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Saturday, January 16, 2016

Fiction #65: Bassel Atallah

Arabic Love Poetry

Every day after work, Zuheir Anwar would go for a walk in Westmount Park. He would then sit on a bench and read for an hour or so before taking the subway to Verdun and returning to his one-room apartment.

His window looked out on the St. Lawrence River. When he first immigrated to Montreal from Damascus ten years ago, he lived with his then-wife Rana in an apartment on Cote-Vertu. The windows looked out either at the busy street or on to a nearby apartment building. Whenever Zuheir looked outside he saw people, either walking on the street or going through their home lives inside the neighbouring building. From his apartment in Verdun, he saw no one. Just the river. This made him very comfortable.

Living on Cote-Vertu was Rana’s idea. She said that the large Syrian community in the neighbourhood would make it feel like a home-away-from-home. When Rana left Zuheir and returned to Damascus, living in a home-away-from-home didn’t appeal to him. It never had. He’d often run into his neighbours, and those who had taken his side during the divorce would ask him sympathetically how he was doing while those who hadn’t would eye him judgementally. This wouldn’t happen in Verdun. No one knew him and he didn’t know anyone.

He got rid of most of his old furniture when he moved; he even replaced the king-size bed he had shared with Rana with a single bed. There was no need for a couch in his new apartment; just a single reading chair was enough for him. Bookshelves surrounded the apartment, leaving no space on the walls for any picture or painting.

Zuheir was small, both in stature and presence. He stood just below five-feet-three, round-shouldered, his dark hair thick and curly. His eyes were barely visible to others, not just because of his thick glasses, but because of a life-long habit of keeping his head down as he walked and when he interacted with others; in recent years, such interactions were rare. At the office, he had his lunch at his desk, holding his sandwich with one hand and his book with the other. Some at the office didn’t even know his name. Others did, it was Zuheir Anwar or Anwar Zuheir; they weren’t sure which was the first name and which was the family name. When he spoke, his voice was barely above a whisper. Everywhere he went, he carried a strong aura of timidity with him, a timidity that began in childhood and grew with age. Zuheir the Cat, he was called back in Damascus, a title given in his early school days by the other kids in class. He’d bury his face behind a book and sit in the corner of the school playground, and still the kids would follow him around and mockingly meow at him. Sometimes, one of them would grab his book and throw it on the ground, and Zuheir would bend down to pick it up while the other kids would continue meowing. The nickname stayed with him throughout childhood and his teenage years, temporary disappearing during university where he’d leave school the minute his classes were over and go straight home, never staying on campus one more second than he should. The nickname returned with his marriage to Rana when during the many fights they had—they were one-sided fights, Rana yelling at Zuheir as he sat silently looking down—she’d say, “You’re still The Cat.”


One evening Zuheir was reading in Westmount Park when someone called his name. He looked up and saw her.

“My God, Zuheir,” she said. She covered her mouth with her hand and looked away from him for a moment. He didn’t say anything; he just kept looking at her, his finger still marking the page.
Finally he stood and walked up to her, still marking the page with his finger. They looked at each other.

“Hello Nahla,” he said.

“I didn’t know you were in Montreal,” she said. “I had no idea. How long have you been here?”

“Around ten years,” he said.

They went for coffee on Sherbrooke. Neither specifically invited the other; they just started walking together and soon found themselves outside a Starbucks. It just made sense to go inside.

They caught up on each other’s news. Nahla went first, generous with the details. She told him that after marrying George—no need to tell Zuheir that she had married George; she was certain he was aware of that—they moved to Dubai, had two children, Tanya and Roger, and lived there for seven years. Then they decided to move to Canada; George’s brother was starting a branding business in Montreal and wanted George to work with him. So they immigrated, and now lived in a house in Laval.

“What about you?” she asked Zuheir.

Zuheir was less forthcoming. He told her that he married Rana, and two years later they moved to Montreal. It didn’t work out between them, so Rana moved back to Damascus while he stayed here. Zuheir knew that all Nahla had to do was call a couple of their mutual acquaintances—he was certain that Nahla was resourceful enough to find them—and she’d get all the details he omitted. She’d find out how it was Rana who had pressured Zuheir into moving to Montreal because she didn’t want to live in Damascus anymore. Four years later, Rana said she couldn’t handle living in Montreal. She returned to Damascus, alone, and announced to all relatives and friends that the problem wasn’t living in Montreal or Damascus, it was living with Zuheir as he wasn’t providing her with the life she wanted and deserved.

But for now, Zuheir told Nahla only what he wanted her to know.

“Any children?” Nahla asked him.

“No,” Zuheir said. “She couldn’t. I always knew.”

“Where do you live?” Nahla asked.

“Verdun,” he said. “But I work here, in Westmount.”

“Do you still do translations?”


“I teach ballroom dancing,” Nahla said. “The dance studio is nearby, on Sherbrooke and Atwater. Do you still dance, Zuheir?”

“No,” he said.

They finished their coffee and Zuheir offered to walk Nahla to her car. They walked in silence. Nahla gave Zuheir a hug and said she wanted to see him again. She asked him for his phone number without offering hers.

She called him a week later. She said she was at the dance studio and asked if he wanted to meet for coffee later. He said he had just returned home from work and wasn’t planning on going out again that evening. She asked how about tomorrow then, early evening in Westmount Park.

They sat on a bench, and Nahla asked Zuheir if he visited Damascus often. Zuheir said he had only been back twice since coming to Montreal, the last time three years ago when his mother passed away. There was no reason to visit nowadays.

Nahla asked him if he was involved with anyone. He said no, he lived alone and he liked it this way; it was organized and quiet. There was no need to tell Nahla how important it was for him to lead a quiet life. No need to tell her about his reserved personality that back in their community in Damascus made him an “eccentric,” a word that in Arabic is associated with a more derogatory meaning than its gentler English translation. No need to remind her of his family’s reputation that made it hard for him to find a rightful place in their community. She would have probably understood why he lived in Verdun, why he didn’t interact with the Syrian community in the city. In Verdun, he was a nameless individual, at peace with his eccentricity. No one called him eccentric over there. He wasn’t Baheej Anwar’s grandson. He wasn’t The Cat. No one cared enough about him to call him anything, not even his name.

Nahla brought up the subject of ballroom dancing and asked why Zuheir never picked it up again. He shrugged and said that he never felt the need. “You should visit my studio,” Nahla said. “I work late on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”

Zuheir waited two weeks before making the visit. Nahla showed him around. Two other teachers were working at the time, so after the tour they went to one of the empty rooms.

“Do you want to dance?” Nahla asked.

“I haven’t danced in years,” he said.

They sat beside the window. “You were such a good dancer,” she told Zuheir. “The best dance partner I ever had. You should take it up again. It would be a great way for you to meet people.”

Zuheir said he wasn’t interested in meeting anyone. Nahla said he was wrong; he shouldn’t let what happened with Rana affect him. He said he was content with his life and didn’t want any changes. She said he must feel very lonely sitting night after night alone in his small apartment. “My life is organized,” he said. “But you’re so alone,” she said.

He returned a week later. The studio was closing down for the day, and Nahla was the only teacher left. They sat by the window again. Nahla told Zuheir she still felt bad and sorry about what had happened between them, even after all these years. “There’s nothing to be sorry about,” Zuheir said.

Nahla told Zuheir that she got what she deserved for leaving him. “I don’t love George,” she said. “He is very sweet. He treats me so well, and he’s such a great father to the kids. But I don’t love him. When I married him, I thought, hoped, that I’d grow to love him. My father had always believed that romance was a fallacy, an invention of popular culture, something created by movies and music, and that real-life marriage was completely different. When George proposed, my father convinced me to accept. He said that once I saw what a good husband George is, I would learn to love him.”

Nahla looked around the ballroom, smiled, and said, “Sometimes my pupils are couples. Sometimes they’re a young couple practicing for their wedding dance. I see the romance between them and I wonder what it would have been like if I have had that with George during our wedding.”

Nahla looked at Zuheir and laughed. “I bet you’re as a good dancer now as you were many years ago,” she said. “You remember how to waltz, right?” she asked. Before waiting for an answer, she put on a CD and the music was playing.

“I can’t dance,” Zuheir said.

Nahla took Zuheir’s hands and led him to the dance floor. “Yes you can,” she said.

“I can’t remember how.”

“It’s not something you forget.”

“Please, Nahla,” he said. “I don’t want to.”

Nahla grabbed Zuheir’s left hand and put her left arm behind his shoulder. “But I want to,” she said. Nahla took the lead first, Zuheir not resisting, just mirroring her movements. Then he took the lead. They danced. “I told you it’s not something you forget,” Nahla said.


It was Zuheir’s mother who first suggested that he take dancing lessons. He was twenty-five at the time. His father, an elementary school Arabic teacher, had recently passed away, and Zuheir’s mother worked as a hairdresser assistant to provide for the two of them as Zuheir attended the University of Damascus. He studied Languages and Literature, and soon after graduation got a job translating French and English articles and books to Arabic. As had always been the case, he was spending every evening at home. His mother told him of a new dance studio that had opened in the city. Zuheir said he wasn’t interested. She told him he needed to become interested in social activities if he was to have any hope of doing more with his time than just stay home and read. She signed him for six lessons and gave them to him as a Christmas gift. She told him it would be rude to not accept.

At the dance studio he was partnered with Nahla. That was how they met. Nahla, tall and slender and beautiful, and Zuheir, diminutive and socially inept. But they danced so well together, and they continued being dance partners, Zuheir signing up for another six lessons, then another. They spoke as they danced, Nahla, as she had always been, generous with what she shared about herself to Zuheir. She told him of the effort her parents were putting to make her into a proper lady for society and their community. They believed that it was the parents’ job to help a daughter find the right husband, and since their family had a very good name—her father, Mounzer Takla, was a successful lawyer, and her mother was the daughter of Dr. Nasser, a prominent physician and well-known throughout the city—Nahla’s social etiquette was expected to be nothing less than perfect. So Nahla was raised to be a proper lady, her mother regularly inviting guests over and arranging for Nahla to be the host who generously offered drinks and cakes and sat looking pretty, diligent and dignified for all to see what a good wife and wonderful mother she’d make. She told Zuheir that her parents were so busy turning her into a proper lady and prospective wife that she was missing out on her chance to become an independent person. That was why she loved dancing; even though her parents saw it as yet another fine social skill a lady should have, she saw it as a chance to express freedom of body and closeness with others that she didn’t experience when accompanying her parents to their social functions. 

Nahla also generously listened to all Zuheir had to tell her. And in her, he found a rare listener, someone with whom to share his intellectual life and thoughts. His inability to carry conversations had resulted in his retreat to the safety and solitude of books. Nahla wanted to hear about the books he read, particularly his vast knowledge of Arabic poetry. She discovered his love for its musical meter and rhyme, its colourful language that was so rich in adjectives that it may seem over-the-top in most other languages, the way it was recited emphatically, the speaker waving his or her hand during the recital that would also seem exaggerated in many other cultures. She discovered that his favourite poet was Nizar Qabbani, the famous Syrian poet of love and feminism. Nahla had heard of Qabbani but was unfamiliar with his poetry, her father among the many who disapproved of Qabbani’s frank and erotic portrayal of love. Through Zuheir, she learned more about Qabbani’s writings, listened to Zuheir recite his verses as they danced, heard about the long history of forbidden love in Arabic literature and how it had always been easier for it to exist in poetry than in reality.

His words proved to be prophetic. At first, Nahla’s parents didn’t think there was anything to be worried about as they ruled out the possibility of their daughter showing any romantic interest in this meek little nonentity she had chosen for a dance partner. They considered the attention Nahla was giving Zuheir to be nothing more than a form of charity. But then Nahla’s continuous involvement with Zuheir began to trouble them. The class division between the two families was one problem. The other was Baheej Anwar, Zuheir’s late-grandfather, who had served time in jail thirty years ago for counterfeiting. Nahla tried to tell her parents that Zuheir was an honest man, that both his parents were honest as well, and what his grandfather did all those years ago had nothing to do with Zuheir. But the community’s memory was strong and unforgiving, social class and family reputation imprinted on each individual and carried around like a visible birthmark worn either as a badge of honour or a social stigma. Nahla eventually gave in to her parents when they made it clear that if she were to marry Baheej Anwar’s grandchild, she would be cut off from the family. A year later, her parents introduced her to George. “A man from a respectable family,” they said of him.


“I was so scared of facing you,” she told Zuheir after finishing their waltz. “I was scared of the way you’d look at me, after what I did.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Zuheir said.

“I should have tried harder to convince my parents,” she said. Zuheir shook his head and said it wouldn’t have made a difference. As far as her parents were concerned, he came from a lower family. They would have never accepted him.

“God, I wish it had ended differently,” she said. “But I thought of you. I thought of you so often, prayed that you had found someone else, someone with parents who would accept you and not judge you because of something your grandfather did.”

“I did,” Zuheir said. “It didn’t work out.”

“You can find someone else,” she said. “She doesn’t even have to be Syrian.”

“I’m doing okay,” Zuheir said.

Nahla said she had to go, but she wanted Zuheir to come back, and she wanted them to dance again.

He came weekly, always late on Tuesdays when Nahla was the only teacher remaining in the studio. During the other days of the week, he maintained his routine of walking and reading in the park before returning to his apartment. He started cutting his walks short, not wanting to be in the park by himself for too long. He found it hard to concentrate on whatever book he was reading. For the first time in over fifteen years, ballroom music was ringing in his ears everywhere he went. When he looked out his apartment’s window to the view of the river, no person in sight, Zuheir felt very alone.

In the dance studio, Zuheir and Nahla continued dancing to waltz music. “Let’s pretend we’re still in Damascus,” Nahla said, and they would dance quietly. Other times, they talked as they danced, as they often did back in Damascus. Back then, Zuheir would whisper Arabic poetry in Nahla’s ears.  He readily quoted from Nizar Qabbani, Adunis, Colette Khoury, Khalil Gibran. He quoted from memory, so fluently and not once stumbling or hesitating.

“How can you memorize so many poems?” she had asked him.

“It’s easy when you spend so much time home reading it,” he had answered.

She would never get tired of hearing him recite Qabbani’s love verses, Ignore what people say, You will be great only through my great love..... when I love, I become time outside all time..... When I love you your breasts shake off their shame, turn into lightning and thunder, a sword, a sandy storm…. I want to write different words for you, to invent a language for you alone…. Had I told the sea what I felt for you, It would have left its shores, its shells, its fish, and followed me…. When I love, I feel that I am the king of time…I possess the earth and everything on it and ride into the sun upon my horse…. Nahla would whisper back how beautiful the words were and she’d thank Zuheir for those beautiful words as though they were his. She had told him how her father hated love poetry, said it created false illusions of how love should be, made it seem filled with excessive passion. Relationships should be founded on reason and compatibility between the families, her father always said, not the exaggerated emotions of Arabic love poetry.

Dancing together now in Montreal, Nahla asked Zuheir if he could recite Qabbani’s verses as he used to do back in Damascus. “I don’t think it’s a good idea,” he said.

Nahla told him that what Rana did to him was unfair. “She’s the one who dragged you here,” Nahla said. “Then she left you here and went back. How could she do that?”

Zuheir said he didn’t blame Rana. When they’d married, they didn’t know each other well. Zuheir always suspected it was because she felt desperate, worried that no man would accept her because she couldn’t have children. And she accepted Zuheir, her parents not complaining too much about his family’s reputation. “It’s better than being alone,” her parents said to her and Zuheir’s mother said to him. And that remained the sole justification for their marriage.

“And then she got to know me better,” Zuheir said.

“There’s nothing wrong with you,” Nahla said.

Rana dragged Zuheir to family and friends get-togethers. “Please say something,” Rana told Zuheir, pleaded to him at times, begged him to exhibit extroverted traits that he didn’t have in him. “Zuheir the Cat,” she said to him, his childhood nickname returning after all these years. “Maybe you should meow when we’re in public. At least you’ll be saying something rather than just sitting there silently like a statue. Better be a cat than a statue. Right, Zuheir the Cat?”

Rana then started talking about a move away to a different city, a different country, somewhere far away. “Canada,” she said. “We’ll immigrate to Canada. If you love me, you’ll agree. If not, I’ll immigrate without you.” Zuheir didn’t want to leave his mother all by herself. But his mother insisted he oblige with Rana. “If that’s what your wife wants, then give to her,” his mother said. “You don’t want to spend your life alone.”

“Poor Rana,” Zuheir said to Nahla. “Life with me was so boring. That’s why she wanted to leave Damascus. She thought that if we moved, then maybe the new environment will change me. But the problem isn’t with my relation to a specific community. It’s my relation to other people. That’s why she left me.”

“I never found you boring,” Nahla said. “Not for one second.”

“Because you only knew me as a dancer,” Zuheir said. “If you had met me anywhere other than on the dance floor, you’d probably not have noticed that I existed.”

“You were never boring with me.”

“Because we were only dance partners.”

“You were more than that to me.”

“You only knew me as a dancer.”

“Then dance with me now,” Nahla said.

Sometimes Nahla spoke of George, saying what a good man he was, a good husband and father, how much she respected him, but just didn’t love him. She said maybe she wasn’t worthy of listening to Qabbani’s love poetry. Qabbani had famously said that love in the Arab world is like a prisoner and should be set free. Nahla, with her decision to marry George and not Zuheir, didn’t help with that cause.

“Maybe your father was right,” Zuheir said. “Maybe love verses are better left on the page. Maybe romance is an invention of popular culture.”

“What I felt for you was romance,” Nahla said.

“Please don’t say that,” Zuheir said.

“I still feel romance when I’m with you.”

“Please don’t say that.”

She put her head on his shoulder, and they continued dancing. “I don’t want to wreck my home,” she said.

“I don’t want to be a home wrecker,” Zuheir said.

“Then dance with me. That’s it. Just dance.”

They danced. And met the following week and danced. He noticed that Nahla had recently put up more pictures of her children in her office. She showed Zuheir the pictures and spoke about her children, how they were both taking swimming lessons and George always picked them after the lessons and took them for hot chocolate. Later in the evening, all four would watch the Cartoon Network before Tanya and Roger went to bed. She told Zuheir how Roger’s birthday was coming up, and he wanted a magician for his birthday party and George assured him that he’d find one. She told Zuheir how Tanya enjoyed going grocery shopping with her and always reminded Nahla to get Rice Krispies because it was George’s favourite. Nahla would then hold Zuheir close as they danced and whisper in his ear, “Let’s just dance, Zuheir. Please, let’s just dance.”

Zuheir knew that if they kept this up, it would reach a point when they wouldn’t just dance.  News would quickly reach Nahla’s and George’s families in Damascus, the 5000 miles distance suddenly becoming far too short. Years from now, Nahla’s children would still hear about it, her past becoming part of their present, just as Zuheir’s grandfather’s past had been part of his. 

He didn’t come to the studio the next Tuesday. Nahla called him. He didn’t pick up. She called him again the next day and left him a message, said she just wanted to know that he was okay and nothing had happened to him. He called and left a message on her office phone telling her he was okay. She didn’t call back.


Bassel Atallah lives in Montreal where he teaches at Dawson College and McGill University. His short stories have appeared in The Dalhousie Review, sundayat6, and In Other Words: New English Writing from Quebec.

Photo credit: Tijana Stojkovic.

1 comment:

  1. Was googling myself when I stumbled upon this blog :D Name goes Baheej Anwar, haha and I swear I wasn't Nehla's grand father. Interesting writeup though, and even more excited to know you're living in Canada. I am a future student of UWaterloo. Keep writing! ^^