The spy who ran in from the cold

“Don’t hurt me! I’ll tell you everything!” 1975

The chief result of my earlier Israeli visit was that I was filled to the scuppers not only with cream cheese and pickles but with the history of the Yom Kippur War, the valor of the Israel Defense Forces and the glorious achievements of Israeli archaeology. I had learned nothing, however, about the Banu Ghassan in the Israeli-occupied Golan, probably because those unreliable Bedouin troopers had never come that far west and into what was still, in the sixth century, a very Jewish area. The Ghassanid past obviously lay on the other, Syrian side of the demilitarized zone, in the Jawlan.

Getting into the military zone of the Jawlan was not entirely out of the question. Though the military ruled the Jawlan, to keep up the fiction of normalcy the Syrians paid some nominal lip service to a civil government of the area, what they called the Qunaytra Governorate. Neither the governor nor his staff, which in Syria often amounted to the guy who brought coffee, sat in ruined Qunaytra of course. Rather, they were to be found in Damascus in the modestly furnished but grandly described office of the “Governorate General of Qunaytra and the Jawlan.” The governor’s duties were as modest as his quarters: he issued grudging civilian permits to enter and exit the Jawlan on the dates specified.

The Foreign Ministry regularly took busloads of people down to Qunaytra. These were mostly foreign officials and dignitaries who were driven in and driven straight out after they had been shown the destruction wrought by the departing Israeli barbarians and invited to shudder at the Hebrew blasphemies scrawled on the walls, one of which must have said, I’m sure, “Kadish that shit!” Or perhaps the visitors might enjoy the East Berlin or North Korea experience of standing on a parapet and peering through binoculars at the Israeli farmers plowing their fields on the other side of the Kosher Curtain.

That’s not what I had in mind, however. I didn’t want to do political sightseeing in Qunaytra; on my next trip to Syria I wanted to roam the Jawlan, look into the villages, check out the archeological sites, maybe even find al-Jabiya. As an American I would never get that clearance on my own, but maybe, with a little help… The help, as it always was in Syria, was provided by Kassem Tayyibi, a deputy director in the Department of Antiquities and my mentor and guide on all things Syrian; and, in addition, as a kind of beard for my titillating affair in the Jawlan, Heinz Kessler, a German archeologist and an old pal with lots of real dig creds in the Syrian Arab Republic.

They agreed. It had been years since Kassem had been to the Jawlan, and the Hawran-smitten Kessler had never set foot in the area and was eager to have a look. But first, the permit. Kassem made an appointment, and on the appointed day we found the Qunaytra Governorate office in Damascus tucked away in the Ministry of Agriculture. The scene was more than familiar. Regardless of country or rank, every Middle East functionary plays his part in a stage setting designed in the Late Neolithic and where the scene unfolds in the unchanging fashion of a Kabuki performance. The protagonist sits at the far end of a rectangular room, either behind a desk with an empty chair beside it (low functionary) or (high functionary) in a damask upholstered armchair with another opposite. Along each of the long sides of the room are straight-backed chairs on which petitioners and underlings are uneasily perched. There are always petitioners, even if they have to be hired, as was possibly the case in the audience hall of the otiose Governorate of Qunaytra.

We entered and all eyes turned on us. It was immediately apparent that no actual business was being transacted. We made as if to take seats near the door at the far end of the petitioners’ row, but the governor would have none of it. We would obviously be far more entertaining—Was that man wearing real American jeans?– than the whiners and groaners beside us. He impatiently signaled us to jump to the head of the line. Kassem of course took the lead. He had long since perfected the Petitioner’s Walk. As he trod slowly and diffidently toward the governor’s desk, his walk morphed effortlessly into a shuffle, his head bowed by small degrees and his shoulders sunk; he in fact became smaller at each step. By the time the new petitioner took his seat beside the desk, he was a mere inconsequential shadow of himself, a perfect petitioner.

Kessler and I could never hope to emulate this stunning tour de force so we stood off to the side as unobtrusively as possible. Kassem, now almost invisible inside his cloak of humility, unfolded our harmless petition. Just a glimpse of the Jawlan, don’t you see, Your Excellency, for the two very professional and eminent academics, who are quite harmless, like all of their kind, if I may, Your Honor. His Honor wanted more. The days were long at the Governorate and the entertainment sparse. Every functionary’s desk in Syria had two essential pieces of equipment, a telephone or two that did not work —higher functionaries had their non-working phones on tables next to their chair, and one of them was red— and, under the lip of the desk, a coffee buzzer that did work. Four imperative touches. Coffee all round.

From somewhere down the hall the governor’s “staff” entered with four cups of Turkey’s best —Kenya’s, actually— and four glasses of water on a copper tray. Two more chairs were drawn up to the desk and we settled in for a carefully tailored story of how these two extremely eminent professors had come from overseas, Your Worship, for the sole purpose of admiring the famous antiquities within the Governorate. They had, moreover, not a political bone in their bodies and were chiefly known in their homelands for their love of Syria and the Syrian people. I dared not look at Kessler; I just sat there and tried to look both innocent and loving.

Eventually even His Worship had enough. Now all smiles, he took a form from his desk drawer, filled in the requested dates and signed and stamped it. We were cleared for takeoff! But Kassem, that sly fellow, had one further trick up his Syrian sleeve.

“Is that your phone buzzing, Your Lordship?”

It took the Governor an instant to process this, but then he smiled and picked up the dead phone. He listened intently for a moment and then hung up.

“Just the Foreign Minister,” he said in a voice that carried to the far end of the room. “Allow me the honor of showing you out before I return his call”

A week later Heinz Kessler turned his Volkswagen right off the Damascus highway at Shaykh Maskin and we entered the Jawlan. There was a sign warning that this was a prohibited military zone, but there was no checkpoint and so we drove straight on to the town called Nawa.

Every Middle Eastern archeologist knew about Nawa and perhaps had seen some old photos, but very few had visited it. It had the most remarkable Jewish remains of an ancient Golan or Jawlan site. Before the 1973 armistice stopped them in their tracks, the Israeli advance troops were probably headed not toward Damascus but to Nawa, led by Captain Eliash in a tow truck with a hoist strong enough to lift lintels, ex situ, so to speak.

Whatever its past prosperity, and it looked like it must once have been a prosperous place, Nawa was now almost deserted. But the streets were wide and its stone houses were well and carefully wrought and were —Good Lord!— decorated. There before us was a beautiful three room structure —a mansion by ancient standards— and on the lintel of its main entry was a menorah whose graceful contours looked as sharp and as fresh as if had been carved yesterday.

“And look at this!” Kessler shouted. “There are still traces of color in the folds.”

“There’s an inscription in here,” Kassem called from inside the main hall.
We went into the darkened room. There was no flashlight but between us we had enough matches to set the entire Jawlan in flames.

“It’s Hebrew,” Kessler announced in the flickering light.

“Can you read it?”

“No, not in this light.”

Not in any light. Kessler knew Arabic, Persian and a bit of Turkish, but neither he nor I nor Kassem Tayyibi had much Hebrew beyond “Shalom.”

“What are you doing here?”

This in Arabic from behind us. There were two young men in uniform silhouetted in the doorway.

“Come out here in the light.”

We did as they said. They were both in their twenties, without rank or insignia on their uniforms but with pistols strapped to their waists. The army jeep in which they had arrived stood nearby.


We handed over our passports and Kassem gave them the Governorate permit. One of the two looked through the passports and the other stared as us in silence. We said nothing. We had no idea what to say.

“You, the American and the German, into the jeep. You, Tayyibi, I keep your papers. You follow us in the car.”

So ended our survey of Nawa. We were handed back our passports and driven to Jasim, the next town, and Kessler and I were led through a kind of compound to a single room building with a wooden table and a couple of chairs. We two sat at the table and the silent soldier, if that’s what he was, sat facing us by the doorway. Kassem was taken to another building nearby. We could hear him talking to someone.

“What’s going on?” Kessler asked our warden in Arabic.


“The Ghassanids were here,” Kessler said after a while. “So some of the Arab sources say.”

“Could this be Jabiya?”

Kessler shrugged. He didn’t much trust literary sources. The voices from the other building were now louder. The loudest was Kassem’s.

“He’s on the phone to Damascus,” Kessler explained, “trying to get our permit confirmed. We may be here a while.”

I didn’t want to be there at all. The talking stopped in the other room. Kessler had put his head down on his arms on the tabletop and was slowly drifting off in the warming room; our guard sat and stared at us in silence. My anxiety level began to rise uncomfortably.

Who says there is no God? They just don’t understand how God works.

“I have to go to the bathroom.”

That’s a translation. My Arabic to the guard was much more graphic, leaving no doubt in his mind that it was not just a matter of peeing out the window.

He paused and stared at me and then studied the now soundly sleeping Kessler. Whatever arcane manual our guard had trained on, it had not prepared him for a prisoner asking for a bathroom pass.

He motioned me outside and pointed to a small building across the court. I walked toward it quite carefully, even prayerfully, the guard close behind me. It was a bathroom all right, a terrible smelling cubicle with a hole in the ground. The facility is called “Turkish” in most of the Arab world, in part, I suspect, to slander their former overlords, the Ottomans, but also to mask the Arabs own guilt at having themselves contrived such a foul thing.

Not to dwell on the matter, but my fear must have made slack every centimeter of the alimentary canals between my throat and the last exit from the intestinal highway. What followed was an intense personal experience, cathartic or, better, what the Muslims mystics called, in a somewhat different context, faná, the emptying of self. It was only with great difficulty that I saved my eyeballs and tongue from being sucked down into that terrible, wonderful maelstrom.

OK. Better now. Head cleared. I looked around me in the dark. What was I thinking? Of course there was no paper; no toilet paper of course —the nearest toilet paper was likely in the luxury suites in the St. George Hotel in Beirut— no old newspapers, no, ugh, rags, no leaves. The cigarettes I had left in the room. The only paper was there in my pocket, my passport. Might I tear out an empty page or two? Would the Syrians notice it and draw some terrible conclusion? Would I not be allowed back in the U.S. with a mutilated passport? Would I have to spend the rest of my life in Canada? No, not my passport. There was only the dirt of the floor…

I’m not going to finish that story. Instead, allow me to recount a somewhat more pleasant history of a similar event. I was at a professional conference in Damascus, seated in an auditorium listening to the most deadly boring paper I have ever heard in my entire academic life. The speaker was a Moroccan who was speaking in French on —God spare us!— crop yields and literacy in nineteenth century Mauritania. And I had a copy of his paper on my lap, the better to trace the bizarre wanderings of his dérangement.

Then it hit. For the Oriental traveler the bowels are a matter of grave concern, physiological, social and theological. Women have, alas, an additional bladder issue: men can pee into a potted palm; the ladies require a degree of privacy that is not always easy to come by. But the bowel knows no gender distinction; it spares no one in its need for speedy, even urgent attention, and often in difficult public conditions.

Pardon, min fadlak, Entschuldigen…” I was out of the auditorium in a shot and into the WC scant seconds before the great enteric demon pressed the “Start” button on his infernal machine.

“Whoa!” I thought. “Close one!”

And–why am I still surprised?— no toilet paper anywhere near this Turkish contrivance, here the upscale version, porcelain lined. But hold! There in my jacket pocket was crammed the original cause of my discomfort, my reading copy of the twelve-page paper of my Moroccan tormentor. Excellent. I tore off the first page, read a paragraph of two to refresh my memory and then applied it. Merci, cher collègue. Another page, another paragraph of pristine nonsense, another application. And so on well into the heart of his argument regarding la Mauritanie de dix-neuvième. I got back to the auditorium just in time to join enthusiastically in the applause for the speaker. And, yes, I’m sorry to confess that I went up to him later and thanked him personally for his “étude très, très utile.”

It was the memory of that Moroccan’s paper that put a smile on my face, a spring in my step as I emerged from my Turkish pesthole. “Allons-y, ustaz” I said to my captor with a smart little tap on his arm as we set out back across the courtyard.

Kassem was back in the room when I got there. Kessler was awake and stretching. Both guards had disappeared.

“It’s OK,” Kassem said. “I got through to Damascus. But we’ve got to get out of here. They’re just kids. Security police. We make them nervous, and when they get nervous, they make me very nervous. Got your passports? OK, let’s go.”

And we did. Back through Nawa without so much as turning our heads and then headlong to the Damascus highway.

“Interesting,” Kessler said at last.

“Scary,” I offered.

“Umm,” Kassem said. He probably knew far better than we just how interesting and scary our little expedition into the Jawlan really was.

We turned onto the Damascus highway. I thought it might be a good idea to turn the page as well.

“Either of you guys ever been to Mauritania?”

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