Royston Tester

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From You Turn Your Back (2014)


After Queen Zenobia's Telephone

© Royston Tester, 2014, All Rights Reserved.

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As muezzins chanted sundown call from their Old City minarets, Ian Shaw hurried through the busy Western Temple Gate—with its rising arches, Corinthian columns and ornamented lintels he had so painstakingly drawn—into the warren of alleys and bazaars that led past Hammam Nureddin to Souq-al-Attarine.

Ian had lost his cellphone—and was late.

Hassan—or "Hazza," as he preferred it—was waiting on Straight Street at the point where Medhet Pasha turns from a covered market of spices and coffee into the huddled lanes of sweets and nuts vendors that eventually becomes Bab Sharqi, the Christian quarter of Old Damascus.

Hazza stood at the water-tap on the right, next to a shawarma café where at early light a man sold pastries and buns from a cart, distributing five or six to the more starving of the street boys. Hazza finished a mobile phone call and sipped mulberry juice from a hawker.

He waved to Ian.

"You climb Mount Qassioun with me tonight," Hazza said politely. He slung his glass onto the mulberry seller's trolley. "In capital letters"—his way of stressing importance. Conversely, any talk of the U.S. president, the Syrian one, fundamentalism of any stripe, Israel, hip-hop, military service, or September 11th, was 'small letters.'


"Yes, of course," he said, primly. "The view is so glorious that even Prophet Mohammed couldn't handle it." Hazza took another phone call, simultaneously he flagged a taxi. "Max, is that you? Ah, kayfak inta... how are you, my friend? In capital letters, of course..."

This was Hazza—twenty-two years old, a decade Ian's junior. An urgent, generous tour-guide, who had become his sole friend. They had spent many evenings in sumptuous Old City restaurants. What harm could come to a westerner monitored by the likes of Hazza? A boy whose room in the Bab Touma neighborhood was decked out in yellow 'Smiley' logos, a giant union jack, postcards of Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus—and a handwritten note above the kitchen doorway, 'Mind Your Head.'

It was their farewell day. September, 2005. Ian had spent three months painting details of ancient Damascene archways for an architectural firm in Montreal. From his arrival in the teeming, desert city to this traffic-choked dusk in sweltering July heat, he had felt like a child at a fair.

"Why couldn't Mohammed cope?" Ian asked.

"He wished to see Paradise, but at his death."

You shared Hazza's time with a phone-tree of pals, family, acquaintances, Saudis up for the summer, people he had met a minute ago, a year. It was his way of living—but also ambition. He studied archaeology at the university, yet his passion was to be tour guide—in London, England—at any mention of which his eyes shone brightly, and he would fall uncharacteristically silent, as though Paradise itself lay in his reach.

Like many Syrians, he secretly wanted to flee Syria—and, like them too, had been refused a visa. His daily conduct helped him forget that he might never escape. A westerner in tow felt like compensation, he told Ian. Hazza behaved haughtily, and with defiance—towards a State that had crossed him.

Hazza and Ian hopped into a cab.

"My wife has your cellphone number," Ian reminded him from the front seat, between calls, as the tiny cab weaved and honked through the bedlam of central Damascus in the direction of the mountain slopes. "Jessica's meeting me at Montreal airport tomorrow evening. She will no doubt call your phone. My own number's lost."

"The countdown has begun," Hazza said. "In the morning you'll leave, and I'll be without a cherished friend."

"I'll miss you."

"She must be the queen of wives to telephone so far."

"Jessica is," Ian said. "A thousand times queen."

Hazza rolled his eyes. More at the fact, it seemed, that the car's engine was not really up to a steep, unlit hill, at night. He tapped the driver's shoulder and pretended annoyance.

"I told this gentleman his taxi is a donkey," Hazza said, from the backseat. "He should pay us a hundred Syrian pounds to ride in it."

The driver smirked. A young, cheeky passenger behind. Gullible alien in front. Hazza reached over and turned up the radio. He began clicking his fingers, gyrating, to a popular, modern singer, Fairuz.

"Salaam-alaykum," Ian said to the driver, one of his few Arabic greetings—used habitually, if somewhat belatedly, every time he took a cab and felt at ease. It meant 'peace be upon you' which was a bit solemn for his taste.

Ian's intent was, 'I'm glad to meet you, and am now comfortable, I can't speak a word more, please don't injure me with your driving in this disorganized city or rip me off, seeing as I've finally made an effort to speak.' It was lot to cram into 'hello'—but it invariably landed him a handshake and friendly nod, if no discount.

"Ismi Ian," he went on valiantly. My name is Ian.

"Salah!" from the driver. He clapped the air jubilantly. To the music. Or the sound of Arabic from a newcomer's lips. The car slowed to a snail's pace, the incline severe. What did it matter if there was dancing in this petite, shuddering shell of a deathtrap? "Saladin."

Ian assumed this was his name—Salah or Saladin. Most Muslim men seemed to have a shortened name, and wanted you to use it—like Ian's saying 'hello' and meaning a litany, always with a view to comprehending more, offering goodwill, protecting himself.

Ian nodded gratefully—wishing Salah would steer with at least one hand on the wheel, rather than a knee. The guy, applauding, was more engrossed by his rear-view mirror than by traffic overtaking on this potholed road—or the westerner's drivel. Not every backseat passenger tried disco seated, it seemed. The driver was enthralled.

Salah turned the volume higher, and grinned. Hazza had this effect on people. He could belly-dance to Umm Kolthum, Madonna, or the Backstreet Boys, or Sting. You name it, the lad had a move. Salah was ecstatic—and began to croon with the radio, urging Ian to move his legs, do something. Keep the backseat dancer company.

Ian wound down the window, and tapped on the door. Music streamed out amidst a cacophony of horns, revving engines. It was Friday evening. To Hazza this day had not involved prayers, but sleep—in preparation for a night at Backdoor with his girlfriend Fernanda, a seventeen-year-old Lebanese-Brazilian. Orphan, model. She celebrated Hazza's flamboyant ways. The couple enjoyed free entry to the uptown clubs—drinks—and were the spectacle from midnight until dawn, so Hazza said. They cavorted—lost themselves in strobe light.

Every Friday, he and Fernanda invited Ian. The Canadian declined. Tonight, his last, the party-pooper accepted. There was nothing to lose. His flight was 6:00 AM. Why not stay awake—partying at Damascus's hottest club?

This was the grand holiday of each week. 'Friday-the-Smiley,' Hazza called it. Families picnicked on traffic islands, on the slopes of Mount Qassioum, along roadsides—to flee the pollution and heat of the lower city. Total, unforgiving celebration—in the dark.

Three months before, Ian shunned these locales. Any crowds, in fact, nightspots, traffic jams—wherever he felt closed in. Public holidays. Friday noon prayers—occasions to avoid. The travel advisories said so. You remained in your digs. Ian's imagination was fuelled by alarm: of abduction, Syrian spies, rendition, torture, decapitation, the odd suicide bomber.

Not surprisingly, the Quebec company paid him handsomely for his drawings. An assignment too unpredictable for most—with Iraq a stone's throw away, and Baghdad. Most people did not risk life and limb for decorated lintels on historic porticos. On edge still, though—in these closing hours Ian tried to savour the unpredictable. No-one meant any ill will. Quite the opposite. Why could he not feel that—benevolence?

Ian needed even more time—to appreciate what living here meant. Why was he so exhilarated? Inspired? Three months had taken him past the novelty of Damascus, and Syrians. There was more to understand.

"We travel up there!" Hazza said. He pointed to terrace lights on the distant hill—as Salah swerved to avoid a trench.

"Is it better than the Palmyra oasis?" Ian asked.

No reply.

Ian glanced over his shoulder.

It was one of those instances when Hazza fell silent—as at the mention of London, England. There was sadness in his eyes, apprehension. Hazza squirmed, and clicked his fingers harder to Fairuz.

On this last night, Ian should not have mentioned the previous week's trip east to the second century ruins of Palmyra, and the desert camel journey, the stay with a Bedouin family near Iraq's border. It had affected them both—and brought their friendship closer to love.

On the day their four-camel convoy lit out past the citadel and east towards the Euphrates river, Hazza recited a history of the palm-fringed city—the Temple of Bel, the legendary Queen Zenobia of ancient Roman times.

In a Palmyra hotel, he once offered a cumbersome, rotary phone to a Japanese tourist who irritated him. Hazza called it 'Queen Zenobia's Telephone.'

"Her majesty would dial from Palmyra?" the fellow from Tokyo said, poking his finger into the third century dial. "To Emperor Aurelian?"

"Flat rates to Rome," Hazza said.

The man, of course, wished to purchase it immediately. He had bought a "flying" carpet, after all, from an equally canny Syrian in the Hamidiyyah souq in Damascus. Hazza professed little time for ignorant visitors. Ian himself barely escaped Hazza's insistence that foreigners be knowledgeable about Syria, plugged in minimally to the country's history and culture. Ian had fallen afoul of Hazza's reminder that the Ummayyad mosque in old Damascus was where Isa would return at "The End of Days."

"Who is Isa?" Ian asked.

"It's Jesus," replied Hazza. "You freak of a man."

In the desert, under a starlit sky—before a goat-hair tent—Hazza and the Bedouin family patiently, ceremoniously, taught Ian Arabic numerals.

"Ashara, tis'a, tamanya," they said in chorus.

Ten, nine, eight, he repeated in their tongue.

Hazza seemed to revel in it and, in spite of no mobile phone connection, the sweet tea and cakes. He and Ian slept outside, on carpets, under a canopy of stars. Hazza with his western friend—holding Ian's hand.

"Westerners stand on the shores of things," Hazza said, that night. "I'm fascinated how you struggle to live."

In return for numeracy lessons, Ian contributed to the Bedouins' amusement at rhyme and catchy phrases. "See you later, alligator," they adored—and repeated. "Bees knees, willy woofter, cat's whisker."

Next afternoon, as the camels transported them under a blistering sun, Ian rehearsed his class of the previous night. Hazza corrected him against the wind-borne sand.

"Saba'a, sitta," seven, six.

"Bee's knees!" Hazza sang out. "A gold star for Ali Baba."

On the return to Palmyra from the desert—and when he was not humming Madonna songs or reciting poetry by Al-Mutanabbi—Hazza reminded Ian of the five pillars of Islam. Named the five prayer times in a day. Much was about numbers, it seemed, in Hazza's world. Ian was instructed—wiggled his sunburnt fingers and toes to the count.

Ian left the desert vowing to return, stay longer.

"Do you remember your numbers?" Hazza yelled above the music in the taxi. He looked angry.

They were nearing the crest of Mount Qassioun—Damascus below, its green minarets like missile quills.

"Five, four, three, two, one?" said Ian.

"You learned them forwards as well, right?"

Ian nodded—and felt concern that Hazza seemed so upset. This boy was proud and accomplished. An Alawite. His minority sect now dominated Syria's sixteen million Sunnis. The rulers were from Hazza's tribe, based in the hills around Latakia where his family lived.

Hazza was Syria—at least in Ian's eyes. Even though Hazza wished to escape the place, he also wanted visitors, and people like Ian, to see and feel—as fervently as he did. As Syrians did. Intensely, holding nothing back.

"Khamsa, arba'a, talaata," Ian piped up. Five, four, three. "Itnayn, waHid."

Strains of desert Bedouin, not easily forgotten

Then another call on Hazza's mobile.

"For you," Hazza said, tossing the Canadian his cell.

It was Jessica.

"Hi, honey...I lost my phone…yeah…"

The cab lurched to avoid yet another pit in the summit road. This time, the jolt dislodged a carton of tissues—somehow affixed to the roof above Salah's dashboard. It tumbled onto Ian's bare arm. The corner pierced his skin, and knocked the mobile from his hand.

"Hey!" A startled Ian slammed against the door—as though he'd been hit.

Hazza wrenched the driver's shoulder so that he would brake. Ian scrambled under the seat to reach his wife.

Locating the phone, he pressed it hard against his ear.

"It's okay, Jessica. Everything's fine," he said. "We're in a cab. I dropped Hazza's cell..."

The driver's steering wobbled for a few metres before the cab resumed its course. Salah seemed shaken by the hullabaloo—pulled over, and turned off the radio.

"The guide I told you about....yes, up a mountain..."

Hazza scrambled into the darkness for a leak. He wandered the curbside—plucked a flower from the verge, strolled amongst cedar trees.

As Hazza reached the taxi, Ian handed him the phone. "Jessica wants to say hi."

Sitting in the backseat, Hazza listened good humoredly to Ian's wife. He waved the driver to move on. Hazza frowned, smiled, by turns—as though he spoke daily to Montrealers like Jessica. Ian could not take his eyes off Hazza whose expression became serene, as though someone had uttered 'London' in his ear.

"Your husband was attacked by a kleenex box, Mrs. Jessica," he said eventually, as though it needed explaining.

Hazza loved gags. Ian recalled his mimicry of worked-up foreigners visiting Syria.

Salah lit two Marlboros and offered one to Ian who, still in the front seat, was amused by the heart-shape of Salah's tissue-box holder above his head.

"Yes," Hazza said to Jessica. He laughed, pulled a face. His eyes grew teary with mischief. Hazza kicked the driver's elbow to turn on the radio. "Travel is extremely treacherous in Damascus."

The driver fumbled for the volume.

"No, Mrs. Jessica he will DANCE ALL NIGHT," Hazza said. He twisted a jasmine petal in his hand—and sniffed loudly at the silver mouthpiece.

Ian glanced over his shoulder at his friend—and turned back to face the mountain peak. Slowly, Ian drew on his cigarette and blew rings into the windscreen: two, one, zero.

"Sifr," he told Salah wistfully. Moonlit stones upon the glass. "Itnayn, waHId, sifr."

"Come morning, I will kill him," from the backseat.



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