»Tribes of Greater Syria«

The series Bits of Literature gives an insight into the different forms of literary texts that are started, developed, or continued at Solitude. Each contribution introduces a new writer with either a fragment of a novel, a poem, or any other type of text. This time Tribes of Greater Syria from Syrian writer Assaf Alassaf paints a mysteriously vague portrait of the writer himself.

Yesterday the ambassador called me up and said: »What have you got on today, Abu Rita? Get over here. The wife and kids went to the mall this morning and they aren’t getting back till evening.«
»Not a thing,« I said. »I’m coming over. I’m coming now.« I got to the embassy and went straight to his office. He was wearing his suit, looking disheveled and tired, the table cluttered with coffee cups and glasses of whiskey. »What’s up?« I said. »You all right? How come you look so tired? And what’s with the puffy eyes? It looks like you haven’t been to bed for a year.«
»I didn’t sleep last night, as it happens. I’ve been sitting at my desk since yesterday. After I finished my work I picked up this book called Tribes of Greater Syria and started reading, and I was unable to put it down till I’d finished. Where do you come from Abu Rita?«
»Syria. Deirezzour. Why do you ask?«
»Well you all belong to tribes, right? I read that people from that region are all members of tribes and clans.«
»Well, what you’re saying is by and large true but you’ve got the people who live in towns and urban areas as well. It’s a complicated business. What got you interested in it? Anyway I’m a member of a big tribe called the Agedat that is found along the Euphrates, all the way from Aleppo down to Boukamal on the Iraqi border.«
»Did you know,« he said, »that my grandmother, my father’s mother, visited your region and lived there for a just under a year? She went with a German archaeological expedition about seventyfive years ago. She worked with my grandfather at the Berlin Museum and they were madly in love, then they fell out and left each other, and she decided to get away and came to Syria. To Deirezzour to be precise.« Here, I shouted: »Wow! Keep going! The story’s just starting to get interesting! But before you do, just get up and pour me a glass. An hour you’ve been talking to me about tribes and hospitality and honour and you haven’t offered me a thing. Pour me an arak and water, fiftyfifty with a lot of ice, and come and finish your story.« He set the glass in front of me and went on: »There you go friend. So as soon as my grandmother gets there she resolves to throw herself into work to forget my grandfather. Of course she was fed up the exhaustion, the poor living conditions, the heat, the dust… everything…«
I broke in: »You mean she didn’t fall under the spell of the East and all that stuff?«
»Spell of my arse. She could hardly bear it. Then a group of peasants turn up and settle down next to the expedition headquarters: them and their sheep and goats and horses and tents. As you know, these peasant types take to the scrubland in spring and summer to put their flocks out to pasture…«
»Of course!« I said. »Go on!«
»So they start engaging with the expedition, bringing them milk and yoghurt and meat and teaching them to ride. Now there was this young man in their group, so beautiful that his own sister had an unhealthy attachment to him. ‘Admirable’ was how my grandmother described him when she spoke of him. Now this young man owned a mare and a foal, and he started taking an interest in my grandmother—maybe he liked her—and he gives her his foal. My grandmother lost her mind over this horse. She felt like her whole life and destiny were connected to the animal and she started to spend all her time with it, looking after it and taking care of it and forgetting everything else: my grandfather, the archaeological remains, the expedition. Everything. You know women when they get something into their heads! Anyway, one day, a group of Bedouin turn up. Long story short they steal the filly and disappear. My grandmother goes wild with grief and starts heaping the dust over her head…«
»Dust? You sure your grandmother was a German archaeologist, not a peasant girl from Deirezzour?« »Anyway, the young man vanishes for two whole days and reappears with the filly. Now, Abu Rita, you can imagine what effect this had on my grandmother. When she saw him she clapped and ululated and one day after that she was his bride and he was her groom and she lived with him, as she maintained till her dying day, the happiest nine months of her life. The young man died of tuberculosis. You remember the year tuberculosis struck Deirezzour?«
»What next! You’ll be asking me about the famine next, or the Year of the Seven Snows!«
»When he died, my grandmother returned to Germany and my grandfather got in touch with her and got close to her till she was convinced to marry him. They moved in together and had my father and aunts. But as she told it, my grandfather remained jealous of the man she’d married in Deirezzour till the end of his life, so much so that he came to loathe the Arabs and Syria, and Deirezzour, and horses, and everything and anything to do with that young man. And just before he died he told me, ‘You’re not my grandson and I’m not your grandfather if you don’t take revenge for me and help my bones rest easy in my grave.’ So now I’m reading the history of this region in order to locate where the young man’s children or grandchildren, or any member of his family might be, and let my grandfather rest in peace.«
»Did your grandmother tell you the name of this lover?«
»Of course! His name was Azzaf, but I don’t have the name of his father or his tribe.«
»And your grandmother was called Anita? And she had a birthmark on the right side of her neck? And she called her foal Rafa?«
»And how would you know?” the ambassador asked. “Abu Rita, might I ask for your full name?« »Assaf Al Assaf,« I said. »Germans might pronounce that Azzaf, might they not? And that young man might be your grandfather or some distant relative. Aha!« His eyes gleamed, his cheeks reddened and suddenly the ambassador leapt from behind the table and attacked me. I dodged and started running round the office, him chasing after me and screaming, »Today and not a day too late! Your soul will have peace at last, grandfather!« And while I ran I screamed back, »Calm down, friend! What’s got into you?«
»Got into me? Zere Vill Be Blood! «
And so on, until he subsided into his desk chair and said, panting, »Look at me today! Not a bad performance, hey?«
»A bit over the top. You overdo it and that doesn’t look good on the campaign updates. My followers are discerning people and they don’t care for drama. Play it natural!«
»Do you want us to take it from the top?«
»No forget it, I’ll fix it in the editing room. Just don’t do it again. Stay natural and you’ll be more convincing. My grandfather told me about a French dig that visited the area around that time. You don’t remember what the French ambassador’s grandmother was called, do you?«