Friday, December 12, 2008

Chapter 8c: Could anything be harder?

The last thing I wanted was for them to hear my conversation with the landlord, so as soon as the new year had officially begun, I walked downstairs to the spacious ground floor flat, where he and his family lived. I took a deep breath and knocked on the door.

He greeted me graciously, shook my hand, bellowed Ahlan wa Sahlan! Welcome!, and wished me a happy new year in a loud cheerful voice. But he didn't welcome me in. He came out and closed the door behind him, so we were left standing alone in the dank hallway.

"You're a few days late, but it's the holiday season so I won't charge you a penalty this month," he said, still in his big sweeping voice. So generous of him, no?

"Actually, sir..."

"Oh, you need a few more days? I understand. After all, life stopped over the holidays, didn't it? But I bet you did well at the restaurant with all the extra movement, eh?" and he chuckled while fake-elbowing me on the arm.

Then it all poured out in a completely illogical order. My poor father, may he rest in peace... ("God have mercy in his soul," the landlord chimed in.) Mama was bringing in sewing... Syria had truly welcomed us... Brothers... ("We stand in solidarity with our Iraqi brothers against the Zionist invasion." Ha.) I was working so hard but would work harder... ("May God give you good health," he offered, sounding somewhat distant now.) Canada any day now...

At this point the big man cut me off. "You mean to say that you do not want to pay the rent anymore because you'll be leaving any day? That doesn't make any sense at all."

"No, no," I clarified. "It's just that you are a kind man who fears God and I need to ask for your mercy because until we get our resettlement call, money is going to be very tight. My salary at the restaurant is no where near enough to cover our rent, you must understand."

It occurred to me at that very moment that I had never begged anyone for anything.

"I see, I see," he said, and I had a glimmer of hope. Would he lower our rent? "Don't you have an uncle who lives in Canada already? Why don't you call him and ask him to help you out? Why ask a stranger for help before turning to your own family?"

"Sir, our uncle is doing everything he can to help us. His job in Canada pays very little, but he sends what he can to my aunts and uncle living in Jordan, and when there is any left, he will send it to us. I have asked him, and he has promised me he is trying. He also told me that he is working on our visas which should arrive any day now."

"And you want to continue living in comfort until your visas come?" he said, now in a sarcastic voice. I could only assume that the sarcasm was due to the assumption that, just because we had fled our homeland for our lives, us Iraqis think we should move to Canada when everyone knew that a Syrian would have much more trouble getting a visa to any country in the West. Not because his calling our flat "comfortable" was laughable.

So I kept trying. "It is so hard to find any place in Damascus these days, sir. This is an excellent neighbourhood, true, and you have been a good landlord to us. It is my job to look out for my family and I don't want to see them suffer. My poor mother has lived through so much. And my grandmother is ill, it's so hard for her to move anywhere."

"But she'd get on a plane to Canada," he said quickly.

I shut up. I'd lost, hadn't I? I was only 18 years old, I didn't know what I was supposed to do!

He was quiet, too, for a moment. Then he said, "These are difficult times in Syria. Not just for Iraqis, but for Syrians, too. My expenses have gone up considerably and I should raise the rent, too. I have been kind in leaving your rent as low as it is, and I'm afraid it's out of the question to lose any more money than I'm already losing on you." I felt my blood boiling. There is nothing so character-building as having to stay quiet and respectful in the face of such blatant lies. "But," he continued after a moment's pause. "I may be able to help you. Specifically, I may be able to help your family make some more money. I know someone who is looking for young women to work for her. It would be part-time, so your sisters could continue attending school during the daytime. She pays quite well. I'm confident your sisters could make enough to lessen your family's burden."

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