An Iraqi Communist in Syria, dedicated to a three-decade long routine
BY Nour Samaha
Sitting quietly by himself on a small table designed for four people in one of Damascus’ bustling coffee shops, Labed Buktash (Abu Halloub) drinks his cup of tea while reading a copy of his newspaper.
While there is nothing out of the ordinary with this routine, it is actually the same scene that has been playing out every single day, 12 hours a day, for the last 30 years.
An Iraqi communist who fled his home in Baghdad in 1979 when he was around 19 years of age, Abu Halloub took refuge in neighboring Syria where he connected with comrades from the communist party in Damascus.
Stumbling upon a café called Qahwat Al Rawda—a buzzing hub in the heart of the Syrian capital for intellectuals, artists, leftists and political activists back in day—across the street from the Communist party cultural center, he began frequenting the shop to hash out ideas and theories with fellow intellectuals, discussing communism and nationalism across the world.
“After I finished studying in Leningrad [St Petersburg] in the [former] Soviet Union, I was going back to Iraq but my parents told me not to because my politics would get me into trouble [sic],” Abu Halloub says. He still refers to towns and cities in Russia by their Soviet names.
“I came with a group of other Iraqis from Bulgaria and started hanging out with Iraqi leftists here in Damascus,” he adds.
Thirty years later, he is still there. Every day, he arrives at 10 a.m. and sits at the same table. He switches to the other side later in the afternoon, and stays in his spot until 10 p.m.
He collects a monthly stipend from the United Nations, where he is registered as a refugee, and every Thursday he buys two beers; the rest of the week he drinks tea, coffee and soft drinks.
There have only been two occasions on which Qahwat el Rawda has shut down; once when the former president Hafez Al Assad died, and once when the mother of the owner died.
On those two days, Abu Halloub still showed up at 10 a.m., and spent the time sitting on the sidewalk opposite the coffee shop until 10 p.m.
From his chair, he has witnessed how Syria has grown, changed, developed and now descended into war over the decades.
“Back in the day, all my friends would come here, which is why I was here all the time. In fact, the Iraqi Baathists loyal to Syria used to hang out here with us.”
A small, thin man, he talks animatedly about times passed, dropping names of famous artists, actors, and politicians who have passed through the doors of the coffee shop.
“Saddam Hussein used to come here in the 1960s, and Jalal Talabani used to also come,” he says. “Everyone who was anyone, whether Syrian, Iraqi, or Lebanese, used to pass by here.”
Never married and with no kids, he spends his time catching up with friends, both old and new; although these days their visits are much less frequent than they used to be.
“Friends still pass by, but less than before,” he says. “Some have died and a lot of my Syrian friends have left since the start of the war.”
Despite his age, his memory is razor sharp and he jumps fluidly from one conversation to another, correcting historical facts of those he is having discussions with.
A copy of the Syrian Tishreen newspaper sits on the table. “I used to also bring a copy of (the Arabic Lebanese daily) Assafir too, but they stopped bringing it to Syria a short while ago.”
He has the ability to take his audience on a tour of the world, from Switzerland to Holland to Vietnam and Sicily, while never once leaving the table. He drops facts about the drinks served in Switzerland, or the tiny villages in Sicily, or the food in Lagos, describing in detail all of these places, places he has never visited, hearing what his friends say when they return from their travels, and storing the information, hoping one day he, too, will be able to put them to use.
Despite his lively conversation, there is something sad in the way Abu Halloub talks of the past, and the way he looks into the future. He voices disappointment in his communist comrades, who were unable to separate dreams and ideas from the reality on the ground, and his eyes give away his heartbreak when he talks about Syria and Iraq, two places he holds dear.
“In Europe, they have good ruins, but here we just have ruins,” he says. “Us Arabs, we’ve done this to ourselves. We have no one to blame but ourselves.”
In neutral tones, he talks of the possibility of leaving. He dismisses the idea of Iraq and say: “There is no reason to go back.” But the longing in his voice says otherwise.
“I do want a change. I want to be able to sleep better, to eat different food,” he says. “Being here makes me thin because I overthink. I just want to try something different.”
“But there is also something that draws me here, to this place, to stay.”