We have crossed in from the Mediterranean at Latakia, taken a wide arcing turn south and are now slowly descending over the tan steppe into mankind’s favorite oasis. And at what appear to be an hour before schedule, if schedule is the proper word for anything gliding, tumbling, stumbling or crawling into the Syrian Arab Republic. I’ve now done this many times, but it’s still exciting circling through the radiantly clear December air over this oldest of cities that now lies silent in the sunlight beneath me. I can see the Great Mosque, the thread of the Barada meandering through town and the old city walls enclosing a millennium of their history and a decade of mine.
Once upon a time one could simply zip into the Syrian Arab Republic. Well, yes, there were the usual inscriptions in the douanier’s book, but there were so few visitors that the formalities provided nothing more than a chance to chat a spell and get your land legs. But no more. Tourism had discovered Syria, and the Syrians reacted by pretending not to notice. No one is manning the immigration booths where the irrefutable evidence of arrival is transcribed for all eternity. And at the entries two plane-loads of disgruntled passengers are queing up, some already thinking of turning around and flying right the hell out of there, others contemplating the possibility of leaping the barriers and passing into the land beyond where surely, well, maybe, there is a hotel reservation.
An official in uniform arrives at the arrivals station, then two –the crowd is by now in an exceedingly ugly mood. The functionaries slowly settle themselves into their places, arrange their rubber stamps, paper clips, carbon paper, and the work of inscription begins. Baggage inspection is cursory, as usual. Outside at last.
And outside is Kassem Tayyibi, my friend, guide and pick-lock to every closed door in Syria by reason of being the Deputy Director of the Syrian Department of Antiquities. He awaits in a dump truck and unexpectedly bundled into the cab with him is Timothy Gauss, an American graduate student I thought I had discarded forever. Even the slowest witted undergraduates eventually graduate; graduate students have, however, to be taken out behind the shed and dispatched with a club. And Timmie gives the mysterious and unwonted appearance of having dressed for the occasion. It is of course a mirage: his tweed jacket and tattered trousers are the only clothes he possesses in Syria. But he reeketh not, his usual state, nor does vile sweat yet pour from his balding brow. His unexpected promotion to Fulbright Scholar has obviously worked wonders on his nervous system.
I have been exceedingly circumspect on this fourteen-hour voyage. No alcohol has passed my lips, only a good quantity of Valium, that almost, but not quite, rendered me unconscious in the soft arms of Air France. So I cannot exactly plead to Kassem that I wish to go to bed at 5:30 in the sunny afternoon. At the Damascus International Hotel we dismiss Timmie Gauss to his meager pleasures and Kassem carries me chez lui-meme, the home hearth that is the veritable third rail of Syrian hospitality.
I know we are there when we stand before the heart-trashing prospect of what seem to be endless flights of stairs up to an apartment eyrie in the sky. Kassem’s father is visiting from the family home at Dayr ez-Zur on the Euphrates, where I had once spent an entire Philadelphia year one weekend. He is looking well and I congratulate him on his fit appearance at his advanced age. He is, it turns out, a childish 63, a stripling a mere eight years older than the sleek guest from across the sea. But he has fathered nineteen little Syrians, so I suppose he’s due a few wrinkles and a small stoop. There are protests on my part that I cannot possibly eat after the grande luxe of Air France fare. Fat chance! Well, perhaps just a spot of arak to be sociable. Of course once that thin edge of hospitality has been inserted, it does not take long for the hummus and kibbe to appear and other small delicacies suitable for an army on campaign. I will say on Kassem’s behalf that what was put before me was not a true meal as he understands that term.
The next day’s business begins, naturally, with a courtesy call at the office of the Chief Antiquarian of the Syrian Arab Republic, M. Aziz Makdisi. He is pleasant as always, more relaxed than when I first met him. Or maybe, and more likely, I am. We discuss—he discusses, I nod–modern Arab art and he shows me a book he has written on the subject and published by UNESCO. By the sheerest coincidence one of the artists represented therein is Mme Makdisi. My feigned enthusiasm for this new subject is so overplayed that a button is pressed, Kassem reappears on the instant and is commanded to take me on an immediate tour of the galleries where his wife’s work is displayed. I have, alas, yet to learn how to play this game of social parry and thrust.
The first stop on this command Bildungsreise is the Arab Cultural Center, where we appear to be the first visitors since Tamerlane dropped in but then unhappily neglected to pillage the place. There is an exhibit of contemporary ceramics, which are not bad, I suppose, as pots go. Then to the institute where these young throwers of clay onto speeding wheels are reportedly trained. Only the director is there, a pleasant young man from the Faculty of Applied Arts at Damascus University. I marvel, guardedly, at his empty kilns and deserted workrooms. Then to the underground gallery, formerly a cistern but now nicely whitewashed and lit. It’s a very attractive space, but hung in it, like so many convicted felons, is a collection of what must surely be the worst painting in the Syrian Arab Republic. No one is perfect, but these artists had stopped trying at birth.
At 8 that evening Kassem comes round to pick me up at the hotel. This time we will eat, not just nosh. Gifts from America are distributed to the family. They receive them as politely and graciously as if they had never seen a T-shirt before, but Kassem is so crazed at the mere smell of the salami I have brought for him that he deserts all norms of Syrian hospitality and tears open the Fiacco shopping bag. It’s embarrassing to see a grown man cry over chopped pork. Next time I may try him on a Hebrew National: it’s time for him to grow up and start being a real user. Kassem Tayyibi, you see, studied at an East German University where he acquired both a Ph.D. in archeology and an insatiable love of wurst. It matters not the size, shape, color or contents. If it is wurst, Kassem is all over it, like blessings on the Hajj.
In the kitchen we sit to a dinner of hot yoghurt soup (good), baked macaroni (very good), and some kind of poisonous beet megilla which hospitality dictates be consumed with equal enthusiasm. By now the arak had run out and I am constrained, in the name of Syrian-American relations, to drink Russian vodka laced, but just barely, with lemon juice. A very bad idea (see next).
A very bad night.
There finally arrives the point of my being in Damascus, a meeting of the International Commission for the Protection of the Monuments of Damascus. I am, courtesy of my patron Dr. Tayyibi, a member of this august body that meets once a year to hear reports on the condition of Damascus’ ancient buildings, everything from grand mosques to private homes, and to make recommendations to the government, which generally ignores them. Mr. al-Assad has other things on his mind than old houses.
The Commission meets in the Quwwatli Room of the National Museum, the restored Ottoman audience hall that is one of the treasures of the city. M. Makdisi presides, as always, and at length. I am seated conspicuously at The Man’s left hand and facing directly into the spotlight hanging in the corner. Its powerful beam was originally intended to highlight some delicate piece of inlay on the Damascene table under our impure hands, but this day it will illuminate only my sweaty forehead. At his right is Michael Meissner of the German Archeological Institute who knows more than anyone else in the room about the monuments of Damascus. Lesser lights are arranged around the richly inlaid table: French Institute, German Institute, old Ma’oz, a long-playing treasure-trove of Damascene legend and lore, university faculty, a woman from the municipal planning commission, a clutch of waqf experts, and hangers-on of various known and unknown stripes, a sweating Timmy Gauss among them.
The session opens with a long statement by the Director of Antiquities, and our chair, Dr. Aziz Makdisi. I do my best to attend to every word though the fog of my jet lag. He explains why the estimable members Wirth from Germany and Raymond from France, who are never present, will not be present this time either. He warmly greets the rest of us, some of whom have come as far as two or three city blocks to attend our session. The spiel is naturally in Arabic, but I know exactly what he is saying because I have heard it all before in unventilated rooms from Rabat to Islamabad. I catch maybe one actual word every thousand or so. The most disconcerting phrase I do catch is “al-Ustaz Amirkani” because I am never sure whether I am being praised, castigated, called upon to speak or warned not to speak, or simply pointed out to the French as a model of what a scholar should wear: tartan trousers, regimental tie, blue work shirt, and a snappy blazer off the rack at Bancroft’s. I feel a little like Robert Donat playing Captain Tartu, late of the Rumanian Iron Guard.
Meissner of the German Archeological Institute is then called upon to make his presentation on the current state of the buildings in the Salihiyya quarter. It is not good, the state, that is, not his report, which is filled with wondrous and doubtlessly accurate Teutonic detail. That was the presentation; the real issue in everyone’s mind was who would be the first to light up a cigarette. We sit amidst the wooden treasures of Mamluk and Ottoman Damascus, tables, cabinets, cupboards, screens and out and out bric-a-brac, all of it priceless and irreplaceable, and the whole festooned in polyglot signs forbidding the mere thought of smoking. But the room is presently filled with Syrians and others who rarely think of anything else but smoking. Nay, there are even ashtrays on the eighteenth century tables at which we sit listening to Michael Meissner’s needlessly elaborated Vorstellung. Kassem is in full twitch. His need to inhale nicotine is patently at high pitch, but he is seated next to Makdisi who is 1) his boss and 2) the only fully documented instance of a Syrian who dislikes smoking. No, not Kassem.
In circumstances like this it is usually the French who are the first to crumble and light up, chiefly, I think, because they built the museum in the first place and so have no qualms about burning it down. But Jean-Paul Pascual, that fumeur en chef formidable, is presently in Paris, and puffing on a Gaulois, I’ll bet, so no move is made by the nicotine-addled Gauls. Soon we were all twitching. Makdisi might not have approved of smoking, but he did like his orange juice, and so, right in the midst of Meissner’s dissertation, which showed no signs of dying a natural death, we break for juice. Makdisi has the orange stuff all to himself –in all my years in Syria I’ve drunk lots of orange liquids, the lesser, more dubious offspring of Orangina and the bastard siblings of Tang, but never actual orange juice—but the rest of the company is scampering towards the exits, lighting up and puffing on their programs, the drapes, the dead ends of leaves, each other’s clothing.
When we returm, tous defumés, the French present their work on the drab suburb called Suq Suraya. M. St. Colombe gives a lovely méditation on le milieu, and particularly on l’Eglise Saint Georges, vraiment un bijou de la delicatesse avec ses columns presque romanesques, etc. etc. I’ve seen it. It’s a miserable place, sauf pour les Français, of course, those old colonial sentimentalists. Mr. Ma’oz, a resident amateur antiquarian –“one of Sauvaget’s old boys,” it is whispered– wishes to faire une intervention. An “intervention” is like a point of order, a free shot. Ma’oz has often intervened before, to no great point, but we all attend with politeness because he has a closetful of old maps of Damascus which he is desperate to sell for an enormous price and which Antiquities is equally desperate that he give to them for nothing.
I am finally called upon to speak. No one much cares about the subject since I have after all come a long way for this exercise, which is more than can be said for the French and German delegates on the Commission, who did not think it worth their while to show up. So I speak. I praise the Commission –encomium is a much admired rhetorical trope in Syria. I of course praise its learned Director (The office is a political appointment so to intimate a degree of learning in the tenant is much appreciated). I praise Kassem, I praise the absent Germans just to annoy the present French, and I praise the French for having finally gotten the hell out of their Syrian colony in 1946.
That’s it, ladies and gentlemen. Two hours. Finished. It is then abruptly announced that there will be no further meetings of the International Commission on this occasion because we will all be going, of course, to Aleppo to the “International Congress on the Antiquities of Palestine.” The antiquities of what? Herr Doktor Dettman, fresh in from Hamburg, and I stare at each other in disbelief. I have flown fourteen hours from New York and will have spent four days of my life and seventeen hundred dollars of someone’s money for a two-hour meeting! Kassem looks away in embarrassment.
The Commission meeting is not quite over, however. It seems there is a suddenly scheduled group audience for the Monuments Commission with no less than the Prime Minister of the Syrian Arab Republic.
Protocol is all here. The PM has sent his own limousine for the very fattest of cats, and Makdisi, all fur and claws and whiskers, quickly climbs in and, by the most exquisite of signals, bids Meissner and myself to join him. I don’t suppose it is really important that that I am made to sit up front next to the driver. We lead the motorcade, sirens blaring, at high speed through the streets of Damascus. The Damascenes, who have lots of practice at this particular exercise, pull their cars frantically off to the side, up onto the pavement if necessary. Pedestrians scatter to shelter in doorways. No one wants to be in the way in case it’s The Really Big Shot. When we reach the Ministry, Makdisi, Meissner and I exit the limo and enter the main gate. There is the sudden startling sound of thunder. Shots? No, better, much better. That smart sound was produced by a military guard of honor snapping to attention, boots crashing like cannon on their wooden platforms, arms superbly presented. My very first military salute! God, I would love to be President of Someplace! Someplace Nice, of course.
For the cognoscenti, the scene within is more than familiar. A large reception hall, plush damask chairs around the walls, each with an inlayed tea table and American cigarettes at its side —Syria is Marlboro country— and a rather more prominent and plushier chair at the head of the room, its importance further signaled by the presence of a telephone at its side and a coffee button under one arm. We compose ourselves around the room, again in strict protocol order, and the PM enters. He is a tiny, hawk-faced man who might almost pass as a Prime Minister, except that he is sporting small grey vinyl boots with zippers on the sides, a kind of freaky Syrian spat.
There is much empty palaver, chiefly between Makdisi and the PM, very amicable it seems, even though Makdisi is bald-facedly asking for a bushel of money for this project. Without dropping a stitch in his smile the PM picks up the phone at his side and says “Get me Vizier So and So.” Vizier So and So apparently gets on the horn très pronto and the PM says “Give these guys two million pounds for their project” and hangs up. Comme ça. Polite but genuine applause from around the room, not so much for the money, which not only did not appear but does not even exist, as for the sheer bravado of the performance. Everyone knows perfectly well that the only working telephones in the Syrian Arab Republic are in the foreign embassies.
In this world of minute social bookkeeping, the ledger must be balanced and accounts squared. In this case with me. I was brought to Syria on what turned out to be a fool’s errand. It is payback time.
“How would you like a visit to our new hammam?” Kassem asks.
It was clever of Nur al-Din Zengi, the twelfth century boss of Syria, to build a public bath in the suq, and even more clever of the Department of Antiquities to restore it. And cleverest of all was turning it over to a private entrepreneur to get it going again. My only previous experience with a Turkish bath was spending a night in a room over one in Kayseri in Turkey, a room infested with every heat loving Turkish bug with even half a clue, but I accepted Kassem’s offer of social recompense. We go off to the hammam. There is a brief discussion at the door where Kassem, I imagine, assures the owner that the filthy trench-coated exotic he is delivering is not going to harm any of the other customers.
I enter a large domed hall with arched iwan rooms on each side, and in the center there is a marble fountain with fresh flowers tastefully displayed here and there. Shoes are kicked off (shoelaces are an invention of the Western Satan) and I mount up into one of the raised iwans. There are divans around the wall and a towel is spread upon the bench where I elect to sit. Clothes are to be removed, and since other clients were even then disrobing, I note the technique. Strip down to shorts (L’Aiglon, black, medium), at which point I am handed a towel which, I observe, should be wrapped around the waist in the manner of a sarong after which the shorts are modestly extracted underneath. Voila! Valuables are checked with the cashier, who is also charged with changing the oriental tunes on the tape-player. (Yes, Edward Said, that’s Ketelbey’s “In a Persian Market” you’re hearing!)
I am pointed left rear into what appears to be a domed steam room, the tepidarium, I suppose. It is all in marble and around it are marble sinks at about knee level, with hot and cold running water, brass salvers, but no drains. I sit in my sarong on a marble bench with my new bar of Lux soap beside me and feel both silly and uncomfortable while awaiting instructions. When I begin to perspire. I am directed by gesture into a smaller room, the sudarium, where the steam is exploding in dense clouds out of an extremely dangerous looking boiler. Now the sweat really begins to come forth in great Gauss-like streams from my pores.
After about ten minutes of that I am led by a calloused hand out into the warm room and instructed to wash my face and hands in one of the sinks. Another fellow –they are all dressed in sarongs—then leads me through the impenetrable steam into a further alcove, again all in marble and with another marble sink. I am now gestured by a husky mustached bravo to lie down –On the marble floor? Yes, dummy, on the marble floor– and this Syrian desperado produces a broad mitt made out of what feels like steel wool, and with it he works over every inch of my body, those parts only excepted which were barely covered by my now soaking clout. Like life itself, it hurts and it feels good.
When he tires of this, my manic scrubber produces a brass bowl filled with a carefully mixed detergent which he then uses to scrub me back and front with a kind of loofah, an only slightly more humane version of the Brillo catcher’s mitt, There is a little painful massage thrown in, like crossing my arms in front of me and seeing how far forward he can pull down my neck without snapping off my head. The cracking could be heard as far as Aleppo. I am suddenly flipped on my stomach and my tormentor now falls to pinching and pulling whatever few muscles he can find. Left inert upon the floor, I am told I should, if I can raise my arms, wash my own hair, which by now has turned completely white.
Lathered and rinsed, I am handed on to another sarongi in still another room. This former wrestler takes my sarong, discreetly, always discreetly, and wraps me in a fresh new one. Then in a shoulder shawl, then a head wrapping, all fresh and pleasant smelling. I am told to dawdle there for some minutes until I cool down. Finally I am sent through a door and into the iwan hall where I had begun. I climb up onto my sitting place and am served tea, cigarettes and a spritz of Fiji perfume under my chin. After about twenty minutes there is another change of sarong, shawl and snood.
Other hammam habitués are coming and going all the while, and I have a marvelous opportunity to observe the infinite variety of Syrian underwear. Long johns are extremely popular this season, but almost anything goes except lace and garter belts (the late evening crowd perhaps?). A Polaroid photographer works the joint to satisfy the narcissists. I yield to no one on narcissism, but since I already noticed in the mirror on the wall that I now looked like nothing so much as my own shawled grandmother, I politely decline.
A morning well spent sleeping late. When I finally parted the curtains I was startled to discover it was snowing! Real white flakey snow descending thickly and quietly upon a wondering Damascus, wetting the streets and lightly dusting Mt. Cassiun behind the city. I had never been here in winter before, but this is almost too good to be believed, snow in the gardens of Sham. It abruptly stops, alas, at 10:30, alarmed perhaps at its own temerity.
I have booked four days here and I’m going to enjoy them, Commission or not. Sometime about 11 o’clock I walk downtown, through the suq, almost deserted of business this Friday morn, and then to the Umayyad mosque in time for the noonday prayer. A new experience, piously removing my shoes to tread the pavement in the middle of winter, and after a snowfall.
The Syrians charge about the streets of Damascus comme d’habitude, further energized perhaps by the unhabitual snow. In downtown Damascus there sometimes appears to be nothing but young men between twelve and thirty; the younger are probably at home or school and the older in a kind of self-proclaimed retirement inside of shops or offices or their houses. The only time you get to observe the full range of the population is in the suq, where the shopkeepers are middle-aged and there are as many women customers as there are men. Security is tighter in Damascus now as well, tighter in the sense that the areas around Baath Party premises now have the sidewalk roped off and jeeps parked in front of the doorway. Soldiers in jeeps at the main intersections is also new. The foreigners here don’t seem to be concerned, and I guess I’m not either, though the government must be. I don’t think they’re quite sure who the opposition is, though they seem to know it’s out there.
Gauss finally appears and we wander our way through the streets and the Ottoman back alleys of Damascus. There are three kinds of buildings in Damascus. The best were built by the Ottoman Turks whose administration of their Syrian vilayets or provinces was not brilliant but who built to last, sometimes stolidly but sometimes too with delicacy and elegance. The Ottoman private structures are in the oldest parts of the city and so have either been restored and converted into museums or else are falling in on the families who now live in what were once mansions and are now the decaying monuments of imperial grandeur.
French colonial architecture was functional rather than grand—they saved their architectural grandeur for la patrie. Their buildings date from the 20s and 30s, and in the early 80s they were still the best accommodations in Damascus, though the plumbing was often problematic. A blind colonial optimism in France’s mission civilatrice led to the installation of flush toilets, without of course including the rather complex plumbing that enabled the climactic, cathartic flush. The results were predictable. The waste –let’s mince words here— in the so called “Turkish” squat-down latrine plunged directly into a vast medieval cistern below; that in a Gallic convenience simply collected, pestilentially, near the point of deposit.
In the post-World War II era the Syrians unwisely began to build their own buildings, generally in the Modern Socialist style popularized, in the Soviet Union. These were invariably gray boxes that began to deteriorate even as they were being put up. They were dull and shabby and unfortunately modern. That meant that they boasted not only non-flushing sit-down toilets but also non-functioning elevators. The windows now featured blinds rather than the traditional shutters, alien mechanisms that hang crazily askew in every public building in Damascus.
The Syrian’s home is indeed his castle. Like all Muslims, he and his family conduct their life behind closed doors and/or high walls. Within may be a lovely courtyard and a domicile of charm, elegance and even opulence, but just outside the locked doorway, where public space begins, is generally dirt, disorder and neglect. The condition is most apparent in the terrains around apartment houses, even the most luxurious. The grounds are unfinished and untended, and within, the shared hallways are dark, undecorated and unwelcoming, the property and concern on no one.
Public space has never been a component of Muslim urban culture, which is notoriously lacking in municipal institutions. What parks there are in Muslim cities were either the private pleasure grounds of princes and potentates of old or reconstructions of their European environment by nineteenth or twentieth century colonialists. Public amenities is likewise an alien notion. In the Christian and (shrinking) Jewish quarters of Damascus courtyard doorways often stand open; there are children playing in the streets and men and women sitting or strolling in the public ways. The streets are deserted in the Muslim quarters, the portals closed against those who would pry into the very private spaces within. The haram begins at the doorstep. It is the dark other side of Jane Jacobs’ dream of an urban neighborhood.
In the Christian quarter around the Bab Tuma, Gauss and I come upon the greasy spoon called “Abu William’s Fish Restaurant,” reputedly the best place in all of Damascus to lay hands and tongue on a flounder. Except that, in the inscrutable way of the Orient, it does only take-out business on Fridays, the Muslim sabbath of sorts, though the restaurant serves meals on the premises the rest of the week. Kassem shows up and so on this Friday we carry away our fried fish in a plastic bag and eat them back at Kassem’s apartment. The precise species of fish before us is unknown, but they are delicious. Gauss claims they are flown in from Bulgaria, another prop to support my slowly evolving theory that whatever is unknown or mysterious in Syria is attributed to Bulgaria. Gauss tells me how much he admires my work and gives me 60 unstamped Christmas cards to mail for him when I get back to New York.
This evening Prof. and Mme. Al-Aql, the Dean of the University of Damascus, are the hosts at a dinner, occasion unknown, with much the usual cast of Americans from the Cultural Affairs Section and A-list professors from the university. Among them is Al-Aql’s brother, head of the psychology department there. After a few drinks he says my condition is probably incurable. That I knew. I consume a hogshead of arak and my conversation with the wife of the Cultural Attaché begins to dwell, perhaps unwisely, on the prevalence of venereal diseases among the diplomatic community. She, who has also had a nip or two on her own, neatly turns the subject to my extraordinary tartan trousers. Finally —Syrians eat late– we are summoned to dinner. This is the real thing, not a five course Syrian snack but piles of edibles that are served in never-ending waves and that must have taken twenty indentured cooks a fortnight to prepare. For dessert we are served les délices de Socialisme, Cuban cigars.
I beg off early. I have, after all, a 5:30 A.M. wake-up call for my early flight home on the morrow. I lay all of this out in grim detail in three languages for the night clerk at the hotel who must rouse me promptly in the morning and then, without fail, have a cab at the ready. He professes perfect understanding, even though there is no such thing in the Syrian Arab Republic.
I have been carefully taking my psychic pulse with regard to Syria. The symptoms indicate an increasingly severe case of exodophobia, a fear that, once here, I will never be able to leave the place. It begins the night before departure, like now, when I leave my command with the hotel desk personnel, in as many languages as I can muster, for a wake-up call the following morning. My own alarm is carefully set and checked, since I know they will not call me. There are elaborate instructions for the arrival of a taxi to the airport. I fear he will not be there at 6 A.M. Will the car break down en route? Will there be an accident? Or –a new development this trip– will the airport have moved? Will my luggage, my papers be in order? Will I perish of poisoned tea or ennui in the waiting room? Will the flight be cancelled, postponed to the next day, depart so late that I’ll miss my connections? Will I be crushed to death when we board the plane like starved rats? Will the plane blow up on takeoff? Will the luggage of the Palestinian sitting next to me, the sum of his worldly possessions, fall out of the overhead rack and crush me to death? Will we crash and my ashes be strewn over Hums?
Why this recurring dread? Probably because I know the place so well, know how many things can go wrong, things that in the ordinary course of life in Syria can be righted by patience and perseverance, qualities that count for nothing when it’s a question of an airline departure. I know that rebooking or rerouting would be the equivalent of reversing the course of the sun. Oh, Sham, Sham, thou art killing me.
But exactly at 5:30 A.M. on Dec. l3th the phone rings in Room 859 at the Damascus International Hotel. I am, inshallah, on my way.