Those Beneath Damascus

This story was first published in The Infinite sky, Vol 5, Issue 1, 2022.

There is something ominous about Damascus, something that I couldn’t describe as the inexperienced, young occasional visitor I had been before my ordeal. Therefore, when Fares, a distant relative of mine, offered me a job at his travel agency in the ancient capital, I initially hesitated to leave my quiet, sleepy coastal village. But the attractive salary made me acquiesce.

“Welcome to Damascus, Zakaria,” Fares told me when I entered his office in the old city.

He was a tall, middle-aged man with a receding hairline and a face full of acne scars.

“Please sit,” his tone was inviting. “I’m glad you said yes. I think you’ll like working with us. Your job is easy. You’ll be in charge of communicating with our branch office in Greece. You’ll be arranging hotel reservations for tourists coming to Damascus. That’s it. You’ll work alone in a nearby office that overlooks the Umayyad Mosque. The view is amazing; the job is easy; and the pay is good. I also rented a room for you at a house in the area of Bab Touma (Saint Thomas Gate). A private bathroom but a common kitchen. It doesn’t get any better, right?” He smiled, exposing a tooth gap.

“No, it does not.” I reciprocated with a forced smile.

After drinking Arabic coffee, we walked in silence to my new office. The old part of the city looked enchanting under the bright, golden sun. People of all types and colors filled its narrow alleys. The ancient gray cobblestone roads seemed pregnant with endless stories, and the minaret of the Umayyad Mosque penetrated the sky’s bosom like a sword. Antique shops stood on the sides of the pedestrian street where the ruins of the Temple of Jupiter met the mosque. The yellowish decaying columns and arches leered in defiance at the useless passersby. It was as though they were saying, “Who are you? Who are you to pass by us without stopping to admire our triumph against time?”

We finally arrived at our destination, a small attic office sitting on the top of an antique store but with a separate entrance. We climbed a short flight of stairs, and the office’s crumbling gray walls, damp smell, and old black-and-white tiles coldly greeted us. The sun, shining through the rickety wooden bay window, made the dust visible. Apart from the computer and phone lying on a rusty steel desk, nothing in the room belonged to 2003.

“So, do you like it?” Fares asked me, putting his hands on his hip.

I walked to the desk, pulled the ladder-back chair, and sat. “I guess I’ll need a proper chair.” 

He ignored my request and drew nearer. “In the first drawer, you’ll find the contact list of our Athens office. I suggest you call them and introduce yourself. I told them about you. They’ll inform you about the process. Consider today a paid training. As of tomorrow, you should be up to speed. The shift is standard, nine to five.” 

His sudden authoritative tone made me get up. “Sure, thank you,” I answered and shook his hand before he left.

The first days were ordinary apart from the unusually creepy smile of my neighbor, the antique store’s owner. Upon entering and leaving the office, the old man would say something like, “Salam, neighbor, habibi (my dear). Drop by for a cup of tea or coffee.” Then, he’d rub his hands together and bob his head.

My reply was always the same: a polite smile followed by a cliche, “Thank you. Some other time, hopefully.”

During my shifts, I enjoyed talking to the friendly staff in Athens, and in the evenings, I walked around the old city, often marveling at how it subjugated history. Damascus is the quintessential Nietzschean Übermensch. Hundreds of civilizations conquered her, yet the city endured, and the conquerors sunk into oblivion, leaving nothing behind but some artifacts.

After some weeks, the callous hands of loneliness began suffocating me. Fares was a busy man who preferred spending his little spare time with his wife and kid. And my housemates were an old German couple who spoke neither English nor Arabic and didn’t seem interested in having anything to do with me. So, when the antique store’s owner invited me again after my shift, I agreed.

He was standing at the entrance of his shop as he often did. “Welcome, welcome, my neighbor.” He beamed, showing his yellow buck teeth.

“Thank you, Sir.” God! What an awful feeling came upon me when I shook his sweaty hand.

“No need for ‘Sir,’ habibi. My name is Abu Abdo.”

“Nice to meet you, Abu Abdo. I’m Zakaria,” I replied.

By now, I began noticing his thick Damascene accent, one where the last vowel was always noticeably extended. Despite the warm weather, as I’d always seen him, the man was dressed in a tattered gray trench coat and a knit beanie with a pom-pom.

“Tell me, habibi, do you want to sit outside or inside?” he asked.

I glanced at the store. “Inside is better.”

The store seemed much older than my office. Its pale white paint was worn out and full of blisters. A musty odor filled its atmosphere. Stacks of old, yellowish newspapers and books rose from the floor to the roof. Islamic calligraphy, greenish Orthodox Christian icons, and pagan drawings of human-animal hybrid creatures doing various mundane things adorned the shelves. A frayed leather office chair was crammed between the back wall and a large wooden desk. On the latter, an old rotary dial phone sat—right next to a full crystal ashtray, a pack of Alhamra cigarettes, and a box bulging with screwdrivers, springs, rusty pliers, and wires. In the right wall, between two tall closets, there was a small doorless entrance, one where even a short person must hunch slightly to go through.

“So, you like the place, habibi?” Abu Abdo told me, grinning and exposing his buck teeth again.

I could smell his musky, fishy breath at a closer range indoors. “Yes, I love it. Interesting artifacts.”

“True, habibi. I’ll tell you more about them. But first, tea or coffee?”

“Tea is fine.”

“You’re in luck, habibi. Before you came in, I had just made a fresh kettle. Persian tea with cardamom and rosewater.” 

I noticed his round back when he turned and ran to the small door. He barely hunched and went through. He returned with two short stools and placed them close to one another in the middle of the store.

“And now the tea.” He galloped back to what I was now sure was a kitchen. He came back with a tray that had two teacups.

“Rest, habibi, sit.” He shook his head.

I sat on the uncomfortable short stool, my knees at my chest level.

Abu Abdo sat as well, his knees almost touching mine. “Here, habibi.” He offered me a cup, placed the tray on the floor next to him, grabbed his cup, and made a slurping noise when he took his first sip. “You’re from the coast. The mountains of Latakia, in particular. From a village? Am I right?”

“Yes, you’re right. Impressive!”

“Why, habibi?”

“I’m sure you could tell I’m from the coast because of my accent. But to know that I’m from a Latakian mountain village, this is very impress—”

“Habibi, I know every inch of Syria.” He sipped on his tea. “Not this Syria the French created.” He rolled his eyes. “But Greater Syria, from Damascus to Baghdad and from Cyprus to Kuwait.”

I blew on the hot tea, then took a sip. The taste of rosewater was strong and soothing. “You’re from Damascus, I take it.”

“Yes, habibi. I’m a true Damascene. Generations of my family have lived in this part of the city since the second century B.C. We’ve always had the same job: selling and buying rare documents and artifacts. We’re all also musically inclined. Do you want me to play the lute for you?” He drank his teacup empty.

“Sure,” I answered.

Abu Abdo placed the cup on the ground, put his palms on his knees, got up, leaped to one of the closets next to the entrance, opened it, and got out a short-necked lute.

“I love playing for new audiences,” he told me, then sat again. “The melody I’ll play for you has been in my family for generations, habibi.” He cleared his throat and began strumming.

The music was unlike anything I had ever heard—utterly impossible to describe. But if fear could speak, it would be humming those awful notes. The more Abu Abdo played, the sleepier I got. I could feel my grip loosening on the teacup, and through my blinking eyelids, the last thing I could see before swooning was Abu Abdo’s evil smile.

I was standing in front of a large mirror. Hatred swelled within me as I stared into my eyes. Their black color looked ominous and unforgiving. Suddenly, I saw a dark abyss in my right eye. In it, a man was falling. When he finally hit the ground, he broke into a thousand pieces, only to be remade again in the image of an upright rat. The rat was now standing before the same mirror, his ruby eyes blinking. The rat exposed his buck teeth and began squeaking.

Abu Abdo’s bony hand tapping on my lower thigh sent a hideous shiver down my spine.

“Tell me, habibi, what did you see? What did you dream about?” he asked with the enthusiasm of a madman.

I wiped my forehead with the back of my hand and didn’t respond.

“Habibi, tell me, what did you dream about?” he insisted, his hand still on my knee’s edge.

I stared at it, then at his face, and then at the short-necked lute lying on its back on the floor. I still couldn’t speak.

Abu Abdo removed his hand, took a cigarette pack out of his pocket, tapped its top against his knee, pulled a cigarette, lit it, and drew on it. The smoke moved up lazily when he blew. “So, you dreamed about nothing?”

“Yes, nothing,” I finally spoke.

“Are you sure?”

I looked outside and saw that it was already dark. “For how long have I been out?” I got up.

“Since five-thirty.” He glanced at his watch. “It’s almost nine now. Time to close, or the police will fine me.”

“I’m sorry,” I said when I saw the broken teacup beside my stool. “I didn’t—”

“Don’t worry, habibi,” said the hideous man. “You’re not the first one.” He smiled.

“The first one?”

“To break a cup,” he giggled.

I apologized to Abu Abdo again, excused myself, and headed to my rented room. On the way, my ears buzzed with squeaking, that same disheartening sharp noise from that nightmare. The latter robbed me of peaceful sleep that night. And when I woke up the next day, the first thing I heard was a wave of that awful squeaking.

I called in sick and went to see Abu Abdo. Apart from the broken cup, the scene was exactly as I had left it. We sat on the stools, but Abu Abdo had an ancient-looking book in his hand this time. A whiff of dust came out when he opened it. With long, thin fingers and jagged nails, his withered hand ruffled through the worn-out pages.

“That’s it,” he said. “That’s the drawing I want to show you.” He turned the book the other way around and gave it to me.

It was a painting of a giant human-rat hybrid creature occupying a kingly throne. At his feet, a mangled human corpse was placed apparently as an offering, and smaller similar ominous creatures knelt in worship.

The sight mesmerized me and opened the floodgates of a primitive kind of fear that I still can’t fully define. Maybe I can best describe it as the type of fear a child faces when he begins understanding real life and discovering that reality is nothing like the trumperies of children’s books. This terrible feeling, however, was thrilling and familiar, and for reasons most obscure, I craved more of it.

“What do you think?” Abu Abdo threw a triumphant smile at me.

“It is,” I paused to find the right word, then continued, “terrifying, macabre, exhilarating, simply captivating.”

“So, you like it, habibi?”

“I guess I do.” My heart was now fluttering with unexplained excitement.

He took the book back and closed it. “This drawing depicts an arcane legend about a rat-human hybrid race that’s been living underneath Damascus and other major Syrian cities since the dawn of creation—before humans ever existed. They’re called Jarajeh.” He twitched his nose and made a sniffing noise. “These fine specimens typically live for thousands of years, but their giant king is immortal. They worship and glorify him by producing chitters and squeaks that influence the thought patterns of humans, making them greedy, violent, and immoral. These qualities guarantee uninterrupted survival of human cities.”

“And why would they want humans to survive?” I asked.

“For offerings, habibi. They need humans as offerings. But they don’t choose just anyone. It must be a young man with a special intuition, one that can hear and see beyond the facade of reality. Usually, a dying one of those Jarajeh surfaces to choose an offering as a final act of worship. A pleasing sacrifice guarantees finding peace in death after long epochs of toiling. Towards the end of their lives, they may look more human.” He opened the book again and riffled through it. “Look, habibi.” He gave the book back to me.

It was the drawing of a naked, emaciated man whose eyes resembled ratholes.

“This is symbolic of the perfect offering, the one who sees in the eyes of his subconscious mind what others can’t see and who hears what the ordinary folks can’t hear.”

I returned the book to my unlikely friend.

“Don’t gawk at me like this,” he told me. “These are mere legends buried under the rubble of time. Anyway, habibi, let me show you the artifacts I have in the back room.” He pointed at what I’d thought was the kitchen. The stool squeaked a little when he got up. “C’mon, habibi. I’m sure you’d love what I have there.”

A sense of impending doom suddenly came upon me. “Maybe some other time,” I mumbled.

“C’mon. Please don’t turn down the request of an old man.” His eyes became moist and his tone desperate.

“Sure,” my hesitant reply came.

Abu Abdo ran to the back room. What a terrible sight confronted me when I followed him. Heaps of human body parts flanked an old operation table, and puddles of blood were glowing under the dim bluish light.

“What the hell is that?” I shouted, shaking.

Before I had the chance to run, Abu Abdo grabbed me by the neck and pulled me towards him. “I-I-I opened up those men. They’re no good, habibi, but you’re good. It’s only one bite. I’ll make it easy. You’re the perfect sacrifice. Let m—.”

“Let go of me.” I tried to shake his hands away.

“C’mon, habibi. I’m dying soon. I need to rest. Plus, if our King doesn’t receive my sacrifice on time, he’ll get angry and send his rats to destroy Damascus and the whole of Syria. It’s better to let m—”

“You’re an insane serial killer.” My voice echoed in that grotesque hellhole smelling like rust and fruity putrefaction.

“Habibi, if I don’t sacrifice you, the rats will surface and devastate the land and everyone in it,” he tried to bite me, but I managed to push his face away.

“Let me go, or I’ll kill you, you insane bastard!” I pushed him away with the might of a desperate man.

Abu Abdo tripped and fell on his back, hitting his head on the corner of the operation table before slamming onto the floor. Blood pooled underneath his head. His eyes bulged towards the sky. His body tremored and twitched. Then, he let a monstrous squeak before becoming still as death, his mouth agape and his hideous buck teeth revealed.

I exited the shop and began running aimlessly, the sound of Abu Abdo’s final squeak repeatedly thumping in my head. From beneath that rattish noise, I could hear car brakes squealing and people shouting, “Watch where you’re going, you idiot.” I bumped into some passersby, fell, got up, and continued running. “Are you blind? Fuck you!” I’d hear their cursing. I finally collapsed somewhere on the outskirts of Damascus.

When I came to, the noise in my head had entirely ceased. And after dreadful hours of thinking, I decided to turn myself in, hoping that I’d be declared innocent once the police discovered that Abo Abdo was a mad murderer and that I was defending myself.

Past midnight, I could hear my footsteps as I entered the police precinct in the heart of the old town, the Bab Touma Square (the Gate of Saint Thomas Square). The precinct was within walking distance from Abu Abdo’s store. I told the receptionist that I wanted to report involuntary manslaughter. In no time, I was sitting on an old leather chair placed between an old desk and a white wall sporting a portrait of our dictator with his stern, vacant, blue eyes. Two officers were sitting on the other side of the desk. One wrote every word I said, and the other, older and with a higher rank, interrogated me.

When I was done talking, the younger officer read my statement aloud and made me sign it.

The older officer scrutinized me and said, “Zakaria, although we’ll run a background check on you soon, I’d like to ask you, do you have any history of drug or alcohol abuse?”

“No, not at all.”

He scratched his chin. “Any personal or family history of mental illness?”

“No.” My voice trembled with anger.

“Alright, don’t get offended.”

“I told you, Sir. My neighbor was a serial killer, and I killed him in self-defense. I didn’t m—”

“I hear you, Zakaria. I’ve been serving this neighborhood for thirty years, and I know it inch by inch. I know your office and the supposed store underneath it. It’s an abandoned place owned by the Department of Antiquities of the Ministry of Culture. It’s one of the many old, ownerless places the government appropriated after the independence in 1947.”

“Sir, I’m not lying.”

He ignored me, looked at the lower-ranking officer, and said, “Take two policemen with you and accompany him to the supposed crime scene to verify the details. It will be a waste of time, but we must do it.” He was now looking at me. “Keep him cuffed.”

A heinous sense of horror possessed me when I stood before Abu Abdo’s store, reading a sign saying, “Syrian Arab Republic. Property of the Department of Antiquities. No Trespassing.”

“You’ve wasted our time,” one of the policemen told me as he shoved me back towards the patrol car.

The police sent me to a psychiatric hospital for seventy-two hours of surveillance. Following multiple blood and urine tests and lengthy interviews, the doctors gave me a generic diagnosis, “Unspecified psychotic episode due to work-related stress. The patient is not a danger to himself or others.”

Upon my release, I immediately resigned, packed my few things, and returned to my village. I never spoke of my awful experience in Damascus. When someone asked me why I came back, my answer was as generic as that ridiculous diagnosis, “Damascus was too expensive.”

It has been seven years since. An awful, unshakable sense of doom has been plaguing my days, and the same terrifying nightmare about the upright rat has been robbing me of peaceful nights. But something even more menacing, sinister, and real has been happening since yesterday: I’ve been hearing an unceasing concerto of squeaks. I’m sure those evil creatures will soon arrive, and utter devastation shall follow.