I first met Sulayman in a play at the British Council—Nicholas Nickleby, a light production our English drama class performed in the summer, when the streets of Damascus buckled under the heat and we awoke each night to the hiss of deadened power lines. Sulayman had declined the starring role. “Some heroes are so boring,” he told me in one of our first conversations, preferring to play the shambling orphan boy, Smike. I played Frank Cheeryble, a dull, chivalrous man who ends up marrying the hero’s sister.
Our fathers, Sulayman’s in particular, ridiculed acting as a child’s game; my friend had resorted to sneaking to auditions to preserve a measure of peace in his family. Nonetheless, he managed to gain some fame in the tiny circles of people hungry enough for theater to attend the Council student shows and scattered embassy productions that bobbed up here and there in the city. Over time, we fell into an informal society with other friends from the Council, young men who, like us, possessed sufficient ambition or means, or both, to pay exorbitant fees for the privilege of learning English with native speakers rather than the stuttering functionaries who ran the government institutes.
At our table in the corner of Hamidi’s café, we talked about the international theaters we would tour and the women we would marry, beautiful and as yet unknown, and how the plays we wrote would express truths about our society too trenchant to be said out loud, even in the near-empty coffeehouse. In the privacy of each other’s homes, we imitated Nimr Khaldun and his men from the National Theater, planting our feet and thrusting back our shoulders, barking out lines like half-animate statues. I had not acted in as many plays as Sulayman but was doing a better job of keeping up pretenses off stage. In my engineering courses at Damascus University, I was pantomiming the motions of a man preparing for a life of prosperity and respect, while Sulayman continued his indifferent struggle with his accounting classes. “Master infiltrators,” we called ourselves in secret, declaring acting our true and singular avocation.
The director from London arrived in Damascus in 1999, one year after Nicholas Nickleby. That autumn, American and British planes swooped over Basra and Karbala; the news played endless reports about food sanctions and no-fly zones and skirmishes across the eastern border.
“Hello, hello, and marhaba,” Stephen Greystone said with a broad smile as he shook our hands in the audition room at the Council. He looked exactly as I imagined an important London director should: trim and silver-haired, with thin spectacles and a silk scarf, a man who carried in his gestures the roar and grandeur of the world’s lit stages. London! The West End! For weeks our friends had spoken of nothing else. Some said the British ambassador himself had invited Greystone to stage a play at the Council involving Syrian and British actors. We had expected life to work the way it always had: the Ministry of Culture—“the Ministry for the Eradication of Culture and Prevention of Fun,” Sulayman called it in a whisper—would cancel the visit at the last moment; the director himself would take one look at our city, its crumbling blocks and soot-filled air, and head straight back to London; or the play, the English-language version of Waiting for Godot, would not travel past the cataracted eyes of the Ministry censors.
But there he was, solid and real, handing out scripts for Sulayman and me to read and giving us peculiar instructions. “You have just caught on fire. You are a bird with one lame wing. You will seduce a woman by reading her this grocery list.” I, a respectable boy from a good Damascene family, felt myself turning crimson at that last bit. Sulayman winked in encouragement, and I pressed on. I was a good enough actor; I could drop or heighten the pitch of my voice and arch my eyebrows in a comical way; I could mince my footsteps and thrust my hips forward or fall to the floor on a second’s notice. Stephen Greystone watched with unnerving attention. He nodded a few times and complimented me on my English. Sulayman’s English was not as fluent as mine, but whenever he read from a script, my best friend seemed to uncover meanings the words themselves did not know they possessed. Stephen Greystone shouted with laughter as Sulayman recited the seductive grocery list. He applauded when my friend was done, then asked Sulayman to bray like a mule, something he had not instructed me to do.
Afterwards, we all sat hunched around our usual table at Hamidi’s café—myself, Sulayman, Umayya, Hisham, and Radwan. The five of us drank our coffee and smoked and stared at each other like boxers stupefied after a grueling match.
“Did he make you read the list?” Radwan asked.
“Oh my God.” Umayya let out a miserable sigh, crushing his cigarette into the ashtray.
Sulayman looked at me. “Amjad,” he told the others, “had the girls swooning in the aisles.”
“Really?” The others turned to me.
“Not exactly,” I said, embarrassed.
“Come on.” Sulayman slung his arm around my shoulder. “I was riveted. I’ll never look at tomatoes or ‘one kilo of rice’ the same way again.”
The other three grinned and leaned over the table, waiting for me to elaborate. Instead, I took a long drag on the stem of my narghileh, pulling harder than I’d intended, so that the water in the pipe shaft made an obscene gurgling sound. Hisham grabbed the stem from my hands, laughing.
“I just hope he doesn’t make us do anything too weird,” he said. “Like take off our clothes or something. Isn’t there some German play where they do that?”
“I think,” said Radwan, “that’s every German play.”
Panic lit Umayya’s face. “Let’s just forget I ever tried out, then.”
“This is pathetic,” said Sulayman. He threw an accusing glance around the table and everyone fell silent. “We just had an audition with a real director,” he said, dumping another spoonful of sugar into his coffee. “A professional. Can we act like professionals, then? Just for today?”
“I heard he directed Richard Gere,” Radwan said after a while.
“In what?” I asked.
“In a play—something in London. On a big stage,” Radwan answered. “I forget what it was called. Anyway, he’s famous.”
“World famous,” Sulayman pronounced, and we all agreed. None of us had ever heard of Stephen Greystone, but by then we knew better than to use our ignorance as a measure of anyone’s fame. A hurricane could wipe out the southern hemisphere, the continent of Europe could break loose from its moorings and float away into the sea, and we might never read about it in the papers. This knowledge made us bitter, irreverent men, cocking our heads and clenching our cigarettes at the sides of our mouths, gazing at everything with cool, dubious glances. This was a time when the censors still left dangling shreds of paper in the spines of the foreign magazines they gutted; when the sudden clicks and silences on the telephone betrayed amukhabarat agent’s clumsy hands. The millennium was coming to a close; crowds of European tourists, sporadic and skittish but more numerous than any we had known before, scurried about the Hamidiyeh Market and the Umayyad Mosque and the Roman walls of Bab Tuma, as if convinced that our city, having outlived any distinction but impossible old age, might yield up from its dusty streets some map for the next thousand years. That summer, to the shock of everyone we knew, our president had called the new Israeli prime minister “a brave man.” Officials on television spoke of a possible peace. “Never, it will never happen,” my uncle Tamir said. Sometimes, though, at night, I let a quiet, bewildered hope overtake me. No more fighter planes buzzing our skies, no more interminable military drills, no more marches in the street chanting slogans—maybe even no more tanks crushing through Gaza and Ramallah. Maybe, maybe, I told myself as I rode the bus to the university and walked to the Council, this was the beginning of everything changing. I was twenty-five years old; my best friend was twenty-three. An English director had come to our forgotten city, and somewhere closer than we knew, plates seemed to be shifting, rearranging the earth under our feet.
“Look at that!” Sulayman exclaimed the next day, and it seemed to me, as I stood beside him reading the cast list posted on the door of the Council, that the world had confirmed all that was auspicious and good. Our names hung a few lines apart: I had won the role of “a Boy” in the first act; Sulayman would play Lucky in Act I, then Pozzo in Act II, according to the director’s idiosyncratic scheme. Radwan was listed under “Greek Chorus,” something I did not remember seeing in the script. I would join him in the second half of the play. My friend and I laughed and embraced, racing down the street.
“London!” Sulayman yelled. He leapt into the air, chanting the word over and over. I hesitated and then I followed him, throwing up my arms and shouting as I ran. An old woman frowned up at us as we passed; a soldier leaning against an unmarked doorway grinned and shook his head. A group of girls giggled and trotted a few steps after Sulayman, chiming in from a distance. Girls seemed to stare after Sulayman everywhere we went. He didn’t have the looks of the film stars we watched at the Cham Palace Cinema—Leonardo DiCaprio, Mel Gibson, Richard Gere—but he gave off a certain glow, his green eyes darting with some unsaid joke, his pale face, incapable of growing a proper beard, summoning the world to him.
The next day the thrill lingered in his eyes, but a new disquiet had settled alongside it. We were walking along Abu Rumaneh Avenue, sipping colas and puzzling aloud over the strange scripts we had read the night before. I was beginning to form a theory, as yet inchoate, that Godot stood both for the inscrutability of the universe and man’s inability to communicate. Sulayman had said that Godot represented the audience that never comes—“in other words,” he added, “a Syrian audience.”
Then he stopped. “I need your help,” he said.
“I’m sure we can find books to help us decipher the symbols,” I said, gulping down the last of my cola. “Maybe at Hani’s, or I could try to take a trip to Beirut—”
“That’s not what I’m talking about. I need you to come with me.”
He grimaced. “Where do you think? I’m telling my father.”
The busy street in early evening, with its sputtering cars and buses, women hauling sacks of groceries, and men and teenagers smoking and eating sandwiches in shop doorways, seemed to stop and balance on the tip of a pin.
“You can’t,” I said. “I mean, there’s no good reason.” I tried not to sound desperate. “Just sneak out to rehearsals. Tell him you have extra work at the university.”
“Just like you’re planning to do?”
He winked at me, half-accusing. He knew I had spoken to my father the night before, mostly to ward off his hovering skepticism as I raced to rehearsals. “It’s a diplomatic event,” I had said, surprising my father as he pored over the account ledgers he always brought home from his import-export office. “I’ll be representing Syria to foreign dignitaries. To turn this down,” I ventured, “would be an insult to the Ministry of Culture.”
A successful businessman, even-tempered, my father gave me a rueful smile and reminded me, as he often did, that I was now a grown man and that I needed to begin thinking about my future. But I was earning good marks in most of my classes; when not at the university or the Council, I worked diligently in his office; my English had helped him secure new contacts for his business. In the end, he had only shrugged and shaken his head. “After this, Amjad,” he said, “think about turning your mind to more serious things. Please.”
“You can break it to your father afterwards,” I told my friend. “The play, the embassy, everything—it’s too big.”
“That’s exactly the point,” said Sulayman. “How much longer do I have to duck and hide?” He clasped my shoulders. “We just won parts in a play with a world-famous director, Amjad. This could be it.” He trembled as he spoke, and I couldn’t help it, I saw it, too: the stream of foreign directors who would visit after this, the starring roles in front of diplomats; then, eventually, the trips to London and the rest of the world. “Besides,” he added, smiling, “my father won’t dare make a scene with you there.”
“That isn’t true,” I said. But I gave up, lured by Sulayman’s peculiar optimism. Just a small tug, he seemed to say to the whole world sometimes, and you’ll see things my way. In our circle, we considered him fortunate in nearly every way, except for the fights he had with his father. Even the great tragedy of his family’s life had left him lucky in some paradoxical sense: his older brother Mahmud had died from a blood disease at age ten, but Sulayman, only four years old at the time, had been spared the worst of the grief. The absence had left a hole in him, no doubt, but the memory was too dim to convey an actual presence—a smell, a voice in the room—that can haunt and overwhelm a life. And Mahmud’s death had also left Sulayman the family’s only son, thus exempt from military service. Was he different from the rest of us for having been spared those two and a half years of futility? The hours crawling over the parched ground, the sun beating our backs, knowing one strike from an enemy plane would be enough to wipe us out? I knew it wasn’t worth wondering about right now, but I couldn’t stop myself.
When we reached Sulayman’s apartment, just off of Arnus Square, Abu Mahmud was slumped in the front room watching television. The volume was turned up over the sound of Sulayman’s mother and two sisters chopping vegetables in the kitchen. A shrill broadcaster described the aftermath of the American and British strike on “an empty millet processing plant near Karbala.”
He did not look up at us as we came in. Sulayman motioned for me to sit in the overstuffed brown sofa along the opposite wall. Abu Mahmud was a small man, paunchy and spindly legged, his hands knobbed and stiff from punching a cash register all day in the profitable electrical appliance shop he ran in Jisr Abyad. There was a quality of silence about him that filled up the rooms he occupied, making you sometimes forget whatever it was you had intended to say. Everyone said the death of his first son had transformed him—sealing up his tongue, infusing his eyes with a dull, permanent fog.
He did not speak at first when Sulayman brought up the play, only stiffening and sipping his tea. At last, he set down his glass with a thump.
“This is what you want?” He threw me a narrow glance, as if, against Sulayman’s hopes, he viewed my presence as an invitation to raise his voice. He gestured toward the smoke-filled images on the television. “This is what you see, and you want to be in a play?”
“Baba, the play, “Sulayman said, “—you know it has nothing to do with Karbala, or Iraq, or anything.” I was always surprised to hear my friend in his father’s presence, his voice shrunken, his movements flitting and uncertain. He repeated the argument I had used with my father. “It’s a patriotic duty,” he said.
Abu Mahmud let out a limp, sardonic chuckle. “Your patriotic duty to who? Lord Balfour? Lord Sykes? Robert Redford?”
“How should I explain?” said Abu Mahmud, and I recognized the tired old subject: for months, Sulayman’s father and uncle had been trying to cultivate connections with scattered businessmen and midlevel officials in the ministries in order to find my friend a job. Abu Mahmud shifted his eyes back to the television. “Should I tell everyone that my son cares more about entertaining the British than earning money for his family?”
“But that’s just the point, Baba,” Sulayman said, and I wished I could stop him. “I could earn money. Lots of money.”
I fought the urge to shut my eyes.
“Eventually,” Sulayman said.
I felt my heart contract. Abu Mahmud twisted around in his chair, looking Sulayman up and down as if uncertain how he’d arrived there. “I’m paying for you to learn English from them,” he said, and the brittle quiet in his voice made me look away, “not make a fool of yourself for their amusement. I have a business to run,” he said, and he watched me as if making sure I’d heard, too. “I have a family, and so do you. You want people to say you’re good only for embarrassing us? That’s the job of our only son?”
Sulayman drew back as if he’d been slapped. He started to say something else, but Abu Mahmud set down his glass, signaling that the conversation had ended.
“All that stuff about Balfour and Sykes-Picot,” Sulayman said later in his room. “It’s just an excuse.” On his bed, we divided our remaining cigarettes. “He’s ashamed of me. Completely ashamed.”
I slid my arm around his shoulder. I knew many men like Abu Mahmud, who liked to bring up these weary bits of history to explain everything that had ever happened to us or would ever happen again: evening broadcasts full of bombs, or a dead son, or a heart grown prematurely fed up with the world.
“We can still sneak you into rehearsals,” I said, though I doubted it even as I spoke. “You’re a ‘master infiltrator,’ right?”
But Sulayman was shaking his head with disgust. “I told you, Amjad. I’m finished with all this. I’ll find a way.”
But later that week, he did not appear at the first rehearsal.
“Oh, dear, dear God of all that is sweet and wretched.” Stephen Greystone rubbed his hands through his hair and fanned himself with his script as we sat in a circle in the audition room with our open books. “Shall I intervene in some way?” he asked me and the other Syrians. “Have a chap from the embassy telephone his father, explain the situation?”
We laughed, and he looked puzzled.
“Abu Mahmud,” I explained as well as I could, “does not harbor a great love for the British. Telephone calls will not help.” I added that Sulayman was working on a plan, though in truth I had no idea; I had been tangled in extra work at my father’s office and each time I’d called Sulayman his mother had told me he could not come to the phone.
Stephen Greystone had posted up on the wall brochures from some of his productions in London, The Importance of Being Earnest and some other plays I had not heard of but longed to read, the theater names reverberating on my tongue: Criterion, Olivier, The Rose. A critic from the Guardian newspaper lauded Stephen Greystone’s version of the Oscar Wilde play as a “bracing new interpretation,” and another play, called The Leak, was labeled “provocative” by a critic from a magazine calledTime Out. One photo, from a play named Zelda’s Dream, showed two men covered in blue and white face paint, scaling a slick wall. “That one got a bit of a lashing, I’m afraid,” Stephen Greystone said with a laugh. “But we’re all still fond of it.” I tried to imagine our city humming with theaters like this—playhouses where you could audition without a connection to the director’s inner circle, and where actors did not beat their chests and wring their hands in the outmoded style of Nimr Khaldun’s National Theater. “The hysteria school,” Sulayman and I called it.
Stephen Greystone introduced us to the three British actors he had brought with him: two tall, fiercely grinning men named Roger and David, and a girl around our age, Lucille, with stylishly cropped blond hair and sharp green eyes. I felt myself coloring when Lucille shook my hand. “A delight,” she said. “A true delight.” A shy, brown-haired Syrian girl named Yasmina, whom I remembered from previous drama classes, would be playing my part, “a Boy,” in the second act. I would then join Radwan and the others in the Greek Chorus. Besides us, there were three other Syrian students, Kinan, Umar, and Jalal, whom I recognized from around the halls of the Council. During the breaks, they stood about in their leather jackets and jeans, nervously riffling through the stage directions for the Chorus and searching, like me, for excuses to talk to Lucille and Yasmina. I wanted to ask Lucille if she had seen much of Damascus yet, but something turned me silent and idiotic. If Sulayman had been there, he would have bounded up to her and had her laughing within ten minutes.
“A tremendously important thing you’re doing,” Stephen Greystone repeated to us throughout the day, shaking our hands and clapping us on the back. In the spirit of the occasion, he said, and in homage to what he called “the thrown-voice quality of Beckett’s work,” he had struck upon the idea of reshuffling some of the roles between the first and second acts and within the Chorus. “As far as I know, nothing quite like a Greek Chorus has ever been attempted before in Godot,” he said, leaping about with excitement as Radwan and the others lined up on the floor on their knees, waving their arms about like stunted trees in the wind. “It will require a tremendous amount of physical control. You will embody with your gestures, with your soft moans and echoes, with your silences, the well-trodden yet barren landscape over which the characters wait and pass, pass and wait.”
By the end of the rehearsal, Radwan was staggering about, rubbing his knees in pain. Stephen Greystone had designated him the “Chorus compass,” instructing him to sit in the middle and stretch his long arms in whatever direction the group was meant to move. Radwan wore tightly fitted jeans and was well muscled from lifting weights at the gym where he spent most of his time outside of the Council and the university. His acting style lacked subtlety, as Sulayman and I agreed, but on stage he radiated a wholesome honesty directors found useful for handsome character parts. “Just wait,” he told me when he caught me smiling over at him. “This is where you’ll find yourself in Act II. And I will make you cry.”
I told him I was looking forward to it. I still felt a surge of warmth at seeing my name listed next to that of a speaking character—for half of the play, at least. I had already read the script six or seven times and memorized most of my lines. I had also noticed that Sulayman’s character, Lucky, a strange, horse-like man, made the most important speech at the end of the first act. Stephen Greystone himself would play Pozzo, his master; they would switch roles in the second act. “Mixing it up a bit,” the director said. “I’m quite eager to see how Sulayman navigates both roles. That is,” he said with a sigh, “if he returns to us.”
“Your friend with the father,” Roger said to Radwan and me as we were preparing to leave. “He’s what, twenty-two, twenty-three, you said?” He nodded when we concurred. “Not much older than I was when my own dear dad tossed me out. Ah, how well I remember.” Roger chuckled and scratched his dark goatee. “What I did was, I said ‘all right then,’ and I moved to London. Got my first job there. Best thing that ever happened, really.”
I tried to smile at him, to explain. “So we’ll just move to London, then?” I said it simply, without malice, but Roger was quiet after that.
Sulayman called me a few days later and asked to meet by the bridge in Qasa. When I saw him, his cheeks looked sunken and his hair stuck out in unwashed clumps.
“I tried to go on hunger strike,” he said, “but it didn’t work.”
We stood by the railing, tapping the ash of our cigarettes into the filthy green water of the Barada. The day had brought October rains, and the sky was a mottled gray that appeared beautiful only at this time of year, when the summer months had left our eyes dazed and stung with light. The stench of the river burning in our throats, Sulayman explained how he had lasted nearly a day before his mother and sisters started pounding on the door and pleading; they had even resorted to whisking in warm dishes of lamb maqlubeh and mahshi and leaving them on his bed whenever he slipped out to use the toilet.
“Embarrassing,” he said. “What kind of artist has a mother who sneaks him maqlubeh when he’s on hunger strike?”
“You could have not eaten it,” I said.
“I didn’t eat it,” he replied in exasperation. “Not all of it. But it was just sitting there. And I could hear my mother crying through the door. And anyway,” he tossed his cigarette butt into the stagnant scum beneath us, “it didn’t make any difference to him. If he noticed at all, he laughed.”
We watched his cigarette float on the surface, bobbing around with the other refuse thrown in from nearby shops and apartments. Another rehearsal had gone by. For now, the British actor David, who had played Lucky and Pozzo before, was filling in Sulayman’s roles. Stephen Greystone had talked about selecting a Syrian actor to play Lucky and Pozzo if Sulayman didn’t show up soon, though he’d provided no more details than that.
“He’s threatening to pull me out of the Council if I go to rehearsal,” Sulayman said. “God, he’s so terrified I’ll embarrass him.” My friend seemed to talk to no one in particular. I coughed as I lit another cigarette, wondering, as I always did, why we couldn’t have stood on the other side of the street away from the river, where at least the stink didn’t invade every pore. But Sulayman liked leaning out over the water, taking in great gulps of air. He often said you could only create lasting art if you thrust yourself into all that was darkest and foulest in the world.
“He keeps telling me to act like a man, right?” he said. “So wouldn’t he want me to stop sneaking around?”
I did not know how to answer. I did not mention that over the past few nights in my room, after closing up my engineering textbooks, I had read his lines to myself, imagining how they might sound magnified by my own voice. The idea now filled me with a clinging shame.
“You’re an actor,” I told him instead. “Just act.”
A breeze rolled a plastic soda bottle past us through the viscous water. My friend seemed to contemplate it for a long time. Then he laughed softly beside me.
“Amjad, you’re a genius,” he said.
“I always thought so.”
“No, no, you are.” But he wasn’t talking to me anymore. He grabbed me and gave me an exaggerated kiss on the forehead. “Maybe you’re right,” he said. “Maybe it really is as simple as that.”
Later that week, I went to browse in the back of Hani Aji’s bookstore on Faradis Street, gathering up what plays I could from the metal shelf in the back where Hani sometimes stocked new shipments. I came here whenever I could, between classes and work in my father’s office, reading the plays I could not afford to buy and acting them out in my head—a few elegantly bound works by Tawfiq Al-Hakim, and some old foreign plays that I loved. Just then, I was staging a dazzling production of The Glass Menagerie in my mind; in the front row a woman wept as I, Tom Wingfield, clenched my fists in quiet fury. The door of the shop clattered open, snuffing out the stage lights, and Sulayman burst in.
He was limping slightly, clutching a black satchel and wearing a rumpled blue suit with bulges in the pockets and sleeves. One trouser leg was tucked into his sock; his hair, combed flat in the front, plumed upward in the back like the tail of an unkempt bird. I waved to him, but he did not appear to see me, darting instead toward the front counter where he picked up a book and shook it in Hani’s face.
“I see you’re still carrying Ottoman history!” he scolded in an oddly rasping voice. “Are you aware, my good sayid, that the Turks were instrumental in keeping our people ignorant of the healing properties of the citrus vitamin—or ‘Vitamin C,’ as we who are trained in international medical terminology call it? A legacy that continues to haunt our children.”
Hani sighed. “Please. Please, now.”
In an attempt to rescue Hani, I came up to the front counter and tapped my friend on the shoulder.
“Sulayman,” I said.
He turned around, squinting at me with a mixture of puzzlement and pity.
“I am sorry,” he said. “I am Abu Iyad, or Doctor Abu Iyad, as I am also commonly known. Sulayman is a neighbor of mine. A nice young man, though he could stand to eat a few more oranges. Pale around the lips.”
“I tried calling,” I said. “I came by your place.”
He looked concerned. “Why would you call? Are you in need of my services?”
I sensed the eyes of the other customers upon us: a bearded man in a gray blazer, a girl, around twenty, grinning up from behind a book.
“We could talk somewhere,” I started to say, but my friend cut me off.
“This is a most distressing situation,” he said, nodding rapidly. He scrutinized me. “You do look rather blanché. How many lemons have you consumed today?”
“Sulayman—” I said, and then he reached up and shoved a stethoscope under my shirt. I gasped at the sudden chill of cold metal against my skin. Hani and the girl let out a laugh. I had seen the real Abu Iyad perform this procedure on the street before: every Damascene child of my generation had grown up dreading his roving bag of citrus fruit and medical equipment. Sulayman pressed his hand to my forehead, and I tried to catch his eye. Did he want me to play along? The two of us staging a grand farce at the world’s expense? But he merely frowned in concentration, his fingers on my forehead not his own fingers at all, but the clinical, probing fingers of an elderly doctor. A wave of pity swept through me, for Abu Iyad, and then I wrenched the stethoscope away.
“A most dire deficiency,” he said. He reached into his suit jacket, and from one of the bulging corners drew out two lemons, which he wedged into each of my trouser pockets. “Eat these right away.”
I pried them out, and he replaced them with two more. “Please,” he said. “They could save your life. I shall do the same for your friend, my good neighbor. And you, sayid,” he turned to Hani. “It’s time you carried some books here on the citrus vitamin, instead of all these Turks.” He patted down the front of his suit, as if frisking himself for weapons, then gathered up his sack and swept back out into the street.
“The kid’s lost his mind,” said Hani, as I tucked in my shirt again and dug the lemons out of my pockets. “Poor Abu Mahmud. It’s not enough that he has to have one dead son, God protect him; he has to have a majnun as well?”
I shrugged. My movements felt slow and attenuated, as if I had just dodged a speeding car or a collapsed wall. “Do you want a lemon?” I asked. It was the only thing I could think to say.
In the next days, stories reached me through the network of friends, relatives, shopkeepers, and friends of friends that connected Damascus better than any telephone line. Sulayman, or someone who looked like him from a distance, seen walking in the opposite direction dressed in pajamas and slippers or a white headdress or a black suit. Skipping or doddering or striding with his shoulders thrust forward, a newspaper or box of pastries wedged under his arm. At first, I had hesitated to believe the rumors, but each day our two neighborhoods buzzed with new scandal and delight. I heard men in the shops guessing which one of Sulayman’s relatives or neighbors he might imitate next. He had already spent one day from sunrise to sundown as his bachelor uncle Faris and then as old Abu Dawud, and as Mustafa Nayman, the cocky electronics trader who lived downstairs from his family. People said each small touch, each gesture, was so precise that you became convinced you were in fact talking to old Abu Dawud with his wobbly legs and furrowed stare, or Mustafa, with his thick hand tapping on his belly every time he believed he’d said something clever.
Abu Mahmud had already argued with two of his customers over rumors that Sulayman had impersonated them. Some neighbors threatened Sulayman’s father with unspecified retribution if Sulayman chose them for his next act. I knew my friend was betting that his father would try to keep the situation from escalating in public—for now—wary of stoking the growing rumors that something was wrong with the family. It was a dangerous gamble. I wondered how long it could hold. Sulayman’s uncles were summoned to the apartment in Arnus. I imagined the scenes inside: the shouting and the threats of disgrace, the vows to turn him out on the street. “Abu Mahmud’s better off just letting his boy get it out of his system,” my father said, an expression I hated hearing him use when he brought up acting. “This is bad for his business, for his family, for everything.”
Perhaps Sulayman’s uncles convinced Abu Mahmud of the same thing; perhaps Sulayman’s mother, a tired but kind woman bent on preserving family peace, had intervened in her quiet, occasional way. Whatever the case, the following Wednesday, Sulayman was back at rehearsal. Stephen Greystone gave a shout when he entered, and everyone crowded around him, shaking his hand.
“He caved,” Sulayman told me simply, during the break. “He said this would be the last play, but we’ll just see.” He was smiling, but there was a limpness in his expression, as if the victory had sucked out part of him. I wondered if he’d had to trade anything more in exchange, if he returned every evening to new fights with his father, or if there was a ringing silence in the apartment each morning he awoke. I kept waiting for him to mention our encounter in Hani Aji’s shop, but he never did; it was as if nothing of the sort had ever taken place.
In the next weeks, as the opening night of the play neared, I spent my nights in front of the bathroom mirror, practicing new facial expressions and gestures as my brother and sisters pounded on the door. “It’s not my fault, Sir,” I recited, a young goatherd quaking with fear as he delivered a message to Vladimir and Estragon. “Mr. Godot told me to tell you,” I said, “he won’t come this evening but surely tomorrow.” I decided to devote myself to fine-tuning my movements and inflections, which all of us agreed made up the essential and intangible work of an actor.
“That’s all quite interesting,” Stephen Greystone told me, “but make your movements smaller, Amjad, smaller.” He repeated the instruction several times.
“He means,” Sulayman cut in one day, “avoid the Nimr Khaldun method.”
I felt my face grow hot. “I know what he means.”
“I know.” He gave me a conspiratorial smile, convinced he was helping. “But just think of everything those guys do, and then do the opposite.”
Sulayman still came in most days looking as if he had barely slept at all. Once he entered a scene, though, my friend would shed his exhaustion, his face transforming itself before our eyes, his voice changing registers, as if Lucky and Pozzo were creatures who had sprouted inside of him and were merely waiting to be summoned out. He still did not have all of his lines memorized, and I restrained myself from prompting him as Lucille read them aloud, shaking her head with bemused affection. I had learned all of his lines by heart myself—in the end, I could not do otherwise—and to see him falter and hesitate galled me in a way I did not wish to examine. But I still couldn’t help laughing along with everyone else whenever he and Stephen Greystone stumbled out on stage, Sulayman, as Lucky, straining at the rope around his neck, nearly dropping the coat and basket and other objects in his arms, and our director, as Pozzo, tripping and swaggering after him, his clumsy whip beating the air—and then once more as they switched, Sulayman blindly twirling the whip, Stephen Greystone scuttling about on the floor in front of him.
We had each, in our turn, expressed fear about how the audience would react to the sight of our British director pulling Sulayman by a rope. “We might as well throw ropes around all our necks,” Radwan said, only half-joking. Our director called a series of meetings on the matter, and we experimented with various “deflationary measures”: reversing the order of Sulayman’s and the director’s roles between the first and second acts; or keeping Sulayman in the role of the master throughout the play. But the first arrangement, with Sulayman ending the play as the servant Lucky, left a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth. The second dampened the actors’ energy, and Sulayman, especially, objected to the change. “When I am Pozzo,” he said, searching through his excitement for the proper words in English, “I am different because I was Lucky before. We must be together.” Stephen Greystone nodded with vigor. “This ambivalence,” he said, “this question of what it means to inhabit a role in the first place, informs every aspect of the performance.” We all agreed.
Still, a quiet dread hung over us on the afternoon when an official from the Ministry of Culture arrived to view a rehearsal. Dr. Ramzi was a brisk man of around forty, with a tightly fitted suit and trim mustache and an air of practiced impatience. An elegant young woman named Ms. Saria accompanied him, clutching a leather briefcase against her gray trouser suit. I grew cold as I watched them during the first act, awaiting my cue from the corner of the room. They scowled and muttered to each other when Sulayman and the director took the stage, and more than once, Dr. Ramzi stood up and paced, as if preparing to leave.
“Should I plead with them to remain for the second act?” Stephen Greystone whispered to me during the intermission. “I’m afraid we might lose them.”
I glanced behind me. “Don’t make any requests of them,” I warned him. “Just let them do their jobs.”
The officials stayed for the second act, listless, scribbling notes as Sulayman and the director changed roles. When the play ended, they conferred for several minutes. Then Dr. Ramzi rose.
“All right,” he said after a long pause. “You—the performance—may proceed.” He watched with satisfaction as we laughed and slapped each other on the back. “We are open to experimentation, you see,” he said, giving us an indulgent nod that Ms. Saria mirrored. “We want to see our artists innovate and develop their techniques.”
“Brilliant.” Stephen Greystone grasped his hand and then Ms. Saria’s in both of his. “You’ve done a brilliant service for art.”
The official smiled, recognizing the flattery and approving of it. “Just remember,” he said, “your responsibilities.” His eyes lingered on me and the other Syrian actors.
“Did anyone else,” Roger asked afterwards, “experience a subtle slackening in their bowels during Act I?” We were stretched out in the plastic folding chairs, eating pastries Radwan and I had rushed out and purchased from Jiryas Bakery on Shalan Street.
“Not subtle,” Sulayman said, clutching his gut with both hands. Everyone laughed. He was beaming, as if he had convinced the Ministry officials himself. Lucille sat next to him, nibbling on a baklava, radiant with relief.
David chewed on a pistachio roll. “This all reminds me,” he said, “of when I had to play Swift the Chimpanzee in front of my entire family at university. I couldn’t see the audience,” he went on, “but I could feel my mother’s eyes swiveling round and round. ‘What’s he doing?’” he mimicked in an agonized female voice. “‘What on earth’s he wearing?’”
Radwan clapped his hands. “That is like my mother every morning.”
We asked the English actors everything we could about London—if the city was really as rainy as people said, what it felt like to walk around the West End, if the playhouses were as large and grand as we imagined, with floating balconies and red plush seats and men in white gloves who took your ticket. They laughed at that. “You wouldn’t want to see the places where I started,” Roger said. “You’d be afraid to touch your shoes to the floor.”
“You’ve toured some of Damascus?” I finally ventured to ask Lucille as we were folding up the chairs. “Maybe,” I said, before I could hesitate, “I could show you some interesting places.” I heard Radwan and Sulayman cackling behind me.
“That might be quite nice,” she said, laughing. Was it sympathy in her smile? “It’s absolutely gorgeous here.”
She and Stephen Greystone often spoke, in almost ecstatic terms, about the things they had seen in Damascus. Sometimes they described a city I hardly recognized, a place of light and festivity and layers of mystery, the blue lamps strung over the shops on Shalan Street, the gold mosaics on the walls of Bayt Jabri, the spicy air of the Hamidiyeh Market. “I think I’ve made friends with the bloke who sells me these textiles,” Stephen Greystone said. Indeed, nearly every day he wore a different scarf around his neck, geometric patterns of red and gold or swirls of blue and violet.
“How much did you pay for that?” Radwan and I asked him one afternoon when he came in wearing a scarf trimmed in silver and green. He stared at us for a moment, as if surprised by the question. He looked even more astonished by our laughter after he answered.
“You paid too much,” we told him. “We’ll take you to a better place. Where the salesmen are not robbers.”
But two days later, photos swarmed over the evening broadcasts: smoke ripping through the skies of Basra, a crowd racing from a car in flames, a girl hanging limp in a silent man’s arms. “A tragedy,” said an American official with a closely shaven chin. The bomb had been intended for a weapons facility near Basra, he said, and had inexplicably veered off course. A grave-looking British military officer said the same, bowing his head as he spoke.
As the footage played and replayed, the usual rumors churned about our heads—speculations and conspiracy theories for which I possessed a particular contempt at the time but later came to recognize as the flailing logic of the wounded and scared. The residential complex, people said, had been deliberately struck as part of a campaign to cripple, one by one, what remained of Iraq’s cities. Others swore that at Israel’s urging, America and Britain were planning to drop an “accidental bomb” on Damascus, in order to ignite a new conflict and give Israel an excuse to renounce the proposed peace negotiations, keep the Golan, and take the rest of Syria. Our foreign minister had appeared on television to express what he called “brotherly solidarity despite differences” with the people of Iraq, though official unity demonstrations were prohibited.
In the face of all that was happening, I knew the play was a small matter. Still, I suppose I hoped the events would seep into my performance somehow. In the last days, I had harbored the conviction that something could be taken from all of the blood and madness and swirling rumors and transformed into something worthy; that in my few lines as “a Boy,” I could evoke the pain of the people in Basra and the suffering of all the people I had known or seen. But as the performance neared, Stephen Greystone kept asking me to make my movements “smaller.” I told him I understood.
After rehearsal one day, Sulayman and I lay on the floor of his room, smoking cigarettes and drinking scalding black tea. A poster of a young, leather-jacketed Marlon Brando hung on the wall—“when he still could act,” Sulayman said—next to a pencil drawing my friend had attempted, a few years before, of William Shakespeare.
“You know, you’re lucky,” Sulayman said.
“I’m lucky?” I said. I stubbed out my cigarette on the chunk of burnt brown plastic Sulayman kept tucked between his bed and his bookshelf. His uncle had given it to him a few years ago, swearing that it belonged to an Israeli warplane grazed by ground defenses in the 1973 war.
He flipped over onto his stomach, nursing the dregs of his tea. “You speak English so well,” he said. “Perfectly, really.”
“Write that on my tombstone.” I closed my eyes.
I heard him sigh with impatience. “You’re smart. You can do so many things.” He fumbled about on the floor, and when I opened my eyes, he was holding his cigarette above the lump of plastic with the look of a dim-witted but diabolical interrogator.
“Confess,” he told the lump. “Are you an actor? Do you, as they say, act? ‘Yes,’” he whimpered in the keening voice of the prisoner. “‘No, I mean no; no, please—’” he trailed off in a vaguely comic shriek as he pressed the fiery end of the cigarette into the chunk. The plastic sizzled. I looked away.
“This is what I’m saying, Amjad.” He lit another cigarette. The burnt chemical smell was so thick in the air that I could taste it. “You have so many talents. You’re successful in school.” Something in his voice made me uneasy. He poured me a glass of tea but I did not drink it. “See,” he went on, more softly, “this stuff, this acting—it’s all I do.”
I sat up, wishing he would stop.
“Something’s missing.” He looked at the ground and then back at me. “I think you know that.”
I watched him for a moment as he fidgeted with a frayed thread on the rug. “What on earth do you mean?”
He let out a strangled breath. “You get everything right, in a way,” he said. “The lines, the inflections, even that thing you do with your eyebrows. But then—I don’t know.” He took a gulp of tea. “It stops.” He stared at me, his eyes so earnest I felt sick. “It’s as if you get to the edge of the cliff, right over the sea, but you’re afraid to dive in. Something in you won’t just go leaping over the edge.”
I watched him, saying nothing. We had talked all the time about the importance of taking risks in acting, subjecting yourself to the “knife’s edge of pain”—platitudes by now, but he had never before directed them at me. Perhaps he sensed he had made a mistake, because after a minute, he said, in a low voice, “I think it’s that you’re actually too competent. You’re too good, really. It’s a paradox.”
A sense of fury overcame me. “This is what you brought me here to tell me? ‘A paradox’?”
“It’s that I respect you, Amjad.” He sounded as if I had just offended him and not the other way around. “More than I’ll ever respect my father.”
“Who cares about your father?” I said. “The whole world isn’t your father.”
“I’m just saying you should know.” He went on as if I hadn’t spoken. “And why should you care? You can do almost anything on earth you want to do. You’re going to be a man of quality, a man people respect.”
“A man of quality.” The phrase felt like the worst insult anyone had ever thrown my way. “Not an actor, you’re saying.”
He looked at me in despair. “That’s not what I mean.”
“Then what do you mean?” I was already on my feet, at the door. I couldn’t look at him. “What, exactly, do you ever mean?”
The week before the play, I recited my lines everywhere I went: on the bus, between phone calls at my father’s office, in the packed lecture halls of the university. At rehearsals, I hardly spoke to anyone, bending my head over my script during the breaks. “I was afraid, Sir . . . He beats my brother, Sir.” I was almost certain I could feel something in me changing—the words acquiring new urgency, beginning to speak “from their undersides,” as Sulayman often said.
The evening after the final rehearsal, we all went out for a celebration dinner. Radwan and I had made a reservation at Al-Qadimeh in case any of the English wanted to drink wine with their meal. We ordered platters of lamb kibbeh and mezzeh and chicken grilled with saffron, and Radwan and I took turns heaping portions onto the English actors’ plates. We posed for photographs by the tiled fountain and the blue and gold mosaics. The waiters, genial and dignified, scurried about us in black vests, bringing endless cups of tea and coffee and water in polished brass pitchers. Sulayman sat at one end with the director, sneaking sips of wine in his coffee cup. They kept whispering about something and giggling.
Near the end of the meal, he came over and locked his arm around my neck.
“I’m an idiot,” he said. “And sometimes idiots say idiotic things.”
I stared at my plate.
“I didn’t mean it,” he said. “Maybe I just saw something for a minute. I thought you should know, that maybe you could do something about it. And you have. It’s different now. It’s better. You’re better.”
I looked up at him. At least he was trying. The sting had not faded, I still did not feel ready to forgive him, but too much was happening around us: the play about to open in two days, the actors sprawled around the table, laughing, flushed with excitement. Radwan, ruddy from the noise and the steaming air of the room, sprang to his feet and thrust his water glass in the air.
“I want to make test,” he announced in English.
“Toast,” I said. “He wants to make a toast.”
“Yes, yes,” said Radwan. He cleared his throat. “To world peace,” he said, mispronouncing the p as a b, Syrian-style, so that it came out “beace.” Everybody laughed.
“To world beace,” everyone said.
The night of the performance, we arrived two hours early, as Stephen Greystone instructed. We wandered around backstage smoking cigarettes discreetly, flipping pages of our now unnecessary scripts, waiting our turns as Lucille, doubling as the makeup artist, styled our hair and dabbed rouge and powder on our faces. The director, dressed in a black jacket and high-collared silver shirt, passed through the rooms a few times, tossing out cursory encouragements. “Breathing exercises,” he said. “Breathe in, out, relax, meditate, loosen your jaw, your lips, your body. I’ve got to get back to the messieurs and mesdames out there,” he said, rolling his eyes in the direction of the front lobby. He had forbidden the cast from mingling at the reception before the show—it would destroy the mystique of the performance and sap our energy, he said. He had expressed dismay at having to mingle with the British embassy staff himself before the curtain rose. “I’m a director, not a diplomat, but I suppose that’s become my job here, hasn’t it?” he said. We had been promised the opportunity to meet the British ambassador and our deputy minister of culture after the performance, when we would all pose for a group photo.
I watched myself in the mirror as Lucille slopped extra gel in my hair. I looked like a strangely exaggerated version of myself with the tan face powder, red-smeared cheeks, and black pen markings around my eyes. The sight unsettled me a bit.
In the mirror I glimpsed Radwan stretched out on a chair behind us, watching and smirking.
“Give him . . .” he placed an upward-pointing index finger on each side of his head, faltering when he couldn’t find the English word. “Horns,” he finally said. “Give him horns.”
Lucille smiled at him and rolled her eyes. “Mind what you ask for,” she said. “You’re next.” She patted my neck once, to indicate she was done. “You’ll be fantastic,” she told me. “All of you. All of us. A wonderful thing, this is.”
Radwan’s jokes, the stink of cosmetic brushes, the dim yellow lights backstage—all of it suddenly became intolerable. I could not hear the reception taking place in the lobby, but I sensed it gathering energy, like a distant storm. Slipping out through the backstage corridor, I made my way down the steps into the empty auditorium, where Stephen Greystone had ordered the doors shut until fifteen minutes before curtain. A television crew was gathered at the edge of the stage, a reporter in a tight skirt suit and a smiling, slick-haired interpreter from the main government channel. They were interviewing Stephen Greystone and Roger and Sulayman. From behind the lobby door, I heard the swell of bright voices and violin music, glasses clattering, the high, airy laughter of important people. I glanced over my shoulder, where Stephen Greystone and the others were discussing their respective roles. Their backs were turned to me. I pushed open the door and peered inside.
I was not prepared for such a crowd. I recognized the British ambassador right away from the photos of him I’d seen in the Council lobby: a gangly man with gray hair and an affable stoop. A group of smiling foreigners surrounded him, British Embassy personnel in dark suits and shimmering black dresses. A few of them shook hands with men in shinier suits, Ministry of Culture functionaries, I supposed. I made out Dr. Ramzi among them, looking regal and pleased. A cloud of perfume emanated from every surface. Women glided about in gold and patterned evening dresses, some in bright headscarves. On a table by the door, full glasses of mango juice were arrayed like colorful jewels. I grabbed one, emptying it in one gulp and flattening myself against the wall so no one would see me. I set the glass down on the table with a quick glance around the room. That was when I glimpsed Abu Mahmud in the crowd.
It took me an instant to recognize him. He was dressed in a tan suit that hung loose at his shoulders, his sparse hair wetted and combed down. He appeared lost, clutching two glasses of juice and gazing around the room. There was a strange excitement about him that I had never seen before, an air of eagerness mixed in with his general misery that now made him seem even smaller, almost childlike. I wondered if Sulayman knew he had come; if, in the end, Sulayman’s mother had pleaded with him to attend, or if he had feared that people would murmur that he had boycotted his son’s Ministry of Culture event, or if there was some other reason that had brought him here. But there was no time to ask.
When the curtain went up, I watched from backstage, waiting for my cue to come out as “a Boy.” Radwan and the Greek Chorus murmured and waved their arms to surprisingly eerie effect; Lucille and Roger made a comical and despondent Vladimir and Estragon. When Sulayman stepped onto the stage as Lucky, Stephen Greystone’s long rope attached to his neck, I heard laughter and a few gasps from the audience.
“Up pig!” Stephen Greystone shouted as Pozzo. The audience chuckled as Lucky fell asleep and fumbled with his baggage and danced on the end of the jerking rope, his arms and legs elastic, conveying a sadness and absurdity that filled me with a kind of elation.
“Up hog!” Pozzo jerked the rope and Lucky leapt to his feet. I became aware, then, of a disturbance in the back of the auditorium. A woman’s voice begged for quiet, prompting scattered giggles from the audience. From backstage, I could only make out the first few rows of spectators, their faces obliterated in the light.
“Stand back!” Pozzo said, and Sulayman did not move. “Think, pig!” and Sulayman began to dance. The spectators chuckled, and the protest rose up again, this time smothered by more reproachful calls for silence. “Stop!” Pozzo yelled as Lucky obeyed. “Back! Stop! Turn! Think!”
Sulayman stood facing the audience. He paused, breathing in the silence before his soliloquy. Was he savoring the way the world had finally arranged itself, foreign dignitaries and people of consequence staring up at him from rows of seats, a room gone quiet to welcome in his voice? But when he spoke, he was no one other than Lucky, the man-horse with nonsensical pronouncements to make on the nature of death and divinity and the vast universe:
“Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann . . .”
Then, as we had rehearsed countless times, Lucille and Roger paced and stomped their feet as he continued, Stephen Greystone groaned and trembled, and then they all pounced upon him as his speech grew more urgent, shouting at him to stop. “ . . . In the light the light the light of the labors lost of Steinweg and Peterman that in the plains of the mountains by the seas . . .” Stephen Greystone leapt up and gave Sulayman’s rope a sharp tug. A cry went up. It took me a second to realize it wasn’t coming from the stage.
“. . . The earth abode of stones in the great cold alas alas . . .”
A shadow bounded up the steps, and then Abu Mahmud appeared, swinging at Stephen Greystone and landing a blow on his shoulder. The director staggered back, more out of surprise than pain. Abu Mahmud grabbed the rope around Sulayman’s neck. “Get up!” he yelled. “My son is not an animal!”
A few cheers sounded from the audience, mingled with angry calls. The Greek Chorus scattered, and I ran on from backstage, pushing my way through the scrum of actors. Sulayman flopped about on the floor, struggling to unlatch the collar around his neck.
“Baba, stop it!” he yelled. “It hurts!”
“This is what you want?” Abu Mahmud pulled him up by the shoulder, trying clumsily to undo the collar. “To be a donkey for the British?”
New whistles and cheers broke out from the gallery, as other voices booed and shouted for order. Radwan and I grabbed Abu Mahmud around the middle, pulling him back. Sulayman wrenched the collar away from him, scrambling at the same time to get his footing; the rope, tangled somewhere among our feet, caused him to slip again. A wave of laughter rippled through the audience as he at last tore the collar off his neck, and, propping himself on his hands and feet, scuttled away into the darkness offstage.
By now, the house lights had gone on and all of the audience, including the most slow-witted members, had figured out that the spectacle was not part of the play. The remaining applause petered out. Abu Mahmud had gone still. His face was red and streaked with moisture. He had the dazed look of an actor who had forgotten his lines. He turned to me as if to speak, then closed his mouth again. Two security men, guards I recognized from outside the Council, rushed up to the stage and led him away. He did not resist. The curtain fell, my cue still several scenes away.
“You’ve done good work,” Stephen Greystone said later that night, folding up a stack of programs on his desk. Neither of us seemed to know why we were still there. It was nearly midnight. An uneasy silence lingered in the corridors. Radwan had punched the wall coming offstage, Roger had sworn, and Stephen Greystone had shouted, for the first time that any of us had heard, that he would tolerate no new outbursts from anyone. He had held an emergency meeting with the ambassador, but nothing had come of it yet. Roger had taken Radwan out for a coffee and everyone else had gone home, awaiting further news.
“I have enjoyed the play,” I finally said. I didn’t know what else to say.
The director slid off his spectacles and folded his hands on his desk.
“You’re an engineer, Amjad,” he asked, “is that right?”
The question unsettled me. “Why?”
He smiled. “No reason.” His face was collapsed with fatigue. “You strike me as a rather canny fellow,” he said. “What are your plans for yourself,” he asked, waving at the postered walls, “once this madness has ended?”
I was not sure what I had expected. Not this question, not the disappointment that gripped me. I should have been flattered—he was being kind, taking an interest in my life outside the play. But I had made my movements as small as I could. I had refined my lines until “a Boy” had revealed hidden vulnerabilities and resilience I hadn’t imagined. If we had finished the play tonight, even the first act—who knows?—the audience might have wept a bit. Was I hoping for him to tell me all this? It was an unfair request to make tonight, or, I suppose, any night. It was embarrassing.
I stood up. “The madness hasn’t ended yet,” I said.
The director brightened. “No, indeed it hasn’t.” He shook my hand warmly.
“You’re a good fellow, Amjad,” he said, and I could see he meant it, so I told him the same before I walked home through Shalan and Hamra, the streets quieted in the late-night curfew, stray taxis sidling up to me and then giving up and moving away again.
The next evening, I stared for a long time at the posting on the door of the British Council: “By mutual agreement between the Ministry of Culture and the Embassy of the United Kingdom, all subsequent performances of Waiting for Godot are hereby suspended.” I had anticipated the news, of course, but I still read the bulletin again and again, as though in doing so I might erase it. I did not try to guess what had prompted the Ministry decision—Abu Mahmud’s outburst, or the events in Iraq, or some old, revived dispute with the British embassy; or something else, far off, that none of us would ever discern. At the bottom of the announcement, just above the Ministry insignia, a bolded paragraph stood out: “In consideration for the national and international priorities of its host, the British Council will refrain from staging any theatrical productions for six months. After this time, the Ministry will assess the viability of resuming the theater program.”
We learned from Stephen Greystone, before he and Lucille and Roger and David packed up and flew back to England, that the Ministry of Culture had contemplated pressing charges against Abu Mahmud for “disruption of an event fostering national unity and strengthening foreign relations.” In the end, though, the Ministry had decided that arresting Abu Mahmud might turn him into a kind of local hero. That idea would have made me laugh, had I been able to laugh.
“I took a vow of silence,” Sulayman said in his room. Two weeks had passed. His face was pale and thin, and his eyes glittered with exhaustion. He glanced up at me from the carpet. “I broke that vow for you,” he said.
I could not tell if this was true, but I appreciated the sentiment all the same. I had finally begged his mother to let me sneak in a visit. The room, though tidy, had a vaguely suffocating, sour smell. I’d brought him a gift I hoped would cheer him—coffee from Hamidi’s that I had transported in a thermos after wrangling with Ghazi, the proprietor, who as a matter of principle refused to allow carry-out.
Sulayman leaned against the bedpost and puffed on his cigarette without a word. I had heard that Abu Mahmud had withdrawn him for good from the Council registry, and that his uncle Rashid was using one of his midlevel connections to find him a job somewhere in the Ministry of Communications. I wondered if my friend had left the apartment at all since the play.
“Did he notice?” I finally asked, tilting my head toward the front room, where his father would soon return. “The silence?”
Sulayman let out a harsh laugh. “I didn’t take a vow of silence, Amjad,” he said. “Why do you always believe everything I say?”
I allowed myself a long, slow, careful breath. “Maybe you’re just very convincing,” I said.
This made him smile a little.
“What are you going to do?” I asked as he lay back on the carpet.
He laughed. “What are you going to do?”
“Move to the desert and join a troupe of dervishes.”
“Me too,” he said. “Exactly.” He picked up the coffee cup and turned it in his hands. “Hamidi’s,” he murmured. “So I guess you’re all still meeting there?”
I confessed that we were not. I had begun working longer hours at my father’s office and spending more time on my university classes, and Radwan was occupied with his courses as well. And though no one said it, without Sulayman, none of us saw much point in returning.
He looked relieved for an instant. Then he said, “You should go back. Drink Ghazi’s coffee until Radwan gets his ulcer.” He sniffed the cup with distaste. “I don’t know why we always insisted on meeting there anyway.”
“Probably for that very reason,” I said. “You have to embrace what is darkest and foulest in the world, right?” If he caught the joke, or heard his own words returning to him, he did not let on. I wondered if he would finish the coffee when he was alone or simply toss it out; I was suddenly hurt and felt too embarrassed to ask. “We’ll think of something,” I told him before I left. I had no idea what I meant. “I promise.”
He tried to smile. “That sounds just fine, Amjad,” he said.
I exchanged shy goodbyes with his mother and sisters in the kitchen on my way out. Abu Mahmud had returned during my visit, and I passed him in the front room, his eyes fixed on the television. He did not look my way.
For a long while after that, I did not see Sulayman. Every time I called, his mother insisted he was not at home, or sleeping. “Please,” she finally said. “He just needs some time.” Meanwhile, I had secured a new trading contract between my father’s office and a German firm and was negotiating another with an Australian company; thrilled with the news, my father had taken to calling me his “indispensable man.” I had also begun making inquiries about a dark-haired woman with an intelligent smile, named Rula, who worked in the office next door and waved to me each day through the window.
From time to time, rumors drifted my way. Radwan had heard that Sulayman was about to take a job at one of the Ministry of Communications phone licensing offices or in the office of some other ministry—and at the same time, that he was planning to become a cook at the Italian restaurant in Bab Sharqi. “Who knows, with him?” Radwan said one afternoon in Sebkeh Garden. “He’s probably disguised as one of those pigeons over there, about to drop a bomb on our heads.”
Then one afternoon, five months after Stephen Greystone’s visit, Sulayman materialized on Baghdad Street. I had stepped out of my father’s office for a quick sandwich and a breath of air, and there he was, striding toward me.
“Amjad, my dear old friend.”
It took me a moment to recognize him. He was buttoned into a dark blue suit, the collar of his stiff white shirt starched wide open. His hair glistened with gel. He was clacking a set of white plastic worry beads in his hand and surveying the street with harried officiousness. My stomach gave a little swoop. The Ministry job—had it come through after all?
“How utterly delightful,” he said. He gathered both my hands in his. “You’re looking well, my friend.”
The effusive gesture, his lilting formality, made me hesitate. But I embraced him, relieved to feel my friend close beside me again.
“Where in the world have you been?” I said. A blistering scent of cologne, at once meaty and antiseptic, rose off his clothes. I sensed him taking in my leather briefcase and the jade-colored tie my father had given me as a gift after we had sealed the contract with the Germans. “Your work,” I said, “everything—I’ve been wondering.” I realized I sounded breathless. “I’ve missed you,” I admitted.
He gave a contemplative sigh that I hoped signaled agreement.
“And work at the Ministry?” I continued. I threw a glance around the street, lowering my voice. “It’s not too—” I searched for the word, “too arduous?”
He replied that it was marvelous.
“Then what do you do all day over at Communications?” I attempted a joke I hoped was feeble enough to make him smile. “Do you ‘communicate’?”
He turned a cold glance on me. “We take our work there quite seriously, Amjad.”
“I’m sure you do,” I said. “I mean, I know you do.”
“Do you?” Pity and contempt rose in his voice. He peered up into my face. “Is your father keeping his licenses up to date?”
“Yes—of course, yes,” I said. I almost burst into a laugh, but something in his expression stopped me. I recalled the clerks I had seen in the sweating cinderblock offices where I had helped my father apply for extra telephone lines for his business—beleaguered men who gazed out from their desks with a disdainful air of importance and subjected petitioners to endless waits and repeated questionings about their families and their work and their intentions in applying for a telephone line. I pictured Sulayman draped in his chair, smoking a cigarette and smirking at the bedraggled crowds, standing up perhaps a little too quickly when the chief director entered. I began to feel overwhelmed with fatigue, and for a minute I had the peculiar impression, as I had the day Doctor Abu Iyad had lumbered into Hani’s bookstore with his satchel of lemons, that I was drifting up somewhere high above myself, waiting for him to divulge whether or not this was a game.
“Sulayman,” I said. I grasped his chin and turned his face up to mine. “Sulayman, it’s me.”
He regarded me for a long moment. “Of course it is,” he said. “Of course. So please, dear Amjad, tell me everything there is to know. Your work, your life. Your aspirations. Have you returned to gracing the grand auditoriums and stages of the world?”
The question should not have taken me by surprise. A small drama seminar had opened up at the Council—no public performances, only closed readings among the students in the class—but I had not enrolled. He nodded, as if he had expected this answer. “But I might be getting engaged soon,” I went on. I pulled out my wallet and extracted the photo of Rula I had begun carrying there: in it, her hair was pulled back, revealing two long, bird-shaped earrings, and she was trying not to laugh as she urged me not to snap the picture. Our families were in the process of negotiating the contract. “You’d like her,” I said. I believed it.
Sulayman studied the picture. “She is lovely,” he finally said. He looked up. “I’m happy for you.”
I stiffened. “What do you mean?”
He smiled, fending off an accusation. “I mean exactly what I said, Amjad. I’m truly happy for you.” His voice held the same bouncing inflection, but the hard sheen had vanished from his eyes. “Good for you, Amjad. Really.”
We parted then, shaking hands and promising to meet when each of us could secure a free evening. I had already anticipated the ache that settled in me as I watched him saunter back up Baghdad Street, his stride jaunty and assured. Was he playing another part? Waging some silent revenge on his father or uncle or employer? I pictured him slipping into his suit each day, having a private laugh at all of them—perhaps at me, too. Both of us understood now that I would not be seeking out a new play: that my days muttering lines on the bus and poring over scripts in the back of Hani’s bookshop and imagining my smiling photo in brightly lit theaters had ended. I would not become an actor. But what surprised me was the way the regret seemed to flutter over me and pass, and somehow that—that floating absence—made me feel worse than anything else.
In spite of myself, I wanted that feeling of hollowness to remain; even later, after Rula and I had married, and I started my own trade office in Shalan, and we had two bright and healthy children, the boy named Qahtan and the girl called Rima. And all the while I kept bracing, despite everything, for Sulayman to unmask the joke he had been playing. The streets grew more crowded; the war that erupted across our eastern border four years after Stephen Greystone’s visit brought a million new refugees streaming into our city. Talk of peace across our southern frontier dwindled and then ceased. Sulayman gained the favor of a well-placed official and rose in rank at one of the Ministry offices. He took to wearing mirrored sunglasses and speaking with a soft urbane inflection that set people on edge. I heard rumors that he was entangled in the black market and had joined the mukhabarat, but I knew enough about my friend not to believe it. Sometimes, though, when I glimpsed Abu Mahmud hurrying along the crowded streets, sunken deeper into his own silence, I wondered whether at least the other talk I had heard might not be true, that he had grown frightened of his own son.
“And how is business, my friend? And how is the family?” Sulayman asks me, even now, more than ten years after Stephen Greystone’s visit, whenever we cross paths on Nasr Street or in Tishrin Park. And I restrain myself from sounding like a typical besotted father, though I have saved up some things I might want to tell him sometime: how when my son and daughter play, rolling their miniature cars over the tiled floor or arranging their stuffed tigers and elephants on the couch, they move with a dexterity and concentration that baffle me, as if they are receiving intimations from worlds I can’t see. I believe he would understand. The city is changing around us. Fighting has broken out in the hills: men are fleeing the army, the military is bombarding Duma and Rastan and Homs and warning against defections. There are early curfews every night, and talk of civil war, and no one knows where it will lead. And more and more now, I wait for Sulayman to lower his head finally and lean close and whisper that, yes, he has remained here with me all along: carrying on a protracted farce at the expense of all of us, making me his unwitting accessory. Some days, when he smiles at me or twirls his sunglasses in his hand, I am convinced he has never been anyone but the distracted man I see in front of me, hardly different from anyone else on the street. But despite everything, I know that other day is coming. I know a time will come when he will return to me.
In the meantime, he tells me how pleased he is to see me, how pleased he is with everything, how life could not be better. We shake hands and wish each other well before we hurry away—master infiltrators at last.