Rana Haddad: from “The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor”

The customers of Café Taba were tapping their feet on the floor, up and down, following the beats of the hakawati’s song.

The hakawati gulped his third glass of tea, and then continued to sing in his alluring voice, which gave his audience goose pimples, making even the stoniest hearted of them almost want to cry.

No one knew why.

None of the audience could take their eyes off him, nor could they stop listening to every word and every syllable he uttered even though they were sure that he knew nothing about love. He was clearly too young and too vain and had never suffered. Even Dunya was sure of it. None of them could fully or even partially understand the theories he was trying to peddle through the vehicle of his songs. How could Fear be the opposite of Love? Wasn’t Hate its eternal enemy and opposite? The hakawati was talking nonsense, trying to be clever, they were sure of that. Even Dunya who thought of herself (relatively speaking) as an expert on the theories of love and its manifold manifestations did not understand. But none of them really cared whether he was right or wrong because what they loved about him most of all were not his stories, or his theories, nor his rhymes—but the voice in which he sang them. Perhaps in Europe or America people could follow their hearts, some of the men reasoned. But here, in the conservative Republic of Syria, Fear was the master. Fear held everything and everyone under its sway, and everyone respectfully bowed their heads to it.

The audience clapped and clapped and clapped, while a tall, slim, manic-depressive looking waiter replenished their hookahs. Then someone said, “These are not stories for men. Tell us one about the warriors of Arabia!”

“I’ll tell you one about the genie who lost his bottle! That’s a story you’ll love. But I think it must wait until tomorrow. On Friday I’ll read to you from the ancient story of Antar and Abla.” The hakawati winked.

“Another love story?” shouted the waiter.

Everyone looked flushed. His subject matter, which was often and forever Love, was of no interest to them but, despite their frequent protests, they always came back for more. Even the clients of another competing hakawati café were emigrating to Café Taba in hordes. It was shameful and unfair. The hakawati was drawing them in like flies. Was it his unusually entrancing voice? Was it his piercing and passionate eyes? No one knew. He was just a random young man who happened to be a master of spectacle and song and who skilfully, but cruelly, knew how to hold them under his spell.

Suddenly a middle-aged man with a particularly long handlebar mustache stood up: “I don’t understand why, for goodness sake, I mean, why? Why are you singing to us about birds that speak?” He stood up, exposing a very large and round belly that had clearly been nurtured on a lethal and regular diet of stuffed eggplant. “I mean, Sir, are we children that you sing to us of such things?” He reached for his hookah and took a puff. “Nor are we women, for that matter, that we want to hear of Love.”

“Do men not think of Love then?” the hakawati said in a surprised and chastising tone. “I don’t believe it.” He stood up on the table and swayed a little, as if to find his balance. “Is it men who write most love songs and love poetry or is it women? You tell me!” he demanded. “You do have a lot to learn, before you truly understand what a man is. A man who doesn’t love is no such thing, and a man is not as different from a woman as you might like to convince yourselves.”

The audience made no suggestion of sound.

“So you’re not a hakawati then,” the moustachioed man said. “You’re a teacher.”

“I’m not a teacher, make no such mistake,” the Hakawati said confidently. “I’m a Professor—a Professor of Love.”

What a peacock and a dandy! Dunya adored everything about Nijm. He seemed nothing like other young men in the city, not even like Hilal who wasn’t theatrical like that and not so verbose and spectacular.

“Are you lot good at mathematics?” the hakawati asked the audience.

“Of course we are,” the audiences composed mainly of shopkeepers and such insisted.

“The world is mathematics, some things are systematic. A mathematical turn of mind, the ability to be calculating and to make correct calculations, is very beneficial when one is in the throes of trying to survive the trials and tribulations of an impossible love,” the hakawati declared. “Here is my lesson for all you people with heartache. Have any of you, by the way, ever suffered heartache?” the hakawati asked.

“No way!” the audience cried.

“That is what they all say!” The hakawati looked at his audience and continued:

“A Lesson in Emotional Mathematics—or the Mathematics of Love.

“L + O + V + E = ?

“I collected the letters ‘l,’ ‘o, ’ ‘v, ’ and  ‘e’ and looked at them all separately. They were only four. They were so easy to write, so easy to pronounce, so easy to look at or glance at. But why could the state they describe not be easy, too? Two? The answer might be three.”

The hakawati made the shape of a triangle with his hands.

“One + One = Love.

“One + One + One = Pain.

“In love, One + Two = Zero

“Love is a game, which only pairs can play.”

The café burst into a frenzy of claps.

“We have been told that to be happy each one of us must only love one thing, must always give our heart entirely to the One we love, and that a heart can never be divided by two or three or four or more,” the Hakawati lectured. “We have been ordered and repeatedly told that we must only worship one god, blindly follow one leader, that we should only be loyal to one nation, only obey one father and honor one mother—everyone else we must hate. Why can’t we love both black and white, worship both day and night. Why do we have to choose only one? One is a lonely number.”

Nijm now plucked at his oud strings tragically as the audience looked at him. They began to huff and puff rather nervously.

What was the hakawati trying to say? they wondered. Did he not believe in one god anymore, did he not agree that Hafez al-Assad was Syria’s only possible leader or was he trying in a rather convoluted but polite way to advocate polygamy? Everyone hoped and prayed that it was the latter, because only the latter was acceptable and permissible—in the ancient souk of Aleppo, everything else was blasphemy or treason. The men of Café Taba loved the hakawati so much that they did not want to think of what might happen to him were he to be accused of some ineffable thought-crimes against religion or the state.

“Come drink another cup of tea,” the waiter said to him. “And stop giving us all a headache!”

The hakawati’s eyebrows were highlighted in a dramatic way and the lapels of his shirt flew out to the sides in an endearingly pretentious manner. He had both humor and glamor, something rarely seen in typical staid hakawatis who were always and forever in the autumn of their lives.

“How do you do it?” one of the men asked the hakawati. “How do you manage to hypnotize us with your lies, young sir?”

“These are not lies, I promise you, boys. I only sing about the truth. All I have in my profession are the twenty-eight letters of the Arabic alphabet. With them I must capture your hearts and souls. I think of them the same way a musician thinks of his musical notes. These are not lies, I promise you, boys. I only sing about the truth, your heart’s truth.”

“We’re not boys,” the audience protested all together in unison, like boys in a classroom.

Dunya looked at the strange assortment of men sitting on rickety chairs all around her, some holding their bellies as if in anticipation of what the hakawati might say next, while others tried to rearrange their hairdos in an attempt to look as alluring as possible, possibly as alluring as the hakawati himself. He seemed to be reminding them of how they could or might have been. He effortlessly outshone them all and that was not something they were used to from a hakawati. For normally a hakawati was a dusty and rather rusty man, not so young and full of himself. And if he happens to be young, he should not be so jumped up and pleased with himself, but must be respectful of those who are older than him, and in awe of them! This young man broke all the rules.


The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor appeared with Hoopoe Press in March 2018