elder hoped to show that the religions lived at peace with one another.

Mushtak stayed away from the festivities. Instead, he was oiling the hundred rifles behind closed doors with Salman, Malake, and his faithful manservant Basil. Then he had the guns carefully wrapped in linen cloths and packed in wooden crates, five to a crate. He had given his other ten men twenty piastres and let them have the day off to celebrate as they pleased. He spent all evening cursing the village elder’s yielding character, and not until late at night did he let Salman and Malake join the noisy crowd dancing happily in the village square.

Only his servant Basil stayed with him. Even though he had permission to go, he would not leave his master’s side. Mushtak was fond of his faithful servant, who was sometimes closer to him and understood him better than his own children. Basil was an orphan. He had grown up with the Mushtak family and venerated the patriarch of the clan.

Salman and Malake were glad to be among the other young people at last. Everyone was gathered around the bonfire in the village square now. The two Muslim dignitaries were joining the celebrations too, and enjoying the presence of the cheerful girls who stayed in the square, mingling with the men, until far into the night. Now and then one of them disappeared into the darkness with a young man, and came back after a while giggling. Even most of the children were still up.

George Mushtak was missed, since he usually donated plenty of wine and three lambs for the spit on this occasion every year. But even when the village elder knocked at his door and invited him to join them in the square, he merely replied dryly that he didn’t feel like celebrating anything, and would not open the gate.

Three days later, a Sunday, a cold north wind blew over the village square and the air smelled of snow. Suddenly, during divine service, a shepherd came running down the central aisle of the church of St. Giorgios.

“They’re coming, they’re coming!” he cried, waving his hands in the air. The priest interrupted his prayers, but not before concluding the last verse of the hymn of praise to the Lord with a kyrie eleison.

“Calm yourself, my son. Who are coming?”

“The bandits. The whole plain’s black with them. I set off at dawn for the hill beyond the mill with my sheep. When I saw them, I couldn’t believe my eyes.”

The man was breathing noisily. Apart from that, there was a deathly hush in the crowded church. Someone hushed a crying child. Then nothing could be heard but the congregation whimpering desperately behind their hands.

“How many are there?” asked the village elder.

“Thousands. They’re advancing through the whole valley along a wide front,” replied the man, tracing a horizontal line in the air with his hand.

Mushtak rose from his seat in the front pew, went up to the altar, crossed himself, and turned around. He looked over the village elder’s head.

“I need,” he said, in a calm, firm voice, “five brave men on five good horses to hold the bandits back down there while we get our women and children to safety in the caves in the rock.”

Twenty men rose briskly to their feet and followed him to his house. The village elder was left behind, ignored, and at that moment, although he was only sixty, he felt older and frailer than the ninety-year-old widow Nasrin in the pew at the back.

Even before Mushtak reached his house, the bells were ringing in all the church towers. It was an ancient signal of danger. People streamed out of their houses into the village square. Many of them were afraid, but there was no sense of panic anywhere.

He stood at his gate deciding which men were to have rifles and which were not. Salman wrote down the names of the men standing ready, rifle in hand. Then the armed men stormed out to the hills that had a good view of the village from the south.

Mala was a rich Christian village. High in the mountains, it had been well protected from most of the adventurers who roamed the country during four hundred years of Ottoman rule, looting and burning. Its inhabitants had also been spared the Bedouin who attacked the villages of the plain in successive waves, trying to escape starvation. Mala had thus become a pearl among villages. Even in the 1920s it had electric light, mains water, and four coffee-houses. Many rich emigrants from Mala had gone to America, Canada, and Australia, and sent money home. The monastery of St. Giorgios and the convent of St. Thecla were famous for their miracles. Prosperous Christians from all over Arabia came to ask the saints for children, a cure, or success, and had given generous donations, transforming those religious houses into rich citadels.

The bandits knew that, and they had descended like the locusts that come out of nowhere and devour everything, before disappearing into nowhere again. It had been like that in 1830, 1848, and 1860. The battle of 1860 was famous all over the country, for not only did the little village hold out for four weeks while it was besieged by over three thousand heavily armed bandits, it then put them to flight. It was such a devastating victory that after it the bandits had avoided Mala for sixty-six years, until now.

Soon the first shots fired at the bandits by the horsemen up in the hills were heard in the village. The line of men at Mushtak’s gate was a long one. Even the village elder had to wait his turn. He was given a rifle, not with solemn ceremony, as he had hoped, but not peremptorily either, as he had feared. Mushtak handed him the gun without a word, and was already looking at the next comer.

Mobate envied the man his household servants, who showed him dog-like devotion. Finally, Mushtak himself carefully folded up the list that Salman had handed him, and gave it back to his son. “They are all in your debt. You can always remind them of it later,” he said. “Man is a forgetful animal.”

Then, accompanied by his son and shouldering a Mauser, he walked out to the village square with his head held high. Many of the men kissed his hand emotionally, as if he were a saint, and thanked him for the rifle, but he just stood there listening to the distant sounds.

Suddenly his glance fell on the line of men forming in the Orthodox quarter. The Shahins were distributing rifles to their own supporters, who were soon perched on the rocks like black ravens, keeping watch on every part of the northern and eastern routes to the village, while the Catholics guarded the roads to the south and west.

Late in the afternoon all the children, old people, and most of the women were safely in the great rocky caves that surrounded the village. Only about fifty women stayed with the men, helping to construct the huge mounds of rubble with which they were trying to block the one weak point in the fortifications, the Damascus road.

Mushtak rode to the hills with a Mauser over his shoulder and his field glasses hanging in front of his chest, giving him the look of a military commander.

It was nearly evening when the men took their first prisoner, a little man with a southern accent who had apparently been scouting around to spy out the village’s defences. The furious guards hit and kicked him, and one of them actually wanted to shoot him out of hand.

“Leave the man alone,” ordered Mushtak. He turned to the trembling spy, and said, “Have no fear, we’ll send you back. Who’s your leader?”

“Hassan Kashat, sir,” replied the man anxiously.

“Are you sure of that, or do you know it only by hearsay?” Mushtak asked, and before the man had even nodded he was going on, “What mark does Hassan Kashat have on his left hand?”

“Mark?” said the man in surprise. ‘”He has no mark on his left hand. That hand’s crippled. I swear by God I’ve seen it. He hides it well by resting it on his dagger, but it’s crippled.”

Mushtak beamed. “You weren’t lying. Bring the man a piece of bread and a dish of fresh yoghurt,” he told his followers, and then turned back to the prisoner. “Well, my lad, you will eat under my protection now, and after that I’ll show you what your friends can expect here. And then you can go back to your leader Hassan Pasha Kashat and tell him: the man who crippled your left hand is waiting for you. Do you understand?”

“The man who crippled your left hand is waiting for you,” repeated the man, to show Mushtak that he had learned the message by heart. His voice sounded fearful and uncertain.

While he greedily ate the yoghurt they had brought him, Mushtak hurried away and gave orders for all the men whom the spy was about to pass to keep their faces muffled up, and as soon as he had gone by they were to go and station themselves elsewhere, so that after a while he wouldn’t be able to estimate the number of fighting men any more. The spy was released after nightfall, and he hurried away in the darkness down to the plain.

“Will Hassan Kashat withdraw when he learns that you’re here?” asked Salman next morning.

“No, he’ll stay,” replied Mushtak, and he hadn’t even finished what he was saying before the besiegers opened fire. The men entrenched in Mala replied, and Hassan Kashat’s troops, although they suffered great losses, moved closer and closer. The first villager fell at about ten in the morning. It was Tuma, one of the three village butchers of Mala. A bullet hit him in the forehead just as he was rising to his feet to fetch a crate of ammunition.

Around midday the first cannonball sailed over the men’s heads and smashed the window of the church of St. Giorgios. A second cannonball hit the back yard of George Mushtak’s house and left a small crater. Two window panes in the grain store were broken. The explosion of the cannonballs and the impact as they struck frightened the beleaguered villagers. Some of the men in the front line began firing at random. Hassan Kashat’s troops answered them with more cannon fire, and moved to within five hundred metres of the old mill at the entrance to the village.

Both sides fought fiercely for ten days, but they couldn’t get anywhere. The bandits could advance no further towards the village, the defensive ring stood firm as rock. And the climb up from the valley, which wasn’t so steep near the village itself, no longer offered the enemy good cover.

But the defenders of Mala could not break through the rampart their enemies had built from rocks and felled trees. The bandit Kashat’s troops had entrenched themselves in their positions. Mushtak’s face grew darker every day. Finally he told Habib Mobate to summon all the leading men of the village.

“Jusuf Shahin too?” asked the village elder.

“Him too,’ replied Mushtak dryly. The village elder turned pale.

Mushtak spoke bitterly to the assembled men. He never for a second looked at his rival; it was enough to have had to greet him with a handshake. That was the condition made by the two priests, Catholic and Orthodox. He sensed Shahin’s reluctance to be reconciled. The man’s hand was cold, as if he had drained the blood out of it.

Mushtak told the assembly that the French were not about to send the village any help, and he expected the besiegers to stay until the people of Mala starved to death.

Shahin waited until everyone else had spoken. Then he said, “No one will starve,” and turned his gaze on the priest of his Orthodox community, as if paying attention to no one else. “I’ve stuffed three of the caves in the rock full of wheat, dried meat, raisins, and nuts from the Lebanon, and two more with maize and lentils, salt and olive oil. That will last us for a while.”

Secretly, Mushtak admired his quiet enemy. Shahin had sent all that food to the caves, and not a soul in the village had noticed. Everyone knew, however, that he was an experienced smuggler, and it was said that he had often muffled the hooves of his mules by wrapping them in cloth so that they could pass border guards in silence.

“Tomorrow,” Shahin went on, “everyone can take what he needs. The nuns of the convent of St. Thecla will supervise the distribution.”

Mushtak quickly pulled himself together again. “And I will make sure this siege doesn’t last much longer,” he told the assembled men before they dispersed. It sounded more like a loser’s defiance.

Jusuf Shahin rose and went away without any leave-taking, but with the dignified bearing of a victor. Followed by his son Salman, who stuck to his side like a shadow throughout the siege, George Mushtak himself set off for home.

Salman kept turning, looking distrustfully to all sides, and surveying the situation. There had been an attack on the sixth day of the siege, allegedly by three men of the enemy troops. The shots had been fired from very close to Mushtak, and though they missed him the men had escaped unrecognized. No one discovered any more about the incident, or knew that their tracks led to the Orthodox quarter. But Salman feared that one of Shahin’s killers would take any second opportunity to shoot his father in the general confusion. Salman always carried a loaded revolver under his shirt now, and after that incident he became harder and less approachable. And Mushtak went along with what his stern son wanted.

The cannonballs were falling in the village less frequently now, and had a less devastating effect on the peasants’ minds.

Three days after the meeting at the village elder’s house, Mushtak and his son rode out to the farthest-flung of the sentry positions at dawn, and observed the enemy camp down in the plain as if waiting for a signal. A tent, a particularly large tent at the far end of the camp near the wild oleander bushes, increasingly attracted his gaze. It was out of reach of the rifle bullets, and very well defended by two trenches, as well as soldiers and a couple of cannon.

On the twenty-third day of the siege, another man fell into the hands of the village guards. They caught him in the olive grove below the mill. He was unarmed and disguised as a peasant from Mala — black trousers, striped shirt, waistcoat, and a black kuffiyeh headcloth. The man claimed to have had a vision a week ago in which he heard the voice of his brother, who had been living in America for the last ten years, and this brother, he said, was calling for him, so he didn’t want to fight any more. He had bought the clothes from one of the besiegers, who had taken them from a Mala peasant.

In tears, the man told his captors how Kashat was torturing men who tried to run away. A troop had been stationed to shoot the deserters, or bring them back to camp and torture them to death in front of the others.

“And what about the man whose clothes you’re wearing?” one of the villagers asked him.

“He was shot… Kashat takes no prisoners. They cost food and water,” the man replied, diffidently.

The men from Mala lost their tempers. One young fellow drew a knife, but Mushtak raised his hand. The prisoner’s words dried up in his mouth with fright. He turned pale.

“If you are an honest man,” said George, ignoring his followers’ indignation, “you’ll be taken over the mountains tomorrow, and from there it’s two days’ journey to Beirut and the sea. But if you are lying you’ll wish for death not once but twenty times over.” Then he sat down on a stool in the middle of the circle that his men had formed around the prisoner.

“Now, tell me something in confidence. Since you say you hate Kashat, you won’t mind what happens to him. So when does Hassan Kashat always leave his tent?”

“Only once. At midnight exactly he inspects the front to make sure his sentries are on watch. He has two adjutants with him, no more.”

“What are the adjutants’ names?” asked George Mushtak.

“Ahmad Istanbuli and Omar Attar,” replied the man.

“What about the Khairi brothers?” asked Mushtak, to the surprise of his men.

“Mustafa fell in the first week, and Yunus a few days ago,” replied the prisoner.

That same night, George followed hidden ways winding through the terraced fields of the green valley to the bandits’ camp. He knew the narrow paths like the palm of his hand. He often had to go to his fields by night and divert the water of the little river to his land.

Mushtak loved the night hours. By day, he left the irrigation of the crops to his men, but after dark he liked to be in charge of the water himself. He would leap, light-footed, from sluice to sluice, smiling when the water followed him. Sometimes he ran along the dry bed of the channel, anticipating the gush of water that must go the long way around through the sluices before it raced forward like a flock of hungry sheep.

This evening he was accompanied by his son Salman; Nagib, the village elder’s bold youngest son; and Tanios, the baker from the Orthodox quarter. Not only was Tanios one of the strongest men in the village, Mushtak also wanted to use him as an eyewitness to report back to his enemy Shahin’s supporters on what he, Mushtak, was planning to do in the next few hours.

Even years later, Salman would say how his father suddenly looked young again. On the way to met his deadly enemy Kashat he strode out so fast and vigorously that his son and the other two men had difficulty keeping up with him. Soundless as shadows, they moved past the guards of both front lines that night, and finally they lay in wait for Kashat. He appeared around midnight, a small figure on his way to the furthest outposts of his guards. There were two tall men with him.

When Hassan Kashat reached the ancient walnut tree a moment before his companions, Salman and his father leaped out and flung him to the ground. The other two men from Mala killed the adjutants in silence. Hassan Kashat was frightened to death. He couldn’t even call for help, for Mushtak was already stuffing his headcloth into his mouth as a gag.

“You filthy rat, what did I tell you? I’ll get you, I said! It’s taken me twenty years, but I have you now. All those nights I’ve been waiting for this moment, and now you’re in my hands. You’ll die like a dog on a dunghill,” he cried, hoarse-voiced, and with Salman’s aid he actually did drag the bandit leader, who seemed paralysed, to a heap of dung that he had brought to his field before the siege began. This particular field was just beyond the walnut tree.

It was a clear night, and the full moon shone brightly. The bandit leader looked pitifully pale now. “Do you see this lion my son?” Mushtak continued, clapping Salman’s shoulder and kicking his enemy in the kidneys at the same time. “I got him on Laila. I slept with her and she gave me four children. This lion is my firstborn. Look at him! Can you see his eyes? Aren’t they the eyes of Laila?” he asked, kicking Kashat again and again.

His captive shook his head, and desperately tried to avoid the kicks as he lay on the ground.

“How could my mother help it if Laila and I were crazy for each other? Why did you kill my mother? And my sister Miriam? Why did you torture her like that? Before my mother’s eyes!” cried Mushtak, and then he rammed his knife into his prisoner’s belly, pushed him down in the dunghill, and pulled the gag out of his mouth. Kashat widened his eyes, tried to gasp for air and scream, but a fistful of dung was stuffed into his jaws, and Mushtak went on stabbing until his victim’s body went limp. At last he stood up, exhausted and weeping.

Only when he felt Salman’s hand on his shoulder did he say, quietly, “Let’s go.” But Nagib the village elder’s son had another good idea. After brief discussion, all four of them began shouting in Arabic with a southern accent, “The Christians have attacked us! Our leader Hassan Kashat and his adjutants Ahmad and Omar have been murdered! Listen, everyone! Our leader is dead! Run for your lives!”

Slowly at first, then faster and faster, loud cries from Kashat’s own men echoed through the camp. Panic broke out. Mushtak and his three companions made haste to get back to their village. Once there, they quickly summoned all the men, lit torches, and rode down into the valley on their horses and mules, guns in their hands. They drove the fleeing bandits ahead of them, killing many.

When day dawned, the valley was full of corpses down to the Damascus road. All the abandoned horses and weapons were taken to the village square of Mala, but the bodies were put in one of the remote caves. They were walled up inside it, and the entrance was covered with earth. One of the dead was the chief of the Rifai clan, Muhammad Abdulkarim, who had been at the harvest festival. Kashat had obviously persuaded him that there was good loot to be had in Mala.

People were already coming to the village square at dawn to dance, drink wine, and shout for joy. They had all entirely forgotten the prisoner, but Mushtak finally found the man lying tied up under a fig tree.

He had the prisoner released from his bonds, gave him three gold coins, and called out good wishes for his crossing to America as he left. Then he dropped on the bench outside the door of his house, exhausted and happy, in the firm belief that no less than God had been at work in this victory. And George Mushtak wept for the sublimity of that hour.

27. Weddings

Little by little, Salman had taken over the farming of the land. At first he followed his father’s advice and grew all kinds of crops: vines, maize, olives, tobacco, wheat. Like all the farmers, he also raised cattle. But then he went to visit his youngest brother at the monastery and met one of the monks who was an expert on agriculture, and advised Salman to mechanize his farm and switch to products for the export market. Salman made the change at the end of the twenties. Old Mushtak cursed the export market and the French monk’s advice, and it took Salman years to convince him of the merits of the new idea. “You’re either a big farmer or a big loser these days,” he kept explaining.

So he turned the farm into a modern agricultural business, right on the Damascus road, and specialized in roses, almonds, tobacco, and apples. He sold the rosebuds to the perfume industry in France, the almonds went to a marzipan factory in north Germany, and the tobacco to the Netherlands. Day and night, Salman lived for his dream of a thoroughly modern business. He was the first to bring a cross-country vehicle and a tractor to the village. The villagers laughed at Salman, but soon other farmers were wondering whether they too might not be able to take their produce to the capital as fast and get it there as fresh as he did, thereby saving themselves the tedious drive with a donkey and cart.

In time old Mushtak came to trust his son, and enjoyed being driven by that strong, sun-tanned, blue-eyed young man through the village in the open jeep.

Young women liked Salman’s blue eyes and dry humour too. When he was twenty, one girl even tried to commit suicide over him. Her life was saved, but her relations spread the story that Salman had made her pregnant. No one ever knew whether that was true. The one certainty was that she came from a penniless family, and that was also the reason for the rumour that old Mushtak had paid her cousin a large sum of money to marry her quickly.

When this tiresome business was dealt with, George called his son to order. “You’re marrying Hanan in six months’ time,” he told him. Salman knew the pale daughter of a rich engineer only distantly, but he knew his father very much better. He agreed. The wedding was to be on the first Sunday of August in 1931.

In addition, their father decreed that six months later Malake was to marry Adel the Lebanese cattle dealer. What he didn’t know was that she had been having an affair with that same man for years. Whenever George mentioned him she appeared indifferent, or expressed nothing but contempt for Adel. Malake knew that as soon as she showed her love for him, Salman and her father would find some reason to prevent the marriage. The Mushtaks were nothing out of the ordinary in that respect. Since time immemorial, parents had refused to sanction a marriage if they found out that it would be a love match. A letter was enough, or a poem, for the lovers to be parted for ever. Half of all Arabic lyric poetry tells tales of such tragedies.

Malake was already over twenty, and she had loved Adel since she was fourteen. But the cattle dealer had to wait until Mushtak’s firstborn son was married. That was what custom demanded in Mala, and Adel waited patiently, because he loved Malake.

They were all to come to Salman’s wedding: Hasib, now studying medicine at the American University of Beirut; Elias from Damascus; and Adel from Beirut, who for years had been regarded by everyone as a good friend of the family. The wedding festivities were to last seven days and seven nights. A bishop and six priests were invited from Damascus to celebrate the nuptial Mass. But the biggest surprise was the arrival of the Patriarch of the Catholic Church. George Mushtak kissed his hand, and was moved to tears when the head of the Church embraced him, laughing. “I know you only asked for a bishop, but I would like to bless your son’s marriage myself in gratitude for all you have done for the Church.”

The villagers couldn’t remember ever seeing a Catholic patriarch in Mala before. But since his great victory over the besiegers of the village, old Mushtak was thought capable of anything. And then he had an unpleasant surprise. The day before the wedding, quite by chance, he found his daughter in bed with Adel. He was extremely angry, not because his fiend of a daughter had seduced the simple cattle dealer, but because Malake ignored propriety and his orders, and insisted on having her own way, just like her mother. So after all Malake had been the first to celebrate her marriage in bed, before her brother, which showed that she didn’t care in the least for any of her father’s decrees or wishes.

Mushtak did not rant and rage, nor did he hit Malake, as he often did when he lost his temper, because this time he feared a scandal. The house was full, the head of the Catholic Church was drinking his coffee in the courtyard under a sun umbrella. Hundreds of people were crowding around him, all wanting to get close to His Excellency, Patriarch of the entire Middle East and the holy city of Jerusalem. He was, after all, the second most powerful man in the Church after Pope Pius XI. They were grateful to the bridegroom’s father for giving them this opportunity.

And now his own daughter was sleeping with that simple-minded cattle dealer. Mushtak swore he would hate Malake for it until the day he died. Today, however, he just stood in the doorway. Malake and her lover froze under the bedclothes when they saw him, and Adel regretted his stupidity in leaving his jacket with the revolver in its pocket out of reach. He expected to die, but nothing happened. Leaden minutes crawled by. Mushtak said not a word, just went on staring at the couple.

“We’ll celebrate the nuptial Mass tomorrow,” he said after an eternity that had, in fact, lasted three minutes. “And after that I never want to see either of you again.” His voice cracked. Those were the last words he spoke to Malake and Adel.

But the two of them ran away that night. Malake was afraid that her father’s henchmen would abduct her and her husband directly after the ceremony, kill them, and bury them in some distant ravine. She knew her father very well.

When Mushtak’s faithful servant Basil whispered the news to him next morning, while everyone was drinking to the wedding, he was surprised by the reaction of his master, who just smiled and nodded. “She’s quicksilver, like her mother, she can’t be held fast,” was all Malake’s father said, and then he took the Patriarch’s hand and led him to his place at the festive table. He was to sit enthroned there with Salman on his right and Hanan on his left.

The village had never seen a wedding like it before. Over a thousand guests celebrated for seven days on end, local people and strangers from the surrounding villages, from Damascus, Aleppo, Jerusalem, Baghdad, and Beirut.

Not since it was founded had the village seen so much meat and wine, so many pistachios and sweetmeats. It was said that for those seven days you could smell the aroma of roast meat and thyme ten kilometres away. For seven days, people drank themselves into a stupor on huge quantities of wine and arrack. And finally, at the end of the seventh day, when everyone thought the dream was over, George Mushtak announced that a man didn’t bring a son like Salman into the world every day, and the party was to go on for another whole week.

28. The Transformation of Elias

As soon as he arrived for the wedding festivities, Elias Mushtak was surrounded by young men teasing him, asking if he’d poked all the cooks and cleaning women in the monastery yet. He didn’t answer, but waved the jokes aside. Only once did he lower himself to saying, “That kind of thing just goes on in your corrupt little minds. The brothers and sisters in the monastery are chaste and devout.”

In the village, he heard about his sister’s love affair for the first time. Malake herself told him, asking for his blessing. And Elias kissed her and smiled awkwardly. “The way you describe Adel to me, it’s a love that deserves the blessing of God himself.”

Malake was obviously relieved. She ran off to her lover and told him the good news. She had also taken the opportunity of telling her brother about her plan to escape, and Elias prayed all night that his sister would elude their father’s guards.

On the wedding day, when Malake had gone, he was happy at the festivities for his brother’s sake, but he wasn’t at ease in all the noise made by the drunken guests. He often walked alone along the narrow paths through the terraced fields, and was surprised to find them even more beautiful than he remembered. He spent hours wandering in the hills and valleys, resting under large fig and mulberry trees, and drinking in the view of the landscape.

On the fourth day of the wedding festivities, he was watching a large black donkey in a field repeatedly mounting a pale brown female under an old walnut tree. The donkey was a stray; the remnants of his reins still dangled from his neck. The female donkey couldn’t defend herself. She kicked, hitting the male so often that it must hurt him, but he was in a strange state of intoxication, and didn’t stop until, after the fifth mating, he collapsed, snorted, and licked white foam from his muzzle. At that moment Elias smelled the sexual arousal of the female, who was probably just beginning to enjoy the love-play.

It was a sweetish smell, like faded roses. He felt a curious arousal in himself, a sensation beyond his control. That moment changed Elias’s life for ever. From now on he could scent a woman’s arousal from over three metres away, and he was never wrong. Even if at the last moment a woman sometimes took fright and denied feeling desire, he knew better. His nose was a merciless guide, knowing no consideration or morality.

At that extraordinary moment watching the female donkey, however, he felt so beside himself, so aroused, that he rushed at her and penetrated her himself. She brayed under the thrusts of his powerful penis. Elias felt the pulsating muscles inside the creature almost crushing his glans. Suddenly a huge tremor shook his body as if it had been struck by lightning. He cried out so loud that the female donkey froze in alarm, while the male watched with drowsy eyes.

Elias walked slowly home. He knew for certain now that the abstemious Jesuit life was not for him. But he had no idea that two young women had been standing behind a pomegranate bush all the time, watching him. Moist between the legs and giggling, they ran home, promising each other, as they parted, to keep the secret to themselves. In Mala, however, such promises were the surest guarantee that a story would spread like wildfire. It wasn’t long before the news of Elias Mushtak’s amazing prick was circulating among the village women, and that very night he was seduced by Munira, one of the two girls who had watched him with the donkey.

He spent the days of the wedding feast in a never-ending state of exhilaration. He couldn’t get enough of women. So he went around in search of them, and as soon as his nostrils picked up that special aroma he was like a man hypnotized. Elias never found out whether it was their indulgence in meat, nuts, and wine that sent the women wild, or the forbidden thrill of an adventure with a sexually potent novice monk, but it was certain that he caught the sweetish scent more and more often.

The women laughed, pinched him, joked with him. They took him into remote corners and got to work without delay. Samia, the bus driver’s wife, worried about his health. She fed him pistachios and the spinal marrow of lambs, foods well known to increase potency. Elias could have done with something to dampen his desires down instead. The women were carried away. When he took them, they often forgot themselves and shouted out loud in their ecstasies. So what was bound to happen finally did.

The whole village was given over to the wedding festivities. So many guests could never have been received and entertained with food and drink in a single house. Every corner of the Mushtaks’ entire property was stuffed with provisions. Lambs and calves stood crammed together in their pens, quantities of different beverages were stacked on top of each other. Every day, at six in the morning, carts brought fresh supplies to the churchyard, the village elder’s house, and the village square, where bonfires were built ready to be lit. Apart from the Shahins and their allies, all the people of Mala offered guests from outside the village as many beds as their houses could provide. Hundreds still had to sleep out in the open, but the nights were mild, and apart from three or four cases of painful but harmless scorpion stings there was nothing wrong with that. Moreover, the mood remained extremely harmonious in spite of the crowds and the huge quantities of spirits and wine that they imbibed, and if George Mushtak hadn’t had his strange accident on the penultimate evening everyone would gone home with the happiest of memories.

That evening he was going back and forth between his own property, the churchyard, the village elder’s house, and the village square. He seemed a different man, affable to everyone. He said goodbye almost affectionately to those who were setting off that night. Suddenly he saw that the guests in the churchyard had run short of arrack. He decided to fetch them two canisters each containing five litres of arrack himself. His house wasn’t far off, and he also felt strong pressure in his bladder, so he could kill two birds with one stone.

He took two canisters of arrack from the stores, put them down a little way to one side of the courtyard, which was full of guests, and went to the earth closet on the other side of the yard. The long tool shed divided the grounds of the property into two, the front half ornamental, with flowers in containers, fountains, arcades, and benches to sit on, the back half devoted to the farm. There was an earth closet for the farm hands here, a rather better one for the master of the house and his family, a large stable, a sheep pen, a granary, and a kennel for the dogs.

After only a couple of steps he heard the first scream, but he thought he had simply imagined it, or else it came from the guests celebrating in his yard. He went on, lit the oil lamp in the little room with the earth closet, undid his flies and directed his stream of urine into the closet. Suddenly he heard the scream again. Mushtak paused. He listened, and a terrible fear took hold of him. It was a woman’s scream, and it came from the nearby granary where wheat and barley were stored in dry lofts. For a moment the old man thought it was his daughter Malake’s voice, and his blood boiled with anger. But then he remembered that she wasn’t there any more, and smiled. The woman screamed again.

“Let’s have no more of this,” he growled, hurrying out. Breathlessly, he tried to open the granary door, but it was bolted on the inside. Looking up, he saw that there was a window open on the upper floor: the window of the drying chamber where the clean jute sacks were stored. Now he heard the woman whimpering up there, repeating again and again, gasping for breath, “You’ll kill me yet!”

Mushtak looked around and found a ladder. It was one of the heavy kind made of steel tubing. He put it against the wall without a sound and quickly climbed up. His eyes were flashing fire; he was so agitated that he could hardly breathe. When he reached the window four metres up, and was about to haul himself through it, he froze at the sight that met his eyes. The room was dark, but light from the three tall lamps illuminating the inner courtyard came through the open window. In the lamplight he saw someone thrusting into a woman again and again. Although he could see nothing of the man but his back, his bare buttocks, and his mighty member, the sheer extent of the penis told him it was Elias. The woman was laughing and screaming at the same time.

Later, no one could say exactly what happened next, not even Mushtak himself, let alone the terrified couple in the drying chamber.

“You damn son of a whore,” he cried, and perhaps he was about to fall on both of them, hit his son, or turn away in disgust to avoid the sight of that terrible prick. He may have tried to do all those things at the same moment, with the result that he suddenly found himself lying in the paved yard below with a broken leg. Elias hurried down, and Nasibe, widow of the butcher Tuma, the first man to die in the siege, ran ahead to the wedding guests, where she cried out the news that quite by chance, she had seen George Mushtak lying on the ground as she was on her way to the earth closet.

The festivities came to an abrupt end. No one felt like singing and dancing any more. A heavy silence fell on the village. Guests took their leave of Salman, who stood at the gate outside the house and wouldn’t let anyone but old Dr. Talani disturb his father. The doctor had reassured the family at once, telling them their father was strong enough to be getting around as usual in three months’ time. But the festive spirit was gone.

Hanan the bride became nurse at the morose old man’s bedside that night, and she remained his nurse until the last day of his life, sixteen years later. For even when his leg was better he took special pleasure in having her care for him. As for Hanan herself, he repelled her, and she nursed him with silent hatred. But old Mushtak never noticed.

On the evening of the accident he absolutely refused to see Elias, and over the next few days he cursed the devil every time his youngest son entered the room. The watchful Salman didn’t fail to notice, and asked his father why, but Mushtak gave no answer.

Only when Salman took his brother to the stable on the day before he was due to leave early and whipped him did Elias begin telling the true story. Then Salman stopped beating him and started to laugh.

Mushtak wouldn’t bless the novice when he left either. He turned his head away and looked at the wall. Elias’s back was burning from the lashes of his brother’s whip.

He had never hated his father so much as he did at that moment, when he waited at the window of the old bus until the passengers had hauled aboard all the stuff they were taking to Damascus with them. The village square was full of the travellers’ relations, saying goodbye and repeating their last good wishes again.

Some thirty passengers and as many chickens, two large rams, and a young goat filled the bus. Elias sat on his own, feeling chilly. Not a soul came to see him off. His sister Malake had made her escape. Here and there one of the many women whose favours he had enjoyed during the wedding celebrations waved to him surreptitiously or smiled, but none of them dared exchange a word with him.

Then a madman suddenly appeared in the square, pushing his way through the crowd with difficulty. It took Elias some time to realize that the man was making straight for him, and then he turned away.

“Here, it’s for you,” said the deranged man, smiling and handing him a little bundle. Elias could see fresh grapes and bread. The bundle smelled of pungent sheep’s cheese. He was startled, and left at a loss.

“Thank you,” he said awkwardly, taking the bundle. The young man’s face turned red, and he stayed there under the bus window. At some point in the wedding festivities he had appeared from nowhere. He was dazzlingly beautiful. He spent the night in the village elder’s guesthouse, and hadn’t attracted any particular attention among hundreds of strangers. But soon people realized that he was crazy. He kept having fits that lasted for about ten minutes, when he fell to the ground and seemed to be possessed by the devil. However, he was gentle and calm when he came to himself again, and in general he was peaceful, although his behaviour was strange. He listened to discussions with such interest that you might have thought him a sensible man, but then he would suddenly begin interrupting the disputants and start to sing, or throw melon peel and dirt picked up in the street. Only when he caught sight of George Mushtak did he instantly become almost rigid with fear. Secrets never lasted long in Mala. Within a short time the whole village knew the identity of the young man who went by the name of Shams. But old Mushtak mustn’t know he was here, and so Elias hadn’t heard anything about him either.

Yet again he thanked the unknown man, but he stayed there under the window of the bus, and people looked at him and laughed. When the bus finally moved slowly off on its way out of the village, the madman ran after it. Elias was embarrassed. He had a feeling that the bus driver was going extra slowly because he disliked the Mushtaks, and wanted to spin out what Elias felt was his own humiliation. The people in the village square fell about laughing when the madman tried to stop the bus.

“God protect you, brother!” he cried, weeping aloud, and at last he stood still. Only then did the driver step on the gas.

29. Loneliness

Early that evening, Bab Tuma Street, leading to the Jesuit monastery, smelled of jasmine. The bus journey had taken forever; the driver had to stop again and again because the overheated engine was boiling the water in the radiator.

Who, Elias wondered, was the madman? He felt embarrassed that he of all people had called him “brother”, while Salman wouldn’t give him a brotherly kiss and hadn’t even come to see him off. Why was Salman so cold towards him, so harsh?

He knocked at the monastery gate, and was pleased to see Brother Andreas’s face. Andreas smiled at him. “You’re back early. I thought you were staying two months,” he said in surprise. Elias did not reply. He just said good evening to the monk, went to the dormitory, left his case there and then hurried to evening prayers. The bell was just ringing.

As time went on he could find no peace in the monastery. At first he thought it was because he felt guilty about his father. He wrote letter after letter, saying that he prayed daily for his return to health. He was sorry to have caused him such pain, he said. His father did not reply. Two months later a letter came from Salman. It was disappointingly short, cool, and matter-of-fact: Don’t write so many letters, pay attention to your books. Father is well and happy. Your brother, Salman.

At least this brief missive freed Elias from his fears for his father’s condition. Yet still he was not at peace. There was a great deal to do in the monastery, and he flung himself into his work. But he never again felt the old happiness he had known before he went away. He tried not to let anyone see that his thoughts were elsewhere. The women of Mala had taught him another kind of happiness, a wild desire that plagued him, especially at night, when he lay alone in his room. He prayed to withstand the temptation, but as if he had been praying for more temptation instead his longing for women now attacked him by day, as well as following him into his dreams at night.

The monastic life seemed to him more and more like the quiet onset of senility. There were a hundred men there, and not a single woman worth a glance. Three ancient ladies from the neighbourhood came in to clean, cook and wash the dishes, and then went home again. The windows of the building led nowhere; it was as if no female creature lived anywhere near the monastery. He thought of the seething life somewhere beyond its walls. Damascus wasn’t a city to him any more but a woman, and the monastery was trying to keep him away from her.

When Elias imagined a woman it was almost always Nasibe, the butcher Tuma’s widow, whom he saw in his mind’s eye. Merely thinking of her passionate nature aroused him. She wasn’t a native of Mala; Tuma had seen her at the cattle markets he visited, and she was twenty years his junior. At the time Tuma had quickly come to an agreement with her father, who was glad to have one of his eleven daughters off his hands. The butcher was rich. He had inherited money and he worked hard. All seemed well, until the day when a bullet struck him in the forehead during the siege of Mala. He was just forty at the time.

After his death Nasibe dressed modestly in black and lived a very quiet life. There had been plenty of would-be suitors for a while, but she didn’t want to know about any of them. So after some time the men stayed away, since the grieving widow seemed inconsolable. She was left alone, and women praised her, no longer seeing her as a threat. Nasibe prayed a great deal. She made a living by fattening up kids and lambs which she sold cleverly and at a high price not to the village butchers, but to private customers who had something to celebrate and wanted to serve good meat at a festive meal. She soon had such a high reputation for her wares that she had more than enough work to keep her busy.

Elias had been told to go to the widow Nasibe early in the morning of the eighth day of the wedding feast, to ask if she could let the Mushtaks have another five well fattened lambs and three kids. His father had noticed that the cooks were economizing on meat to make it last through the extended festivities.

So Elias had knocked at the widow’s door and delivered his father’s request, she quietly asked him in, and when he passed her into her pretty little living room he suddenly smelled her ardent desire. It was only later that she told him how, not long before he arrived, she had overheard two women talking quietly about him under her window, and that had suddenly aroused lust in her again.

Elias sat down on the couch. She knelt on the floor between his feet, caressed him, and looked amorously at him. Slowly, she took off her black dress. It was the greatest surprise of his life. Nasibe seemed to grow out of the fabric. Her body, a moment ago nondescript, stiff and flat, rounded out as she cast off her fetters, liberated into a femininity that Elias had never before seen in such perfection. Nasibe told him that she wore tight clothes to hide her curves from men’s eyes. She was almost twenty-five, but her body looked no older than seventeen.

Then she undressed her visitor and led him into the bedroom. A large bed filled the little room. Nasibe quickly pulled the curtains, pushed Elias down on the bed, laughing, and lay on top of him. At that moment he doubted whether she had ever lived without men. She made play with her tongue, and he tasted her saliva, which was sweet as honey. Her lips wandered down his body, tickling him like butterflies. From time to time the tickling became too much to bear, and then he would push her up with both arms and kiss those lips passionately.

Her skin was dark and smooth as a child’s. He bent over her; she laughed and yielded to him. He kissed her feet, let his own lips wander over her soft knees and along the insides of her thighs to the source of her perfume. He licked the aroma of her insatiable desire. Nasibe spread her legs and raised them in the air, and then drew Elias to her.

“Slowly,” she begged in ecstasy, as if to hold the moment fast. She laughed flirtatiously. He sucked her right breast. Nasibe groaned in a strange way, her voice like the soft whinny of a mare, and he tenderly bit her lip. “More, more,” she repeated lustfully. He thrust in, licking her earlobe as he did so. “No, bite me, blow your breath into my ear. Do it, do it, please,” she begged.

He lost consciousness, he was flying with her like a feather. She clasped him in her arms to regulate the rhythm of his thrusts, and then they were united, almost bodiless, far from the earth and its force of attraction.

Later he didn’t know how often he had made love to her that day, but after that she clung to him. She was eight years his senior, but in her forthright peasant way she had told him he ought to leave the monastery. “I’d suit you better,” she had said, laughing. But Elias was aware of the grave intent that showed through her laughter lines.

She kept seeking him out during the wedding festivities and wanting to make love. Sometimes they were very careless about it. Finally he had chosen the safest place he knew, the drying chamber at the back of the yard, for their next rendezvous. And as chance would have it, that was the very place where they were discovered by his father.

When Elias thought of Nasibe now that he was back in the monastery, his loneliness grew high as a mountain, and he wept quietly into his pillows.

30. Arson

One cold February day in 1933, Elias returned to Mala with a suitcase in his hand. No one in the Mushtak household seemed interested in his arrival.

He got out of the bus and walked slowly home. The gate was closed. His sister-in-law Hanan, Salman’s wife, opened it and brusquely showed him his room on the first floor near the back entrance. It was the room where his mother had spent her last days, and after that servants had slept there. The room was only sparsely furnished, with a bedstead made of old wooden lathes and a mattress stuffed with dried maize leaves and straw. The mattress stank of urine and sweat, the bedclothes were grey with dirt. Only the pillows and two threadbare towels were at least clean.

“I’ll bring you your meal in this room at noon every day. You know the master of the house doesn’t want to see you, but you can stay here until you’ve found somewhere else.”

It was Hanan’s voice, but the words were his father’s, so he couldn’t blame her for those two incredible sentences. All the same, he felt humiliated. Here was a stranger showing him where to go in his own father’s house, explaining that he must stay in this dismal room and would get only one meal a day. He had to summon up all his strength to keep back the tears.

“What about Salman?” he said, not sure what to ask first: why his brother hadn’t come to greet him, or why he was allowing him, Elias, to be treated like a mangy dog.

“Salman’s very busy,” replied his wife, and left. She fits into the Mushtak household perfectly, he thought, watching Hanan go. She had a strange way of walking, like an old woman. He sat down on the edge of the bed and stared at his brown case.

The burning monastery rose before his mind’s eye again. He could clearly hear the screams. Three Jesuits had perished in the flames, the bravest of the Fathers. They had rescued all the students before they burned to death themselves.

The whole dreadful business had begun as early as the summer of 1932. When the unrest started, Elias was on the point of leaving the monastery to find some kind of job working for the French, so that he could live in Damascus and make love to women. There were demonstrations of some kind every day, and they were all against the French in one way or another. Even if they were just demonstrating against the decline of morals, the march ended in anti-French violence every time.

The French governor of the city responded by letting his most brutal forces loose on the demonstrators. The Senegalese were notorious for their ferocity, and struck without mercy. Demonstrators were killed and injured every day.

Brother Andreas was the first to realize that the riots would lead to the closing of the Jesuit mission in Damascus. Everyone laughed at him. As a great power, so Abbot Rafael Herz, an arrogant and greedy man, told him, France was putting all its weight behind them.

“France?” said Brother Andreas in surprise. “France is much too far away, and the rabble are too close.” But no one understood what he meant.

On the seventh of October, the Feast of St. Sergius, the first wave of the disaster reached the monastery gates. About a hundred men were shouting as they fled from the cudgels and bayonets of the Senegalese soldiers. “Down with France! Down with the Christians who pray to the cross, down with them, the swine!” They threw stones. One stone hit the cross above the monastery gateway, and it fell to the ground.

There hadn’t been a drop of rain throughout the autumn in the south of the country, and when the seed corn dried up in winter thousands of people set off to go north. With images of beautiful green cities before their eyes, they whispered their prayers and hoped to escape starvation.

From then on the rioting was worse and worse. Wherever it raged, it left sheer devastation behind, flattening everything like a desert storm. The French soldiers struck back without mercy. And when the demonstrators retreated, they took their wounded away with them, cursing and swearing revenge.

January was freezing cold, but the sky still grudged the country rain. Soldiers prevented a huge wave of peasants from the south from invading Damascus at the southern city gate of Bab al Sigir. The human torrent stormed on along the city wall, forced its way in through the two gates of Bab Sharki and Bab Tuma, and attacked the Christian quarter. Shops were wrecked, churches and houses set on fire. But only the Jesuit monastery actually went up in flames. Two trucks of soldiers cut off all escape routes and fired into the crowd. Three soldiers and seventy peasants died that day. The Jesuit monastery burned down to its foundations.

As already mentioned, Elias had been feeling for weeks that he must leave the monastery, but he realized that he shrank from explaining his decision to its administration and his father. The monks were too kind to him, regarding him as one of their best novices, while his father, the sphinx of Mala, was already embittered enough. Failure to make it in the monastery would have meant Elias’s death sentence.

He was waiting for a good opportunity to get away, and kept only the essentials, next day’s clean underclothes, in his small locker. Everything else was in his case under the bed. It was evening when Brother Andreas hurried into the church, crying, “The house is burning!”

Neighbours with buckets of water helped to put out the fire, or at least keep it from spreading to other buildings made of wood and mud. It was a miracle that only the Jesuit monastery went up in flames.

The monastery administration found the students rescued from the fire temporary accommodation in a nearby building belonging to the French Lazarist mission, but a few days later it was decided that the monastery was to be dissolved, the priests and teachers would go to Beirut, and the students must go home. Only Brother Andreas would stay to make the necessary arrangements for selling the site. The ruins could not be restored now.

Andreas waved goodbye with tears in his eyes.

31. Nasibe

Elias was bored in Mala. He had spent nine years studying natural sciences, philosophy, literature, and music, and suddenly he found himself back in a remote mountain village that hadn’t moved on at all in those nine years, and knew nothing of the outside world. Mala was intellectually stagnant. Its people seemed to be living on another star, where there were no table manners or mathematics, no civilized social intercourse or Molière. They knew as little of Aristotle as of the exotic plants of South America that Elias had read about in his lessons.

He couldn’t find a single book in the village apart from the Bible, which he knew by heart already. The folk music played at weddings and religious festivals could best be described as a shrill kind of snoring. The musicians were unacquainted with notation and the theory of harmony, and scorned purity of tone in playing. Elias couldn’t listen without feeling it was driving him crazy, and he thought of his music teacher Brother John, who played the piano and flute so divinely, yet was never satisfied with his performance. He would have had a heart attack if he’d met puffed-up Sarkis who stood with his legs planted wide apart, played out of tune, and was proud of it.

His only comfort at first was Nasibe. But although he could sleep with her — and she was magnificent in that respect — how was he to carry on a conversation about things she didn’t understand? She too was only a backwoods peasant woman. At least he could laugh with her, although even that hadn’t been so easy recently. For in the middle of their laughter she would suddenly turn serious, and suggest selling everything she had to go to Damascus with him and marry him there. He didn’t say no; he did not want to lose her. Her infatuation with him was all he had to cling to in the village.

But one day he heard of a job with the French administration in Damascus. He asked his brother to get him his father’s permission to go back to the capital. He still had to communicate through Salman, for even after six months George Mushtak wouldn’t say a word to Elias.

Salman told him curtly, “You can go. Here are five lira for the first few weeks, until you have a salary.” And he threw the coins in his lap.

Elias took up his post in Damascus early in July. The work wasn’t hard: he was running a provisions store for the French army. In three weeks he learned how to draw up lists and tables of everything that came into the store and went out of it, and a little later, like all his colleagues there, he found out how to earn something on the side as well as his official salary. It was simple: you set aside five kilos of rice and let the grocer have them, then you counted the five kilos in again with supplies for the soldiers’ canteen, and you shared the money thus earned fair and square with the cook. Everyone did it. And if an officer came along — an officer with the rank of at least first lieutenant — and said he needed three litres of red wine you didn’t stop to argue, you smiled, gave him what he wanted, and added the missing bottles to the accounts for the next party. Who was going to check whether three hundred or three hundred and fifteen bottles of red wine had been drunk at a reception for the French High Commissioner or the governor of Damascus?

“No one,” explained his predecessor, giving Elias a list of the maximum quantities to be unofficially allowed to every rank of officer. “There’s order even in chaos,” the old man went on. “Only generals can have as much as they want.”

Elias was living in the Bab Tuma district, lodging with a tight-fisted old widow whom he hated as much as his boss. Neither of them could be described as a genuine human being. If his boss First Lieutenant Mauriac had really been human Elias’s life would have taken quite a different turn. But Mauriac was a sadist who enjoyed tormenting his inferiors, a slimy hypocrite who spent all day cleaning his uniform, tidying his desk, or polishing his boots. He had been transferred to administration as a punishment for cowardice on the field of battle, and even that was only because his uncle had been a famous hero in the First World War, or he would have been dishonourably discharged from the army. Every single one of his thirty-five underlings knew it. He was a corrupt, unprincipled man who delighted in humiliating his new employee every morning. “Well, little Syrian?” he would say. “So how are you going to defend France, eh? The rebels will just fart in your face. You’d better be glad we’re taking the trouble to put this dunghill of yours in order.”

There was nothing to be done about it. Answering back just spurred Mauriac on to think up even worse humiliations. “You have to keep saying, ‘Yes, sir, very true, sir,’” Elias’s predecessor had told him quietly, “while you secretly wish him an elephant’s prick up his arse.” Elias laughed, and thought the old administrator had lost his backbone with the advancing years, but he soon found out what happened to those who stood up to Mauriac. The first lieutenant had them beaten and put to cleaning the latrines.

So the former Jesuit student repeated, “Yes, sir, very true, sir,” at least three times a day. It was a bitter daily pill that Mauriac made him swallow.

Otherwise, however, there was nothing wrong with the administrative work. Elias and another Syrian called Adnan, under Mauriac’s direct supervision, managed a huge store containing not just foodstuffs but luxury goods from all over the world, things that the average Syrian never set eyes on: expensive sweetmeats, textiles, wines, coffee, butter, cognac, champagne, spirits, rock candy, pistachios and peanuts.

Over thirty workmen did what the two managers told them, and before three months were up Elias thought up a good idea for getting around the problem of certain logistical bottlenecks that were delaying the supply of goods. Mauriac was pleased, because the military governor gave him a decoration for it, and “his” procedure was to be adopted in all the other stores too. But Adnan ascribed the fact that the newcomer and not he had won praise, although he had been in the job so much longer, to the general injustice of Christians. He was a Sunni and had never been praised for anything in his ten years working here.

Elias later suspected that Adnan gave him away out of resentment, and took pleasure in his cruel punishment. But something of crucial importance was to happen first.

Nasibe visited him. It was a surprise. He came back from work about five in the afternoon, and there she was standing under the chestnut tree near his lodgings, carrying a small basket. Elias was bewildered. On a short visit to Mala, he had probably told her where he was living in Damascus, but he had never expected her to come and see him.

But now here she was, delighted when he smiled at her and said she was in luck, because that dragon his landlady was away for a week, staying with her daughter in the distant seaport of Latakia. She wouldn’t let her lodgers have visitors, either men or women. “Their shoes wear out the stairs,” he said, quoting the old lady as he took Nasibe into the house.

However, after a few hours his pleasure in seeing her died down, and on that day he knew he didn’t want to live with Nasibe. She, on the other hand, was as happy as ever with his pretended ardour, and took the things she had brought from Mala out of her basket: dried fruits, wheat grits, cheese. He took her hand, led her to the larder and asked her to cook something with these magnificent provisions.

Nasibe sensed no change in Elias, because he still wanted her in bed. Perhaps he didn’t make such wild love as before, but he was more affectionate than any other man she knew. Above all, he was very courteous to her, and Nasibe regarded courtesy as one of the cornerstones of love. In the evening he even took her out, and they went walking through the Christian quarter together. He just didn’t want her to take his arm.

She stayed with him for five days, cooking, washing, and ironing, and looking forward to his return every evening. Elias was especially courteous to her now, for the very reason that he no longer desired her. He thanked her for every little thing. But she was losing all her power of attraction for him. He tried hard to find her interesting in some kind of way, and drank when he was with her so that he could give his instincts free rein, but even drunk he couldn’t make love to her as wildly as he did a few months ago.

She smelled of strong rosewater, sour milk, and rutting billygoats. Even when she put on makeup he thought she looked rustic. She used too much of everything, as if the world were short-sighted and colour-blind. Everything she said and did reminded him more and more of Mala. And Nasibe became more rustic all the time because, out in the street, she noticed that she was inferior to the city women.

He was glad when she left. She had wanted him to take her to the bus, but he pretended he had an urgent inventory of the store to draw up. However, she did not, as he had hoped, sense his coolness. He could feel that when she embraced him in tears behind the door as they said goodbye, and whispered to him almost pleadingly, “Think of me, my little stallion. I’ll look forward to your decision. We suit so well together. Did you notice too? Five days, and we haven’t spoken a cross word.” And her eyes became a gushing fountain of tears.

32. Adnan’s Revenge

Mauriac was supposed to be on three days’ leave, but suddenly there he was in his uniform. It was after five in the afternoon. He had never before turned up in the store at that time of day, after working hours. Elias had just invited a workman whom he liked to drink a glass of wine with him in a back room. They were sitting among the crates, sipping their wine and eating roasted peanuts from a little dish. The man’s name was Burhan, and he was very poor. He worked as a porter, making ends meet as best he could, but he had a quick and clever wit. Elias liked his pointed remarks. A small sack of peanuts had split open that day; he had distributed the contents to the porters, except for this last handful, and then he asked Burhan to stay and chat with him after work. Like Elias himself, Burhan was a bachelor.

Adnan had seen it all from the doorway. But soon after that he left, and Elias hadn’t been sorry to see him knock off work early. There wasn’t anything more to do. Now, however, Adnan was standing behind the furious Mauriac with a spiteful grin on his face.

“A manager thieving!” shouted Mauriac. “Caught you in the act, you lousy Arab.”

He took no notice of the porter at all, and indeed turned his back on him and seized the shocked manager’s hand as if he feared Elias might run for it. Burhan quietly made himself scarce, and no one paid him any attention. Elias stood there in front of the open bottle of red wine and the dish of peanuts.

“You thought I wouldn’t notice what a thief you are. But you were wrong, and you’ll be punished for it.”

Then he laughed as if he had exactly the right idea for a punishment in mind. He turned to Adnan. “Tell the commandant of the men on guard that I need two good strong fellows.”

Adnan went off and soon came back with two tall guardsmen, both Syrians.

“Hold the thief tight,” said Mauriac, and in pleasurable excitement he whispered an order to Adnan, who disappeared into the equipment room and soon came back with a funnel and a small hosepipe.

“And now a bucket of pour.”

Pour was short for pour chien, “for the dog”. It was the codeword in the store for a cheap red wine given only to the common soldiers when there was something to celebrate. The two Syrians held Elias’s hands, one on each side, and pulled his arms apart so that he slumped between them as if he had been crucified.

Then Adnan roughly forced the hose into his mouth, and Mauriac, laughing, poured the wine into it down the funnel. “Here, drink up,” he said, still laughing. Elias thought his end had come. Years later he was still saying that at this, the worst moment of his life, he had understood all the misery of the Arabs. Three Syrians slavishly helping a corrupt, cowardly French officer to torment their fellow countryman.

He swallowed and swallowed, tried to get his breath back and choked, but Mauriac went on pouring. The wine flowed out of the corners of his mouth and down over his throat and chest. Mauriac poured the entire contents of the bucket down through the hose until Elias lost consciousness.

When he came back to his senses, he was lying on a dirty mattress in a dark room. He sat up, his head heavy. His skull was buzzing and there was a bitter taste in his mouth. He didn’t know how he came to be in this room or how long he had been lying there.

Slowly, he went out of it. The room was in a poor peasants’ house, behind their living room. An old man sat with his wife beside the small hearth, and they were feeding the fire with thin pieces of wood. Elias didn’t know either of them. He sat down on the first stool he saw.

“Thank God, you’re alive,” cried the man. “My wife thought you’d die soon.”

“Where did you find me?”

“In the ditch at the roadside, not far from Damascus,” said the woman. “We were just coming home from market after selling our walnuts and dried figs,” her husband added.

Elias quickly recovered, went back to Damascus, fetched a few possessions from his room, and set out for Mala.

The village knew by now was that he was doing splendidly with the French, and was said to be a store manager. George Mushtak felt a certain pride in that damn son of his who wouldn’t let anything get him down, but kept on fighting. He had decided to bury his hatred and forgive the boy next time he came to visit.

Elias came home a broken man, carrying a single case, so he was much moved when Mushtak sent Salman to tell him he could come and receive his father’s blessing. He ran upstairs. His father was sitting on the big couch like a king, and Elias’s eyes filled with tears when he kissed Mushtak’s hand and asked his forgiveness.

“I forgive you everything! You are my son, and you have my blessing,” said George Mushtak, equally moved. Salman and his wife were standing in the doorway.

“Why are you standing there like a couple of plaster dummies? Fetch us wine, bread, olives, and cheese, and we’ll celebrate!”

The word “wine” was unwelcome to Elias’s ears, and indeed he never in his life drank red wine again.

“Water for me, please,” he begged.

“Why? You’re a man, aren’t you?” asked his father, and there was anxiety in his voice.

“Yes, Father, but some red wine gave me bad blood poisoning,” Elias replied. He stopped for a moment, and then realized that he was going the wrong way about it. He must be frank. “Father,” he said, “I’ve been tortured. They poured five litres of wine into my belly down a hosepipe.” He fell silent as Salman and Hanan carried in two large trays laden with olives, preserved aubergines and sheep’s milk cheese. George Mushtak gestured to them to put it all down and keep quiet.

“Who tortured you? And why?” he asked, taking his son by the right shoulder.

Elias told the whole story, laying the blame on Adnan and Mauriac.

“Then now let’s celebrate your homecoming, and I swear to you by my mother’s soul that neither of them will have the strength to reach their own homes tomorrow,” said his father, drinking to his son.

Late that night three men rode towards Damascus behind Elias. They arrived early in the morning. Like his father’s three servants, Elias wore peasant clothes, and they lay in wait for Adnan, who always turned up for work at eight. When he appeared, the men looked hard at him and memorized his face and figure. Then Elias pointed out Mauriac, who came to work at nine with all due ceremony, wearing his uniform.

“You can sleep until midday now,” he told the men, and they lay down beside a nearby stream. He stayed awake himself. He kept thinking of his father, who had insisted on paying out those who had tormented his son. He woke the men around twelve.

“They’ll both come out in half an hour’s time,” he told them. “God be with you.” And he reached for his pistol. They had agreed that he was to stay in the background. The men would attack the two from the store and beat them, and only if they were in danger themselves would Elias give them cover.

Mauriac came marching out of the store first. Adnan, his puny shadow, followed him. Mushtak’s men, well muffled up, let them go about a hundred metres to the first bend in the road. Then the peasants from Mala fell on them, threw them to the ground in silence, and beat them about their heads and knees with iron bars. After that they mounted the horses that Elias was holding for them and rode out of town faster than the wind.

His father’s welcome, however, was a strange one. George Mushtak stood with his face impassive, listening to his favourite servant Basil’s account. When he heard that it had all gone as he wished, he said only, “Good,” beckoned to Elias, and took him into his bedroom. He went to the shelf under the picture of St. Giorgios on the wall opposite the big bed. It was a seventeenth-century original that the bishop had given George Mushtak after he made the Church a large donation.

“Put your hand on the Bible,” he ordered, “and swear not to fuck a woman again until you marry.” Elias was shocked at first. Then he was almost overcome by a fit of laughter. Only his father could utter the words “Bible” and “fuck” in the same sentence. He put his hand on the Bible. He was almost unconscious with weariness after the six hours’ ride.

“I swear,” he whispered, almost inaudibly.

33. Flight

George Mushtak was less and less intemperate in his dealings with Elias now, but he was truly at ease only with Salman. They were almost like boon companions. George’s eyes always flashed with joy and admiration when they rested on his firstborn child. But at least he had made his peace with his youngest son now. Elias had a fine room on the second floor, and was treated with respect by everyone, including his father.

It took Elias some time to recover from his experiences, and then he wondered what to do now. He didn’t want to teach at the school in Mala, although the village priest was pressing him to take the job. But the musty damp of the classrooms choked him the moment the priest so much as mentioned the subject, and in any case he never again wanted to work in the service of any authority, even the Catholic Church.

He briefly contemplated starting a small factory to produce natural dried fruits. But one day George Mushtak suggested horse-breeding, a trade at present pursued by only two families in Mala: the hated Shahins and, in a smaller way, the Mobates. And the future of the Mobate stud farm was uncertain, since the village elder’s three sons had shown no interest in the business.

“The beautiful Samira is crazy about horses, the only one among them who is, but she’s a woman and needs an intelligent man to guide her,” said his father, in an almost conspiratorial tone.

Elias knew Samira only slightly. She wasn’t beautiful, but she was large and imposing, which amounted to the same thing for the peasants of Mala. She laughed a lot, very loudly, and she rode like the devil. Everyone knew that Mobate idolized her, and to the great annoyance of her brothers was leaving her a quarter of his large fortune in his will, just as if she were a man.

Elias had no idea that his father and the village elder had already settled everything. He was to marry Samira and start a stud farm of his own with her. Mobate would provide the thoroughbred Arab horses, Mushtak would contribute three hundred gold lira for the stables.

But it was in that summer of 1935 that Elias met Claire and fell in love. Captivated by her as he was, he was impervious to all else. Every hint his father dropped about Samira went unheard. He nodded amiably, but he wasn’t listening. And even when he was stopped in the village square at noon one day by the handsome lunatic known to everyone as Shams, the man’s strange words did not alarm him at first.

“Brother, don’t marry Samira. She loves me, but her father wants to sell her off to you. Look at me, brother, look at me,” begged the madman, and his wide eyes showed how deranged he was. “Have I done anything to harm you? Is it too much to ask? You can marry all America, but leave me Samira!”

Elias found this conversation embarrassing. “Hush, there’s no need for you to shout. Why would I have anything to do with Samira? I’m happy to leave her to you or anyone else,” he replied.

“No, brother, not anyone else, just me, all right? Just me, right?” cried Shams, laughing, and there was a pleading note in his voice. The saliva dribbled uncontrollably from his mouth, yet he was still as handsome as a Greek god, thought Elias.

Only that evening did he learn that the madman had not, like many Arabs, used the word “brother” as a courteous but generalized form of address, but meant it literally.

“He’s your half-brother,” Salman told him, his tone cold and brittle as usual. “Your mother was unfaithful to my father, and God punished her because he loves George Mushtak. She went crazy, and her son has fits of lunacy.”

“Where does he live? What does he do?”

“He’s worked as a groom for Mobate ever since he turned up here. They say he’s good with horses,” replied Salman.

“And what about Samira? Why did he beg me not to marry her? Does Father have plans of some kind?”

“What do you mean, plans? He has no plans at all. You mustn’t let any chance-come idiot turn your head,” said Salman, lying. He knew very well that Mob ate and Mushtak had already fixed the wedding for Christmas. The only snag was that Samira didn’t like Elias. She often mocked his slight figure and his liking for books, and she thought his affairs with women ridiculous. She dreamed of an immaculate love as Shams passionately understood it. He described such a love wonderfully.

Elias wasn’t interested in Samira either. While the fathers were making their plans he had met, for the first time, a woman who attracted him even though she smelled only of perfume, giving off no aura of desire for him. But her speech was sensuality itself, and when she said “chéri” he could have fainted away with happiness.

She spoke fluent French, which sounded to his ears like civilization, liberation from cow dung and the smell of sweat. There was something in her voice that he had never encountered before. It trembled, it sounded almost hoarse, as if Claire had a slight cold. And when she spoke of Molière, Mozart, or Lamartine her vibrant voice gave him a warm feeling and a great sense of longing.

But he often doubted whether Claire loved him back, for she could suddenly be very reserved, keep her distance, sound noncommittal, and then she was only a cold cloud of perfume. So one day he summoned up all his courage and asked her if she loved him.

She gave him a more direct answer than he had ever read in any book about love. Claire spoke softly, but she looked him straight in the eye. She loved him very much, she said, and wanted nothing more fervently than to hold his hand, kiss him, and hold him close. But she didn’t know what she was to do without causing a scandal and putting him, Elias, in mortal danger, because she was engaged to a dangerous boxer who worked as a bodyguard.

He wasn’t so much alarmed by Claire’s frankness as by realizing that he could scent no desire in her. Furthermore, Nasibe warned him against Claire and described her in forthright terms as “that Damascus whore.” She was ready to kill the woman, she said, if Claire tried taking Elias away from her.

But when his father had a private conversation with him one morning, saying he would like him to seduce Samira with his charms and make her submissive, because after that she’d be bound to want him, Mala seemed too hot to hold Elias. His father and the powerful Mobate on one hand, Claire’s injured fiancé on the other, and then there was the infatuated Nasibe, who was claiming to be pregnant. He knew he mustn’t waste another second.

Only flight was left, but to be sure of the girl he wanted to take with him he went to Claire, and made his love and strong feelings for her very clear. He enjoyed the touch of her smooth skin, and although this first sexual experience of hers hurt, she held him close and wouldn’t let him go until she had entered Paradise with him several times.

They eloped next morning. Elias never guessed that his flight had saved his life, for Jusuf Shahin had just heard of the plan for him and Samira to set up a stud farm in competition with himself. So old Shahin had sent two men to lie in wait for Elias by night. They were to leave him alive, but mutilate his face. Then the vain Samira wouldn’t like the look of him any more, and George Mushtak’s son would be nothing but a burden to him.

The two men had waited opposite Tamam’s house, where the Surur family was spending the summer. They knew that Elias visited every evening. But they waited there in vain until after midnight. George Mushtak too had been waiting up for his youngest son until dawn. He thought Elias was with Samira, and smiled as he imagined her surprise and pain when that small, slight man thrust into her. He almost felt something like love for his difficult son. He was going to use him to ruin old Shahin.

If he had had the faintest idea of what had already happened by then, he would have wept bitterly at his worst defeat.

34. Defeat of the Master of the House

George Mushtak shut himself up in his bedroom for days on end. He cursed everyone, and he reviled Elias with particular ferocity. Mushtak knew that Shahin would strike now, and he told Salman to tell his men to be very careful and never leave the house unarmed. Many of them smiled at the fears of the master of the house, but soon after that they witnessed an attempted murder, and realized that George Mushtak had not been exaggerating. Shots were fired at Salman.

Mushtak’s eldest son was the only one allowed to see his father, and they spent many hours together every day. Salman kept urging his father to show himself to his people, because the wind was turning, blowing against the Mushtaks from a very dangerous quarter.

Shortly after the Feast of the Holy Cross on 14 September, Salman entered his father’s room again. That day, he had had a distressing quarrel with three young fellows lounging idly about, who made no move to go back to their work when they saw him coming.

“Father, you must go out to the men,” he said. There was sorrow and determination in his voice. “Elias doesn’t matter so much. It’s a pity that we’ve lost a supporter now that he’s gone, but you have a new son in Basil, which is more than we could have hoped for. The men are waiting for you outside. Of course I’ve had everything you ordered done, but I can tell that they need your word, your hand.”

Salman waited. He did not tell his father that the Shahins had fired on him, or that they were spreading word around the village that Mushtak had suffered a stroke. He passed one hand over the basil plant growing in a pot by the window, and thought how powerful his father was, when his mere absence seduced their enemies into rash confidence. He had recognized the marksman, despite the distance he kept. It was Butros, Jusuf Shahin’s eldest son. And Salman thought he would pay him back for that cowardly attack.

“Then let’s go out,” said George Mushtak, interrupting his son’s dark thoughts. He sensed that Salman urgently needed him.

At the end of September he rode out into the mountains, breathing deeply. He stopped on a hill, and let his eyes wander from his property to the Damascus road.

35. Samira and Shams

Mobate was by no means as unhappy as Mushtak when he heard of Elias’s flight. He had been very anxious about his daughter, who wouldn’t hear of marrying Mushtak’s son. She had actually threatened to die rather than become the wife of a dwarf who couldn’t even speak the village dialect properly, and instead tried to babble French in a pretentious way, as if his mother came from Paris.

When George left his room again Mobate immediately came to visit, assured him of his friendship, and said that marriage was a matter of fate, not planning. Mushtak did not agree, but he was relieved that the village elder bore him no grudge for his son’s flight.

Mobate knew he would have gained power if Samira had become Mushtak’s daughter-in-law, but at the same time he would also have lost it through being so clearly related to Mushtak. Clarity in that respect would make him less acceptable in others. The more open to him all houses were, the stronger he was as village elder. And then there was that eternal bloodshed between the Mushtaks and the Shahins. The marriage would have left him constantly involved in it himself.

As for Samira, he wasn’t worried about her future. And he was right. After a short, stormy infatuation with the handsome lunatic Shams, she had decided in favour of a marriage that would take her into calmer waters. Shams disappeared from the village and was never seen there again. Some said they had seen him begging in Damascus, others claimed to have come across him preaching in a mosque.

Samira met a man from Damascus who loved horses, and took herself and her fortune off to join him. The couple founded a stud for noble Arab horses that was to become one of the most successful in the country. But that was later, and much was to happen in the village before then.

As already mentioned, two weeks after Elias’s flight a marksman shot at Salman for the first time, although he missed. But then, in October and just after the Feast of St. Sergius, the attacker fired another bullet at Salman, and it hit him in the upper arm. It was only a glancing shot, but this time old Mushtak heard about the attack and massively over-retaliated. The Shahins’ stable was set on fire. Six horses perished miserably, and the watchman’s charred body was found with a hole the width of a finger in his right temple. Everyone knew that the Mushtaks were behind it, but the operation had been so efficiently carried out that no trail led to them. For months Jusuf Shahin mourned his horses, which he loved more than his own children. Old Mushtak knew just where his enemies were most vulnerable.

A counter-attack in the early summer of 1937 failed, thanks to Basil’s watchfulness. He set a trap for the three men who climbed into the yard by night after tricking the guard dogs with poisoned meat. The men were caught. After being cruelly tortured at the police station, they finally confessed everything. Jusuf Shahin had to pay a fortune in bribes to avoid going to jail, as the man behind the three of them, and was obliged to sign a humiliating document stating that he would be liable to prosecution for incitement to murder if anything happened to George Mushtak, one of his sons, or even just one of his employees. The verdict would inevitably have been a death sentence.

That evening the Mushtaks celebrated victory with their friends at a meal in the courtyard of the big house, and Mobate, who was sitting beside George, was not exaggerating when, in drinking his health, he said that after this no one, not even Salman or Basil, would take such good care of his safety as his arch-enemy Jusuf Shahin. Everyone laughed.

His old enemy did indeed forbid his sons to make any more attempts on Mushtak’s life. And they respected that prohibition until their father’s death in the summer of 1938.


The clan saved the Arabs from the desert, and at the same time enslaved them.

DAMASCUS, MALA 1907 — 1953

36. Jasmin and Mariam

When Jusuf Shahin died in the summer of 1938, his testicles crushed by an accurately placed kick from his mare Sabah, his arch-enemy George Mushtak told the old village barber who brought him the news that while the snake’s tail might be dead, the snake itself was still alive. The barber understood those words as an insult to a dead man. The hostility between the two families didn’t even respect the dignity of death. He silently nodded and moved away.

But George Mushtak had told the truth. He feared Samia, the real ruler of the house of Shahin, far more than his old rival Jusuf, who might be unprincipled and malicious but had never been able to see further than the end of his own nose. Samia, on the other hand, was the daughter of a family of considerable importance. She came from Aleppo, and had seen a good deal of the world before finally marrying the rich horse-breeder from Mala who was twenty years her senior.

For decades her father Butros Khuri had been the biggest textiles manufacturer in Aleppo, supplier to the court of the Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid. He bore the honorary title of Bey, which the Sultan seldom bestowed on Christians. Butros Bey had stipulated that the bridegroom, Jusuf Shahin, must be a strict adherent of the Greek Orthodox Church. He hated Jews, Catholics and the French, and blamed himself all his life for having backed the overthrow of the Sultan, toppled from his throne thirty years before.

Jusuf Shahin was Greek Orthodox but very far from devout, so he was hypocritical in presenting himself to his future father-in-law as a man who would campaign against the Catholics day and night. He got what he wanted: his wife and a great deal of gold in return for his courage.

“The Catholics are even worse than the Muslims. You have to knock their heads in, that’s the only language they understand,” said Butros.

“And so I will,” replied Jusuf unctuously, unaware that in his struggle with his rival Mushtak he was indeed going to become the greatest enemy of the Catholics.

After this conversation with Butros Bey, Jusuf used part of the money to renovate his large property. And he did it exactly as Samia wished, so that she would lack for nothing and could hold her head high in the company of her rich parents and the rest of her family. His was the only house in the village at the time to have a proper bathtub, and coloured marble tiles on the floors of the rooms. A year later Samia moved in.

Loyalty was alien to Jusuf Shahin in both his business dealings and his private life. He was faithful to Samia only because he hated all women. It was said in the village that he allowed her near him only four times in his entire life, on the occasions when he made her pregnant. None the less, she brought eight children into the world. The other four, rumour said, were the result of her love affairs with the young grooms. This, however, was the wildest of gossip. Only her youngest daughter Jasmin was the fruit of a passionate affair, but no one in the village knew anything about that in detail.

Samia went to Aleppo to spend a week with her family and relations there every year. Jusuf never accompanied her, and so she was able to meet the love of her youth secretly in Aleppo. Her cousin Samer was a highly regarded lawyer, although he had made his large fortune by importing exotic woods. Samia and Samer had grown up in the same big house and played together like brother and sister. They had loved each other since childhood, but they couldn’t marry because, as a baby, Samer had been breast-fed by Samia’s mother for several weeks while his own mother recovered from an inflammation of her nipples. According to the custom of the time, that made Samia and Samer siblings at the breast, and marriage between them would have been incest.

Samer himself was now unhappily married. His father had chosen the daughter of the richest merchant family in Aleppo as his wife.

Samia knew exactly when and where she had conceived Jasmin. In the winter of 1919 Samer was able to welcome her to his own house for the first time. His wife had gone away with their three children, so Samia visited him daily, and they spent a week together in Paradise.

On the first day of their reunion they were hungry for each other, and had already made love in the dining room, on the stairs, in the bathroom, and in the passage under the arcades. When they reached the bedroom on the first floor, they were so exhausted that they fell asleep. Samia woke in alarm two hours later, and had to run back to her parents’ house nearby. As a woman, she couldn’t on any account spend the night out.

Next morning she went to Samer as early as she could. Her cousin was already waiting for her. He led her to the bedroom, where she stopped in surprise. He had covered the bed with a thick layer of snow-white jasmine flowers, picked early that morning and now filling the room with their intoxicating fragrance. He undressed Samia and carried her carefully to the bed, where he made love to her at length in the sea of jasmine. They perspired freely during their love play, and their bodies were saturated with the scent of the jasmine blossom.

Weeks later, however hard she scrubbed herself in the bath, Samia still smelled of their fragrance. Even her husband, who always stank of his horses and whose nose was anything but sensitive, wondered why she had given off such a flowery scent ever since her return from Aleppo.

So Samia gave the daughter she had conceived that day the name of Jasmin, and she was her favourite child. The girl looked like her mother, but she moved, spoke, and laughed like her real father, although she never met him, for Samia’s cousin Samer died in an accident in 1923, when the child was only three years old.

When her other daughter Mariam married Samer’s eldest son in the summer of 1938, Samia stayed away from the wedding. She went to bed and claimed to be unwell.

Her husband Jusuf hated wedding festivities, but he was sure that his daughter had won a great prize in Jakub, the son of his father Samer’s rich and highly regarded family. However, he was morose and bad-tempered when he went to the wedding with the bride and her older brothers Butros, Bulos, Faris, Basil, and Musa. All his sons were married now, and they brought not only their wives but also their parents-in-law with them. His daughter Amira and her husband Louis came from Damascus. A bus had to be hired just for the family, and another was reserved for Shahin’s followers, neighbours, and the leading villagers of Mala.

Jasmin was eighteen at the time. She wanted to go to the wedding too, but she had to stay with her allegedly sick mother and help the housekeeper Salime to look after her. She wept for nights, but it did her no good.

Since Jakub’s mother was a widow, his grandparents organized the festivities. The powerful textiles manufacturer Khuri gave a wedding party fit for the Thousand and One Nights. In between the lavish meals, dancing girls and conjurors entertained the guests for seven days and seven nights. The best Syrian cooks lived not in Damascus but in Aleppo.

Besides the rich gold jewellery that Jusuf gave his daughter, he had thought of a special surprise. He had a noble Arab steed brought to Aleppo, and it was led out by a slim stable lad wearing colourful Arab costume on the wedding day. The stable lad solemnly handed the astonished bridegroom the horse’s gold-studded reins. Mariam whispered to him what he must do, and to the surprise of his grandparents and the applause of the guests Jakub, son of that distinguished family, walked the horse around in a circle, with perfect self-assurance, before he gave the reins back to the groom, patted the animal’s neck, and returned to sit on the raised seat beside his bride feeling wonderfully happy.

Jusuf looked at the horse with sadness in his eyes. “Go with the grace of God. Sabah will miss you very much,” his neighbours heard him whispering. No one guessed that the horse-breeder would pay for parting them with his life. Sabah, his finest mare, loved only this one stallion Shafak, and kicked out at any others.

Shortly after his return Jusuf tried putting a young stallion to his mare. The mare lashed out wildly and would not calm down. After a few days Jusuf lost patience and decided to break her resistance. When he approached her she kicked. Jusuf shot three metres through the air to meet his death.

Jakub was an able man, but he wasn’t interested in his father’s business dealing in exotic woods. His mind was set on his grandfather’s trade, and at the age of twenty-two he opened his own small, modern textiles mill.

Samia was envious. To think that Mariam of all people, the very image of her father, had the luck to live with this wonderful man. All these years she had hoped that Jasmin would make the running, and kept sending her to stay with her grandparents in Aleppo during her vacations. But to Jakub the little girl had been only his pert young cousin, and he was all the more strongly attracted to Mariam, who wasn’t particularly beautiful but was mature and energetic. When he was with her he felt a deep need to tell her everything, and he sensed that her readiness to listen in itself lured the words out of his mouth. Only with her would he allow himself to speak of his half-formed ideas, for when she listened they matured into convictions.

And whenever Mariam went home on a visit, Jakub felt a great void in himself. That was love. Not only her own mother but the whole village envied Mariam her happiness. She was also thankful to Jakub for catapulting her out of Mala, eaten up as the place was by quarrels and hostility, and showing her the great world of Aleppo, Venice, and Istanbul. She loved her tall, slim husband, who couldn’t look at a woman without ideas of sex in mind, yet remained as faithful to her as a dog. He was a genius, and like most geniuses he was also a grown-up child who needed a firm hand. But happiness is an unreliable companion. Jakub died of a stroke after only a year of marriage. One night he woke and asked for a drink of water. Mariam jumped out of bed. Something alarmed her. And even as she stood in the kitchen she knew that Jakub was dead. She came back with the water, and there was her happiness lying half off the bed with his back bare. He had stretched out his arms as if to save himself from falling. She screamed, the glass flew from her hand and shattered against the wall. Mariam never wanted to go back to Mala. She believed all her life that the jealous villagers had grudged her such happiness and killed her husband with their darts of envy.

She went to Damascus, where she opened a fashion store in the high-class Salihiye quarter with the money she brought with her. From then on she spoke only French, and called herself Marie Shah.

37. Samia

Women meant nothing to Jusuf. He regarded marrying and founding a large family as a duty, important purely in the context of power calculations. On those few nights when he visited his wife, he came to her because she told him it was a good time for her to conceive. After that he left Samia alone in the large, comfortable, cedarwood bed with its soft wool mattresses.

Samia’s original infatuation with Jusuf quickly died, and never turned to love. She saw that this man had no place in his life for her. His heart was full of ambitious plans. She was allowed to join him in discussing them, but that was all. It was said in the village — and the Mushtaks encouraged the rumour — that Samia was unable to love because she had a shard of steel where others have a feeling heart, which made her the perfect partner for Jusuf.

George Mushtak hated the woman, sensing that the fortunes of the Shahin family had changed since she came to Mala. The blows Jusuf inflicted on him were suddenly of a different calibre. For instance, it had allegedly been Samia’s idea to lay charges of conspiracy against him with the Ottoman governor of Damascus. Mushtak was taken away by night and was already in danger of the gallows when the Catholic Bishop of Damascus intervened.

George was convinced that Shahin’s wife was a woman who ruled with a heart of iron. His insinuations about Samia’s influence were correct, but the idea that she had an iron heart sprang entirely from his resentment of her clever wits, since her heart was really loving and full of grief.

For she very soon understood that with the marriage ceremony Jusuf had achieved his aims. She had been pregnant with her first child, Butros, a month before the wedding. It was not that Jusuf did not respect her, but he wasn’t interested in her as a woman. He never called her Samia again, only “mother of my children”.

She lay alone in the great bed every night, wondering what Samer might be doing at this hour. She dared not tell anyone, even Samer himself, for she believed she was in a constant state of sin, she prayed and prayed and suffered from a terribly guilty conscience towards her husband, who never looked at another woman. So she tried to stand by him and lend him moral and practical support. She learned to love horses and hate Mushtaks. It was she who made Jusuf’s eyes light up when she told him her plan for giving his despicable adversary trouble. Jusuf looked at her, fascinated, and for a moment she hoped he would take her in his arms and kiss her, but he only smiled and praised her with the saying that he kept repeating for twenty-eight years, until the last day of his life. “The prophet Muhammad himself warned his followers of women’s wiles, and he knew what he was talking about.”

George Mushtak went to excess in everything, eating and drinking, grief and joy, but seldom in his estimation of his enemies.

38. Fifty-One and One

Jusuf Shahin respected his wife deeply, and was thankful for all her advice. He allowed her to choose their children’s names herself, which was unusual at that time. As a rich farmer and horse-breeder he had had many affairs before his marriage, but now he seemed to have cut all the threads linking him to his past. Samia’s present, on the other hand, appeared to be entangled in threads from the past, a thousand and one of them.

Like a child singing out loud to overcome its fear of the dark, Samia kept telling herself that she could live and laugh even without Samer. She made up her mind never to think of him again, and not to go back to Aleppo until she was firmly in charge in Mala.

She told her heart to stop looking for unhappiness, and held up her life full of family duties for its inspection. But her heart was deaf and wouldn’t see reason. When all was silent around her it kept repeating the same question, hour after hour: what is Samer doing now?

The quiet life of the village and the unforthcoming manner of the mountain farmers gave her time and space, and Samer filled them. Sometimes she felt her heart beating fast. Fear and shame filled her when she asked herself: does he think of me too? Such questions were born of her fear of the answer no, and her shame for her selfishness.

She rode through the mountains calling her lover’s name out loud to the wind, as if she didn’t just want to enjoy its sound in her ears but were telling the wind to carry her cry to him.

She stayed away from Aleppo for three years, but when her father fell sick she took her two children, Butros and Bulos, and went north, full of anxiety. Jusuf didn’t want to go with her. When she arrived, her father came to meet her with outstretched arms, smiling mischievously. Not a sign of sickness about him.

“If your husband had come along too, I’d have had to take to my bed,” said the old gentleman, confessing that he had longed to see her but didn’t like visiting Mala. Her mother had suggested the letter about his poor health. He spoke like a child describing a successful prank, slapping his thigh with delight.

He was a born city dweller. He didn’t mind in the least that he couldn’t tell the difference between mules proper, a cross born of a male donkey and a mare, and hinnies, the offspring of a stallion and a female donkey or jennet, nor could he distinguish between rye, wheat, spelt, and oats. Even with his eyes blindfolded, however, he could identify any variety of tea from the first sip. And he could also converse with a Turk, an Arab, a Frenchman, and an Italian in their mother tongues.

Being back home with her parents was a strange feeling for Samia in the first few days. She glided around the rooms of the big villa, light as a fairy. Her parents let her have the whole east wing, with its bathroom, bedroom and drawing room, and its own kitchen. She had the services of two women who looked after her sons Butros and Bulos all around the clock. It was only after a while that Samia saw, with alarm, how old her father had grown. He seemed to have shrunk, he was thin, almost frail, his hair was white as snow. Her mother, on the other hand, was the same as ever: reserved, stiff, correct in everything she did.

Suddenly there stood her lover in her drawing room doorway. She was just reading a French magazine. He was tall, slim, and had a breathtakingly beautiful smile on his face. She felt dizzy.

“Holy Mary Mother of God,” she whispered.

“No, only Samer Khuri,” he replied, laughing. She blushed and could hardly get to her feet. He took her hand and helped her up from the couch. Then Samia’s lips touched his mouth with its wonderful fragrance. She breathed in the scent of her beloved, and dissolved in transports of delight. When she came back to her senses they were lying in her bed, drenched in perspiration.

She went back to Mala tormented by her memory of those hours in his arms. She was hungry for him, and at night, when darkness and silence fell over the village, her heart fluttered like a bird trying to escape from its cage.

After that she went to see her parents every year. Soon both she and Jusuf thought of her the visit to Aleppo as normal. Fifty-one weeks of loneliness and one week of ecstasy.

39. The Struggle

For years she felt guilty towards Jusuf. He wasn’t jealous, he always showed her respect, and let her visit her parents every time without asking any questions at all. She felt she was behaving badly. Jusuf, on the other hand, seemed to her proud, lofty, and inscrutable, and that made him interesting to her, not that he cared in the least for her interest.

He liked the company of his pure-bred horses better than anything. He was a successful breeder; even the richest Arab and French owners had to go on a waiting list to get a horse from Jusuf Shahin’s stables. He had an infallible instinct for the mating that would produce generation after generation of even finer horses.

He seemed to live for his horses alone. His clan respected him and his enemies feared him. And unlike his arch-enemy George Mushtak, whose reputation as a fornicator was known to everyone, who had fathered at least sixty bastard children and even in his latter days was still grabbing at bosoms or behinds in a very undignified way, Jusuf, so the villagers considered, behaved properly around women. There were no whispered rumours about him.

One night Samia woke from a nightmare. The moon was full. She sat up in bed, bathed in sweat. At first she was afraid that something had happened to one of the children. In her dream she had seen the house burning and heard her children’s voices behind the impenetrable flames. But when, with her heart beating fast, she went into their room, which was close to hers, her two boys were sleeping as peacefully as little angels. She went back to her room, but a sense of uneasiness came over her again. “The horses!” She leaped up. Without a sound, she went downstairs and crossed the dark yard to the dimly lit stables. There she froze. At first she heard only her husband’s whispering and moans, then she saw him.

He was lying over the young stable lad Ahmad’s back. Jusuf was thrusting himself into the boy, caressing him all the time, lavishing on him the loving words and kisses that he had never given her. The boy was awkward and sullen, and wouldn’t keep still. Her husband, ruler of the large Shahin clan, was begging the stable lad for a little affection like a man deeply in love.

So that’s it, she thought on the way back to her room. He likes slender young men.

She never mentioned Jusuf’s inclinations to him, but after that night her conscience no longer pricked her, and her relationship with her husband was more serene. Jusuf enjoyed life with Samia at his side. She gave him eight healthy children, and brought them all up to became clever men and women. But now and then it struck him that in any quarrel all his offspring, except for his firstborn son Butros, took their mother’s side. He thought it was just the vagaries of fate, and because of it he avoided any argument with his wife in his later years.

The horse-breeder never realized that the children’s affection for their mother arose from her care for them in childhood. Samia had the midwife Amine’s insight to thank for that. “Only those who have their children’s hearts have the future,” the woman told her in passing one day. Amine was illiterate, but she had the wisdom of thousands of years behind her.

40. Faris the Patient

Jusuf was the undisputed head of the clan. After him came not his brother Tanius, who had tuberculosis, or his wily youngest brother Suleiman, but his firstborn son Butros, who used bribery and blackmail to unite all their relations behind him. In his lifetime Jusuf invited the most important men of his clan to visit him, and made them put their hands on the Bible and swear that they hoped their arms might wither if they turned against his son Butros after his death.

That was the worst day of Suleiman’s life. At the urging of his mother, a severe widow who was under the spell of her eldest son Jusuf, he had to promise his obedience in a loud, clear voice when it came to his turn. Suspicious as Jusuf was, he embraced him and called to those present, “You have been witnesses: my dear brother Suleiman will follow my son, in his own interests and those of us all. And the life of anyone who turns against him is forfeit, and not worth an onion skin to you. Are you of the same opinion?” And they all gave their consent.

Butros was brave and generous as long as you obeyed him. Unlike his father, however, he was pitiless as a scorpion to those who deserted him: silent, cunning, and deadly.

But Faris, Jusuf’s third son, considered himself the future head of the clan. He realized that the greatest obstacle in his way was not his father but his eldest brother. The second eldest presented him with no problems. Bulos was simple-minded, and didn’t seem to mind whether he held power or the udder of one of his many cows in his hands.

Faris did not think his two younger brothers Basil and Musa were dangerous either. Basil was a boarder at the French school in Damascus, and wanted to go to Paris and continue studying there when he left school. And Musa planned to start a haulage company. His father gave him his first truck when he was nineteen. Jusuf Shahin saw this as a way of bringing the transport routes between Mala and Damascus under his control. However, to the end of his life, which was a short one anyway, Musa thought more about women than his business.

Their father was well aware of his son’s love affairs. He gave him a year’s leeway and then made him marry Rihane from the seaport of Latakia, a pretty woman who hated life in the village. The wedding was in 1933, and when they were married Rihane kept pestering her husband to move to Latakia. He could build up his haulage business there, she said. To bind Musa to her she bore him two children. The first was a girl called Mona, after the mother of Jusuf, the head of the clan. The second child was a boy. Musa called him Said, “the happy one”. But the children made Musa neither domesticated nor faithful. He was said to have a mistress in every village on the Damascus road. And in the end it wasn’t his dangerous driving over potholed winding roads, but a pretty blonde American woman who, unintentionally perhaps, summoned the angel of death to Musa. The angel came on 7 April 1941.

Soon after Musa’s death his widow received a large sum of money for her husband’s share in the family property, and in the village elder’s house she signed a document giving up any claim to the inheritance for herself and her children. She moved to Latakia with Mona and Said, before long she married the manager of the arrack distillery there, and from then on she bore his surname, Bustani. She wanted no more to do with the Shahin clan.

Faris’s three sisters were no danger to his ambitious plans either. Women had no say in affairs out in the country. For that very reason, Samia had sent all three girls to the boarding school run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Damascus: first Amira, then Mariam, and finally her youngest daughter Jasmin. So Faris knew that only Butros need be regarded as a serious rival. But it was also clear to him that if he, Faris, tried to oust him, his brother wouldn’t for a moment hesitate to kill him. So he set about it very slowly. Faris first formed his plan in the summer of 1935, when he was only twenty-one years old. He had to wait nearly twenty more years before his chance came. But then he took it without hesitation.

41. Musa and Hasib

Plenty of attempts were made in Mala to reconcile the two clans, but none of them came to anything, and the last, undertaken by two bishops, ended in disaster. Yet it had been hoped that a sign from heaven might perhaps bring the blood feud to a peaceful conclusion.

The bishops of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches of Damascus felt that the enmity between the two families was disgraceful, particularly as the village lay in the middle of a Muslim region. Increasingly dramatic reports of events there greatly distressed the two dignitaries. Visitors from outside were stigmatized as enemies of one of the churches just for donating a piastre to the other. Quite often nuns and abbots refused to let foreign delegations visit their convents and monasteries because the foreigners had been to see their rivals first.

In 1941 there was only a week between the Catholic and Orthodox celebrations of Easter Sunday. The Orthodox Church was celebrating the resurrection of Christ in accordance with the Julian calendar on April 7th, the Catholic Church in accordance with the Gregorian calendar on April 14th. So the two bishops had agreed that festivities to mark the reconciliation should go on all week and thus remain in the peasants’ memory for ever. As a sign of fraternization they agreed to celebrate Mass together on Easter Sunday at the beginning of the festivities, close to the Catholic church of St. Giorgios, and later have lunch in the Orthodox convent of St. Thecla. On the following Sunday the village priests would celebrate divine service near the convent of St. Thecla with both clans, and have lunch outside the church of St. Giorgios.

On that Sunday, 7 April 1941, many of the inhabitants of Mala wept tears of emotion, for there had never been such a fine, magnificent church service in the village in their lives. It was held out in the open, in the village square.

All the Mushtaks and Shahins had travelled to Mala, and invited all their friends and allies. There were not two thousand but seven thousand people in the village that day. The sky was blue, the sun shone as if it were summer. After the solemn service, both bishops gave the assembled congregation their blessing and opened the Easter celebrations. Musicians played flutes, lutes and drums to accompany the dancing. Then, at about midday, there was to be a long, solemn procession to the great convent of St. Thecla, where cooks had been preparing for the arrival of the crowds for a week. But it all went wrong.

Around eleven, three shots were heard. The first killed Musa Shahin. His murderer was Hasib Mushtak, George’s second son, who had come to Mala from Beirut especially to be with his father on this difficult day.

Hasib had studied medicine at the American University of Beirut. He had been a gifted schoolboy, and Mushtak sent his son to study in Beirut rather than Damascus because in his opinion, “You won’t learn to be anything better than a butcher in Damascus.” Hasib had completed his studies with the highest distinction in 1937. After that he was going to work at a Beirut hospital for another three years while his American wife Dorothea finished her studies of Arabic. He came home to Mala as often as he could, for he loved the village and his father. And Mushtak was fond of his clever son and his wife, who spoke better Arabic than many an Arab.

Malicious tongues, backed by slanders cleverly spread by the Shahins, claimed that old Mushtak’s daughter-in-law didn’t take his fumblings seriously, but that Hasib didn’t like it. He was extremely touchy if anyone even looked like getting too close to his wife, and he was regarded as very jealous.

After divine service that April day in 1941, there was to be dancing and singing until it was time for the reconciliation banquet. The best place to be was the inner courtyard of the church of St. Giorgios. Soon the two bishops were enthroned on the terrace, watching the dancers near them with benevolent smiles. The spectators stood very close together, arrack was handed around, donated by the two rival clans and symbolically mixed by both bishops in large bottles to make a single beverage. The aniseed spirit, fifty percent proof, soon took effect.

Musa, Jusuf Shahin’s third son, although married and the father of two children was, as already mentioned, a skirt-chaser. He had kept touching the tall American woman that day, and was pleased to find her so easy-going.

Musa was a handsome, dashing man. The blonde woman probably liked the awkward charm of his advances. To her, he seemed like a little boy, and she was amused by his attempts to speak English, here at the end of the world. But Musa took her laughter to mean that he was irresistible. He put his hand inside the American woman’s blouse. Hardly anyone noticed, but Dorothea suddenly froze rigid with shock.

Hasib, who was slightly tipsy, broke off his conversation and hissed at Musa to leave his wife alone. But Musa, now babbling in his cups, retorted with the humiliating remark that anyone whom old George Mushtak fumbled was fair game for all.

Hasib didn’t say a word. He left his wife there and disappeared. The Shahin supporters around Musa laughed in a rather muted way, so that the bishops wouldn’t notice. But not for long. Hasib was very soon back again. He aimed at his adversary’s forehead, and the last laugh froze on Musa’s lips.

The rocks carried the echo of those three shots ringing through the mountain ravines. Panic broke out, and before the crowd could scatter there were over ten members of each clan lying severely injured in the church’s inner courtyard.

Musa’s body was trampled by the panic-stricken, screaming men and women running for the gate and safety. Later, curiously enough, many of them didn’t remember the details of the murder as clearly as the saying of a midwife who had, apparently, told Musa weeks before that she had seen him in a dream being trampled by a herd of cattle.

Hasib calmly took his wife’s hand. He walked not to the courtyard gate but through the church. Leaving by its main entrance, he quickly reached his father’s courtyard. Hasib kissed the old man’s hand and received two fervent kisses on his cheeks.

“You showed the bastard what a Mushtak is,” said George, “and by doing so you saved me from hypocrisy. God bless you wherever you go.” And he put a bag of gold lira in his son’s jacket pocket. “Leave everything here and get away. You can buy what you need in Beirut. Kiss your son for me,” he added quietly, and signed to his faithful servant Basil, who led Mushtak’s son and his pale wife to the horses standing ready at the back gate of the large property.

In exactly three hours’ time the couple were over the Lebanese border.

Hasib reached Beirut next morning. He sold the horses, provided himself, his wife, and his four-year-old son George with the requisite papers, and went to America. His first letter home came three months later. And in the years that followed his father learned, greatly to his satisfaction, that two more sons, Jack and Philip, would carry the name of Mushtak on into the next century. But Hasib’s address remained unknown. He knew that Jusuf Shahin had cousins in America.

42. End of a Hope

My God, thought George Mushtak as Hasib disappeared into the western ravine, those two brothers Elias and Hasib are worlds apart. Growing up under the same roof, yet as different as night and day. Hasib had lived far away in Beirut, yet he had always been close to George’s heart. He must have sensed his father’s wishes.

For George Mushtak had been in a quandary. He couldn’t appear uncooperative in front of the two bishops. But Hasib had come along, heroically helped him out of his fix, and then quietly disappeared again.

Three shots! Musa’s blood had flowed like the blood of the dogs that useless good-for-nothing used to run down with his truck.

In his joy Hasib’s father forgot everything else, even the pain that he had felt somewhere near his heart for months. That Easter Day at noon he stood on his balcony, watching the turmoil in the village square, and with his son Salman he had laughed till the tears came at the sight of the Catholic Bishop of Damascus, looking lost as he stood among the shouting peasants and desperately searching for his chauffeur. And when he did catch sight of his black limousine, just see how he wielded his mighty crozier to open up a path through the surging crowd of the faithful! He even ignored his Orthodox rival, who was calling after him to wait. He didn’t feel safe until he was in the back of his car, cursing the barbarians of this village. When someone knocked on the window and cried, “The Orthodox bishop asks you to stop. Please stop,” he didn’t even turn around. His car merely raced away.

Elias had come to Mala that Easter, with Claire and the baby Farid, and hired a small apartment, hoping for a reconciliation with his father. The reconciliation planned between those sworn enemies, Mushtak and Shahin, seemed to be just the right opportunity. At a brief meeting with him, Salman had advised Elias to be friendly to the Shahins.

When the shots rang out and the bishops fled in panic, Elias waited for a while. The village square emptied. Claire didn’t want him to go to his father. She was afraid that some marksman might shoot him down even before he reached Mushtak’s house. But Elias had made up his mind. “It’s now or never,” he said, and left her behind with little Farid.

Endangering his life, he hurried across the square and, with the last of his courage, knocked at his father’s gate. Salman opened it just a crack. Two armed servants stood behind him, and Salman himself had a revolver in his hand.

“What do you want?” he asked curtly, keeping in the shelter of the gateway.

“I want to see my father. I want him to give my son Farid his blessing,” replied Elias, close to tears.

“Wait here,” ordered Salman, closing the gate. His brother stayed outside. It wasn’t long before Salman appeared in that crack in the gateway again.

“He doesn’t want to see you.” There was triumph in Salman’s voice.

43. Butros and Samuel

When Jasmin Shahin’s life ended, years later, at the entrance to a Damascus cinema, nine out of ten inhabitants of Mala thought the killer had been a Mushtak again, but they were wrong. The murderer was sixteen-year-old Samuel, one of the Shahin family. Both friends and enemies of the clan recognized that Jasmin’s story had not yet been told to its end. For a long time there had been rumours in the village that she had fallen in love with a Muslim, a married man, and had eloped with him. Five years later the couple returned to Damascus.

Jasmin got in touch around now with her niece Rana, who was ten at the time, and her nephew Samuel. She was particularly fond of them both, and hoped that through them she might make her peace with her brother Basil, Rana’s father, and her sister Amira, Samuel’s mother. They were the two who had moved furthest from the village and its fanaticism. Basil was a successful lawyer. He had studied in Paris and hated antiquated notions. He despised church and mosque alike. His daughter was a sensitive, sharp-eyed, courageous girl who wanted nothing to do with the village.

And Jasmin loved her nephew Samuel as if he were her own son. He was her sister’s first child; after him, Amira had brought six girls into the world. She loved parties and dancing. There wasn’t a club frequented by the French or by rich Arabs to which she and her husband did not belong, and in spite of her children she still looked as young as on her wedding night in 1934. But she was always short of time, so she had hired two housekeepers who did at least look after the little girls. Samuel hated both the housekeepers, and often spent the night, did his lessons, and ate his meals at his aunt Jasmin’s.

Rana didn’t like Samuel. As she saw it, he was a show-off and crazy about guns. But he was certainly a good shot, a member of the national team. His parents adorned their drawing room with his photographs and cups, as if the six girls didn’t exist at all.

Jasmin nurtured two hopes: she thought that all Samuel needed was loving care to become an affectionate boy himself, and then he might persuade his mother to put in a good word for her, Jasmin, with her mother Samia Shahin who ruled all their lives. After that, she hoped, she might escape the anger of her three brothers Butros, Bulos, and Faris, who still lived in the village. If Samia, Jusuf Shahin’s widow, had given her daughter her blessing then no one, not even Butros, would dare to raise his hand against Jasmin. No one would welcome her in, of course, but they wouldn’t seek to take her life and her husband’s.

Jasmin often went for walks with Rana and told her how much she loved her husband, and how little religion mattered in all decisions of the heart. The best known of all Sufi scholars lies buried in Damascus, Ibn Arabi, who seven hundred years ago cried, “Love is my religion!” The Syrians venerate him so much that they have called the whole quarter of the city around his mosque after him.

But Rana’s parents refused to see her aunt. She was a traitor, cried Rana’s mother, a woman who had abandoned her religion for a Muslim. Her father said nothing, and acted as if he hadn’t even heard his daughter asking him to put in a good word for Aunt Jasmin with Grandmother. Only years later did Rana discover that although Basil had not responded to her at the time out of consideration for his wife, he had gone to Mala in secret and spent a whole night trying to make Samia change her mind.

Samia was obdurate. Her daughter had wounded her personally by keeping the relationship secret from her for years. But she restrained her two hot-tempered sons Butros and Bulos, who had ranted and raged, accusing their brother Basil from Damascus of lacking principles. Butros would actually have thrown Basil out of the house if his mother hadn’t stopped him.

“Sit down, boy. As long as I’m alive no one else throws anyone out of this house, certainly not his own brother.”

Butros gave way, and Bulos with him. Only Faris kept his temper and took note of everything.

Two weeks later Amira and Mariam arrived with the same request, assuring their mother that no one troubled about a man’s religion in Damascus any more, his character was all that mattered, and the Muslims were very accommodating too. A Christian like the legendary Fares al-Khuri could even become prime minister and the parliamentary leader of the Islamic state of Syria.

Their mother didn’t react, but nor did she refuse outright this time. Bulos, her second son, talked nonsense, and fell silent only after two reproofs, merely complaining now and then. Without the leadership of Butros he was only a simple cowherd.

Butros sat opposite his mother at the great table, ostentatiously taking his father’s place. He was grey-faced and said not a word. At that moment Faris realized that his eldest brother felt their mother was on the point of being reconciled to her favourite daughter.

He knew Butros, and he knew he would do anything to prevent such a reconciliation. From now on he watched his brother’s every move and every contact he made. Only in that way did he find out what Butros said to young Samuel when Amira came back to try changing her mother’s mind again. This time she brought her husband and their spoilt son, whom Faris did not like. When Butros left the room he followed, silent as his brother’s shadow, and overheard his conversation with their nephew.

Faris was hiding behind a haystack when an ingenious plan suddenly formed in his mind. Very close to him, Butros was telling Samuel that the Muslims were to blame for the downfall of Arabia. The boy didn’t understand a word of it. Then Butros started talking about heroes who saved the honour and good name of their families and won immortality. After that he held out the prospect of a great reward to the boy: the finest horse in the Shahin stables, and one of the most modern pistols in the world along with a crate of ammunition. Apparently only three men on earth carried such a weapon, and the fourth pistol could be Samuel’s. Gradually, the boy fell for the lure, and asked what the penalty would be. Butros told him the prison sentence would be six months at the most, because he was avenging his family’s honour, and was still a minor too.

At that moment Faris knew that his sister Jasmin was doomed to die. Finally Butros kissed his nephew and promised to bring the horse to Damascus himself. Samuel cried, “I’ll kill her for betraying us.”

Faris wondered, but only briefly, if he could save his sister’s life. He quickly worked out the answer. No, no one could save her. She had become fair game, she herself had decided to challenge death. If she had fled to America for ever, she could have lived there undisturbed, but she had wanted to flaunt herself. There was something of the daredevil about Jasmin, and she enjoyed the limelight. By standing in it this time, however, she had condemned herself to death.

So Samuel was also releasing Faris from a tiresome duty. If he did give the boy away, this particular attempt on Jasmin’s life would probably come to nothing, but then someone else would kill her at Butros’s urging. However, if he kept his mouth shut he could at least prove who was behind the much-indulged young murderer. And he knew exactly who would take revenge on the man who had wickedly urged Samuel on: Samia, the mistress of the clan.

He held his peace.

44. A Mother’s Lament

Samia wouldn’t have her daughter buried in Mala. She decided on Damascus, and chose the church of St. Mary in historic Straight Street. It was the biggest Orthodox church in the country. A bishop and six priests were to conduct her daughter’s funeral service.

The church was enormous and the congregation of mourners tiny. Although Samia laid on five buses, less than a hundred people came from Mala and Aleppo. And even those who did, family and friends, attended the funeral only reluctantly, although SamDevia had spread the word that her daughter died as she had lived, in the true Christian faith of the Orthodox Church.

In fact Syrian law does not compel a woman who marries a Muslim to convert to Islam. The children of such a marriage are indeed all Muslims, but Jasmin never had any children.

As far as her immediate family was concerned, Samuel’s mother Amira and all Samia’s sons and daughters with their own families sat in the front row, or at least they sat there until Samia gave an address for Jasmin which was an impromptu part of the service.

Faris stuck close to his mother that day. He held her arm until proceedings reached the young bishop’s luke-warm sermon, which ended up half condemning both the dead woman and her murderer Samuel and half asking forgiveness and mercy for them. At that point old Samia shook her arm free of her son’s grasp, went up to the casket at the front of the congregation, and kissed its lid.

“Holy Mary, Mother of God, hear my prayer! I commit into your hands a gentle soul who died innocent. Innocent,” said Samia, raising her voice again, “because she followed the dictates of love. Her heart beat for Jesus, who taught us to love our enemies. Then murderers came along and killed her for loving a stranger, and now we’re supposed to pray for those who murder a loving woman in the name of honour. What kind of honour is that? What kind of honour?” cried Samia in a voice that broke, looking at the bishop where he stood frozen like a pale statue at the altar. “What kind of honour is it that men seek not on the field of battle, but in a woman whom they utterly despise? What honour do those murderers have who tore my daughter away from me, robbed me of her for ever and ever? Who gave them the right to end a life? Religion? No! A religion that parts God’s creatures is the work of the devil.”

Samia faltered slightly when two groups of three or four people rose and ostentatiously left the church, making a lot of noise about it. The first to storm out was her son Butros, followed by his wife and his four children. Then Bulos left, with his wife after him.

“Go, daughter,” said Samia to Jasmin in her coffin, this time in a sad and loving voice, “go to your Creator in peace, you bear no guilt, go with your pure heart and Paradise will take you in. There’s more room for lovers there than on this miserable earth. Go, daughter, go in peace. I will love you always, for as long as my heart beats. Go, my little angel, and God be with you,” she concluded her address, in tears, and slowly went back to her seat.

Many wept, Rana among them, although she didn’t understand why her grandmother had been talking about murderers in the plural. Later, Rana remembered not so much the words as the reaction of the congregation. They were horrified. Even her father was ashamed that his mother had spoken out so angrily in the house of God.

The bishop bravely went on with his prayers. The funeral procession was a solemn one after all. And when the bishop’s old housekeeper indignantly denounced Samia at supper, saying she was a crazy old woman, the bishop surprised her even more than the old widow had done. “Samia Shahin taught me more today with her address,” he said, “than I learned in five years studying theology.”

45. Amira

It was Amira’s thirty-fourth birthday, as she realized only by chance when she cast a glance at her ID before putting it in her handbag. She visited her son Samuel twice a week, and the soldiers on guard and the prison warders always asked to see that document.

She was surprised to think that she was so old already. In fact no one would have taken Amira for more than twenty-five. Her features resembled her mother’s. The family looks followed two lines: she, her sister Jasmin, and her brothers Faris and Musa took after their mother; Butros, Bulos, Mariam, and Basil were very like their father.

Amira’s large eyes and rounded face emphasized her youthful appearance. She was very feminine, yet she gave the impression of strength.

As she passed a white building in Rauda Street she stopped for a moment at the entrance with its imitation Greek columns. Some kind of restaurant was about to open here. It used to be the Nomade de la Nuit club, and painters were busy obliterating the name, covering it with sky-blue paint. In the 1940s the Nomade de la Nuit had been the club for the richest people in Damascus and high-ranking French army officers. When the French left the country and the number of coups scared off the rich Damascenes, the club folded.

She remembered how shy she had been the first time she went there, because her husband had lectured her endlessly on table manners, and the etiquette of dancing, and subjects of conversation to be avoided if you ever wanted to go to the club again. She had been terrified, because it seemed that anything other than breathing quietly could cause a scandal. Louis was a coward. But fear has never been a good teacher to anyone who wanted to find out about the world.

Three or four visits, and Amira had learned the rules of the game and was popular and highly regarded. Her husband, on the other hand, bored everyone by expressing fulsome and diplomatic agreement before his interlocutor had even finished what he was saying. But he was one of the most respected doctors in the city, and a very good match. Sometimes she felt almost grateful to him, for instance when she looked at herself in the big mirror of her bedroom in winter, wearing nothing but Russian mink next to her bare skin, or when she sat beside him in his open Mercedes driving through the streets of Damascus. There were only three Mercedes in the city at the time. Louis Safran was extremely large and stout, but a chance like that came a woman’s way only once in her life. She had had to take it at once.

Amira had been happy to go to the boarding school run by the sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Damascus, where she ultimately met Louis. And she hated her family, who had more time for their blood feud with the Mushtaks than for real life. Her father took no notice of any of his children but Butros, whom he idolized, and if he did happen to recollect that he had other offspring too, Mariam was his favourite among the girls. He treated Bulos like a stranger and a menial, and ignored Amira entirely. As for her mother, she loved only Faris and Jasmin.

When Dr. Louis Safran came to the school to give the girls lessons in hygiene once a week, he took a liking to her. The other girls said he was old and fat, but he was interested in her, and for that alone she was happy to marry him.

She had never for a moment felt any love for him, and love wasn’t what Louis Safran needed. He wanted children to show off and a wife at his side. She had to be beautiful. Apart from that, he preferred to occupy himself with his rich patients and his expensive and hard-to-get cars.

Louis never complained. He was always smiling, but he could give neither her nor the children any affection because he had none in him. He had once told her that the Safran family regarded kissing as a sign of a primitive nature.

But he was always pleased when she outdid his expectations, for instance at the club. Soon all the most respected members were asking after his wife, if Amira happened not to have come that day, so he always begged her to accompany him, because the members included the fifty most prominent men in Damascus.

And what a surprise when, one evening in 1943, she was chosen as the club’s beauty queen! Over thirty wives had stood for election, four of them Parisiennes. Her husband had been proud as a peacock. That evening she fell in love with Jean-Pierre, a dashing French air force officer, who talked about his adventures until she was lying in his arms in some kind of storeroom. He smelled so virile in his summer uniform. Even as a little girl she had been fascinated by athletic men who wore clean uniforms.

Jean-Pierre was a sportsman, and he captivated her with his ready tongue. French is better for love-making than Arabic, she thought. When her lover said “chérie” or “mon amour”, she always felt a tingling sensation run from her ears down her legs to the tips of her toes.

He was a passionate lover but also a charming rogue. He had a mistress in every city; oddly enough she had been able to forgive him that. “You can’t blame a fox for chasing chickens, mon amour,” he had told her, laughing like a naughty little boy.

Her husband didn’t notice that she was in love with the Frenchman, either that first evening or on any that followed. It was an exciting adventure.

Jean-Pierre was bold. One day he phoned: her children were at school, her husband at his consulting rooms, would she like to go for a flight in an airplane? It was the first time she had known what it was like to see the city and its people from above, and she suddenly had a sensation of lightness in her heart, a kind of sublimity. She felt almost like a goddess.

Her passionate love affair lasted three years. Then her air force officer left the country in 1946 with the French troops, making her no promises.

As she went to the prison that morning, Amira’s heart closed itself against grief. She felt her tears evaporating on their way to her eyes. For she felt she had been let down by both her lover and her son. Jean-Pierre had never told her when he was going to leave Damascus, and her son had chosen to take his uncle Butros’s advice without a word to her.

She never did learn just what had happened. Her husband was always repeating, like a parrot: that’s not women’s business. But suddenly Samuel was “her” son. She ought to have brought him up properly, said Louis, instead of entrusting him to that rustic oaf her brother, who had filled the boy’s head with nonsense.

He would never visit the prison with her. He hid behind appointments and the bonnets of his motor cars, but Amira knew better: it was his mother, the arrogant widow Safran, who had forbidden him to visit his son.

Amira could see her son twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays. She walked from her house in the rich Abu Rummana district to the prison in the old citadel near the Suk al Hamidiye. She needed time to herself. For days, she had felt a strange uneasiness.

What kind of a family was it for whose honour Samuel had sacrificed himself? He was the bravest of all the Shahins. He had done what they all wanted, but no one else dared do it. The others hid behind cowardly excuses. Her eldest brother Butros, who had always despised her way of life, had suddenly turned so friendly to Samuel, and even praised her for raising “such a lion”. Only he didn’t dare say such a thing publicly. He was afraid of his mother. Was that just? The boy was blamed for everything, while the rest of family quickly went back to their own lives, just as if Samuel had done the deed for himself alone. He had told Amira that he kept seeing Jasmin dancing towards him in his dreams. The surprise in her eyes when the shots rang out tormented him.

Her brother the lawyer, Basil, would have nothing to do with the case. It was a delicate business, he said. His mother was suing her own grandson for premeditated murder and wanted his legal assistance. So did his sister Amira. He asked both parties to understand that there was really nothing he could do.

Butros knew no one in Damascus who could help. Bulos was a simpleton. That fox Faris was on the side of her mother and Mariam. Amira’s sister hid behind her cynicism. And as for her mother! She’d been the cause of all this misery, after all, and now she was suddenly making herself out grief-stricken! Jasmin was the only one of Samia’s children whom she had loved. She had always been unjust. Whatever Amira or her younger sister Mariam did, she had coldly ignored it and talked only of her wonderful darling.

Jasmin was four years younger than Amira and thought she could trample all over her sister’s feelings. She’d always been outrageous. Even at Amira’s wedding, she had tried to attract attention to herself; she was only thirteen at the time, but much too mature for her age. She had performed a series of belly dances, and the men of Damascus reached out to touch her, encouraging her to show even more vulgarity. Amira’s husband’s family, all of them doctors and architects, had been horrified by the girl’s conduct. Her father-in-law George Safran was still alive then, he had turned his face away so as not to see Jasmin, and her mother-in-law Victoria was spitting venom.

Amira had to ask her father to control the brat, and when Jusuf Shahin growled something to his wife Jasmin stopped, sulked, and soon left the festivities with her mother. Instead of boxing the girl’s ears, her mother even covered up for her, saying that she felt dizzy and they’d both have to go home. Shortly after that, she even said the sight of that poisonous creature Victoria Safran, Amira’s mother-in-law, would always give her a headache.

She had tried covering up for Jasmin’s treachery and shamelessness yet again, but then Samuel intervened. Her brother Butros told Amira that the boy couldn’t be sufficiently honoured for getting in ahead of his grandmother’s wicked plan to humiliate the family forever. Samuel, he said, had acted for the honour of the clan, like a razorblade separating a shameful encumbrance from the family name.

Still lost in the labyrinth of her restless thoughts, Amira reached the rusty old gate of the citadel of Damascus, which had seen better days since Saladin’s time. It stood on an arm of the river which was now just a stinking sewer. Rats scurried everywhere, disappeared into their holes, came out of other holes and looked suspiciously at human beings. Amira woke from her daydreams in alarm when one of them crossed the street. It had almost passed over her foot. She must have uttered a small scream in her fright.

Then Shukri, that sun-tanned, bright-eyed young officer smiled at her. He was standing in the gateway watching the passers by. Still smiling, he asked in his deep voice what brought such a pretty princess to this grubby area.

“Fate, First Lieutenant,” replied Amira, almost bashfully. He shook hands with her. His was a strong hand.

“And what’s the name of this fate?” he asked.

“Samuel Safran,” she replied.

“Ah, that courageous lad. Well, just come with me,” he said, knocking softly at the small spy hole let into the right-hand side of the gate.

A soldier opened the gate, and Amira went down the corridors beside the first lieutenant, whom everyone greeted respectfully. Doors swung open, no one asked to see her ID. The officer led her down a passage to a short staircase, and then entered a large, bright room with flowers in it, a large desk, a new sofa, and two chairs.

“Do sit down until the soldier brings your son,” he said politely, picking up the phone and relaying an order. His eyes wandered over her body, and she felt a hot beam of light scorching her skin beneath her dress, not too strongly, but giving her goose bumps. She couldn’t help thinking of her old physics teacher. He always tried to tell them that eyes don’t emit light. Poor old fool, she thought, moistening her lips to make her lipstick shine, and smiling.

46. The Opportunity

Faris told his mother, only a week after the funeral, that proof existed of the fact that his brother Butros had incited that fool Samuel to attack Jasmin. Samia wouldn’t believe it, and still less would she believe the reasons why, as he said, Butros had arranged for his sister’s murder in such haste. His main aim, Faris told her, had been to hurt his mother, because if Samia had been reconciled with Jasmin it would have been a bitter pill for Butros to swallow. He wouldn’t have been undisputed head of the clan any more, the one who made the life and death decisions. Instead, she would have retained the highest authority. So Butros had passed sentence of death on his sister, and he saw that it was carried out.

Samia listened carefully. She had always feared jealousy among her own sons, so she distrusted any negative remarks made by one of the brothers about another.

“Nonsense, Faris! Butros is a man of high calibre. I never disputed his position as head of the clan, but it wasn’t for him or even the President of the state to make decisions about my daughter’s life, that was only for Jasmin herself and God. That’s why we quarrelled. Anything else is just a wicked insinuation,” she reproved him.

Faris kept calm. “He promised him the black stallion,” he replied quietly but firmly, “and a very special pistol. He’ll take the horse to Damascus himself, Butros said, on the day Samuel comes out of prison. Wait, Mother, and you’ll see that your son Faris isn’t lying to you.”

Faris never returned to the subject. Samia tried to be composed in her treatment of Butros, who was being extremely charming to her. But the doubt that Faris had sown in her mind kept returning. Suppose her son Butros really had ordered her daughter’s murder? It was at night most of all that she felt abhorrence for him: a peasant ready to sacrifice a life to win mastery over a dunghill. She discovered that even after decades in Mala she was still a city woman at heart.

One cold day in late February 1951, Amira went to Mala with her husband and young First Lieutenant Shukri, to visit Butros. Faris was able to overhear their conversation from a bedroom above the drawing room of his brother’s apartment. He discovered that Samuel was to come out of jail on 10 April, and a party would be held for him. Amira was going to invite her brothers Butros and Bulos. Their mother refused to see Amira and her husband.

Amira praised First Lieutenant Shukri who, she said, had done so much to ease Samuel’s time in prison, and Butros gave the man handsome presents of wine, honey, and pistachios. From his hiding place, Faris could also see Amira coming out on the balcony with the officer several times to show him the view of the village, while her husband talked to Butros and his wife.

When the visitors went back to Damascus, Faris hurried off to see his mother. “Butros is going to take his finest horse to Damascus on April the 10th, as a present for Samuel when he comes out of prison,” he told her, his voice as quiet as ever.

Samia pretended to take it calmly. “Why, he wouldn’t even give his wife that horse!” she said, laughing. But her laughter was full of uncertainty, and matters turned out worse than she had expected. Butros led the horse out to his horse box and drove him to Damascus on 9 April. He planned to be at the prison gates with the horse early next morning. From her window, Samia watched him leave. His wife and two children sat in the Chevrolet, which also belonged to Butros, with Bulos and Bulos’s wife.

The brothers hadn’t even said goodbye to their mother. They were slipping away like thieves in the night to celebrate a murderer’s release, thought Samia, and Faris encouraged her. She considered Bulos far too stupid to take any responsibility for what had happened, and his morale had snapped anyway from the grief of childlessness. At first it had been thought that his wife was infertile, but then the doctors found out that he was the one who couldn’t father a child. Since then his wife had humiliated him day and night for the injustice he had done her.

“Butros and no one else is responsible for letting everyone know that Jasmin had gone astray,” said Faris after supper. “We ought to have listened to Basil and hushed the scandal up, the way those damn Mushtaks always do.”

For the first time Samia felt something akin to hatred for her own son Butros.

“You are right,” she agreed. She felt that she herself was partly to blame for her beloved daughter’s death, because she had hesitated to forgive her for so long. She hated Butros and Samuel because the murder had humiliated her too, and she lay awake all night, brooding. She imagined the riotous feasting in Damascus. When she fell asleep at last the revellers in her dream were still celebrating, but they were sitting around a large table, cutting up Jasmin and greedily devouring her flesh.

On the third morning she summoned Fahmi, her most faithful manservant. He had been ten when his parents died and he joined the Shahin household. Fahmi had always served Jusuf obediently, but it was Samia whom he idolized. And he was the only one of the servants to have worn black since Jasmin’s murder.

“I want you to go straight to that bastard Salman Mushtak and tell him that in four days’ time Butros will be getting delivery of a large consignment of guns and over sixty mule-loads of hashish from the Lebanon.”

“Oh, madame!” cried the alarmed Fahmi, taking her hand and kissing it with the humility of a slave begging to be released from the performance of an unwelcome task.

“Fahmi, Butros gave the order to have my daughter killed. When he did that, he struck me to the heart. It was attempted murder of me too, and do you know what God says about that?”

Fahmi did not reply, because he too knew that Butros had encouraged young Samuel. But he had hoped and prayed that his mistress wouldn’t find out. Now he was horrified to discover that she knew.

“Madame, I can’t turn against the hand that feeds me …”

“Fahmi, you will do as I tell you. And if that son of a whore Salman asks why you come to him of all people, you’ll say you want revenge because Butros makes your wife Salma sleep with him once a week, and you found out about it only today.”

Fahmi went red with anger and stormed out of his mistress’s room. A little later Samia heard the sound of blows and Salma’s pleading, and then there was silence. Fahmi rode off on a brown mule, going down to the village square.

Salman disliked double-dealers, but at his faithful servant Basil’s urging he listened to Fahmi. He asked him the very question that Samia had predicted. When Fahmi refused the money Mushtak offered him for his information, and said he wanted to avenge his honour, Salman finally believed what he said.

That evening, Butros came back from Damascus. He was going to act the hypocrite and call on his mother. But she cursed him as a Judas and wished death to him and his wife. Butros wasn’t about to take this lying down. He replied to her in kind, saying it was his mother’s fault that his sister had become a whore, that he was proud of encouraging Samuel to do his heroic deed. She had better retire from public view, he said, and then she could live on his charity, but if she insulted him, the head of the clan, he would throw her out.

His mother did not reply, but went to her room and wept all night. She cursed Jusuf for dying prematurely and leaving her alone.

A week later Salman Mushtak made a phone call to Damascus. That was after his faithful servant Basil had confirmed that columns of mules had been delivering their loads to the Shahins for several nights running, and then went back in the direction of Lebanon as day dawned.

Next morning not only was the whole of his arch-enemies’ large property surrounded, the entire village was sealed off by policemen and armoured cars. Evidently armed resistance was expected. There was no way out. Butros was trapped.

Bringing that police force to bear had been worth while. A large store of smuggled goods was found at the Shahins’ house. The customs officials couldn’t believe their eyes when here, in a small mountain village, they found enough ultra-modern weapons for an army. Several trucks were needed to take away all the machine guns, pistols and hand grenades, not to mention the explosives and ammunition. Another two trucks were loaded up with hashish.

Butros was devastated. He, the leader of his clan, was humiliated in the village square and taken away in handcuffs like a common criminal. His brother Basil, Rana’s father, although Butros had had time to alert him, wasn’t even allowed into the family home. The lawyer stood on the other side of the police barrier, like everyone else in the village, watching the arrest.

When he saw his brother coming out of the house barefoot, in his pyjamas, and being knocked about by one of the soldiers, he boiled with rage. He turned to the officer commanding the troop. “Captain, is this any way to treat distinguished citizens?” he asked, forcing himself to sound courteous and almost pleading.

The officer looked at him with watery eyes. “No,” he said, “but that’s no citizen, that’s a criminal who was planning to overthrow the government with his weapons.”

“I really don’t believe it. There must be some mistake. I know the man, and he’s a patriot,” said Basil, trying to sow doubt in the officer’s mind, but the seed fell on stony ground.

“You call that son of a whore a patriot?” replied the captain indignantly. “I wouldn’t proclaim your friendship with him so loud if I were you. Those who mingle with pigs will soon smell of the sty.” Then he climbed into his jeep and left the dazed Basil standing there, very correct in his collar and tie.

Salman was watching the scene from his balcony, visibly enjoying his view of events in the village square. He drank his tea, slurping out loud, and now and then he whispered, “What a shame you’re not here to see this, Father.”

That morning he felt he was in the forecourt of Paradise. But he was mistaken in the extent of his rejoicing, for the new head of the house of Shahin was Faris. Equipped with his own high intelligence and his mother’s blessing, he intended to make his clan absolute rulers of Mala at long last. Faris abhorred bloodshed, so he had no designs on Salman’s life. He wanted to ruin him utterly, and then wish him long life and health.

47. Shaklan’s Birthday Party

Torrential rain fell all through December and January. There was no frost that winter, there were no storms. The people thanked God, because rain in this dry country meant rich harvests and green steppes for the flocks of sheep to graze, and this piece of good fortune was ascribed to God’s approval of the new Syrian head of state, the devout Colonel Shaklan, who had seized power for the second time at the end of November. This time he didn’t intend to go back to his barracks. A year earlier he had led a first successful coup, and then he gave the civilians their chance, but they changed the government five times in eleven months without rescuing the country from chaos.

Shaklan intended to organize Syria with strict military discipline, like a regiment, and make the Syrians observe law and order by handing out generous rewards and merciless punishments. For preference he surrounded himself with young officers. In late December 1951 he told them, in a short speech, that if he were given six years there would be no thieves or smugglers left in Syria, no rebels or injustice. He repeated this promise in his first radio broadcast to the nation in early January 1952, concluding with the words: “I will make you Syrians into Prussians.”

Shaklan was fascinated by Prussia, the German army, and above all Hitler. He was impressed by Leni Riefenstahl’s movie Triumph of the Will, which he watched once a week in the private cinema of the presidential palace. He imitated the Germans even in his uniform and the way he staged his appearances.

Shaklan was at the peak of his power in the spring of 1952. He did not yet guess that only six months later rebellions would be breaking out everywhere. Amira felt there could be no better moment than this to help her disgraced brother Butros. In prison, he had shrunk to a picture of misery.

Amira’s lover, First Lieutenant Shukri, advised her to go straight to Colonel Shaklan in this delicate matter. It was beyond his own competence. He had been able to help her with her son’s case, but there was nothing he could do here without burning his own fingers.

“You must pluck up courage and go to the very top. Approach Colonel Shaklan through Captain Tallu, his right-hand man, invite the ruler of all Syria to Mala, give him a magnificent banquet, and then send Butros’s wife and children in tears to kiss his hand and ask for clemency. They may be able to soften his heart that way, because harsh as he can be, the colonel is very sentimental. Particularly about tearful children,” said First Lieutenant Shukri, briefly drawing on his cigarette. “And you can soften up Tallu by giving him a horse. Your brother has plenty of horses,” he added, accompanying Amira to the door of his small apartment in the Midan quarter. As they said goodbye he held her close again, kissed her lips, and swung her up in the air in his powerful arms. He was enchanted, as always, by her femininity. Amira felt dizzy with desire, but she had to go. “Don’t eat me up with your kisses! I must hurry before Louis gets home. We have the Bishop coming to dinner this evening.” She tapped him on the buttocks, and when he looked crestfallen she caressed his face. “Another time, my handsome stallion,” she said, laughing, and she left.

Captain Tallu thanked her for the fine horse, and liked the idea of the invitation. He cast a brief glance at the President’s engagements diary. “You can give him his birthday party on 12 July. For three hundred people. A hundred to come with him, two hundred from the village. Only Colonel Shaklan himself can pardon Butros, because the penalty for smuggling arms plainly says life imprisonment.” Without getting to his feet, he offered her his limp hand. Amira was amazed that such a physically feeble man could be so powerful.

Shukri’s advice was pure gold, thought Amira as she left. If she could get her brother out of jail she would be worshipped like a saint in the village. And Butros’s wife Susan immediately and enthusiastically went along with her suggestion. So far Susan, from a Damascene family, had lived in her husband’s shadow, almost invisible. Now she saw her chance. With this birthday party, she would not only help her husband but defeat her mother-in-law. Everyone would know that her connections reached all the way to the President himself.

12 July 1952 was a hot Saturday. The forecourt of the convent of St. Thecla was sprinkled with water early in the morning and then decorated with loving care. Flowers in pots, rugs, banners and garlands gave it a festive air. Three cooks and countless kitchen maids worked wonders in the great kitchen of the convent, preparing an abundance of everything for the guests. The banquet was to begin at six in the evening, when the temperature had dropped slightly. The President’s seat of honour was protected from the heat all day by a sun umbrella. Marksmen were stationed on every rooftop that had a view of the decorated forecourt.

About fifty officials in civilian clothing checked up on the guests with ruthless lack of ceremony, and many of the locals were indignant about such treatment, but Amira mollified them. It was the usual practice, she said, for men to have a hand put between their legs to see if they were concealing a pistol or sharp knife down there. The inspectors also confiscated any other large implements that looked as if they might pose a threat. “You could strike an ox dead with that,” one of them roughly told an old man, putting his heavy wooden walkingstick aside for safe keeping. It was fitted with a large, wedge-shaped piece of metal, which did indeed look dangerous, but was really just a harmless key, with wards made to fit exactly into the holes that would unlock his door.

Late that afternoon the first black limousine appeared in the distance. A peasant announced the news, and excitement spread. Then came the second, then a third. In the end there were sixty cars. They wound their way up the last few bends in the road like a black snake.

Teachers and pupils from the school stood at the entrance to the village, waving little flags. It was rather a sparse reception committee, but Mobate the village elder had found it difficult to muster even that number, since none of the Catholics wanted to wave to the head of state. Many of them stayed at home out of loyalty to the Mushtaks.

The column of cars churned up hot dust in the faces of the children and teachers, and went purposefully on across the eerily empty village square and so to the festive forecourt, which could be identified from afar by all the banderols and the colourful flags and banners. Up there all the guests were happy to think that the most powerful man in Syria was going to celebrate his birthday with them. Birthdays were never usually celebrated in Mala.

Mobate stood squarely in fourth place behind the abbess, the Shahin family, and the Orthodox notables of the village.

“Colonel, this is the happiest day of my life. Please consider me your loyal servant,” he said, reciting his laboriously learned welcome, and he shook the President’s hand vigorously. The President laughed and looked at the next man in line, the stout sheikh of the little village mosque, who was so scared that he mumbled into his beard a quotation from the Koran which even he didn’t understand. The President smiled.

Apart from Butros’s wife Susan, absent from the reception because she was to make her own entrance, almost all the important men and women of the village were there. Only Samia Shahin was absent, and of course all the adherents of the Mushtaks from the Catholic quarter.

Mariam, Butros’s sister, had come on her own, as usual. Bulos, Basil, and Faris, however, had brought their wives with them at their sister Amira’s invitation. They all wanted to take their chance of a personal meeting with the most powerful man in the state.

Laying on the charm, Colonel Shaklan cracked jokes with the small group of his hosts, telling them that he had often heard of Mala, but had never had time to visit that beautiful village before. And then, when Captain Tallu whispered something in his ear, he thanked Amira for her kind invitation and warm welcome. She took the hand held out to her, curtsied as she had been taught to do at school, although she had never had any occasion to drop a curtsey before, and said in a faltering voice, “We are all your soldiers, O hero of the Republic.”

The seats next to the head of state were carefully allotted. The abbess sat on his right, his friend Captain Tallu on his left. Two bodyguards in black uniforms with their machine guns levelled stood behind his tall chair. No one was to move about behind the President.

The three hundred birthday party guests sat crammed together at the huge circular table that had been set up, but a space about five metres wide was left empty opposite the President so that his view wouldn’t be obstructed. There was also a gap in the huge circle opposite the kitchen. Only carefully pre-selected waiters were allowed to approach the President and serve him. Over to one side, but within view of the large table, about fifty soldiers of his special unit were eating without taking their machine guns off their shoulders.

A single person was coordinating the whole occasion: Amira, who had shown amazing talent for making plans and carrying them out in the last few days before the party. By now she knew all the security officers and soldiers who had been checking the region for three days to defuse any bombs that might have been planted. Amira got on well with all of them except a certain Lieutenant Hamad, she didn’t know his surname. He was really far too old for his low rank, he wore a baggy uniform, and he had an ugly tattooed nose. Lieutenant Hamad was a Bedouin, and Amira didn’t like the Bedouin, whom she considered savages. But he was constantly at her heels, gripping her arm firmly and asking the same stupid questions. He was suspicious and hated Jews, Christians, and women. He was always asking: Where are you going, little lady? Is the cook a Jew? Did he maybe marry a Jewess? You don’t look much like a patriot, do you? Is the abbess an Arab? Why does she speak with that accent? And hundreds of other such questions. He kept grabbing her bare upper arms, and his rough fingers bored into her flesh and left red marks behind.

“He’s a prodigy of nature,” a young officer told her. “He can sniff out truffles and gunpowder three metres away. He used to make his living selling truffles, but then the President discovered him and found out about his wonderful nose.” Hamad had already saved the President from three assassination attempts, the officer added, so no one must touch a hair of his head.

The party began. A small group of girls in folk costume did a dance, a singer did his best to perform a hastily written verse celebrating the hero Shaklan’s birthday, and Mobate insisted on making a short speech saying nothing at all. Then two of the Shahins’ grooms, riding the finest horses, did equestrian tricks in the middle of the large circle surrounded by the tables. Tallu had tears of emotion in his eyes.

Finally the meal was brought in: prettily arranged platters of delicious appetizers, fragrant warm bread, drinks cooled with chunks of ice. A whole truckload of ice had come in from Damascus the day before.

Next the main course was served: lamb stuffed with rice, pistachios and raisins, roasted until it was nicely browned, along with excellent salads, and as if all that wasn’t enough it was accompanied by mountains of kibbeh, tabbuleh, and stuffed vine leaves.

By agreement with the security officers, Amira had planned for Susan, Butros’s wife, to appear about nine o’clock with her four children Jusuf, Bulos, Taufik and Barbara. Then the abbess would ask His Excellency to give her a hearing, whereupon Susan and the children were to kneel down in front of the table and ask the President to show clemency to Butros, head of their family and the breadwinner. After that they’d see what happened next.

The President’s bodyguards and close friends knew that he was a heavy drinker. He might make pious speeches in support of Islam, and he was very good friends with the Saudi royal house, he went on pilgrimage and he prayed in public, but at the same time he loved Irish whiskey. Amira had bought a whole bottle of the best whiskey for him in a Damascus delicatessen.

That evening, however, President Shaklan was trying the sixty-percent strength arrack distilled in Mala, cooled with ice, and he liked it so much that he partook freely. Later he had heavy red wine served, brought at the abbess’s request from the convent’s own wine cellar. It was a sweet, sticky wine with a seventeen percent alcohol content, and was usually drunk from tiny glasses as an aperitif.

Just before eight Colonel Shaklan cracked a small joke, which Tallu, who knew him well, saw as an indication that in two seconds’ time the light in his master’s brain would go out. In the darkness now falling over him, the President looked at the abbess and told her, “You’re a lovely gazelle. Like Leni Riefenstahl.” Then he collapsed face down on the table. Tallu swiftly propped him up again.

The President came back to his senses for a moment or so and was alarmed. “What happened? Don’t let anyone leave the room!” he shouted across the square. His words echoed back from the rocks in the silence that had followed the crash as he collapsed. “Don’t let anyone leave the room!”

Then the President lapsed back into unconsciousness. He went to sleep lolling sideways in his chair. As if at a word of command, the soldiers of his special unit, who had been laughing and eating just now, took the safety catches off their rifles and moved two or three metres closer to the guests. The abbess sat there white and rigid as an unpainted plaster statue.

It was already getting dark, the last brightness in the sky would disappear any moment now. Large lights came on. The whole table was brightly illuminated, like a film set. But it was a silent film.

Just before nine the unsuspecting Susan came tripping up the steep path from the Shahin property to the square where the festivities were taking place. She reminded her children once again not to forget that the way they behaved now could save their poor father. Jusuf, the eldest, was seventeen, Bulos was fifteen, Taufik fourteen, and Barbara twelve.

But when Susan and the children reached the square, they stopped in alarm at the sight of the soldiers holding at bay the birthday guests around the figure of the President, who was slumped at a strange angle in his chair. For an instant Susan thought he had been shot. The bodyguards in their black uniforms standing stiffly behind the chair reinforced that impression.

“The President’s dead,” Jusuf whispered into his brother Bulos’s ear.

“Keep your mouth shut!” his mother hissed quietly. Barbara giggled with excitement. And Taufik, fascinated, looked at the soldiers in their camouflage gear.

Amira saw her sister-in-law and hurried to meet her. The security officers wouldn’t let anyone else move about freely, and she was trying to reassure everyone that the party would soon resume. Mountains of fruit, ices, and nuts were ready in the kitchen. Amira’s long black hair lifted behind her in the cool breeze that made it a little easier to sit waiting in suspense.

“Go back with the children,” she told Susan breathlessly. “The President’s drunk, he’s sleeping it off. We’ll have to wait. I’ll send you word when he wakes up again.” There was a note of pleading in her voice, for she could see the bitter disappointment in her sister-in-law’s face.

“All right, we’ll go back,” said Susan, narrow-lipped. “Let’s hope this wasn’t for nothing. That fine horse, all that money!”

“But I want to wait here,” insisted Taufik, who would have liked to stay with the soldiers. Without a word his mother took him by the ear, and he shrieked, although it hadn’t hurt him in the least. He was probably toying with the idea that the soldiers might come to his rescue, but no one took any notice of him, and when Jusuf kicked his backside he ran down the steep path, howling.

His grandmother Samia had heard the shouting in her room, and suddenly the rancour vanished from her heart. Smiling broadly, she said with malicious glee, “This is about to go wrong, like everything Amira touches!” And if anything she was understating it.

Out in the square, the President was still asleep. Soon Captain Tallu, who seemed to know just how long his master’s slumbers would last, followed his example. But the guests couldn’t even talk, and when all the carafes and jugs of water were empty they were offered nothing more to drink. They just sat there in an oppressive silence, staring into space.

A room in the left wing of the convent, with a window looking out on the square, was commandeered as a temporary control centre. The security officers sat feverishly discussing every step to be taken. It was something new, even for them, to see their lord and master suddenly fall asleep in public. But they knew how bad-tempered he was when woken from a nap. Messengers ran down to the officers in the square to whisper instructions, soldiers hurried upstairs with news of the latest developments.

At about one in the morning, when it grew cold, the nuns found lightweight blankets in the convent so that two soldiers could cover the President up carefully, leaving only his head free.

Opposite the control centre, in the right wing of the convent building, the lieutenant with the tattooed nose sat alone in a room that he had requisitioned as his office. From there, he watched the comings and goings in the square. He too had to be asked for permission to bring the blankets, to allay any suspicions he might have.

Amira was running back and forth, and when the nocturnal cold increased she asked the officers whether at least the older guests, still sitting on their uncomfortable chairs, might not be allowed to go home. The officers sent a soldier to ask the control centre. He quickly came back with the answer no. Amira felt contempt in the peasants’ weary eyes.

Her husband Louis had already dropped off to sleep. He was never awake after midnight, even at the club. Her brother Faris grinned at her. She went over to him. “What am I to do? Please help me,” she pleaded.

“He who leads a donkey to the top of a minaret must lead it down again,” he replied. She hated this proverb, much-cited by her mother: quintessential coldness of the heart wrapped up to look like wisdom. Her brothers Basil and Bulos were just sitting there too, but at least they showed some sympathy. The hours dragged slowly by.

Amira was standing in the middle of the circle of tables. Lost in thought, she looked up, and suddenly thought that the abbess had smiled at her and signed to her to come closer. Later she realized that in her weariness she had just imagined it, for even the mistress of the convent had fallen asleep with her eyes half-closed. As Amira took a step towards her she suddenly felt a strong hand pulling her back by her shoulder. A young soldier was smiling awkwardly at her, and showed her where she was to go. Looking up, she saw the lieutenant with the tattooed nose standing at his window. He beckoned her to come up to him.

Ever suspicious as he was, he probably feared she might assassinate the President, she thought, and she laughed on her way up the marble staircase leading to his room. Perhaps she ought to pretend a little, and then ask his advice. Many primitive, small-minded people feel obliged to show magnanimity if you flatter them enough.

She knocked. The door immediately opened, and a rough hand reached for her soft arm. He pulled her into the room so brutally that she lost her balance and stumbled. A blow to her neck sent her flying forward over an empty desk.

“Christian whore! Why are you always stirring up trouble? Why can’t you let it alone?”

She didn’t understand. She couldn’t straighten up either, because he had grabbed her by her long hair, twisting it swiftly into a ponytail, and was keeping her upper body pushed down on the desk top with his free hand. “Don’t move or I’ll kill you,” he spat. She didn’t know what this was all about, but next moment the Bedouin was pulling her panties down and thrusting himself into her. She felt pain. Everything inside her was dry; she couldn’t even weep. A slap stifled her scream. “Be glad I’ll waste my time on you. I ought really to have you shot. You lured our President into a trap. It’ll be the worse for you if his enemies discover that our master drank strong liquor in this Christian dump. I’ll slit you open with my own hands,” he groaned in a savage voice, hitting her on the back of her head.

She felt terrible fear rising in her. Suddenly she understood why her lover Shukri hadn’t wanted to come to the birthday party for the President. He had explained his reasons, but she had reacted indignantly and said he just wanted to let her down. However, Shukri had repeated patiently, “I love you, but I don’t like attending such occasions. Rulers are beasts of prey, and when they eat and drink deep, they can strike out blindly and break your neck. I’m not taking part in anything like that until I’m a colonel, and then I’ll be a beast of prey myself.”

“This is the only kind of language the likes of you understand,” said the lieutenant with the tattooed nose, bringing her back from her thoughts into this dark room where she lay on her stomach over the desk, while this monster thrust faster and faster into her from behind. Suddenly he grunted like a boar.

When the man with the tattooed nose let go of her hair and collapsed into an armchair, she pulled up her torn panties and ran out. He didn’t try to stop her. She hurried downstairs and along a corridor to the lavatories, where she threw up. Then she spent a long time washing herself, rinsed her mouth with gurgling water, spat it out, and finally ran a broken comb lying beside the mirror through her hair. Finally she left the place.

About four in the morning Colonel Shaklan woke with a start. Amira was sitting hunched on a chair beside her husband. She had stayed awake the whole time, afraid that the lieutenant with the tattooed nose might attack her again. She had chosen a place where the monster couldn’t see her from his window.

“Who gave the murderer my address?” shouted the President, his eyes red and confused. He roared it out in such a loud voice that everyone who had nodded off woke up.

Captain Tallu hurried up and immediately took the President to his car. On the way Shaklan told him how he had dreamed, yet again, of a young Druse from the south shooting him at the door of a villa in Brazil. He was still dazed by this recurrent nightmare. So he took no notice of anyone, not even the abbess standing there in the light of dawn offering him her hand. He didn’t say goodbye to his hosts, but ignored them all as if they were insects or pebbles.

Captain Tallu, relieved that the party was over, laughed and told Shaklan at length about a book that he had just finished reading. It was called The Dreams of Rulers. “Napoleon,” said Tallu, “had a recurrent dream of swimming back and forth between Corsica and Sardinia. And Hulagu Khan, who conquered Baghdad in the year 1258 and had the greatest library in the world of his time thrown into the Tigris, was always dreaming that he had turned to stone and was a statue standing at the foot of a mountain, facing the sea. Longing for that unattainable distance stabbed him to the heart, and he was angry with the gulls that kept landing on his head and shitting on him.”

They both laughed and got into the armoured car. The other servants of the state and those representatives of its power who had come to Mala with the President followed in the other black limousines. And in the village, two hundred voices cursed both the President and the Shahin clan.

Basil, the Mushtaks’ faithful servant, had watched the whole thing from a place where he had been hiding. When the President and his men left, he waited a little longer and then went quietly down the alleys to the village square. Day was only just dawning when he opened the gate of the large Mushtak property. He couldn’t wait to tell his news, so he woke his master and told him, with a grin, about the humiliation of the Shahins and their supporters.

The grateful Salman kissed his faithful employee’s weary face, and felt stronger than ever before in his life. He decided to donate a large sum to the church of St. Giorgios next Sunday, the thirteenth of July, in thanks for God’s grace.

Amira went back to Damascus with her husband without saying goodbye to Susan, who was still waiting. From now on she wore her hair very short, which suited her even better, and she never told her lover Shukri about the man with the tattooed nose.

Shukri, to bring this part of the story quickly to its close, truly loved Amira and remained unmarried for her sake. But Amira didn’t want to leave her husband. Shukri made his career in the army, and even rose to the rank of general in 1966. A year later, however, he and a handful of other officers were shot when they tried an amateurish coup, and failed miserably.

At the end of July 1952, two weeks after the disastrous birthday party, Butros Shahin was found stabbed to death in his prison cell. No one ever found out who did it. His widow left Mala for ever, and went to live in Damascus with her three sons and her daughter. She never wanted to see any member of her husband’s family again.

In December 1952, when Colonel Shaklan erroneously imagined himself at the height of his power, he arranged for a military parade to show off the latest tanks that he had just bought in France with Saudi money. He returned the salute of the officers driving past him even more punctiliously than usual, and felt proud of their shiny new weapons.

Suddenly one tank driver lost control of his modern vehicle, and the mighty tank went straight into the rows of applauding spectators lining the streets. Heart-rending screams reached the colonel, shaking him badly, and rose to the sky of Damascus. Swallows flew away in fright and didn’t come back to the city for days. The tank tracks crushed more than fifty men, women, and children before the fearsome machine crashed into a concrete pillar and finally came to a halt. The tank driver climbed out of his turret, saw the catastrophe, and instantly shot himself.

People said it was a divine portent of imminent downfall. And Colonel Shaklan agreed as he sat alone in the presidential palace that evening, eating his dinner and washing it down with chilled whiskey.

48. Dethroned

Rana never felt at ease in her family. Her father was a lawyer, her mother taught French in an exclusive girls’ school. Since they both had careers, they didn’t want more than two children.

Rana was pretty, with a delicate look rather like an Indian girl’s. She learned fast, and was already quite independent at the age of three.

The first bad experience of her young life was her child-minder, a dissembling woman with hairs on her nose. The girl hated her, and never liked being left with her.

Then her brother Jack was born and laid claim to everything, their mother and father and all the available space. He was fair-skinned, almost blond, rather plump, and he had a powerful pair of lungs. He disliked Rana from the first. She felt the same about him. She pinched him whenever she could, and he yelled blue murder when he so much as set eyes on her. That made their parents take the little boy’s side. When Jack came along Rana’s mother, who had gone back to teaching six months after her own birth, handing her daughter over to the horrible child-minder, suddenly wanted to give up work and spend all day at home looking after him. But she still sent Rana to the child-minder, at least until her daughter rebelled. A year after Jack’s birth the delicate little girl developed a strange fever whenever she went to the hairy-nosed woman, but it vanished as soon as she was home again.

Rana had got what she wanted. From then on both children stayed at home. But their mother had time for no one but Jack. Jack did such and such, Jack ate this, Jack said that, it was Jack, Jack, always Jack. Rana had to get by as best she could. As far back as she could remember, her mother had never once asked, “Is there anything you’d like me to explain?” or “Do you need help?” Never.

But when it came to that great hippopotamus Jack, even his first day at school was a major family event. All it lacked was a telegram of congratulations from the President of the state. And from then on Rana’s mother spent time with her son every day, following his progress through school. Woe to anyone who trod on the plump little boy’s toe; his mother, equipped with every weapon her teacher’s training could provide, would sally forth to his school and deal with the teachers there. She was an expert herself.

Jack was not stupid, as his teachers later came to believe. Far from it, he was highly intelligent, but his abilities went the wrong way. At the age of ten he was showing Rana that he had his mother entirely under his thumb. He could succeed in getting his sister slapped when he felt like it, he could have her pocket money docked, make sure she was forbidden to go out or listen to music — all through his mother. He used his mother for his own ends, and she became his slave.

Rana had just begun at high school when she found out for certain that Jack would never be her brother, but always her enemy. She was sitting quietly in her room, playing, when he came in and attacked her for no reason at all. After he had beaten her up brutally, he tore her favourite doll to pieces and ran away. Rana wept, and tried to gather up the rags of her doll. Suddenly her mother appeared and laid into her like a woman deranged. She’d been saying filthy things about the Virgin Mary, said her mother, her brother was sitting in the kitchen crying his eyes out with shame. Rana was baffled. The world was upside down. She had never in her life said a word against the Virgin Mary. Far from it; even as a little girl she had venerated the mother of Jesus.

Her father came home late. He went to see her, sat down on a chair, and looked at her sadly. “Girl, girl, what makes you do these things?” he asked quietly. Rana didn’t reply.

That evening she knew that her brother was dead to her, and now living in the family home was easier. Even Jack was nice to her when he sensed her cold indifference, but she didn’t care about that.

With much moaning and groaning and the help of three private tutors, he managed to pass the exam for his middle school diploma, and then he left. Rana had taken her high school diploma the same year, with distinction, but her mother didn’t even notice. She was busy letting every visitor know how enthusiastically all his teachers spoke of her brilliant son. But she’d decided to take him out of school all the same, she said, because he was such a talented craftsman and his ambition was to be a goldsmith.

He didn’t make it, however. He skipped classes for a year and gave up the training course, and after that he became a male nurse. His mother described him as the surgeon’s right-hand man. At twenty, to his father’s great disappointment, Jack became a professional soldier, and as he had his middle school diploma and was almost two metres tall he became a sergeant in the President’s special unit, which was in fact just the thing for him. But that wasn’t until much later.

Rana’s parents still took no notice of her, but there were advantages to that. It meant that she could make her own decisions, didn’t have to ask permission, and wasn’t accountable to anyone. She swore to herself that she would take charge of her own life.

When she fell in love with Farid in the spring of 1953, the feud between the Shahins and the Mushtaks was at its height. All the same, Rana ventured to hint to her mother that she had met a nice boy whose surname was Mushtak. Her mother threw a fit. “Mushtaks can’t be nice,” she shouted, as if Rana were hard of hearing. “They ruined your uncle and cost your father a million lira, and you call one of the Mushtaks nice?”

Her mother wouldn’t hear another word about the boy. That was sad, but much worse was to come later that afternoon. Jack pushed the door of her room open. “You listen to me, you stupid cow,” he shouted, planting himself squarely in front of her. “If I catch you with anyone even distantly related to the Mushtaks, I’ll kill you. Do your hear me? I’ll kill you! I’m the Samuel in our family, understand?” He shouted so loud that his mother came running and begged him not to over-excite himself.

The word “traitress” escaped from Rana, but no one heard her, because her brother was still ranting in a deafening voice. Later, when she told Farid about it and said she would have to be careful, he suddenly threw a fit and began shouting. What kind of life did anyone have in this filthy country, he cried, you’d only just started loving someone and you were threatened with violence and murder! Only later did Rana discover that he had quarrelled with his father that day, and was still upset. He asked her if she had another boyfriend and was just looking for a way to get rid of him, Farid. That was too much. Rana rose to her feet and ran away. It was a week before Easter.

49. Salman

No one knew about his fear. He lay awake for nights on end, staring at the ceiling. His wife Hanan slept peacefully at his side. He went back over his life, searching for something he could hold on to. Since his father’s death in 1947 he alone had been at the head of the clan. That was six years ago, but he still hadn’t recovered from the loss of the man who was dearer to him than anyone. For thirty-nine years he had been able to shelter in the great Mushtak’s shadow from the icy wind blowing their way. Now he had to face it by himself.

Since the spectacular police raid and the arrest of his enemy Butros, the Shahins had been just waiting for an opportunity to get their revenge. Their new leader Faris was a snake, smooth and dangerous as his mother.

Times were changing. After a series of revenge killings, the government in Damascus had tried to control the situation by passing several death sentences on those who had egged the murderers on. The principle was that of French law, which regards the motive of revenge not as a mitigating circumstance but as incitement to murder, and punishes it with particular severity. These new laws had dealt the moral code of the Arab clans a heavy blow. But their rigour took effect, and feuding families were now trying to hit their adversaries hard some other way.

Salman was sure that the widowed Samia and her son Faris had only one purpose in mind: to ruin him completely.

“A pity you’re not here now,” he whispered in the darkness, as if his father could hear him. He had learned from George Mushtak that important things should be whispered, not spoken aloud.

For over six years Salman had been trying to prove to the village — friend and foe alike — that he was George Mushtak’s true successor, but Mala took no notice. He wasn’t even invited to take part in discussions. When his father was still alive, no one would have dared to make a decision without the old man.

Salman believed that several people in the village were hatching a plot. Dogs like that man Ismail would never have dared to ask old Mushtak if he wanted to sell his farm. But now they guessed that in three to five years there would be no stopping him, Salman; he would be the richest farmer in the whole region then. So they were doing all they could to bring him down just before he achieved his ends.

Ismail was only a tool of the widow and her son, that devil Faris. Hadn’t he been punished enough by God? Faris’s wife, the daughter of a despicable secret service agent, who had married into the Shahin clan just to make her family even more menacing, brought only deformed children into the world. It was said privately in the village that they were the living images of the torture victims in the secret service’s cellars. Allegedly Faris and his wife hid their children away in dark rooms and treated them like animals. Two of them hadn’t survived their fifth year of life, and the third son, folk said, howled so loud by night that many in the Orthodox quarter woke in alarm. But obviously Faris didn’t understand the wrath of God. His heart grew harder and harder.

How lucky, on the other hand, Salman had been with his own sons! He thought of his firstborn, Nassif, who was now working successfully in Damascus as a motor mechanic, along with his three brothers.

Salman’s thoughts wandered further back in the depths of time, to the day when George Mushtak had noticed Hanan’s belly swelling in her fourth month of pregnancy. He had summoned his son, congratulated him, and then took him walking in the mountains. Out there the sky was wide, the air was pure, and no one would overhear them, his father had said, and then at last he told him the secret of his own life.

His real name was not George Mushtak at all, but Nassif Jasegi. He had called himself George when he reached Mala in flight with his lover Sarka, and discovered that the patron saint of this village was St. Giorgios. And he had thought of Mushtak because at the time he had been obsessed with death, which is the meaning of mushtak lalmaut, but he had spared the stupid peasants the mention of death, and just said his name was George Mushtak. Then the name was finally recorded as his during the registration after Syrian independence in 1946.

Here Salman’s father had paused for a long time, as if he were suppressing memories. “So I was called Nassif Jasegi,” he repeated at last. “My family belonged to the nobility. My father had been a governor in the mountains of Lebanon, and was loyal to the Sultan. His first name was Salman, like yours. After a peasants’ uprising against the Sultan he fled and took refuge in Damascus. The peasants’ revolt was overthrown with much bloodshed after three years, but my father couldn’t go back to the mountains. The Sultan gave him estates south of Damascus, but after being high up in the civil service all his life he knew nothing about farming the land. His tenants and servants soon realized that, of course, and they cheated him wherever they could. He died an embittered man, among other reasons because the Sultan had never given him an office of state again. I learned a lesson for my own life from that: I would never serve anyone. None of my brothers ever wanted to enter the service of the state either. It’s an ungrateful master to us Christians.”

Once again George Mushtak paused for a long time. Salman kept quiet. “My three brothers, I, and my sister Miriam had to go out early to the fields and the stables, and toil like poor peasants to pay off the debts our father had left on his death. It was my mother who turned the tenants out and took charge of everything herself. She was a lioness who feared nothing, and she passed that attitude on to her sons. Love death, and your enemies will fear you — that was her motto.

We toiled for ten years, and at last the farm was free of debt, and a magnificent sight. We were the main local producers of silk and apricots. The soil was fertile and the irrigation system we had built made us independent of the weather. We grew rich, very rich, and lived well, until that man Kashat ruined everything.”

And after that his father told him no more.

Later, Salman gave his own firstborn son the name of Nassif. The boy took after Hanan in looks and after Salman’s father-in-law in character. He had been good with his hands since childhood; he wanted to be a mechanic, and hated farming. Salman smiled when he remembered that at eighteen Nassif had been set on joining the army.

“The army is no place for Christians,” Salman had told his son. He had been opposed to the army at the time less from fear than out of distaste for it, a distaste that he had inherited from his own father. “The army is the garbage heap of our country. Only failures join up. Muslims of distinction and their sons strive to get power in the cities, and look for high positions of state. Christians and Jews can live only by trade, by their knowledge and their wits.”

Nassif didn’t understand him at first, but then he discovered the technical world of motor cars and was absorbed by his new passion. Salman was very glad now that he had followed his father’s advice and made the boy change his mind. Since 1949 army officers had been carrying out coups that took them to the summit of state power and back down again into misery.

Who’d have thought that the first to lead a successful coup, Colonel Hablan, would die so miserably after only a hundred and thirty-seven days? Who’d have thought that Colonel Dartan, who overthrew him, would have to run like a rat to Beirut, where he was shot a year later after Colonel Shaklan toppled him in his own turn? And who’d have thought that Shaklan, who still had the people at his feet at the end of 1952, could find himself isolated so quickly and would now, at the end of 1953, be losing more power daily? Salman thought of the birthday party in July given for the colonel by the Shahins, and their humiliation. He smiled in the darkness of his bedroom, grateful for divine providence.

His other sons Latif, Shadi and Fadi were also solely interested in engines. Together with their eldest brother they had made ambitious plans. The future was motorized, they said, and consequently a good garage and workshop in Damascus would be a goldmine, because the Arabs had no car manufacturing plants or factories to make spare parts, so they depended on repairs and ingenious minds to keep the cars they had bought on the road.

Saba and Nasser were still much too young to choose a profession. But Ibtihal, Salman’s only daughter, loved agriculture and always wanted to go out to the fields with the men. Funnily enough, she was the only one who looked like a Mushtak. Who knows, thought Salman, his anxieties allayed, perhaps she carries her grandfather’s soul in her, and will be the first woman to become a successful farmer some day.

But until they saw whether, in a few years’ time, that happened he had to defend the farm alone against his enemies, and most important of all he must get rid of that troublesome Ismail.

What, he asked himself, will Ismail do? Attack the estate? He’d never dare. Side with those damn Shahins against me? A neighbour had told Salman at the barber’s that Faris wanted to get a rich man’s help to build up a farm twice as large as the Mushtak lands, and growing just the same produce as Salman: apples, almonds, roses, and vegetables.

Salman smiled in the dark. A rich man would be a fool to invest his money in these bleak mountains. Soon he fell asleep. He saw his father smiling at him, and handing him a branch of the pomegranate tree. It was covered with red blossom.

50. Ismail

It was an established fact in Mala: buying land from a Mushtak, even just a handful of earth, was completely impossible. The other farmers were selling off their acres because of the drought and the lure of the oil boom. The preferred to hire themselves out as workers in the Gulf states, where they did in fact earn a great deal of money. Many became millionaires overnight in the Gulf, but most of them lost their money again once they were home. Clever con-men persuaded them to invest in expensive buildings in Damascus and then absconded with the cash. Their victims couldn’t return to Mala, because the price of land there had risen steeply in a very short time. Mala had become popular. The village lay high up in the mountains, and its good air and cool summer nights were famous. First the prosperous citizens of Damascus discovered it, then came other Arabs who had plenty of money in their pockets, and soon the price of building plots was as high as in the capital. Farmers who still had their land now grew rich from selling it. And the emigrants who hadn’t been conned out of all they had in Damascus, but came back to Mala in time to lay out their money there in the fifties, were the richest of the villagers ten years later.

Old Mushtak had never wanted his children to divide up his property. Division went against the principle of a strong clan, so after his father’s death Salman took over the farm uncontested. That was in 1947. Hasib was in America, and received nothing, Elias and Malake had been disinherited. Salman was a good businessman and lavished presents on his siblings, sending sackfuls of rosebuds, apples, raisins, dried figs, and almonds even to the disinherited brother and sister. He was earning extremely well, and even had plans for a perfume factory of his own in Mala. Then disaster suddenly struck.

Ismail Rifai was the son of that Muhammad Abdulkarim who had been at the harvest festival in Mala long ago and then, with his brother-in-law and son-in-law, went over to the side of the attacker Hassan Kashat when he surrounded the village. But after that George Mushtak had killed his arch-enemy Kashat. Muhammad Abdulkarim’s brother-in-law and son-in-law managed to escape; he himself had been hit by a ricocheting bullet and died.

Now Ismail, the dead man’s son, wanted to buy the Mushtak farm with all its wide lands, and make the place a vacation paradise with the financial support of a French tourist agency. He didn’t want just any plot of land, only the Mushtak property, not least because of its incomparable views and good supply of ground water. But there was another reason known to no one but Ismail himself and George Mushtak in his grave. Ismail wanted to settle accounts with the village whose bullets had killed his father.

By now he was a powerful man. Ismail had sold the idea of his father the martyr to the first Syrian government after the country gained independence, and the government, which couldn’t legitimately lay claim to any heroic battle for that independence, only to tough fighting for small, indeed tiny concessions, was in bad need of martyrs, as many of them as possible, so as to represent its rise to power as the natural reward for many sacrifices made in the struggle for the Fatherland.

Ismail, son of the alleged great martyr Muhammad Abdulkarim, seized his opportunity and rose to be a state secretary. His father, said the official records and his new tombstone, had fallen fighting French colonialism. In fact, as Ismail knew only too well, his father had been hit in the left temple by that ricochet and fell into a small, muddy pond surrounded by stinging nettles just below the Mala mill, a patch of ground on which no Frenchman had ever set foot.

Ismail’s plan to buy the Mushtak farm was like a bombshell dropped on Mala, especially in the Catholic quarter. The land lay on a high plateau reaching from the old elm tree to the mountains of Lebanon. Was it now to go to a stranger rather than someone from the village, to a Muslim whose father was a traitor?

Salman reassured his anxious friends in the barber’s shop. “A Mushtak never sells, and will bow to no one,” he said in a tone almost of indifference, trying to imitate his father.

“Your father would have cut the messenger’s balls off,” said a toothless old shepherd, adjusting his headcloth. Salman had always thought this shepherd an unpleasant know-all, and ignored him.

He gave a polite but cold reception to the messenger from the state secretary who wanted to encourage tourism. “Tell your master Ismail Rifai that this is a Christian village, and it’s grown neither larger nor smaller over thousands of years. We’re not selling. Not at any price. Syria is a large country, and there are plenty of other places for tourism.”

Two days later the go-between came back and, with dark hints and threats, offered twice the sum, but this time Salman didn’t even look up from the tractor he was repairing. He growled at the envoy, “Didn’t I tell you plainly in good Arabic, or is your boss as slow on the uptake as his father? We’re not selling.” And when the envoy got back into his black car Salman wondered briefly if the shepherd’s suggestion hadn’t been a good idea after all. The leaves on the trees had already turned brown that October day.

A week before Christmas, persons unknown destroyed all the trees on Mushtak land standing out of sight of the village. No one had heard anything, but later a pigeon-breeder said that his birds had been fluttered around restlessly for three nights on end. However, they calmed down again in the early hours of the morning, which they wouldn’t have done before an earthquake, and slept almost all day, only to batter themselves desperately against the walls of their wooden lofts again by night.

The police thought it had all been well organized, and then carried out according to plan during several days of icy December weather. All routes leading to the lands belonging to the Mushtak farm had been blocked by men claiming to be military police. If anyone asked why, they had said there were army manoeuvres on the high plateau.

Not until the third day did Salman and several other farmers in the village who wanted to ride out to their fields become suspicious. They asked at the Mala police station whether there was in fact any manoeuvre going on. The two local policemen, followed by several farmers, drove in Salman’s truck to the plantations some three kilometres away, where a terrible sight met their eyes.

The bare, felled trees were covered by hoarfrost. The scene froze Salman’s blood in his veins. All his trees and rosebushes lay on the ground as far as the eye could see. Twenty hectares of ravaged orchards, most of the trees grubbed up roots and all, a few old, well-established specimens simply sawn down. The entire irrigation system had been destroyed by bulldozers; pipes and hoses stuck up from the churned soil like skeletons. Several bulldozers, specially equipped trucks, excavators, and tractors must have been used in the operation.

Not a wall, not a water tank had been spared. The watchman’s house had collapsed, and they found the poor man under its ruins. His corpse had two large, gaping holes in the chest. His murderers had torn it apart with dumdum bullets.

Salman’s face turned grey, and he wept for the first time since his father’s death. He just stood there, unable to utter a word. The sympathy of the people around him was no comfort.

In February 1954, two months later, he died of a heart attack, the first villager in Mala ever to suffer one. Heart attacks are almost unknown among the Arabs.

At the time, in the winter of 1953, all the clues pointed to Ismail Rifai, but the case was never cleared up. Ismail was powerful, and Salman’s sons were not strong enough to act yet. Their mother Hanan knew that. She wore black for fifteen years, and kept reminding her children of the perpetrator’s name. Her sons adopted her own quiet approach, and started planning too.

Hanan, who didn’t once smile in all those fifteen years, was a pale woman of iron energy. After the attack she and her children wanted no more to do with farming. She leased the fallow land to several Mala farmers, and divided the rent equally between her husband’s siblings. Hasib had disappeared without trace in America, so she donated his share to the religious houses of Mala in his memory. In return, they let her keep old Mushtak’s house, which her sons later converted into one of the finest buildings in the village, with an artificial stream that wound its way through the extensive grounds and cascaded from a high rock into a swimming pool. Latif, Nassif, Shadi and Fadi were inseparable. They always liked going out together to Mala, where they partied all night long, and then drove back to Damascus in their big deluxe American limousines.

But to conclude the story of Ismail: in the autumn of 1968, Salman’s youngest sons Nasser and Saba, through go-betweens, tricked Ismail Rifai out of his entire fortune. At this time he was also under suspicion of having smuggled weapons and money into the country from Iraq to organize uprisings against the government. Collaboration with neighbouring Iraq was hated in Damascus even more than collaboration with Israel, and always had been.

Ismail denied all accusations, but the evidence was overwhelming. Guns, ammunition, and crates of money were found in his barn. The find had been faultlessly arranged by a secret service man to whom Nassif, Salman’s eldest son, gave a 1967 Opel. Ismail was sentenced to life imprisonment.

That day Salman’s widow Hanan laughed again for the first time and wore coloured clothing. She hailed her sons as heroes, and gave a lavish party for them in the expensive Ali Baba restaurant that had just been opened in Damascus. Elias and Claire were invited too. Farid wasn’t there; he was already in prison at that time.

“It took fifteen years,” said Nasser, raising a glass of arrack to his mother, “but we’ve avenged our father.”

“Fifteen years?” asked Elias in surprise. He was sitting between Claire and Ibtihal.

“Yes, uncle,” replied Saba, the second youngest son, “it takes a long time to ensnare someone like that. He was a suspicious man.”

“A Bedouin,” joked Nasser, “would say: well done, lads, but why in such a hurry?”


Love is a wildcat with nine lives


51. Lucia and Nagib

Claire’s memory was not particularly good, but one event in the summer of 1935 was ever-present in her mind. She was seventeen, and had loved Musa Salibi with every fibre of her heart for the last two years. But then she suddenly met a pale young man with the most beautiful hands in the world in the God-forsaken village of Mala, and he spoke to her in French.

She was a city-dweller born and bred, and as a young girl she thought village life boring. She shared her aversion to all things provincial with her father. He made no secret of the fact that he preferred a newspaper and a morning cup of coffee in Damascus to the fresh mountain air. Unlike Claire, however, he could always get out of visiting Mala by claiming that, sad to say, he couldn’t take the time off work.

Her mother seemed indifferent to her father’s presence or absence. She liked the rugged country life and the primitive villagers who obeyed her slavishly, did everything she asked, and kept calling her “Signora”, because she liked to hear the word so much.

Claire’s brother Marcel, two years her senior, could imagine no better way of spending the summer than in Mala either. For that very reason Claire took a dislike to the village. But one thing was true: you slept better in the mountains than in the sticky heat of Damascus.

Her mother Lucia was half Venetian. Her father, Antonio Sciamico, had come to Damascus in 1850 with a trade delegation, fell in love with the city, and stayed. He was said to be a nobleman. Large parts of the Italian city of Venice, Lucia liked to say, belonged to his family. However, the only certain fact was that he was a flâneur and a playboy.

Antonio Sciamico learned Arabic fast, and renamed himself Anton Shami, which sounded rather like his Italian name, but helped him to blend in more easily. In Arabic, Shami just means Damascene, and is a very common surname. Many Jews, Christians, and Muslims bear the name.

After a while he married Josephine, the daughter of Zacharias Asfar, one of the largest silk manufacturers in Syria. Shami himself became a famous trader in the Suk al Buzuriye, the spice market near the Ummayad Mosque. He made a large fortune from spices, silk, and fine woods. But his greatest source of pride was that in 1871 he had eaten supper with his favourite composer Giuseppe Verdi in Cairo, where the Italian genius was giving the première of his opera Aida for the opening of the Suez Canal. Anton Shami had the photograph showing him sitting at table with a laughing Verdi greatly enlarged and hung it in the drawing room of his magnificent house, which united Italian and Syrian stylistic features to very beautiful effect. To this day the building bears his name, and is the finest in the whole quarter. When the last German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, visited the East in 1898 he stayed there while he was in Damascus. At the time Lucia was already engaged to Nagib Surur, son of a prosperous family of cloth merchants, but Anton Shami had the betrothal ceremony repeated and photographed in the Kaiser’s presence. These pictures hung in Lucia’s bedroom, along with those of her Venetian forebears.

She could tell wonderful stories about her grandfather Doge Paolo Sciamico’s glass eye and the last German Kaiser’s withered hand. And the older she grew the more stories she told. Her fund of stories grew even greater after her husband’s death. She began indulging in flights of fancy about a great collection of glass eyes owned by her family in Venice. The glassmakers had had to produce countless eyes, she claimed, until they made one that suited the Doge. She wrote letters to the Italian authorities in Rome and Venice, demanding the return of this valuable collection. But that was not until just before her death in 1959.

In 1900 she married Nagib. Anton Shami liked the elegant, well-connected young man, and hoped that he would help him to expand his business. But Nagib didn’t want to work with his father-in-law, or his own father either. First he took a post with a money-changer, and later, after two years of training in Paris, he became technical director of the quality and control department of the Banque de Syrie et du Liban, which as a central bank was allowed to print lira notes. The notes came with an imprint stating that the French government guaranteed the value of the Syrian and Lebanese lira to a maximum of twenty French francs.

In 1910, cholera carried off Anton Shami and his wife. Lucia survived because she and her husband happened to be visiting her family in Venice that summer. She inherited a large fortune which Nagib invested securely with the bank.

His wife was intent on having a large family, and she duly bore ten children, but eight of them died just after their birth. Only Marcel, and two years later Claire, lived.

Until her mid-fifties, Lucia habitually had affairs with young men. Later, her daughter often laughed to think how as a girl she had innocently believed that all her mother’s visiting lovers were family members, and called them Uncle, until one day a girlfriend explained it to her. Claire was seventeen by then, and her mother had long since given up the young men.

When her friend enlightened her in the spring of 1935 Claire felt furious, not because of her mother’s escapades in themselves but because of the lies and derision to which she had exposed Claire, her own daughter. But she felt truly humiliated and isolated only when she tackled her brother on the subject. He was nineteen, and had been studying law since the beginning of the year. He unfeelingly told her to her face that he had known about it all along, and was glad to see his mother find the love their father couldn’t give her.

“But what about me? Why didn’t any of you tell me?” asked Claire, close to tears.

“You take after Father, you’re as sentimental as he is. You can’t accept hard facts,” he claimed.

From that moment on her love for her mother and her brother died. She wouldn’t give them away, all the same, although when she went into Damascus with her father a week later to eat an ice she broached the subjects of love, faithfulness, and jealousy. She said she’d like to hear his opinion so that she would know more about the way to behave with her fiancé Musa.

Nagib looked askance at his daughter and smiled. “Why does love always have to imply possession?” he asked, shaking his head. Then he fell silent for a while, as if wondering what he should tell her. Claire gave him time. “You should love with composure,” he said. “Love should bestow sublimity. It lets you give everything without losing anything. That’s its magic. But here people want a contract of marriage concluded in the presence of witnesses. Imagine, witnesses, as if it were some kind of crime,” he repeated slowly, allowing her to appreciate the ridiculous aspect. “State and Church supervise the contract. That’s not love, it’s orders from a higher authority to increase and multiply.”

He smiled at his own words. “And any idiot who can’t even add up one and one to make two knows, when he loves someone, that he wants to possess that person body as well as soul. He guards his property jealously to ensure that neither heart nor brain, neither liver nor stomach, nor …” Nagib hesitated for a moment. “Well, you know what I mean,” he added, “…will be touched by any other thought, hand or feeling. Jealousy and unhappiness are programmed into the arrangement in advance.”

They sat there quietly, and Claire looked at her father as he spooned up his ice, smiling. What a wise man, she thought. He seemed to her like a visitor from a strange world that was now at peace.

She didn’t feel like that; it did matter to her when women gazed adoringly at their fiancés or indulged in vulgar behaviour with them.

A week after this conversation in the ice cream parlour, her father was arrested. He was accused of embezzling large sums of money from the bank where he had worked for five years, and he spent three years in prison, until the Catholic Patriarch successfully intervened on his behalf. But he was never exonerated, even by his own wife. However, that was a matter of indifference to Nagib.

52. Tamam and Sarkis

The large house stood on the village square, opposite the gate of St. Giorgios’s churchyard. Lucia had the second floor entirely renovated, equipped with the most modern technological devices, and furnished in the latest fashion. The rent was so cheap that she paid it for a whole year in advance, so that she could visit Mala any time she liked.

Tamam, who owned the house, liked her tenants from Damascus because she enjoyed talking to Lucia. She never exchanged a word with the other villagers. She had a large vegetable garden and several vineyards, and bought the rest of her provisions in the neighbouring village of Ainyose, bringing them home on the back of her donkey. So whenever Lucia came to Mala she brought an extra case full of the finest foodstuffs, including chocolate and canned meat. Nothing could have given Tamam greater pleasure.

At the time Claire, like all girls in love, was reading love stories non-stop, especially French novels, but their landlady’s own love story cast all those books into the shade.

Tamam was a strange woman. She lived alone with her son Djamil. The villagers thought her eccentric, and people whispered that she was to blame for her husband’s early death. She had loved him from her childhood. He and his parents lived in a little house near her family’s large property. Her father was a prosperous farmer then. She wasn’t beautiful, but several men proposed to her. She turned them down, and her father was glad that she stayed with him when his wife died, and he didn’t have to share her with any other man. But when he discovered that she was in love with his neighbours’ son, he forbade her to have anything to do with the young man, who barely scraped a living by working in the stone quarry. Tamam loved her father, and was torn between her feelings for him and for her lover. Night after night she wept with longing for Sarkis, who had sworn not to touch any other woman. He suggested elopement, but Tamam didn’t want to expose her lonely father to the mockery of the villagers. She hoped that death would bring him release, but death took its time.

The couple waited for twenty years. When Tamam’s father did die, Sarkis was forty and she was in her late thirties. They waited another year, until Tamam could put her black mourning clothes aside. Until that day Mala had never known a tale of self-sacrificing lovers with a happy ending. Such stories always ended in tragedy; you couldn’t reconcile the harsh peasant life with the tenderness of great love affairs out of fairy tales, set in lush gardens where people wore flowing silken robes, probably because those tales made life in the bleak mountains seem even less bearable.

Tamam was afraid of the wedding night. Her neighbour, an experienced midwife, told her horror stories of the first night when the bride wasn’t in her first youth and had a hymen harder than leather. Husbands, she said, quite often needed her, the midwife, to help by sticking her forefinger through it.

Relishing the bride’s fears, the woman told her about one man in the village who had fractured his prick when he deflowered his bride. It had a right-angled bend in it ever after. Another husband, she said, thrust in with all his might, but because his bride was thirty-five her maidenhead resisted, bouncing back like a trampoline, and he fell out of bed and hit the back of his head on the floor. The blow left the man’s mind confused. He spoke nothing but Spanish thereafter, and he avoided all women.

Tamam felt the iron claws of fear squeezing her heart, and she hoped the midwife was telling lurid tales just to show off. But her own wedding night was worse than all the stories. Sarkis had been drinking to give himself courage. Tamam, who never drank alcohol, was horrified by the stink of her husband, who was sweating heavily, and by his rough hands as he tried to pull her panties off under her dress. She begged him to remember that she wasn’t very young now. That infuriated him even more. “I don’t need any midwife,” he cried, as if he too had heard the neighbour’s stories. “I’ve hardened and sharpened my chisel these thirty years.”

Not a word of love, no tender caress. His fingers, although covered in scratches from his work in the quarry, had always been softer than a rose petal when he touched her skin. But now Sarkis’s face wasn’t fragrant any longer, nor was he her shy lover, but a stranger lying on top of her with all his weight, pressing the air out of her.

He thrust into her dry soul. Tamam screamed so loudly that the musicians, singers, and dancers stopped for a moment, but then they all raised their glasses in rejoicing. Tamam hated them. They were out there eating her bread and applauding her pain.

The night seemed endless. She felt near death, and wept, but that only encouraged Sarkis to push himself into her again and again. Late in the night, his old aunt knocked at the door with the laconic remark, “Proof of honour.” Sarkis tore the bloodstained white sheet proving Tamam a virgin from under her and gave it to the old woman. Once again rejoicing broke out among the guests, who went on making merry under the bedroom window until day dawned.

The marriage lasted only two months. Then Tamam summoned up all her strength and threw her husband out. Sarkis did not protest. He went back to his old home, bitterly disappointed in the woman for whom he had waited so long. She had always talked to him of love games with desire in her voice. Now she was acting like a nun, and what a nun! On the wedding night she began screaming the moment he touched her. And then she went to sleep before he had finished doing his conjugal duty.

A week later she had asked him to sleep alone in a small room, saying that when she slept beside him she had nightmares in which he was always raping her. Sleep by himself in a miserable little room? What was the point of getting married, then? Sarkis asked himself that question out loud at the barber’s, and the men there nodded with mingled sympathy and derision.

But Sarkis didn’t tell the men that he never went back to her because he hated himself. Why had he turned down all those beautiful, willing women? His neighbour’s daughter, soft-armed Saide who kept visiting him after his parents’ death, had given him a basil plant, saying that a man like him needed a good woman to warm him in bed and bear him fine children. “Look at my breasts, feel my belly,” she said. “Aren’t they just made for you?” And he had touched her; she had firm, round breasts, and a captivating navel. But in the end he sent her home. How could any man be so idiotic?

Saide had tried for two years, and then she gave up and married the village blacksmith. At the time the blacksmith had been a dirty, intolerably coarse man. But now? Now he looked well groomed, he had three sons, each more handsome than the last, and their mother was bringing up all three as good Christians. The whole village talked about Saide, who had made a miserable dog into the master of a fine household.

And there was the young widow Walide. She had wept for nights at his bedside, begging him to let her get in bed with him, but he was faithful to Tamam and turned down all her advances. “You and I, we’re both widowed,” said that far-sighted young woman perceptively. “The only difference is that your partner still lies above ground.” How right she was, thought Sarkis. Tamam is a living, breathing corpse.

Sarkis disappeared from the village overnight. Four weeks later, children playing found his body in a deep, long-disused pit in the stone quarry.

53. The Rift and the Meeting

The second floor had its own entrance, up a flight of wooden steps behind the house. The Sururs’ landlady Tamam lived on the first floor. They always arrived at their summer lodgings two days after the beginning of the long vacation, and usually stayed until the day before school began again in early October. Marcel had found a friend who was glad of his company in Djamil, Tamam’s son.

In the summer of 1935 Marcel was nineteen, and had begun studying law. And Nagib Surur had been in prison since May, which meant that Claire would have to go to Mala alone with her mother. So she sought her fiancé’s company even more than usual in the last weeks before they left.

But then, just before the last day of school, he shocked her. Just when she most needed him, he seemed to her so strange that she thought she must be losing her mind.

She had met Musa Salibi by chance in 1933, when she was out eating an ice with her father and he came up to their table, a tall, strong, well-dressed figure. He stopped politely and said good day to Nagib. Nagib invited him to join them. Musa looked at Claire, and she felt the ground sway beneath her. He was five years her senior, and looked as elegant as any actor. Her father liked Musa, who was both a good boxer and an excellent shot. With these qualities, he had found a job as bodyguard to the French governor of Damascus.

After that first meeting in the ice cream parlour, he kept visiting the family on one pretext or another. Claire’s mother didn’t like him. He was only a husk, she said briefly, handsome but empty, and when he called she would leave the drawing room with a theatrical groan. But it was Nagib, not Lucia, who had the last word on Claire’s engagement, and he immediately gave his consent when Musa asked to marry his daughter. He took no notice of his wife when she pointed out that Musa had no proper profession; bodyguards were there only to deal with any trouble and die for the governor if necessary.

Claire loved her strong, handsome fiancé, and already saw herself travelling the world under his protection. And once they were officially engaged in the winter of 1934 he was able to drive her around in his car. It was a black Renault, the 1933 model, with leather upholstery, fine wood fittings, and curtains for the back windows.

She felt like a princess, dressed in her best and sinking into the soft back seat, while Musa drove the car through the streets of the New Town.

Claire went to boxing matches with him too. When he was in the ring himself, his athletic torso bared, he looked even more magnificent than he did in a suit. Musa fought elegantly, dancing around his opponent. Women adored him, and he enjoyed the glances they gave him from eyes that were moist with admiration.

Soon after their engagement he was to fight the legendary Syrian champion, Ali Dakko of Aleppo, and the talk at the boxing club was of their good prospects of sending Musa to the French contests in Paris next year. In her daydreams, Claire already saw herself living in that cosmopolitan capital. Her father, who had been to Paris three times, waxed enthusiastic about the metropolis.

In March it was all settled: Musa would go to Paris if he won a fight against a youthful challenger. This boxer didn’t have his opponent’s elegance and good footwork, but his fists were like steel. Once, for a bet, he had killed a fully grown bull with a single punch between the ears. The young boxer’s name was Rimon Rasmalo, and he was a stonemason by trade.

“It’ll just be a little limbering-up exercise for Musa before he goes to Paris,” Nagib reassured his daughter. He was standing at the second-floor window, watching his wife prune the roses in the garden on this cold but sunny day. “I’ve hidden some money in a purse under your mattress. It’s for you. Perhaps the two of you will like Paris and want to stay there. Life will be very difficult for us Christians here over the next few years. The Muslims are going to slaughter us.” There was grief and despair in his voice. His daughter didn’t understand him.

Then on 14 May, a Tuesday and exactly a week after her birthday, he was arrested. Ismail Ballut, a young man in his mid-twenties, had gone to the police station of the Muhayirin quarter just before midnight on Monday 13 May. He was well-dressed and identified himself as an employee of the Banque de Syrie et du Liban in Damascus. He had a large suitcase with him, and said he couldn’t sleep at nights. One of the police officers asked why not? Another laughed, and added, “Love or a quarrel with your wife, is it?”

“No, it’s the money,” he replied, opening the case, which proved to contain fifty-two million Syrian lira. The policemen stared blankly at the money. They were sure the man before them must be a complete idiot. “Nagib Surur is the devil incarnate. He’s tricked the machine that stamps old, worn-out, badly damaged banknotes to make them worthless before they’re burned in special furnaces. Then the bank produces new notes with the same numbers as the old ones and puts them in circulation,” the man painstakingly explained as they took his statement. In answer to a question he further explained that there were now doubles of those notes that Nagib had not destroyed, and they weren’t forgeries because both series of banknotes were genuine. They just had the same numbers. The man couldn’t say exactly how that devil Nagib had managed to fool the machine. His part in the business, he said, had been only to keep his mouth shut, and sign papers saying that the procedure in the room where the old notes were destroyed had been correct. “The inspector who checks the ashes wasn’t allowed into the room, so he never knew anything about it. Nagib gave him newsprint ashes instead, weighed out precisely to the last milligram. How he fixed it all only he knows. He fooled me too.”

“Easy enough, with such a simpleton!” whispered a freckled police officer to his colleague as the duty NCO went on interrogating the man, taking down his statement in person. He wrote slowly, and kept asking him to repeat what he had last said.

He, Ismail Ballut, said the man, was supposed to keep the money safe for a few weeks, and then Nagib was going to let him have one-third of it, and use the other two-thirds to bring Syrian boxing up to world-class level. The policemen looked at each other incredulously.

“And as for you, you bastard, I suppose you were just planning to make a bunch of orphaned kids happy with your share of the money!” bellowed the NCO, who had no idea that he was a mind-reader. For Ismail Ballut had indeed wanted to start and run an orphanage. He merely added, quietly, that he had been given a very religious upbringing, for his father was the well-known Sheikh Hassan Ballut. But the devil, disguised in the body of that Christian Nagib, had tempted him, and now he, Ismail, repented of his crime.

The policemen didn’t know who Hassan Ballut was, nor did they fully understand the trick allegedly used by the perpetrator to circumvent all the French bank’s security systems, so they put the man in the cells, recorded the amount of money in the files, and called their boss Lieutenant Fakhri. For a start Fakhri had the bank clerk tortured, allegedly to find out whether there was more money hidden anywhere else. Torture was a routine police measure at the time.

By the early morning of 14 May, however, it had produced no further information. Three hours later the police arrested Nagib. Unlike the loquacious Ballut, Claire’s father was saying nothing, but all Lieutenant Fakhri’s incoming phone calls showed that it was incumbent on him to go carefully with the Christian.

Since the entire sum of money was still intact, the verdict of the court, when it came later, was mild. Ballut was given a suspended sentence of six months; Nagib was jailed for five years. He was free again after three of them. Claire welcomed her father as if he had come home from a long journey. But much was to happen before that time.

Just after her father’s arrest Claire felt miserable. The others often bullied her at school now, and she had to put up with all kinds of sharp remarks. Sometimes she wept in the washrooms because some of the girls attacked her like a swarm of hysterical wasps. The nuns of the Besançon School acted blind, deaf, and dumb. Only her friend Madeleine stood staunchly by her. Claire never forgot that to her dying day.

She told Madeleine about the bad dreams that tormented her by night. For one thing, she knew that her father had been kept in solitary confinement for months to make him talk. Neither she nor anyone else was allowed to visit him, and one day someone started the rumour that Nagib Surur had died under torture and lay buried in the desert. For another, Musa’s fight against Rimon Rasmalo, the man with the steel fists, was to be at the beginning of June.

“It’s crazy,” said Madeleine one morning, “here are the two of us, best friends, and our menfolk are planning to knock each other’s heads in.” At first Claire didn’t understand. Of course she had told her friend all about Musa, and how they would probably be going to Paris. And of course she knew that Madeleine was also engaged, but her friend didn’t talk about her fiancé much, and when she mentioned his job she had just said he was a stonemason. If Nagib or Musa had ever mentioned the name of Musa’s opponent to her, reassuring her by saying that he was strong but technically a poor boxer, she had registered it only in passing, and hadn’t realized that Musa was to fight her friend Madeleine’s fiancé. Only now did the scales fall from her eyes. She was horrified.

Madeleine laughed. “I feel like someone in a trashy novel,” she joked. “All it needs is for the two of us to go for each other tooth and nail and climb into the ring ourselves, screeching. But luckily we’re not in a novel. I never go to fights. As far as I can see, they’re just a silly way to stage a brawl. Why would anyone want to watch that?”

“I wish I were as strong as you,” replied Claire. “I always have to go, not because I’m brave but because I’m a coward. I feel as if I might be some help, if the fight’s going badly for him, and if he wins he’ll be happier because then he can celebrate his victory in front of me.”

The fight had been fixed for Sunday 16 June. The boxing club was in the Muslim quarter, but both the defending champion and his challenger were Christians, and they had insisted on Sunday as the day of the match. Claire made up her face and put on her yellow dress, a particular favourite of Musa’s. But she didn’t feel happy on the way to the club, even when the whole committee welcomed her ceremoniously, expressing their sympathy with her father, an innocent man in jail.

Claire’s stomach lurched when her fiancé came into the big hall with the boxing ring in the middle of it. And before he and his large retinue disappeared into the changing rooms, Musa reassured her with his smile. “I’ll be a butterfly, you just wait and see,” he said. But it didn’t turn out that way.

Her fiancé made a majestic entrance by comparison with his opponent’s pitiful effort. Musa strode to the ring like a film star, with music and a whole team escorting him. He climbed elegantly up the steps and jumped through the opening in the ropes that his companions had made for him. Up in the ring, he ran a round of honour. The whole hall roared. He blew Claire a kiss and smiled.

When the spectators had calmed down again Rimon Rasmalo appeared. He was short and sturdy. Claire had to stand up to see him. He came in accompanied only by his trainer, who was carrying a worn old bucket. Rimon earned laughter and insulting catcalls. He walked leaning slightly forward, and his arms looked much too long. “Hey, is that ape here just to give Musa a laugh or what?” called a sweating, fat man three seats away for her, and another man replied, “No, he’s Musa’s hors d’oeuvre, but where’s the main dish?”

Rimon climbed into the ring with a grim look, raised his hand reluctantly in a brief salutation, and went to his corner. He seemed to consist entirely of bulges. His neck, his arms, his legs — there were no straight lines about the man. He looked darkly at his opponent as his trainer urgently whispered last-minute advice to him.

None of the speeches, greetings, and expressions of gratitude preceding the fight penetrated Claire’s mind. Only the bell aroused her attention again.

From the first, Musa didn’t stand a chance.

Rimon made for him like an enraged bumble-bee. The referee kept trying to separate the boxers, but during each clinch Rimon punched Musa mercilessly. Musa did his best to keep his opponent at arm’s length, and when he succeeded he too excelled with his elegance and the stylish series of hooks he threw to the other man’s head. At those moments the crowd rejoiced in relief. But Rimon took the punishment and then went straight as an arrow past his opponent’s fists to get him in a clinch again, neutralizing the advantage of Musa’s long arms. When Rimon kept so close to him, Musa was helpless. His adversary’s movements had none of that dancing beauty that he himself saw as essential to the sport of boxing. Rimon was rough and square-set, and the ring judge had to warn him three times in the first round for head-butting his opponent.

Musa sat in his corner in the short break between the first two rounds, looking dazed. The trainer was urging him to keep his opponent at a distance, while his second cooled his face with water. But as soon as the bell went Rimon got going like a clockwork tin toy. He shoved, he punched, he pushed and bellowed at his adversary, moving forward like a road roller all the time. Musa stopped dancing. He sought safety in distance, trying to gain a few seconds to pull himself together and remember his technique, but soon a hammer blow from that gorilla Rimon destroyed any kind of technique at all. Rimon battered his head with uppercuts, while digging his elbows into Musa’s stomach.

These first rounds lasted forever, and at the end of the third round Rimon landed a punch on Musa Salibi’s left temple. It wasn’t a hook but a jab, and it was like a chunk of granite flinging Musa away from his challenger. He staggered sideways and fell to the floor. The referee held back Rimon, who in defiance of all the rules was trying to rush his opponent like a beast of prey. Musa struggled up again, and the referee allowed the fight to go on, but the two boxers hadn’t had time to make another move before the bell rang.

“You just wait,” an elderly gentleman sitting near Claire told his wife, “Musa’s worn that appalling amateur out. Now he’ll really show what he can do.”

Musa dragged himself to his corner, and Claire called out to him to stop fighting. He heard, and looked at her with empty eyes. A man caught her arm roughly. “Hureime, little lady, this isn’t for women and children. You just sit down or go out in the fresh air.” And he pushed her unceremoniously down in her seat. The man hadn’t even looked at her. His gaze was fixed on his idol, sitting up there in the right-hand corner of the ring with his eyes swollen.

The fourth round lasted seven seconds. That was the time it took Rimon to get from his corner to the middle of the ring and slip below his adversary’s outstretched fists. Then, in the fraction of a second, he planted the full force of his left hook against Musa’s chin. A second later his right glove landed a thunderous blow on his tottering opponent’s left temple. Musa not only lost his balance but sailed through the air to his right, dropped like a stone, slid half a metre across the ring, unconscious, and came to rest on his back at an awkward angle. Rimon knew there was nothing the handsome man on the floor could do now. Arms outspread, he leaped up in the air, uttering a yell that shattered two light bulbs and did permanent damage to the referee’s right eardrum. The audience changed sides, and was now acclaiming Musa’s savage conqueror.

Claire didn’t know what to do. A number of men jumped up to go and help the ex-champion lying on the floor. She tried climbing into the ring too, to be with Musa, but her uncongenial neighbour held her back. “No women go up there except whores,” he said. She could smell his nauseating sweat, and was only just able to keep the contents of her stomach down. Then she shook her arm free. “Don’t you touch me,” she said, trying to keep calm, “not unless you want trouble.” The man showed his bad teeth in a grin, and moved away.

She stood there by herself; no one offered to help her, not even the committee chairman. The men carried Musa past her, one of them calling for a doctor. But when Claire tried following them to the changing rooms, the little caretaker who had always been so deferential to her father planted himself four-square in front of the entrance. “No women in here,” he said, staring into the distance. She couldn’t take it in; she had always called the man “Uncle”, she’d known him since her childhood. How often had he patted her head, how often had her father pressed five lira into his hand, telling him to go and have a good meal out with his wife? At that time a labourer didn’t earn as much as five lira for two days’ work. And now the caretaker didn’t even call her by her name, just spoke of “women”.

“But Uncle Sharif, don’t you recognise me? I’m Musa’s fiancée,” she said softly and sadly, for she knew deep down that he had recognized her perfectly well.

“No women allowed in. You’ll have to wait here for Musa. We have decent morals here, not like you Christians.”

She was confused. Of course she knew the boxing club was in the conservative Muslim quarter, but that was still in the heart of her native Damascus. Where had Musa brought her? Obviously her mother had not been wrong to say, as Claire left, that she didn’t like letting her go to that rough part of town, but she supposed her daughter would be under Musa’s personal protection the whole time. And now he was lying helpless on the floor himself.

The place emptied, the stream of spectators crowded out through the distant main entrance. Claire found herself at the other side of the hall, near the little back exit next to the changing rooms, showers, and toilets. The hollow silence alarmed her.

The minutes crept by, heavy as lead. She seemed to wait for hours. Even later, she couldn’t believe it had really been less than thirty minutes. She heard laughter and other sounds beyond the heavy door. They reached her as if they came from a deep cavern with its entrance blocked.

Two men were coming out of the auditorium, approaching her. A small sturdy man and a tall strong one, with a cigarette in the corner of his mouth.

“Hey, how about us having a nice time together?” asked the tall man, waggling his eyebrows up and down in what he took for a seductive manner.

“Go to hell,” said Claire with difficulty. Her voice was failing. Her heart froze to a sharp splinter of ice.

“No need to act like that, we’ll pay,” replied the small man, thrusting his right forefinger back and fourth through the circle he made with the thumb and forefinger of his left hand.

“Please go away,” she begged, but that just encouraged the men. The tall man reached for her breasts. She kicked his shin and swung her bag at the smaller man, who was grasping her buttocks. She screamed, because hitting them wasn’t going to get her anywhere. The pair of them quickly seized her arms, one each, and pushed her towards the toilets.

But then something she was never to forget happened, and she often told the story. A man came hurrying out of the door to the changing rooms.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he shouted, and without waiting for an answer he picked up a short length of hosepipe lying under the washbasins and began lashing the two men with it.

“Leave the girl alone, you bastards!” The hosepipe whistled through the air and came slapping down on the heads and shoulders of her repulsive assailants. They let Claire go and stumbled away. The smaller man turned just before he reached the exit and shouted back, “Whore!”

Her rescuer stood there looking almost shy, breathing heavily. The man’s name was Barkush; he was a police captain and an enthusiastic if unlucky boxer. He kept his distance from her so that she could recover her self-control.

“Thank you,” said Claire, and she began to cry.

“What are you doing here?”

“I’m … I’m waiting for my fiancé. He’s unconscious.”

“Who? Musa? You’re Musa’s fiancée? He came round some time back, he’s drowning his sorrows in chilled arrack with his friends. You can go home, don’t worry.”

She wanted to ask him to find Musa for her, but suddenly her tongue wouldn’t obey her. A rift the size of the rocky ravine in Mala opened up inside her, splitting her heart. She had to make an effort to preserve her composure in front of the man, and dragged herself out.

At the time her mother was living in a villa in Arnus Avenue, an exclusive area. It was about two kilometres away, but she decided to take a cab. Several horse-drawn vehicles were standing ready near the Hidjaz train station. She picked the best and didn’t haggle over its price. When the cabby wondered aloud what a woman was doing out and about on her own by night, however, she snapped at him to mind his own business and take her to Arnus Avenue, near the French gendarmerie.

As soon as the old cab driver heard that address he cheered up, for only the rich and powerful lived there. Fares to that quarter always gave generous tips.

“Just as you say, miss, I won’t meddle, but I’m a father myself, I’d be worried about such a beautiful young lady. I have three children, you see, my daughter Hayat, she’s about your age, and if you’ll permit me I’d say she’s as pretty as you, not that I mean to give any offence.”

Cabbies are always talkative, but this one could compete with my mother’s new radio set, thought Claire. His name was Salim, he said, and in the normal way he drove between Beirut and Damascus, but there wasn’t much money in it these days, for hardly anyone travelled that road now, so he’d switched to the city, which wasn’t so easy, because the regular town cabbies didn’t like to see the bread taken out of their mouths. They attacked cabbies from the country and robbed them of their day’s takings. But he had no choice, he said, he had those two horses ahead of them to feed, not to mention a wife and three children. That made him braver than a lion, he told her, and the town cabbies sensed it, riffraff that they were, so they left him, Salim, alone if they had any sense.

He talked and talked, and suddenly she didn’t mind any more. The cab was driving through the mild summer night. A cool westerly breeze was blowing into the back of the vehicle, and the horses’ hooves beat out a soothing rhythm on the cobblestones of the streets.

Claire heaved a sigh of relief when she saw the lighted windows of her home, and paid the cabby generously. Even before she reached the door she could hear the Italian songs that her mother listened to on the radio night after night.

Two weeks later she was sitting beside her mother in the bus to Mala, feeling utterly miserable.

She loved Musa, but something had broken for ever that night at the boxing club. He had come to see her, he’d been very nice to her, and he tried to explain that he’d been ashamed to look her in the face that night. But for the first time she felt a void in her heart not when he left, but while he was sitting there with her.

The village felt bleaker than ever to Claire that summer. Only the French novels and books of poetry that she had brought with her proved to be life-rafts. For days on end she followed Julien Sorel’s fate in Le Rouge et le Noir, she sought comfort in Verlaine’s love poems. She also took refuge in André Gide’s Les Faux Monnayeurs, George Bernanos’s Sous le Soleil de Satan, Guy de Maupassant’s Bel Ami, Colette’s Chéri and La Vagabonde.

Her mother left her alone, was out and about all the time, saw visitors, or stayed close to her radio. For the first time, in her loneliness, Claire felt some kind of kinship with Lucia. And for the first time she briefly sensed a certain closeness when they ate or went for short walks together.

One sunny day in early July, she met Elias. She always laughed about it later, for their meeting place was anything but romantic. It was in the vegetable dealer Tanius’s store on the village square. Claire liked Tanius, who was always kindly disposed to her. Whenever she went to the shop he had a joke ready, bringing it out in his broken standard Arabic. As a rule Tanius, like all the villagers, spoke the local dialect.

That day she had just finished reading Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir, and oddly enough was more moved by Mathilde’s fate than by the tragic, dramatic death of her lover Julien Sorel.

In the store, she put a few tiny cucumbers on the scales handed to her over the counter by Tanius. One little cucumber fell to the floor, and suddenly a slender hand was giving it back to her. Claire hadn’t noticed the young man before, and now he was looking at her with the eyes of a child who had all the sorrows of the world within him.

Merci bien, monsieur.

Avec plaisir, mademoiselle,” said the man. He wasn’t much taller than Claire herself. He had left the shop again by the time she was through with her mother’s order. Tanius smiled when she turned around, expecting to find the stranger still standing behind her. “That’s Elias, a fine young man. Amazing that a prickly thistle like George Mushtak could bring such a flower into the world.”

When she left the store, with a small errand boy carrying the heavy basket of vegetables for her, she saw Elias walking down the street by himself. He had just reached her house, and she wished he would stop so that she could catch up with him.

And sure enough, he did turn to look at her. Her heart fluttered with joy as if she had just won a prize. Claire was never to forget that moment and the sense of delight that she had never known before. She was rejoicing in a magical power that, at that moment, she had at her command.

“You called to me?” he asked in fluent French. She felt she had to tell him the truth.

“Yes, monsieur, I wanted to ask what an educated man like you is doing in this dusty village?” She sent Butros the errand boy on ahead with the basket of vegetables, telling him to leave it at the door, and gave the boy ten piastres. Butros beamed all over his face, for that was as much as he earned in a week working for the vegetable dealer.

Claire and Elias talked to each other for a long time outside the Sururs’ vacation house. Elias knew many of the books she loved, and he could recite Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal by heart. When she told him she went to the Besançon school, he smiled. “Besançon is a small town, but it gave mankind a great gift: Victor Hugo.”

Claire felt hypnotized. She would have liked to put out her hand and touch Elias, because she could hardly believe all this was real. Here in the middle of a village at the end of the world, a young man had said lovelier things to her in the short time since they met than anyone else in her whole seventeen years of life. She felt a need to sit down and listen to this fascinating man, tell him all the things she kept locked in her heart. She had to make up her mind quickly.

“Will you come in for a coffee in an hour’s time?” she asked. And Elias simply said, “Avec plaisir.

In the brief hour before she came back she knew in her heart that she had fallen under this man’s spell. She took off her engagement ring and put it away in a little box.

54. Purgatory and Paradise

It was something that Claire had never in her life expected: from visit to visit, she realized that she was counting the hours until Elias came to see her again. Her heart betrayed her, wrecking her intention of waiting for their meetings with calm composure. When he touched her with his gentle hands, she felt violent excitement in every vein. But his mere presence excited her too. He was witty, he could laugh on the slightest provocation, but he could also be very jealous, although that was just an expression of his feelings for her.

They read a great deal together, and talked of love and grief, fulfilment and abstinence, loyalty and longing. Claire felt as if she had only half existed until the day she met Elias, and now had found her missing other half. It did not escape her mother’s notice.

“That young man is your own kind — forget about your father’s primitive friend and send him back his engagement ring,” Lucia advised her at breakfast two weeks later. Claire’s jaw dropped with surprise, and her mother remarked dryly, “You’ll have to chew, you know, food doesn’t go down of its own accord. Elias is from a distinguished family,” she continued. “The Mushtaks are real men, rich, generous, made of granite, not like that feeble chauffeur who’ll let a dwarf knock him about in the ring.” Lucia shook her head. “But Nagib always did keep such dreadful company.”

For the first time in years, Claire felt a deep need to hold her mother close. She stood up, hugged her and kissed her. Lucia stroked her head. “You must be very generous in what you offer Elias. The Mushtaks are magnanimous in all they do, and I feel sure this latest sprig of theirs doesn’t like people to be faint-hearted either.”

She had known and respected George Mushtak for years, and the old man respected the Signora too, although he avoided any close friendship with her. Rumours of her attitude to men kept him away. She insisted that her lovers must wash thoroughly and shave their pubic hair, and was said to treat them like horses, riding and even whipping them.

Once, when Elias didn’t visit for several days, Claire felt quite sick with longing. She summoned Butros the vegetable dealer’s errand boy, gave him fifty piastres, and told him to look for Elias and ask him to come and see her at once.

“He goes up to the mountains at dawn and doesn’t come back until after dark,” the observant boy immediately told her.

“What’s he doing in the mountains?”

“I don’t know, lady. My master says there was such a quarrel between father and son that everyone in the street could hear them.”

“Well, I want you to wait for him first thing tomorrow and ask him to come and see me before sunrise. And don’t say a word about it to anyone else. Swear!”

“I swear, lady. I hate tell-tales,” said the lad, who wasn’t even twelve yet, gratefully pocketing the money.

She couldn’t sleep all night, and in those hours of darkness she realized that the purgatory they talked about in church consisted of waiting and longing.

When two roosters crowed by turns in the distance, she got up and went to the window. The night sky was growing pale in the east. Claire looked over at the village square and saw him hurrying along the street, a small and inconspicuous figure.

Her heart beat fast. She groped about for her dress in the dark, couldn’t find it, and cursed her own untidiness. Suddenly she felt his hands. She was not alarmed, just surprised by the speed and silence with which he had made his way to her.

“I love you,” he said, and he was weeping. He held her close, and she felt his head. It was like the head of a child seeking protection.

“I love you too, dear heart,” she whispered, her voice breaking with emotion. Then she kissed his forehead and pressed him to her breast. After a while he calmed down and began telling her his story.

He told her everything, and Claire felt a great need to care for this boy who had stumbled from one misfortune to another. He told her frankly about his desire for women, and his bad luck when his father had caught him with Nasibe. He described his wretched situation when the Muslim peasants, running wild in the hunger riots of 1933, set fire to the Jesuit monastery in Damascus. He had come back to Mala like a whipped dog. But his father wouldn’t speak to him, and derided him at every opportunity. As if not the mob but he, Elias, had attacked the Jesuits in Damascus, his father had accused him of failure. And whenever he asked to be sent to study with the Jesuits in Beirut, he had met with a refusal.

He told her about his bad luck working in the French provisions store. Early this summer, however, his father had suddenly turned friendly to him, had even forgiven him for all his faults in front of the assembled family and forbidden his brother Salman to hit him. He wanted him, Elias, to start breeding horses; it was a gold-mine, said old Mushtak. You could get fine Arab horses at a good price from the Bedouin, and then build up a large business.

He had been willing enough, he said, because he loved horses, but now he had found out that his father’s sudden change of heart was the result of a secret deal with the village elder Habib Mobate. He, Elias, was to marry Mobate’s daughter.

“A miserable bunch of tricksters, that family, but they know how to cheat peasants. And I’m supposed to waste my life among them,” groaned Elias, telling her that Habib Mobate had made his money by secretly registering his name with the French as owner of all the land in the neighbourhood that had been common property under the Ottoman Empire. It consisted of fields, mountains, and valleys of incalculable value. The farmers never noticed, for Mobate let them go on using the land for grazing, but when anyone tried cultivating a plot of land, the village elder got the gendarmes to drive him off it, so it was two decades before the village discovered that entire hills and huge expanses of grazing belonged to the Mobate clan.

That morning in July 1935, Elias was badly frightened. He had to make up his mind: if he married Samira, he would be doing his father a great favour, as old Mushtak had told him in friendly tones. He didn’t have to love Samira, added Mushtak. He just had to get her pregnant, thus making the Mushtak clan more powerful. With his great virility, he could make love to as many women as his heart desired. Elias knew he would be the richest of George Mushtak’s sons, for Samira would inherit as much money as the cash and property of all the Mushtaks put together were worth.

Time was short. Two days ago, the servant Basil had given him away. He had seen him coming out of Claire’s house by night, Elias told her. Mushtak had ranted and raged and struck him in the face. He had shouted that city girls were all whores of the French, and he’d have Elias shot if he went to see her again.

“So I’ve been roaming the mountains for days. I know my father. He might not kill me, but he’ll certainly disinherit and disown me if I decide for you and not Samira,” he said quietly.

Claire held him close. They were lying naked in her bed now, with Elias’s hands moving as light as butterfly wings over the landscape of her body. While he told her the whole story she sensed that he had long ago chosen her, and she felt a wild longing for him.

It was already light in the room, but the curtains dimmed the daylight. He thrust into her, expecting a scream of horror, but she welcomed him, twining her arms and legs around his back.

55. Beirut, or Deliverance

Two days later Claire and Elias fled to Beirut, where they married in a small chapel. Their witnesses were Elias’s sister Malake and her husband, who had been living in Beirut since their own elopement in 1931.

At first Elias and Claire hid away in a little hotel by the harbour. They didn’t want to stay with Malake, because it was embarrassing to show their love and passionate longing in her house. They made love, wandered along the boulevard by the sea, and ate grilled fish in small restaurants. Then, as if it were a ritual, they lay in the warm sand on the beach and looked up at the sky for a long time.

“What did your fiancé do for a living?” asked Elias.

“He was a bodyguard,” said Claire, a little surprised, because she had told him that on the first day they met.

“Thank God he wasn’t a good bodyguard, or I wouldn’t have had a chance,” laughed Elias.

They hid in the harbour city for three years. At the time it sheltered thousands of refugees, soldiers of fortune, and adventurers. For many of them Beirut was the final stage on their journey, the last they would see of Arabia before they left for America.

Elias thanked his sister for all her help, but he was careful not to spend too much time in her house. He was afraid his father would soon get on his trail. Claire had enough money for the first few months. After they had left their first hiding place, the hotel, they lived in two modest rooms in the Daura quarter. And they still lay on the beach every evening and enjoyed the sight of the infinite starlit sky.

Only Lucia had been taken into the secret of their plans for flight, and she fell for none of the charming tricks employed by George Mushtak when, with his injured pride, he tried to find out where the couple were hiding. She put on a convincing performance as an indignant mother, and in private laughed at the old farmer.

Claire found work as an interpreter for a shipping company. Elias took a job with a confectioner called Gandur, the father of one of his old school friends in the Jesuit monastery. At first Elias just worked as an assistant, but soon he was enjoying it so much that he learned the trade and its mysteries thoroughly. Before two years were up he was a master of the craft himself.

Gandur the confectioner was a clever businessman. He recognized his young employee’s talents, but Elias was far too ambitious to agree to run the branch shop that Gandur was planning. He wanted to go back to Damascus.

When Claire had her first miscarriage, Lucia too urged them to return. After the second miscarriage she came to Beirut herself, and was horrified by her daughter’s condition. She wasn’t happy with the treatment Claire was getting at the hospital, and talked earnestly to Elias until he gave Lucia his word to return to Damascus as soon as possible, for the sake of his wife’s health.

“But what will my father do?” he anxiously asked.

“Oh, we’ll bring him around to it. His feelings are a little hurt, that’s all,” she said. “Apart from that he wouldn’t hurt a fly.” But there she was wrong.

56. Autumnal Atmosphere

They were lying on the beach surrounded by the warmth of the spring night. It already felt like summer. An easterly breeze carried the fragrance of flowers from the mountains out to sea. Elias held Claire’s face in his hands and kissed her eyes. At that moment she felt that a second little heart had begun beating inside her.

“I think I’m pregnant again,” she whispered. Elias could have embraced the whole sky. But an invisible hand clutched her heart. She was anxious. Her two miscarriages were still too close: the pain, the fear, and the empty feeling when it was all over. Elias felt for her, and was very affectionate.

Claire remembered the times after her miscarriages. Elias came to the hospital straight from the confectioner’s after work every day, exhausted, and sometimes fell asleep on the floor beside her. He felt for her hand again and again in the night, whispering quiet words of love so that the others in the ten-bed ward wouldn’t wake up.

Then he slipped out at five in the morning, unwashed and without any breakfast, and went to work. It was touching to watch him leaving the ward with such a youthful spring in his step. Every day Claire fell in love all over again with the small man who could quote any French poet by heart, and now he was working in a confectioner’s shop and still kept cheerful.

The other women envied her Elias, who brought them all chocolates every evening. And they loved his wonderful laugh.

Claire’s third pregnancy came at a most inconvenient time. They had planned to return to Damascus early in June. Suddenly she was afraid to go back, but Elias’s cheerfulness dispelled all dismal thoughts and smoothed out the rugged mountains between Beirut and Damascus into gently rolling hills.

News came from Damascus that her father had been suffering from severe pneumonia since April. She cried a great deal, imagining him sitting in his prison cell and coughing. He had been in jail for three years, and didn’t want his wife to visit him. Their only contact was through his cousins, who fetched money and clean clothes from Lucia for him, and told her how he was. He had a sunny cell, they said, and the prison governor played backgammon with him all day. With the money that Lucia sent him Nagib was able to pay an army of servants and bodyguards, who ensured his safety and made life much easier for him. But out of pride he wouldn’t let his wife see him behind bars. Lucia was more than happy with that arrangement.

The move back to Damascus was the beginning of a lucky streak for Elias. He spent three hours explaining his plan to Claire’s mother at her kitchen table, showed her his calculations, and asked her for a loan of a hundred thousand Syrian lira. Lucia said she wanted ten percent interest, but after tough negotiations she accepted five. Elias could offer only his handshake as a guarantee.

“But if I give you my hand it’s worth more than an agreement with the National Bank of France,” he said quietly, and very courteously.

“The Mushtaks keep their word,” agreed Lucia, standing up. Ten minutes later she came back with a packet. “You can count them. There’s a hundred and ten thousand there. The extra ten thousand are a present; even if you’re just renting a place to live you should furnish it in style, because a confectioner lives by his reputation for prosperity. You’ll bring me five hundred lira in interest on the first of every month.”

Elias was touched, and also full of admiration for his mother-in-law, who was so trusting and generous to him, while at the same time surreptitiously raising the interest by half of one percent. He smiled, and she understood without words that her son-in-law had already worked it all out to the third decimal point. Lucia patted him on the shoulder and said, as he left, “No bank will accept your love for my daughter as surety for a mortgage, you know.”

Elias did not reply. Only on their way home did he tell Claire what had been going on in her mother’s kitchen while she was reading in the drawing room.

“And she let you have the hundred thousand?”

“A hundred and ten, and now I’m setting to work on my plan,” replied Elias.

Autumn of the year 1938 was mild and long. Damascus is at its most beautiful in that season. It wasn’t so hot now, and the swallows were filling the air with their farewell songs before they left for Africa. Damascus was colourful for the last time, as if the city were showing its full beauty once more before falling into profound, grey hibernation. Claire had known that atmosphere from her childhood. But this autumn, she believed, would remain in her memory as the best of her life. Her father was freed from prison after serving three years.

57. An Unholy Alliance

To his dying day, Musa Salibi didn’t believe it had been his fault. And after a long period suffering from Parkinson’s disease he died, an embittered old man, in a hostel for indigent Christian senior citizens.

When Rimon Rasmalo defeated him in the ring, he had spent two weeks trying to make his peace with his fiancée, but he thought he could tell that Claire already had someone else.

Then she went off to Mala, and he followed her in the general’s car. On the way he went over everything, preparing for a reasonable conversation. But when he reached the village no one would talk to him, and Claire had changed entirely. She turned him away as soon as he arrived. You have to be patient with women, he told himself, and kept calm. Then she threw the little box containing the engagement ring out of the door. He was bewildered. She was acting outrageously, and someone in love never does that. To Musa, it was immediately clear that she was just a whore.

He found her mother as cold as ice too. When he tried getting her to explain herself, she said straight out that she had never liked him. He could always visit his friend in jail and complain to him, she added. Musa took his engagement ring and drove back to Damascus that very evening.

He had been tricked. Mother and daughter, both of them whores! And the malice in that old viper’s voice when she told him Claire was in very good hands, so he had better look for a girl of his own class. Just whose hands was Claire in? The woman he had thought of as his future mother-in-law wouldn’t say. She simply shut the door in his face.

For a long time he couldn’t make out why they had treated him so shabbily, until it came to his ears six months later that Claire had eloped with the son of a rich farmer from Mala. Musa was seething with rage. Eloped — a likely story! The old procuress had fixed it all. He could forget a good deal, but not hypocrisy. Claire always used to say she found the primitive peasants in the village repulsive. Lies, all of it! Camouflage! He had just been used to inflame the desire of other, richer men who took special pleasure in robbing the poor of their women. Musa swore revenge, but until the day when a man came to the boxing club in the summer of 1938 and asked for him he didn’t know how to go about it.

Elias had just bought an old olive warehouse in the Christian quarter, in Bab Tuma Street on the corner of Bakri Alley, and in the record time of three weeks he turned it into a modern confectioner’s shop with a glass and marble façade. Many rich Christians lived nearby, and the nearest good confectioner’s shop belonged to an Armenian, was tiny, and lay in Bab Sharki.

Elias was hoping to be reconciled with his father soon. Claire was in her third pregnancy, and this time he felt sure that, in the safe surroundings of her own city, she would bring a healthy baby into the world. The baby would soften up that old fossil George Mushtak. Nothing in the world touches a man’s heart like a grandchild, he told himself.

The opening of his shop at the beginning of September augured well. People crowded in to try the new sweetmeats, and Elias sold his entire stock that day, down to the very last item. Every customer went away with a present: a china plate with a coloured print of the shop on it. This cheap plate, which cost only a couple of piastres, made the new confectioner famous in a day. It was the first advertising campaign in Damascus. Elias had followed the example of his master Gandur, who always brought the latest ideas home from Paris.

Claire’s belly was rounding out, and she and Elias were glad that August had passed without any mishap, in spite of the heat. In her first pregnancy she had lost the child after two months, in the second one after three months.

One evening Nuri the flower seller came into the confectioner’s shop. He was drunk as usual, but he seemed to have something he was bent on saying. He stood at the counter and waited for the last customers to leave.

“Guess who came asking after you! It’s a small world,” he said, laughing. “My old school friend Musa,” he continued, holding on to the edge of the counter. His gaze strayed around uncertainly for a moment, as if he couldn’t make up his mind what he was looking for. Then it fell on Elias, who wasn’t really interested in his neighbour’s babbling, but like everyone else had to put up with him.

“Musa who?” asked Elias out of politeness.

“Musa who? I know only one Musa — Musa Salibi.”

Elias stopped what he was doing. He had been sorting out the day’s takings; now his hand froze with the lira notes in it.

Nuri noticed nothing amiss. “I said to him, why are you asking me where he lives? Ask him yourself, I said. He’s a nice guy, I’m sure he’ll answer your questions. But he didn’t want to. Where do you live, anyway? I didn’t know what to tell him. He wanted to know what time you come here and what time you go home. ‘He works from six to six,’ I said. That’s right, isn’t it?”

“Yes, that’s right,” replied Elias. His throat was dry. He watched Nuri weave his unsteady way back to his flower shop. Almost mechanically, Elias cleared out the till and entered the day’s accounts in an exercise book. He listed next day’s tasks and orders on a piece of paper, to leave his memory free for more important things. It was a trick he had learned from the Jesuits. He locked the safe and put his keys in his pocket.

Suppose this boxer, whom he had never met but who, according to Claire, was a muscle-man almost two metres tall, humiliated him here in the middle of the Christian quarter? Suppose he came into the shop, picked a quarrel, and demolished the expensive furnishings? The three crystal chandeliers alone had cost a fortune. And his customers? What would his frightened customers think of the new confectioner?

He was still deep in thought when Ali, who ran errands for him, came out of the stock-room and said good night.

“Wait a moment,” he cried, for the sight of big, strong Ali had given him an idea.

Ali was a young farmer whose small plot of land stopped producing anything but dust and thistles in the long drought. He had come to Damascus to look for work. Ali was a bachelor, and his arms were incredibly strong. That was why Elias had hired him. He had found him a small, cheap room near the shop, and kept a fatherly eye on the young man.

“I want you to help me,” said Elias. “There’s a man who bears me a grudge and wants to attack me, I don’t know why. But he’s two metres tall and a boxer. Could you take him on if the worst comes to the worst?” And he offered the young man a fine Bafra cigarette.

“I don’t know how to box, sir, but I was always best in the village at cudgel-fighting. Give me a good stout stick for a cudgel and no one will touch you. A lot of men carry walking sticks these days. A good oak stick would be best,” said the young man, his eyes shining.

“But what will we do if he comes into the shop?” asked Elias.

Ali had no answer to that.

“Right,” said Elias, “from tomorrow you’ll wear a clean white coat and a white cap, and stand out in front at the entrance to help me. You’ll welcome the customers in and help the old folk. Then it will look as if you’re there as a doorman. And if someone tries making trouble, you take him out quickly and quietly, and once you’re well outside you can break all his bones.”

“That’s fine,” said Ali, “but who’s going to do my work in the stock-room?”

“Don’t worry about that. From now on you’re my bodyguard. I can hire someone else for the stock-room work until this cloud has passed over.”

“But what after that? Do I get my old job back, or will I have to go home?” asked Ali uncertainly.

“If you do your work well you can stay with me for ever.”

“Then I won’t let a fly touch you,” said Ali.

At six in the morning from then on, Ali was outside the building where Elias and Claire lived. It had a big wooden door and a handsome knocker, a woman’s hand made of bronze. For now, Elias had rented three rooms on the second floor. The building was very close to the St. Louis Hospital. Ali accompanied his employer to the confectioner’s shop in the morning and saw him safely home again in the evening.

He was reliable and didn’t let his master out of his sight. He never grumbled, and he did his job at the shop door with as much charm as if he’d taken at least three courses in etiquette in the finishing school run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The customers thanked him for his help and kind attentions, and Elias began seriously wondering whether he might not employ a permanent doorman. Not Ali, but an attractive little boy, dressed like a hotel bellboy, to stand at the door for him. He wouldn’t even have to pay a boy wages, for he had noticed the richer customers pressing a couple of piastres into Ali’s hand now and then. Usually the tips in his pocket amounted to more than his day’s wages by evening.

One evening, on the way home, it occurred to Elias to buy his helpful bodyguard a meal. He could sit with Ali as he ate, read the paper, and drink a coffee in peace before going home himself. The idea came to him suddenly, just as they were passing the entrance of the big Glass Palace restaurant, halfway between the confectioner’s shop and his apartment. Elias stopped suddenly and took Ali’s arm.

“Come on in here,” he said. At that moment a shot rang out. It smashed the glass window and hit a waiter inside the restaurant in the shoulder. Passers by and guests screamed in terror. Elias sprang nimbly through the open doorway into the restaurant and pulled Ali in after him, for the shot had been fired from the building opposite.

A second shot hit a woman walking by in the leg. She collapsed. Chaos ensued. A young police officer raced out of the restaurant with his pistol at the ready. He located the marksman.

“He’s in the Hotel Baladi,” he called. Three men followed him, while passers by tended the injured woman and the waiter. There was a large police station quite close, so the hotel was quickly surrounded.

The would-be assassin was led out of the building, handcuffed and bleeding from the head. Several people recognized him. Word went from mouth to mouth. “Musa Salibi, that’s Musa Salibi.”

“You saved my life,” Ali told his master.

“The hand of God protected us both. And now let’s have something to eat,” added Elias, propelling his pale employee into the restaurant. “You can sleep late tomorrow and take the whole day off. I’ll give Hassan notice and you can go back to the old job,” he told him.

“Why?” asked the naïve Ali.

“Because they’ve caught the man who was after me,” replied Elias. When Claire heard what had happened she immediately felt a stabbing pain in her belly. Elias made her some herb tea, but the pains became unbearable during the night. Elias ran out in his pyjamas, woke a cab driver and came back with him to the door of the building, where his pregnant wife was standing with a woman neighbour now supporting her. The hospital was only a few doors away, but Elias didn’t want Claire to strain herself.

The doctors did their best, but they soon discovered that at best they would save the mother, for the baby was already dead, and they induced a stillbirth.

Elias sat on the steps of the hospital for a long time in his pyjamas, weeping, until the cabby politely asked if he was to wait any longer. Elias sent him away, asking him to come to the confectioner’s shop next day, when he would be paid his fare. The cabby knew the confectioner. He pressed his hand. “My wife’s lost six children too, only God knows why,” he said, much moved, and trotted off to his cab.

Three days later a CID officer came to the confectioner’s shop and asked Elias to accompany him to the police station. A young French officer received him there and civilly questioned him. The officer was enchanted by the confectioner’s command of his own language, and kept saying that Elias spoke better French than many a Frenchman born.

Asked about the incident, and whether he would give evidence as a witness, Elias told the officer what he had heard from the flower seller, and said that after that he had always gone out with his employee to escort him.

“That bears out exactly what the criminal said,” the officer told him. “He was planning to abduct you, monsieur, torture you, and then kill you, but he saw that he wouldn’t easily be able to outwit and overcome your companion. So he decided to shoot you, and he wounded two other people instead.”

“And he has brought an innocent child to its death,” added Elias bitterly.

“Can you tell me why he did it?” asked the officer, who could make nothing of Elias’s remark about the dead child.

“I think it was jealousy because his former fiancée left him, good for nothing as he was. She’s my wife now,” replied Elias, with a certain pride.

“Yes, monsieur, but there’s something else too. He said a man with a heavy accent gave him the job to do, provided his German rifle, and paid him five gold lira. He was to have had another twenty gold lira after your murder. Can you think who that man might be? And above all, why anyone would want to murder a decent, able confectioner like yourself? But the assassin may be lying, and there could be something else behind it. We haven’t been able to find out by our usual methods of questioning. Would you like to ask him yourself?”

“Yes,” said Elias. His throat felt dry.

When the policeman brought in Musa Salibi, Elias was horrified. The “methods” of the French police had made a formerly tall, proud man into a broken, subservient creature. The marks of torture were obvious.

“Sir, I don’t know who the man was,” stammered the prisoner, “but I’ve said it a hundred times: I only met him twice, and after that I never saw him again. He was tall and he wore sunglasses. Once they slipped a little, and I saw that he had blue eyes like the French, maybe he was a Frenchman … that’s all I know. He, he … but I said it all in my statement. The devil possessed me, and now I’m left paying for it.”

“How did the man speak?” asked Elias.

“He spoke … well, it was just the way he spoke, but not like a Damascene. He spoke with an accent like … like the mountain folk. Like the people of Mala.”

Musa Salibi fell silent. He was shaking all over.

“Could it be someone from your village?” the officer asked Elias.

“Do you know anyone who wanted to kill you for some reason?”

“No,” he said, looking at the miserable specimen of humanity before him, a man who had once been such a heart-throb. He rose to his feet. “Do you need me any longer?” he asked the officer.

“No, monsieur, thank you very much,” the man replied, and he accompanied Elias to the door while the two police officers took Musa back to his cell.

“The confectioner was lying,” said the young Frenchman later to the man who had been taking down the statement. “Did you see him twitch briefly when the gunman said the man who commissioned him to do the job spoke with the accent of his native village?”

The other policeman nodded. “What shall I add?

“Nothing. Sounds like a blood feud, some kind of clan vengeance, and that’s none of our business. We have our criminal, and he’ll get the maximum sentence.”

A week later Elias sent a Jesuit priest who was a friend of his to Mala, entrusting to him the delicate task of finding his father and letting him know, straight out, that Elias had survived the murder attempt, and moreover had proof that his brother Salman had given the criminal Musa Salibi the gun and charged him with his father’s mission. He, Elias, wanted an apology and his father’s word that he would never plot against his son’s life again; otherwise he would go to the CID and give them his evidence against Salman. Under the law of the French occupying forces, the penalty for incitement to murder was death and expropriation of all the guilty man’s property. If anything were to happen to Elias, the message said, someone he trusted would take the envelope containing his evidence to the CID.

Father François Saleri was a brave man. He had stayed on in Damascus after the fire in the monastery, and was now teaching mathematics in the schools of the elite Christian classes. He loved Elias like a brother, and was horrified when he heard the story.

He left at once in the luxurious cab provided by his friend, and he did in fact come back to Damascus next day with an apology from Elias’s brother and his father’s word, sworn with his hand on the Bible.

“I couldn’t get any expression of remorse out of old Mushtak, but your brother shed tears. He was ashamed, and that induced your father to give his word. I knew about his fear of God, and I didn’t demand a signature, just for him to swear with his hand on the Bible. A powerful man like George Mushtak cares for no signatures, but he does care for the word of God. You can rely on what your friend François says and live in peace,” said the priest, taking his leave.

It was midnight when Elias, pale-faced, came back to Claire. She was still in bed. He dropped on the sofa beside her and began to sob pitifully.

“I’ll get the better of them all,” he said at last. Claire didn’t understand, but later she always said that Elias had lost his laughter and all his cheerful bearing that night.

“Why,” she wondered aloud, “why do our enemies shape us more than our friends?”

But Elias had fallen asleep, and she couldn’t answer her own question.

58. The Lightness of Love

Whenever Claire thought about love she saw in her mind’s eye not just that moment in Mala when she first met Elias, but also the radiant face of her former teacher Barbara.

Her love for Elias had been a blazing fire in which her heart flared up, an affection that nothing could hold back. On the night when Elias determined to get the better of his father, all that seemed to be over. But love is a wild cat with nine lives. So that night her desire for Elias turned to endless concern for his health and constant fear for his life. This new kind of love bound Claire to him more closely than ever. She knew he was his father’s victim, but ultimately his battle against his father was a battle for their love.

It was all so different with her teacher Barbara and Fadlo, Barbara’s husband. They showed her the essence of a wonderfully light-hearted kind of love, yet one that seemed perfectly natural, a Paradise on earth. Claire had liked her teacher from the day she met her. That was in the eighth grade, when the girls were wondering about the replacement for Sister Helena, who had had an unlucky fall and must now spend months in plaster. No one missed her. Even the headmistress of the Besançon School was secretly grateful to the divine or human hand that had allowed the accident to happen. Although Sister Helena was sixty-eight she wouldn’t retire. She was a good mathematician, but unable to communicate what she knew. All the girls she taught had bad marks in her subject. That changed when Barbara came.

Josephine the jeweller’s daughter had been joking the day before that she couldn’t imagine a maths mistress without a moustache. The others felt sure their new teacher would walk into the classroom in a man’s suit, with thick glasses and a book of logarithms in her hand. Madeleine, Claire’s best friend, laughed. “And her name is Math al Gebra, and she has three children, Cone, Cube, and Pyramid. Pyramid’s the daughter.” The girls giggled.

Then she arrived. Barbara was willowy as a schoolgirl herself, but that was just outward show, for she could fight like a lioness for her convictions. She came into the classroom with a spring in her step, and when the girls stood to attention and called out “Good morning” in chorus, the way they used to with Sister Helena, she laughed. “I don’t want you standing up when I come into the room. You’ll just frighten me,” she said, smiling. “It’s more important for your brains to wake up, and I don’t want you making any statements you can’t prove.”

After that she told them about herself, and why she loved mathematics, and within half an hour the young woman with short black hair, wearing a pale pullover and a skirt the colour of autumn leaves, had won the girls’ hearts. Barbara told them something odd and interesting about the history of mathematics in every lesson: not just what the inconspicuous, apparently worthless zero had brought to it, and what that zero had changed, but also — and this remained imprinted on Claire’s mind for ever — stories of how mathematics could put even kings to shame. As in the tale of the inventor of the game of chess, whose king asked what he wanted as a reward, offering the man his own weight in gold. “No, your Majesty,” he said. “I will be happy with one grain of wheat in the first square on the chessboard, two on the second, four on the third, sixteen on the fourth square, and so on.”

The king and his court laughed at the simple-minded inventor of the game, who asked for nothing but a few grains of wheat. The court mathematician was the first to stop laughing, for after only a few squares the number of grains ran to twenty decimal points, and he knew that the whole kingdom could never provide as much wheat as the inventor had asked.

Barbara mingled the curious and the practical in a magical way that drew the girls into the world of mathematics. The school administration was amazed by their progress after six months with her, and even more by the atmosphere in the class. Barbara was the only teacher who sometimes asked girls home to her house for a cup of tea.

Claire would never forget the first time she went there. Her heart was beating fast as she entered the little house in Bab Tuma, which had a narrow façade, but was on several floors.

On this first visit, Claire was fascinated by Barbara and her husband. They had been married for twenty years, yet they were always kissing as they passed each other in a happy, heartfelt way, as if they had only just fallen in love. She had never before seen such affection between a man and a woman. Lucia and Nagib never kissed, they never held hands, and if for once Nagib caressed his wife Lucia would immediately and suspiciously ask, “I suppose you want me to do something. Why not say it straight out?” Sometimes Claire felt very angry with her mother for her coldness, but Lucia was quite often right, and Nagib came out with the true reason for his show of affection. The tender moments between Barbara and Fadlo, on the other hand, had no ulterior motives.

Claire tried to visit her favourite teacher as often as she could, but Lucia would allow it only once a month. Barbara herself liked to see the attentive, friendly girl. As she and her husband had never had children, she longed for a young creature to whom she could give something special, and she had found just the right girl in her delicately built pupil with the beautiful face. With her, Claire found the warmth she missed at home. Her father Nagib was born to be a bachelor. He did keep trying to be kind and affectionate to her, but most of the time he lived in his own world. Only later, in old age, did he develop a strong and truly loving relationship with his daughter.

Claire’s friendship with Barbara had been an ardent one, up to the day before the end of the school year of 1935, the beginning of the vacation when Claire met Elias and fell hopelessly in love with him. After a quarrel between the new headmistress of the school and the maths teacher, Barbara lost her job. She moved north and found another post in an American private school. When she said goodbye to the weeping girls, she told them a great many things that, hearing her through the mists of their grief, they failed to understand and had soon forgotten entirely.

The new headmistress was spiteful, and bent on ensuring that she had no competition in the running of the school. Madeleine pitied Jesus for having to put up with this particular nun in his harem. At the time all nuns wore a plain wedding ring on the ring finger of their right hands, a sign of their virginity and chastity, and the ardour of their relationship with the Son of God, for they were the promised brides of Christ. But in Damascus there was always a touch of the harem about the nuns’ rings, making Jesus appear in a rather dubious light.

59. Mirages and Oases

School friendships are usually like mirages and melt away at the end of your schooldays. If they survive the seventh grade, however, they are oases for ever.

Claire was surprised to find how many calls the girls from her old class seemed to have on their time these days, so many that they could hardly stop to be glad of their friend’s return from Beirut. Many of them hadn’t even realized that she had gone.

In my three years away, Damascus has changed, she thought on her first walk after that last miscarriage. There were guards stationed everywhere these days — tall Africans in French army uniforms much too small for them. And the streets that had seemed so lively and familiar when she was a child were strange now that she had lost touch with the girls who were once at school with her.

But a few days after her return she met Madeleine. While they were in Beirut Claire’s mother had told her that her friend was married to the stonemason Rimon Rasmalo now, and they had bought a huge house. “An enormous apartment building with two entrances on different streets,” said Lucia. She had gone to congratulate Madeleine on the birth of her first and second children, but stayed away after that. “The place is chaotic, and it stinks,” she said with revulsion.

“Is Rimon still boxing?” asked Claire.

Her mother laughed. “No, you know what Madeleine’s like. Rimon is a successful building contractor, And the last I heard of it they had another little girl.”

The first moments of their reunion were disappointing. Madeleine seemed calm as ever, almost stoical. Her mother, her mother-in-law, and her two older unmarried sisters-in-law looked after her three little girls. She herself wasn’t especially interested in what went on in the house, where there were constant comings and goings.

“He wants a son so much, but I only have daughters. I’m pregnant again, and I know it will be another girl,” she said, almost with indifference.

Madeleine didn’t even absorb the information that Claire had suffered three miscarriages. She was in love with her new radio set, she listened to music all the time, whistled the tunes, chain-smoked, and otherwise hardly seemed to notice anything.

She liked her life with Rimon, but she could just as easily imagine life without him. “What matters is having my music every day,” she said, and fell silent as the voice on the radio announced Mozart’s Magic Flute. Claire didn’t understand a word of what the announcer was saying, but Madeleine was so captivated by the opera that when the music started it was obvious that her guest was a nuisance and in the way. Claire said goodbye and left.

It was more by accident than on purpose that she and Elias moved into Saitun Alley six months later, early in 1939. You could see into the Rasmalo house from the stairs leading up to the second floor. Only a low building, an aniseed warehouse, separated the two houses.

From then on their old friendship slowly revived — but now it was more mature and easy-going. Madeleine had always been passionately fond of music, and was the only person in Claire’s immediate circle of friends to own a modern gramophone. Claire enjoyed visiting her, but she was even happier to invite Madeleine to see her, because the Rasmalo house really was a chaotic place, full of children, grandmothers, and old maids. Her friend lived among them all like their queen. She delegated the jobs to be done early in the morning, and then went shopping. Besides music, shopping was her favourite occupation.

Claire’s new home was a jewel. There was plenty of room for a childless young couple, and no one else lived in it, which was unusual for that part of the city, where almost every building accommodated several generations of the same family, or at least a few neighbours. Most people lived crammed together at close quarters. But Elias had managed to buy the whole house at a good price through his connections with diplomatic circles. To do so, he increased his debt to his mother-in-law to two hundred thousand lira in all, staking everything on his success in his business, and indeed it didn’t let him down. He supplied sweetmeats to the richest Christians in the city, and soon it was considered good form in the Christian quarter to say that you served your guests cakes, cookies, and other sweetmeats from Elias Mushtak. Elias charged twice as much as other confectioners, but he never stinted on the quantity and quality of his ingredients.

Before three years were up he was even supplying the presidential palace. As ever, he was generous and made the palace staff many small presents. He once told Claire, later, how he had managed to remain confectioner to the palace despite the constant changes of government. They needed a great deal of confectionery there, and his profits were unusually high, because civil servants weren’t bothered about the price, and the vain dictators were happy to hear their diplomatic guests enthuse over these Syrian specialities.

“Presidents come and presidents go, but not the head of the palace household, or the head of reception in the palace, or the palace cook either. And I have them all in the hollow of my hand,” explained Elias, laughing. Then he added quietly, “But you mustn’t tell anyone I said so, even under torture.”

Three years after he last asked Lucia for credit, and in the presence of his wife, Elias Mushtak put two hundred thousand lira down on her drawing room table, with a small extra stack of banknotes. “Your money back, with my thanks,” he said ceremoniously, “and this is the last of the interest, for the month of May.”

“A true Mushtak,” said Lucia, feeling sure that her daughter had done well in marrying this capable man. She pressed his hand warmly.

But that wasn’t until June 1941, and a few things happened before then, that must be briefly mentioned here.

Claire’s miscarriages meant that she had to spend weeks in hospital. It was boring there, so she looked forward to Madeleine’s daily visits. Madeleine came laden with magazines and candy, and spent half the day with her. Claire found that she enjoyed her friend’s sense of humour just as she used to.

“Rimon weeps every night because he wants a boy. Men are such children, they always want boys because they don’t know how to play with girls,” Madeleine told her.

“It doesn’t matter to my husband which we have, so long as I hang on to the baby for nine months, and I’ve never yet managed that.”

“Oh, it will be all right, and the way I see it you’ll have another twelve healthy, beautiful children. I’m afraid all mine take after Rimon. But never mind, I’m sure there are enough short-sighted men around to marry my daughters,” said Madeleine, laughing.

Claire was heavily pregnant again, and Elias prayed for her every night. Then, at last, Farid was born. He was healthy, and only a few days after his birth he looked like a little copy of Claire’s father, which did not particularly please Elias Mushtak.

And it was Nagib who urged Lucia to sell the expensive villa in Arnus Avenue and move into the old Christian quarter, so that they could live close to their only daughter. Lucia gave way to him, and with Elias’s help they found a handsome house in quiet Misq Alley. Nagib was delighted; only a walk of five minutes now separated him from his daughter, or rather from his grandson Farid. But to her dying day Lucia lamented her loss of status in moving to what she thought a far too modest part of town.

60. Water In A Sieve

“Anyone who trusts men,” said Madeleine, and a painful tremor crossed her face, “would trust a sieve to hold water.” She smiled, but her eyes were bright with the tears she was holding back.

Claire sat quietly on the sofa in Madeleine’s sitting room, lost in her own thoughts. It had come so suddenly. She felt paralysed. Hadn’t all the pain of her three miscarriages been enough? At last, six months after her baby’s birth, she had begun to enjoy some happiness again. She liked being called Um Farid, Farid’s mother, as the custom was in Damascus. The personal names of fathers and mothers were lost as soon as they had their first child. They became Abu and Um, Father of or Mother of, with the name of the firstborn child was added. Elias didn’t like it. He preferred to be known as Monsieur Elias, as the French called him, but Arabs did not adopt the European style of address. They went on calling him Abu Farid. Elias kept putting them right for a year and then gave up.

Her father’s joy made Claire happy too. He visited her daily, and would look after his grandson for as long as she liked. After a while, the old man even learned to change the baby’s nappy, feed him and wash him, and then she could get out of the house — often with Madeleine — to enjoy a few hours of the vibrant life of the city. She had thought for a long time, wondering whether she wanted to have more children, and decided that she did. Farid had opened the gate, said Elias, and ten more would follow. And then, suddenly, came the discovery that her husband had been cheating on her, and she was on her own.

“My love,” her mother Lucia had said, “men need that to cool their blood, or else their seed rises to the brain and then they fight wars.” She lit herself a Hanum, a brand of cigarette popular with women.

For the first time in her life, Claire had shouted at Lucia. She tried to say that life wasn’t lived solely between your legs, and love was something to be cherished and cared for. Lucia remained calm. She stroked her daughter’s face. “Eternal love, my child,” she replied, “is found only in novels and poems, and the more I think about it the more I believe that those who write about such things are the true cheats, not we real men and women with all our weaknesses. That’s life, the rest is just paper. Elias is the best man in Damascus, and if you’re clever about it you’ll get him back. You must open your arms yet wider, make even more of your looks, fix up his home to be even more attractive and inviting, and then he’ll come back to you.”

For the first time Claire felt curiously ill at ease in her parental home. She could hardly draw breath there, she went out, and only in the street could she breathe deeply again. She didn’t reply when her mother called to her. Lucia hadn’t understood at all. My mother doesn’t even have the courage to look into the depths of my wound, she thought on the way home. She was in despair. Her father, sitting by Farid’s cradle in the nursery, looked up and saw her sorrow.

“Can I help you?” he asked quietly.

Claire shook her head. “I have a headache,” she lied. Her head had never been so clear or so full of grief.

Nagib went home, and as she prepared the evening meal despair vied with rage in her mind. She wandered around her house. There was no one she could lean on, not her mother, not her father either.

Elias was betraying her with Alexandra, one of the silliest women in the world. She and Claire had been at school together, but in those ten years Claire had spoken to her at the most on three occasions, and even that had been a waste of time. She had heard from Madeleine that the woman was married to a member of parliament twenty-five years her senior. After the wedding Alexandra had insisted on being called Madame Makram Bey, even by her relations and her women friends. Her husband was the latest scion of a rich family of large landowners, and hoped to have a son to carry the name of Makram on into the future. Even if she hadn’t been having an affair with Elias, Madeleine couldn’t stand the woman.

“Alexandra, of all people!”

She could well imagine how Alexandra had made a conquest of Elias. That woman’s backside got her everything she wanted. Even the proud Elias.

Madeleine suggested a trip to the hammam together. Claire hadn’t been to a public bathhouse since her wedding. She had her own beautiful bathroom in Damascus, a wonderful bathroom with coloured tiles, showers, and a huge white marble wash-basin. Next Wednesday morning she went along to the hammam with her friend. Silent, lost in thought, she clung to Madeleine’s arm.

Her father was happy to look after Farid by himself for a few hours. He didn’t even look at her as she left, just turned his transfigured gaze on the sleeping baby.

They were going to the Hammam al Bakri in Bab Tuma, not far from Elias’s confectionery shop.

“I once trusted a man myself, but he went away to America, taking my heart and a rich woman with him and leaving me alone with our engagement ring,” Madeleine suddenly said quietly, as if to open her own heart just a little.

“You were engaged before Rimon? I never knew,” said Claire, amazed.

“I had to keep it secret. I took the engagement ring off every morning and put it on again every evening, because that was when my lover came to see us. My mother liked him. I think she was in love with him herself. He was a charming, witty man,” added Madeleine, but then waved the subject away.

“Why did he go off with the other woman?”

“Because she promised him her whole fortune and I had nothing to offer. My father said it was un-Christian to give women a dowry to induce men to come along and marry them. You love either the woman or her money, he thought. But he sometimes went too far. He played a practical joke on Said — that was my fiancé’s name — and told him he’d lost everything. I realized that Said wasn’t so sure what he wanted then, and asked my father to stop talking such nonsense. After all, he’d made pots of money in the leather trade, but I could see that the love was leaking out of Said’s heart now, and however much I filled it up the tank up with more, it was soon empty again.

“Then along came this young widow with all the money she’d inherited, and he went off to America with her, and not a word to me. I lied to everyone, saying it had all been very sudden. But I’d known for months that he was moving away from me. Love is like childhood. When it’s gone, it’s gone for ever. My father was triumphant, delighted to think he’d seen through the man from the first, he’d known it was money he was after and not love. But I was crushed. Two weeks later I fell sick and I was away from school for six months, do you remember?”

“We thought you had pneumonia, maybe TB as well,” Claire recollected.

Madeleine laughed. “That was the official explanation, so that no one in school would know. I tried to take my own life twice, but I was too much of a coward to do it properly. My mother took me to Beirut, and we spent three months with an uncle there. I feel today as if he wasn’t an uncle at all, he was a magician who knew all about love and the soul. He spoke to me so understandingly, we talked night after night, and I almost fell in love with him, but I stopped myself just in time. He was happily married and much older than me. He wasn’t gentle with me, he was honest, he could even be harsh. And a time came when I realized I ought to be glad to be rid of my fiancé at an early stage. He might not have left me until later.

“Since then I’ve lived sensibly with Rimon, who thinks himself lucky to have married a daughter of the distinguished leather exporter Antoine Ashi. He wants children, I give him children, and the rest of the time he leaves me alone.”

At this moment they reached the hammam. Madeleine was a frequent visitor, and knew not only the woman who owned it, the strong masseuse, the old lady who soaped customers and all the assistants, but many of the women who were bathing there too. They came to meet her now with open arms. And Claire was amazed to see how Madeleine changed as soon as she undressed. She shed her reserve along with her clothes, played around and joked with the women. Her laughter broke out in waves, echoing back from the walls and infecting other women sitting further off.

All of a sudden Claire was among strange women who smiled at her and immediately included her in their conversation, as if she had always been one of them. And soon she too was giving her opinion of some husband or other who was being picked to pieces in his absence. After an hour she was pleasantly tired, and went to sleep on the warm floor. When she woke up she was surprised to find how peaceful she felt. The room was almost empty, the women she had been with had moved on into the next room, where it was warmer. She lay where she was, looking up at the dome with the little stained glass windows that muted the sunlight. She felt safer than she had been for a long time. The world was far away, Elias and Alexandra were far away. Only Farid looked at her with his beautiful eyes that were so strangely like her father’s.

If it were possible to feel as secure as she did here, and live with no one but her son, life would be all right, she thought after a while, slowly sitting up. She heard Madeleine laugh again. The assistant — a dark-skinned woman with a friendly face and terribly bad teeth, mere stumps — appeared suddenly, as if she had been waiting for Claire to wake. She handed her dry, snow-white towels, and took away the wet and sweaty ones. Slowly, Claire went into the next room.

She talked for hours with Sarifa and Baraka, two women of wide experience. Sarifa was married for the second time, and very happy with her new husband, the way you can only be in movies. She was the more outspoken of the two, and advised Claire to leave her husband and throw everything into the lap of fate.

Baraka was almost sixty, and was quieter but also more inscrutable. The other women joked about her, calling her Mashnakt Rigal, “a gallows for husbands”. Her fourth husband had died a year ago of some strange stomach disease, and his family had accused Baraka of poisoning him. Baraka recommended her to fight back against her rival Alexandra; she mustn’t let the other woman off the hook for a moment.

Claire laughed a great deal, and she felt lighter at heart with Madeleine and the other women, as if she had washed off not only her dirt but her grief as well. She liked the company of Sarifa and Baraka, but her love for Elias was something different, so she couldn’t take their advice. But she did take something home with her that afternoon: she knew she wasn’t alone any more. Both women understood her, and Sarifa made it clear, as they said goodbye, that she would be happy to see Claire in the baths again next Wednesday. And Claire went there with Madeleine not only the following week but almost every Wednesday after that for years.

After the hammam Claire went home feeling relaxed, stepping lightly. But as soon as she was back, and had picked Farid up and said goodbye to her father, her dismal thoughts returned. All the lightness of heart she had felt with the women was gone.

How could Elias do this to her? Why did it have to happen to her? Wasn’t what she’d been through with three miscarriages enough? And why did he choose that cackling goose Alexandra who’d already been wiggling her bottom about like a whore at the age of thirteen, and always used to say she knew where a man’s brains were: in his balls, semen was his brain-juice and that was why it looked so milky?

How could Elias find happiness between the legs of a stranger, a stupid woman like that? Hadn’t she satisfied him? What all his protestations of faithfulness? Perhaps part of the trouble was those long periods of abstinence after her miscarriages. Elias needed sex every day; he had joked about it often enough, hinting at his appetite. She was always tired in the evenings now, after the boy’s birth, because she had to get up to feed him three or four times in the night. Elias sat alone, drinking his arrack in silence. Had that driven him into that woman Alexandra’s arms? Her head was buzzing with questions all afternoon. She couldn’t answer any of them.

She washed and made her face up, but when Elias came home she looked at him with grief in her eyes. He didn’t even try to lie to her when she asked, “Is it true about Alexandra?”

“Yes,” he said. “I have a relationship with Madame Makram Bey.”

In spite of his embarrassment, Elias felt relieved. He had wanted to tell Claire again and again over these last few months. But her silence had left him confused. It was a deep lake threatening to drown him bit by bit. Three times he had brought out Alexandra’s name, but Claire had stifled any other words by showing her undisguised contempt for the woman.

His silence had been a lie. How often had he lied? He thought back, remembering how he had sometimes felt he was standing outside himself, as if he were two men. One Elias was talking just to please people, the other Elias said nothing, but registered the lies. Had it happened once or a hundred times? How often had he agreed with Claire that Arab women needed freedom and equal rights? He had noticed that she liked to hear him say so. She had confused love with the attitudes he adopted.

Now he felt relief. “It’s not the way you think, though,” he said. Claire had promised herself all afternoon to keep calm, but when he said that and put out a hand to placate her she struck it away and wept. “You’ve deceived me, Elias. I never loved anyone in my life as I’ve loved you, and now you pay me back by deceiving me. Oh, Elias,” she cried, almost inaudibly, as if to say: help me, please, I’m dying. But it was a long time before she could get another word out.

“Elias,” she whispered at last, weeping as if for the death of someone she had loved dearly. He sat beside her, lost in thought, and dared not try to touch her again. And for a moment she hoped he would explain that it was all a mistake and put his arm around her shoulders, and then she wouldn’t shake it off. She felt he was about to do just that, but then he merely stood up and went to the window, and she knew that he belonged to Alexandra now.

She was intimidated, and said no more. It was more than ten years before she recovered from the shock.

61. Pangs of Conscience

No one was buying the idea that Elias had been very devout since he left the Jesuit school. Many regarded him as a hypocrite. He was on the committees of all the Catholic associations of the city of Damascus and the village of Mala, he dutifully went to church on Sunday, and then he slept around for the rest of the week.

He thought his first affair during his marriage stupid at both the beginning and the end of it, but Alexandra — or Madame Makram Bey, as she liked to be called — was hot as a wasp in full sunlight and smelled of unsatisfied lust for many metres around her. And since he could hardly make love to Claire at all at the time, he fell for the temptation.

It was at a party given by her husband for the deputies who had elected him their parliamentary president. Elias and three of his employees, clad in snow-white coats and caps, were to serve the delicious sweetmeats. Suddenly Alexandra came delicately tripping up to him and said it was she who had persuaded her husband to choose Elias’s shop to supply them. And that same evening, as the new parliamentary president was smoking his Cuban cigars, drinking French champagne and talking to the deputies, Alexandra was enjoying her first love-play with Elias in a small bedroom on the third floor of the big house.

Claire refused to believe that he suffered every time he satisfied himself with a woman, but he did. Quite often, when he came away from one of them, he looked for the nearest church, knelt down before Christ, and asked for forgiveness. It was like that with Alexandra. The morning after their night of pleasure he was tormented by pangs of conscience, and begged the supreme judge of all for justice and mercy. For after all he, the creator of all the worlds, had given Elias his prick and his eternal lust for women. So he must surely have a heart open to the sins of his suffering servant.

But with Alexandra, and only with her, Elias felt he was very close to power, and he wanted to prove himself to his father through power and importance. Elias knew that Makram Bey was a slave to his wife and would do anything she wanted, and now Alexandra herself had fallen for Elias in a big way.

By devious means, he let his father know directly after the party that he was friendly with the parliamentary president. Soon after that Salman and his wife had a chance to see the truth of it for themselves when they looked in at the confectioner’s shop. Elias had them given a coffee, and while they were drinking it a large limousine drove up, the parliamentary president’s wife stepped out, came into the shop, greeted the confectioner himself warmly, and told him her husband would like Elias to visit him that evening for a game of chess. Then she took the elegantly packaged sweetmeats that Elias had prepared for her, and left. The car had been blocking the street outside all this time, but no one waiting behind it dared to hoot or shout angrily, as drivers usually did in Damascus. It had no licence plate, and that was something not many people could afford.

Salman and Hanan were impressed, and when they went back to Mala that evening they told old Mushtak that Salman’s little brother did indeed go in and out of Makram Bey’s house. After that, George Mushtak was sick with a strange fever for a week. No one knew that Elias had staged the whole scene and asked Alexandra to come to the shop for that very purpose.

His desire for power was one compelling reason why he could tolerate Alexandra at all. Sometimes Elias took his penis in his hand and spoke to it. “My friend, you have more influence than certain powerful farmers.”

They parted not, as Alexandra said, because her husband left parliament to devote himself entirely to his large estate and his pure-bred horses, but because she insensitively told Elias what her spouse had said about him.

Makram Bey’s private detective always kept him informed about his wife’s affairs. He knew all her lovers by name, and even where and how often they met his wife. Why he wanted to know remained his secret. He showed her respect in public, and actually dedicated his reference book on Arab horses to “my loyal wife Alexandra”.

It was only in his cups that he called her names. Alexandra had told Elias all about it one day, with a detailed account of how, on this particular occasion, he had sent all the servants home and then laid five pieces of paper out on the drawing room table in front of her. Men’s names were written on them. “These are your lovers,” her inebriated husband had told her, in a perfectly clear voice. “The photographer’s a viper, the hairdresser’s an ape, the interior minister is a chameleon and the swimming-pool attendant is a crocodile.” Then, she said, he had paused, picked up the piece of paper bearing Elias’s name, and fell into a fit of laughter that left her utterly bewildered. “And as for this one,” he went on, “he’s a donkey from Mala. I ride Arab horses, and a donkey rides my wife.” And he had actually whinnied, and then left her standing there while he went to his bedroom. When she followed him he was already snoring. Next morning he was as kind and subservient to her as ever.

Elias was seething with anger, but he kept calm. He didn’t understand why such a despicable old man would call him a donkey. But then Alexandra told Elias she’d expect him next Thursday, when her husband would be away spending the night on his estate. “The old fool is so crazy about horses he can’t wait for a couple of pedigree mares to foal,” she explained, laughing heartily, “and I want to ride my donkey.”

Elias felt deeply wounded and humiliated. He told her he didn’t want to see her any more, and asked her to leave his shop at once. Alexandra fell silent, and her smile slipped sideways on her face, like a mask. “Lousy peasant,” Elias heard her saying angrily as she went out.

After that he never touched another Damascene woman. Instead, he made love to women in Mala, who were grateful for his presents and his money. Not that Elias paid them much, but it was important to him to know that he was buying their love, because he wanted to make the nature of the deal perfectly clear. He was the master, he was helping himself to lonely women whose menfolk had emigrated to the Gulf states in the late forties or early fifties, or were away driving long-distance trucks between Damascus and Kuwait or Riyadh.

He had more than ten mistresses in the village, and went to see them in secret whenever he wanted. And just as he bought olive oil, honey, wine, cracked wheat, raisins, almonds, and sheep’s cheese for his household only from Mala, despising all the products on sale in the city, he did the same with women. It was rumoured in the village that many of the emigrants’ children were really his sons and daughters, but rumour flourished in the imagination of the villagers.

However, no one in Mala knew that Elias Mushtak hated the women he made love to, because after the act, sober again, he suffered from the pangs of his guilty conscience. He damned the women who had such power over him, and would often say, even before he had done his trousers up again, “You’re costing me money now and the torments of Hell later.”

62. Practice

Farid was six when he came to Claire’s bedside one night. “Mama,” he whispered, “Papa’s talking to the cupboard.” And he pointed to the drawing room. He had woken up because he needed to go to the lavatory, and heard his father’s voice.

His mother sat up and stroked her son’s head. “Don’t worry,” she whispered, sitting on the edge of the bed and taking Farid on her lap.

Then she listened, and clearly heard her husband’s voice. He was sitting with his face turned to the cupboard. She could see his back from her bed. The cupboard, like the seats in the room and its ceiling, was made of walnut wood elaborately decorated with coloured intarsia work.

Elias was talking to an invisible visitor. He spoke in two voices, one his own, the other and deeper voice obviously his father’s.

“So I see you’ve made your way in life, my dear son,” said the deep voice.

“Yes, Father. Thanks to your upbringing and most of all thanks to your blessing. Because I know, even though you threw me out, you loved me in the depths of your heart.”

“Congratulations, my son, but haven’t you overdone it with this house — didn’t I hear that it once belonged to a consul or an ambassador? Have you put any savings aside?”

“Father, I’m cast in the same mould as you. I spend only what I have in abundance. I’ve saved for everything,” said Elias, straightening his back. Then he said softly, “Look in the big drawer beside you.” And he sat on the chair where his father was supposed to be sitting.

“Which drawer, my son?”

“The nearest to you,” replied Elias.

“Oh, that one,” said the deep voice, and Elias pulled the drawer a little way out. It was heavy, for it was filled to the top with gold coins.

“I’m speechless! What an idiot I was!” said the deep voice remorsefully. “I was so wrong.”

Elias was weeping with emotion now, probably imagining his father’s defeat.

He slowly rose and went back to the sofa, where he sat down and drank his arrack in silence.

“There, it’s all right now. You can go to sleep again,” Claire whispered to her son, and Farid, barefoot, tiptoed his way back to bed.

But she herself lay awake for a long time.


At the moment of love there’s no place for a strange woman


63. Disturbances

The copper-coloured turtledoves were beginning to sing their melancholy songs again, and the people of Damascus rose from their siesta. While the heat is unbearable the birds keep silent. Claire sprinkled water on the marble floor of the little inner courtyard, which was burning hot, and opened all the drawing room windows. Heavy heat weighed down on the city.

Farid was sleeping peacefully. His mother drew the curtain that protected his little cot from flies. The baby smiled in his sleep.

The midwife’s words and clear laughter were still ringing in her ears. “What a masterpiece! But no wonder, after so much practice. Well, my dear, it was worth it. You wait and see, Nadshla is never wrong. He has the most beautiful eyes I ever saw. He’ll soon be winning the hearts of all the ladies.” Claire knew that Nadshla was an excellent midwife and also an accomplished liar. Babies change, and Farid was only five weeks old.

She smiled, for she was suddenly wondering why Nadshla would specify the conquest of women’s hearts in the child’s future. Had it been a reference to her husband’s many adventures? Some of the men in the Mushtak clan were obsessed by women: George Mushtak, his son Salman — and indeed, hadn’t the rift between her husband and her father-in-law been over a woman too — herself?

Thinking such thoughts, she had come over to the pot of basil in the window. She loved its refreshing fragrance, gently stroked the leaves, and then smelled the palms of her hands. After that she turned, drew the curtain over the baby’s cot aside again, and looked at her son. “You will not be a Mushtak, and you’ll never conquer anyone. You will be a Surur who loves women.” There was bitter determination in her voice.

Her sister-in-law Malake, her cousin, and a few women friends were coming at three. Claire heard shots fired, but far away, possibly in the New Town. The disturbances had been going on for weeks. Famine drove the poor to Damascus, where they looted and held demonstrations. The French soldiers shot at random into the crowd, and over a hundred people had been killed in the streets during the last three weeks. Elias had had iron roller shutters fitted to the confectioner’s shop.

Once again several shots rang out in the silence. Claire whispered, “Holy Virgin, I commit Farid to your hands. You know how I’ve suffered to bring a healthy child into the world. Holy Virgin, hear me. These are difficult times.”

The international situation was extremely uncertain. The French were still occupying Syria, but the Germans had invaded France in June. There were rumours that more and more German agents were being infiltrated into Damascus to prepare for the expulsion of the French. “More than a hundred Syrian nationalists, including that bastard Fausi Qawuqji, are already in Berlin with Hitler and will march with him. If he comes,” said Elias, “I shall pick up a gun. Better die with honour than live like a dog under Qawuqji.”

“Is he so bad?” asked Claire.

“He served here as an officer with both the French and the British. Such unscrupulous lickspittles are the worst. And he attacked Mala.”

“Holy Virgin, let’s hope the Germans don’t come,” she whispered.

Her gaze wandered from the drawing room window above the inner courtyard to the rather smaller room opposite. With the big dining room, it formed the north wing of the house. When she looked through the open window, her eye fell on the large brown leather suitcase that had stood there, packed and ready for the last year, in case fighting spread to the whole of Damascus. It contained a few clothes for Elias and her, and a hundred pounds sterling in gold. “The sovereigns would last us a few months,” her husband had always said.

“Now we’ll need another suitcase for Farid,” Claire whispered to herself.

The French occupying power had kept the country more or less peaceful for a long time after the great Syrian uprising of 1925. Elias admired the French high commissioner, whose firm hand had imposed order since the mid-1930s. The smallest misdemeanour was instantly punished with death, and the Arabs knuckled under. Now, however, the cards were being reshuffled.

General Louis Weygand, who had ruled Syria with a rod of iron until May, had been recalled to Paris to lead the French army against Hitler’s forces. In Damascus the French had boasted that the Maginot Line was impregnable, and Hitler would perish miserably if he attacked it, but two weeks later the Germans were in the French capital.

The opinion of the colonial troops was split. Many wanted to collaborate with the Germans, and proclaimed their allegiance to Marshal Pétain’s government, set up in Vichy by agreement with the Nazis. Others allied themselves with the Free French national committee led from exile in London by a young officer called Charles de Gaulle, to organize resistance to the Germans. There were violent confrontations between the two parties everywhere. The leadership of the French troops in Damascus came down on the side of the Germans, and declared war on Great Britain and the French exiles. There was chaos in the city, and trained German agents contributed to it.

It was said that large British forces were gathering in Palestine, on the southern border of Syria, to occupy the country again and free it of Nazi adherents. The Syrian administration governing under the French occupation didn’t last two weeks. It fell, was formed again, fell once more. The chaos of war and the bad harvest brought the first famine since 1918.

The embittered masses carrying their dead to the cemeteries cried out in pain, and saw the French and all other Christians as godless folk whom it was the first duty of Muslims to kill. Many Damascene Christians fortified their houses and kept large supplies of buckets full of water ready, for fire was the rabble’s favourite weapon.

64. Sheikh Napoleon

Every time she met her neighbours Claire could feel that they backed Hitler because they hated the French. Madeleine herself thought the French were barbarians, and told horror stories of humiliations inflicted by the soldiers. When Hitler’s troops marched into Paris the Syrians hailed it as a victory. They were glad to see the hated French General Weygand, who had shed so much Syrian blood, overthrown by the Germans.

There were two foreign radio stations transmitting Arab news. One was located on Cyprus, and had close links with the British. It reported even the most appalling incidents factually, calmly, and in monotonous Arabic, as if it were reporting the yield of the wheat harvest in Argentina. Elias liked it because it gave detailed information. The other station broadcast from Berlin, and Claire listened to it when Elias wasn’t around. The announcer was called Yunus al Bahri. Madeleine had told her about him. People tuned in only in secret in the Christian quarter, for fear of French informers, but in the Muslim quarter Claire saw a large group of men, over forty of them, sitting around a radio set and listening to the tinny voice of Yunus as he breathed out fire and brimstone against the British. The worst he called the French was bastards; the principal targets of his tirades of hatred were always and exclusively the British. They were a race of liars, he cried, hoarse with excitement. He was a master of passionate oratory, he recited poems and suras from the Koran, he reported news and gave vent to insults more freely than Claire ever heard anyone let fly before or indeed later. Yunus did not shrink from crying, after the music of an Austrian march rang out, “You English, here’s some good news for you, Hitler’s going to fuck your mothers. That’s right, fuck your mothers,” he repeated, in case any of his hearers thought they couldn’t believe their ears.

On another occasion Yunus announced that, in a confidential interview, Hitler had said he was going to convert to Islam after his victory, just as Napoleon, Goethe and all other great men had done before him.

Claire knew that the tale of Goethe’s conversion was only a myth, but Napoleon had indeed said he was converting and wore a turban when he was in Egypt, in order to deceive the Egyptians. She was surprised to hear that Hitler was going to become a Muslim, but the news rejoiced the hearts of millions of Arabs.

65. Laila

It was nearly four when the women, talking volubly, arrived at the door. After Claire had taken them into the drawing room and crossed the courtyard to fetch lemonade, she heard a bang in the distance again. She stood still for a moment, then went into the kitchen, took a block of ice out of the big drawer, and used a hammer to strike off a piece of it. Then, wrapping it in a white cloth, she broke the piece of ice into many small splinters.

Once again she heard a bang, followed by hollow thudding sounds. She looked over the courtyard at the drawing room. Her sister-in-law was standing at the window. “They’re firing again,” called Malake in concern, stepping back into the darkness of the room. Claire picked up the tray of lemonade glasses and went back across the courtyard.

Elias will probably soon be calling the hired cab to take us to Mala, she told herself. “Taking our own car would be suicide,” he had said. The road led through Muslim villages. These days only a reliable Muslim cab driver could offer them any security and get them through safely.

“Come here to me,” said six-year-old Laila, bending over the baby lying in his small white-curtained cot. Her mother Malake rolled her eyes as her sister-in-law came into the drawing room with the glasses. The pieces of ice in them made a soft whispering that sounded a little like people chattering in the distance.

“Let her play with him,” Claire reassured Malake. “Laila’s a sensible girl. She knows how to treat babies.” She offered her guests the cool lemonade and some sweetmeats.

Ten women and three children sat down on the heavy, satin-covered sofas in the spacious drawing room. But Malake’s little daughter sat on a stool beside the cot, enchanted by the baby. The big chandelier hanging from the intarsia-work ceiling, and the large wooden table with the same inlaid pattern in the middle of the room, gave the place a slightly religious atmosphere, and the women and children sat there stiffly, as if they were in church. Only Laila and the pretty, pale cot seemed out of place in all this weighty solemnity.

Claire had filled her afternoons with the company of women since Farid’s birth. She hadn’t been prepared for quite so many visitors, and felt both proud and embarrassed. She would never have guessed that she and Elias had so many genuine well-wishers among their friends and relations, or that many of them would face the stress and strain of a long journey from Aleppo or Beirut to come and see her, despite the blazing heat of July and the unrest in the countryside. She was sorry that she had to accommodate those who had come such a long distance in hotels. It had struck her, for the first time, that the house was very splendid but didn’t have a single room where a guest could stay. Over the last two months she had been obliged to book twenty-seven hotel rooms. Elias had complained a little of the expense, but he too was happy to have a healthy son after those three miscarriages that had left him not only fearing for his wife’s health but anxious in general. He was superstitious, and his father’s curse haunted him even in his sleep.

Laila had the baby on her lap now and was gazing at him, her face transfigured. “May Our Lady keep him from envious eyes! He’s looking at me as if he understood everything.”

“You’ll drop the baby. Put him back in his cot like a good girl, and sit down with us and the other children.” Her mother was trying to show good manners, but Laila knew her own mind that day.

“Can’t I stay the night with Farid? Please, Aunt Claire, let me change his nappy and give him his bath, and then I can sleep the night on the floor beside his cot. It’s nicer here than in the hotel.”

The women all laughed. “The hotel is fantastic! Claire even thought of flowers for us. And the errand boy says every morning that all her guests are royally treated because she’s a queen,” said Laila’s mother, hastily saving the situation.

Claire smiled, because the errand boys often came three times a day to ask if there was anything else they should do or provide for the hotel guests. Every time they called meant another tip of a few piastres.

However, this was the one house that Elias had wanted to buy, a handsome little palace that was perfect for him. All his life he had aimed to put on a good show, and more than anything he wanted to welcome his father to this house if the bishop’s efforts to reconcile them really came to anything. Their reconciliation would take place here, and his father would see that his curse hadn’t worked.

Claire was particularly unhappy about the house because of her sister-in-law. The journey from Beirut to Damascus was difficult and sometimes dangerous; bandits and rebels attacked cars and cabs, robbing and murdering their occupants, but all the same, Malake had insisted on coming to congratulate Claire in person.

That afternoon she kept reprimanding her daughter, but Laila took no notice. She was deep in her first conversation with her little boyfriend, and was sure he understood her. The visit lasted two hours, and she was whispering secrets to the baby all the time. Farid looked at her in surprise. Sometimes he laughed, then he frowned again, and his eyes seemed full of grief.

When Claire picked up her son to wish the guests goodbye, he began crying and stretched his little arms out desperately to Laila. She turned back to him once again. “I’ll come and see you soon,” she whispered softly.

It wasn’t until an hour later, when Farid had finally settled down, that Claire was able to collect the glasses, coffee cups, and plates now empty of sweetmeats, and take them to the kitchen. When she looked at the little table that had been standing in front of Laila, she was astonished. The child’s lemonade, sugared almonds, and pistachio rolls — Laila’s favourite sweetmeats — had not been touched.

Elias was late home from work that evening. He looked tired and desperate. “Shahbandar’s been shot,” he said quietly, taking a sip of water. It was the first time Claire had heard the name. “One of the leaders of the 1925 uprising. A Syrian agent of the Germans killed him because he wanted to do a deal with the British. They’re about to march into Damascus.”

“Is that bad news for us?” she asked anxiously.

“The bad part is that people only have to hear a shot fired to start slaughtering each other. After Shahbandar’s assassination there’ll be gunfire everywhere. A French officer turned his cannon on a village near Damascus and shot the whole place to pieces. It seems that one of his comrades was killed there a year ago. This time there were over twenty dead and a hundred wounded. A whole part of the village lies in ashes,” said Elias. His voice was faint, and he ate little that evening.


Caterpillars dream of flying.

DAMASCUS, 1940 — 1953

66. Childhood

Saitun Alley was short compared to other streets in the Old Town. It was broad and light, and came to an end before it began to get interesting. It lay as open as a weathered seashell, containing no mysteries, only the residence of the Catholic Patriarch of the entire Middle East, the largest Catholic church in Syria, and the Catholic College, one of the three elite schools in Damascus. Beside it, small and unpretentious, stood the elementary school for poor Christian children, which aptly bore the name of St. Nicholas. According to the legend, St. Nicholas saved some children from a wicked man who was going to slaughter and pickle them, and a sculptural group showing him with the three children in the pickling tub stood at the entrance to the school. But unlike the pupils at the elite establishment next door, the children here were taught by an army of sadistic and useless teachers, and often wondered whether they wouldn’t rather be pickled than subjected to daily beatings.

The street divided into three narrow blind alleys. One ended at the gate of the big Catholic elite school, the other led to the entrances of private houses. Farid didn’t know many people in Saitun Alley. The boys from the neighbouring houses were either much older or much younger than he was. Only Antoinette seemed an oasis in this barren desert for a while, but in the end she turned out to be a mirage, because when she was eleven and he was nine she didn’t want to play with him any more. Even years later he remembered the loneliness of the long summer days when he ran up the street to the bus stop and back down to the church over and over again, in what little shade the façades of the buildings offered in the afternoon. All was still, everything seemed to be asleep. Later his cousin Laila told him that far away in Beirut she had heard him calling every day at siesta time.

Farid wasn’t allowed out of Saitun Alley. There were a thousand rumours around. It was said that gangs went about kidnapping Christian children and selling them to rich, childless oil sheikhs abroad. So he was a prisoner of the street and his mother’s anxiety.

Only one incident from that time stuck in his memory. He was standing in the shade of a building and wanted to play with the dog dozing beside the wall of the house opposite. Suddenly he heard the sensuous sighing of a woman from above. At first he thought that because it was siesta time she was groaning in her sleep, but then he clearly heard a man whispering, and after a little while the woman uttered an alarming cry. It was only much later that Farid realized what had been going on behind the curtains over that window.

Josef, a thin and gloomy boy at his school, fascinated Farid, although many people avoided him because he was so ugly. He talked nineteen to the dozen, but as he had no idea how to defend himself he was always losing fights. One day Farid saw two other boys beating him up. He found a good strong branch and hit out at Josef’s two assailants until they ran away, howling. Josef half sat up. “Not bad, confectioner’s boy. I thought you were just a little sugar dolly. But why did you have to go barging in? I’d have dealt with those two arseholes on my own.”

He certainly talks big! Farid thought. But the boy invited him home that afternoon, which was something special, because Josef didn’t trust many people. For the first time in his life Farid saw a house with doors opening on two different streets. It was just right for Josef. “Ideal when you’re escaping from secret agents,” he whispered. The building was huge; over ten families lived there, sharing the inner courtyard and all the noise.

Josef’s room was on the second floor, and smelled pleasantly of aniseed; the window was right above the flat roof of a broad, single-storey aniseed warehouse. Not until he leaned out of the window did Farid realize that this flat roof linked his own house with Josef’s, so he had only to climb over the banisters on the second-floor landing at home to go straight across to visit his friend.

Josef didn’t even look up from the toy fire engine he was investigating when Farid excitedly told him this news. “I’ve known that for ages. I’ve been over to your place twice,” he said, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

“Smells good here,” said Farid awkwardly, to hide his surprise.

“Smells horrible. Aniseed all day long, it’s like living in a barrel of arrack,” grumbled Josef.

“And who lives in the house over there?” Farid pointed to a small building in the middle of a garden that seemed to belong to the aniseed warehouse.

“Two old men, lonely and miserly old men,” replied Josef. “They cry every night and call for their wives, who left them. Sometimes I feel sorry for them when it’s cold and they stand at the window side by side in their pyjamas.” Farid was surprised to find how much he knew about the men.

Josef’s room was large and light, and the shelves were laden with foreign toys. He was obviously his father’s favourite: the much-wanted son who had finally been born after four daughters. In his first few years of life his mother had been terrified of the neighbours’ envy, and she never cut Josef’s hair, so that even the devil would take him for a girl and spare him. He filled all her thoughts and feelings so much that when she had yet another baby, another girl this time, she couldn’t think of anything to call her but Josephine.

In his youth, Josef’s father Rimon had been a famous boxer and a good stonemason. But his wife had faced him with a choice: “It’s me or the boxing ring.” And while he was still thinking it over she kissed him. That made up his mind.

However, Rimon was allowed to hang a picture in the drawing room, showing him as a boxer with his torso bare, wearing boxing gloves, a proud young man with a strangely gentle, melancholy expression better suited to a poet than a muscle-man with swelling biceps.

One day the bishop, who was enthusiastic about Rimon’s skill in carving stone, suggested he might set up as a building contractor. He could get him any number of contracts, said the bishop, for most builders were Muslims. Rimon liked the notion, since he had many ideas for building handsome, solid houses. And the bishop kept his word, so that Josef’s father was soon almost overwhelmed with work. By the beginning of the 1940s he was one of the most successful building contractors in the city, and he married Madeleine Ashi, the daughter of a leather exporter.

Claire had no objection to Farid’s friendship with Madeleine’s son. But after that first visit it was two years before Josef let him come again, and then Farid discovered that he had turned suspicious when his parents congratulated him over-effusively that evening on the new friend he had made.

“I thought,” he said apologetically later, “you were one of those creeps — dear little nicely brought up boy and all that — who get to know all about someone and then tell tales of him. They praised you so much I thought you were bound to be an arsehole. But I know now you’re okay.”

On his first visit Farid had met Josef’s entire extended family, who all lived in the house. His two old aunts Afifa and Latifa were dressed like servants, and seemed to be there only to look after Josef’s mother and her children.

“They’re my father’s sisters,” he explained. “They once had boyfriends, two brothers. But Afifa and Latifa kept cooking the brothers spaghetti, so they ran away to America.”

Josef hated spaghetti. It was only a decade later that he really understood his aunts’ tragic story. They had both inherited a great deal of money, but their father’s will stipulated that they must live in their elder brother Rimon’s care until they married. And he immediately scared off any man who so much as looked at one of the sisters, until they were old and no one wanted them any more. That way he made sure that he kept his sisters’ inheritance, and at the same time had two unpaid household helps to toil away for his family for over twelve hours a day.

Two more women also sat in the living room, these two very old indeed, doing crochet work in silence. Not just on this visit but also later, Farid felt as if he had stepped into a convent of nuns.

“Who are those?” he asked.

“My two deaf grandmothers. They hate each other.” Josef gave a nasty grin, and then, after greeting both old ladies politely, added, “And they cooked spaghetti until their husbands choked on it.”

“How come you have two grandmothers?” Farid had asked. Josef laughed at him for years over that question.

67. Grandparents

Later Farid could smile at his own mistake, but when he discovered it at the age of seven he was shocked. Up till then he had firmly believed that he had only one pair of grandparents who once upon a time had somehow produced both his parents, like rabbits and cats who breed together even when they’re siblings. It wasn’t just childish naivety: the main reason was that he knew only his grandparents Lucia and Nagib. He had neither seen nor heard of any others. Even his mother never mentioned that side of his family. And he talked to his favourite cousin Laila about everything else, but not their relations.

When Laila came from Beirut to visit, their time together was precious. Farid walked through Paradise with her to protect him. They were allowed to go beyond the high garden wall.

Once Josef had explained about grandparents, Claire had to tell her son that his paternal grandmother, a remarkable woman, had died very young. “Your grandfather George Mushtak is a hard-hearted man who hates your father. He hasn’t spoken a word to him for ten years, because Elias disobeyed him and married me instead of the daughter of a friend of his. So he cursed your father and disinherited him. But now the Bishop of Damascus himself, who went to school with Elias and is a friend of your grandfather’s, is doing all he can to get the old gentleman to bless his own son again. So it could be,” Claire concluded, “that you’ll soon get to see him.” That was in April 1947.

The meeting between father and son was to take place on Sunday 15 June. The bishop had invited the whole Mushtak family to a solemn church service at ten that morning. After it they were all to eat together in Elias’s house opposite the church and be reconciled.

George Mushtak died on Friday 13 June, and his son cursed all day long. He kept on shouting, “He bore me malice not only in his lifetime but even in his death.” And he went around looking the very image of an embittered man for weeks.

Farid insisted on going to Mala for the funeral with his parents. He wanted to see his other grandfather at least once. But all he saw was the closed casket, and there was such a strong smell of bitter almonds near it that it turned his stomach.

Now he really did have only one grandfather: Nagib Surur.

68. Love

Some children look like their fathers or their mothers, others are a more or less fortunate mixture of both. Farid looked like neither his mother nor his father; he resembled his grandfather. He might have been descended straight from him without any intervention by his parents. From his mop of hair to his little toe, he was such a carbon copy of old Nagib Surur that it quite alarmed many of their relations at first.

Claire had inherited her looks mainly from her mother: her large green eyes, her smooth black hair, her rather broad but beautiful face, her small nose and snow-white skin. Her mother who, as already mentioned, came from a Venetian family, was even said to have aristocratic Austrian blood in her veins.

Nagib, on the other hand, was a Damascene born and bred. His ancestors had been textiles merchants who came from the Yemen in the twelfth century and settled in Damascus. All their descendants had the large dark eyes, finely carved features, and dark skin typical of Yemenis.

Nagib was a slender man, tall and dark-skinned. His general appearance was extremely virile, although his attractive eyes looked feminine at close quarters because his brows naturally lay like two delicate lines traced above them. Nagib was always being compared to various Egyptian actors, which he didn’t particularly like, for he preferred sport to the arts. As a young man he had been an enthusiastic boxer, but he was far too much of a gentleman to survive in the ring. His opponents at the time had been merciless hard-hitters on the fringes of the criminal fraternity; he lost all his fights, and after a while he gave up, but he still had a passion for boxing. Even in great old age he was a member of the boxing club and went to every fight.

His enthusiasm for boxing always led to quarrels with his wife, who was repelled by any kind of sport and much preferred going to large receptions. She and her son-in-law Elias agreed on that, and also on Nagib’s involvement in the bank affair of 1935. Farid couldn’t make out why it had landed his grandfather in prison for three years. Nagib would never talk about it.

Claire loved her father. She appreciated his gentle nature, his generosity, and in a way even his pliability, which her mother lacked. Lucia was always severe, rigorous with herself as well as others. “It’s a wonder she’s on speaking terms with herself,” her husband often joked.

He came to visit Claire for a coffee every day, since after his dismissal from the bank he had plenty of time on his hands, and his wife didn’t want him hanging around the house. After the coffee, Nagib would sit for hours by his grandson’s cradle, gazing at him blissfully.

“He’s given me the best victory of all,” he told Claire, “a victory over death. I shall live on in him, and death itself will feel mortally injured.”

As soon as Farid could walk, his grandfather took his hand and showed him the world. He would walk slowly down the streets of Damascus, telling the little boy about the buildings, shops, churches, and mosques of the city. He talked about drinks and spices, sweetmeats and nuts, and let his grandson touch everything and taste much of it.

He kept stopping to call on friends and drink coffee. Then his grandson would sit on his knee, looking at the world around him with wonder. Their friends always smiled at the sight: two versions of the same person, divided only by time.

69. K.O.

For the rest of his life, whenever Farid thought of Damascus he connected the city with his grandfather’s warm hand and deep voice. Years later, he could remember the first time they went to a fight together. It was spring, and Farid had already started school. His grandfather dropped in, as he did every afternoon, and Farid ran to meet him.

“Would you like to go into town with me?” asked Nagib. Naturally the boy was delighted.

“But don’t be late back. Elias will be home around seven today,” Claire called after them.

Grandfather Nagib took Farid’s hand and wandered through the suks and past the cafés with him. Then he suddenly asked, “Would you like to see a boxing match?”

Farid was all for that idea. “Oh yes!” he cried enthusiastically.

There were four fights. The first three were amusing, designed to keep the spectators happy and delay the main fight between the Syrian and Egyptian national champions until all the seats were filled. Grandfather Nagib told Farid all about the principles of boxing, right down to the dirtiest tricks. He never again learned so much about any sport in a single day. When the main fight was over it was already dark outside. “We’d better hurry,” said Grandfather, and he took a cab. The boxing club was in the New Town. The cab driver was drunk, and kept falling asleep during the journey. His horses stopped as soon as they sensed it, and Nagib had his work cut out for him, shaking the man awake.

At home there was a row between Elias and Nagib, and Farid was sent to bed without any supper. Claire, trying to make the peace, was silenced by her husband’s furious outburst. Grandfather kept apologizing, saying it was all his fault and nothing to do with Farid, but Elias was beside himself with rage. He shouted at the old man, forbidding him ever to take his son anywhere again. That silenced Nagib, who was very downcast, and in his bedroom Farid cried because Elias was shouting so dreadfully. Two neighbours came hurrying along and tried to intervene, but in vain.

After that day Grandfather still called, but he avoided going for long walks with his grandson. He took him to the nearby ice cream parlour, but never for more than half an hour, and when they came back they parted company, to be on the safe side. Farid hurried on ahead, and Grandfather strolled slowly in to see his daughter. Elias never suspected anything, and Claire staunchly covered up for both of them, telling lies when it came to protecting her son from his father’s wrath.

The night after the fight, Farid dreamed that his father was punching his grandfather, a hook to the chin. Nagib staggered back and lay on the ground unconscious. Grandmother Lucia was the referee; she raised her son-in-law’s arm and shouted, “K.O.” Farid woke in alarm. It was dark and he felt hungry. When he put the light on, he found a large apple and a glass of water on his bedside table.

70. Temptation

One summer day, when Farid was eight, he went out with his mother. She wanted to do some shopping in the Suk al Hamidiye and then visit a woman friend who lived in Qaimariye, a quarter in the heart of the Old Town near the Ummayad Mosque. Most of the people who lived there were Muslims, but Claire’s friend was a Christian. She would rather have lived somewhere else, but her husband had got the apartment cheap through his boss, so she put up with her dislike of the area.

The woman had no children, and Farid felt bored. He asked his mother if he could play in the street until she had finished drinking her coffee. Both women agreed, so Farid went out of doors. The street was almost empty. A pretty little girl was standing in one doorway. When she saw him she asked if he would like to play with her. Farid hesitated for a moment, and then nodded.

From outside, the building looked as unpretentious as all old Arab houses. Built of mud brick, it rose hardly any higher than the other two-storey buildings in the alley, but the inner courtyard was a masterpiece of the Arab art of life. A narrow corridor led to it from the door of the house. With every step the noise of the street died down. Orange and lemon trees protected the courtyard from the blazing sun, and besides the fragrance of their blossoms they cast a magical play of light and shadow on the coloured tiles at every breath of wind. A small marble fountain provided a little moisture and the sound that Arabs most love to hear: the splashing of water. No one window was the same as any of the others; each was a work of art in wood, metal and stained glass.

Farid stood marvelling at the beauty of the courtyard for a long time. Suddenly the little girl turned the tap of the fountain up and laughed out loud as a jet of water shot up to the sky. It drenched her. Her thin dress stuck to her body. He turned the tap down again. Taking his hand, the girl led him past the arcades and into the back part of the courtyard, where a coloured mattress lay on the ground.

“Here!” she said, lying down. Farid didn’t know what kind of game this was supposed to be.

“You lie down beside me and we’ll play at weddings,” she begged him. He was baffled by her boldness. “Aren’t your parents here?” he asked, sitting down on the far end of the mattress.

“No,” she said, rubbing her leg against his arm. “Don’t you want to kiss me?” she added, and she closed her eyes and laughed. There was something crazed in her laughter, and it scared Farid.

“No,” he said shyly, and stood up. “Don’t you have a ball? Or some marbles or playing cards?”

At that moment two strong boys fell on him, grinning maliciously. The girl cried out in alarm, “Go away, you devils!” But before Farid realized what was going on the stouter boy had grabbed him by the arm.

“Caught you! Let’s see your prick! If you’re a Muslim you’ll have to marry this crazy kid, if you’re a Christian we’ll circumcize you first.”

The girl shouted for help, but the second boy took a large flick-knife out of his pocket and threatened to kill Farid if she didn’t shut up. The girl crawled into a corner and looked at him with her mouth open and her eyes wide and crazy.

He hadn’t been frightened until the smaller boy took out his knife, but the sight of the sharp blade paralysed him, and he was unable to tear himself away. The smaller boy, who had one eye half stitched up, came towards him. He pressed the point of his knife into Farid’s navel and asked, enveloping him with wafts of bad breath, “Are you a Christian?”

“Yes,” said Farid, with his throat dry, trembling.

“Trousers down!” cried the stout boy, laughing like someone possessed. He held Farid’s head firmly between his legs. A few seconds later his trousers were on the ground.

“Now your underpants!” he shouted. The girl suddenly attacked the smaller boy. He hit back, but she fought grimly to free Farid. Her words still echoed in his ears years later: “Castrate your own friends, not the only friend I have!”

After a while the smaller boy had Farid’s underpants down too. This humiliation dispelled the last of Farid’s paralysis. He freed his right arm and hit the stout boy in the balls with all his might. The boy bellowed like a steer and writhed in pain. Then Farid ran to the smaller boy, who was slapping the infuriated beauty, grabbed a chair and brought it down on the boy’s back until he fell over.

Suddenly a man entered the courtyard and stared wide-eyed at the exhausted combatants. “What the devil’s going on here?” he cried in alarm, and fell on the stout boy and the smaller boy. They flew through the air. The lighter boy landed next to the fountain, the larger one head over heels beside the mattress.

“They were going to circumcize me,” said Farid, crying and covering his penis with both hands.

“For God’s sake! That’s the last time I tell you, you dogs!” cried the man. He ran into the kitchen and came back with a long bamboo cane. The stouter boy began whimpering, but the man lashed out at both of them, hardly minding where he hit. “How often do I have to tell you not to touch that knife, how often?” he bellowed.

Farid put his clothes on and was going to slip away. The man stopped for a moment and looked at him with a smile. “You won’t tell your parents, will you? They’re just a couple of stupid boys and a feeble-minded girl.”

The girl laughed and lifted her dress above her head, exposing her buttocks. She was shaking with laughter.

Farid promised not to tell his parents, and at first he didn’t want to accept the five-piastre coin held out to him. But the man urged him in friendly tones to take it. So he finally put it in his pocket and ran out. He bought himself a packet of chewing gum and went back to his mother, who was just saying goodbye to her friend.

“Well, did you have a nice time?” she asked.

“You bet!” he muttered. His groin hurt.

On the way home Claire suddenly stopped at a barber’s shop where men had gathered around a radio set. The barber had turned the volume right up. “War,” Farid heard. He didn’t understand.

“Come on, we must get home, quick,” said Claire, and her face was clouded.

A few days later he saw the first refugees arriving in Damascus. Someone said they were Palestinians and the Jews had driven them out. People were saying they’d go home again in a few days’ time. But Elias shook his head.

71. An Oasis Called Antoinette

Antoinette Farah was dark-skinned and smelled of almonds. Farid had been playing with her as long as he could remember. She lived not far from him, in the blind alley leading to Josef’s house.

Antoinette’s mother liked Farid very much. She often kissed him, much more often than she kissed her own son. Her husband, on the other hand would rather have seen Farid playing not with his daughter but with his lethargic son Djamil, who was two years older than his sister, but more interested in jam sandwiches than playing games. Farid and Antoinette soon found a way to get rid of Djamil. They told him which of the neighbours was cooking something really delicious that day, and he would be off like a shot to stand at that neighbour’s door with a pleading look in his eyes. Everyone liked his generous parents, and accepted greedy Djamil for their sake.

Like Farid, Antoinette thought their own street very boring. She didn’t know any other girls of her own age there. It wasn’t until later that she made friends with Josef’s sister Josephine, who couldn’t stand her own brother either.

Farid went to visit her whenever possible. As soon as Djamil had a sandwich in his hands, or was off tracking down a good meal, the two of them disappeared into the children’s room. The game that Farid liked best was lying on top of Antoinette, particularly on her back, which made him feel pleasantly hot between the legs. But she didn’t like that. It was Djamil who told him one day that Antoinette loved chocolate and would do anything for it. On his next visit Farid brought a chocolate bar with him and showed it to her. Of course she wanted it at once, and he stammered out what Djamil had told him to say. “You can have it if you’ll let me do what I want to you.”

Antoinette glared furiously at her munching brother, but agreed, and lay on the carpet enjoying the chocolate while Farid rocked back and forth on her back.

Djamil’s eyes were glued to the chocolate bar, and he ignored Farid entirely. When Antoinette had finished it and licked her fingers with relish she shook Farid off. “That’s enough for today. Bring me another bar and then you can ride on me again,” she said calmly, adjusting her clothes.

“That didn’t last long,” he protested.

“You can ride me for an hour for every chocolate bar,” said Djamil. Revolted, Farid turned away from him.

“It may not seem very long to you on top, but it’s ages for me underneath. Want to try?” she asked.

He lay on the carpet and Antoinette climbed on top of him. At first he thought it was amusing, but then her rocking weight felt uncomfortable, and the minutes seemed an eternity.

One summer night the Mushtaks visited the Farah family, and after a leisurely meal the grown-ups played cards. Farid had asked to be allowed to sleep over with the Farah children, and the three of them went off to the children’s room next to their parents’ bedroom on the second floor and played games, looking out of the window now and then at the grown-ups enjoying the cool night air down in the courtyard.

Soon Djamil was asleep, and Antoinette showed Farid her latest discovery. She crawled under her blanket with him and raised her legs to make a tent. Where the wool was thick the roof of the tent was dark, but in some places the blanket let the light of the bright lamp in the room come through.

“Look at the sky, and those are the clouds,” she said in the dim light, and then pointed to a tiny hole in the blanket. Light fell through it. “And that’s my star. It visits me every day before I go to sleep.”

Farid wasn’t sure later how long they had played under the blanket. At some point he fell asleep, and his parents had long ago gone home when he suddenly woke up. He heard moans and laughter. When he sat up in the bed he saw that Antoinette was awake too. He could see her face in the light coming into the room from a lamp in the inner courtyard. She put her forefinger to her lips.

“What’s going on? Where am I?” he asked softly.

“In our house. Perhaps …” she said, and hesitated as a loud moan came from the room next door. Her mother was begging for more, and her father was crying breathlessly, “Yes, yes!” again and again.

“They’re making love,” said Antoinette, smiling. “They do that almost every night.”

“Is your Papa hurting your Mama?”

“No, no, he’s necking with her. And she wants more.”

The sound of the woman’s laughter reassured Farid. Antoinette put her head on his chest and stroked his hand. Finally she crawled over to him and kissed him on the lips. Her mouth tasted of peppermint, probably because she had to clean her teeth every evening. It was nice, and Farid kissed her cheek. Her face was hot, and she kissed him on the lips again, holding his hand tight in hers, almost as if she were praying. He pressed it, and felt that she was perspiring. For the first time he smelled her sweat. That night she smelled of almonds and coffee.

She bared her breasts. “You must kiss me here and then they’ll grow,” she said in the dark, raising herself until her little nipple pushed into his mouth. Farid sucked it, and she laughed because it tickled. “Not so hard, or they’ll grow too big,” she whispered, giving him her other breast.

72. The Hammam

Later, the word Paradise always made Farid think of the time when he was still a little boy and could go to the hammam with his mother. They went to the Hammam al Bakri, near Bab Tuma. Wednesday was the women’s day. Antoinette and her mother were always there.

The hammam was a world of its own. In later years, when Farid saw the paintings of the French Romantics idealizing women in the hammam or the harem, he thought their pictures boring by comparison with what he remembered.

The two most beautiful girls there were Jeannette and Antoinette, although they looked very different. Jeannette had pale skin and green eyes. Antoinette’s skin was dark, almost black. Both were maturing rather early, and at the age of ten they already had small breasts and round little backsides.

Jeannette liked playing in the hammam with a blond boy from Ananias Alley. Antoinette, on the other hand, was interested only in Farid. It was she who explained the difference between men and women to him in one of the empty cubicles. Opening her legs, she showed him her vagina. Farid thought it was a wound.

“Have they cut off your little pigeon?” he asked. Children in Damascus called a penis a pigeon in those days, because they thought it looked as if it were sitting on two eggs.

Antoinette giggled. “No, silly. Women keep their little pigeon and its eggs in a nest inside them.”

He didn’t understand, and she giggled again, but promised to tell him all about it. However, she never did, for directly after this he was torn away from his dream of Paradise. Overnight, he wasn’t allowed to go to the hammam with the women any more. Years later Claire told him how the women would hint delicately to a mother that it was time she stopped bringing her son. He laughed, but at the time, aged nine and suddenly banished, he had wept in the courtyard for a whole hour.

“Your son will soon be needing a bride.” That was how the coded information went. If a mother didn’t catch on, the women put it more clearly. “Next time you’d better bring his father too,” they would say.

Claire had taken the hint. “You can go with Papa from now on,” she had told Farid next Wednesday, and set off alone with her things.

So Saturday after Saturday he followed his father to the baths. Elias always went on his own, and if he met any acquaintances it was by chance. He didn’t mind who was there and who wasn’t. The men always conducted boring conversations about business and war, extravagant and unfaithful women, the government and the weather.

And then there was the horrible man who did the soaping and whose eyes followed him every Saturday. He would soap and massage the men for a few piastres. He talked to Elias for a long time until he was persuaded to pay for a massage with his son. You never lay there naked, but always with a towel around you, and the masseur too had a thin apron around his hips. His bare torso was tattooed and not very hairy.

Farid didn’t like the heavily built man, so he didn’t want to go into a cubicle with him, but said he’d rather stay in the large public room. The masseur muttered, but agreed. He worked away on Farid’s back for a while. Then, suddenly, he was lying on top of the boy with his penis erect, massaging him with a sisal glove.

Farid tried to get up, but the man pushed him back on the wet stone floor. Elias was drowsing on a bench above the stove at the far end of the room. Everything went blurred before Farid’s eyes and suddenly looked dim and misty. His father appeared to be far away and out of reach. Then he felt the man removing the towel that covered his buttocks. “No!” he cried, rearing his upper body up. Only the man’s apron separated his excited penis from the orifice it desired.

Elias briefly opened his eyes. “What?” he muttered, and dozed off again. But another man saw Farid’s plight, and emerged from the mists.

“What are you doing with the boy?” he asked quietly. He wasn’t sure, because he couldn’t see properly in all the steam.

The embarrassed masseur smiled. “He doesn’t like being rubbed down with sisal,” he claimed. “The boy has skin like a girl’s, but he’ll soon get used to it.”

“No, I won’t,” protested Farid.

Now the man did see what was going on. “And what’s that, then?” he asked, low-voiced, taking hold of the erect penis with the towel. The masseur flinched back, and Farid jumped up.

His father was still asleep.

Farid never let himself be overruled like that again. He didn’t want to be either massaged or soaped, and soon he stopped going to the hammam.

But after he had been banished from that female Paradise, Antoinette didn’t want to play with him any more. “You’re a man now,” she said, “and it’s not a good idea for a girl to play with men.” From then on she spoke sharply to him, just as Josef’s sister did. And without Antoinette, Farid’s childhood was as boring as white cotton wool, until the day when Josef let him join the gang.

73. The Gang

He was to go to the attic at midnight. It was a warm spring night, and Farid lay awake in his bed. His heart was hopping with excitement like a scared rabbit. When the clock struck twelve he jumped up and slipped out of his room barefoot. He heard a brief cough, and froze beside the fountain. Then he went on to the stairway between the bathroom and the drawing room. At the landing on the second floor, a pleasantly cool breeze blew into his face, smelling of jasmine and aniseed.

Farid stopped by the wooden banisters for a moment, observing the inner courtyards, the gardens, and the roof of the aniseed warehouse below him. When he saw a shadow scurrying up to the attic, he climbed on the low banister rail and jumped.

The attic door was open just a crack. Candlelight flickered. Farid slipped into the large room like a ghost, without opening the door any further. Josef and three other boys were sitting around a large wooden table on which two candles were burning. The only window in the attic was covered with a thick cloth so that the light wouldn’t give them away. The room was musty.

Apart from Josef, Farid knew only one boy in the gang: thin Azar from the class above him at school. They were all barefoot and in their pyjamas. He sat down on a chair at the table with his back to the door. That made all of them except Josef laugh. It was only later that he realized why. No one but a beginner, a trusting child, sits with his back to the door.

“This is Farid,” said his sponsor Josef in his dry voice. “I’ve sounded him out. He’s okay. I propose him as a candidate.” The others nodded agreement.

“So if no one objects, he must take the oath now that he’ll never betray anyone from our gang and will keep faith with it for ever,” Josef went on. “And if he keeps his word, he’ll be a full member in six months’ time.”

Word for word and parrot-fashion, Farid spoke the pompous sentences that Josef asked him to repeat. Even years later he remembered that meeting. It had impressed him greatly, and gave him experience of a political discussion for the first time in his life. A few days before, at the end of March, Colonel Hablan had led a coup against the civilian government. It was the first coup in Arabia. Rasuk, one of the members of the gang, said that Hablan had gone proudly to Faris Khuri, a famous and brilliant politician. “Well, what do you think of my coup?” Hablan had asked Khuri. “It succeeded without a single shot being fired. Isn’t that brilliant?” But the wily politician replied, “I can’t be the judge of that. However, you have opened a door that you’ll never be able to close again. Someone else will soon come through that door and overthrow you.” The colonel had laughed, and left. A few months later, Rasuk told them how another man had carried out a new coup and had Colonel Hablan shot.

The gang met almost daily to discuss their operations, although what effect those operations had was not apparent. Far more important were the nocturnal meetings that strengthened their nerves and made them feel brave. Later, they exchanged banned books and secret plans and ideas. The gang opened the gates of life to Farid, and suddenly he felt as if he had spent his earlier years packed away in cotton wool, like a larva in its cocoon.

74. Boxing

Laila thought boxing the most stupid of all sports. “It’s just men making an art out of their wish to beat each other up,” she said, when Farid enthusiastically told her how he had been to a fight with his grandfather, sitting in the front row to have a really good view.

Elias had gone to a friend’s funeral in Beirut, and Grandfather Nagib just happened to drop in that afternoon, or so he claimed. When Claire told him that her husband had gone away that morning for two days, he simply gave her a mischievous smile.

“Then I can take my young friend for a good long walk in town again, and he can stay the night with us. That way you’ll have peace and quiet and you can do as you like for two days.”

Claire laughed. “When the cat’s away the mice will play.”

But she agreed, stipulating only that her boy must come home as early as possible next morning, because his cousin Laila would be passing through Damascus and was going to drop in.

Nagib took Farid to a boxing match in the main hall of the club, where he always had the best, upholstered seats. The first fight was boring. “Beginners,” said a spectator to their right.

Grandfather disappeared during the intermission, and didn’t come back even when the bell rang for the next fight. Farid, feeling anxious, left his seat and went in search of Nagib. He suddenly felt afraid that his grandfather might have fainted in the men’s room, so he ran that way. There were four or five cubicles in a large room. The first two were empty, but as he was about to open the third door he saw his grandfather coming out of a small room a little way off. There was a young man with him. Grandfather adjusted his jacket and checked his flies, then took out his wallet and gave the stranger some money. Obviously overwhelmed by his generosity, the young man kissed Nagib’s hand. Nagib took the man’s face in his hands and kissed him on the lips. Farid, who had just been going to hail his grandfather, felt strangely moved, and stood rooted to the spot in the shadow of the door.

When Nagib left, Farid unobtrusively followed him back to their seats. “I was looking for you,” he said when they were sitting comfortably next to each other again. Grandfather avoided his inquiring gaze. Some time later, when Farid had almost forgotten this incident, he inadvertently overheard a fierce quarrel between his mother and his grandmother. Claire was defending her father, while Grandmother was talking angrily about Grandfather’s liking for young men. It was downright scandalous, she cried. Claire didn’t want to tell her son what it was all about. Grandmother was always imagining things, she said briefly, and wouldn’t allow her poor father the smallest pleasure.

“She ought to have married my Papa and you ought to have married yours, and then we’d all have been happy,” the boy speculated out loud.

Claire looked at him, her eyes wide. “You may well be right, but time decided otherwise. Mama and I have to love our own husbands.”

It was Josef who explained to him. “If what your grandmother says is true, it means your grandfather fucks boys.”

Farid didn’t understand. “How?” he asked, baffled.

“Oh, for goodness’ sake, don’t you know anything? Or has God sent me an innocent angel? How? How? How many orifices does a man have? Ears and nostrils wouldn’t be much use, right? So what’s left? Your mouth and your bum, idiot.”

75. At the Barber’s

The best barber in the Christian quarter was Michel, a distant cousin of Claire’s. Like all men of good standing, Farid’s and Josef’s fathers went to him. His customers even included the Catholic Patriarch and the bishop. Grandfather Nagib went to Michel too, and praised his elegance in the highest terms. He had a very handsome salon, said Nagib, and was one of the few barbers to wrap warm, moist towels around his customers’ faces after shaving them, to give the skin that special smooth, supple look.

Michel’s salon had large mirrors and a marble floor. Frescos and Arabic ornamentation adorned the ceiling and walls, and the basins were white marble with brass taps that shone like gold. The barber liked to show people his razors and scissors made in Solingen, which cost a fortune in Damascus. He was also an excellent perfumier, and had a secret book with a thousand and one formulas for fragrances. Men swore by his creations, but Claire laughed at them. “It’s all humbug! Michel just adds a few drops of cinnamon, rose, or carnation extract to ordinary distillates of jasmine and lemon blossom, and the men go wild about them.”

Farid didn’t much like visiting Michel the barber. Twice running he had left the boy to an apprentice, who was a nice lad but inexperienced, and kept pulling his hair. “I’m not letting that stupid little chicken loose on me a third time,” muttered Farid on his way home.

Josef too had rebelled against his father and went to a Muslim barber far away near the Ummayad Mosque, where the customers told so many stories that the barber’s attention was constantly distracted, and he gave Josef some very odd haircuts. The man also drew teeth. Quite often he would draw a painful tooth for a customer who had arrived in haste, wailing, while he left a man with his face already lathered waiting to be shaved. He also dealt in houses, songbirds and smuggled goods. He was just the barber for Josef.

“It’s like being in a movie there,” Farid’s friend enthused. “You get a really crazy haircut, you hear two or three exciting stories, you see a tooth being drawn or a deal done under the counter, you get to hear canaries singing, then you have a glass of tea, and all that for half a lira.” A haircut at Michel’s cost at least twice as much.

Farid went looking for a new barber in the Christian quarter, and found a dimly lit salon very close to his own street. He had never noticed it before, although he had passed the dirty wooden door with the smudged little pane of glass in it countless times. This particular day the barber was busy clearing out the salon, so Farid could see into the dark tunnel-shaped room inside. A naked light bulb hung over an ancient mirror. It was left on all day so that the barber could see what he was doing.

“Can I … can I get my hair cut here?” asked Farid hesitantly.

The old man looked up from his broom. “You of course can. Why not? When I finished.” The man spoke broken Arabic like all first-generation Armenians who had escaped the 1915 massacre and found asylum in Syria.

Farid went in. There were a couple of rickety chairs by the wall, and the place looked poor but very clean. Piles of old magazines lay between the chairs. The first page of all of them was missing. Posters of a green landscape with snow-covered hills in the background hung on one wall. There was a picture of the Virgin Mary in the middle of the wall between the posters.

Two large glass jars of water stood close to the barber’s chair. The bottoms of the jars seemed to have a black deposit in them. When Farid’s eyes had become used to the darkness of the room he saw that they were leeches, which his grandmother thought were very good for treating her inflamed leg. “They suck the blood and take the pressure off places where it hurts,” she claimed. Grandfather Nagib spoke of leeches with revulsion, and called anyone he disliked a leech. Here they were, then, swimming about in the two jars, clinging to the inner walls with their front or back suckers. A shudder ran down Farid’s spine.

The Armenian was having a long conversation with his neighbour and seemed to be in no hurry. To give himself something else to think about, Farid picked up one of the magazines and leafed through it. It showed pictures of King Farouk of Egypt, looking solemn, fat, and short-sighted, and surrounded by beautiful women. All the pictures were in unnaturally garish colours. Another magazine was devoted to all that was strange and wonderful, and seemed to find nothing but curious facts on this earth. A third was full of jokes and cartoons, a fourth was a fashion magazine.

“Read more or hair cut?” asked the Armenian shyly. Farid looked up and put the magazine back on the pile. Time passed quickly, for the barber was an excellent storyteller who was short on grammar, but not on wit and adventurous experiences.

This first visit was the start of a friendship that lasted three years, until one day Farid found the salon closed, and heard from the cobbler next door that Karabet the barber had been knocked down by a truck in the night after a party, and died in hospital soon after the accident.

Until then, however, Farid had been to him every other week, and the Armenian never charged him more than quarter of a lira. Farid paid him half a lira, and added the other half to his pocket money. Claire laughed at his haircut, but she let him do as he liked, and his father never noticed.

Karabet was often sad or angry when he told his own story. He had lost his mother and father and fled from Armenia on foot, almost starving. Only when he described his childhood did his eyes shine. Then he stopped cutting hair for a moment, and talked about the sunny afternoons when he used to visit his grandmother. She always gave him a roll with a filling of pasturma, that delicate air-dried beef with its piquant crust of sharp spices. He would stand with his back to the mirror, miming the enjoyable consumption of an enormous pasturma roll.

Karabet earned more from his leeches, which he raised in a pond near the city, than from cutting hair. He was very clean and took good care of his “little beasties”, as he called them. Doctors, neighbours, even university professors bought them from him in large quantities, paying a lira for ten leeches.

It was in Karabet’s salon that Farid learned of the deposition of the king of Egypt, and in the tattered magazines he read about his comfortable life in exile in Rome and St. Moritz. He often went to the salon just to read the magazines. Sometimes Karabet asked him curiously what was in them. He couldn’t read them himself, but was given them free by a newsagent once they were several weeks out of date. And when a new supply came he didn’t throw the old ones away with the garbage, but passed them on to a neighbouring grocer who carefully folded them to make paper bags.

Farid felt safe in the dark salon, as if he were in a deep cavern. There were seldom any other customers, and those who did come were old Armenians who engaged in heated debate with Karabet. Here, in this secluded shop, the boy learned to know the world through pictures. Until now life outside his own experience had been only sound and words to him. Elias read nothing but his newspaper, and seldom picked up a book. Claire was a passionate reader of novels. Only years later did she too discover the world of illustrated magazines.

In Karabet’s salon Farid saw photographs from distant lands: wonderful beaches, mountains, deserts, lavishly laid tables, exotic fruits, and all in colour. Actors and politicians, scientists and daring adventurers suddenly had faces too, and he looked at them so often that he felt almost familiar with them.

76. Cats and Bandits

The banisters on the staircase were a metre away from the roof of the aniseed warehouse, and the drop between them was four metres. Once Farid had landed safely on the warehouse roof he could make his way to the gang’s meeting place unobserved. The other four members walked over the flat rooftops of Damascus too, light of foot and soundless as cats, and met in the attic, which had been disused for years. A large wooden table and a few old chairs had been stored up there for ever. The owners of the building never came up to the attic, and several steps were missing from the stairway leading up from the courtyard of the whole large property.

At Farid’s second meeting, Josef brought out a fat book with a black cover. It contained descriptions of all the secret societies in the world. He never said how he came by such books. Some nights he read chapter after chapter aloud, while the others sat on the large chairs with their legs tucked under them, listening. Farid never met anyone who read aloud better than Josef, either before that time or after it. His husky voice increased the sense of mystery and made his hearers shiver. When he stopped for breath, the air was crackling with the boys’ desire to hear what came next.

At such moments Farid felt how easily he could take off from the earth and fly, light as a feather, to the times and places that Josef brought to life. He felt a particularly close link with the boy on those nights, one that he never felt later with other friends, even those who shared his hiding places when he went underground.

Their tasks were carefully allotted. Azar was responsible for inventions. Josef called him “Gaber”, after the inventor of algebra. Suleiman was to keep on the alert for any rumours. He was nicknamed “Bat”, because he listened to everything in silence. Josef himself was responsible for research into conspiracies and secret societies, and Suleiman dubbed him “Massoni”, freemason. Farid was given what he himself thought far too grand a title, but Josef, who thought he was very brave, gave him the job of defending the gang and called him “Kamikaze”. Rasuk was to report news, and was called just “Journalist”. Their names stuck even when the gang broke up.

Meetings always went on until dawn. Then the boys slipped off over the rooftops, like cats returning from their nocturnal rendezvous, and back to their beds.

77. A Series of Coups

When day dawned over Damascus on 31 March 1949, two armoured cars followed by two jeeps and four army trucks coming from the south reached the Old Town, where they divided into two groups. An armoured car, a jeep, and two trucks drove to the Prime Minister’s house, the other vehicles went to the radio station.

When the armoured car braked sharply outside the Prime Minister’s house, the soldier on sentry duty woke abruptly from an uneasy doze. A sturdily built colonel climbed out of the car. The sentry saluted.

“This is a coup,” said the colonel. The soldier didn’t know what that meant. It was the first time in Arab history that anyone had mentioned such a thing.

“Shall I wake His Excellency?” asked the soldier uncertainly.

“No need,” replied the colonel, turning to his own soldiers, who were now standing to attention. “Fetch him out,” he shouted excitedly.

Two men ran past the sentry into the palace and up the stairs. After a short time the Prime Minister could be heard swearing. Accompanied by the two soldiers, he came out of the house and stared at the colonel without a word. He knew the man: Husni Hablan was an unprincipled servant of the French who had also been in touch with the German Nazis in secret. A worthless character.

The Prime Minister was the scion of an ancient and aristocratic Damascene family, and had insisted on getting correctly dressed before going outside with the soldiers.

“You’ll go on trial for this insult. And you won’t get out of jail again this time,” he finally said, in angry tones. Like the sentry on duty, he failed to understand the situation.

Husni Hablan laughed. “You and your trials — you can lick my arse! I’m the law now, and you’ll be going to jail yourself because I say so.”

The Prime Minister was deeply offended by the colonel’s language. “Take him away,” ordered the leader of the coup, and the soldiers, though still rather hesitantly, led away the man who had just been their prime minister. As if dazed, he walked to the jeep and sat down in his black suit between two unwashed soldiers.

“And now for that other idiot,” cried the officer, telling his column to drive to the hospital where the seriously ill President was waiting for a stomach operation.

Soon the ten men who until now had been the most important people in the state found themselves in prison. That same morning the radio station broadcast some Austrian marching music and then the first communiqué from Husni Hablan, leader of the coup. The Damascenes, who had always hated their governments, rejoiced and danced for days.

Colonel Hablan moved into the palace with his wife and promoted himself to Field Marshal two weeks later. When he discovered from an illustrated magazine that field marshals always carried a baton, he ordered one made of pure gold from a jeweller. The baton, Hablan decreed, was to be large and its shape unique. But the jeweller, though he was pleased to have the order, had never seen a field marshal’s baton in his life, so he modelled it on a rolling pin that he happened to have bought the previous day because he liked its shape.

The Syrians, with their talent for ridiculing all their rulers, said the dictator was under his wife’s thumb. She was always waiting for him with a rolling pin when he came home drunk after visiting whores, and now he’d show her a thing or two!

Husni Hablan acclaimed his own rise to power enthusiastically and often, especially at the American and French embassies. But he soon sensed that the French and Americans wanted to keep him down. He turned away from these allies, feeling suspicious of them. Then he met Anton Saade, an ambitious young adventurer who admired and tried to emulate Hitler. His supporters called themselves Syrian Nationalists, wore black shirts, and copied the swastika as their symbol, but giving it rounded corners that made it look like a toy windmill. The ambitious Saade wanted to unite Lebanon, Syria, parts of Palestine, Iraq, and Jordan under Syria’s leadership. As dictator of Damascus, Hablan applauded the young nationalist’s brilliant idea, and hoped for more respectful treatment from the French and Americans once it was a fait accompli.

Saade was a fanatic, capable of anything, an intellectual with ambitious political plans but no experience of armed conflict. His first attempt to occupy a police station in the mountains of Lebanon failed miserably. His men were shot down, he himself escaped to Damascus, and fled to the protection of his patron Hablan.

Soon after that, however, the American ambassador called on Hablan and told him brusquely that, as the new ruler of Syria, he had embarked upon an extremely dangerous venture. Lebanon was part of the French protectorate, and if he did not hand the terrorist Saade over to the Lebanese at once the United States couldn’t protect him any longer.

Hablan was frightened, and he did indeed deliver his ally up to the Lebanese, who executed Saade within twenty-four hours, even before the man who was such a threat to them could give away his contacts, naming any persons and governments behind his movement. Anton Saade’s death for his ideal made him a martyr to his followers. The Syrian Nationalists, who were politically insignificant but well organized and shrank from nothing, now had a new enemy: the cowardly Husni Hablan.

On 14 August 1949, a hundred and thirty-seven days after his coup, the dictator was overthrown. It was just like a movie. A troop of soldiers marched into the capital. To avoid bloodshed the head of the secret service, one of those involved in the new coup, got in touch with the lieutenant commanding the guard of the presidential palace. The lieutenant received a large sum of money for unobtrusively disappearing that morning and telling his men to keep the peace until he was back.

The Field Marshal was still asleep when the troop arrived at the palace. Colonel Dartan, leader of the coup, sent a young first lieutenant to Hablan. The name of this athletic officer was Mansur, he was a loyal supporter of the executed Anton Saade, and he thirsted for revenge. Mansur drew his pistol and stormed up the broad marble stairway. Colonel Hablan was just coming out of his bedroom in a rage when the young, powerful officer in his camouflage gear reached the landing. Before the colonel found out what all this noise meant, the lieutenant’s large hand, the hand of a farmer’s son, landed on his cheek. The small, stocky dictator lost his balance and fell to the floor. “That’s what you get for betraying the martyred Anton, you son of a whore!”

The dictator shouted for help, imbuing his words with all the weighty importance of the state, only to discover that the state wasn’t at all important now. Only his wife went to stand by him, but she was sent back. Pale as death, she obeyed.

First Lieutenant Mansur kicked Hablan to start him going down the stairs. The dictator, stumbling, cursed, and begged, and when he reached the bottom his face was bleeding.

“Filthy dog,” snarled Mansur. Colonel Dartan was standing some way off, disguised by a pair of sunglasses, unmoved as he watched the man who until just now had been his supreme commander. Two soldiers tied the dictator up with an old rope stinking of dung. “Put him up on the bonnet of the car,” called First Lieutenant Mansur, while Dartan got into his own vehicle and went to the radio station to deliver his first communiqué personally.

Mansur drove his armoured car with the screaming dictator on the bonnet through the streets of Damascus, and then out towards Mazze. Once on the narrow country road he stopped at an agreed place, and waited for a second car to arrive with the overthrown Prime Minister Barasi. The scene had been well rehearsed and went exactly as planned. Four soldiers used their rifle butts to drive the dictator and his loyal prime minister, both in their pyjamas, out into the fields barefoot and with their hands tied. Mansur went up to them and shouted that they were going to be executed as CIA agents and traitors to the Syrian nation. Then he shot them both. Barasi said not a word. He had appeared dazed all the time. The first bullet hit and killed him. But Hablan, who was only wounded, screamed and cursed the cowards who were deserting him now. Mansur levelled his pistol at the dictator’s forehead one last time as Hablan lay on his back and called out, loud enough for all the soldiers to hear him, “Anton Saade sends you this bullet, my dear leader.” Then one final shot rang out in the silence.

Colonel Dartan, who had led the new coup, preferred to pull the strings backstage, and installed a civilian government loyal to him. But it didn’t last long. On 19 December 1949 Colonel Shaklan, another early supporter of the nationalist Anton Saade, carried out a coup of his own. Shaklan, a wary and hardboiled character, was an enemy of the British and a friend of the Germans and the French. He ruled Syria with an iron hand until the end of February 1954, when Colonel Batlan carried out his own coup and put him to flight.

78. The Alley

Abbara Alley became Farid’s province. In the afternoon he could hardly wait to be through with his homework and allowed to go out with Josef. He met more children and young people now. There was no other street where so many girls met every day to play games and whisper secrets. Word of that got around, of course, and the reputation of Abbara Alley attracted other boys.

And some strange people lived there, the kind you didn’t find anywhere else in Damascus. The cab driver Salim was the best liar of all time; Riyad could talk to birds; and Basil, a lonely widower, had a dog who drank strong liquor with his master every day. Crazy Sa’dia wore seven dresses one on top of the other, and whenever she set eyes on a man she called out, “Don’t you want to marry me? See how many dresses I have.” Then she would begin lifting her skirts one by one. Bassam could shed tears to order, and Jusuf could walk upstairs and downstairs on his hands.

The inhabitants of Farid’s own street exchanged polite salutations but otherwise kept themselves to themselves. At most, they knew their neighbours in the two or three nearest houses, whereas here in Abbara Alley people lived at such close quarters that they were like brothers and sisters, and everyone called old people Auntie and Uncle. The front doors of the buildings were never locked, and you could get into the inner courtyards any time you liked.

The alley divided at the end. To the right, it led to Jews’ Alley, and to the left to the small but famous Bulos Chapel by the wall of the Old Town. Crowds of tourists passed by every day, and the children shouted, “Mister, mister, this boy is the son of holy Paulus,” pointing to the only fair-haired boy among them, Toni the perfumier Dimitri’s son. Toni just stood there, munching a flatbread filled with Dutch cheese, and as usual understood none of what was going on.

Farid had been spellbound the moment he stepped into Abbara Alley. It was the place of his dreams, just as he had imagined it during his solitary wanderings. It pulsated with life. The boys would often spend a couple of hours playing football, marbles, or cops and robbers in the street or its many back yards, and then four or five of them went along to see Uncle Salim and listen to his stories and tales of adventure.

But if they wanted to be private they went to Rasuk’s place. With his father’s help, Rasuk had converted an old tool shed in the garden into a room where he and his friends could be undisturbed, coming and going as they liked at any time.

Rasuk’s elder brother Elias was a tiler. He was a cheerful character, and very nice so long as you didn’t lend him any money. He danced beautifully, sang, and always looked slightly raffish with his oiled hair and open shirt. It wasn’t long before Farid fell for his tricks. A little cat had broken its leg, Elias told him, but the vet wanted five lira and he had only four. Could Farid help out with the other lira? It was touching: the poor tiler, who earned two lira day at most, seemed very surprised to find that Farid loved cats more than any other animal. “I can see you’re a noble, brave boy. Only the brave and noble like cats,” he praised him.

Farid ran home as if those words had lent him wings, raided his piggybank, returned to Elias breathless and handed him the lira. When he told Josef about the cat’s operation later, with much emotion, Josef laughed pityingly. “That trickster!” he said “He can’t stand cats. He scores at least one hit with a stone on any stray cat around here. And now he’s cheated you of the lira you carefully saved up.” But on seeing his friend’s horrified face, he consoled him. “We all get cheated by Elias some time or other. He wangled a lira out of me too,” he added, shaking his head gloomily. After the cat story, Farid avoided Rasuk’s brother.

Toni always had the best cigarettes, but he also brought chocolate and Dutch cheese to Rasuk’s little hideout. They all liked the cigarettes except Farid, who didn’t smoke. He preferred chocolate. The ever-hungry Azar used to fall on the cheese. He was very poor but highly intelligent. His father was a street trader who sold vegetables, fruits, or sometimes household implements from his wooden handcart, depending on the season, pushing the cart through the streets from sunrise to sunset, crying his wares. He had to feed nine children from the proceeds.

Azar’s mother did what she could to help out by earning a little money. She embroidered Arab robes and dresses for a textiles dealer, she knitted pullovers, woollen caps and scarves. Her children always wore the most colourful pullovers in the whole alley because they were made with odds and ends of leftover wool. Her most tedious job, however, was wrapping caramels and other sweets in coloured paper for a large confectionery factory. The work itself was easy, but Azar’s mother had a hard time protecting the delicious sweets from her hungry children. They were all carefully weighed and counted, and she had to pay out of her own pocket for every one that went missing. Once, when the children were left unsupervised and ate about forty, the poor woman had to wrap four hundred extra sweets to pay for those she had lost. She gave up that job in the end and wrapped socks instead.

Azar, who loved and honoured his parents, was able to go to the elite school in spite of the family’s poverty, because he was extremely gifted and the Catholic Church paid his fees.

The Jewish boy Saki was different. Farid had never known anyone who made fun of his own parents before. Saki called his father “Old Skinflint” and his mother “Liverish” because of her liver disorder.

It was a year before Farid visited Saki’s home for the first time. The family lived in nearby Jews’ Alley, in a fine house with wood and marble panelling on its interior walls. Saki was doing an injustice to his father, a calm and courteous man with a melancholy face. His mother, however, was much worse than Saki described her. She was always suffering from some ailment or other, and expected everyone to feel sorry for her. Her husband did the housework for her, and suffered in silence from the diabetes that finally killed him at the age of sixty.

But to Farid, the greatest surprise was Saki’s sister Sarah. Sarah was a beauty. She had her mother’s blue eyes and her father’s gentle, melancholy face. She was two or three years older than Saki and had matured early. At the age of twelve she went about looking very raffish, dolled up like a diva. One day, when Farid’s gaze lingered on her backside, she turned and grinned at him. “Don’t even think about it! I’m not marrying you. You’re only a little boy.”

He felt caught in the act, for at that very moment he had in fact been thinking that Sarah’s behind was even prettier than Antoinette’s, and he would like to marry her and lie on top of her back. Saki, who knew his sister, laughed. “He can’t marry you anyway. He’s a Jew gone wrong. He seriously believes the Messiah already came to earth to let a few useless characters crucify him.”

Farid understood none of this. When he told Josef about it, his friend said the only difference between Jews and Christians was that one bunch thought Jesus had already come into the world and the other didn’t. Only now did Farid understand Rasuk and Saki’s game when they grabbed each other by the collar for a joke and kept shouting the same things.

“The Messiah came to earth — go on, say it!” Rasuk would bellow.

“No he didn’t come to earth — go on, say it!” Saki would reply, even louder, until finally both boys punched each other in the ribs, grinning.

“What about Sarah?” asked Farid.

“Oh, never mind her,” replied Josef. “She’s a silly cow, mad keen to get married, that’s all she has in her head. She wants to be married before her bloom wears off, because then there’ll be nothing left but her stupidity.”

Her brother Saki couldn’t stand Sarah either. “She’s thirteen, and she already knows what kind of meals she’ll be cooking when she’s fifty,” he said with derision.

But Sarah was nice to Toni, and only to him, and closed both eyes to any faults. Perhaps because he looked like a blonde girl, perhaps because he was always giving her perfume. It was only when his father beat him one day for giving Sarah two wickedly expensive bottles of scent, and Toni had to go to see her empty-handed, that she gave him too the cold shoulder. Saki laughed at him. “You’re nothing to Sarah without perfume,” he told him in Rasuk’s shed. As usual, Toni didn’t understand.

79. An Angel’s Weak Point

Aznar was really far too pale and thin for the part, so everyone was surprised when he was picked for the role of the angel that year.

Father Michael, who taught religious instruction, read out the names of all the pupils who were be in the end of year celebrations. This time Molière’s The Miser was one of the items on the programme. The twelfth grade had been rehearsing twice a week since January. Farid, who had recited a long poem last year, was to do the same again too. He was known for his good memory and ability to get through a piece without getting stage fright. A gigantic tombola with many prizes donated by rich Christians was to boost the school funds. The Minister of Culture, the Patriarch of all the churches in Damascus, and the Vatican ambassador were invited to the festivities, which acted annually as an advertisement for the elite school. Forty or fifty rich families also had invitations.

Everything was going smoothly. The pupils taking part were let off homework on rehearsal days. Farid was very pleased. He had only to read his poem through twice before he knew it off by heart, but he didn’t mention the fact, thus ensuring that he still had time off.

Azar rehearsed endlessly, practising how to move elegantly in his long white robe and manage his large, snow-white wings. The wings got in the way, and he kept falling over sideways. He looked pathetically clumsy. In the end the priest realized that he’d have to find him smaller wings, and after that Azar played his part brilliantly.

The great day came. Over five hundred seats in the school yard were all occupied, and over three hundred pupils and the school servants had to make do with standing room.

Opening the show, Mr Mansur the Arabic teacher read out a long, patriotic poem about Palestine and love of the homeland. Apparently his grief for Palestine made him weak and sick. Farid thought red-faced Mr Mansur, who was bursting with rude health, was rather too stout to be convincing. The pupils didn’t understand the poem, but they had to clap at a signal from their teacher in order to impress the minister of culture.

Then came the play. It was a huge success, for nothing makes Arabs laugh as heartily as a miser. Finally Farid recited his poem with so much feeling than many women in the audience wept. But something went wrong with Azar’s part in the proceedings. He was supposed to hover past the distinguished guests in the front row during the brief intermissions, offering them chocolates from a tray held in front of him and disguised as a cloud. But temptation was too strong.

When Farid joined the others he saw Mr Mansur who was so upset about Palestine, and the art teacher Madame Marierose, both laying into Azar, who was weeping with his mouth full. There was a pile of chocolate wrappings.

“What a thing to do!” cried the indignant Madame Marierose. “He ate all the chocolates! Every last one!” Azar shed more tears. One of his wings was hanging hopelessly askew.

80. A Message

Farid was fascinated by Sarah, but she simply ignored him. She walked past him and the other boys who visited her brother without a word of greeting, as if they weren’t there at all.

You might have thought she was blind, for even when Farid put on his best clothes and asked for Saki at the door she merely said her brother wasn’t in. Farid was well aware of that, having just seen his friend with her father in the family textiles store. Then she would turn and go away. Yet about every tenth time she said something that had him thinking for nights on end.

“Grey doesn’t suit you. If I were you I’d try black and white and make the most of the contrast,” she once advised him. So she was noticing him after all.

Next day, when Saki was working with his father in the store, Farid turned up not in contrasting colours but in white trousers and a white shirt. However, Sarah simply looked through him and said, “Saki’s out.” She didn’t notice that he hadn’t taken her advice, nor did she ask how he was. Nothing, no sign of interest, and that was worse than if she had called him and all his ancestors bad names. But just before turning she examined him scornfully once more, and said, barely audibly, “Black suits you better.” Then the door closed.

“There’s a secret message to you somewhere in all those remarks,” said Josef, when Farid told him about it. Farid felt the same, but he didn’t understand the message.

One night he dreamed of Sarah. She was lying on the marble floor of the hammam beside him. Steam hovered above them, and they were both perspiring. Sarah smelled of jasmine, her favourite perfume. She looked intently at him with her blue eyes, and he could have died of love.

“Now you must be brave or I can’t marry you,” she said, coming closer and kissing him on the lips, and then she lay down on her back beside him again and held his right hand. Suddenly he heard the voice of Claire’s cousin Michel the barber.

“What’s he doing here?” he asked.

“He has the best knives. Made in Solingen,” she replied. And suddenly he felt a heavy weight on his outstretched thighs. Michel in his barber’s coat was sitting on his thighs, holding his penis firmly between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand, and a razor blade flashed in his right hand. Farid wanted to jump up, but his body was heavy as lead. He heard the barber laugh. “You’ll be a Jew in a minute,” he cried, and Farid felt a sharp pain on his glans.

Breathing heavily and sweating, he sat up. His room was dark. Two cats were fighting on a rooftop somewhere. They hissed loudly, and then all was still. His prick hurt. He got up and put on a light. His foreskin was intact, but the glans was slightly inflamed.

81. Going to the Movies

“We just have to see that movie,” said Josef up in the attic. It was Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid. Josef loved films. But as all the cinemas were in the new part of town, and his parents worried about him; he always had to keep his cinema-going secret.

Although he was only nine, Josef had seen all the films about Flash Gordon the space traveller, and he knew the names of all the American film actors. He didn’t like Arab film stars. “They just aim to make women cry. That’s not what boys want to watch,” was his crushing verdict.

“You have to see Chaplin before you die,” he announced portentously, as if hatching a conspiracy. Rasuk was keen to go off to the cinema at once. He thought Chaplin was a genius. Saki and two other boys joined them, and at the last moment Toni said he’d come, but Josef didn’t want him tagging along. “He’ll only attract sex maniacs in those shorts of his.”

So Toni went off to change and arrived at the bus stop, gasping for breath, just in time. His long trousers weren’t properly buttoned up yet, and he was still fumbling with his flies.

“There are two people with congenital defects in this street,” said Josef. “Aida ought to have been born a boy and Toni a girl.” Suleiman’s sturdy little sister could compete with any boy. Her stone-throwing was feared, for she always hit her mark.

It was Farid’s first visit ever to the cinema. The man on the door took their tickets and laughed. “Here come Ali Baba and his thieves.” He seemed to know Josef well.

When the lights went out Farid’s heart raced with excitement. However many movies he saw later, The Kid was always his favourite, because of the magic of that first film show. He soon forgot everything around him and plunged into the world of the little orphan boy to whom the large-eyed tramp took such a fancy. Unfortunately the film kept tearing, and the light coming on in the auditorium was like a cold shower.

The show wasn’t over until half an hour later than scheduled, and they ran for the bus. The driver took his time, stopping at every other store on his way through the bazaar to pick up people who had booked seats. This seemed to be his last trip of the day, and he was in no hurry.

It was after seven when Farid walked through the front door at home. He could hear his father’s angry voice in the drawing room.

“Hello,” he said, but he got no further. Before Claire could say a word, Elias had jumped up and hit him in the face. Farid fell backward and crashed into the door of the room. His nose was bleeding.

Claire begged her husband to stop, but he was like an angry bull. He grabbed the boy by the collar, kicked his backside and hit him on the head. Then he pushed him out into the courtyard and over to the storeroom near the kitchen. He thrust him inside and locked the door. Farid lay there for a while, but finally sat up. There was a light switch, but nothing to sit on, only shelves of foodstuffs, cans, rice, flour, salt, sugar. He crouched on the floor and tried to stop his nosebleed by raising his right arm and putting his head back. It did begin to dry up, but the pain in the back of his head, his ears, and his back was still there. He heard Claire crying and Elias shouting, telling her she’d be responsible if anything happened to her son on the street in the evening.

The memory of Chaplin’s slapstick routines made Farid smile. All was quiet outside now, and it was late when he heard soft footsteps.

“How are you doing?” whispered Claire.

“I’m okay, don’t worry,” said Farid.

“I can’t let you out. Elias has the key. But I can slip something under the door. I can …”

“Oh yes, please, some bread and my geography exercise book. And a pencil. I have to draw the solar system. And I need an eraser too.”

“I’ll be right back,” said Claire.

Soon after that she pushed his exercise book, ruler, compasses, a pencil, and an eraser under the door, as well as two flatbreads and a slab of chocolate in a flat paper bag.

Only later did he find a note between the flatbreads. “I love you!” it said, and, “I want to hear all about the movie tomorrow.”

His solar system was not a huge success, but better than nothing. The geography teacher was strict, and seemed to have his hand welded to his cane. He rapped the pupils’ knuckles for the least little thing. The children were afraid of him, and learned the lengths of rivers and the heights of mountains by heart, parrot-fashion.

Next morning a number of them were punished, including Josef and Suleiman. Farid escaped because of his drawing, and he thought gratefully of Claire. For the first time he understood what mother-love really means.

“How did you manage to get your drawing done?” asked Josef curiously at break, not without envy.

“The nights are long in my father’s prison,” he replied, aiming for a tone of histrionic pathos.

82. The Short Memory of Chickens

Aunt Salime wasn’t really any relation; Claire and Elias just bought their eggs and chickens from her when they were in Mala, and called her Aunt out of civility and respect.

She had been a brave woman all her life. Wonderful tales were told of incidents in which she had played a prominent part, usually showing more courage than all the men in the village put together. Perhaps that was why she had never married.

If anyone asked why men avoided her, she said, “It’s because they eat too much meat steeped in fear. Meat is digested in the body and everything that was in it goes its own way, the nutrients into the blood, the waste matter out again, and the fear into the heart.”

She herself knew no fear and ate no meat, whether beef, mutton, or goat, because in her view not all the seasonings in the world could do away with the fear felt in its last moments by an animal going to slaughter.

Aunt Salime raised chickens and lived from selling their eggs, which were in great demand, because she fed them only the best grain. And when she had nothing else to do she sat with them and sang them nursery rhymes in a quiet voice. The chickens seemed to like her singing. They clucked quietly and melodiously, as if echoing Aunt Salime’s voice.

She told her fowls tales of love, loyalty, and treachery. Claire was amused by them, and said Aunt Salime had a brain no bigger than her chickens did, that was why she understood them so well. But Farid thought her stories were exciting.

One day she told him about a hen who put up with all kinds of dangers and humiliations for love. She refused the advances of the magnificent rooster who ruled Aunt Salime’s poultry yard, and instead went through a hole in the fence to the yard next door, where a gaunt white rooster lived. She made love with him until he fell over, exhausted, and only then did the hen go home. Aunt Salime’s jealous rooster pecked her and flapped his wings, but the hen took her punishment, and went back day after day on her amorous outings. When Farid saw Aunt Salime’s magnificent rooster, he doubted her story. The bird was a fine specimen, with all the colours of the rainbow in his tail.

“There, look at that! What did I tell you?” she suddenly said. The hen was on her way through the fence. Farid stood up and saw the two lovers dancing around each other. Then the white rooster mounted Aunt Salime’s hen, who willingly squatted down and raised her rear end for him. Meanwhile Aunt Salime’s rooster was throwing a fit of rage and jealousy, crowing himself hoarse. But the lovers took no notice. He couldn’t get through the small hole in the fence; Aunt Salime had made sure of that. Whenever the white rooster finished the hen wooed him again with her dance, until he mounted her once more. And just as Aunt Salime had said, she didn’t come home until the white rooster was lying in the sun half dead, and didn’t even have the strength to keep his eyes open.

Farid shooed the jealous rooster away, and wouldn’t let him get near the love-sick hen.

When a chicken was too old to lay, Aunt Salime killed it and sold it to one of her family or the neighbours. The way she killed the chickens so as to keep their meat free of fear was an impressive sight. When she had chosen an old hen, she took a long, very sharp knife and went out. She fed the chickens. She lured the bird whose life was about to end to a wooden platform set up in the middle of her meadow, drove all the others away from this raised dais, and finally made a great fuss of the hen, feeding her a few nuts and grains. The hen pecked, felt happy, and suspected nothing. Aunt Salime sang songs to her.

Then, quick as lightning, she drew the knife from its sheath, which she wore on her back, and stabbed, but not like a butcher, more like a dancer. Seconds later the knife had disappeared again. Her hand, now free, moved gracefully back to the bowl of corn. The other chickens were alarmed for a split second or so, but next moment they were greedily pecking at the grain that Aunt Salime scattered around the platform, while the star of the day performed a headless flight. It looked as if she were going to loop the loop in the air by way of farewell, but before she had finished she fell to the ground a few metres away, and Aunt Salime quickly vanished into the kitchen with the dead fowl.

“Okay, so that one left this life without fear, but what about the others?” asked Farid. “They’ve seen their companion die. How will they ever get up on that platform without feeling afraid?”

“Yes, the chickens do see it,” replied Aunt Salime, “but they have very short memories — if they didn’t, they’d have stopped laying eggs long ago.”

83. The Devil’s Daughters

His family’s summer residence was not in a pleasant location. In the hot season, when Damascus was unbearable, his parents fled to Mala in the mountains, and Farid was woken every morning by a terrible sound: the bleating of sheep on their last journey through the village.

Nothing ever changed in Mala. Grapes, figs, sweet corn and tomatoes certainly tasted better there than anywhere else, but the butchers still slaughtered animals right outside their doors. There were three butchers in all, and one of them had his shop opposite Farid’s house. The butcher was one-eyed but witty, and his fine voice was popular with the women.

Every morning he led one of the sheep from his distant sheds to his butcher’s shop. He did it with the composure of a conqueror. He walked patiently behind the sheep, and kept stopping when it stopped and bleated pitifully, obviously with some presentiment of misfortune ahead. It was a short-winded, bloodcurdling bleat. The sheep looked around with its eyes wide. The butcher sang soft folk songs about longing and loneliness, and pushed the animal almost considerately forward. The sheep seemed to rouse itself from its sense of loss. It walked on as if automatically for a while, only to stop again. Interestingly, it was more hesitant and bleated louder the closer it came to the shop. It wouldn’t walk the last few metres at all. All its legs seemed to go rigid, but with the ease of long practice the butcher pushed the poor animal to the door, tied it up to a metal ring there and opened the shop. At this time of morning Farid was already sitting out on the balcony.

The butcher soon came back from the shop with a knife and a tin bowl to catch the blood. He skilfully caught the sheep by both front and back hooves, threw it over like a judo fighter, and pressed his knee against the animal’s head. It was taken by surprise and made no more noise. The knife flashed quickly and the sheep began bleeding to death. Its last twitchings pursued Farid into his dreams.

Once a week there was goat meat at the butcher’s. Usually it came from young animals, but now and then an old billygoat had his throat cut. On goat days Claire stayed well away from the shop. She was fond of the little kids, and didn’t want to see them slaughtered. The elderly billygoats smelled too strong for her, even if they had been washed before slaughter and the flavour of their meat was disguised by large quantities of choice spices.

The goats never took a step towards the shop of their own accord. The butcher hauled them there on a rope, and they resisted with all their might, bleating not pathetically but indignantly. In the end he had to carry them. He never sang to the goats at all.

“It’s worth resisting even in the slaughterhouse,” said Claire, who sometimes consoled Farid in this early and sorrowful hour on the balcony by bringing him a coffee.

In the afternoon — by which time all the meat was sold — the butcher rose from a brief siesta and strolled through the village and past his shop with his goats, about ten of them, and his sheep, taking them to the nearby fields to graze on thyme, thistles, basil, parsley, grapes, roses and anything else they found. That was what made the meat he sold so popular. The surprising thing, however, was that as they passed his shop the goats looked at it, stopped, bleated in agitation for a moment, and only then did they obey the butcher’s imperious call.

“The nanny-goats know all about it. They don’t just wail like the sheep, they’re telling their friends exactly where they’re going,” said Claire, who affectionately called the animals “the Devil’s daughters”.

84. Secrets

The school vacation hadn’t even begun when Farid realized, in horror, that his father had planned the summer ahead for him in every detail. If Elias didn’t want to go to Mala he thought up some reason to keep his family in Damascus too. This time it was repairs to the house that Claire must supervise, since he had more than enough to do at the confectioner’s shop. There were ten weddings imminent in the Christian quarter alone, and he had to provide mountains of sweetmeats for each of them.

“And I’ve found you two jobs,” he casually told Farid, as if the matter had only just crossed his mind. “You’ll spend the mornings with Abdullah the calligrapher, and the afternoons with the perfumier Sheikh Attar. He’s the best creator of fragrances in town. You’ll like working with both of them.”

“Why two?” asked Claire. “Wouldn’t one job be enough?”

Elias ignored her. “You start with Abdullah at nine on Monday.” Farid knew the calligrapher’s workshop; Abdullah was a friend of his father’s. Whenever he went there with Farid they spent some time together, and Elias sometimes felt embarrassed about it and bought some examples of fine calligraphy, usually quotations from the Koran. Later, at some suitable opportunity, he would give them to his own Muslim customers, since he wasn’t about to hang up passages from the Koran at home.

“So where’s the perfumier’s shop?” asked Farid, knowing that his father wouldn’t put up with any protests.

“Ten minutes’ walk from here, on the way to the Buzuriye. You’ll learn a lot from old Sheikh Attar, he’s a real magician.”

The calligrapher was a shy, stiff, elderly gentleman. Farid had to start by polishing the workshop until it shone, and then he spent several days learning how to clean, sharpen, and trim pencils, pens, quills, and reeds and set them out for his master. Weeks passed before Abdullah finally said anything about calligraphic script itself. “It is the shadow of the voice,” he said quietly, and handwritten script must be as clearly formed as shadows under the Arabian sun.

Farid learned what the calligrapher told him, made tea for him and his customers, fetched water and ran errands for his master. It was very hard work. All the same, he was happier there than at the perfumier’s shop, where he went after the siesta. At first he liked Sheikh Attar’s smile, but then he found out that it was only a mask. The man was cold as ice. He just wanted to use Farid as cheap labour. He put a seat outside the shop for him, and the boy was supposed to encourage passers by to go in and visit the master perfumier. But Farid himself was never to enter the place.

When he told Claire about it in the evening she didn’t believe him, but next day she checked for herself, watching from a distance and seeing her son sitting on a stool outside the shop, looking forlorn. The sight did away with any scruples she might have had.

“This is not what we sent him here for. He isn’t learning anything at all,” she informed the perfumier in civil but determined tones.

“I don’t have any other job for him,” replied the master, with his mask-like smile. “I can’t let anyone into the secret of my perfumes.”

“Then we’ll part company, with thanks for your hospitality,” said Claire, patting Farid on the shoulder. “Come along, let’s go.”

They went to eat an ice at the Bakdash ice cream parlour in the Suk el Hamidiye, and then set cheerfully off for home. Claire said she would tell Elias about the end of this particular job that evening.

But Farid enjoyed going to the calligrapher, and Abdullah himself liked his young employee and his interested questions. He even began to smile a little. And when the summer was over, he had at least told the boy about the mistakes that a calligrapher must not make, and had agreed that the boy could go on coming to help him out any time.

So during the following school year Farid continued his training with the calligrapher. Whenever he felt like it he took the bus to go and see Abdullah, who always gave him some work to do. Usually it was filling in the characters on large advertising posters. The master painted the outlines of the characters with a thin brush, and the rest of it was tedious, time-consuming work, but it taught Farid patience.

He spent six weeks with Abdullah next summer too, before going to Mala with Claire and Elias for their vacation. From then on Abdullah even gave him exercises to take home. Usually he had to write out certain sayings in one of the seven different kinds of script that he now knew.

Later his master taught him the technique of calligraphic reflection. This was pure pleasure to Farid, and quite often it made him forget the time entirely. Playing with reflections fascinated him so much that even at home he could sit up until late at night over a picture in which a triangular calligraphic figure was reflected six times around the centre of a circle, producing a geometrical game and a maze for the eye to follow.

His father was deeply moved when, at Christmas, Farid gave him a calligraphic version of the name “Elias Mushtak” in the form of a circular ornament. The script was in gold on an olive green background; both were his father’s favourite colours. Elias couldn’t take his eyes off the picture.

“Did you do that all by yourself? Did Master Abdullah help you?”

“No, no, I did it by myself here at home. I’m sure Master Abdullah would find all sorts of mistakes in it. I’d rather you didn’t let him see it,” said Farid, smiling awkwardly.

Elias gave his son ten lira that day. He had never given him so much money all at once before. “Go and buy yourself the best paints, brushes and pens. And if the money isn’t enough, come back to me,” he said. Two days later his name in Farid’s fine calligraphy was hanging in a frame on the wall over the cash desk at the confectioner’s shop.

Farid scribbled and practised on every piece of paper that he found. Before two years were up he was known as “the boy with the beautiful handwriting”. He was only eleven.

He didn’t guess what his reputation might do for him. Girls weren’t very interested in the pieces of paper on which he wrote their names in curving script, but their mothers suddenly discovered his talents. They asked him in, turned on the charm for him, and after a while they came to the point. Would he write a letter for them, please? Those were strange sessions, in rooms where the daylight was dimmed because the women drew their curtains to guard against the neighbours’ prying eyes, and sent their children out to play in the street when they were going to tell Farid what was on their minds. They had loving letters to send their absent husbands, sons, siblings, and friends.

At first he just wrote down everything the women poured out to him, but as time went on he reworked the texts himself so that they really did sound like love letters. Later came a third phase in which he listened only to the main points and then used his own intuition to write the love letter. Once he had found the right way to say something he repeated it word for word to all the husbands. Their wives rewarded Farid with chocolate, delicious rolls, and candies, and if they were really delighted with their letters they even gave him a hug.

His best letter of all was written for young Shafika. She lived at the cobbler Abdo’s house in Abbara Alley, two buildings away from Josef. One day she beckoned to him and asked, in the abrupt manner of all northern Syrians, how much a letter like that to her husband would cost. He told her it was all right, he didn’t charge, and when she asked him in he followed her.

Farid knew Shafika only from hearsay; Josef had once said what a beautiful body she had. After she had offered him a seat she sat down too and asked him to write. He wrote in a kind of daze, for the young woman spoke sadly, in very brief and concentrated language, without any of the usual hackneyed phrases and without repeating herself. She dictated him a wonderful love letter, and he had only to put her words down on paper. The letter was about her loneliness and her longing for her husband, who was working on a building site in Saudi Arabia to pay off the debts he had incurred in Damascus when his little bus company failed.

After an hour the woman fell silent. Her letter covered six pages. Farid stood up when he had addressed the envelope.

“Would you like something to eat?” she asked, without looking at him.

“No, thank you,” he replied. “I’m not hungry. I’ll be happy to write letters for you any time you like.” And with these words he quickly left. He was sorry he hadn’t had a chance to discover whether what Josef said was true and she really did have an enchanting body, and whether, as many said, she smelled of thyme.

When he told his friends later about this commission they laughed at him. “No wonder women invite him in to write letters for them. Our Farid is just a big, innocent baby,” said Josef.

Suleiman looked thoughtfully at Farid. “I think that’s the trick of it,” he murmured.

The beautiful Shafika never asked him to write another letter. Her husband had been angry, she told Farid. He said he was dying a hundred deaths daily there in the hot sand with the Saudis, while she sat in lush, shady Damascus, filling her head with all that nonsense about love as if life were some trashy Egyptian movie.

85. Death

The building next door to Farid’s house had once been very beautiful. You couldn’t tell from outside, for the façade was unpretentious, made of mud brick and wood, like most of the houses in the Old Town. People preferred to keep their riches away from envious eyes. The religious minorities were twice as cautious as the Muslims, for they always had to remember that any display of wealth might injure the vanity of the city governor. Then he would exercise his powers and confiscate a house for the flimsiest of reasons. That had happened to the Jew Josef Anbar, a rich merchant who had a wonderful house built in Damascus. He guilelessly showed his neighbours what he was creating within his four walls. Envious souls among them went straight to the governor claiming that the Jew had said his house would be finer than the governor’s when it was finished. Next day Josef Anbar was arrested and the house confiscated.

So a wise man let only friends and family see his domain. The handsome architecture of the house next to Farid’s was a wonderful interplay of form and colour. The arches around the inner courtyard on the first floor and the mingled pink and white stones of the columns and walls made it look larger, while their recurring patterns and lines delighted the eye. An octagonal fountain of coloured marble stood in the centre of the courtyard.

The man who built this house, Djamil Khuri, had inherited a large fortune. His father, a ship-owner, came from Egypt, and when riots broke out there in the nineteenth century and Christians were at risk he sold his shipping company and went to Damascus, where he grew even richer as a money changer. He married the daughter of an old but poverty-stricken Damascene family. His wife gave him a son, this Djamil Khuri, but before the baby was a month old his mother took her own life. No one could explain why, since she had always seemed happy. Only after her death was it discovered that she had been forced to marry the rich Egyptian. Her family owed him a lot of money.

The suicide and the rumours about it hurt her husband, who had thought he was giving his wife a Paradise on earth. Soon after her death he began drinking, and he was dead within a year.

His son Djamil was brought up by his grandmother. He was cared for well enough, but no one could take his burden from him. As a young man he swore that he would never marry, for he never wanted to do to any child of his own what his parents had done to him. He left the house and all his money to the Catholic Church on condition that the rooms would be let only to poor, needy Christians.

More than ten families had lived there since Djamil’s death, and the building was now in very poor repair. Firewood and drums of heating oil were stored where the fountain once used to play. The walls were filthy, and many window panes had been replaced by cardboard or plywood.

“They’re not poor, they’re just mean,” said Josef, when Farid said he supposed the state of the house was due to its tenants’ poverty. “They won’t pay a piastre for repairs. Those are cunning folk — they live there for almost nothing, pretending to the Church to be poor.”

But Josef was being spiteful. The young widow Salma, who lived on the first floor near the way into the building, really was as poor as a church mouse. Claire and Antoinette’s mother Hanan used to give her clothes and sometimes food or money. Even when Salma’s husband was alive they had been so poor that they could hardly feed their six children.

And then her husband died one day without any warning. Salma’s mother and sister happened to be visiting at the time, and when news of the death reached one of her husband’s brothers he and his wife arrived in haste. After the scanty supper she gave them they stayed, even though there was so little space. Salma put her guests to sleep with the children in the main room, and she herself slept with her sister in the next room, where her dead husband was lying. It was a hot summer, and in the night the corpse began to smell of decomposition. Only slightly, but Salma picked it up. If you live in cramped conditions you’re quick to notice any unpleasant smell. She cursed death, who had robbed her of her husband and left her alone with the children. Towards morning her eyes closed with exhaustion.

86. On the Rooftops

From Josef’s room, you could reach the flat roof down a stairway, and from there you had a clear view of the big building next door and into most of its rooms.

“All the doors and windows are left open, and the walls are so thin that neighbours hear you coughing, farting, and snoring. They know what you eat, what you say, and what you want to keep secret,” said Josef, laughing. His rooftop had a balustrade around it, so he was allowed to sleep up there on hot nights. “You never saw such things. A movie without a screen. A new story in every window,” he assured his friend.

Farid’s father despised the Damascene habit of sleeping out of doors in summer. Those who did, he said, were all uncivilized Bedouin who wanted to feel they were still in the desert, as if no one had ever invented houses. Claire didn’t share his views, but she dared not contradict her husband. However, she told Farid that, to her mother’s annoyance, she had sometimes spent summer nights with her father on their own roof as a girl. She thought it delightful, and had felt very close to the moon up there.

Elias Mushtak greatly respected the Rasmalo family, so he had no objection to his son’s spending the night with Josef now and then. Unlike Claire, however, he never discovered that the two boys slept out on the roof together.

Farid felt as if he were in a theatre with several different stages when he first spent a night in the open air with Josef. Somewhere in the building opposite a play would begin, build to its climax, break off abruptly or continue after a short interval, while a second and then a third drama began in parallel on one of the stages above or below the first. Farid’s marvelling gaze wandered back and forth. The characters in the dramas were quarrelling, playing, weeping, loving, laughing. Josef knew the programme by heart; he could say when and where men and women made love, how they did it, and how long for. To Farid it was all entirely new.

“He screws her seven times a week,” commented Josef as they saw the traffic cop Maaruf through one of the semi-circular windows above the doors. He was thrusting vigorously into his wife as she knelt in front of him. She was pleading, her face twisted in pain, begging him to stop, but the man pushed himself in harder than ever, slapping her buttocks with the flat of his hand. The woman began to weep.

“Same thing every night. Her screams make him even randier. She doesn’t fancy him at all, she loves Said who lives on the second floor next to Fahime,” said Josef, pointing to the big corner room, whose tenant was walking up and down in it, wearing a pair of shorts. “She’ll be there with him in exactly half an hour,” he prophesied.

The attractive man in shorts was a bachelor from the north. He was blessed with an athletic body, almost blond hair, and sky-blue eyes, but he was not particularly bright, and he was also regarded as rather suspect. It was thought that he worked for the secret service on its lowest level, so people avoided him. All the same, women cast him amorous glances.

“You’re joking!” Farid protested. “She must be half dead of pain down there, she won’t want to do anything but rest.”

Josef looked at him with a supercilious expression. “You don’t know anything about women. They have eight souls and the Devil has only seven, so he can never get hold of a woman. She takes refuge in her eighth soul where the Devil can’t reach her any more,” he said, just as Fahime put on the light and began watering her flowers. “Look, she always waits until it’s cool. It’s better for the plants then,” whispered Josef.

Fahime lived in a two-roomed apartment with her husband and three children. Like many Damascenes, she had the art of making ordinary cans, drums, tin containers, and old buckets into the most fascinating colourful pots for flowers, and she had adorned her windows, the stairs and the little terrace with them. Cacti, oleander, small-leaved basil, avocados, jasmine, hibiscus and carnations grew and flourished in these containers.

Even as Farid’s eyes were wandering over all the plants, a fight broke out between two girls in a bedroom to the left of the stairs up to the second floor. Miserly Masud lived there with his wife, who was twenty years his junior, and their two girls, who took after their mother and squinted just like her too. They were having a pillow fight and were in the middle of it when Masud ran into the room, slapped their faces hard and switched off the light. The girls whimpered at first, but then Farid saw them lying side by side in the faint light of a small electric bulb, laughing quietly but heartily at their father’s fury.

At the same time, on their left, the male nurse Butros was quarrelling with his wife over a broken vase. He was trying desperately to stick it together again. Josef giggled. “Maybe he put his prick in that vase.” It was said that the male nurse would stick his penis into any orifice he chanced to find. But his wife was a particularly devout woman, who dressed their three daughters in such old-fashioned clothes that the girls looked like old women before their time. The neighbours often told tales of fights raging in the marital bedroom. Butros wanted to sleep with his wife every night, but she wouldn’t let him.

A narrow corridor led past the male nurse’s apartment to the old sailor Gibran’s room. It was dark in there.

“What did I tell you?” whispered Josef, when something suddenly flitted past on the dark first floor of the house next door.

“What? I can’t see anything,” said Farid.

“She’s waiting down there for Fahime to draw her curtains and go to bed,” said Josef.

Fahime was the only tenant in the building who had thick curtains. The others had either none at all or very threadbare curtains that showed more than they concealed.

Ten minutes later Fahime put out her light, and next minute Samira the traffic cop’s wife, barefoot, was on her way upstairs to the second floor. Silent as a shadow, she floated into Said’s room.

“You’ve never in your life seen a dance of love like this,” whispered the excited Josef. His voice held a promise of much to come. The electric light in Said’s room went out, then there was the brief flicker of a match, and a candle was lit. Its light was so faint that Farid could only guess at the lovers’ bodies. They both kept completely quiet, for the window was open and the curtain thin.

At last the game of love began. The man carried his lover around the room, and she twined her arms and legs around him. He danced with her, pressed her against the wall, laid her tenderly on the bed, lay down on her only to pick her up again as if she weighed no more than a feather. He whirled around in a circle with her, and then sat down on a chair while the woman rode him, perched on his lap. Her upper body moved rhythmically up and down, as if she were sitting on a trotting horse. After a while the man carried her around the room and slowly let her down to stand on her feet again, then embracing her like a dancer from behind. Farid was sure that Samira was smiling; he knew her face. She was pale, with white skin and blue-black hair.

How long they danced and made love in their dancing he didn’t know later, for suddenly old Gibran’s window caught his eye. It was said that the old man had seen both sides of the world. He was wrecked and all adrift, but the Catholic Church had caught him and found him a room in the big building. He had certainly declined to spend a single night in the St. Anastasius Old Folks’ Home. Gibran had once been a sea captain, so the story went, and had made a great deal of money, especially by arms smuggling, but then he lost it all by night in the taverns and brothels of harbour towns and went back empty-handed to Damascus, no better off than when he left the city forty-five years ago as a young seaman.

Gibran told a great many stories, but most of them were lies and often macabre too. However, the young people of the Christian quarter loved him. He was ready to tell a story in return for a cigarette, and if there were women in the story he would want an extra five piastres to buy a shot of arrack. If he was drunk he would tell stories for free, but he needed half a litre of high-proof arrack to get drunk in the first place.

That August night Gibran was walking around in circles, looking at a picture on the wall, weeping, laughing, talking to the invisible hearers who seemed to populate his room.

“What do you bet he’s talking about the crusades again, or his love affairs in Hawaii or Honolulu?” said Josef, who knew the picture on the wall. “All it shows is an ugly old freighter with a tiny little captain waving from somewhere on top of it. Gibran always says that’s him.”

Farid had never visited the old sailor, even though he lived so close. Claire wouldn’t let him. She didn’t like the grubby old man, she didn’t even believe he had ever been to sea. And she said Gibran put too much nonsense about the seafaring life into young people’s heads, more than was good for them.

87. Forbidden Reading

“It’s not suitable for you,” said Elias, when Farid saw him sitting over a fat book one day and asked what he was reading. His father’s repressive reply intrigued him, and he went looking for the book with the brown cover next day. It wasn’t in the modest library in the living room, or lying on any of the tables. Even days later it didn’t reappear. Josef said that when fathers hid books they must be about sex. He’d just have to go on looking for that book, Josef added, and bring it to the attic.

Farid kept wriggling out of the proposition, but Josef didn’t forget it. When he reminded his friend for the third time, Farid decided to search the wardrobe in his parents’ bedroom, although he had never done such a thing before. Somehow that bedroom was taboo. Elias didn’t like to see him there, and Claire herself always contrived to visit Farid in his own room before he thought of entering his parents’.

Heart thudding, he pulled the heavy door of the wooden wardrobe open. Farid suspected that he might find a secret compartment for forbidden books behind it. But the book lay in full view inside the wardrobe, wrapped in a red cloth. It was a book not about sex but about famous murders in history, and it said expressly, under the long title, that it was unsuitable for women and young people.

“That’s because authors usually don’t know the first thing about women,” said Josef. “They ought to live here with a house full of females, like me, then they’d find out what strong nerves women have. We men are weaklings by comparison.”

Then he read aloud. The book contained accounts of over fifty murders and the punishments, some of them very cruel, inflicted on the murderers. One such execution imprinted itself on Farid’s mind for ever. It was for the murder of General Kléber, Napoleon’s representative in Egypt. The murderer was a destitute student aged twenty-three called Suleiman al Halabi, a Syrian fanatic from Aleppo, who had come to Cairo on purpose to kill the victorious unbeliever. He made his way into the well-guarded French headquarters and stabbed him.

The French staged his execution as a grisly theatrical show. Suleiman al Halabi stepped up on the huge stage, watched by thousands of spectators. After nights of torture, he was a pitiful sight. But appearances were deceptive.

French music played, and a cannon shot announced the opening of the show. The verdict was read aloud. Four sheikhs accused of being in the plot were beheaded. That was just the prelude. An officer stepped up and explained that the hand raised against France was to be burned, and the man’s screams were not to arouse any pity among the spectators, for the condemned man deserved none.

Two soldiers placed the man’s right hand in a brazier where a fierce fire was burning and kept it in place until it was charred and dropped off. But Suleiman al Halabi neither screamed nor wept. He stood there as if he were in another world, looking absently at his torturers.

The little man never uttered another sound until the moment of his death, even under further cruel tortures.

The French occupying power took a final revenge on the city that had sheltered a man like Suleiman al Halabi by bombarding the Old Quarter of Cairo with cannon fire. More than eight hundred dead were found among the ruins.

“Compared to the stories in this book,” said Josef as he reached the last page four nights later, “what our teachers call history lessons are pure distilled shit.”

88. The Photograph

If he tried to remember the first time in his life when he seriously rebelled against anyone, he always thought of a little photograph of himself that he had had taken when he was a boy. He had been twelve at the time. The photo looked harmless enough. Farid was gazing into the distance, seen at a slight angle in the manner then usual for photographic portraits. There was a touch of melancholy in his eyes, although his gaze was determined, almost defiant. His mouth had made only a faint attempt to sketch the friendly smile requested by the photographer.

That day Farid was wearing a dark brown shirt with a broad collar showing above a fawn jacket. In the photo his shirt looked black and his jacket grey. His wavy hair was combed back.

A week earlier Sarah, Saki’s sister, had told him he had beautiful hair, but it would look even better if he rubbed hair oil in and then combed it. That way it would look more elegant, and its black would be more brilliant than his natural muted near-black.

He couldn’t find any hair oil at home. He fished a lira out of his piggy bank and went to the Armenian barber. Claire beamed at him when he came home, and went straight to find her in the kitchen to see if she’d notice.

“What a handsome boy,” she said, hugging him. Then she looked at him again and kissed him on the forehead. “If I were a young girl I’d fall in love with you on the spot. But alas, I must make way for others now.”

He was rather surprised to see so many baking sheets in the kitchen, full of meat pasties and stuffed flatbreads, and the mountains of vegetables waiting to be cooked. The table was also laden with generously filled dishes of salad, rice, and pine kernels. But Farid had no time to linger and ask questions. He went straight over to see Josef, and was surprised to find that his friend didn’t notice any change in him. Then he met Rasuk, Suleiman, Aida, and Antoinette in Abbara Alley, and they didn’t marvel at the new glory of his hair either. He couldn’t go around to Sarah’s place because her brother was in the street with the others at this moment, explaining why he couldn’t invite anyone home. “We can go there again tomorrow, but today they’re all cleaning like crazy because of this big Jewish festival coming up, and the moment they see someone just sitting they find him work to do.”

Disappointed, and cursing his bad luck, Farid mooched off home again, unaware that his father had invited twenty other confectioners to supper. It was only in the front hall of the house that he heard the cheerful noise from the drawing room. He stood still for a moment, glancing at the inner courtyard. There was no one there. He hurried to the right, past the store-room, and into the kitchen. Claire was there, eating by herself at a small table.

“What’s going on?” he asked breathlessly.

“Your father has invited his colleagues to supper to thank them for electing him.”

“Electing him to what?” asked Farid, looking through the kitchen window and into the drawing room, where the tipsy men had just burst into a roar of laughter.

“Your Papa is the top confectioner in Damascus now. It’s a great honour. No Christian has ever held the post before.”

Farid nodded his head in acknowledgement, and hungry as he was quickly put a flatbread stuffed with meat into his mouth. Then he took a second stuffed with sheep’s milk cheese.

“You should sit down to eat,” said Claire. “Or better still, go and say hello to your Papa and his guests first, and then come back here to have a proper meal.”

“Must I?” asked Farid unwillingly. “Why aren’t you with them?”

“It wouldn’t do. They’re Muslims, and it’s not the Muslim custom to eat with strange women. Off you go, now. You only have to say hello and then come back.”

To please her, he went, although he didn’t want to. When he entered the drawing room, a cloud of smoke and the aroma of aniseed met him. The men were laughing.

“Ah, here comes the crown prince,” cried a fat confectioner with bushy eyebrows. Silence followed his words.

“Good evening,” Farid greeted them, almost inaudibly.

“What on earth do you think you look like?” b ellowed his father, who was enthroned at one end of the table, and he pointed to Farid’s oiled hair. “Say hello nicely to the gentlemen and then come here to me.”

Elias was drunk. Farid felt miserable with rage and shame. He shook hands with all the guests one by one and tried to ignore their mocking remarks about his hair, although he also heard some of them speaking up for him. He went on to where his father was sitting, walked past him to go down past the other half of the confectioners’ association, saying good evening to all the men there as well. He began to feel less flustered, for by now the men had stopped taking any notice of him. They were talking to each other again, and merely gave him limp handshakes. But the last man, who was sitting by the door, held Farid’s hand tightly in one of his own and stroked his cheek with the other.

“Won’t you give me a little kiss? Uncle Hamid likes good boys,” he said, his wet lips smiling to show yellow teeth.

“No,” muttered Farid, pulling his hand away with a jerk. Then he went back to his father.

“Good evening, Papa,” he said. Elias turned his vacant gaze on him, took a fabric napkin in his left hand, grabbed his son’s collar with his right hand and pulled him close.

“My son is no American sissy.” His aniseed-laden breath was horrible. It made Farid retch. But his father pulled him even closer and began rubbing his head with the large napkin as if towelling it dry. The men laughed.

“Young people have to be brought up properly,” announced one of them.

“Yes, the saying goes: God’s blessing be on the man who beat me, not the man who indulged me.”

There followed a babbling of confused voices, and Elias’s grip tightened. Farid’s scalp was burning. His father’s hand was holding the collar of his shirt so tightly that he could hardly breathe. He felt he was choking. With a violent movement he freed himself, and fell over backward. Elias was alarmed when he heard his son hit the floor.

“You fool!” he stammered in alarm. “You could have broken something!”

Farid got to his feet and rushed out of the dining room to the sound of laughter from the men. He saw Claire coming out of the kitchen, ran past her to his room and locked himself in.

She followed and knocked softly on the door, but he didn’t want to see her. In this humiliating defeat, he would feel ashamed to meet her sympathetic eyes. And he was angry with her for sending him in to his father. Farid felt lonely and desperate. The world had turned its back on him.

After a while, however, he straightened up again and saw his hair in the mirror, looking as windblown as a wheatfield after a stormy night. Suddenly he couldn’t help laughing. That one crucial second stayed in his memory for ever. He decided to get the better of his father. “I’ll keep my hair like this even if you die of rage,” he whispered.

Claire was surprised to see him storm out of his room, and when she heard the door of the house bang a little later she knew that her husband had handled the situation badly yet again.

Farid didn’t have to look far. The photographic “Studio of the Stars” was just before the Kishle road junction. Basil the photographer was not a little surprised when the boy paid him the price he asked in advance, and without haggling either, bringing out a heap of piastres which, as the photographer rightly suspected, was all his savings. The boy carefully counted the money, put the remaining piastres back in his pocket, looked proudly at the photographer, and said, “And for that, I want the best photo you ever took. I’m going to keep it all my life.”

The photographer had no idea what the boy wanted the picture for, but somehow he felt tremendously keen to take a good photograph, so much so that it made him slightly dizzy. He suggested that the boy might like to comb his hair, because the camera would record everything. He himself took a sip of water and then watched closely, rather taken aback to see Farid carefully arranged his oiled hair in front of the mirror, putting every lock in order.

“You look like that famous young actor; his name escapes me for the moment,” he flattered the boy.

Three days later the photo was ready. Farid was more than satisfied, and from then on he took it with him wherever he went.

89. The Inventor

As they were sitting on the ground outside Josef’s house, listening with bated breath to the story Suleiman was telling, a woman neighbour called out to Azar: would he come and mend her broken iron? Azar wasn’t thirteen yet, but he was as efficient as if he were a mechanic, an electrician and a joiner all in one.

Suleiman had just seen the latest Errol Flynn movie, and was telling his friends about The Adventures of Don Juan. Since children weren’t allowed in to see the film, Suleiman had bribed the doorman with Spanish cigarettes.

Farid was sure that the movie was only half as exciting as his friend’s account of it, for once Suleiman got into his stride he used only the basic outline of any film and made up his own story on that foundation. The story changed track even more when his audience interrupted him.

Azar, who never tired of Suleiman’s stories, called back to the neighbour, “It’ll cost you twenty piastres.”

“My God, you’re getting pricier all the time. Look, come around here, I’m sure we can reach some agreement,” the woman said.

“No, twenty piastres or I’m not doing it,” replied Azar. “Last time,” he muttered quietly, “she fobbed me off with an orange and a slobbery kiss on my cheek. Talk about a nightmare! I can’t stand the way she stinks of fish and oranges.”

“All right,” called the woman, “but I’m only paying fifteen piastres, that’s all I have.”

Azar got to his feet and turned to Suleiman. “Don’t go on with the story until I’m back.” Don Juan was just holding his beloved in his arms.

“Tell her to pay you the twenty and I’ll screw her,” smirked Josef.

“Heavens above, she’d suck you in and spit out your bones, and then what do I tell your Mama?” sniped Azar.

Quarter of an hour later he was back, cursing the woman, who had paid him with just ten piastres and two oranges.

90. Laila’s New House

Farid had really met his Uncle Adel properly only on two or three visits to Beirut, and when he and his parents went to stay with Aunt Malake he had eyes and ears only for Laila. He knew he had once seen Uncle Adel sitting at the end of the table at lunch, but even then Laila’s father had failed to make any great impression. It was Elias and Malake who dominated the table. Back in Damascus, Farid could hardly even remember the man’s face.

Laila always looked after her little cousin so lovingly that Claire could have those days in Beirut to herself, left at leisure to go on long shopping expeditions with her sister-in-law. In the 1940s Beirut was a window on the west, a city of exotic goods and customs from all over the world. By way of contrast, Damascus was still something of a sleepy provincial town in the middle of farming country.

One day in the winter of 1951 a telephone call brought the bad news that Uncle Adel had unexpectedly died of a heart attack. He had woken in the night and felt thirsty, but he obviously never made it to the refrigerator. He fell down dead in the corridor.

Elias sent telex messages to his brothers Salman in Mala and Hasib in America. Salman still bore his sister a grudge, and refused to come to his brother-in-law’s funeral. Hasib wrote a few civil platitudes, and didn’t come either. Elias himself, however, set off that evening with Claire and Farid, and reached Beirut late at night. Malake was grateful to them, for her husband’s family was also hostile to her, so she and her daughters had no one else to stand by them.

Her daughter Barbara was nineteen. In temperament and strength of character, as Elias realized with amazement, she was the image of old George Mushtak. Laila was seventeen at the time, and Farid was surprised by the pallor of her face. He felt alarmed at the sight of her, and later, when she was resting on a sofa with her eyes closed, he actually thought she had died. Isabelle, the youngest girl, was just nine, and to Farid she was a silly little thing whom he ignored. He spent most of the time sitting with Laila and comforting her by stroking her hand.

Malake was lamenting the fact that next spring Adel had been going to give her the promised honeymoon they’d never had. He was planning to take her to Rome, Venice, Paris, Vienna, and London. Barbara had encouraged them to go, saying she and Laila could easily look after little Isabelle.

A year later Elias was helping his sister to find a house in the exclusive Salihiye quarter of Damascus. Malake had sold the factory and their villa in Beirut for a good price, and in the summer of 1953 she and her daughters returned to the Syrian capital. But she refused ever to set foot in Mala again.

They lived in style in a large, handsome house built in the eighteenth century by a relation of the Ottoman Sultan, and Farid, who knew the mysteries of calligraphy, was able to decipher all the sayings on the ceilings and walls for his aunt and her daughters. Poetic and religious Sufi quotations adorned the walls, columns, and ceilings of rooms in line with their functions. Barbara carefully wrote everything down, and Laila, her gaze transfigured, watched the boy. Everything he did touched her heart. He looked handsome and noble as a prince’s son, she thought, as he stood there deciphering the Arabic texts word by word, and once he had disentangled the calligraphic labyrinth of a saying it was clear to her for ever. The bathroom alone had thirty of them, all to do with water and Paradise.

Malake was a capable woman. With her brother’s help, she bought some large and dusty fields lying fallow to the north-east of the Old Town at a very reasonable price. Later on, this area became a large, elegant middle-class housing estate. After ten years plots of land here cost almost a hundred times what she had paid.

Normally Farid would have been glad of his favourite cousin’s return to Damascus, but instead he bewailed his bad luck, for he had to leave the city himself.

“When the angels visit a house,” joked Laila, “the devils run for it.” She looked at him and laughed to hide her own regret, but she couldn’t deceive Farid.

91. Grandfather’s Death

It was a sunny February day, and as Grandmother Lucia told the story, Nagib had found one of his rabbits sick that morning. Grandfather loved rabbits, and had built his pets a beautiful hutch. He never had many of them, at most six or seven. Farid didn’t like the rabbits, so he never went to the east-facing terrace of his grandparents’ house where the hutch stood, although hutch was hardly the word for it. Grandfather had lovingly built a natural enclosure with a stream of water, caves, and sunny terraces, all surrounded by wire netting. There was a bench opposite the hutch where he often sat for hours on end, happy as a child as he watched his rabbits running about. Grandmother Lucia hated them.

So that morning Grandfather had been sitting on his bench, as he so often did. There was a big black rabbit on the old man’s lap. He was worried; it wasn’t well. Grandmother had looked out of the kitchen and saw Nagib sitting there without a scarf. She opened the kitchen window and called to him to put something warmer on, but he told her he’d come in soon. Lucia made coffee. When she turned to look again, he was sitting there all hunched up while the black rabbit hopped merrily about the terrace.

“Nagib,” cried Grandmother, full of foreboding. But Grandfather couldn’t hear her any more.

Farid had just come home from school when the phone rang. “Oh, no, for God’s sake! I’ll come at once!” Claire called down the receiver, and she rushed out of the room.

“What’s happened?” he asked.

“My father’s dead.”

Grandfather was lying on the bed. Neighbours and relations were there already, and Claire was crying like a little girl. Farid had never seen her shed tears before. She reacted to neither friends nor family members, and he had a feeling that she didn’t even recognise him. She just wept and kept kissing her father’s hands and forehead, and she was talking to him. “Why did you leave me so quickly, why didn’t you say goodbye?” Nothing could comfort her.

Claire heard nothing and no one. Even when Elias arrived and embraced her lovingly she didn’t notice him, but sat lost in her thoughts beside Grandfather’s body.

“I’ll have to go now, there’s a lot to organize,” Elias whispered to his son. “You stay with Mama and help her.”

Even when Lucia went to bed, Claire and Farid stayed with the dead man. Farid didn’t feel at all tired. “Do you see his smile?” Claire asked in a low voice at about midnight. And indeed Grandfather was smiling with as much amusement as if his death were a joke. Farid noticed Grandfather’s new shoes, and he remembered other corpses who had worn brand-new shoes in their coffins. Presumably God set great store by cleanliness.

“Do you know why he’s smiling?” asked Claire, with the ghost of a grin around her mouth. “He’s laughing at Grandmother’s superstitions and our own horror.”

“What superstitions?” asked Farid.

“She believes the rabbit was mortally sick, it palmed its own death off on Grandfather, and that cured it. She told everyone so, and late this afternoon she gave the butcher all the rabbits for free.”

“But that’s stupid,” he said. “The poor creatures can’t help it.”

“Come out with me a minute, but put something warm on,” Claire said suddenly.

Farid put on his jacket and followed her. She left the second-floor drawing room, went along the arcades around the inner courtyard to the terrace on the east of the house, wrapped herself in a rug, and sat on the bench. Shivering, Farid sat down beside her. It was full moon.

“This is where he was sitting with the rabbit on his lap, and then his head tipped a little way forward as if he’d gone to sleep. Grandmother knew at once that he was dead, because he never fell asleep when he was with his rabbits. He was always far too curious and interested in everything for that.”

The enclosure was empty. Even the little stream of water had stopped flowing. Farid felt a strange loneliness. He pressed close to his mother, and Claire wrapped her rug around him.

92. Going to Church

Farid’s had strange feelings when he went to church. He took little notice of the Mass itself; in spite of the incense and gorgeously coloured vestments, it left him cold. But his gaze strayed, and when it fixed on one of the pictures on the walls, he wandered back in time to the dramatic events recorded there in oils.

It was obligatory for the pupils at the elite Catholic school to show up in the school yard washed and neatly dressed on Sundays, and then proceed two abreast to the church. He was happy enough to go, but he didn’t like having his presence checked on the way into church every Sunday. Anyone who didn’t come was punished first thing in the morning on Monday in front of the whole school. Only Muslims and Jews were excused attendance at Mass.

For years he made the church service into a memory game. He divided the Mass up to fit the fifty kilometres of road between Damascus and Mala. Both Mass and the journey to Mala lasted about an hour. The idea of the game was to suit every sentence spoken or act performed in the service to one of the various places that the bus passed on the way to Mala. Farid assigned a village, a factory, a ruin, or a tree to every kyrie eleison and every hymn.

He also liked to imagine the bus constantly losing parts of itself along the way, cutting curves so that women and children screamed and the chickens who always travelled under the seats with their feet tied flapped their wings. And when his bus finally reached Mala, clattering, hooting its horn and raising dust, he was glad because the church service was over.

But after a while his imaginary bus ride bored him, and he found wandering among the pictures and statues in the church more exciting. For almost three years he always sat in the same place, a pew with a good view of almost all the paintings hanging near the altar.

He liked the angels best. They were not gentle but often looked positively violent, armed with swords, spears, and fire. They were strange beings, their faces radiating feminine charm, while their bodies and posture were warlike and virile. For Farid, however, their greatest fascination lay not in this contradiction but in imagining how it would feel to be such a creature himself, both airy and of the earth, able to walk on foot or rise in the air with powerful wings, free of all earthly bonds.

He had favourite pictures, but the light decided which painting or which figure attracted his attention on any given Sunday. However, the great cross behind the altar where Jesus had died with an infinitely sorrowful expression on his face was always at the centre. The letters I.N.R.I. stood above the Saviour’s head, and Farid always tried to understand this word INRI as a secret message.

Every time he saw the crucified Jesus he couldn’t help thinking of his friend Kamal Sabuni, who like a few other sons of prosperous Muslim families went to the elite Christian school. Kamal thought Christianity interesting, but he could make nothing of the crucifixion of a God who could have turned the entire Roman Empire into a swamp and the Caesars and their soldiers into ants, just by lifting his little finger. And the young Muslim thought the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost a very strange idea.

“Muslims are too primitive to understand it,” said Farid’s father, but even he couldn’t explain the Holy Ghost, although he knew a lot about religion.

INRI. What message lay behind it? The religious instruction teacher at school explained the meaning of the letters in Arabic: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. But that wasn’t mysterious enough for Farid. Why did INRI have such an effect on him?

“It was all part of the big theatrical show,” said Josef portentously. “He had to be killed in the Roman way. They were the rulers, so the notice had to be written in their language.”

In his mind’s eye, as Josef talked, Farid saw Pilate the Roman governor standing pale, slender-boned, and full of revulsion before the rabble of what, to him, was a strange and dusty province.

“Pilate found himself on a kind of stage,” Josef went on, “facing a trembling young man, and he, the Roman, quite liked him: a young Easterner condemned to death and abandoned by his whole clan. So there stood sensitive Pilate, a man who didn’t like the death penalty, and opposite him was a young revolutionary who simply wanted to get dying over and done with and didn’t even notice when he was offered a way out. Anyway, but for the Romans his death wouldn’t have had any INRI or the huge symbolical weight of the cross. Jesus would have died a miserable death by stoning, that was the usual kind of execution in the Middle East at the time. A heap of stones as a symbol wouldn’t have lasted for even a century. But,” said Josef, lowering his voice as he always did when he was about to broach the subject of conspiracies, “I.N.R.I. didn’t just mean Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudae-orum, it was a coded message to the Romans saying: Iustum necare reges Italiae: It is just to kill the kings of Italy. That’s what it says in this book,” concluded Josef, showing Farid a work about Italian secret societies.

93. Saying Goodbye

“Parents are weird,” said Josef. “They never ask if you want to be born, they just go ahead and produce you. And they don’t often ask any children they already have if they want a new baby in the family. They have it off with each other and expect the rest of the family to be glad. But in terms of the actual results, the cost of those five minutes of pleasure would give even a math teacher goose bumps.

I mean, what harm did I ever do Rimon and Madeleine for them to dump me in this house full of females? Did I ask them to do it? I’d have liked to be an only child with two ordinary parents, mother and father, and then I’d have some peace now. ‘Mind what you’re doing, Josef! That’s not a thing to say to a girl! Josef, dear, we don’t say that kind of thing when there are women in the room! Josef, that’s no way to speak to your sister! Josef! Josef! Josef! The hell with their Josef! He’s not me. I’m not him. I’ve been secretly calling myself Jacob for some time, so when they call for Josef I don’t feel as if it’s me they want.

And what about your own respected father? Did he ask the rest of us if he could put you in a monastery? He’d have had a shock if he did. Elias Mushtak, sir, we’d have said, we don’t give a damn for your monks. Leave Farid here with us. He hates the monastery idea. We don’t mind praying for the elm tree that burned down, but leave your son here. I’m just beginning to like him. But what does your good father go and do?

I overheard Madeleine and Claire talking yesterday, and they’re dead against it too, but they don’t get a chance to open their mouths.”

Josef looked up, and for the first time ever Farid saw tears in his tough friend’s eyes. This was at the beginning of June 1953, a week before he left for the monastery.


The world of the imagination welcomes children more kindly than their parental home.

DAMASCUS, 1940 — 1953

94. Damascus

Damascus isn’t so much a city, a place marked in an atlas, as a fairy tale clothed in houses and streets, stories, scents and rumours.

The Old Town has fallen victim to epidemics, wars and fire countless times in its eight thousand years of history, and for want of anywhere better was always rebuilt on the same site. The hand that has moulded Damascus to this day was that of a Greek town planner, Hippodamos of Miletus. He divided the city into strictly geometrical quarters with fine streets, all laid out at right angles. The Greeks loved straight lines, whereas the Arabs preferred curves and bends. Some say it has something to do with their exhausting journeys straight across the desert. A bend shortens the distance, at least for the eye. Others claim that life is expressed in curves: the olive tree bows under the weight of its fruits, a pregnant woman’s belly is curved, the branches of a palm tree form a rounded shape. The old Damascenes had a more prosaic explanation: the more bends in your streets, the easier they are to defend.

Once you start talking about Damascus you must be careful not to founder, for Damascus is a sea of stories. The city knows that, so for all the Arab love of winding streets and alleys it retains a single Straight Street, which is called just that. It is the guideline and point of reference for every walk and every story. If the countless bends in the winding alleys confuse you, then you can always turn back to Straight Street. It’s an outsize compass that for over three thousand years has shown people the way from east to west.

Once upon a time, they say, it was over twenty metres wide, a magnificent avenue with columns and arcades. But the traders moved their stalls further and further out into the street from both sides, and today parts of it are not even ten metres wide. The traders of Damascus are masters of the technique of land-grabbing. They unobtrusively extend the area occupied by their stalls with a crate of vegetables, a little pyramid of inlaid boxes, or a tray of pistachios put out on the sidewalk for a few hours to dry in the sun. Then they put up a light-weight wooden stand and cover it with an even lighter cloth, to protect their wares when the sun is too hot. Once passers by and the police are used to the look of it, the wooden stand sometimes falls over, and the trader finds himself obliged to replace the wobbly structure with something more solid. Then the whole thing gets a door, so that he can enjoy his siesta without fearing thieves, and soon there’s a small window with a curtain over it. A week later the thin wood of the construction has been reinforced as if magically with mud brick, and after a covert nocturnal operation the little building is suddenly bright with whitewash, and its doors and window frames are freshly painted blue. Soon there’s yet another vegetable crate standing outside it, just to attract the customers’ attention. The police officer on duty grumbles, but he is placated with much volubility and a cup of coffee — until the time comes when he is transferred somewhere else. And the new policeman could swear that there’d always been a bend in the road here.

Damascus has seen and endured Arabs, Romans, Greeks, Aramaics, and another thirty-six peoples of different cultures. They ruled the city in succession, or sometimes at the same time, and no race has ever moved on without leaving its own mark on Damascus, so it has become a historical patchwork, a lost luggage office of cultures. Many compare it to a mosaic with pieces that have been fitted together by travellers over a period of eight thousand years.

Its builders have given the Damascenes all kinds of presents. Here you see a Greek column; a Roman bridge; a modest wall built with stones from the palaces of past millennia. There you find plants brought from Africa by slaves. To this day you seem to hear words in the street that were spoken by foreigners hundreds of years ago. And you meet people, whether vegetable sellers or doctors, whose forebears came from Spain, the Yemen, or Italy, but who still think of themselves as genuine Damascenes. The odd thing is that they’re right.

Damascus has been a fruitful oasis in the desert of Arabia. At the end of the 1940s several large textiles companies were founded near the city, many schools were opened, the university was enlarged, and newspapers and magazines filled the kiosks, bearing witness to the cultural wealth of Damascus. Cinemas became fashionable. They all had special days when women could go, and sometimes a man in love would wait in the street for three hours just to set eyes on his beloved when she came out. He would have to take the greatest care that no one noticed him smiling at her, but if she returned his smile it was like a foretaste of Paradise.

95. The Cat-Lover

Grandfather held his grandson’s hand tight, for he was afraid of losing little Farid in the crowded souks. He stopped at the entrance to a caravanserai and spoke to a spice merchant. Meanwhile Farid stared curiously at the interior of the great building. Horses and mules were tied up in the yard, and he saw many porters hurrying into large storerooms full of sacks. They carried the sacks out on their shoulders as if they hardly weighed anything, and loaded them up on the carts waiting in the yard. A pale man in a dark suit wrote down what the porters had stacked on the carts. A driver cracked his whip and the horses, who had been dozing with their heads bent, woke up and trotted out. The driver shouted to people to clear the road, so that they wouldn’t get their clothes dirty. It worked: a passage was opened up for his vehicle, and then the crowd closed up again to continue their conversations.

Suddenly Farid saw a camel butcher in a distant corner of the caravanserai. Camel meat is not eaten in the Christian quarter, so Farid had never before seen anything like this, and he was never to forget the horror of the scene.

The tall, distinguished-looking animal stood at the door of the butcher shop. It was looking at Farid, its eyes wide with fear. A dwarfish butcher was whetting his big knife while he talked to another man stitching jute sacks nearby.

With difficulty, two men finally got the camel to kneel down. The animal was still looking at Farid as if pleading for his help. Then the butcher passed his big knife over the camel’s throat, as if he were drawing a bow over violin strings. Blood spurted, and fell into a huge bowl. The camel’s empty eyes now gazed into eternity. The man stitching the sacks didn’t even give the scene a glance. He turned the jute sack he had just finished inside out again, and then added it to a large pile of other sacks.

Farid and his grandfather strolled on from the caravanserai through the Qaimariye quarter that had once been the commercial centre of Damascus, and was now a residential area with a few workshops. On the way he saw a strange sight. A man was sitting on the floor in the middle of his store, reading aloud from the Koran. About thirty cats surrounded him. They were sitting on his lap, on the shelves, on the floor, and in the display window of the otherwise empty room.

“Does he sell cats?” asked Farid.

“No, no,” said Grandfather. “He’s a holy man who looks after all the local cats.”

The cats clambered over the man as he sat there, jumped from his shoulder to the shelves and then back again, but he went on reading undisturbed. Grandfather took a lira bill from his wallet and put it in a copper dish near the entrance.

“My thanks for your kind heart,” said the man, and turned back to his Koran. Three cats crossed the street. Making purposefully for the store, they put their catch of three mice down outside the door and went in. The man looked up.

“Ah, those are their love letters,” he said, and smiled when the mouse in the middle suddenly jumped up and disappeared, quick as a flash, through the window of a cellar on the other side of the road.

“A good actor, that mouse,” said Grandfather, turning home with Farid.

96. The Scooter

Farid was about ten when scooters became the latest craze. Toni, the perfumier Dimitri’s son, was the first to take his out on the street the day after Easter. It was a top-of-the-range model in red-painted metal tubing, and the children stared as if Toni were an astronaut.

Toni often got presents of foreign toys from his father, who travelled the world tracking down new fragrance ingredients, but the scooter was the best yet. The girls, particularly Jeannette and Antoinette, were fascinated. They all wanted a ride with him, and he raced past the envious boys with his girl passengers.

Before the week was up, Azar appeared with a clunking, clattering wooden scooter. Its footboard was joined to the vertical steering handle by simple angle irons, but all the same Azar’s scooter was a successful imitation. The wheels consisted of large, indestructible ball bearings. They made a racket calculated to bring tears of delight to the boys’ eyes. Like Azar himself, the scooter was robust, straightforward, and practical.

“My scooter’s not for girls,” he said, when his sister asked for a ride on it. And it was indeed much harder to steer and keep balanced than Toni’s scooter with its rubber tyres. But it was all his own work.

Farid could hardly sleep for the next few nights. In his dreams he saw himself racing around on a scooter. Once he even had the parrot Coco on his shoulder. Perhaps the parrot featured in his dream because it had stopped talking since the day when Azar went down the road on his scooter, and just made loud squawking sounds in imitation of the noisy ball bearings. A week later the bird’s owner stopped hanging its cage on the window looking out on the street and gave it a view of the interior courtyard as seen from her kitchen window instead.

The local car repair workshops were suddenly swamped with requests for ball bearings. It was only after a long search that Farid found a pair. They were larger than Azar’s, but the larger your wheels the faster you could go.

“You can have them for three afternoons clearing out the workshop, making the men’s tea, and fetching their bread and falafel from the restaurant,” said the owner of the place. “Is it a deal?”

It was definitely a deal. Farid spent three afternoons sweeping, scouring, and polishing the workshop until it was clean and neat, and serving tea, sweetmeats, and fresh water. He made good tea for a ten-year-old. The men and their master were very happy, because Farid never gave them tea in dirty glasses, which was what they were used to. He washed the glasses well, and after the men had drunk their tea he rinsed them out again quickly with hot water, so that they steamed and then shone. He had learned that from his father.

In the end Farid got not just the ball bearings but the fixings he would need for them, as well as hinged steering joints with their pins and screws. But the useful tips the men gave him were better than all these presents. Finally, the workshop owner even handed him a simple prop stand, made out of a small metal rod bent into a U shape.

“Fit that on, and your scooter can stand upright anywhere, proud as a Vespa, and it won’t have to lean against the wall like a tired old bike,” he said. The workshop owner looked like a baddie in an American B-movie Western, but he was kindness itself.

His most junior employee, a young man of equally sinister appearance with tousled hair, surprisingly gave Farid the most valuable item of all: a brake. Neither Toni nor Azar had brakes on their scooters. It was a piece of rubber tyre, and Farid fixed it to the back wheel like a mudguard.

Finally Farid went off with his bag full of metal parts to his cousin George, who was apprenticed to a joiner, a tight-fisted man. Farid waited until the joiner had gone home at midday, and then slipped into the workshop. He didn’t mention the scooter at first, just stood around asking after George’s health and how his family was. As he talked he kept putting the bag down in different places, until his cousin asked what was jingling about inside it. Farid told him it was parts for a scooter, and all he needed now was the wood.

“Why didn’t you say so at once, you idiot?” laughed George, and asked Farid to tell him what the scooter was supposed to look like. That didn’t take long. George abandoned the jobs he had been doing, and within half an hour he had prepared all the wooden parts, tied them up in a bundle, and put them over Farid’s shoulder.

“Now get out before that old skinflint shows up. I guess you can screw it all together yourself, but you’ll have to glue the parts first,” he said, and he gave the boy some adhesive too. Farid ran home. Ran? No, he was so happy that he positively flew. He worked for two hours, and then, feeling pleased with himself, stood back to look at the wonderful scooter he had made.

Finally he helped himself to a small rear mirror from his father’s worn-out old bicycle and fixed it to the left of the steering handle. And his grandfather gave him several small stars and moons made of coloured tin for decoration.

Last of all Farid found a piece of card and wrote out a charm against envious eyes that he had seen