My archeological summer in Hell

A Dig at Raqqa 1979

Father Flanagan, the cleric portrayed by Spencer Tracy in “Boystown,” reportedly said that there was no such thing as a bad boy. I don’t know about boys, even though I’m still myself one even at this advanced age, but I know a lot about ideas since I’ve had a few, and I can attest that there are assuredly bad ideas, and even some very bad ideas. Dating a nurse named Toots Moriarty is an example of the first; as for the second, it is, hors de combat, my notion of taking students to the Middle East. Taking students anywhere outside a classroom is probably a bad idea simpliciter, but taking them abroad is a very bad idea, and taking them to the Syrian Arab Republic is Hall of Fame material, right up there with the Vietnam War, the papal declaration of Papal Infallibility and Abe Beame.

Who knows where bad ideas come from? The rabbis shifted the blame to a Bad Impulse, but I suspect the origins lie closer to home, somewhere in that vast cerebral area called Self Delusion. Father Flanagan deluded himself that he could straighten out any youthful miscreant, and he succeeded, but only because his bad boy was Mickey Rooney, and we know the Mick, who was under a long-term contract to MGM, is never going to turn out to be really bad. I was not Spencer Tracy by a long shot, but that trifle can probably be overlooked in the light of a more powerful reality: no one of my students has ever turned out to be Mickey Rooney, or Margaret O’Brien for that matter. Like myself, they were what they were, which was, let’s say as a preliminary marker, misleading.

It’s not a pretty comparison, but a school is like both a zoo and a circus. The wild animals are kept secured in classrooms where they are taught to perform certain tricks, which, it is hoped, may one day entertain an audience of parents, prospective mates and putative employers. But unlike a real zoo, in college the wild ones are set free at the end of each day to hunt and mate out there in the jungle. On a quiet night you can hear them baying up and down the length of Third Avenue in New York City.

I was a keeper-trainer in this arch little comparison. I had the whip and the pistol, but these college animals had been performing so long in classrooms that there was little need to use either: I said “Sit!” and they sat. Or solved equations, conjugated verbs or rattled off the Bill of Rights. In their classroom cages they were docile and friendly; most students were so tame they would eat from your proffered hand.

I had been goiing to Syria for years, a country whose political posture in the mid 70s was notoriously anti-American but, since few Syrians had ever encountered an actual American, the popular perception remained that Americans were all as good as the reformed Mickey Rooney and the United States green card was a passport to Paradise. The House of Assad might have loved the Russians, but the rest of Syria, unspoiled by either American tourists or American handouts, preferred “Dallas” and “Bonanza.” For an American in Syria in the 70s, before the invention of terrorism or body searches or car bombs, when the occasional hijacker had only Cuba on his mind, the going was good, as Evelyn Waugh once put it.

It was certainly good for me. I had had the best of novice masters in the German archeologist Heinz Kessler; I had made a good friend high up in the Syrian Department of Antiquities; and I had carte blanche to room —to sleep in Jean Sauvaget’s bed! — at the French Institute, the home base of every archeologist, mostly French and German, who worked in Syria. Archeologists are easily amused when they are off-site, and they apparently found the American non-archeologist who dressed like a disco dancer and talked like a Catskills comic sufficiently amusing to allow me to drink their beer in Damascus and to visit them at their digs, but only so long as I didn’t touch anything. In situ, I learned, “in [its original] place,” was a sacramental term. Don’t even breathe on that bit of pottery, ami.

I watched myself at those archeological shrines. I didn’t touch their precious shards; I didn’t disturb their stratigraphic fantasies—“This burnt layer probably dates from the Great Fat Fire of the Neolithic, oh, say 7537 B.C., give or take a couple of months.” And I certainly didn’t poach on their girlfriends, those winsome graduate students lured to the Mysterious Orient by the romance of an archeological summer, a cadre of innocents that the Israelis had invented, evolved and brought to near perfection.

I had my own student cadre at home of course: younger and sleeker, and with notably fewer muscles and understandably less common sense than those bronzed Amazons in the pits at Megiddo or Ascalon. The spark of folie was struck in that tender tinder, perhaps by the Evil Impulse Himself, with the recollection of all my oh-so-pleasant Syrian adventures. What better way to spend a summer, I thought, in this case the summer of 1979, than showing the archeological glories of the Syrian Arab Republic to a select group of university students?

The key concept was, of course, “select.” There could be no mistakes here: one rotten apple and all that. The criteria were obvious: attractive, bright, amusing, preferably with dependency issues, and not too resourceful. Did I mention attractive? We were after all representing the university. As the choices narrowed, I grew more cunning. I’d have to take along some males, a whiff of testosterone: a couple of strong backs, stolid types that were willing to carry things and didn’t mind being ignored. And I’d need an older female, a mature graduate student to take care of whatever “female things” might arise, a kind of Rachel, a mother figure in the wilderness. And one, no more than one, rather unattractive lass—I’m sorry; I am not Father Flanagan. There are unattractive lasses—to deflect mean–spirited criticism of my motives. And it would help if she could do sums since I certainly couldn’t.

It was done. I had at hand two perfect young men: Harry, willing and amusing, and Max, serious and exceedingly sturdy. My mother hen was obvious, a comely graduate student actually named Rachel, serious, reliable and married. Sylvia was a must: dark and sassy-but-I’m-worth-it. I laid down a dangerous marker on Salima, a very young, breathtakingly beautiful Somali. She was nicely balanced by Lavinia, handsome, reserved and, halleluiah, she didn’t much care for boys. A colleague offered me Helen, a math major who could both add and subtract and had once hiked the Appalachian Trail, whatever that meant. The Evil Impulse was watching all this in silence from the sidelines. At this point he stood up, cleared this throat and whispered in my ear, “How about Kimberly Kean?”

Kimberly was on everyone’s list for everything. Kimberly, or Kim or Kimmie, depending on the circumstances and the occasion, was a former Dade County Community College cheerleader and United Airlines stewardess —I prefer the old rubric— who returned to finish college and spice up the fantasies of even the most marginally sentient among the faculty. This was a bold choice. She was so obviously the stuff of lubricity that she made a laughing stock of all my other subterfuges. Even the most short-witted of Associate Deans could see through the utterly mature Rachel, my somber mathematician Helen and the non-voting Lavinia to the tanned, blond and glowing Aphrodite whose smiling body fairly shouted, “Coffee, tea, and hey, think about it, maybe me!”

“A yar crew,” I confessed to a friend.

“You’re in deep shit,” was his prescient response.

Fantasy, all of it: an overheated academic with no funds to float this Middle Eastern Loveboat. Fund raising was not my forte, but there was a kind of silvery stream flowing parallel to the creek I called my life. At this particular moment it was the Albanian Foundation—who knew? It had come to the university, purse in hand, expressing a willingness to fund a Chair in Albanian Studies, that is, a tenured faculty position to teach both Albanian language and Albanian history, if there should chance to be such, with maybe stipends for a couple of graduate students thrown in. The chair would be occupied, you could bet on it, by the foundation’s favorite Albanian, possibly the nephew of the founder. If that’s how the foundation trustees came to the university —universities eat such proposals for breakfast– they left a couple of million lighter in the purse and with their Chair reduced to a kind of virtual folding stool that might one day materialize at the Second Coming of Iskander Beg.

All foundations have their vanities, and the chief vanity of the Albanian Foundation was personified in Azim, the sleek gentleman who dispensed its monetary favors, apparently single-handed. He liked to hang out in the department where he was sometimes mistaken for a professor by the undergraduates who, no slouches at slipperiness themselves, soon learned to call him “Doctor Azim.” Some received Albanian calendars in appreciation.

I didn’t need a calendar, I needed a bundle of cash, and so I approached the suggestible Azim —I generally addressed him as “Ya Ustaz,” which he took as an honorific, which indeed it is and is applied, with a large dollop of irony, to waiters and cabbies throughout the Middle East— with a scheme. What I proposed to do was to take a, yes, select group of students to the Middle East to work on an archeological dig in Syria, where I was, of course, well connected and —here was the hook— we would videotape the entire operation so that the tape could later be used as a teaching tool at the university. Brilliant, yes?

“How much?” said Azim.

I produced my budget.

“We’ll live on the cheap. I can bring the whole thing in under “$25,00, Ustaz, airfares and all. And the work product will be useful for years.”

“There’ll be full credits?”

I was young and inexperienced. I should have offered him an Associate Producer credit.

“Yes, of course, and I thought, if you’re willing, you might introduce the project on camera.”

Francis, you squalid bottom-feeder, have you no shame?

“Sounds fungible,” said the hooked, filleted and already half-broiled Albanian wide-mouthed bass I had pulled from that silver stream.

I summoned the elect one by one and issued “the invitation of a lifetime,” as I characterized it. They responded with what seemed to me like 50% enthusiasm —they were after all, most of them, students of the Middle East— and 25% anxiety: none of them had ever been to the Middle East before. The remaining 25% –was it fear? — seemed to be grounded in uncertainty whether this Captain Ahab could actually put his ship to sea and bring them all back to port safely. But whatever the quavering, they all signed on. I gave them all “Summer of ‘79” tee-shirts.

There were inoculations to be gotten and releases to be signed: the university wanted no part in this expedition into Darkest Syria. The word “insurance” hung over me like a dark cloud, distant and ominous. I pretended to ignore it. What I could not ignore, however, was Salima’s father, who chose to carry his daughter’s release form personally to me in my office. He was a large Somali gentleman who filled the doorway and then some.

“Are you OK?” he wanted to know.

I don’t think he was inquiring about my health. In fact, he was answering his own question with his glinting stare.

“Oh, I’m more than OK,” I tried. “Salima will be perfectly safe with me.”
He put the form on my desk and bent over close to my face.

“She’d better be.”

If they could have seen that face, no US serviceman would have gone anywhere near Mogadishu, then or later.

Make a note: Get her home intact o matter what.

Salima’s was the only parent who showed up. All the others were either free agents or preferred not to tell their parents how they would be spending the summer. An “internship” might have filled the bill.

Kimmie stepped into the office, form in hand.

“Can I take the pictures? Please!”

“It’s video.”

“I meant the video.”

This was one element I really hadn’t thought out when I was pitching it to Azim. Later I thought maybe the presumably practical Helen could manage it. Or perhaps Lavinia. Lesbians are good with machines, aren’t they? But what had started out as a small fungus of the species folie was now ballooning out into a full-blown mushroom, the kind you shouldn’t eat.

“What makes you think you can handle a video camera, Kimberly?”

“Come on, professor. I majored in communications at Dade.”

I, who worshipped at the altar of credentials, would have refused even to bow my head to that one. But I was no longer driving. It was the Evil Impulse who was at the wheel.

“OK, let’s see. Find us a place where we can rent video equipment.”

“Sure,” she said and skipped out of the office as cheerfully as she had skipped in. Well, I thought, what a really nice girl.

A week later we were standing together in a narrow upstairs warehouse space in Soho. A bearded man in an undershirt had buzzed us in.

“OK, this is it. Used but perfectly functional. $5000 now. You get half of it back when you return the equipment intact.”

The “equipment” was a camera, what looked like a rocket belt and a tangle of electrical cords.

“What do you think, Kimberly?” I asked.

“You’re the professor,” she twinkled.

Right then and there I should have seized one of the electric cords and twisted it around her tanned throat until she, you know, died.

“So what does the professor think?” the undershirt smirked
.
“OK, I guess.”

It was said with the same conviction that Mrs. Noah must have expressed when hubby first explained his ark plan.

“Yay,” shouted Kimmie, and if she had had her blue and white pom-poms, I’m sure she would have shaken them.

The Somali death threat and the video camera embarrassment aside, everything went remarkably smoothly: shots, passports, Syrian visas, airline tickets. By mid-June we were locked and loaded and ready to go. In those days Syrian Air had one jumbo jet that once a week plodded the skies back and forth between New York and Damascus like a dutiful pack horse, pausing only in Paris to stretch its legs. It wasn’t pleasant, it wasn’t fast and it wasn’t comfortable, but it was cheap and in the end it got us there.

Damascus International Airport was itself not a thing of beauty, a flat building in that dull color between beige and grey that the Syrians managed to capture to perfection. Entry was always easy. There were few foreign visitors in those days, and those who did show up excited no particular interest. Stamp, bang and we were out on the street. Then the ride down Potemkin Road, that grand, untraveled boulevard that all Second and Third World countries must build between their airport and their capital. Its intent is simply to mislead. Its six broad and well-lit lanes are supposed to speak of modernity and know-how and to impress visiting heads of state. Their unmarked surfaces with grass growing from the cracked concrete tell the truth.

I managed to pack all of us and the luggage —“Who’s got the camera equipment?” I screamed as we pulled away from the airport. “In the trunk, professor” said sturdy Max— into two taxis. Syrian cabbies make provision for one passenger to sit astride the gearshift. Once again Max stepped into the breach, or rather, put the gear lever into his breach, and underlined the wisdom of my choice of him as lead dog on this team.

“Nice going, Max.”

I had booked our initial rooms in the New Umayyad Hotel. It was once le dernier cri in Damascus but now it was wilting in the shadow of a rising Sheraton and an already standing Meridien, where the morning wake-up call was birdsong. Ah, commes ils sont drôles les Français! But I had been introduced to Syria in the late 50s at the New Umayyad and I thought my charges deserved the same experience. What I did not share with them was a somewhat later experience on the same premises.

Early on, before I was initiated into the Wisdom of the East and so suffered from chronic silliness, it was my arrival custom, albeit stuffed with bad air and bad airplane food, to leap down onto the tarmac from a fourteen hour flight and head for the nearest Middle Eastern restaurant. There I consumed massive servings of the local delicacy, whether that was sautéed grasshoppers, lentil mash or canned sardines, before falling, often fully clothed, into bed. The results were grimly predictable; only the venues varied. In the Royal Maroc in Casablanca I threw up into my open suitcase; in the Buyuk Efes in Izmir onto the golden drapes; and in the Cairo Hilton once in the elevator and once onto the table before I even finished the meal.

But my masterpiece of bad judgment unfolded in Damascus in my room in the New Umayyad. Swollen with jet lag and prodigious helpings of Imam Bayildi, I fell groaning into bed. A couple of hours later I awoke with a start, head pounding, bile in my throat, stars floating before my eyes. I stumbled through the darkness into the bathroom, ripping blindly at my clothes. I was going to be very, very sick, but that was the least of it: I was going to die! I made it to the toilet and made a quick decision to sit on the bowl rather than put my head in it, both of them a viable option. My head was threatening to burst asunder with a blinding pain. And then, the Devil’s Trifecta: there in the bathroom of the New Umayyad Hotel in Damascus I produced, all in the same moment, a barrage of vomit, a Niagara of diarrhea and a sledge-hammer headache.

It ended. It had to end, else I were dead. I sat there on the cold toilet under the cold fluorescent light and what do I do? Repent my sins? Pray for forgiveness to the great god Tums? No, this idiot lights up a cigarette. And passes out.

I blinked. I don’t know how long I was out, but there I was, still seated on the cold porcelain, head against the wall, the Marlboro burning harmlessly on the tile floor next to my bare feet. It slowly dawned on me that I had fainted on the toilet. It was like deciding to take a nap in Purgatory. For the first time that evening I laughed. I had mated incongruity and stupidity in what amounted to a hypostatic union.

There would be none of that this time. I would collect the children and tell them to take a nap so we’d all be fresh later in the evening.

“Harry! Max! Get the girls and tell them to come to my room.”

“The girls? They went out, professor.”

“Out? Out where?”

“They said to get a hamburger.”

“There are no hamburgers in Damascus,” I screamed. “Only stuffed grape leaves, hummus and kibbe.”

Those cultural notes were not my real concern, of course. It was the thought of my nubile charges, including the marginally nubile Rachel, wandering the back alleys of a city where every lothario in a polyester shirt and a pack of Marlboros squeezed into his skintight pants has only one goal in life, to sit in a bar and have an American student drop onto his overheated lap. A large Somali father floated before my eyes. Oh God!

“Harry! Max! Let’s go!”

There were, as it turned out, hamburgers in Damascus. Socialist Syria would never tolerate a capitalist icon like a McDonald’s of course, but like their Soviet mentors, the Syrians were not above a little artless imitation of their betters. This particular faux fast food parlor was called “Hamburger Heaven,” and there in its midst, the center of attention of the patrons who had come to munch but were feasting their eyes, sat my four belles de jour.

“This is not very good,” Sylvia said, gingerly holding a slab of grey meat stuffed inside a pita.

“Of course it isn’t,” I gasped, my throat still constricted with terror. “What do the Syrians know from hamburgers? But never mind that. What are you doing here? And where is Rachel?”

Did white slavers really prefer older women? Were they too looking for a mother?

“She decided to take a nap.”

“Which is what you should be doing. Please, go back to the hotel and go to bed. And lock the door of your rooms.”

“We were going to bum around Damascus for a while, you know, check it out.”

This from Lavinia who paused only to light a cigarette, much to the rib-poking delight of the onlookers, who had now grown into a small crowd. Show time had come to Damascus, unannounced, unexpected and certainly undeserved. And –my God!– was Kim wearing shorts?

“Look,” I said, steadying myself against the table, “let’s all walk quietly back to the hotel.”

Which we did, trailed by the same gaping males, the advance guard of a troop that would be following us —well, them— all over Syria. The word, I was sure, was already running through the suq that this mindless professor had —al-hamdu lillah!— brought hot new American girls to the Republic, something in short supply in Syria where the local bravos had to make do with implacable German archaeologists, mädchens who would as lief kill them as say hello, and with the occasional French anthropologist whose hair was wrapped in a bun so tight as to strangle all expectation. American co-eds! Allah latif! God is indeed generous!

So I reasoned, but I could never bring myself to lay it on the line to my charges: Listen, girls. Tighten your pants. This is going to be a bumpy ride. The best I could do was to suggest to the relaxed Rachel that it might be a good idea if she sort of kept an eye on her mates —“You know how young girls are..,” something I obviously did not— and to hint to darling Kimmi that short shorts, while part of the school uniform at Dade, were, well, a trifle mischievous in Damascus. Gamesters at the local hammam laid odds at Kimmi’s understanding what “mischievous” meant at 100-1.

We paid a courtesy visit to the Department of Antiquities at the National Museum and inspected the new finds from Ebla while the Director quietly inspected his guests. He seemed particularly interested in Rachel. It was already becoming sadly clear that, as far as the locals were concerned, my flock’s designated guard dog was really just another one of the sheep.

“You must bring them all back soon, professor,” were his parting words, “Very soon.”

Sure.

The next day we were finally on our way, Damascus to Aleppo, via le service, the shared cab service where you buy a place in a yellow Dodge Charger for the five-hour run. Once again I got us all in two cabs, though it was tight going. Harry and Max were assigned places in the middle front atop the gearshift.
The trip is a legendarily dangerous one, as the roadside wrecks along its entire length bore silent eloquent witness. How not? The two-lane highway is narrow, shoulderless and crowded, and the drivers, Syrian cabbies and Bulgarian trailer-truck jockeys, are often comatose and always drive too fast.

On earlier travels up and down this deadly speedway I had been paralyzed with fear, my eyes welded to the head of the driver seated in front of me, searching for any signs of his nodding off and sending me and all my dreams, aspirations and lusts into the grill of an oncoming truck loaded with lettuce from Plovdiv. This time I was oddly relaxed, however, almost euphoric. Kimmie had interpreted my shorts edict very narrowly, or perhaps just ignored it, and so for five hours it was her tanned and naked thigh that swayed rhythmically next to my own as we sped past dim Homs and once happy Hama all the way to Aleppo.

“How you doing up there, Harry? Not too uncomfortable sitting on that thing?”

“I’m good, professor. Feels OK.”

We stayed at Baron’s Hotel in Aleppo, a small place with the lovely decrepit airs of colonial grandeur, the former haunt of British generals and German spies and, very often, vice versa. Room 202 had been Lawrence’s and now, once again, it was mine. I sent the others to explore the medieval suq, with Max out front to clear a path, Harry circling the flanks and the girls tethered to a tight lead in the hands of the ever-watchful Rachel. Kimberly I kept with me in the hotel. Video time.

We stood regarding the equipment in the two black boxes on the floor of the room.

“You checked this stuff out before we left, Kimberly?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Oh, no” was the unvoiced subtext of that response.

“Well, let’s give it a try, Cecil B.”

“Who’s Cecily?”

Box One held the camera, carefully cradled in sculpted black foam. Box Two was less orderly. Stuffed into it were a heavy black battery belt and a tangled mass of electrical cords and wires.

“Who wears that?” I asked.

“I guess I do.”

“You guess?”

Kim did not answer. Instead she rooted around among the wires until she found a camera connection and an electrical plug end. Our eyes swept around the room together. Yes, there was an outlet, very old, very ugly and very French, vintage ca. 1937. Its grinning face bore no relationship to the plug in Kimmie’s hand.

“Oh,” she said, “it’s not going to fit.”

I’m a professional educator. I paused for a spell to let the enormity of that creep under her blond locks. But she was a professional cheerleader with an Associate of Arts degree from the worst institution of higher learning in the Western Hemisphere: the thought that disaster was at hand never entered her head. OK. I went to my suitcase, not the one I once threw up in in Casa, and retrieved the international plug converter I always carried.

“Oh, good,” Kimmie chirped brightly, free from the least taint of either Original or Actual Sin.

She plugged one end into the camera —for the vry first time, I was sure— and the other very hesitantly into the wall outlet. I was about to suggest that maybe the battery belt… when a crackling blue flash filled the room, followed almost immediately by the acrid smell of… Of what? Ozone? No, I thought it must be it the same sickly odor that drifts toward the witnesses when some poor sod is juiced in the electric chair. But it wasn’t human flesh that was being fried here; it was the Summer of ’79 Archeological Project. Poof! Gone in thirty seconds.

“Wow!”

That from Missy Kim, cinematographer, found dead, strangled, it appeared, in her own shorts by person or persons unknown in Room 202 of the Hotel Baron in the summer of 1979.

I am not only a professional educator; I am also a former Jesuit, a man trained in control of the passions, a brother of those illustrious 17th century blackrobes who suffered the Iroquois along the Mohawk to bite off their fingers and still raised them, what was left of them, in a blessing. Like them, I neither cried out nor cursed my tormentor. I was composed, catatonically so.

“Well,” I said, “that was sure something.”

Kimberly placed her tanned hand–her fingernails were a delicate pink, I remember– gently on my arm.

“Don’t worry, professor. We’ll have fun anyway.”

That we did. I slowly leaked to the others that we’d be concentrating on the serious business of archeology rather than videotaping. And I had the entire summer to make up a plausible account —the Jesuits were not only martyrs; they were also superb casuists— for the Albanian Foundation. I needn’t have bothered. They had lost all interest in my Summer of ’79 as soon as I had vanished from sight. I guess foundations have write-offs too.

Raqqa lies on the Euphrates about a hundred miles due east of Aleppo. This stage we did by railway, which was more comfortable and far less dangerous than our taxi transport. And there, waiting for us at the Raqqa station, in sharp contradiction to the complex of Murphy’s Laws that govern life in Syria, was my man, my savior, Kassem Tayyibi. Kassem was Number Two at Antiquities, the director of the excavation at Raqqa and my door-opener, mentor and guide for all matters Syrian. He was in his middle forties, a small, compact man, dark and intense, and he was smoking up a storm when we descended onto the station platform at Raqqa.

“You’re on time!” we shouted at each other, both astonished at that unlikely event.

There would be no more problems. Kassem was there.

Our lodgings had been arranged long in advance. We were all to stay in Raqqa at a place called simply “Umm Zuhayr’s” and be transported daily to the actual dig site a few miles back up the Euphrates. Our housing was well named. Muslims traditionally call themselves by the name of their firstborn male, so Abu Zuhayr and Umm Zuhayr were the proud father and mother of the eponymous Zuhayr. Both were in their very early fifties, though to us they appeared older: she buxom, loud, loving and completely and totally in charge; he calmly enjoying the show with quiet good humor, freed, it would appear, of all cares by the mere presence of his prodigious wife.

There were nine children in all, six still at home, from the aforementioned Zuhayr, about thirty, to the conclusively named Khitam, roughly translated ‘That’s it! Finished!,” a girl of about ten. Also in residence was the unfortunate Najjat, the young wife of a son presently away in the army. As the daughter-in-law, and childless at that, she occupied a rung in the household hierarchy just above that of the two roosters who strutted about the courtyard and, contrary to all civilized custom, fell asleep at dawn, awoke at sunset and crowed the long night through.

They, the family and the roosters, and we, the archeological intruders, were all quartered in the open courtyard. There were rooms on the northern and eastern sides, high retaining walls on the other two. In the summer and, in fact, through most of the year in that climate, the interior rooms were used only for storage, cooking and washing up; all else unfolded in the courtyard, as on a brightly lit stage. Near the single, steel door entry to the courtyard, there was, flush against the outer wall, a tiny room with a water spigot and pitcher on the outside. Within was a wide porcelain drain with a hole in its center, a contrivance that the fastidious, who could not or would not simply hunker down, could convert into a rude toilet by positioning a sort of metal tripod atop it and sitting, sibyll-like, atop it. Failing all other entertainment, one could number and time others’ visits to The One and Only Privy at Umm Zuhayr’s
.
The family slept on bedrolls in one corner of the courtyard, sheltered behind a small garden, while the Ameerkani and their Syrian mentor made do on bedrolls and in sleeping bags wherever there was space. In another corner there was a long wooden table with benches where we took our meals; the family ate there as well but at different times. It was close quarters all round but not particularly irksome save for the fajr, the so-called Muslim “dawn prayer” to which Raqqans were loudly and lengthily summoned at 3:30 AM by loudspeakers in minarets all across the city; and of course the nightly din of the two roosters. That latter ended when Umm Zuhayr served one of them for dinner, a peremptory act that appeared to frighten the survivor into an almost Cistercian silence.

We had a day to get settled in, and on the next we were bouncing toward Heraqleh in two pick-up trucks.

“The video?” Kassem asked in the privacy of the front seat.

Mashallah,” I sighed. It is a handy Arabic expression that catches every single nuance between the Muslim “It is the will of Allah” to the American “Don’t ask” or “Whatever.”

The site was called Heraqleh because the Greek sources said there was a place called Heracleia near the ancient Callinicum (Raqqa), and the later Muslim sources mentioned that the celebrated caliph Harun al-Rashid (r.786-809 A.D.) —he of the Arabian Nights– had built a fortress and/or palace there.

This Heraqleh was, however, nothing more than a large mound of earth, 50 yards around and maybe 10 to 15 feet high, located about a mile north of the present course of the Euphrates. It was one of many unexcavated sites in Syria: there are countless tells or artificial mounds across Mesopotamia that cry out “Dig here!” Archeologists can now CAT scan their interior and see if it’s worth the effort to excavate, but formerly, as here, the only way to find out whether it was worth the digging was to take shovel in hand and dig.

It isn’t the archeologist who does the shoveling, of course; that task falls to local labor, in this case mostly high school students recently released from their classrooms. They were paid, certainly, regularly if not handsomely, but never in the long and frightening history of adolescence has money turned irresponsible teenagers into archeological Stakhanovites. Ni aquí.

Kassem had been digging at the site for about two weeks, mostly from the top down, with some nibbling at the sides of the mound. He had found some courses of a retaining wall at the margins but so far nothing at the top. But surely the vigorous new American reinforcements would bring a change in fortune! Max and Harry at least threw themselves into the hot, dusty, back-breaking work of moving dirt from here to there, but les belles, who seemed quite eager to take on the pomaded bravos of Damascus, showed a very distinct disinclination to mix it up with Raqqan teenagers, who for their part regarded the sudden and unheralded arrival of the Girls of ’79 as an unexpected, and richly undeserved, gift of Allah. The damsels weren’t very keen on the digging either.

The ugly secret of archeology is the grinding daily work schedule, which you will never find on the Discovery Channel. We were up and about in the courtyard at five, and after a very quick black coffee and a crust of yesterday’s bread, we were rattling off to the dig at 5:30. The idea was to beat the sun, a losing battle on the Mesopotamian plain where the sun doesn’t rise; it explodes into sight like an enormous fireball and stops there, right in your face, until you fall down and die. If you hadn’t done that —there was no shade at Heraqleh— there was a feeding at 10 AM: hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes and pita bread. It doesn’t sound like much, but after four hours under the sun, it tasted like a medium rare cut of New York strip steak with a side of spaghetti alla carbonara.

The effect of the morning food break was predictable: general lassitude and a complete collapse of morale. Kassem had now to go constantly among his charges applying his verbal flail, Ya shabab! “Let’s go, guys!”, with ever decreasing results. My own charges, I noticed, were not much better. To begin with, they were not being paid. More fatally, they quickly seized on the pointlessness of it all: there were no gold coins or gleaming Praxitelean torsos under all that dirt. Not even pottery. Not even pieces of pots they could pretend to study. Just more dirt. As the morning wore on my little group of adventurers gradually stopped working and began huddling in one another’s shadow like a species of Mesopotamian ferret.

At 1 PM, with the sun at its ferocious zenith, the actual workday ended—the actual work had long since dwindled into a crawl, then a full stop. The highschoolers went dustily trudging off to their homes and the Americans, who now suddenly sprung back to life, piled into the pickups. Our destination was not Bayt Umm Zuhayr, however, but the Euphrates. Kassem had discovered a lovely grove of eucalyptus along the river’s edge at a secluded spot where the Euphrates ran shallow and gently, and here we would often swim at the end of work.

There is no totally uninhabited place on earth. If you pause to pee plunk in the middle of the Arabian Empty Quarter, you will look up to find a badu, or maybe an entire tribe, staring at you. So it was no surprise that a bystander or two should soon show up on the Euphrates shore. What was a surprise was the speed with which the news that there were scantily clad maidens gamboling in the river spread through the countryside. The speed of airborne testosterone is apparently greater than that of light.

We had not thought to bring bathing suits —Syria has exactly three inches of beachfront access to the Mediterranean at Latakia, and it was now occupied by the Russians— so cut-off jeans and tee-shirts had to do or, if you were the brazen Kimmie or the innocent Salima, a tee-shirt and panties. The shadowy watchers on the shore grew to a nicely apostolic twelve on our next outing, then, as the Good News spread, to twenty or more, and the newcomers added sound to the silent movie called “American Girls Do the Euphrates.” I’m a little weak on the Arabic nouns describing parts of the female body and the various actions verbs that followed, but I could certainly recognize the imperatives that bade the girls remove the rest of their clothing.

Kassem had finally to intervene when the now overflow crowd began to edge into the river. Syrians are not much given to swimming, but some now seemed bent on learning how. At Kassem’s request the mayor of Raqqa, who came out in person to supervise the operation, provided two armed gendarmes who at least kept the male horde out of the water. Eventually we had to give up the afternoon swim. It was only a matter of time before the gendarmes too, and perhaps the mayor himself, would be in the river dogpaddling toward Salima.

No matter; there was alternative entertainment chez Umm Zuhayr. It was now Ramadan and the family was in daytime shutdown: no food, no drink; life was reduced to a trickle. We ate as usual at 5 PM, but from dawn to dusk the family was rarely to be seen. When the cannon signaled sundown and the end of the daily fast, however, the courtyard burst into sudden life. There were initial snacks for the family and then a great hither and froing for the great dinner that was to follow. That was consumed with great gusto and loud good spirits at about our bedtime.

But that was no means the end of it. Zuhayr, the eponymous eldest son, thirty and unmarried, was described as a teacher. Where or at what was a mystery since he was always at home and in what can only be described as lounge mode. He was also said to be a “Sufi,” a Muslim ascetic and holy man, though he was never seen performing a devotional exercise, including the canonical prayers. I concluded that in this instance “Sufi” should be parsed as “someone with a vague and quite ineffective interest in the piety of others.” His own single ascetical practice was to rise about 3 AM during Ramadan to eat the additional pre-sunrise meal that shari’a permitted the fasting Muslim and that his mother had gotten up from her bed to cook for him, and him alone. To this day I am still occasionally jolted awake at 3 in the morning by the imagined smell of broiled lamb chops.

If Zuhayr seemed to live an untroubled and comfortable life, it was quite otherwise with Najjat, the poor soul who had married or, more accurately, had been married into the family by way of Private Hassan of the Syrian Army. Pfc. Hassan was now on Ramadan leave when, it was expected by every female in Raqqa, he would get Najjat in a family way. Not easy that bit of business since our soldier was rarely at home. He was, it was whispered —the acoustics in the courtyard were excellent— generally to be found in the company of a widow lady he admired. “God knows best,” as the Muslims like to say. That may be true; Hassan himself seemed clueless.

Najjat was not comely to begin with and her prolonged childlessness made her an object of both scorn and pity in the courtyard. Her status was further compromised by frequent visits from Amira, Umm Zuhayr’s married daughter who carried about with her at all times her own social passport, a newborn infant whom Umm Zuhayr paraded before all present with its diaper artfully unpinned so that all might see and admire and applaud the tiny male member that clinched both his superior social standing and, of course, his mother’s.

But for every apple in Eden there is also a serpent in the guise of a worm. The tiny male wonder was also handed around to the many courtyard guests who wandered in and around our sleeping bodies on Ramadan evenings. There were the prescribed “oohs” and “aahs” of course, but one senior Raqqa critic, after inspecting the infant Hercules in her lap, was heard to murmur quite audibly, Shwayy zinji, loosely but accurately rendered, “A little dark skinned, don’t you think?” There was, it seems, a hierarchy even in the sacred caste of infant males and on the cosmic scales, lighter was better, like that haughty beldame’s own doubtless milk-skinned grandson.

Ramadan was finally over, a relief all round. Muslims didn’t fight Ramadan; they simply hibernated. And now the household could resume its normal, more relaxed rhythms, and Umm Zuhayr would not longer have to rise at 3 AM and broil lamb chops for her Sufi son. For us unbelievers it meant the end of the long and loud homilies broadcast day and night from minaret loudspeakers across the city. And everyone could smoke openly again. The Middle East was one of the last bastions of free-range smoking: you could light up whenever and wherever you chose, mosques alone excepted. But it was considered exceedingly bad form for a foreigner to smoke in public during the daily Ramadan fast, which prohibited not only food and drink but also sex and smoking from sunrise to sunset. After sunset, of course, the entire country went up in smoke.

Ramadan, which lasts a lunar month, from one new moon to the next, doesn’t end in a simple manner, not in the Middle East. For many Muslims it is simply a matter of looking at a calendar and noting the arrival date of the new moon and the beginning of a new lunar month. But for the traditionalists, someone had actually to see the new moon, and that someone was the mufti or chief cleric of Syria. And until he pronounced, none of the festivities of the Id al-Fitr or the Feast of the Breaking (of the Fast), the enormous pan-Islamic celebration of the end of Ramadan, could begin. The calendar said “New Moon” and the Grand Mufti of Egypt had seen it, but on this occasion, His Eminence in Damascus, whether suffering from cataracts or a blinding migraine, or simply because he was looking out the wrong window, could not see that silver sliver in the sky. Id was on hold, and with it all the business and bank closings, banquets and hospitality calls that went along with it.

Finally, sanity prevailed. It was announced that anyone who had seen the furtive moon and was willing to make a sworn statement to that effect was sufficient to launch Id al-Fitr. In Raqqa alone, the perjury ran into the thousands. At Umm Zuhayr’s we dined, we wined and the arak flowed like holy water. Visitors poured in and out of the courtyard, all of them directed to gaze upon Umm’s de-pantsed infant grandson, who is going to grow up with a lot of interesting tactile memories. Pity the lad wasn’t a trifle lighter.

The festivities completed, life atop Heraqleh resumed in all its heat and numbing inanity. The fruitless digging had slowed to a slog, then a crawl. Kassem flogged his troops with every grim threat and lurid promise in his archeological bag of tricks, but with ever decreasing results. My little platoon made no pretenses: for them a turn at an archeological dig now consisted entirely of tomato sandwiches at 10 and an afternoon swim in the Euphrates, the latter occasionally enlivened by random gunshots from the gendarmes who watched over us from the shore or by a flotilla of dead fish that came drifting past, the residue of some dynamite fishing upstream.

It was time to go. We had reached the end of this misadventure whose last two weeks had become a nightmare. I woke once in the middle of the night, roughly 10:30 PM, and looked around me. There were Harry and Max happily snoozing, and Rachel was, as usual in the privy, quietly weeping. But the others were gone, cleared out, skipped. The Great Escape had begun when my charges discovered they could walk out the corrugated door and into Raqqa for an evening’s search after what had become, in their favorite Arabic expression, a baladi experience. For them baladi meant “local,” “native” and so, of course, “authentic.” For me it meant trouble, trouble here —“So where did you last see these females, sir, and why did you bring them to Syria?”— and really big trouble at home when it was discovered that thing on Kimmie’s lip was more than a skin rash; or when Sylvia told her parents that she had a new Syrian boyfriend who would be coming to New York in a week or so; or when, God help us all, when Salima failed to show up at the Damascus airport for the flight home.

“We’re going home,” I announced, possibly to the relief of everyone, Syrian and American alike. We packed up our gear —the video equipment had never been unpacked— I paid our bills and we bade a heartfelt farewell to the Family Zuhayr, which included a final admiring look at the privates of Amira’s infant male wonder. Rachel meanwhile, I noticed with surprise and pleasure, had slipped some Syrian pounds to Najjat. Umm was drowned in tears, of course, at this operatic occasion. She hugged all to near asphyxiation and had to be torn off Max by main force. When that was accomplished we piled into the trucks and made for the station of Raqqa on the Euphrates where a train carried us back to Aleppo. Then, rather than getting caught up again in the Running of the Bulgarian Bulls on the Damascus highway, I opted this time for the far cheaper and safer Karnac bus that thundered southward in bulky and menacing confidence.

There was no great clamor for lingering in Damascus —they may all have had their fill of baladi— but we did pay a final courtesy call at the Department of Antiquities. We assured the Director that working at Heraqleh was the experience of our lives and that Kassem Tayyibi was a superb archeologist, not as eminent as the Director himself, bien sûr —smiles from behind the executive desk with its two non-functioning telephones— whose work at Tell Abyad in the ‘50s was still the benchmark. And yes, of course we would certainly credit the Department and the Director in our upcoming film of the project.

This was to be a final farewell dinner, this one hosted by nuns in a Greek Orthodox convent at the Bab Tuma in the Christian quarter of Damascus. The good sisters wisely stayed well away from our actual meal, which took place in what appeared to be their dining room. We sat at a long refectory table at whose center I was enthroned on what must have been a patriarchal kathedra kept at the ready on the very outside chance that His Ecumenical All-Holiness might drop in for lunch. The Sacred Heart -—religious art was in short supply in Damascus– was pointing to his bleeding cardiac valve, but his eyes were fixed watchfully on us from his place on the wall. The menu of roasted chicken and frites, the cucina franca of the entire Middle East, was familiar and the wine was local, sweet and very new, but the mood was festive: we were going home. Festive up to a point, that is, and that precise point was when I slid slowly sideways onto the shoulder of Rachel seated to my right.

Her first reaction was “What’s happening?”, followed almost immediately by, “Oh my God!”

I had passed out cold, the dehydrated victim, it later turned out, of too few liquids and too much time in the midday Mesopotamian sun. But nobody knew that then. The company froze, all caught up in a single thought: A heart attack! He’s dead! That was merely the first reaction. It was quickly parsed and deconstructed into its various subtexts. He’s got our passports; we’ll be here forever! He’s got all the money; we’re going to end up being sold to the Saudis! And in one Somali head:wait till my father gets wind of this!

The mature Rachel did not entirely lose her cool, however. She made her careful way to the nearest nun who led her to the convent telephone. She called Kassem, who was now at home in Damascus.

“Yes, hello Kassem. This is Rachel from the dig. Yes, we’re all fine, thank you.”
She was holding on tight. Hysteria was a mere millimeter, a nanosecond, away.

“Yes, but you see, something has happened to the professor. He’s, uh, not well. He seems to be unconscious….Yes…Yes…Of course. Good talking to you Kassem. Regards to your wife. Goodbye.”

All eyes save mine were now on Rachel.

“He said he’d be here in twenty minutes, with a doctor,” she said, still trying desperately to hold it together. “Meanwhile we should stay calm.”

Calm? According to the later reports of eyewitnesses, I had turned a ghastly white and was now leaning heavily on Max, who had replaced Rachel, breathing but comatose. Where were the passports? Where is the money? How the hell do we get home? were the unvoiced thoughts in everyone’s mind.

“He’ll be alright,” Rachel said, convincing neither herself nor anyone else that this crumpled up guy in the Lacoste polo shirt would ever revive from whatever mysterious blow had felled him.

“He’ll be alright,” the doctor said. Kassem had arrived in precisely twenty-two minutes with a doctor still in his Damascus University Hospital scrubs, a strapping young cardiologist who was listening to me with his stethoscope and examining Kimmie out of the corner of his Hippocratic eye. The students seemed unconvinced, possibly because I was slowly taking on an alarming green hue.

“He looks funny,” Salima offered.

“We all look funny,” the doctor replied, now shifting his examination to the obviously more than healthy Salima, “except you, young lady. You look étonnante. This gentleman is dehydrated. I’m going to give him a shot of glucose and he’ll be as good as new, yes?”

So he said and so he did, Kassem on one side, Rachel of the other.

“Anyone else here having health problems?”, he asked with that disarming twinkle that they don’t teach in medical school but can be picked up in certain bars worldwide. “Can’t be too careful abroad, girls.”

I might just as well have been dead. He had, at any rate, exhausted his interest in his patient.

But his diagnosis must have been correct. Shortly my eyes opened and within another fifteen minutes I was upright and talking. I assured them that I was recovered and that both the passports and the money were safe. Very shortly the party resumed, now inflated with relief and enlivened by the presence of both Kassem and the agreeable Dr.Abrahamian. He danced, he sang and he spent considerable time trying to convince Salima that her healthy Somali glow might be masking a serious condition and perhaps a full examination was in order.

There is something about departures from the Damascus airport that caused me great anxiety. It’s a profound feeling that for some reason I would not be cleared for departure or, more generally, I would not be allowed to leave. I’ve never had an untoward incident there, but there was a prevailing sense of uncertainty in Syria that did not affect my everyday life there but came to a rolling boil when it was time to leave. It didn’t happen at Lod Airport in Israel, the Mother of All Profiling, because I knew that the Israelis knew that I did not set off any of their alarm bells. But I never know what the Syrians knew or what exactly the police, public and secret, or the gendarmerie that wander Damascus International were looking for.

What they were not looking for, apparently, in those early morning hours was a bedraggled flock of American student spies —though Kimmie inevitably got a second look— or their frazzled shepherd, the one who thought it would be great fun to bring them to Syria in the first place.

The heavy lift eastward from oasis Damascus out over the yellow-beige Syrian desert, then the slowing bending westward arc away from the ascending sun, a flash of green from the Orontes valley below and then, suddenly, the startling blue of the Mediterranean is still for me a moving sight. “We’re out,” I said to no one in particular, certainly not to Harry, already gently snoozing in the seat beside me.

We were in fact out and I was bringing them home, number and bodies intact. There was no video, of course, and there had been no discoveries atop Tell Heraqleh, but those failures faded to nothingness compared to the fact that no one had contracted cholera or the clap; no one had drowned or been dynamited in the Euphrates; no one had been assaulted or married or arrested; and no one —I counted them one last time— had missed the plane. It was a success and, like the Lord’s resurrection, it would never, ever, be repeated.

“Vodka,” I told the stewardess —it was 9:30 in the morning— “with maybe just a splash of tomato juice.”

No Comments

Leave a Reply