The Friendly Neighborhood Doctor

Habib Zreik

© Copyright 2022 by Habib Zreik

Photo courtesy of Pexels.
Photo courtesy of Pexels.

When I think of our late neighbor Dr. Loshkajian, or Dr. Arteen as we knew him, the first image that comes to my mind is of him in a white cotton loose undershirt, which manages to stretch even wider than his round belly. He would be lying on the couch in front of the old 18-inch TV in the living room, with his hand trickling the strands of tobacco into the pipe. When he sees me entering, he would look at me with a smile, and would often throw a funny comment at me with his deep, loud, charming voice while still holding the pipe with one hand and filling it with the other. As a child, I did not know how to engage in a talk with adults, but he would talk to me as if I were his peer, discussing the health of my parents and grandparents, and talking to me about what I considered serious matters. He gave me the feeling that he really cared about the details of my life, my hobbies, and interests. He would not only ask me if I did well in school that year, as most adults would, but he used to engage with me in the details. "How does your Arabic Literature teacher look?", he would say, or "what sports do you practice at school", and "in what position do you play soccer?". He was not just the father of Taline and Armen, the two best friends of my childhood, but also someone I enjoyed the presence of.

When I grew up, I learned more about this extraordinary character. Born in Yerevan, Armenia, Dr. Arteen's parents were amongst the 200,000 or so Armenians who fled the Armenian genocide committed by the Ottomans and refuged to Syria, a country that was then fighting for its independence from the Ottoman Empire. The family found its way to Ibtta’, a small rural town in the southern Syrian governorate Dara'a, 20 km away from its central city, and 81 km away from Damascus, the Syrian capital. There, young Arteen studied in the town's school until he graduated from secondary school and enrolled in the Faculty of Medicine at Damascus University, which had and still has the highest grade-requirements in Syria. In Damascus, he met Hermin, his wife to be, and fell in love with her. With the help of his younger but richer brother Krikor (the Armenian equivalent of the given name Gregor), who worked in selling medical equipment, and later established his importing company for dental equipment, they bought an apartment in Al Qusoor (literally: the palaces), a beautiful neighborhood with a mixed composure of Muslims and Christians of all sects. Their apartment was right next to my grandparents', with a small balcony that had a view overlooking the beautiful jungle-like gardens behind our street. 

  Arteen was your old friendly neighborhood family doctor. He never charged any of the neighbors for his medical services, even my father's pilonidal sinus operation. Feeling embarrassed, the patients would find means to 'compensate' the doctor for his efforts. This was not just the case for the patients visiting him at home. As his wife frequently complained, the doctor used to feel shy to ask for money, even in his rural clinic in Ad-Dumair, 45 km northeast from his house. His patients were overwhelmingly poor peasants, and they often would not have enough money to pay his fees. Instead, some would bring him eggs, cheese, or milk from their small lands, and he would accept. Having to travel this hour-long daily trip in his shabby old car, and with the expenditure of his household, dr. Arteen's full financial potential was never met during his life, and his brother Krikor, in addition to his wife who comes from a relatively richer family, would always assist in the financial burden of his house. You would not miss the smell of his presence, an aromatic sweet smell of tobacco, vanilla, and a hint of chocolate and spice coming dissipating from his pipe and filling the whole cozy old apartment. When he came home, I could tell from the distinguishable clanks and bangs of his old car, his slow, deep stomping sounds of his shoes on the stares, and his heavy breathing as he reached the third floor, where my grandparents and his family used to live. If he spoke, his low-pitched deep voice cannot be mistaken, even with that of his similarly sounding brother. When his wife spoke, usually asking for something to be fixed in the house or complaining about some matter, he would not react but with a nod. Most of the times, he would make himself busy with his pipe, or raise the voice of the news on TV, pretending that there is something important being said, mostly about the American invasion of Iraq or the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Dr. Arteen was, for me, a lodestar of home, and, coming back from Saudi Arabia in the summer of 2007, the whole neighborhood felt empty for me. At his late fifties, I knew him as the youngest of our neighbors, and would never imagine him passing away.

Upon his death in 2006, floods of consolers came to the Orthodox Armenian church in Bab-Sharqi, Damascus all the way from their towns in Dara'a and Ad-Dumair to give solace to his family. Being mostly Muslims, they did not understand the Armenian death ceremony. Once the prayer was about to end, and his casket was about to be moved to his final rest place, a man in his sixties, apparently a farmer who travelled from Ad-Dumair to the funeral, said with a loud voice: "Father, excuse us, but we don't know another way to say farewells to our loved ones, can we please read 'Al-Fatiha' for his soul to rest in peace?". To the surprise of the crowd, the priest himself raised his hands and loudly read the first Surah from the Qur'an, for the whole audience to gloriously repeat 'Amen' in one sound, echoed by the walls of the old church. This was how Damascus saw Dr. Arteen to her bed. 

Graduated with a BSc. mechanical engineering from Damascus University, Syria 2020. Cofounded the first reading club in Syrian universities (Hamak’s Reading Club) and written tens of articles on various subjects in literature, science and technology. Currently works as a translator (from English to Arabic) for Ideas Beyond Borders’ Bayt Al-Hikma 2.0 initiative and translated hundreds of Wikipedia articles and some books alongside the translation team since 2019. Had only participated in school and reading clubs’ story competitions in Arabic with no published original works so far.

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