The Man in White (Tales from Damascus)

He had been traveling for days. The road from Palmyra to Damascus was long and arduous. Through the scorching heat and the arid desert air, he made his way slowly and methodically, his patience and fortitude driving the engine of his body, coaxing each step forward, one at a time, until he reached the famous city.

“Damascus — my old mistress. I danced with you briefly so many years ago yet my heart has never forgotten how sweet your eyes looked under moonlight.”

He reached down to gather a handful of sand and played with it as he walked through the northern gate of the city, letting it slip through his palm only to land on his other hand in a repeating pattern.

“Not an old maid yet I see. You are just as vibrant as I remember. Allah has kept you well all these years.”

The man walked about soaking in all the commotion and spirit of the controlled chaos around him. He made his way to a water fountain and asked a local boy to fetch him a pitcher and some salt. The boy did as he was asked.

“Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten my promise to you.”

“What promise?” The boy asked.

“Never you mind that walaad. I was speaking to my love. My first and only love.”

“But there is no one here but us.”

“We are just rubies, pearls, and diamonds adorning the most intimate parts of our beloved mistress, Damascus.”

“You speak like a mashnoun Amo.” The boy began to chuckle and scurried off quickly when the man showed no signs of amusement.

“It looks like you may also have a few fleas in your hair; my love.”

The man took the salt he was given and slowly sprinkled it into the fountain. He dipped the pitcher into the water and then poured a third of its contents into his hands, a third on the ground beside him, and he drank the rest of it. When he was done he reached down and plucked the desert rose that had grown where the water had landed.

He lifted the rose up to his nostrils. “Ah, you did miss me after all.”

As he slid his fingers along the stem of the flower, one of them got caught on a thorn and it punctured the his skin. He laughed,

“…or maybe your longing for me was bitter sweet, like an abandoned lover.”

He took the red handkerchief out of his breast pocked and wiped the blood from his finger. Then, he tore of the stem off, threw it to the ground, and pinned the rose on his jacket lapel.

“I will wear your beauty and your scorn as a sign of affection. After all, it is a foolish man that does not accept the bad with the good; and an even bigger fool who doesn’t welcome both from his true love.

But enough of this. I’m sure I’ve bored you with my lamentations. Forgive me, I’ve grown quite sentimental in my old age. But your charm continues to inspire a restlessness in me. I feel at least 100 years younger in your presence. Now, let’s see what I can inspire in you once more.”

The man stood up and walked away from the fountain. On the ground, where a drop of his blood had mixed with the sand, a permanent shadow took hold. Out of the shadow something stirred, momentarily, before it disintegrated into the air as the gentle desert breeze kicked up the sand underneath it.

The man walked in no particular direction, making eye contact with random strangers who’d look away once their eyes met. He walked by the bath house where a small crowd of young men had gathered. He approached one of them.

“Salam u alekum shebab. Forgive my interruption.”

“U Alekum Salam. Please, it is no bother. What can I do for you Amo.”

The man smiled, “this is what I’ve missed the most. Damascus has the warmest and friendliest people in all the world. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Now, I’ve just come back from a long journey. It’s been a few years since I’ve been to the lovely city. I’ve heard ramblings in the market about a new restaurant that’s recently opened. You wouldn’t happen to know of it would you young man?”

“Of course. Everyone’s been talking about it. I’ve yet to save up enough money to eat there but I’m working on it. After all, it’s not every day that something like that pops up in this old city.”

So you know where it is?

“Yes, it’s not far at all. Just follow this path until you get to the fork in the path; veer right and you’ll eventually end up near ummayad Mosque. From there, head east. It lies between the Mosque and Bab Al-Salam.”

Thank you. I’ll be staying for a while. Maybe I’ll have a chance to dine with you if we happen to meet each other there one of these evenings.

“Allah willing amo.”

The man followed the directions he was given.

He reached a small part of the city, nestled in a cozy corner between run down shops and various makeshift stands. There he came to a large modern structure, out of place amongst the humble and aged shops that surrounded it.

“Ah, a place for the elite amongst the common folk. How peculiar.”

He read the sign above the entry way and chuckled.

“Al Matam? The restaurant? How preposterously grandiose. The name wants to pretend to be unassuming but in doing so, takes on airs. This is ridiculous.”

He made his way through a small crowd that had already gathered. They were all there hoping to be seated before things got too crowded. He finally reached one of the waiters, who was setting the table closest to the door.

“Excuse me, I was hoping to have a minute of your time. “

The waiter sighed, “wait there with the rest of them. I’m sure someone will call you if a table opens up.”

“I don’t think you understand. I’ve been traveling for quite some time. I don’t require much by way of elaborations, if you could just find me a quiet place to sit I will be of no bother. Bring me whatever is the least troublesome to prepare. My stomach has been rumbling for so long I’ve taken to thinking of it as another companion in my travels. One who has yet to master the art of silence.”

the waiter stopped for a moment and looked up. He gave the stranger an unimpressed look and gestured to the crowd. “You see all those people there? They are also waiting. We have system here. We cannot accommodate everyone at once. You’ll just have to stand there and be patient.”

“Stand there and wait to be fed? Like a bunch of sheep waiting for the shepherd to put us out to pasture? That’s nonsense. We are all brothers here. We breathe the same air and trip over the same rocks. Surely there is a more hospitable way of doing this. Perhaps we can all fill the empty tables and someone can bring us some bread and hummus — a few slices of fried eggplant and some other small things from the kitchen. We will wait for the delicacies who’s aroma is filling the air at this moment and making us all ravenous.”

The waiter ignored the man, but he persisted. “I am not here to tell you how to run the place. I’m here to let you know that hospitality is just as important as food. I remember a time not too long ago when the mere mention of hunger by any passerby would warrant a dozen open doors and bountiful feasts. If we do not feed each other we are nothing but animals young man.”

“I’ve had enough of this nonsense, there’s work to be done.”

The waiter waived his hand towards him in a dismissive fashion and resumed shuffling through the papers at his podium, glancing up to see if he recognized anyone in the crowd that might deserve special treatment. He noticed a dignified gentleman with a beautiful woman. He gestured to them to come forward and as the couple approached, the waiter reached up and placed his hand on the stranger’s shoulder, trying to guide him to the side in order to make room for the couple to squeeze by.

“I have extended more courtesies than you deserve boy.”

The man did not move. Instead, he reached up and grabbed the waiter’s hand and held it tightly. Their eyes met and the waiter was paralyzed. The stranger’s hand began to get warmer against the waiter’s skin and his bright blue eyes opened wider, piercing into the man’s soul like a thousand little needles, the dread and fear consuming him in a quick wave of frozen emotion.

“You will not touch me. You will not touch anyone else with this hand.”

The heat from the stranger’s hand began burning the waiter’s flesh. He felt the pain but could not react to it; unable to move or control any of his limbs. After a couple of minutes passed, a man in a grey suit approached from behind.

“Mustafa, what’s going here. You have work to do…”

The stranger released his grip and smiled at the man in grey. Mustafa’s body came to life again and the burning sensation quickly subsided. He turned to his superior with a sense of urgency.

“I’m sorry; this man is being… He’s being… Persistent. He does not have a reservation and insists on being seated. I explained to him that there is a long wait. Meanwhile, I have abdel-aziz and his companion waiting to be seated. I was in the process of doing so when, um… this man got in my way.”

“Take the interior secretary’s son and his guest to their table and then get back to your station, I’ll deal with this man.”

Mustafa did as he was told. He forgot about the burning sensation in his hand and the paralysis he felt during the incident with the stranger. However, he was still in a daze, unsure of what just happened or why, and feeling only a slight discomfort in the back of his hand, like a mild itch that needed to be scratched on occasion.

As Mustafa resumed his duties, the manager turned his attention to the stranger.

“I apologize for the boy’s rudeness. I can see by your demeanor and attire that you are not one of the common-folk. My name is Walid. I’m in charge here. I’m sorry, what did you say your name was?”

“I didn’t. I’m of no high-born house. I am merely a stranger to these parts, traveling through, hoping to get some rest and a good meal before I continue my journey. I asked your waiter if there was any way to accommodate me. I don’t require much, I just need a quiet corner somewhere and a few appetizers to nibble on and then I’ll be out of your hair.”

Walid sighed. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we have a packed house tonight and lots of people waiting to be seated. we cannot give you special treatment.”

“Of course not,” the stranger replied, in a sarcastic tone, “you can only give special treatment to those fools over there, the one’s for whom you grovel before, trying to get scraps of influence and favors because you are narrow minded idiots, all too eager to continue to tighten the chains around your own necks.”

“Sir, with all due respect, I have no need for political lectures. I’ve already told you, we have no tables available this evening. You can come back tomorrow, perhaps a bit earlier; if you manage to beat the evening dinner rush we’ll be able to seat you before the reserved guests arrive.”

The stranger smiled. “So many things can happen between today and tomorrow my friend. But as sure as the sun rises and the desert wind blows, I will see you tomorrow. In the meantime, take my advice and keep a close eye on Mustafa — he may have difficulty tending to his duties this evening. Good day sir.”

Walid gave the stranger a puzzled look. The stranger smiled, turned around, and walked away.

As for Mustafa, the waiter…

…throughout the course of the night, he continued to claw at his hand, trying to alleviate the itching and burning sensation that increased with every passing minute. He served his first tables distracted by his constant need to tend to the burning itch. When the sensation started to rise, he began to take frequent breaks, running to the bathroom to place his hand under the faucet to let the water temporarily sooth the pain. Eventually, his hand got so hot that the water from the faucet evaporated as soon as it touched his skin. He tried ice next, but that only helped for as long as the ice would stay solid next to the heat emanating from his pores — the intervals of time getting shorter with each treatment.

Two hours into his shift, at the height of dinner service, Mustafa looked down at his hand and saw that there was barely any skin left. The realization that he had scratched the skin off — coupled with the intensifying burning sensation that continued to worsen — was enough to drive him to madness. He let out a long scream and ran into the kitchen in a frenzy. He mowed down a few of the other waiters and two cooks on his way to the chopping block, where he grabbed a meat cleaver and hacked off his hand at the wrist. His scream grew louder as the blood spewed out from his forearm and soaked his hand red; a hand that continued to move as it laid in the center of the wooden block, completely independent and severed from the rest of his body.

He raised his arm in horror as the blood continued to pour out of the stump that used to connect to the moving hand in front of him. He turned desperately in every direction, as if searching for some way to run away from the horror that was his mangled arm; the blood splattering across the kitchen floor and all over the walls.

The waiter’s perpetual shrieking was soon met with the sounds of panic, fear, and confusion that came out of the patrons in the adjoining dining room and the employees that had remained in the kitchen. Mustafa ran out of the kitchen into the restaurant’s main dining room, knocking over the tables in front of him and pushing his way through the crowd that had gathered there. He made his way to the exit while his screams turned to a loud whimper — the agony taking hold of his mental faculties, making him sound like a little boy, desperately crying for his mother after a painful accident.

He ran off into the night and soon after, the patrons in the restaurant followed suit, leaving Walid and the remainder of his staff standing there in utter terror and confusion. In less than twenty minutes the entire place had been transformed from a thriving dinner environment to a desolate wasteland that resembled an abandoned slaughterhouse, littered with random patches of blood across the walls, on the floor, and all over the linen tables, which were covered with plates of unfinished meals and silverware.

As Walid surveyed the dining room, he noticed something very peculiar about the chaos. He looked at every dining room table across the great hall and saw that every pitcher of water there had turned red; all tainted, he assumed, with the blood of the young waiter. For only a brief moment did it occur to him that this was quite physically impossible.

His attention was unable to entertain such a mystery in the midst of the wreckage that had befallen the restaurant on his watch. He decided instead, to take immediate action. It was more than his job as the general manager that was at stake. His employer was a man of wealth, influence, and importance. Walid’s very standing in the community was in jeopardy; along with his family’s name and his ability to obtain any kind of gainful employment in the future.

He did not have the luxury of being shock. Fear of reprisal was the only emotion he felt, and that fear sprung him into action. He gathered his staff and instructed them to get to work.

“Tomorrow evening, we open as if nothing happened. I want this all to be a distant memory and we all have less than 24 hours to make it happen.”