Nancy writes: ‘Fresh Apricots’ first appeared in Dancing in Damascus, a book of my short stories that was also published in Arabic and Turkish. It’s about surveillance and the political prisons in Syria under Hafiz al Assad, the father of the current dictator. The revolution, now in its third year, is being fought against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, who has proved even more monstrous than his murderous father, and a tyranny which has tortured Syrians, and the country, for more than 40 years.
Kasim smiled, then slouched and squeezed his heavy body under the steering wheel of the battered yellow Fiat. He liked it when this car turned up on his shift. This car, with its red plush interior, the strings of beads swinging from the visors and the transfer of puckered lips blowing him a kiss from the dashboard.
As Kasim pulled out into the traffic, he switched on the headlights, then glanced through the rear view mirror. He smiled again, this time at the twin portraits of the President printed on the two sun shades that stretched down over the back window. Reversed, the portraits looked out, their eyes working like spotlights to protect him from whatever might swoop down and catch him unawares.
Almost immediately an old man hailed the taxi. Three times what’s on the meter, if Kasim would take him up the Sednayya road, that’s what the old devil offered. It was a hell of a lot further from the centre than Kasim wanted to go, but he could pick up the difference, so it wasn’t too bad a start to the evening shift.
Driving up and out of Damascus, Kasim, played the executioner, watching how his headlights revealed men walking along the grey slopes at the road’s edge, then plunged them back into darkness. Kasim also noticed the clustered families and groups of heavy, scarved women waiting with their bags and bundles near the bus shelters. It amused him to think that one or two of these characters would soon pay him for the privilege of riding down to the city.
‘We get off the main road here.’ Kasim’s mood turned sour as he turned the car to the left and his anger increased as the old man peered out uncertainly at the rows of raw concrete buildings. Most had hollow, black holes for windows and piles of newly dug earth round their foundations. Yet at intervals along the wide, empty streets, there were other buildings in which every window was brightly lit as if testifying to Damascus’ housing needs.
‘What is the name of the building?’, Kasim growled, sullen, ratty at being out of town. But there was no one on the street to ask until, finally, he stopped in the solitary pool of noisy yellow light round a pressure lamp. The vegetable seller’s directions were also confused and Kasim swore. He hated this blundering through the nowhere places around Damascus.
Eventually, when he turned the taxi back towards the Sednayya road, he snorted at the old man’s generosity and despised his uncertainty as he tottered off towards what Kasim guessed would be a dubious welcome.
The corner was dark where the wide, unfinished street finally met the main road. Kasim swore again. He was further out of Damascus than he’d meant to be. To console himself he shoved his precious Feruz tape into the machine and made a moue at the kissable lips on the dashboard. He almost missed the peasant-type in flared trousers and a crumpled shirt who was limping heavily as he tried to flag him down. I should think so too, Kasim said to himself; his was the only vehicle in sight.
‘Damascus, please’, the man’s voice was smoother than Kasim had expected.
‘Yeah, get in. But it’ll cost you’. Kasim checked in the mirror to be sure the guy understood. He could see a flick of hesitation in the man’s glance before he said, ‘Yes, I can pay. Take me to El Jisr el Abiad, please.’
The ‘please’ was ingratiating. Kasim glanced again in the mirror. The guy was sitting tensed, upright, as if he didn’t know how long the journey would take on a Thursday evening. Otherwise he looked alright, though older than Kasim had figured when he’d first seen the skinny figure reaching towards his headlights from the murk at the side of the road.
He was staring into the darkness which pressed round the car. ‘I guess you don’t make this journey often’, Kasim ventured. He was no good at chatting up the punters. Whatever he said, it always came out slow and heavy, and anyway, they all knew – everyone knew – that his boss would ask if anything interesting had happened during the shift. No one wanted to be memorable.
‘I guess you don’t make this journey often’, Kasim tried again. The second time the man looked a bit startled, then answered with none of the wariness Kasim was used to.
‘No, I’ve never come this way before.’ Kasim waited, but the man was silent, preoccupied with the darkness outside.
‘Our neighbours are from Sednayya, from the village, before it became fashionable.’
‘Is it fashionable?’, the man asked.
‘Yeah, it’s posh.’ Envy greened Kasim’s words, ‘Villas, weekend parties and all that.’
‘Oh, I see’, the man said, but clearly didn’t, or perhaps saw only Kasim’s resentment swinging violently like the beads on the visor as he took the badly cambered curve a bit too fast.
This guy was getting annoying. It was as if he wasn’t all there. And he stank of chicken-shit, mildew and disinfectant all mixed together. Maybe he works on one of the new factory farms, Kasim thought.
‘What’s your work?’, he asked. He could see that the man didn’t notice the intrusiveness of the question.
‘I used to write…’ he started, ‘I’m a teacher’.
‘Oh’, said Kasim. That made sense of his careful accent, but less than no sense of his clothes. Usually it didn’t take many clues for Kasim to slot people into a few basic categories, but this guy was a new type. Kasim was curious to know how he made his money, how he survived. Kasim was always interested in a scam.
‘What do you teach? Mathematics?’ That should be enough of a compliment to get anybody going.
‘No, mostly reading’, the man answered softly, ‘to men who didn’t learn to read in school’.
‘So why do they want to read?’ Some of his friends envied him his high school diploma, but they were fools if they couldn’t see the nowhere place it had got him.
‘They read to keep themselves busy, to open up their world’, the man said.
Kasim looked back sharply. What was all this drivel? And why wasn’t he moaning, like all the other teachers, about low pay – not enough to keep a family – and forty-two kids running around a classroom? Kasim suddenly remembered his father’s pride and embarrassment when he handed Kasim over to Kasim’s first teacher. ‘”You can have the flesh, but leave me the bones”, eh?’, Kasim laughed as he repeated the cliche which justified anything in the name of education. But the man didn’t respond, except to turn and look out the window again.
Down the mountain the distinct points of the street lamps began to flicker and shine through the exhaust-filled haze which hung over the road. ‘Is that Damascus already?’, the guy asked, nodding down towards the sickly glow of the city.
Yeah, dickhead. What do you think it is? Paris? But Kasim kept his reply to himself.
On the sloping shoulders of the road, the empty spaces were beginning to fill with people and bicycles and the first lumbering city bus Kasim had spotted the whole trip. His fare too was watching the crowds. He turned his head to follow two boys who were miming a kick at the melon they’d just bought from a pile on the roadside.
‘Pull over, Mister’, the guy shouted with such urgency that Kasim made an emergency stop. He heard the driver behind scream at him, ‘Watch out, you son of a whore’.
‘Just wait here a minute’, the man said and leapt out of the taxi. ‘What the hell… ‘, Kasim muttered, then remembered the meter was still running.
The man brought back a couple of bags of fruit, and as Kasim accelerated away, he offered Kasim an apricot before taking one himself. ‘Azeem, wonderful’, he sighed and took another apricot, then passed the bag forward to Kasim.
His hunger made something click. ‘You’ve been inside, haven’t you?’, Kasim mumbled through the soft, sweet pulp of the apricot. ‘In Sednayya, yeah?’
‘How long?’, Kasim asked, then wondered if the apricots had given him diarrhoea of the mouth. He didn’t want to know any of this stuff. It was better not to know.
‘Those not your clothes then?’
The guy had just got out. A writer, eh? Kasim found it difficult to keep his eyes on the road. He took another apricot and felt good about eating the same fruit as this fellow. Not that he had anything to do with politicals, he was too smart for that. But this was a bit special, a political eating apricots right in the back of his taxi. Kasim watched him carefully as the headlights of the other cars played over different parts of his face.
During the rest of the journey the two men sat in silence, the bag of apricots passing back and forth between them. When they finally got to El Jisr el Abiad, the man directed Kasim towards a backstreet which ended in a short flight of stairs. Kasim grunted with recognition and said, ‘Near the Qwaitly house, eh? What’s it like to grow up in a President’s shadow?’ he said sarcastically, then regretted it. The man said nothing, only asked Kasim to stop the car in front of the apartment building on the left.
‘The guard who helped find me the clothes also gave me a loan’, the man said as he paid the fare. ‘Can you help me get up the stairs?’
To his surprise, Kasim found himself easing his bulk from under the steering wheel. He watched as the man stood stock-still looking up at the few scraggly plants which trailed through the railing around the lowest balcony and at the lengths of awning woven into the railings of those higher up. The flats seemed abandoned, their windows were so well-screened from view.
The man stumbled towards the entrance and grudgingly Kasim called after him, ‘Do you want me to come up too?’
The man grunted, pushed the time switch for the stairwell light and, with Kasim’s help, began to climb, turning his head to read some of the grafitti as he went. Finally, when he came to a grey paneled door on the third landing, he stopped, sagged, then straightened, and pressed the bell, once, then once again more forcefully. Kasim waited against the yellowed wall a few steps below the landing.
A woman’s voice called out through the door, ‘Who’s there? Who are you?’
‘It’s Saddullah, Mother. Saddullah.’
‘What? Who are you?’, the voice shrilled, and again the man called out, louder this time, ‘Saddullah, Mother. I’m home.’
There was fumbling at the lock. A woman opened the door and looked at the thin man standing before her. She looked at his face, then at his shirt and trousers, and at his shoes. Then she leaned back and shut her eyes. When she opened them again, they were so wide they stretched away her wrinkles, and the ‘eeeyyah’ of her scream swept down Kasim’s spine. The woman reached up with both her arms and hung on the man’s neck, sobbing, ‘Saddullah, my son, my son’. And the man leant up against the door frame and took hold of her bundled waist and lifted her until her feet were swinging at his shins.
The doorway soon filled with others, a stooped, white-haired man, two young lads and a smaller child still in her school uniform. The little girl pushed forward first and grabbed at the man’s arm and danced up and down. Then the others came forward and clung to his neck, and his back, and pulled him into the apartment. Kasim too found himself sucked inside. The man’s mother continued to hold onto his hand, as his father and brothers and little sister, one after the other, embraced Saddullah and broke their silence, first with laughter and then with homecoming tears.
Pressed against the coat rack in the vestibule, Kasim watched, unnoticed until he raised his hand to brush the wet from his face. Then, Saddullah’s father, seeing Kasim, linking him with the blessing, took his hand and shook it again and again, ‘Yatik el affiya, Sir. Thank you, thank you’. Kasim nodded, then slipped out the door and down the stairs.
In the car Kasim wiped his face on his sleeve and looked up quickly at the dark balcony before driving into the swirl of traffic at El Jisr el Abiad. At the traffic lights, he glanced in his mirror, half expecting to see the man. But he was gone. Only the portraits remained, looking backwards, away from where Kasim’s political had sat. When the red light turned, Kasim stepped on the gas and muttered ‘Yatik el affiya’, thank you, to the lights.