Saturday, March 19, 2005

Another Evening to Forget!

It’s been a while since I had such an outing with Mom. Indeed, we used to attend many of these functions together – receptions prepared by embassies to commemorate their national days, parties arranged by some production company to celebrate the successful end of a series, and celebrations arranged by Syria’s public TV, Theater, Radio, or the Artists Guild itself (as indeed was the case this time around) meant to commemorate some event or other.

But ever since my father's passing on January 17, which was soon followed by my departure to DC for my fellowship at Brookings, we simply did not have the desire or the occasion to take part in something along these lines.

This was a first in a while for us then. The mother and son finally emerging together again in public. The occasion was a celebration organized by the Damascus Branch of the Syrian Artists’ Guild meant to commemorate Mother’s Day. But the real motive here was: to spend some money and justify your continued presence. Indeed, and in a country like ours, this is the real motive behind most such celebrations organized by official and semi-official institutions. Is anoney really surprised?

But the celebration was too mediocre, it seems, to command much participation: only about 100 people showed up, comprised mostly of technicians, extras and unknown, though quite old, singers.

My mother asked me to come at the last possible moment. She is simply not any good planning such things in advance. Of course, I had to accept, after all, this was a Mother’s Day celebration and I happen to be so consumed with guilt these days vis-à-vis all the people I love, that I simply cannot refuse them anything.

When relatively innocent people are suffused with so much guilt, how do the wrongdoers feel?

It seems that my life these days is increasingly about making up for all those occasions in the past when I simply refused to feel guilty. But was I really guilty? Am I really guilty?

Does it really matter?

We arrived at the Plaza Hotel on 9:00 pm. Despite the fancy name though, this was a rather mediocre hotel these days, albeit still clinging, by tooth and nail (and certain bribes paid to certain officials from the Tourism Ministry no doubt), to a 3-star classification. The celebrations were taking place at the top floor.

The hall, as one would expect in such establishments, was covered with worn out carpeting, tables, dishes, and waiters. The audience itself was rather worn out as well. Other than my Mom, the always illustrious Muna Wassef, the other known guests included: Halah Chawkat, Najah Hafiz, Umaymah al-Taher, her husband Riyad Nahhas, and the long-retired and veiled, Amal Sukkar - Oh time what have you done with our Ophilias, Jocastas and other queens and princesses?). There were few other faces that I recognized as well, but for the most part, the gathering consisted of the usual ragtag participants that such celebrations always seem to attract.

We sit around the assigned table, thoughtfully placed next to the podium so we can “enjoy” that horrible noise belched by an orchestra made up of what passes for “professional” musicians these days. Indeed, by contemporary standards, “professional musicians” are those who play in the country’s nightclubs, a rather "soft" somewhat "romantic" if not downright "artistic" term for whorehouses. Indeed, ever since the liberating days of French occupation, whores in Syria have been commonly referred to as Artistes, since many of them posed as such.

The real "artistes," that is real actresses and singers, like my Mother and her female colleagues, have had a rough time getting the necessary social respect because of this misnomer. Indeed, during those times, military officers were forbidden by law to marry artistes, which meant that, upon marrying my father, my mother had to quit acting for a whole year, after which my father quit his military post in favor of “his art.” He eventually became a movie director.

For a country known for its hors d’ouevre, or as we call them here, mezzeh, what was laid before us on the table came out of the deepest Amazon jungles as far as I was concerned, albeit the main course consisting of cardamom-flavored chicken, was somewhat acceptable.

Within minutes after our arrival, the celebration got underway. Lo and behold the master of ceremony with his head jerking all over the place like the head of a giant rooster, was the same person who mastered the heartbreaking, though still somewhat amateurish, ceremony meant to commemorate my father’s passing last year.

But then, what did I really expect? He was the master of ceremony in all activities organized by the Artists’ Guild – weddings, funerals, and circumcision ceremonies included I wager.

“Cover my bones with grass baptized from the purity of your heels.” He clucked. Fuck yes, it was that kind of a ceremony…

the kind where the master of ceremonies clucks as I reminisce of the good old days when my Mom took me with her to her various auditions and I spent the nights roaming in the backdoors of the National Theater creating my own sort of mischief and having my own sort of fantasies about heroes and idols, fallen and eternal…

the kind where I get questioned on what I studied in the US and what I am doing back here and whether I got married or not. Indeed news of my four-year old marriage to Khawla do not seem to have been circulated widely yet in the circles of our artistic community. Or is it that everyone has long gotten used to everyone else being divorced or about to be so in this forever turbulent circle that everyone continues to be considered as available or about-to-be available.

Be that as it may, and the fewness of the young faces in this ceremony notwithstanding, I got ogled, smiled at, snickered at, side-glanced at, had kisses blown at, far in excess of what my handsome self would have earned, new haircut and all, had I not been Muna Wassef’s, Syria’s superstar, only begotten and made son. Boy am I glad Khawla was too tired to come. She would not have enjoyed this particular evening. It was a bit too much, even by our artistic standards.

The scarcity of the available youthful candidates and catches-of-the-evening, it seems, and the mediocre quality of the event itself, made the few 15-30 year old girls focus on the only available target with all their lust and attention. It is indeed about time for the younger ones to become really playful, and about time for the older ones to get a guy before they reached spinsterhood – still quite the ugly prospect in contemporary ME societies, where more than 50% of 30 old urban women are actually still unmarried and, in many cases even, virginal.

But here, and except for the 15 year-olds, it seems, their flirtatiousness notwithstanding, there were obviously very few virginal women, not to mention men, around. This was after all the artistic community.

Two hours later, the audience having been mercilessly subjugated to the clucking, croaking, braying, screeching, hissing, wailing, moaning, groaning, mooing and neighing of a sad assortment of variably challenged singers (vertically, horizontaly, vocall, facially, etc) talented only in their ability to take themselves quite seriously despite of it all, the mother actresses were honored in alphabetical order – a long time Baathist practice meant to help avoid making anyone, no matter how unjustifiably so, jealous.

For all artists are equal in the eyes of the socialist system. Those who are more equal than others are not the talented ones, but the Baath members.

Indeed, the Baath has killed off all talents in Syria and transformed all artists, and perhaps all Syrians, their professional backgrounds notwithstanding, back into artistes.

Yet, and although any evening that ends up with this kind of realization is not worthy of being remembered, I will remember it anyway. For how can I forget the time when I was made to feel like a whore.

Artistically yours,

PS. Sorry Mama. I never meant to hurt you. I never meant to make you cry. But soon indeed, I’ll be cleaning out my closet.