A short story set amid the turmoil in Syria. Based on characters from my Palestinian crime novels. I penned it two years ago, but I’m posting this ficiton free today because so many real people continue to be killed.
An Omar Yussef story
By Matt Rees
The crowd started to clear the wide, covered arcade of the Souk Hammidiyye even before the first shot. Omar Yussef saw a dread deeper than mere terror on the faces of the people hurrying out of the Ottoman market and into the alleys around the Ummayyad Mosque. They look disgusted with themselves, he thought. They had started to believe they had the courage to walk toward trouble, not to flee from it.
Three reports from a rifle out beyond the old Hejaz Railway Station and a rustle of distant outrage, as if the crowd were an old man bothered by his grandchildren during a nap.
“It’s going down.” Khamis Zeydan caught Omar Yussef’s elbow and pulled him out of the sudden stream of the crowd. They sheltered on the step of a store that sold seeds and roots which promised to make a man potent.
“All these years it was we Palestinians who did the rioting,” Omar Yussef said. “Our first day in Damascus and it’s happening here.”
A shot, this time closer, from al-Thawra Street, and one of the yellowed glass panes in the vaulted roof of the arcade shattered. Every face was stern and still, but someone must have been shouting because it seemed the crowd was born aloft and accelerated on a tide of noise.
The storekeeper reached for his shutter with a long hook. “I have to close, ustaz.” Omar Yussef moved off the step and the metal rolled down. He glanced at the merchant. He was about Omar Yussef’s age, nearing sixty, and something about his high cheekbones was familiar despite his frothy white beard. As the storekeeper knelt to snap the padlock, the edge of the crowd jostled him, and as soon as the key was out he was on his feet and swept away.
A whirlpool of panic broke around Omar Yussef and Khamis Zeydan, pressing them between the chests and backs and shoulders of the men around them so that their feet barely connected with the ground. They slipped powerless from one set of bodies to another, exchanging the scents of different sweats and wondering at the pointless projection of angry voices like dogs joining a starlight chorus.
When the crowd spat them out into an alley, Khamis Zeydan lit a Rothman’s. “I haven’t run that far since we were in University.”
“Let’s hope it’s the only part of our student life that’s repeated at this reunion,” Omar Yussef said. “You know how I was back then.”
“Relax. You don’t drink anymore.” Khamis Zeydan blew gray smoke from his nose. “We can’t stay here. The mukhabarat might chase the protesters down this way.”
Omar Yussef braced a trembling hand against the old stone of the wall. He wondered if he had touched this very place when he was a student at Damascus University. He may have planted his fingers right here in 1969. It looked like just the kind of quiet place where he would have stopped to throw up the alcohol.
If only the other things that poisoned me through those years had been as easily voided.
He groaned with the sciatica in his right leg and followed Khamis Zeydan along the covered alley. His friend’s cigarette made him cough, but he tracked its odor as he stumbled into the dark.
They returned to their hotel by the Suleimaniyye Mosque, taking a wide loop to the north. They skirted the tomb of Saladin and the great porticos of the Ummayyad Mosque. The Iranian pilgrims, their women swathed in black, took refuge from the stampede beside the shrine to Hussein, son of the Caliph Ali, first among the Shia, whose head was buried there. Beyond the Paradise Gate in the wall of the old town, they crossed the narrow Barada River. Omar Yussef looked down. The water dribbled, thick and muddy, through its concrete course. His blood felt as viscous and his tongue as parched.
In the lobby of the Semiramis, the message board read: “Welcome, Damascus University Class of 196 Reunion. Evening Program Dinner w/Sufi Dancing.” Omar Yussef wheezed and shivered in the air-conditioning. Khamis Zeydan lit a cigarette and bent to pick up the number that had dropped from the board. He plugged it into their graduation year.
“Nineteen sixty-nine,” he said. “Do you remember, you had curly black hair, like Charlie Chaplin?”
“You’ve reminded me about that before.” Omar Yussef patted at the white strand he combed over his bald scalp. His hand came away damp with sweat. “I’m not the only one who’s changed.”
“I’m sure you’re not. I’m no prize either. I’m missing a hand from a grenade, I’ve got fragments of shrapnel in various parts of my body, and I’m a diabetic. I bet when we see the other guys, there’ll be some fat bellies bursting through their little business suits.”
“That isn’t what I meant.” Omar Yussef poked his finger at the word Sufi on the message board. “I saw Tayyib al-Jamali in the souk.”
Khamis Zeydan’s pale blue eyes widened. “By Allah, where?”
“We sheltered in front of his shop when the shooting started. He was the one who shuttered the place. I knew his face, but he was gone so quickly.”
“It makes sense, I suppose. The store’s just around the corner from the Sufi mosque.”
“The one with the little Fez on top of the minaret, instead of the crescent. That’s the one. Let’s have a coffee.” Khamis Zeydan went up the steps to the lounge. He sat on a long, square sofa of a design Omar Yussef thought might have been favored in Europe back when the PLO was still feted by famous film actresses. “Tayyib al-Jamali. Well, he won’t be coming to the reunion.”
“Obviously not. He didn’t graduate.” Omar Yussef sank into the sofa. He felt as though his backside was descending all the way to the floor. His knees creaked and a sharp flame of pain burned up his stiff leg.
Khamis Zeydan lit a smoke. “He graduated from somewhere else.”
“Mazzah Prison. I met him there, when Assad’s father put me away for a while in the early ‘Seventies. Poor bastard.”
“They put you in with the Sufis?”
Khamis Zeydan held up two fingers to the waiter for coffee and gestured at Omar Yussef. “He’ll have his bitter.”
“Surely you were––”
“More dangerous than him? Well, I was on the wrong side for a while, because Assad was mad at the Old Man. But the guards knew I’d work with them again as soon as that quarrel was patched up. Tayyib was different.”
“What’s so dangerous about Sufis, in the name of Allah? It’s ridiculous.”
“When the ruler comes from a minority like the Alawwi, any other group is a threat. Even if all they want to do is spin around in circles and recite poetry, like the Sufis.”
“He’s not in jail anymore.”
“Selling hard-on medicine in the souk? I’d rather rot in a boiling cell than spend my days in such humiliation. Anyway, Sufis are all right these days, it seems. We’re even going to watch them dance tonight.”
“Yes, I’m looking forward to that.”
Khamis Zeydan tensed. Omar Yussef followed his eyes and saw a thin man with sparse black hair slouching into the lounge with a grin like a gravedigger’s secret.
“Is that––?” Omar Yussef said.
Khamis Zeydan stood. “Son of a whore.”
The man stood above Omar Yussef. He smelled of medicated soap and brandy. Omar Yussef struggled, but the spongy sofa sucked him down. Laith al-Atrash shoved him gently on the shoulder and laughed. “Don’t get up, Omar. It’s good to see you.” He held out his hand. Omar Yussef shook it as if he were wary of a trick electric-shock ring.
The waiter brought their coffees and set them on the table. Khamis Zeydan looked down at the tiny cups and stroked his nicotine-stained mustache as though he had been presented with an emetic.
Laith took Khamis Zeydan’s lapels between his ghostly fingers and kissed him three times. “Abu Adel, welcome to Damascus. May it be as if this were your home and you were with your own family.” His cheek was a bluish white and the dark stubble along his jaw looked as if it had been pricked out with charcoal.
He pulled an upright chair to the sofa and sat, leaning over Omar Yussef. He reached down and touched Omar Yussef’s knee. He slid his fingertips back and forth, so that it felt as though they moved beneath the skin. “It’s been so very long, Abu Ramiz.”
“Not long enough.” Khamis Zeydan remained on his feet. He seemed to quiver with barely repressed energy.
Laith laughed and wagged his finger at Omar Yussef’s friend. “Don’t be like that. Let’s catch up. Tell me, what have my old university comrades been doing in the many years since we last met?”
“Why don’t you just check your files?” Khamis Zeydan rattled some phlegm.
Omar Yussef waved for his friend to calm himself and sit. “Abu Adel is police chief in Bethlehem,” he told Laith, “and I am the principal of one of the UN schools there in the Dehaisha Camp.”
“And you’re still a mukhabarat bastard,” Khamis Zeydan said.
“If I’m a secret policeman, how do you know?” Laith opened his arms wide and turned his smile through a one-eighty, as if he were playing to a big audience. “Unless you’re mukhabarat too.”
“That’s how it works in Syria. The secret police are out in the open, so everyone worries that there must be other agents in their family or at work doing the real informing.”
Laith clapped his hands like a man hearing a fine joke. Khamis Zeydan cursed under his breath and walked fast toward the elevators.
“He should forget about what happened.” Laith frowned and spoke to Omar Yussef in a sad, confiding tone. “It was a long time ago.”
“What do you mean?”
The Syrian shrugged under his ill-fitting blue suit. “You know, it was about nineteen seventy-one.”
“I shot him in the back.”
Omar Yussef knew Khamis Zeydan had taken a bullet after he left the Syrian jail, on his way to meet up with other PLO fighters in Beirut. It had been part of the infighting among all the resistance groups and Arab intelligence services that followed the expulsion of the Palestinian organizations from Jordan. “That was you?”
“They sent me to get him. They knew I’d recognize his face. As an old university comrade.”
“Were you supposed to kill him?”
Laith lifted his hand, palm downward, and wiggled it. “Maybe, maybe not. But I’m pleased to see you’re more forgiving, Abu Ramiz.”
“Actually I just can’t get out of this chair, or I’d have gone with my friend.”
Laith stood and hauled Omar Yussef from the sofa with a surprisingly strong grip on his thin wrist. “You’re out of shape, my dear old friend. May Allah bring you good health.”
Omar Yussef walked away.
“Aren’t you worried I might shoot you in the back?” Laith smiled.
“You did your damage to me a long time ago.” Omar Yussef gestured to the street, where groups of young men were jogging away from the demonstrations. “Besides, today you and your mukhabarat have other targets.”
“These criminals? They won’t last long.”
“The criminals are the ones opening fire on people who only want a better life.”
Laith shook his finger and leered. “I should’ve taught you a lesson long ago, too. You’re the same impetuous bigmouth I knew back in our politics seminar. And look what happened then.”
Omar Yussef returned to the coffee table. He felt the uncontrollable rush of adrenaline that signaled one of his fits of anger. He knew it would course through him long after he had left Laith and that he would regret whatever he might say, but it had always been beyond him to control it.
“You blackmailed me when we were students, but you’ve got nothing on me now,” he said.
“Once you’ve been blackmailed, the blackmailer has you for life. You know what you did. But do you want your angry old friend, the police chief, to know?”
Omar Yussef recalled the feeling of constriction that used to come upon him as a young student, each time Laith demanded information on the other political factions. He tried never to give much away, but he had to satisfy him. Laith had been a mukhabarat informant even then, and Omar Yussef had not long been released from a Jordanian jail. The threat of expulsion from the university and deportation to the West Bank had been real. “The charges against me in Jordan were trumped up by political opponents back in Bethlehem.”
“I knew that, but it didn’t mean I couldn’t use it to make you work for me then. Since when does the truth have anything to do with Arab politics.”
A gunshot sounded down near the Suleimaniyye Mosque.
“Not then. But perhaps it does now.” Omar Yussef went to the elevator. He turned toward the café to tell Laith that he wasn’t afraid of him, but the intelligence man had already gone to another table to greet some old schoolmates.
Another shot and the youths on the street went into a run. The elevator doors closed on him.
As the elevator climbed to Omar Yussef’s floor, the silence chilled him.
Maybe it isn’t only because Laith wasn’t listening that you lost your tongue, he thought. You’re still afraid.
Night came down over Mount Qasioun. Omar Yussef knotted his tie and looked from his hotel window at the sandy crag in the moonlight. He strained his eyes to see the saints that Muslims believe prayed on the mountain in a vigil each night, and he smiled. They also say it’s the place where Cain slew Abel, he thought. I only need to look in the street below to see that reenacted.
The presidential palace was low and square on the ridge. Omar Yussef imagined the young President watching the city from high above in the place where murder was invented. Does he look down with fear or hatred? he wondered. No, with calculation. He’s playing a game of backgammon with every Syrian, but he’s the only one who counts the numbers on the dice.
He went to Khamis Zeydan’s room. The Bethlehem police chief swung the door open. He was drinking whisky from a plastic tooth mug. A Gulf news channel blared from the television. “Why’re you dressed up?”
“The reunion. You can’t have forgotten?” Omar Yussef shut the door.
Khamis Zeydan emptied the cup and pointed to the television screen. “Surely it won’t be going ahead. There are two dozen people dead today alone.”
Omar Yussef flushed with shame. Khamis Zeydan laid a hand on his wrist. “It’s okay. So you didn’t consider it. We came a long way for this, but it’s best if we just eat downstairs.”
“I didn’t think about––” Omar Yussef stammered. “I wanted to watch the Sufis dance at the restaurant tonight.”
“If you’d like to see someone spin around in circles, I’ll refill my hipflask.”
They came out of the elevator into the lobby. The other dozen men from their graduating class were gathered by the revolving doors, discharging cigarette smoke and cologne. One of them waved to Khamis Zeydan and pointed urgently at his watch.
“It seems you aren’t the only one who likes to watch dancing,” Khamis Zeydan said.
The mention of so many dead was sour on Omar Yussef’s tongue. He stood at the edge of the group, ignoring the boisterous conversation, as they moved to the minibus.
They drove past the Hejaz Station. Omar Yussef sought signs of the day’s shooting. Every twenty yards, a slim soldier of the Revolutionary Guard stood on the kerb. Their red berets angled to their brows, they held assault rifles across their chests.
“I was here when the president’s father died in 2000,” Khamis Zeydan said. “They brought the Guard out then.”
“What does it mean?”
“Either they think they’re about to lose control, or they’re about to remind us all that such a thing is impossible.”
“How would they do that?”
Khamis Zeydan mouthed the word Hama. The President’s father had killed twenty thousand people there three decades ago. To suppress a revolt, and to discourage any future uprising.
Omar Yussef watched the silent streets and the soldiers shifting from foot to foot, and he whispered the name of that wretched city to himself.
They descended from the bus at the entrance to the Medhat Pasha Souk and went into the narrow streets, reminiscing about each corner as they passed.
“Down there,” Omar Yussef said, “was the café where the hakawati used to tell their fables.”
“The storytellers are still there,” Khamis Zeydan said. “But it’s just for the tourists these days. Syrians prefer the television.”
In the Moawiyye Palace, they took their places on low divans along the walls of the black stone vault. A waiter, wearing white pantaloons and an embroidered vest, lowered a brass tray onto a wooden frame before them. It was spread with salads of eggplant and parsley, with hummus and labaneh, and with fried cheese.
“Muhammara.” Khamis Zeydan reached for the red paste of hot peppers, ground walnuts, garlic and olive oil, tasted it on a wedge of flatbread, and passed it to Omar Yussef. His mouth full, he said: “It’s good, very good.”
Omar Yussef waved his hand. He wasn’t sure his appetite would come back at all tonight.
The last guests arrived, the locals, the men who had remained in Damascus after graduation. Laith al-Atrash went along the divans shaking hands and kissing everyone on the each cheek. When he got to Khamis Zeydan, he saw that the shake was withheld, so he grabbed for the prosthesis that had replaced his left hand when a grenade took it in the Lebanese Civil War. “I’ll just shake this,” he whispered, resisting Khamis Zeydan’s efforts to withdraw his arm. “It has about as much life as you’d have in you, if I’d been able to shoot straight.”
Khamis Zeydan went limp with shock. He never knew that it was Laith who shot him in the back, Omar Yussef thought. The Syrian caught Omar Yussef cheek between his thumb and forefinger, squeezed it, and moved on to greet the men reclined on the next set of cushions. Omar Yussef touched his friend’s elbow to reassure him.
“I should’ve killed that bastard when we were students,” Khamis Zeydan murmured.
Omar Yussef withdrew his hand. “Is that all we’ve got?”
Khamis Zeydan twitched his brows, a question.
“That guy represents something rotten, and our only answer is to kill him?”
“What do you want from me? You know the life I’ve lived.”
“I thought you did all your assassinations in the ‘Eighties.”
“I’d rub him out just for old time’s sake.”
Omar Yussef shoved the little plate of muhammara across the tray. “Eat some more and calm down.”
Khamis Zeydan took his hip flask from his sport jacket and tipped it to his lips.
“To your doubled health,” Omar Yussef said.
Khamis Zeydan sneered at his friend’s sarcasm. “You’re telling me to calm down?”
The room filled with cigarette smoke and the echo of conversation. The waiters took away the salads and brought platters of barbecued meat, lamb kebabs on skewers and delicate strips of shish tawouk, chicken dripping olive oil and lemon juice. Omar Yussef sat silently, wondering at the mirth of his old companions. Have they forgotten the slaughter on the streets today, just as I did for a while? he wondered. Perhaps it’d make no difference to them. I always expected something better from the world around me than these men did. They’re content to prosper amid the imperfection.
Three dancers entered and the conversation flagged. Four musicians followed wearing brown camel-hair robes and sat on cushions on a low dais by the wall. Each Sufi was dressed in a white jerkin and a long white skirt tied at the top with a broad scarlet sash. On their heads, each wore a tall brown Fez.
The dancers had neat mustaches and placid faces. They stood at the points of a triangle and moved their hands into position, arms across each other to show that they renounced the things of the world, grasping for nothing.
One of the musicians started the sema, his metal fingerpieces picking the jangling strings of the qanoun that lay flat before him. The others joined him, the oud, the tabla drum and the shebabah flute.
The dancers shut their eyes and, as if revolving on a pole, spun on the spot. Their skirts rose with the motion, spreading wide so that the men appeared to float above the ground. They raised one hand with palm up to accept Allah’s love and directed the other toward the ground, representing their spiritual connection with the people of the earth to whom they passed on whatever they received from heaven. Their heads dropped to the side, resting on their shoulder in the posture that signified the dancers had begun to converse with the angels.
Omar Yussef had always loved the Sufi dance. It seemed they had conquered all the physical limitations that circumscribed his every moment. They turned with their eyes shut, they were calm and unperturbed by the sound of conversation returning to the room, they stepped through the rotating motions with gentle, sure movement, their right feet rotating them and their left feet pivoting in place.
He glanced across at the musicians. They were older than the dancers. No doubt they had danced in their younger days.
I’ve lived in a trance like these spinning Sufis, Omar Yussef thought. I’m devoted to history and books. I forgot about the poor boys shot dead today, because I wanted to have a good time tonight. Just as I’ve so often closed my mind to the dreadful things going on around me in the Arab states. I’m dancing in the dirt.
With a shock, he noticed that the musician who played the tabla was Tayyib al-Jamali. The thick white beard and the clear skin and high cheekbones, just as he had glimpsed outside the store in the souk that afternoon. Tayyib’s fingers rippled over the stretched goatskin in perfect time. His eyes were shut.
Omar Yussef touched Khamis Zeydan’s hand. He directed his eyes toward the musicians. “That’s him. That’s Tayyib.”
“Son of a whore. That’s a coincidence.”
Laith al-Atrash’s laugh pierced the calm of the dance. Tayyib opened one eye and watched the mukhabarat man with reluctant cruelty. He missed a beat and seemed to return his focus to the music with an effort. Laith slapped a loud handshake on the man next to him, sharing a joke.
Omar Yussef wondered if it was Laith who had informed on Tayyib, had him expelled from university, or even imprisoned. He beckoned for the waiter and wiggled his wrist as if he were holding an empty cup. The waiter nodded and picked up a brass coffee pot from an inlaid sideboard.
Something white flashed across the edge of Omar Yussef’s vision. He turned from the waiter. Tayyib al-Jamali rose from the musician’s dais, even as the other two men played on.
The old Sufi went across the carpet, moving carefully around the carpet so as not to disturb the spin of the dancer’s skirt.
“By Allah, he’s got a gun,” Omar Yussef said.
Tayyib halted before Laith. The mukhabarat man smiled, enjoying the night with old friends, and turned as if the man in white pantaloons could be of no importance. Then he noticed the gun and fell back, clawing at the embroidered pillows to bury himself in them.
Three times Tayyib shot. The music stopped. Laith’s body jerked briefly, then was still. His thin shoulders slid out of his loose suit jacket as he slipped lifeless down the cushions.
Tayyib tossed the gun at the dead man. His face was as impassive as the dancers’ when they spoke to the angels. He went to the door. The waiter stood aside with the coffee pot, polite, as if the departing killer had merely told him he didn’t want a refill.
The old men around the room froze, staring at Laith’s body as if they were fearful of one last trick from the secret policeman. We were all afraid of him when we were students, Omar Yussef thought. Now he’s dead, are we any less scared?
The steady tread of Tayyib’s footsteps descended the stairs. The dancers halted their spinning. Though their faces were confused and horrified, Omar Yussef noticed their posture. Each of them kept one hand still to heaven and the other toward the ground.