Several years ago, a friend and I stayed at the one hotel set amid the ruins of Queen Zenobia’s oasis capital, Palmyra, in the Syrian desert. Palmyra’s vast rubble-field was one of the great discoveries of the swashbuckling era of archaeology. The Roman-style temples, shops, houses, barracks and theatres reflected the cultural syncretism of the region. Opulent colonnades of wearying length still line the city’s Decumanus Maximus. An immense temple of Bel or Ba’al, a god interchangeable at a pinch with Jupiter, sits at one end of the major urban axis, and on the hilly outskirts of the city, unique tower tombs rear up like petrified Djinn. Except for a red-and-white radio tower on a massif overlooking the site (very difficult to keep out of snapshots, which spoils the impression of timelessness you keep trying to capture) the setting is pure archaeological romance. I could open the colonial era hotel’s French doors and wander several yards, or several miles, into a whole ruined city, pink in the evening light and empty except for a kid far away on a motorbike, puttering like the day’s last fisherman on the ocean of time. Visitors are warned against getting lost after dark.

A slight anxiety hung over our stay, over the whole trip. In part the source of this was my friend’s father back home. They were much closer than the average father and son. They’d worked side by side in the same office in the same family business for years and still spoke by phone almost every day. Though the older man had powered through lung cancer a decade before, recently he’d been declining again. It was the up and down ill health that demands frequent visits and that feels . . . well, timeless, because worry and reflection dilate the experience so much. There was no urgent reason for us to cancel the trip, so we went, but I frequently caught my friend with a thousand-yard stare and knew he wasn’t thinking about Zenobia or Bel.

Yet another anxiety we experienced in Syria was more obscure. I’d have to call it political, though that wasn’t clear to me at the time. My political blindness is, I suppose, what fills me with grief and regret when I think about what’s happening in Syria now. I’ve travelled a lot in the Middle East and north Africa. Politics and religion are always present, but boldly interlaced and difficult to decipher like a master calligrapher’s Koranic verses. They present a similar conundrum: is this meaning or just design? I’d always been content with design.

 
Long ago I met a Mauretanian prince who’d been exiled and was on the government dole in Paris. (He swore his first sexual encounter had been with one of his father’s slaves but assured me he supported the abolition of slavery. I had a hard time getting my mind around his need to have a position on the issue.) He used to fix me with a liquid brown gaze and summarize in a word what was needed more than anything else in the Maghreb – throughout the whole Arab and Muslim world – ‘democracy’.

Since I have a Madisonian and artistic distrust of the masses, I’m more a dutiful than a warm friend to democracy, but I figured the prince knew the needs of the region better than I did. Indeed, what we’ve been calling the Arab Spring seems to have begun with a terse simplicity exactly like the prophetic prince’s when he spoke to me: democracy. Still, not everyone in the Maghreb is politically impassioned. I remember in Fez one of the boy-guides who attach themselves to you like burrs earned our laughter when he joked about a black helicopter overhead, ‘Ah, Osama bin Laden must be hiding out around here.’

The political design became even more convoluted on visits around the same time to Egypt and Jordan. Egypt has hosted tourists since long before Herodotus. But when we stepped outside the usual bounds of travel there, even for a moment, the unease was palpable. Evening in a Nile-side village: the petulant, unfriendly begging of a shoeshine boy had to be halted, to our embarrassment, by a policeman who hurried over at a pot-bellied swagger. He barked at the child with the arrogance of Madame de Pompadour’s postilion.

Our driver on the night journey to Alexandria launched into a near-demented tirade about Israel: not what you think – he raged that Jews were the best and strongest people in the world and knew how to do everything better than Egyptians. His self-flagellating (incredibly rare) anger (incredibly common) frankly scared us, and we did everything we could to change the subject of conversation.

 
In Jordan, the infrastructure seemed designed to keep tourists and citizens rigorously apart. Enclosed bridges to enclosed beaches led from the fortress-like resorts of Aqaba. On arrival, a mirror on a broomstick was rapidly wheeled under the bumpers of the taxi, a quick check for bombs as matter-of-fact as the doctor tapping your knee with a reflex hammer. In the lounge a well-travelled older woman envied our plan to go to Syria. ‘It’d be OK for him,’ she gestured at her smiling, urbane husband, then leaned in, looked left and right, held up a be-ringed hand and stage-whispered, ‘But I’m Jewish.’

Ah, yes, beautiful Syria. And yet the country I was about to fall in love with, was also a tyranny technically at war with Israel. The frescoes from the Dura-Europa synagogue, the world’s oldest, could be enjoyed in the Damascus museum by a risible national population of only sixty Jews (according to an informed visitor who wrote the same year we were there). The country’s ancient Jewish community had been hounded to Manchester, England, to Brooklyn, South America, Jerusalem and the seashore mansions of Deal, New Jersey. Nor were Jews the only victims of Syria’s new dis-cretism. In 1982 the Hama massacre of rebellious Sunnis by Hafez al-Assad’s brother name cost around 20,000 lives.

Americans rarely visited Syria. The country had been demonized for as long as I could remember. But I thought surely things were looking up now that the mild opthamologist Bashar had come to power. Every glossy magazine in Europe was writing about his sophisticated wife. Italians and Germans travelled to Syria all the time.

My ear wasn’t tuned to politics. I was just looking. A quick side-trip across the border to Baalbek, Lebanon proved that. I went to see the temples naturally and hadn’t realized that ancient Heliopolis was also the hometown of Hezbollah. A Nuremberg Rally-like enfilade of banners lined every highway into Baalbek. They bore portraits of Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khameini or the Kalashnikov ‘logo’ of Hezbollah. The tourist shops sold fake Roman coins and the usual glossy pamphlets describing the immense shrines of Jupiter-Ba’al, Bacchus and Venus in laughably bad translations into seven languages. But tourists were thin on the ground, outnumbered by guides and surly hawkers. More than half their trade was in Hezbollah knick-knacks, outfits and flags. Buried in my closet and never worn is a bright yellow T-shirt bearing the Kalashnikov logo, a guilty souvenir as ‘cute’ as the swastika kitsch tourists brought back from Germany in the 1930s.

Compared to Baalbek, Syria appeared a paradise of contentment. Damascus was full of beautiful, animated women elegantly gesturing with the mouthpiece of their after-supper hookah. As if the political calligrapher had erred with an unaccountable inkblot, it was exactly the secular tyranny of the Baath party that made Damascus feel urbane and free.

Damascus was a favourite destination for Arabs from the theocratic south to enjoy truly good food, the company of prostitutes, a little alcohol. The cable TV system carried Italian sex channels of bizarre variety and abundance. The city could have been a lost Ottoman outpost, as vivacious as it was antique but shot through with the sophisticated melancholy of Portuguese Fado. To this day I think of it as a city of sighs.

A computer engineer forced into exile after the American invasion of Iraq sighed and smiled at how he’d been reduced to selling gewgaws in a tiny, dusty shop. The older woman who invited us to visit her shabby but renowned palace sighed when recollecting her many happy years in Indiana, of all places. And, of course, there were my friend’s distractions, moments when I noticed how still he was holding himself – the stoical, inaudible embodiment of a sigh. Time suddenly crawled, and I knew he was thinking about his father.

 
Palmyra is out in the eastern desert, but the heart of Syria is in the west along the north-south axis that links the country’s four largest cities, Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo. From Palmyra, my friend and I went to Hama, a frankly ugly poured-concrete city not so different from many places in the middle east, the sprawling outskirts of Cairo or of Damascus, for example, or whatever will remain of the equally unlovely Homs when the current bombardment ends. The ’83 Hama massacre was given a non-committal and not very informative line in our guide books. Only later reading made me realize I’d visited a killing ground without even knowing it.

How could we know, though, from the suave welcome we got at the rather empty Orient House, a rare surviving Ottoman mansion converted into a hotel? The atrium was dolled up with potted palms, but the rooms themselves were decorated in a hopeful, slightly impoverished ‘hospitality industry’ vernacular. We dropped our big bags.

Almost at once footsteps came pattering after us along the tiled hall. I didn’t trust the ingratiating hurry of those steps. Everything was going to change. My friend was called to the phone in the hotel office. I knew what this had be about and waited for him, pacing in slightly wilful suspense. When the bomb dropped, it did so with the predictable and oddly harmless-sounding thud of a real shell, at least as they’ve been recorded falling on Homs this past week. ‘I’m going to have to go back immediately.’

It isn’t easy to get out of Syria in a hurry. Four or five of us crowded into the hotel office and plied the landline, tapped our cellphones, scratched our under-lips, worried the issues and simply shook our heads, all with a considerate urgency you’d probably have found anywhere in the world. Yet I couldn’t help imagining, much later, that the particular tenderness for family these strangers felt may have been honed by the experience of massacre.

We did manage to find airline tickets, but now, long after business hours, we had to raise cash for the fare, then drive four hours through Hama and Homs to Damascus to make the flight.

We turned over all our financial information, names, numbers, addresses and the hotel personnel busied themselves raising cash for us on the black market. Someone offered to make dinner and pack it in a box. The driver from Palmyra who’d been so relieved to return to Hama so he could spend the evening with his family, came back to the hotel at once. He answered our thanks with a shrug, ‘It’s your father.’

The cash was being raised, chicken and chickpeas prepared. We could only wait. My friend and I finally had a moment of quiet to ‘visit Hama’, which meant strolling somberly through the dirty, poorly lit neighbourhood around the hotel. I asked him what the chances seemed of making it back in time and got a cryptic answer, ‘She was crying. She never cries.’

My friend’s incredible reserve, that great self-suppressed sigh, his uncanny stillness, which more than ever seemed to put him outside of time, so struck me that I asked a question he never quite understood or forgave. I asked if I could take his picture. It does sound heartless in a way. Why memorialize that moment, hearing that news? A cross frown ruined his distracted expression for a moment. ‘Why would you say that?’

I don’t remember my answer. I think I only meant to transform my uselessness into something better, and I couldn’t do it by offering meaning so I reached for an image, a design. I also have a native terror of forgetting any moment, even the grimmest ones. He didn’t understand. But maybe he tried to understand through imitation a few minutes later. He took the camera and asked a redheaded boy who’d appeared out of nowhere if he could take his picture. The redhead was agreeable. Now we have a blurry, nocturnal image of a matter-of-fact-looking child of Hama wearing a pink sweatshirt. There was no red-and-white radio tower to spoil the timelessness this snapshot still represents for me, an image interlaced with a thousand invisible meanings.

The all-night drive felt hectic, though within the car we were silent, ate chicken indifferently and moment by moment imagined terrible accidents with an exhausted almost sensual resignation. Syria’s single great highway is overwhelmed at night by weaving motorcycles and speeding box trucks, which teeter like cartoon vehicles on the narrowest wheel bases imaginable. Our heads were cocked to either side of the road. Endless lines of cars sat at gas stations under shockingly bright lights. Green neon picked out the toy minarets of storefront mosques. The fluorescent barns of vast furniture warehouses were filled with gaudy damask living room sets and absurdly ornate gilded chairs. Designs fit for a tyrant. The headlong movement – the sense that there was, of course, really no stopping time – felt like a momentary semblance of wisdom, a scrap of feeling which spiralled in the wake of the speeding car in yet another imponderable arabesque.

 

Photograph by Marc Veraart

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