The Inventor

Sometimes I challenge myself to write about a person, rather than taking his or her picture. Sometimes I do both. This piece was written on a trip to Syria in 2010. References to a massacre in Hama are the 1981 massacre, and do not refer to the atrocities of today. Sadly enough, the city has seen more than it's fair share of devastation.

Two tones. Maybe two and a half. The brown dye fell into black and was littered with grey. So maybe three.

I'd never seen a combover so combed over. The hair surged from the base of his head, wrapping itself in a coiffed helmet. 

"I'm an inventor," he told us, fresh green almonds gripped between hairy fingers, bits of salt spotting the green like the grey spotted his black and brown hair.

"What have you invented?" 

"A water pipe that you don't smoke. You use cough syrup." A better answer couldn't have come from a polyester suited Syrian who whirred around town on an electric scooter. 

"Really?" We exchanged glances.

"Really. Almond?" Hands thrust forward, he munched and thought, crunched and pondered. "Come with me for dinner."

His scooter had only room for one passenger. Two if someone wanted to ride on the basket. We opted for one. 

In the thumping heart of Hama, the arteries pushed through car after car, horn after horn.

"Don't be scared- I do this all the time," he reassured me as he readjusted the mirror on the left side, bent freshly from hitting a stopped car.

"They all know me! See how everyone's waving?" He turned back to look at me, polyester jacket facing the flipped up fingers and blasts of oncoming drivers.

He flitted and jolted through the bloodstream. His bushy hands were light on the brakes, but also sometimes late on the brakes. My life would have flashed before my eyes, but his hair blocked the images, and they fell to the ground, run over by his electric scoot.

He kicked the stand out and parked the contraption, brushing off a leaf on the seat like the insults hurled at him fluttered off the hair helmet. "We'll meet my friends."

'Stayin' Alive' by the Bee Gees played in my head as the trio strutted ahead of me, pleated legs swaying and glances swerving. Nods given and hands gripped, these men were movers, and judging by their gait, shakers. They ran the town with their swagger alone.

They knew a place, he said. A friend's. Good food. Welcome. Welcome to Syria.

Menus came out, and we scanned the Arabic, pretending to know what we were reading. We'll have the meat, we decided.

"150 grams? Not enough." His jowls swayed, but the hair stayed firm. It was the terra firma to his quaking gestures. Hands gesticulated, arms waved. More meat! More meat! The waiter wouldn't budge.

Sometimes a principled stand needs to be taken- sometimes trivialities need to be brushed aside, and a forceful roots need to be planted. There is a time and a place, and a restaurant in Hama has neither. The swish swish of polyester led us out of restaurant, the tempers of the trio still fuming.

He knew another place. With more meat. 150? What is that? His friend's. Well, he knows the owner.

Water and yogurt with salt becomes an acquired taste. With oregano it becomes a different story. We gulped down the seasoned drink to quench the heat of the night. We chased with water. 

The florescent lights overhead shone down onto vinyl covered seats. It was as if time had taken a rest in this place, and decided it liked what it saw. The polyester pant legs that swung to the beat of arabesque music fit. They almost fit too tight- an uncomfortable hug.

I'd been given lessons earlier in life about table manners. You never know when you'll be eating with the Queen, I was told. Tonight I was eating with the Kings of Style and convention was tossed out. 

"Try the salad. With lemon- no. Like that. Did I tell you my brothers and father were killed in the massacre? Ah- try this humus. Use the bread."

No topic was off limits to them- or at least to one. The other stayed true to his craft.

"Yes, you see, you put the cough syrup in and then inhale. You willl feel very good."

"Really? I mean, cough syrup? You don't see something wrong with that?"

"Yes I need to find a fair in Canada. Do you know about it? In Scarborough."

We danced for the whole dinner, sidestepping and twirling away from talk of chopped off heads and hands, and green cough syrup.

The bill couldn't have come at a better time, and the expressions couldn't have been more worrying. The inventor scrunched his forehead, the helmet moving as one. He called over the owner. They talked. The meat seemed to have been good weight, we thought.

"There has been mistake with the owner- he is not my friend anymore. He will not give me a discount." A bill landed on our plates. 

"I am sorry. Please, let me take you for tea. To make up for this."

We indulged him, and cut through the night air with the strides of a group that's eaten too much. 

A large bottle of water! Yes four teas! We sipped and watched the television. He excused himself to the washroom. He must have eaten some bad humus- he was taking forever. 

"Sir, you-your friend has left without paying for the drinks," a beanstalk of a man sidled up to the table and with a voice that cracked and fell from his mouth, told us we'd lost our man.


Maybe the embarrassment of not getting a discount had made him flee. Maybe an epiphany about his invention had caused him to take flight. Or maybe the two Canadians left to foot the $1.50 had been played by the coiffed inventor. Maybe the King of Style had struck again, and somewhere on a dark road, the notes of a time past but still present played to his strut.