The father who had smoked for forty-five years scoffed at this sons for lighting “cigarra” after “cigarra” in rhythm with the after-dinner stream of tea and fruit and coffee and tea and more fruit.
The calls to prayer from the two downtown mosques flanking the balcony north and south interrupted conversation from time to time, but usually we all just spoke over it. The cannons were more disruptive. A few particularly massive blasts shook us from out seats on plastic chairs. Twenty-one times, were were told, would the cannons blast to announce the start of Eid al-Fitr the next morning.
We were in Lattakia.
A family was floating in the sea below the balcony of our holiday apartment the next morning — a “chalet” on the rocky and trash-strewn coast outside the city center. The shoreline led north and west to a large mountain that was Turkey. Alexandretta was tucked into a bay before the mountain but around a point, blcoked from our view and some distance anyway. The family was a fat father clutching his covered wife, her black dress and headscarf soaked in the Mediterranean, and two kids splashing in bathing suits and swimming out to sea.
We were welcomed into the apartment the night before, near the mosques and downtown cannons — our first in town. We were gorged on an iftar feast of salads, kibbeh, grape leaves, fiteer, various rice dishes and plates of meat. A small bowl of lentil and fish soup started it all off. It was ended with all the fruits and stimulants — thick coffee and tea, mixed with plenty of sugar — plus a raw cucumber, which the father insisted each take hearty bites of. It was good for digestion, he said, like the tea. The cucumbers he grew in a village in the hills near Turkey north of the city, where he had retired to a short story-style life of growing apples and vegetables for weeks at a time, returning to the city a few days a month. His wife joined him up in the hills a few days a month.
All the sons live at home and maintained a piety that their brother from Damascus seemed to shun, likely a product of a journalism degree from university and a job with a marketing firm in the capital. All the greetings and kind words persisted all night, our first night in town, through all the helpings of food — the three Americans ate the most, as guests are wont to do, or are at least prodded to do — followed by the tea and coffee and fruit and tea and fruit. And cucumber. And cigarettes.
The father bemoaned the smoke, scolding his sons but not seriously, and embracing as a son the one guest who refused to take a cigarette whenever it was offered, which was often. The father and sons talked to the guests about the economy, using a word — “infitah” — that Sadat used in the Egypt in the 70s; his “open-door” economic policy that preceded peace with Israel and entering America’s orbit. Foreign capital poured into Egypt then as wealth gaps grew, then ballooned.
The father said how you could study in university and have all your credentials, but there would be no work to follow. He pointed directly at one of his sons, the one who had been brining in the stream of coffee and tea for the past hour or so. He had a blood-shot right eye and looked sheepish at his father’s directness.
“Many, many men are in the same position. Here, in the capital, in Aleppo.”
When coffee and fruits and cucumbers finally ended, we were driven to our rented apartment in a taxi on the sea by one of the other sons, who said that the car belonged to his father. We sped through the streets in the small Hyundai well after midnight, neon blue lights glowing inside and five of us crammed in. Anticipating that we wanted to hear some American music, the brother at the wheel opened the glove compartment, revealing a mix CD full of hits. First Ricky Martin, then Enrique Iglesias.
We were stuffed, but not yet on our way to bed. We sat out late our first night above the talking about the family’s hospitality and especially the father, before the early hours moved the conversation to the war and how Dubai might be an “evil paradise.” Eventually we went swimming as the sun was creeping up. The next morning more friends arrived and we were hosted for dinner again, this time the tea and fruit and coffee preceding a much later and lighter feast of mezzes. Afterwards we came back to the apartment on the sea and talked and talked — our rhythm — until eventually we went swimming again, this time even later. When we finally pulled ourselves out of the warm water to a lightening sky, we said hello to a Saudi couple about to take their early morning dip.