DAMASCUS

1.

It’s noon and very hot. I’m wearing a dress and moving slowly. So slowly that a young woman accosts me. If I were driving a car and she were driving behind me, she would have honked. As it is, she only asks: ”Where are you going?” When I tell her I’m looking for the Umayyad Mosque, she invites me into her house. Her house is built all disjointedly. Inside it’s cool and shady. We drink coffee and water and she tells me about her fiancé, her wedding plans and her religion. It sounds lovely. She asks what I believe in and I say that my family is Catholic. When I’m refreshed and rested, I go on my way. I go a little faster, but still slowly along the ”street called Straight” to the mosque.

2.

Babakarsi lives in our building, just opposite my room. Laundry hangs on the balcony in front of his window. Sometimes in the mornings the daughter of a high officer visits him. Then the two of them sit on one of the roof terraces and drink tea. I can’t say what it is they talk about. Perhaps about poetry. Every night he stays awake, reads and translates poetry. He sleeps all day. That way he gets through all of Ramadan without fasting. When he cooks in the kitchen down in the courtyard, there’s cabbage with peanut butter or frog legs with bread. He arranges to get tea and sugar on the black market. Without him, we would never know how to get nails, bandages or most other things. He has no money, but he has women that give him everything he needs. Babakarsi takes me to study in the French Library. We go the whole way on foot. On the way, I buy a couple of cassettes that he likes. The people call us ”coffee with milk,” and we pass on by.

3.

I’m taking a taxi to Aida’s in a Palestinian camp. It’s a city unto itself: a vast network of streets, little two- to three-story concrete houses, restaurants and shops, only trees are missing. Aida says whoever plants a tree will never go back to their homeland. My taxi stops in front of the cinema. No one gets dropped off right in front of a house for fear of secret police. Anyone could be an informer, especially a taxi driver. In any case, most taxi drivers have another job. Many are English teachers. When I arrive at Aida’s, only her younger sister Nadia is there. We stroll along the shopping street, run a few errands and talk about Sigmund Freud. In my simple Arabic, I try to explain the superego. When a group of jung men go running past, they say: ”Hey, nice plastic bags you have!”

4.

The sun goes down. Behind the house walls, almost windowless, people are peeling cloves of garlic. They do this for hours. You can’t see them. But the smell, which wafts through the whole town, makes the walls seem transparent. They sit in a circle, stand in a herd, chop, push through the meat grinder, drench in oil, season with lemon, crush with mortar, smoke in the fireplace. Until the hour of the licorice juice vendor has come. The thirst of an entire day will be gently slaked. Behind the house walls, plates and silverware clatter. The now empty streets belong to Jews, Christians and Communists. After a week, Maysun has already lost a kilo and her jeans fit perfectly again.

5.

I’m on my way to the Mosque. It’s a Friday during Ramadan. Aida’s mother accompanies me. I wear a headscarf and a gown that reaches the ground. I beg Aida’s mother not to tell anyone that it’s my first time praying in the mosque. She assures me that everything will go as we’ve agreed. We take our shoes off, leave them at the entrance and go up the stairs. Aida’s mother is greeted by all the women. Immediately she tells the fattest one that it’s my first time at Friday prayers. The fat woman orders me to kneel down next to her. The others want to kneel next to me as well. It gets quite tight. I try to imitate the other women in everything. We stand straight with our palms up, drop to our knees, prostrate ourselves. We whisper something from the Koran, turn our heads to the right and to the left and shake our index fingers. Each time I touch my forehead to the ground, my hair slips out of my headscarf. After the prayers, which go on forever, all the women kiss and hug me very warmly. ”They believe that you have become a Muslim now and so they’ll quite certainly get to heaven,” says Aida, who never goes to prayers herself.

6.

The new moon, a narrow crescent, lies on its back. I lock the door to my room, stick the key in my bag and look for Johanna and Elena. The two of them are sitting on the ground with a small kerosene stove between them, a pot of melting wax on the flame. Elena rolls up our lease and sticks it into the soft wax until the paper can’t be seen anymore. The cassette recorder plays African drum music. Johanna forms a little doll out of the wax-covered lease. Silently, they both stick nails into the doll while trying to think about our landlord. He’s done something we don’t like. Nothing exactly terrible. He wants to raise the rent, and he refuses to put in a telephone line. Long after midnight I go back to my room. The door isn’t locked anymore. It even stands ajar. Inside it’s dark. I immediately get in bed and try to ignore the glints of light in the darkness. A week later our landlord comes with a very long telephone line. From outside, he throws it over the roof and into our courtyard. Finally we can make calls. A year later the real estate agent who drew up our lease dies of a stroke.

7.

Najat is Aida’s cousin. She lives with her parents and teaches at an elementary school. Her parents’ apartment is decorated in western style with plush armchairs and pictures on the walls. Najat lives in a small, sparely furnished room that resembles a monk’s cell. On her desk sit books, the Koran and other religious writings. Najat is a hajja. She has undertook the pilgrimage to Mecca and brought a few things back from the trip: a tapestry with a picture of the Kaaba, aromatic oil, and a vessel for rosewater. I admire the simplicity of her room. She gives me a bottle of oil and the vessel for rosewater. When I run through the streets with her, she moves as carelessly as a young man.

8.

We’re looking for a new, smaller house with lower rent. Aida helps us look. She shows us how to tell a good story in order to lower the price. Finally we meet a woman that will rent out her house in the old city. She herself lives in a modern skyscraper with all amenities. The woman is a  widow who brought fourteen children into the world, of which only half are still alive. I tell her a funny story. She laughs until she is brought to tears. We can move in immediately. But the house is not empty. An Argentine student lives there. The neighbors say that she always has male guests and throws parties. The men wear sunglasses ad their pants bulge in back. At one of the parties, a gun supposedly slipped out of one of the men’s waist pouch while he was dancing. Aida tells the widow to throw the Argentine student out right away. A curse could be brought down upon her. Soon after that, we find out that the student has disappeared. The widow is quite relieved. She buys a live chicken, ceremonially cuts off its head, and spreads the chicken blood over the whole house.

(translated by Brad Fox) published 2003 in: „Osten“, In sechsundzwanzig Geschichten um die Welt, Blumenbarverlag München

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