We had jacket potatoes for dinner tonight, and I was reminded of a French restaurant in Damascus where I had savoured the only fluffy, crispy-skinned spud of my year in Syria.
I had been invited by Jamal, my only openly pro-Assad friend (this was 2009, when praising the well-spoken dictator was less shocking than it would be today, at least to my naive British ears).
I was about to wonder out loud what had happened to Jamal and whether the past six years of brutality had made him rethink his political allegiances, but I stopped myself. Nimr was tired after work and I didn’t want to put him in a bad mood by turning his attention to the dark place in his mind.
I remembered Paris three years ago, where we had been reunited with our best friends from Syria for the first time. Unimaginable horrors lay between then and the last time we had all been together, the most searing leaving an empty chair where one of our gang should have been.
Pouring olive oil onto a bowl of garlicky foul one lunchtime, Abu Ali remembered an uncle who had lashings of it with everything he ate, and then remembered that he had died under torture in prison, “Allah yarhamo” (God have mercy on him). Abed had an uncle whose name he was never sure whether to follow with “Allah yarhamo” or not, because he was missing but not yet confirmed dead.
We drank and smoked and danced outside metro stations and sang our hearts out in the streets, and a black sea yawned beneath the surface of everything. A misremembered Milan Kundera quote came to me: “Happiness was the form and sadness was the content”.
So I didn’t ask Nimr whether he thought Jamal still supported Assad, and we talked about Rihanna over our cheese and beans.