Jan/Feb 2023  •   Fiction

Broken Waves, a novel excerpt

by Reem Hazboun Taşyakan

Photo courtesy of NASA's image library

Photo courtesy of NASA's image library

Damascus, Syria, April 2005

I spent the evening away from my future in-laws' house sipping cognac in a friend's living room. Elizabeth, who was American like I was, lived with Thomas, a man from Denmark she'd met soon after moving here. They were visibly giddy about their blossoming romance. I was buzzed but still raw from the fight with my fiancé Safeer.

Elizabeth had just told me how exciting it was starting a new relationship while away from home. Thomas referred to it as an "intriguing international affair." Giggling, Elizabeth lit some tapers and placed them in their tarnished brass holders on the dust-covered end table.

"This place has passed through the hands of a decade of European expats," Thomas said. "What do you think of it, Hala?"

It had the remains of an elegant interior but was now in disarray. The curtains, probably once white and crisp, were now tinged yellow and frayed along the edges. The faded red and gold Persian rug was threadbare in the center, and the room was drafty and smelled like an ashtray.

"It's cozy," I said. "Especially with the candles burning."

Thomas nodded. "Elizabeth says your parents spoke Arabic at home. Are they Syrian?"

"Palestinian. But they didn't teach me, so I'm still trying to learn."

Lacking the patience to discuss more of my personal history, I decided to tell them about the fight. Thomas opened a bottle of white wine, but it wasn't chilled. I had some anyway, layering it over the cognac while sharing my grievances: Safeer's younger sister stealing our money, her lies about me angrily confronting her, Safeer taking her side, he and I arguing, me storming out. I felt relief after sharing, soon followed by renewed worry brought on by the concerned looks on Elizabeth's and Thomas's faces.

By 2:00 AM, the awkward mix of drinks I'd indulged in was nagging at my senses. I was grateful they'd let me vent, but the dust, dimness, and lingering odor of cigarettes made it seem like all the distress I'd projected outward was bouncing back at me twofold. I needed sleep.

I wished them a fun trip since they'd be leaving for Petra early in the morning. Then I retired to the guest room.

Too anxious to lie down, I sat at the head of the bed, then pulled a pen from my backpack and rummaged around inside for paper. I didn't have any. In the nightstand, I found a coffee-stained notepad from Sham Palace. It would have to do.


I hate what's happening with us. I love your family and appreciate them hosting me, but I can't stand what's been going on lately.

I don't want to have to defend myself against their accusations. I feel like I'm losing you in a tug-of-war with them. Why does there have to be this battle? Why can't they respect our relationship? Why are you letting them get away with this?

I wish I understood. I wish these issues would evaporate. I wish we could go back to America.



I folded the letter and with it in hand, fell asleep trying to decide if I'd give it to him.

When I awoke the next morning, I was woozy and confused. It was the first night I'd spent away since my arrival to Damascus. And I'd slept later than usual.

When I rolled over, I saw the letter crumpled up beside me. The events of the previous night flashed through my mind. I tore it up and flushed the pieces.

In the kitchen, I made French press coffee and sat on the balcony. More disoriented than hungry, I nibbled on the croissant Elizabeth had left out for me. Everything seemed off. Instead of a sense of release, solitude sat heavy in the pit of my stomach. It felt like part of me was severed from the rest. I pulled out my phone and sent Safeer a text: I'm up. Planning to spend the day around here. Let me know if you wanna talk. I waited for him to respond while finishing my coffee, but he didn't.

It was a sunny day, so feeling more alert from the caffeine, I grabbed my backpack and went outside to wander around on foot. The streets of Sha'lan were quieter than usual. I'd visited the neighborhood often, and it was usually bustling. But it was Friday, so everything was closed. There wasn't anyone outside the shops sweeping the stoops or spraying down the pavement like they often did in the morning. There weren't any Amr Diab or Nancy Ajram songs pumping from the speakers of the hip restaurants I passed.

I knew it would take a while, but I ventured toward Old Damascus, hoping to get some vicarious companionship from the tourists there. I walked by the Syrian Parliament building, then crossed into the shopping district in Salhiyeh. Every store I passed was shielded with a metal gate.

It was a much hotter day than expected. The sun beat down on the denim long-sleeved shirt I wore to cover up my tank top. I came across an open restaurant, which I guessed had Christian owners. Dehydrated to the point that the skin on my hands and face felt dry, I went in and ordered a sparkling water. I ordered a salad, too, for the nourishment.

The restaurant was quiet and mostly empty. A muted television in the corner was showing Syrian troops packed into a vehicle at the Lebanese border waving flags or holding up pictures of Bashar Al-Assad. "Complete withdrawal of forces," it said in Arabic across the bottom. They were headed home. It was like watching a silent movie, with the same haunting quality that came with imagining what the scene should sound like, then getting pulled back by the movement instead.

Refocusing, I tried to balance my emotions and finish my salad. Instead, I got choked up. I fought to keep tears from falling but failed. The teenaged host with the gold cross around his neck made eye contact with me twice from behind the host stand, then walked to the dessert case in the back, came over to my table, and delivered two pieces of baklava on a plate sprinkled with cinnamon.

The gesture of goodwill sparked my appetite. As the buttery pastry melted in my mouth, the orange blossom syrup energized me. I left him a generous tip, then headed back out to wander.


When I reached the Damascus Citadel at the northwest edge of the old city, I followed the perimeter toward the entrance of Souq Al-Hamidiyah. The citadel's curtain walls towered above me. Normally impressive, today they felt confining. There were so many barriers around. Modern metal doors meant to keep out thieves. Ancient stone walls meant to keep out invaders. All of them reinforced my panic.

Instead of turning into the souq, I continued straight, remembering Safeer's Aunt Nahar lived just south of the old city. Her calming presence always made it easy to open up.

The walk to her place was long and draining, especially with the temperature continuing to rise. When I got there, I climbed the three floors to her apartment and knocked on the door. No one answered. I was too exhausted and soaked in sweat to keep walking, so I sat on the marble stoop in the entryway and waited. The enclosed stairwell helped cool me down.

Ten minutes passed, and a woman opened the door across the hall. She wore a floral print housecoat and a blue gauze scarf partially covering her hair.

"Are you okay?" she asked, immediately using English.

I sat up, forcing a smile. "I'm waiting for the family who lives here."

The woman nodded. "Come inside and wait."

"No, thank you. They'll be back soon."

"Just knock if you change your mind. I'll be here. My name's Lucy."

I leaned against the cold stone wall as the midday call-to-prayer rang out in the distance. Closing my eyes, I let its melodic sounds move through me. Even though I'd been raised Christian, the muezzin's voice resonated with me, like he could've been an uncle or an ancestor. The language, cadence, vibration, the welcoming tone—they transcended a single faith for me. I wasn't called to pray, but I was invited to unwind, even if just for a moment.

Lucy re-emerged. She'd removed the scarf from her head, neatly braided her hair, and put on some makeup. "Please come in," she insisted. "My roommate, Lena, and I, we want to serve you coffee."

I had no idea where Nahar was, and I was tired of sitting on the stoop. I stood, involuntarily glancing down the stairs, wondering again how long it might be.

Lucy noticed. "Don't worry. We'll hear it when they come back."


Their apartment was bright and spacious, but sparse and stale. The scent of cardamom from the brewing coffee filled the stagnant air. I breathed it in, momentarily transported to the comforts of my mother's kitchen.

My anxiety began to mount again. I was in another unexpected place, multiple times removed from anything familiar. I was away from the US and hadn't spoken to my mom in months because of her lingering disapproval of my engagement to Safeer. I couldn't be with my family in Palestine despite their close proximity, because they also didn't approve. I was away from Safeer's family's place. I was even away from Elizabeth's place in Sha'lan.

My legs got wobbly, then I felt weightless and detached. I moved toward the closest seat, a ruddy velvet sofa, and fixed my eyes on a wall-hanging embroidered in green with the image of an olive tree. I thought of the knotty old olive tree in Safeer's yard in the outskirts of town; of the neatly planted rows of them on his family's farm up north; and finally, of my Grandpa Saleem's orchard in Bethlehem. I was consoled by the thought that olive trees were a common denominator in the Levant, linking the nearby lands together, like organs connected by a bloodstream.

Worried they'd noticed my state, I looked at Lucy and Lena through the kitchen archway. They were unfazed, just busy preparing the coffee.

They carried it in, and we sat around a brass table, sipping and talking. I shared bits of who I was and fragments of my day, leaving out all the painful parts. When we finished, Lena covered my cup with its saucer, swished around the remaining liquid, then flipped it over, resting it at a slight angle.

We waited for several minutes, then Lena checked the inside of my cup, rubbed her hands together briskly, and said, "I'll read your fortune."

She held the cup close to her face and tipped it at various angles, interpreting the symbols that had formed in the residue. She saw linked rings (partners), ships in water (travels), dark clouds (conflict), a single rose (loneliness), a single teardrop (sadness), an open hand (friendship), and broken waves (uncertainty).

I was speechless. Was I glaringly predictable or her imagination just active? Had she read my body language? Or was it something more? Maybe she truly tuned in and saw my story, written all over my rolled-up denim sleeves, sunken into the pores and etched into the grooves of my parched skin, where debris had gathered and formed elegantly and conspicuously into curvy arabesque letters, spelling out my most intimate secrets.

A shiver ran through me.

Then, from the hall, we heard the sound of feet shuffling up the steps and keys jangling against a door.

Nahar had come back home.


Nahar's husband Hassan led me through their living room and out to the terrace while Nahar made tea inside. The outdoor space contained a tattered woolen rug, a few lawn chairs, a plywood table, and a kerosene lamp.

The sun had begun to descend behind the building, so it was fully shaded there. As a cooling breeze blew across it, the day's heat tapered off. Nahar brought out the tea on a silver tray and poured the steaming liquid into two beveled glasses. The pungent aroma of cinnamon sticks filled the air.

She took a sip. "I didn't strain it well," she said, speaking English with a clarity she'd perfected at AUB. "Habibti, tell me, what brings you here?" When she set her glass down on the tray, I saw tiny tea leaves float to the top.

I took a sip of my own tea, and the sweet warmth soothed my frayed nerves. "I'm staying at a friend's place in Sha'lan. She's in Jordan. Safeer isn't with me."

Nahar looked away. "I see. But you're here now. Didn't you like it there?"

"It was too quiet. I needed to walk around and think. Safeer and I had a fight last night, khalto. Things are tense." I reached for my tea and noticed leaf pieces floating in my glass, too.

She placed her hand on my shoulder, and I teared up. Dabbing my cheeks with my wrists, I stared at her. She had deep, dark eyes. The kohl lining them was smudged. Her black shoulder-length hair framed her face, accented by subtle laugh lines that reflected her kindness. I broke down more, letting out light sobs. She put her arm around me, and the loneliness I'd been feeling all day began to subside.

"Listen," Nahar said, sitting back in her chair. "As you know, Hassan's parents are from Tunisia. They've always despised me. They didn't want him marrying someone from a small Syrian village like we're from. They considered us low class. We visited Tunis only once and never returned. We've completely severed ties."

"That's terrible," I said. "They've missed out by not knowing you."

She smiled, then continued. "But you see, they believe they were right, that they were thinking of their son. Hassan wanted me to compromise even though they looked down on me. I refused, and now I regret it. They've grown old, and Hassan misses them terribly. He forgives me, but I don't forgive myself."

She grabbed both of my hands and looked into my eyes. "I think you should go back to the house, Hala. Think of your future with Safeer. This way, you won't harbor regrets."

I inhaled, picking up traces of jasmine from a garden below. "I'm not so certain there won't be regrets. But I'll give it a try."

I'd return to my future in-laws' house, but the truth was a shift had taken place I couldn't quite define. An elusive sensation was wriggling inside me and had been since earlier in the day, before all the talks and drinks and dregs of coffee and tea. When the sun was still scorching high above, silence and solitude surrounding me.