German lessons on the Syrian Steppe

The Feast of St. Joseph 1975

“Angelica. Angelica Henlein,” Kessler shouted over the phone.

I was standing at a public phone in the Beirut airport. I was astonished that the phone worked, that I had the right Lebanese coins, and even more astonished that when I dialed my old friend and guide Heinz Kessler in Beirut, he simply picked up the phone and said “Allo. Kessler hier.”

“What are you doing in Beirut?”

“I’m between planes, Heinz. I’m going over to Damascus to work on some town planning.”

Silence. He knew with great Germanic certitude that I knew very little about town planning. And he knew with equal certitude that I knew that he knew.

Ya…” That said it all. “Go to the French Institute in Damascus. Ask for Angelica. She will kelp you.”

“Does she know anything about the town planning?”

Ach,” he groaned. Kessler’s enthusiasms knew no bounds, but his patience was severely limited. I ran to catch my plane.

Sometime about 6 A.M. the next morning I was standing as if paralyzed in the hall of the second floor of the French Institute in Damascus looking dumbly for the bathroom when she suddenly came out of the kitchen. She was wearing a lime green nightgown that reached down to her bare white feet, and down around her ivory face cascaded extravagantly long, extravagantly red hair. It was as if someone had carried a flaming torch into the dark hallway. She was, exactly, flamboyante.

Fraulein Henlein?”

Ja,” she answered doubtfully, unsure not about her own identity but of mine. I introduced myself and we shook hands vigorously in the European manner. Her eyes were the same color as the nightgown.

“I never heard from you.”

“I never called.”

She smiled at her own English. “I never heard of you.”

A Teutonic self-correction, underlined.

“That is most peculiar. I am a famous professor,” I said.

She continued to smile, uncertain what precise tack to take with this new creature.

Ja sure. An American.” The “u” of her “sure” was a phonetic wonder, the longest vowel sound ever emitted on the planet. “Do you want something to eat? I make tea now. I go to the store and get bread. You get dressed.”


She shot me a look and marched out through the hallway and down the stairs, apparently bent on walking the streets of Damascus in her lime green nightgown. I was left to ponder the fact that I was
dressed, that I had in fact slept in my clothes. Why was she dressed for the street in her nightgown and I undressed in my street clothes? The mysterious East?

She was soon back –the bread store was next door–and meanwhile I had managed to wash my face and brush the airplane interior out of my mouth. She came out of the kitchen with tea, bread, cheese and sausage on a tin tray.

We sat across from each other at a large brass coffee table in the hall Iounge.

“Kessler sent me.” Not exactly true, I thought, but close enough. “He said you would help me.”

“With what? What is your program?”

“My what?”

“Your program.”

No one had ever asked me that before, but I heard it often enough in the next couple of days to fix my resolution never to return to the Near East without a “program.” I now have “programs” of majestic and inconsequential magnitude, highly articulated and thoroughly impractical plans of action. Recently people, and even an occasional German, have been heard to comment favorably on my “programs.” “Ya, sehr detaillert,” they smack approvingly.

“I don’t know. I just thought I would look around.”

Somehow it did not seem like a very good idea to spring my thoughts regarding urbanism on her at this point. “What are you doing, fraulein?”

Die osmanlische Stadt.” The Ottoman City. Did she know anything about town planning!

“Ah, sehr programmatisch.” I was catching on. The sausage was in her mouth, forbidding retort, but I could read it in her green eyes. “Ja, sure.”

We had come to a tacit understanding. She was a self-confessed, only half-unwilling parody of a German; I was a self-confessed, only half-unwilling parody of an American. Ms. Too Tight. and Mr. Too Loose. There was only one hanging thread.

“Are you really a professor?”

“Yes. And famous.” Maliciously I handed her my card. “Do you have your degree?”

Nein. Candidat. Architektur.”

So. Eine student,” I smiled. Humiliated, yes, but she wasn’t prepared to go quite that low.

“OK, Famous Professor, today you go with me around Damascus. We look. You get dressed.”

I changed my clothes to humor her and at 7 A.M. we set out to do Damascus à la Teutone. I was once again going to be tested, I knew. Angelica Henlein was as tall as I was but her stride was dramatically longer. In my innocence I thought we might take a taxi downtown and start there. Nonsense. We raced down Abu Rumaneh Street, raced across the Barada River, across the face of the National Museum and the Hejaz Railway Station before plunging into the bazaar of the old city.

Altstadt,” she explained and immediately regretted it when I smiled with a perfect, if false, understanding of where we were.

She finally paused behind the Umayyad Mosque, but only to announce “Here we begin.” We marched purposefully through hot, dark and twisting streets. Her only pauses were to punch open old doors and point out the splendors of ruined but still inhabited houses behind them. The startled dwellers there smiled pleasantly and offered hospitality, but she would have none of it. “Nein, shukran,” the German perfect for the refusal, the Arabic sweetly appropriate for “but thanks for asking.”

From the outset I wondered how she ever managed in Damascus, working alone in the old city day after day. Even ordinary looking unattached or foreign females received a quite extraordinary attention in that woman-doting city. How did Angelica Henlein, 5 feet, 11 inches of her shaped like a voluptuous minaret and crowned with a turban of red hair, proceed through that din of men?

She didn’t proceed. She plunged, exploded, ran rampant. The Damascene gentleman fast enough or foolhardy enough to attempt to stay her relentless path was covered with a gorgeous carpet of perfectly colloquial abuse. Their smaller brothers were simply cuffed into oblivion. Not since Tamerlane had anyone gotten quite the attentive respect Angelica Henlein did on the streets of Damascus, and for many of the same reasons.

Finally she stopped, not paused, but stopped, in front of one more dilapidated doorway in the back streets of the old city. Without a word she gently, almost reverently pushed open the door and stood aside for me to enter the courtyard. This was clearly the jewel of her collection, an eighteenth century Ottoman house with traces of the wooden inner door and window frames intact. Even with the overgrown trellises and rotting packing cases that now disfigured the courtyard, it was still possible to grasp some of the grandeur that was once in this place.

“Well, Herr Doktor, what do you think?”


She screamed, “Was sagen Sie?” “What did you say?”


She screamed again. “Was?”

I had no verbs in my conversational German, only a collection of learned, exotic and absurd nouns and a glimmer of how to make new ones.

Was denkst du, Fraulein, war dieser schlecht Turmbabel konstruiert von einen betrunkenen Pasha oder geplundert aus Las Vegas?”

The tears were now streaming down her face. Her initial rage was yielding to laughter, great booms of it from out of that white throat. Heads poked out carefully from the broken panes around the courtyard.

“Mikimausischwohnhausarchitektur! Where did you learn to speak German?”

“Die Götterdämmerung is my favorite opera. I’ve memorized the libretto.”

“You American Schweinhund,” she smiled, “You know, I like you.”

And God, did I like her, standing there in the middle of a ruined Ottoman courtyard in Damascus, with her red head thrown back in laughter and her strong white hands on the hips of her blue corduroy jeans.

“In that case, let’s go an have some coffee, meine Studentin.”

We sat in a small shop in the old city, and over coffee I proceeded to invent a “program” cut directly but elegantly out of whole cloth. “…and after Damascus, I thought Palmyra, Rusafa, Raqqa, west to Aleppo, with excursions if there is time…” (as if I were calculating exactly, but knowingly leaving space for expansion and contraction) “…and back here via Hama and Homs. What do you say?”

Somewhere in the middle of this improvised itinerary Angelica began to understand that she was expected to be part of it, and by Hama and Homs she had accepted.

Nein, nein. We take the bus from Aleppo and stay in Hama. Homs is nothing. A zibbel, a garbage pit.”

I had passed my test, or perhaps had it waived. Her own “program,” whatever it was, began to dissolve, not in principle, of course, but in fact. Every morning we had long breakfasts together in our lounge on the second floor of the French Institute, she in her lime green nightgown, I in my stunningly inappropriate bedouin cloak, and between us lay an increasingly elaborate pile of sausages, pates and cheeses. I drank tea by the gallon against the unhappy hour when we would have to stow our larder and go out into the streets in pursuit of Angelica’s own tattered “program.”

Over sausage we fell to excavating each other’s life. She was convinced finally that I was in fact a professor, though not so famous as I claimed nor in any academic mode familiar to her from Germany. She accepted my lack of programmatic thought as either a personal quirk or, more terribly, a congenital and incorrigible fault of the American university system.

Nor was she a familiar type to me. She was neither an orientalist, an archeologist nor an art historian, like most of the other foreigners tramping the streets of Damascus in khaki pants and hiking boots. Angelica was an architect pure and simple, a prospective builder of buildings whom the purest chance, a sudden opportunity for field work, had carried from Cologne to some God-forsaken German hole-in-the-ground in distant Syria. She was thrown into the trenches without so much as an hour of basic training. She, who had never had a single thought about the Middle East, learned Arabic by shouting at small boys pushing wheelbarrows in Syria, learned archeology by doing it where the Euphrates flowed, and in the process had fallen deeply and inevitably in love with the Nähere Orient.

It was not an infatuation; unlike me, Angelica was capable of love, a deep and abiding love which found the object of its true desire in Syria. Every spring, when the drawing boards were finally put away in dark Cologne, Angelica Henlein packed her eastern life into a VW van and drove, like a woman possessed, across the Rhine, across the Danube, across the Bosphorus and Turkey, until she reached the “Gate of the Winds,” the crossing station between the dour Turks and the sunny Syrians.

Shouting greetings and blessings upon the farmers along the road and curses on the Turkish and Bulgarian truckers heading in the other, the wrong direction, she sped southward to where her lover lay, Sham, Damascus. Not for her the sophisticated liveliness of Aleppo, the magic water-wheels of Hama, the hoch Zibbelkeit of Homs. Only Damascus would do, the Qalb al-‘Arab, the “Heart of the Arabs.”

There finally she would carefully unpack her camper, adorn herself with wedding garments and surrender herself to her beloved.

Ja, sure,” she drily commented when I described this magic journey to her, “Wie romantisch!” Her head did not work that way, though I was sure her hormones did. Her own version would have dwelled on the details of the packing, every last item stored with exactitude, the hostel facilities in Bulgaria, the traffic on the Golden Horn, vile Turkish driving habits and notes on the curious domestic architecture of northern Syria.

“Well, we’re both right,” I said. “You just lack the vocabulary of passion. You feel it in your loins but you cannot express it.”

It was not even worth her commentary. She gave me her patient smile, dissolved from absolute condescension only by a slight uncertainty about the meaning of “loins.” Her breakfast partner, she well knew, was capable of exploiting his native tongue for purposes of lewdness.

Slowly we worked our way through Damascus. Angelica had long since become expert on the bazaars of the city, and after some initial hesitation about indulging in anything quite so frivolous, she showed me the only proper places to buy carpets and gold and the very rare aubergine and white checkered head-cloth which set off the old Damascus hand from the newest tyro in from Paris or Frankfurt, though one did not wear the kafiyyah in the city, natürlich.

By night we explored the restaurants. Angelica knew them all, and sehr baladi, “very local,” was the highest praise she could bestow. Some of them were indeed baladi but dreadful places to eat, and when she led me to one of those satisfyingly colorful but awful beaneries, I made her accompany me afterwards to the air-conditioned bar of the Hotel Meridien where she was constrained to drink whiskey sours and listen to the chatter of thin French tourists and dance with me to what she now delighted to call mikimausischmuzak.

We went to Palmyra together, up the main highway to Homs and then due east across the steppe in a yellow haze of sun and gravel. Our resting place in Palmyra was the Hotel Zenobia, an exceedingly modest architectural monument to a Palmyrene queen. We were the only guests, but even so we seemed to tax the facilities to near the breaking point. Food? Yes, there would be food, but it would take some time. Rooms? Of course, but in the meantime a toddler had to be dispatched into the village in search of sheets for the welcome but unexpected guests. Meanwhile our inn-keeper and his two clients were left to ponder the room arrangements. Everyone doubled up in Syria, without regard for gender, age. sexual or religious preference. Everyone except Fraulein Angelica, of course.

“You stay here. I sleep there.”

Briefly and pointedly she assigned our rooms, Number One for her, Number Two for me. I suppose I should have been grateful that. I wasn’t banished to chaste Number Eighteen at the end of the dark hall. Our host had to handle this as best he could, by reflecting on the peculiarities of foreigners, perhaps, or their expensive and ferocious need for privacy. As I passed I gave the hotelier an elaborate shrug to set him at his ease and whispered Allamaniyya, “German.” That seemed adequate for the moment, though he may have had better ideas later, when he had more of a chance to think about it.

Candidat Angelica had been to Palmyra many times before and so I suggested that we spare ourselves the ruins that particular hot afternoon. Tomorrow, perhaps, after an early breakfast…The Henlein disdain was as monumental as the stones that surrounded us. Her ethic demanded not only the observation of the cardinal virtues, like sleeping in separate rooms, but the works of supererogation, visiting the sick, despising the French, and tramping over archeological sites in midafternoon. I had the feeling that I was no longer being tested but trained. Alright, she got one lesson at my expense because she was intelligent and she was sexy, a combination as rare on the Euphrates as it was along the Hudson, I knew.

It was an echte deutsche Rundfahrt, the works: up the monumental columned main street that ran through the ruined city up to the immense walled precinct of Baal, which we scrutinized in paralyzing detail; back down the magnificent cardo boulevard to the theatre and the marketplace; onward, ever onward to Diocletian’s camp or Zenobia’s palace or whatever it was. We admired capital and column to extravagance. We checked out the drainage system and measured paving blocks. At last we approached the temple of Bel Shamin, right outside the door of our noble inn.

“Can you read the inscriptions on these consoles, Angelica?”

Nein.” Embarrassed. So I improvised something from my vast knowledge of Palmyrene, just to speed the process along. She looked extremely doubtful. She had only a dubious professor and her own ignorance of Aramaic to choose from. The foundations of her academic trust were audibly crumbling.

“Does it really say that?”

“Of course. Would I make it up?”

The entire nineteenth century tradition of German Orientalism groaned inside Angelica in protest against the latter possibility. Her nurture said “No” but her better informed nature shouted “Yes, you fraud, you’d make up anything to get out of the sun at 4 P.M. on a summer day in Palmyra. Like you probably made up your degree and your famous professorship.”

“Did you really make it up?” She was pleading now.

“Certainly not.” The separate rooms were now paid for.

She had one last card to play. Angelica cast her eyes speculatively toward a seventeenth century Ottoman fortress perched high atop a nearby hill. That I had no intention of visiting. Ever.

“Angelica, did you know that the so-called Ottoman fortress up there is really a clever French imitation built in the Twenties?”

It satisfied her, not. because it was true, but because it was so pathetic.

Ja, sure. Let’s eat.”

I could have predicted the meal. Chicken, french fried potatoes and cut tomatoes are served to every foreigner leaning an elbow on a table in any second-class restaurant from the Nile to the Indus. The french fries of the Zenobia were the best and worst of the species: served anywhere else in Christendom or Islamdom they would have been pronounced inedible on the instant; in the dining room, actually the lobby, of the Funduk Zenobia, they were the food of angels. As we willfully and delightedly chomped on them, I meditated the heavy, plastic covered furniture and the immense plaster of paris reproduction of one of Zenobia’s coins that adorned the far wall. Or at least I presumed it was Zenobia, even though the large lady who was featured on it seemed to be sporting a beard and smoking a cigar, or perhaps was just thoughtfully chewing on the end of the inscription that curled around her head. On the near wall was a fifty year old map of “Syrie Contemporaine” criss-crossed with the noble highways the French had planned but never built for their colonials.

We had a third at dinner, the waiter, a gentleman dredged up from who knows what more permanent occupation and pressed into a service unfitting le patron, who had since disappeared. It did not much fit the waiter either. He served us hospitably as if it were his own home and then pulled up a chair to join us in whatever entertaining conversation we had in mind. We quizzed him on the environs, but his confused knowledge of local geography suggested that, despite appearances, he had migrated, possibly the day before, from Skokie, Ill. But he did urge us to inspect Palmyra. “Very old,” he said reassuringly.

After dinner our local antiquarian went into the pantry to perform some vaguely sanitary act upon the dishes and Angelica and I spread ourselves on the terrace with fresh beers. The moon was up, a thunderous white orb that bathed us and the ruins of Palmyra and the Hotel Zenobia with a grace we never possessed by day. Angelica’s ivory skin glowed in the florescent darkness. Her red hair now gleamed a pale yellow, the same color as the temple of Bel Shamin which shone in our faces barely fifty yards away. The precinct of Baal loomed off to our left, and on our right, high up on its hill, the so-called Ottoman fortress persisted in its masquerade, now dressed entirely in silver.

We resumed our personal excavations. Angelica came from Kässen, a town of industrious burghers on the German-Dutch frontier. Her father owned a hardware business, led a pious and prosperous life and sent his two sons to Catholic academies and his daughter to a convent school from age six to eighteen. Whence she emerged with a perfect probity and a penchant for unshared rooms in desert inns.

I mused. “How is it, when northern Germany is filled with millions of women immersed in heresy and debauchery, that I find myself in Palmyra with an honors graduate of a Catholic convent school?”

“So what? What is the difference?”

The difference was precisely nothing, I quickly explained. My own moral training was quite as severe as her own, and my virtue and reputation were as precious to me as the jewels that sparkled in the chaste crown of St. Joseph in heaven.

Ja, sure.”

The waiter came out, handed us the keys of the hotel and bade us goodnight. We were not only the sole guests at the Zenobia; we were now its proprietors as well.
I had a particular devotion to St. Joseph, I continued, pushing my luck, that I had learned somewhere near the knees of the good nuns and continuously cultivated through the erotic perils of adolescence and the worldliness of university life.

Ach, du Schwein! A famous professor and a saint.”

The highway stopped dead at Palmyra. North and south and east ran only tracks, the mauvais pistes beloved of French cartographers. Northward was the piste to Rusafa. Early the next morning I arranged to hire a car and a driver to take us there and a guide to light the way across the steppe. And though my spiritual credentials may have been were impeccable, my bargaining powers left a great deal to be desired and my knowledge of the higher Arabic numerals was faulty, to say the least. In our simple transaction I contracted to pay the Syrian war debt and refinance the Euphrates dam. Angelica watched in total disbelief.

“You must be a very famous professor to have such money.”

“Among the Arabs I am known as Abu Flus, The Father of Monies. I am a river to these people.”

Ja, and you do your research in the cinema.”

Ahmad, one dour Syrian out of seven million, drove his ancient Chevrolet slowly and carefully, not because he cared for the car –he cared for nothing and no one– but because he feared danger everywhere. His ancient rifle rested athwart the front seat, its elderly and erratic barrel aimed directly at our heads in the rear. Yassir the guide, on the other hand, was courteous, efficient, intelligent and curious. It was six numbing hours across the steppe and he intended in their course to extract from us every last piece of interesting news, report, information or gossip we might possess. What did we do out there in the World? What was New York City like? Was it near Bridgeport? Where would we stay in Aleppo? How much did a new Mercedes cost in Germany? The questions were all addressed to the professor, as courtesy dictated, but his dark eyes never for an instant left Angelica’s face and extraordinary hair.

Our first stop was Sukhne, where we peered down into the hot springs in the middle of the tiny village. They had been paved and plastered by the Romans centuries before and now they served as a Schwimmbad for the adolescent male population of the place. When Angelica’s red head appeared over the parapet like a Roman candle, all action ceased. A number of the careless sank into the invisible depths and wonder spread over the pool like an oil slick.

Ya, they should all be in school.” Preferably in Germany, I supposed.

Somebody heard a familiar sound and immediately the chant “shkool, shkool” arose from the massed chorus of adolescents treading water in the pool.

Yassir had been through this drill before. He knew exactly where to buy eggs in Sukhne and where the desert Michelin dictated the purchase of bread. Angelica asked about vegetables and a sharp upward toss of his head said this was not the place. Yassir stopped at a butcher who emerged from his shop and cut a hank of grey meat off the carcass, genus and species unknown, that hung outside his door. Meat and eggs were put in the trunk of the Chevrolet; the precious bread rested in its plastic bag on the front seat next to the rifle butt between Ahmad and Yassir.

A few miles onward, in the middle of the steppe, was a small vegetable farm irrigated from a well. The women were in the fields, but the lord of the plantation was immediately available for converse.

“Welcome! Where are you from? Is this your wife?”

“I am from America.”

It was a trifle cruel perhaps, but he really hadn’t expected me to get to the point immediately.

“Is this your wife?” he repeated.

“No. She is my student.”

Ach,” Angelica groaned.

“Will you marry her? I have four wives,” gesturing grandly toward his fields and the bent backs of his wives.

“No. I will not. She is too intelligent,” I said.


The plantation owner digested this thoughtfully. The mise en scène was exceedingly tempting –the cries of the Sukhne youths were already echoing in his loins–and yet… The fleeting image of Angelica’s red tresses bent over in his beanfield…How? How indeed?

I had no solution and neither did he. “Welcome,” he smiled and walked back to his wives laboring in the fields.

Whatever vegetables we would have from here –Yassir simply strode into the greenery and picked them– were by then suffocating in the trunk with the meat and the eggs. It was time to move on. The sun was fairly up now and the steppe was shimmering in waves around the plodding Chevy. Inside we slumped awkwardly, drugged by the heat and the light. My shoulder was covered with Angelica’s soft red hair.
It was very warm, that gorgeous tapestry, but I made no move to escape it nor the hand which rested softly on my arm.

“Look, look. Is that Rusafa?” There was only a long dark shape on the horizon. Gradually it took form, the lofty walls of a wondrous desert city.

“Yes, that is the city,” Yassir said. “And there, by the walls, is the shaykh’s house where we will stay.”

There was not a soul on the steppe, not a living being. Rusafa had been a large city once, there in a place without water and with the barest tissue of soil. Then it had been Sergiopolis, the City of St. Sergius, where the bones of the saint were interred and whither the Christian piety of sixth century Syria drew thousands of men and women on pilgrimage to his shrine. Its immense quartz-mica walls still stood glittering on the steppe, bastions for the emptiness within. No one now passed through its monumental gates or thronged its ruined streets. The nave and aisles of St. Sergius’ cathedral, still imposing in this, its thirteenth century of grace, breathed neither incense nor canticle.

Angelica, now fully awake, leaped from the car so as not to miss the full heat of the day in the ruins of Rusafa. Like all of her breed, she despised touristic photography, but I still have a picture I forced her to pose for in the exquisite Arab chateau just outside the north wall of the city. She is standing there in the apse, full of German uneasiness at the frivolity of the exercise. Her locks are covered by the aubergine kafiyyah, but it is unmistakably Angelica, erect and at attention in her swelling green T shirt and green khaki pants.

“Come on, professor, hurry up with this ridiculous picture.”

“I’m trying to get the apse inscription in too, just for scale, you know.”

Ach.” No German could resist the notion of scale.

“Do you want me to translate it for you?”

“Hurry up. We must still inspect the martyrium,” she urged.

That I could well imagine, measurements and meter sticks until either darkness or exhaustion overtook us.

“I don’t know. Yassir may have supper ready by now. And as you well know, it is regarded as impolite to ignore food, even at the expense of something as important as a martyrium.”

Ach. Immer die Schweinerei.”

Immer,” I confessed. Yes, always.

She allowed me, out of her inestimable good graces, to finesse the martyrium. Supper was indeed ready. Out of a few eggs, tomatoes, rice and that anonymous grey meat, the good Yassir had created something finer than whatever was then gracing the table of the President of the Syrian Arab Republic. We ate our ragout Saint Serge in the shaykh’s house, the one room adobe dwelling of the guardian of the site, with tiny windows high up on the walls, a straw mat in the center of the room and pillows all the colors of the polyester rainbow scattered around for our inclination. The others inclined; I collapsed.

“Take off your boots. And you’re lying on the table,” she said.

“Of course.” Table? The room was nothing but floor. “I was just catching my breath.”

At the end of the meal steaming tea was brought in glass cups. It was served by the shaykh himself who put down his rifle to perform the honors. His pistol was ready at hand, however. His name was Jafar and he looked noble, as even the veriest knave does in white headdress and robe.

“I am badu.” Of course, everyone in Syria is a Bedouin. Or likes to think he is. “Welcome. Are you Russian? Is this your wife?”

I was lost in admiration at how skillfully the shaykh had concealed his priorities: Two, Three, One.

“Am I so ugly that you think me Russian?” So as not to disappoint him.

The shaykh settled down on his haunches for what he now knew was going to be a long and entertaining evening.

“My wife, however, is Russian, O Shaykh, from Kazakhstan,” I indulgently explained.


“God is Generous,” piously intoned Jafar. Checkmate so soon?

“My daughter wishes to meet your wife,” persisted the shaykh. Why not go for the whole bundle, he must have figured.

“Alas, my wife is not here,” I countered. “This Madame is my sister.”

Ach.” Angelica.

New deal.

“Your sister is beautiful.” Permissible on the shaykh’s part, if a trifle risky.

“Your daughter will not come in and join us, O Shaykh?”

Yassir stirs. This is less permissible and far more risky.

“She is not well, O Professor.” Declined. “You have come to see the ruins?” A rest on neutral ground.

“Yes, my sister is a famous archeologist and these antiquities are known all over the world.”

“True.” Four heads nod in unison, three of them at the verity of my utterance and the fourth, Angelica’s, from pure fatigue.

“O Shaykh, this is a great holy day in our religion,” I said. “My sister and I must still pray before the appointed hour.

Angelica is now wide awake once again. The shaykh, who had not himself prayed in many years, knows that there is no appealing above or behind prayer, not even to the high gods of hospitality. He rises courteously to leave. Yassir and Ahmad are bewildered. Never under any circumstances have they seen a foreigner of any rite or persuasion at prayer, not even the Japanese. They are uncertain of the protocol of this strange event.

“Do not bother. The lady and I will go outside and rest awhile and then pray at the appointed hour.” I dragged Angelica from the room.

“That was not nice, Francis,” she murmured.

“The shaykh would have sat there all night staring at you and playing with me,” I said. “Wouldn’t you rather sit here and look at the sky?”


We sat with our backs to the shaykh’s room. From within came the muted snoring of Yassir and Ahmad. The night was turning chill. We said nothing. In front of us the quartz walls of Sergius’ Holy City were shattered into tiny pieces by the moonlight. Above was the blue-black dome of the Syrian night, pierced with a thousand stars. I crept back into the house and retrieved our blankets. We sat, blinking at the bright darkness until Angelica slid slowly into sleep beside me. I could hear the gentle rise and fall of her breathing. Mickey Mouse music.

It was the Feast of St. Joseph.

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