Taken wondering by the hand across Syria

A Guide for the Perplexed 1970

Before there was Lawrence of Arabia, there was Charles M. Doughty. Odd, but there it is: I stumbled over the horse before the flamboyant cart. At age twenty-five, in St. Louis, Missouri, remote from both desert and oasis, I opened a book and read:

A new voice hailed me of an old friend when, first returned from the Peninsula, I paced again in that long street of Damascus which is called Straight; and suddenly taking me wonderinq by the hand, ‘Tell me (said he), since thou art here again in the peace and assurance of Ullah, and whilst we walk, as in the former years, toward the new blossoming orchards, full of the sweet spring as the garden of God, what moved thee, or how couldst  thou take such journeys into the fanatic Arabia?

Twenty-five is a good age, still young enough to be bowled over, but aware enough to note the blow, where it came from and what further one might warily expect from that same direction. I was bowled over by the first paragraph of Travels in Arabia Deserta, but I picked myself up, dusted myself off and followed Doughty’s quirky nineteenth century prose through two volumes into “the fanatic Arabia.”

At the time I shouldn’t have been following him anywhere. I was a Jesuit trainee more properly occupied in studying medieval philosophy, a task I had been pursuing for three years, long enough, at any rate, to fall prey to almost anything that had nothing to do with that subject. Even before I encountered Mr. Doughty and his old friend in the gardens of God, I was already showing signs of slipping off my well-worn curves and  parabolas and falling into other, more exotic arms reaching out from the eastern Mediterranean. And Charles Doughty took me by the hand and led me wondering on.

I could still have resisted at that point, I suppose; temptation is not sin. Nor is it very far removed either. I am still embarrassed to confess it, but my own occasion of sin was that old tart T. E. Lawrence. No harmless little diddlings with Fitzgeraldized Persian poets; no breathtaking affairs of the heart with Rimbaud or Pierre Loti or the chaste Louis Massignon. No, my sweaty toss was with Thomas Edward Lawrence whom I encountered not in a movie disguised as Peter O’Toole, but full on, in the gorgeous pages of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. And he was catching. I contracted from him a virulent and perhaps fatal case of la maladie anqlaise, a love of remote areas chiefly characterized by their stubborn unwillingness to support any form of life except that of Bedouin and the English.

I’ve learned to endure my embarrassment, chiefly by concealing its cause. If I am now spotted—my Jesuit days are far behind me–in a coffee house in the high Lebanon or sitting in the shade of a ruined wall at Qasr al-Hayr and asked what I, an erstwhile philosopher, am doing in that remote and unlikely place, I can provide as many sweetly reasonable answers as my questioner requires. Lawrence of Arabia? Never heard of him! But how once we grappled, the rouged T.E. and I, up and down the northern Hejaz. We stormed Aqaba together, blew up that abominable Turkish railroad, rode in triumph into the same Damascus where our common mentor Charles Doughty had once strolled in the fragrant orchards. It was a shamelessly romantic and sinful ride and I loved it. Mounting an actual camel is quite another matter, however. Or so I suspect. I never got up on one.

It did not occur to me until after I returned that I had not ridden a camel. It didn’t much matter. What started out as a romance yielded, as soon as the wheels of the Air France jet touched down in Damascus, to a different reality. The romance did not entirely vanish, of course. It lingered a little the rising of the moon over the silvered city or the sun over the already shimmering steppe. But most of my dreams and my plans I left in the Damascus airport, not because I despaired of them but by reason of a new voice which, like that of Doughty’s old friend, led me in another direction

It was evening when we turned a large arc across the desert and glided over the lights of Damascus into the airport south of the city. Damascus International Airport was small and ramshackle in 1974, though there were already uncertain signs that something more elaborate was being planned or contemplated or built next to the present one-storey structure. There was a perfunctory stamp on my visa and I could not even succeed in interesting the customs official in my suitcase. He waved me through, out into the Middle Eastern night, as if I passed through those peeling iron gates every day of my life.

“Taxi, sir?” A soft musical voice next to my elbow.

A well-lit six-lane highway leads from the airport into Damascus, as it does into the capital city of every poor and undeveloped country in the world. They are Marshal Tito Roads, created for and by that Father of the Third World. When advancing age and a coup d’état forced Haile Selassie to retire as Number One Official State Visitor in the Universe, he was happily succeeded by Tito who, true democrat that he was, paid state visits—the only way to go, really– to poor and rich alike. The French and Italians had highways and could simply whistle the traffic off the road when the Marshal approached in his white and gold tunic and braid, but the Ghanaians, Guineans and Guyanans all fell to building broad Potemkinstrassen between airport and palace. Nothing like a grand and rapid entrance to impress Heads of State. And after the Marshal left, they always had a nice paved six-lane donkey track with mercury lamps.

The autobahn charade dissolved at the outskirts of Damascus city where a tangle of men, machines and animals contested the narrow streets under bare light bulbs. I rolled down the window and smelled the city in the warm night air. New York doesn’t smell, except in some cosmic and metaphysical sense much discerned by natives of Dayton and DesMoines. But Damascus and every one of its Middle Eastern sisters is invariably and pervasively redolent of spices, cooking food and wood fires. It is not a commercial or industrial stink; it is a delicious and absolutely characteristic domestic aroma. It is the smell of society.

“Meridien  Hotel,  sir.”

The smell abruptly ceased. Twenty sleek storeys of La Belle France rose heavenward out of the midst of Damascus. Not the real thing, of course –the French would never dream of exporting that– but inside the lobby a Gallic appreciation of what the Middle East should look like: opulent leather and polished brass. Traditional, yes, but chic and, happily and  inevitably, tres syrienne: the glossy hi-tech clock over the reception desk stopped dead in its digital tracks the exact moment the hotel opened. Not that it mattered. My body had already passed through seven time zones and had no need nor desire to know the precise local variant. Bed, it cried. Bed!

The wake-up call at the Hotel Meridien is recorded birdsong. I groggily said “thank you” to that anonymous, far away French bird and pulled open the drapes to look upon Damascus in the light of a new day. It was still, a few years ago, a flat city of two and three-storey buildings whose skyline was punctuated only by minarets, the tallest and most graceful rising in the center of my line of vision from the Umayyad mosque deep in the heart of the old city. Directly  below me crawled the Barada, the river that poured down the eastern slopes of the Anti-Lebanon and  whose cool waters spread out across the plain and formed the oasis that this city once was. From high across the street the famous Barada looked like little more than a sluggish, debris-filled canal. On this side of it ran the busy highway that linked Damascus with Beirut across the mountains; across the river were the graceful domes of an Ottoman caravanserai and the gardens and main building of the National Museum.

September is still summer in Syria and I was not quite prepared for that single shocking step from the air-conditioned hotel onto the already hot street. Nor for the machine guns that appeared everywhere, some in uniformed arms and others tucked carelessly under elbows inside polyester shirts, sweatsuit jackets, woolen sweaters. Clothes do not make the man in Syria. The steps of uniform gradation between full parade dress and California casual proceeded through infinite degrees of variety and probably meant nothing. It was who was inside that counted and that I could never know or even guess. But one thing I knew immediately: no one of those gunslingers was a civilian. Each had a quite specific purpose. They were alI guarding something, though the identity of that something was as mysterious as that of the guardian himself. It was only the gun that was visible.

I walked down to the Barada and the highway. I was clearly the only foreigner on those crowded sidewalks and yet I seemed to provoke no attention whatsoever. No stares, no proposed commercial transactions, light or shady. I tried my first two phrases of Arabic which I had carefully rehearsed over breakfast in the hotel. “Excuse me. The Museum?” A Syrian gentleman smiled at what I imagined was the perfection of my diction, but instead of answering, he wisely pointed across the river at the building I had already identified from my window. And he gave no instruction on how you got across the highway. That I figured out myself: you dodged through the speeding cars, just as one did in my native city.

Among the treasures of the Damascus Museum is one rare jewel of great perfection, the wall paintings from the third century synagogue which the French unearthed miraculously intact at Dura-Europos in the Twenties. Dura was far away on the Euphrates, a totally ruined city in the wastes, so the French and American archeologists working there simply peeled frescoed slabs off the high synagogue walls and brought them to Damascus where they installed them in a room that was an exact replica of the original synagogue.

I now stood in the middle of that room and caught my breath with astonishment. I was not a novice to wonders inside or outside  of  museums, but now I was stunned, pole-axed by the wonder of this marvelous wall from which Moses and Aaron and Elijah and Daniel stared out at me with unblinking assurance. The third century was not a good time in either the Roman or the Iranian world, at whose mutual borders Dura stood, but these heroes suffered none of the angst of Late Antiquity. They belonged to another, more sublimely certain tradition. God’s hand rested upon them from just the other side of the wall.

“Perfect, ja?”

The voice behind me came from a large and very blond young man. I thought I was alone and it was in part the solitude that had permitted the wonder to pour spontaneously out of me. I resented his being there, his sharing this with me unbidden, but he stood off and behind and he was looking not at me but intently at the wall that towered in front of both of us.

“Yes, quite perfect.”

We stood there in silence and another man entered, a Syrian. He had been standing with some others near the entrance when I had come in.

“Speak French’? Deutsch? Inglis?”

Neither the blond man nor I said a word.

“This is a very famous room,” he continued in English, probably his strongest foreign suit. He was obviously some kind of unofficial guide who latched onto those rare foreigners who visited the museum. He launched into a very imperfectly canned speech describing the scene before us. His audience of two kept its silence. “And that is Moses…”

“No, that is not Moses. That is Ezekiel.” This in Arabic from the tall blond visitor.

“No, Moses.” In English from the guide. “There. That one up there.” He took a book of matches from his suit pocket, and leaning one hand on the wall, with the other he threw the matchbook up at one of the  higher figures he had construed as Moses.

The young man was upon him in one long stride. He seized the terrified dragoman by the lapels and drew his dark face up to his own.

“My God, man,” he shouted in English, “do you know what you are doing? These paintings are the national treasure of your country and you put your filthy hands on them.”

The Syrian was mute with fear. He had indeed put his filthy hands on those paintings, just as his father and his grandfather had before him in their witlessly helpful way of showing visitors who was Moses and who Ezekiel.

“These people are like savages. They don’t know. They don’t care,” the young man groaned.

“They don’t know maybe, but I think they do care,” I offered very carefully.

He released the guide, who fled on the instant, perhaps to Aleppo, and sat down wearily under the stern portrait of Moses bearing the burden of the Law.

“Yes, sometimes they care. But so much is gone. Gone. You are  an  American?”

“Yes.” I offered him my hand.

“I am Heinz Kessler.”

We went out into the courtyard to smoke. He was an archeologist, he said, and a historian, I discovered, and a linguist and everything else you might not expect a man of thirty-one to be. He was on the final year of a four-year Federal German Fellowship, most of it spent in Iran and then in Lebanon.

And I?

He sat looking at me intensely with blue eyes framed in rimless glasses.

“I teach at a university in New York. I’m here on a sabbatical.”

“To do what?”

Didn’t he understand a sabbatical, that you didn’t have to do anything? No, that was not it. What he failed to understand, existentially, was the concept of doing nothing.

“Nothing.”

He never blinked.

“You see these things here,” pointing to the black stone figures and reliefs scattered through the garden, “Do you know where they’re from?”

“No ” I said. “They’re very odd looking. What are they made of?”

“Basalt. Lava. It’s so hard that it’s almost impossible to work. Look.” He rose and went over to one of the statues, a winged goddess about two-thirds life size. “Look what the Romans did with it. They sculpted the damn stuff. And they built houses and temples from it, as smooth and polished as limestone.”

I ran my finger along the folds of the lady’s drapery. The edge was true and sharp.

“Where are they from?”

“They’re all from the Hawran. Southern Syria. All black lava and golden wheat. It’s the most beautiful landscape in the Middle East.” He lit another cigarette, still staring at the Tyche from the Hawran. He turned abruptly and looked at me. “I tell you something, my friend. You are, you will excuse me, a dumb lucky shit. You have nothing to do and you come to Syria, where nobody comes. Why?”

“Instinct.” How could I possibly tell him the truth?

“Then you have very good instincts. This country is…extraordinary.”

From the sound and tone of it, it was not a word he used very often.

“Why?”

“It’s a perfect museum. Perfect. No Roman province can touch it. Temples, theatres, baths, even private houses. Whole cities. Roman cities. Christian cities. Islamic cities. The mosque in Damascus is the greatest space in Islam. Better than Isfahan. The bazaar in Aleppo is a wonder, a medieval suq. Perfect. Stay here. Don’t travel. Just stay here and study this country.”

“But you’re an archeologist. I’m not.”

“It’s not only archeology.” Something more difficult was coming, I could tell. “I love the people here. It is not easy for a foreigner in any country, true? But it is almost easy here. The Syrians are polite like the English, but friendly like the Americans. Excuse me, some Americans. And they are straight. None of the Iranian Scheisse, and they are not Levantines like the Lebanese and the Israelis. They say yes, they mean yes; they say no, they mean no.”

“Syria sounds like it was wasted on the French when they had it.”

Kessler threw back his head and roared. “God yes. Do you know the League of Nations wanted to give it to the United States after the First World War?”

“Didn’t anyone suggest giving it to the Germans?”

“No, my professor friend; we got something else to keep us occupied. The Versailles Treaty.”

He sat smiling over this new idea, Syria as a German instead of a French colony in the Twenties and Thirties.

“Do you want to go to the Hawran?”

I couldn’t tell if he had been thinking about it or if it just burst forth.

“Of course. I will, I’m sure.”

“No. I mean now.”

“When?”

“Now. Right away.”

“How?”

“I drive you, man. How do you think?”

He rose. “Where are you staying?”

“At the Meridien.”

Ach. OK, you can pay for the petrol. I pick you up there in one hour.”

“How long will we stay?”

“Two days, three days. Why knows if you are good company.”

“You’d better be, Heinz. I have no car to leave in.”

Kessler was there in an hour, as he said, in a light blue Volkswagen. I put my bag on the back seat next to his, climbed in beside him and we began our slow struggle southward out of the exploding suburbs of Damascus.

The Syrians were building apartment houses around their capital at a brisk clip, but they had neither the time nor the inclination to provide them with conveniences like sidewalks, lobbies or light bulbs in the corridors. Everything was raw and unfinished, and it would never be otherwise, I learned. The Syrians cared not. They lived in the lavishly furnished interiors, not in the halls without fixtures or the lobbies without plaster. Home began, as it always had among Muslims, behind the private door.

The buildings thinned out, some orchards suddenly appeared and just as suddenly disappeared, the poor remnants of the fragrant gardens where Doughty had strolled a century earlier. The Ghouta, the miraculously green oasis that had been there at the foot of the Anti-Lebanon for as long as history remembered, was now all but overwhelmed by the very city it had itself created.

The steppe rose up to greet us just beyond the last sad orchard. In the past prodigious caravans had passed the way we were now travelling on their slow overland voyage to the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina, but now the southern approaches to Damascus were gouged raw with gun and tank emplacements and covered with concrete shelters for the new treasures of this old city, MiG 23s and SAM missiles. A somber army of machines stood guard over the Qalb al-‘Arab, the “heart of the Arabs,”  and some of those precious metals were already the ruins of the new age: burned or broken down tanks and heavy trucks littered the parched and tumultuous landscape.

I turned and looked at Kessler beside me. He was intent on the road south and his own thoughts and seemed to pay no attention to the military hardware all around us. His Germany must have been very different from the country of my childish recollections, I thought. And we were very different. He was the German scholar to the core, intensely and energetically serious about himself and his work. He studied the past but did not live in it; he allowed himself to be distracted into equally serious discussions of Brecht and Christian Socialism. I, the  modern  American, romanticized  the  past, savored it, and never went to the theatre or thought about politics.

The guns and other engines of war were left behind. There was now only the steppe and here and there strange, conical blue-grey shapes rising up in the distance. We were entering the lava lands. Hundreds of thousands of years ago all of southern Syria had erupted. Volcanic snouts had pushed their way up through the earth and spread lava and ash over hundreds of square miles. The lava had disintegrated mildly into the richest soil in the Middle East, but between those red fields the surface of the land was still encumbered with stretches and clumps of unyielding grey basalt, placed there in some terrestrial imitation of a moonscape. And the volcanoes themselves still stood somber guard over the work of their hearts. In their midst, still only a shadowy outline, towered the Jebel Druze, the father of that volcanic tribe.

“Look. Over there. The Leja.”

The Leja was the freshest and the roughest of the spiny tongues of lava that the Jebel Druze had cast northward to within thirty miles of Damascus. It is a triangular plateau, seven or eight feet high at its edges, impassable to all save the Romans who in defiance of nature and the caravan pirates who huddled in its caves and hollows, had cast a paved road across its full length, north to south. On our right, at the apex of the triangle pointing toward Damascus, was Mismiya, our first stop.

Kessler drove directly into the village and came to a stop at  the  birkeh,  the Roman  cistern  that now collected brackish rainwater but once gave those villages their only drink for man and animals.

“The Roman remains are always around the birkeh,” Kessler explained as he collected his camera and notebook.

“The Romans built the birkeh for their water supply and they built their houses around it. Common sense, ja?”

The modern paragon of common sense leaped out of the car on his side and I followed quickly, though not quite so agilely, from mine. This was going to be interesting or else kill me before sunset. My German guide had spent the last four years in the Middle East leaping over ruins like some  enormous Alpine goat while I sat slouched behind a desk in New York and read undergraduate exams and M.A. theses.

“The Romans couldn’t dig wells through the basalt mantle under this topsoil and there aren’t many springs. So they had to collect rainwater. The Syrians can now bore through the lava so nobody except goats drinks this pisswater any more.”

No, it did not look appetizing, that green liquid in the birkeh.

The children who had collected around the car when it stopped were beginning to have second thoughts about the large blond foreigner. The children were always the first to approach the newcomers; their elders hung back, awaiting the outcome of these first encounters between foreigners and their own bolder and more dispensable children. There was none in this case. Kessler strode through their midst like some operatic Moses and the children of Ishmael parted in silence before him. He bore unerringly down on his target. There before us was a well preserved Roman private house of the second century, stone upon perfect stone, innocent of mortar or timber. On the stone lintel a delicate relief of vines and rosettes trailed right and left and descended gracefully down the jambs. The cheerful Syrian family that lived within appeared under their eternally flowering stone canopy.

Ahlayn. Welcome. Please come in.”

“Thank you.”

They tried to show us into the side room, a modern addition that was now their living quarters, but the fine Roman arch, pilasters and ceiling were in the large central core room, where a bemused cow now stood knee-deep in filthy fodder. Kessler produced a flashlight and exposed the upper corners of the high room. There under the soot and grime of centuries acanthus leaves still curved sinuously up to the ceiling. The family stood quietly but impatiently at our side. They had no reason to think that we had come to see them, like visitors from another planet, but even that was more plausible than that we had arrived to inspect their stable.

“Welcome. Please come in and have some tea with us.”

“A thousand thanks,” Kessler said, beaming a brief, healing smile on our putative host and hostess. “Another time, inshallah.” If God wills.

It somehow seemed bad form to mention food to Kessler. I avoided the greater shame of asking him to pull off to the side of the road so I could relieve myself, but my stomach was a more urgent organ than my severely dehydrated bladder and so the struggle between appetite and suffering his Germanic disdain was far more painful.

“OK, professor, we eat.”

Finally. Next time, I thought, I would fill my pockets with peanut butter in Damascus and just shove a gob of it into my mouth every hour or so under the guise of sucking my thumb or biting my fingernails.

We parked in a paved open area before some Roman buildings and Kessler took two small cardboard cartons and a gas burner from the trunk. Two or three desultory children had already collected to observe the Venusians perform their exotic rituals.

“You there, boy, fetch us some water.”

The startled child took the teapot and raced off to what I could only hope was not a sewer. The cartons had “Bundeswehr” printed on them and stamped over that was “Embassy of the Federal German Republic.” Kessler explained that every embassy had a store of army field rations for emergencies, and that when they replaced them from time to time, they gave away the unused supplies to worthy causes like archeologists.

“And they last forever.”

God, I hoped so.

What the German army ate on field maneuvers, I discovered in the next half hour, was a delicious pea soup and cold sausages. Or would I prefer he heat the beef and gravy or the Westphalian ham for an entree? The gravy was particularly tasty when mopped up with the bauernbrot and the coffee too was excellent. I could only speculate on what the French army had in its unassuming cartons. Or, God help us, the Italians.

We sat eating before the outer walls of two very large buildings which shared a single interior wall. One of them originally had a lofty columned court before it –the columns still stood  solemn and intact– and behind the court was the facade of the temple enclosure itself. It was a Roman temple, grandiose yet oddly rustic since the courtyard was now filled with shade trees. There was no stepped podium; you simply passed across the paved courtyard and through the facade into the enclosure behind.

If you could get past that extraordinary facade. The Roman buildings I had so far seen were not altogether atypical, and their sober lines would have passed unnoticed and unremarked in Nimes or Verona. But this was quite different. The proportions were classical, but running around the main portal was a frame so baroque that it smelled already of the Rome of Sixtus V rather than of Trajan or Hadrian. A profuse trailing of vines, grapes and leafy tendrils was barely contained by inner and outer ribbons of eternally repeating geometric designs and they in turn were framed within a deeply carved border of an egg and dart pattern.

“The pity is,” Kessler said, “that nobody studies Roman provincial art. There is a special kind of decoration that you find nowhere but in Roman Syria. These artists were Syrians working inside the Roman tradition who obviously could not contain or entirely suppress their native and traditional artistic sensibilities, which were not Roman at all.” Kessler ran his hand admiringly over the vines. “The wealth of this mountain was its vineyards and there are dozens of temples on its slopes, Nabatean and Roman, covered with this same grapevine motif.”

We went inside the roofless temple enclosure at last.

Something had been done to both these buildings, as even I could see. Some subtle but unmistakable disarrangement.

“The Christians made them into churches in the fourth or fifth century. The trouble was, both these temples were oriented north-south and churches had to be oriented on an east-west axis. So the Christians knocked out part of the east wall over there and put in a apse and an altar. Then they bricked up the temple apses on the south side. The interior columns are a little crazy, but I don’t suppose God minded as long as everybody was now facing east.”

Behind the Christian east apse, but on a lower level, was an attached roofless room in which were three magnificent stone sarcophagi.

“Bishops.”

Very Syrian bishops. Around their final resting place ran another gorgeous frieze of grapevines in deep relief, this time redeemed by an occasional small cross worked like an afterthought into that leafy riot.

We wandered on –I wandered; Kessler marched—in and out of villages up and down narrow lanes and twisting alleys. We were followed, as we were everywhere, by a noisy tail of small boys who, as soon as they figured out what we were about, took to helpfully shouting “Athâr, athâr!”, “Ruins!” at every turn and excitedly pointed out even the newest of structures as “very old.”

As they grew bolder the children even undertook some extremely modest English conversation on the order of “What time is it?”, which I must assume is the opening phrase in the English primer in use in every Syrian school. And behind their piping sopranos was a deeper chorus of “Welcome to our home. Please come in. Welcome,” from their elders and parents standing curiously and hopefully in the doorways of their houses. Kessler ignored both the instructions and the invitations.

“Heinz, stop. Let’s go in here and visit with this family.”

Kessler turned, more from curiosity than impatience, I suspect.

“Never mind. Let’s just go in.”

He shrugged and we smiled and nodded and entered the dark stone house.  We had passed this same way a few minutes earlier. I had noticed the woman on her doorstep and, slightly behind her, a man I assumed was her husband. She had smiled and offered hospitality. By the time we came back up that same street the woman had changed her dress and now stood smiling even more broadly in what had to be her best clothes. If she was willing to go to those pains, surely it was worth a cup of tea.

We removed our shoes and took our places on bright pillows set down carefully on the matted floor. This was the receiving room, swept clean and decorated with whatever extravagant trophies of good taste or acquisition the family possessed. Every Syrian house, no matter how mean,  had just such a room. There were peculiar things here, however, vases and ashtrays and china cups and seaside vistas of a somewhat different provenance and taste than I had noticed elsewhere.

And the protocol was completely different. In every other home it was the man of the house who sat down with his guests, flanked by other male friends and relations magnetized by the extraordinary event. Not in this house: it was the lady herself who took up a place opposite her guests and said in a strong, clear and assured voice “Ahlayn“. Her husband sat off to the side, his hand resting sadly in the lap of an older woman who was, as it turned out, his mother.

Our hostess moved quickly from Arabic to French, which her husband understood not at all, and it was in that language which we learned her personal history. She was Lebanese, attractive, intelligent and fairly well educated. She was courted in Beirut, then brought to be married and live in Qanawat, which was not really like Beirut at all, was it? What her husband did or thought or opined was never revealed. He sat silently and sadly in the security of his mother’s side, while his wife poured forth the news, gossip and conversation she could never have in this house or this village.

Tea was brought and our hostess poured with all the grace and charm of her lost Lebanon. Cigarettes were placed before us. I declined but offered one of my own to her husband. He accepted with a quick smile and played his first and perhaps his only trump card. He pointed to a small child standing behind him: this was his son. Kessler and I both  remarked, almost in the same breath, how remarkably the child favored his father. Grandma got up and offered us chocolates.

It was the same in every house, in every village: an  invitation to come in and visit, to drink a pleasant cup of tea, to sit a spell and talk, of families and children, of the great unknown world outside that house and that village. Kessler always turned it graciously aside. I asked him why.

“If we sit and have tea, we see nothing.”

Well, not quite nothing. Once he unaccountably accepted the invitation to hospitality. I looked at him. “Shaykh,” he explained in one illuminating syllable. The shaykh looked in fact little different from some of the other fairly  prosperous villagers who had pleaded and tugged at us to enter their homes, but Kessler knew the difference, whether it was the quiet authority of the man’s bearing or the subtly distinct way he was treated by the others.

We climbed to the shaykh’s rooftop. It was near the end of the day and the descending sun was turning the cruel shapes of the Leja a dark golden color. We sat down on cushions and “sniffed the air,” as the Arabs said. It was delicious. A freshness returned to that devastated lava landscape, and as we took our ease, five or six horses, free at last of bridle and the labors of a long day, galloped up and down the darkening ravines for the sheer joy of their release.

A young son of the house came up bearing  a thermos of coffee and three tiny china cups on a tray. We were offered a few drops of the bitter brown brew for our refreshment and then cigarettes from newly opened packs. As we smoked, tea was being brewed in the house below.

The head of this village was an elderly man who had stored up his memories. He asked whence we had come to that place.

My “from America” excited neither his curiosity nor his interest, but when he learned that Kessler was German, something fell into place in the network of his recollections.

“It was not so good when the Germans were here.”

When the Germans were there? 1941, I supposed. Kessler smoked in silence.

“The French were better. But the Turks were the worst. By far, God knows.”

It may have been as he said. Or as his father had said to him.

“And the Jews, O American Doctor, what do they wish?”

I could not penetrate the question; it was not asked in Damascus. The shaykh’s son shifted slightly on his pillow to hear my answer. He too had a network of recollection, fresher certainly, and perhaps more urgent. Were the young men of this village manning the guns outside of Damascus? The Golan Heights were barely thirty miles distant to the west, but there were never any soldiers in these villages, no police. Here we were, or seemed to be, in a different country.

“The lsraelis wish to live in their own land in Filistin, across the Jordan.”

It seemed to satisfy the shaykh. He nodded but said no word. I did not turn to look at his son.

The conversation drifted on, with no point save itself. We had drunk three cups of tea before Kessler arose.

Parting may indeed be sweet sorrow, but in Syria it is also well nigh impossible. The visitor–no, there is no such thing–the guest is aware that as soon as he sets dust covered boot across the lintel an enormous meal begins to be prepared somewhere in the house. I once took shelter from a rain of Intifada bullets in a random doorway in Nablus and within fifteen minutes I was sitting down to a full meal there. To leave before it is served and consumed is such atrociously bad manners that only a fool or a knave would assay it. Heinz Kessler was neither, but he did have an iron Teutonic will and a “program” that brooked no modification.

“A thousand thanks, O shaykh, but we must be in Sham before the night.”

I watched and wondered at the ensuing wrestling match, Der Mann vs. al-Shaykh. Der Mann won, of course, in the end. The slain lamb would have to become delicatessen.

“Ach,” he said on the street. There was relief in the word but also admiration for a worthy social adversary. “The shaykh does not give up so easily. And you,” he smiled, “Did you have a good day?”

I had had, in fact, one of the best days in my life.

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