An excerpt from The Syrian by Cathy Sultan
Nadia Khoury woke to the sound of Arabic and French being spoken. It puzzled her, pulled her out of a slightly erotic dream that she wanted to stay in. Because she had become more used to English, she felt a small measure of confusion. She laughed at herself and her siblings, Maya and Paul, who squabbled on the terrace under her window. The curtains fluttered inward and Nadia laid back and smiled at the ceiling. Ah, the comforts of home. And Andrew would fly into Beirut later today. Her family never changed; noisy, funny and passionate. Her father pontificated with no one listening, and her mother tried to keep the peace, seldom taking sides.
“Wake her up,” said Paul. “She’s missing this beautiful morning.”
Maya snapped back: “No, let her sleep. She’s still jet-lagged.”
“She is not,” protested Paul. “Stop being an idiot.”
It’d been a long time since she had woken up truly happy, and this transformation had begun six months ago when she’d met Andrew Sullivan. She had been only twenty-two when her husband, Elie Khoury, a university professor many years her senior, was abducted. Her grief had almost consumed her—until in the thirteenth year she found love again. This feeling of elation—that she had her life back—made her giddy. She had just turned thirty-five, and today her fiancé, an American physician, would fly into Beirut from Washington, D.C. She anticipated embracing him at the airport and bringing him straight back to her bed. She felt her face flush at the imagery that sprung to mind, so she got up quickly lest her thoughts linger too long on the kind of erotic naughtiness that her friend Sonia Rizk verbalized openly. Hanging around Sonia since returning home had apparently influenced her.
Wearing one of Andrew’s old T-shirts, she went to the window and gazed past her mother’s rose gardens to the sprawling metropolis below, nestled along the shore of the Mediterranean. She gasped at how lovely the turquoise sea was, its waves sparkling like diamonds in sunlight as they caressed the shore. Before, when she had looked down at the city, she’d always wondered if Elie’s remains were buried there somewhere, but today she pushed that question aside. Since her arrival a few days before, Beirut had been shrouded in some sort of mist, a mix of pollution and strange atmospherics—unusual for early July. Her mother had said it was a bad omen, and her father had laughed. “Oh, Carole, you and your superstitions. Soon there’ll be a plague of frogs.”
This morning, just in time for Andrew’s arrival, the haze had lifted and Nadia smiled at her beloved city—bustling and reborn, yet ever ancient. She pulled on a white dress, tied her unruly auburn hair into a ponytail, and ran downstairs to join her family on the terrace. Her father stood and opened his arms, her mother frowned at her bare feet, and Maya slugged Paul in the arm, saying, “You woke her up with your foghorn voice.” He laughed and shielded himself from a second blow.
Nadia stepped in her father’s arms and smelled his cologne and starched shirt. In French she said, “Good morning, little family. I’m such a lucky woman. But where is my coffee?”
Paul stood, did an exaggerated bow, and went over to the service trolley to pour her a cup from the thermos. Nadia sat down in her brother’s chair and he brought her the coffee. He made it the way she liked it with sugar and a dab of cream. As she sipped and smiled up at him, he said, “I can’t believe you’re here.”
Maya said, “But it’s much easier to meet in Paris or London.”
“Especially when there’s fighting,” said her father.
“That’s all behind us now,” her mother said. Her father gave Paul a grave look but Maya was right on it and said, “Don’t start with your gossip, Papa. Let’s have a nice morning.”
Her father looked to heaven and said, “Dear Lord, protect an old man from him insolent offspring.”
“Dearest sister,” said Paul. “Your appointment to the U.N. High Commission on Human Rights has created a bit of confusion in our lovely little family. What is it we’re to call you now? Madame la Commissaire?”
They all laughed together. And after brushing her brother’s cheek with a soft kiss, Nadia took her coffee and walked barefooted through the dew-soaked grass to the edge of the garden.
Off to the right, in the hills of Achrafieh, stood the convent where she had been educated and where she had first learned English before going to university. How lovely those simple days were where everything had come so easily to her. While she felt sadness for the thousands who perished during the war, the newly rebuilt downtown—with its waterfront skyscrapers, luxury hotels and boutiques alongside the blue-domed Mohammad al Amin mosque and St. George’s Maronite Cathedral—represented renewed harmony and prosperity. It was reminiscent of Beirut before the hostilities began, as her father had described it when she was a small child.
This morning nothing from that turbulent past mattered. Nadia returned to the terrace and curled up next to her mother on the love seat, sipping the last of her coffee. Unlike previous family reunions, soberly respectful out of consideration for Nadia’s husband—thirteen years disappeared and presumed dead—this particular gathering would surely surpass any reasonable exuberance and for good reason. The family stood behind Nadia, united in agreeing that life must go on even though her husband’s remains had never been found. The would celebrate her official engagement to Andrew Sullivan with an intimate family dinner tonight and a big party the following evening.
Nadia heard the telephone ring. It had done nothing but ring since her arrival, so she ignored it. If anything, the call was yet another party-related question for her mother.
Nadia glanced up when the maid walked across the terrace. Strange, thought Nadia, the poor woman looks like she just saw a ghost.
“The call’s for you, Sitt Nadia. It’s Mlle. Sonia. She says it’s urgent.”
“Hello my dear, what can possibly be so urgent on such a beautiful day?”
“It’s Elie,” said Sonia.
“What about him?”
“He may still be alive.”
“Oh Sonia, he can’t be.”
This book is available for purchase here.