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The Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life
Edited by Andrei Codrescu
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Translation and Her Retinue

Road to Damascus
by John Verlenden

Part III
Hama and the Waterwheels of Death

Hama. City where dead souls bend their voices to the screech and creak of giant medieval norias.
      When I got off the bus I couldn't hear them at first, because of the procession. And I didn't realize a procession was in progress, because it's not unusual to get off a bus in a Middle-Eastern city and become part of a swarm. The biggest cities have stations, but in smaller burgs you end up getting dumped in city-central, near blaring taxis and silent strangers who take your arm if you're not moving at a bullet's pace.
      But I didn't know where I was and I didn't care to jet out blindly. So I was surrounded. Luckily, this was Hama, not Damascus. No one took my arm. No one started whispering about hotels or tourist services. It was confirmed that I had moved into the humane zone that exists outside all major cities. Having shouldered my small pack, I peered into my yellow, plastic-handled bag of souvenirs that I held in my right hand. Was everything still there? Where then was my passport? Where, my Syrian pounds? I patted my front shirt pocket for the folded slip of paper with the hotel's name.
      All this before noticing that the human swarm around me had an order. Men--all men--carried the graven image of Assad's son, Bishar Assad. What a fool I was making of myself! The demonstrators poured around me as if a statue of an anonymous American had always existed at this precise point.
      I leaped onto a sidewalk raised above the marchers by more than a foot. This was because the marchers were coming down off a slope and the sidewalk took up with the level ground that led to the Orontes River.
      This was exciting. I was seeing a genuine demonstration at a moment of political uncertainty. When Hafez al Assad died, I'd seen, in my Amman apartment, the televised image of Damascus's streets. I'd viewed with outrage his funeral. Weren't any of the newscasters going to mention Hama? No, they were not. While I watched CNN, I wrote a poem composed entirely of the commentators' power rhetoric. It became a found poem, a document luminous with gangrene's greenish tinge. To accompany the video-journalists' relentless philological obscurations, CNN had to have an image. They cut to grainy pictures of 'the street' where a passionate aimlessness seemed to be in progress: exactly everyone's idea of the Arab world.
      A dose of passionate aimlessness would not have been unwelcome to me as I held to my chunk of sidewalk in Hama. Like any journalist, I was ready for the danger of chaos, the drunkenness of the mob. In no other activity is the insight index so high. Society mocks, anarchy instructs.
      But as I glanced about the forking streets of Hama, where ten to twenty-five thousand souls had been snuffed by Hafez al Assad, the passion and aimlessness captured by CNN's cameras was nowhere in evidence. Nor had these qualities been in evidence in Damascus, the much larger city two hundred kilometers south. Perhaps the passionate aimlessness of Damascus had not been so much captured, as conveyed.
      Once again: Tricked into believing the CNN Cosmos. Travelers and expats are all too familiar with CNN's jinn-like ability to build a false world, leaving it to infect the inner recesses of the traveler's already semi-paranoid mind. I have always thought that CNN's editors and chiefs must gain vast pleasure just thinking about the lumpen viewer trying to ascertain the existence of the virtual world being vended to them, by CNN, twenty four hours a day. Never find it, folks!
      Isn't it true that today's thinking citizen faces a decision? Either persist in believing in CNN's world or step out of the front door? I'm not saying CNN is evil, but filming for a buck doesn't equal filming for truth.
      It had been a decade since I'd moved beyond the front door--seeing, smelling, talking, touching. I'd lost sight of the front door altogether, gotten frightened about it, then said, 'to hell with it' and kept on. To be sure, an identity change had been required. After all, I couldn't change the identity of the world.
      I stood among ten year old boys who were also watching the city's fathers pass by silently with their placards. In essence, the placards and the men were saying 'not yet' to the prospect of democracy. They were saying, 'And especially not yet to all you old guard who have been waiting for Hafez al Assad to die so that you can rush in and divide the country's spoils. Dogs!'
      But they were tight-lipped. Passion had quit the streets. Aimlessness belonged only to me. Having summarily patted down my pockets, I still couldn't find my passport. Amazing how many pockets a person hauls around. What can all those pockets be for--dreams, fantasies. I'd rather have one good zipper pocket along one leg and one decent ventricle on the left side of the breast. And none of those tiresome two-pocketed safari shirts, please, that Cairo-bound tourists and video-journalists sweat into.
      No, these Hama men did not prefer aimlessness. They preferred concatenation, just like all the Americans who voted George Bush's son into office. Tribalism and bloodline-worship affect Americans as much as anyone. In a land of nearly three hundred million people, what is the likelihood that a father-son duo would be the best leaders within a twelve-year span?
      Incredible. To answer that question.
      Toqueville hadn't reckoned with Hollywood and TV, with the American people's insatiable need for meta-stability. He couldn't have foreseen a country where, after several hundred years, citizens still couldn't have faith in one of their own plebeian number.
      "When in doubt, stay with blood."
      Maybe leaders really are born, not made. Why else do Americans still sniff the powdered flanks of royalty? To hell with president. Let's have King. Commandante. Supreme Leader of Peoples. Bloodline uber alles.
      At least we're still voting for these unsound realities.
      Unlike George W. Bush, Bishar Assad had not even been his father's first choice for heir. The first-chosen son, the eldest, had been killed - as in 'tragically killed' - by auto accident. Dead for years, his image still appeared on banners featuring the heavenly troika: Hafez al Assad with son number one and son number two. Only the last of these men was still on earth. The men of Hama were asking for him. They were asking their legislative body, a pack of men whose votes had been predetermined for thirty years by the father, to recommend, strongly, the son Bishar.
      We now know they succeeded in gaining their wishes. But at the time, no one knew--and I had a sense of the ground swelling beneath my feet, of watching history formulate its next long throw of the lance.
      Snickers. I heard them. As a koaga - an outlander - with features that marked me as a wild beast--red hair, blue eyes--I'd become inured to snickers from Arab children. First they snickered then they wanted to press their fingers into my flesh. Next they inspected my watch face. Lastly, they said "Howryou?"--all one word. Smiling throughout.
      This time, however, the faces of the lads were lifted toward the stern visage filling a black banner stretched behind me on a closed government building. One of the boys gave me a fiendishly complicit glare, his mouth pulled to one side. I decided to get the hell out of there. What boys in their right mind would laugh at Hafez al Assad's three-story image while their grown neighbors marched with stony, resolute faces right in front of them, touting the strongman's son as next president?
      The grandchildren of Hama's victims, that's who was snickering. Had to have been.
      The marchers passed, turned left, away from the Orontes River. I took off walking. Alone, without the multitudinous smacks of shoe leather and the rustle of heavy cotton pants swishing together, I at last heard the norias. It was a prolonged creaking, a baritone caterwauling, that knifed through the town's preternatural emptiness. Norias are huge wooden waterwheels. Medieval community tools.
      This had been Hama's ancient history, a center for life's precious water. Aqueducts mounted to the tops of the waterwheels had once carried water to towns and farms far away. Now, between the snickering boys and the downtown-bound placard bearers, thousands of Assad's enemies lay beneath dry concrete streets. You looked at the new buildings built above their bones and said to yourself, there they are--the dead people--as if the buildings were stone mummies set on their feet in order to convey a message. The message was the sound of pure power: silence.
      In 1982, the Muslim Brotherhood had not cared for the irregularities of the Assad regime. The Brothers had made the usual charges of corruption; they didn't care for Syria meddling in the affairs of Lebanon either. But also there was the matter of Assad's particular minority sect, the Alawite's. This rarified religious product of the isolated mountains was almost more Christian than Muslim, with a base belief that separated God from the Maker of the cosmos. What solid Muslim--admirers of Occam's razor when it came to theological simplicity--could fall in line behind an Alawite?
      The answer to that question was to be forged in Hama.
      The Brotherhood may have started the fight with a ritual ambush, but before the affair in Hama was over, Assad had made a statement to everyone in Syria. First, his soldiers shot three hundred male citizens of Hama, at random, leaving their bodies on the streets. When the Brotherhood struck back, Assad sent in 30,000 men. These forces finished the work with front end loaders and bulldozers. Whole sections of town were folded up, in, and dozed over. The dead never got a chance to be claimed by family, let alone by history. Assad paved his enemies.
      I rounded a corner marked with a wavy pen stroke on my oft-used map (Adam's), and saw my hotel. Something about its plastic sign dismayed me. But plastic is pro forma in an Arab town. There's no shame in plastic, it seems. I found a narrow staircase and emerged into a combination hotel desk and television room--the same setup as at the hotel in Damascus. The television room contained three couches and a few chairs. A Korean woman sat on one couch, a Lebanese woman on another. They were joking in English with a young, smiling mustachioed man standing between them. I took them all for old friends. They'd met only minutes before. No one asked me what I wanted, I was simply included despite knowing nothing of what was going on. This situation, with me as listening, smiling stranger, went on for what seemed like hours. As a Westerner, I was desperately wanting something to happen in a string of cause-effect moments that would yield;voila, nonstop significance.
      A beautiful young woman entered the room. The Lebanese woman turned to me--me, of all people--and introduced the girl: Sarah.
      The introduction to an unknown Westerner, the familiar-sounding name: why, these were Christians. I felt as if I were in their home, alone with them.
      The mother, in perfect English, said, "My daughter speaks better English than I do. Go ahead, you two. Speak."
      The Korean woman and the man waited to take in whatever niceties the girl and I saw fit to produce. The girl said, "Where are you from?"
      I said my city's name. It meant nothing to anyone.
      "The place where jazz music started," I said confidently.
      Blank faces.
      "Gee, what am I going to tell my neighbors when I get back? New Orleanians think the whole world knows about them and their music."
      "I'm sorry," the girl said. Flustered at my joke.
      "Look," the smiling man said, "no one in Australia had ever heard of Hama either. I kept telling them, 'But everyone in Syria knows about Hama. It's famous! Really!'"
      Huge joke. The room gasped, choked. So many levels were being invoked, the joke just kept getting bigger. Syria is the least visited nation of the Middle East. No one had to mention this fact. No one had to say that most of the world couldn't think of a Syrian city besides Damascus.
      The daughter gamely made a thrust toward good manners. "Is New Orleans part of New York?"
      "Part of Los Angeles?"
      "Of Texas?"
      "New Orleans is close to Texas. Somewhat."
      "Oh, good."
      "You'll be wanting a room?" the man broke in, giving the question an unmistakable Aussie twist. He was saving me. The girl was ready to practice her English until supper arrived. Maybe she and her mother were planning on the three of us Christians having a klatch.
      "Yes, a room, please. You must be Adbullah."
      "I am."
      "I'm Adam's friend."
      "The tall man. With the group just here from Amman. Along with Yasser."
      "Oh, Yasser's friend!"
      Abdullah clapped me on the shoulder, laughed, and embraced me. "Wonderful people. We had such a good time. I took Yasser to meet my mother. She wanted so much to cook for him."
      It was always good to meet a human being whose name was scrawled in your travel book's back cover. As Adam had said, Abdullah spoke an amazing Aussie English.
      "We do have a room--actually, it's a bit large for one person. But it's all I have ready." Deep frown. "Can I sho-oow it to you?"
      I said goodbye to everyone in the television room. Eye contact for each person. All very formal.
      Abdullah and I walked out and up another flight of stairs. "I do hope you'll have supper with me?" he said. "Seven-thirty? That'll give you time to rest and wash up a bit."
      "Where's the restaurant?"
      "Same place we eat breakfast in the morning."
      "Which is where?"
      "We just passed it."
      "All right."
      "Little room at the end of the hall. This is my treat. Do you like egg and pasta?"
      "I know it sounds uninteresting;"
      "No, no."
      "I'll work on that part. Wait and see." He wrinkled his brows again. He'd begun thinking about his herbs already.
      I couldn't think of when I'd been invited to supper by hotel management.
      The room was fine, even air conditioned. Its stained pinewood furnishings had been popular in American boys' rooms in the sixties. Bunkbed furniture. Solid. Syria is full of plaids and solid colors, solid objects. Trees are growing in this part of the Middle East. After Abdullah left me alone, I went to the bathroom, switched on the light and saw myself as others had been seeing me in the lobby: wild tendrils of hair, a bald 'scape on top, restless blue eyes. I could accept this look. Any day. Travel must be healthy. How often does one look acceptable to oneself at day's end?

* * *

By night, Hama feels blissfully peaceful, as does any Middle Eastern city. Even Jerusalem feels peaceful. But then, just as I stood outside the hotel's front door having such thoughts, raising my camera to capture the hotel's Arabic/English-script sign, a small object tore through my hair. Beside my right shoe, the sidewalk pinged. By instinct I looked up at the lighted windows of the narrow hotel. No faces in any of them. All open, of course. The whole place wasn't air-conditioned.
      Had it been the Korean lady? The Lebanese mother-daughter duo? A coin had just been dropped, from quite a distance, my head being its target.
      Okay, it would have amounted to a Zen whack, at most. I took it as such and moved off. Certainly it hadn't come from Abdullah. We'd had a firm meal with much basil, much cumin, tonging up the pasta together in his kitchen, laughing over one thing or another before the conversation had gotten serious. But that moment hadn't lasted, nor had it been personal. Afterward, he had enjoined me to walk the streets, something I was set on doing anyway.
      "They're perfectly safe, really," he had said. "Go where you want. You have the whole night. Couldn't be a better idea. I'd join you if I could. But, well, you know. I don't own the hotel. I just work here."
      Meanwhile he was hiring a car and driver for me. In the morning I was to go on a castles tour. Castle touring, though I hadn't done any, rated as a mild to moderate interest for me. However, it would allow me to see all that my wife Jorge had seen, so we could talk about it later - surely a pleasure for every traveler. Also, a car tour would present much of Syria's inland, mountainous country to me - the green part that leads to the seaside. Syria doesn't become desert until farther east from Damascus, Homs, Hama, the three cities that run a line up its middle. These cities sit in locales that vary from looking like semi-arid Flagstaff to the drier valley floor containing Fresno, this change subtly observed while moving northward.
      Suddenly I had it. The coin had belonged to the Koreans. But not the woman in the reception room. I'd seen three or four young Korean men giggling on the staircase, while Abdullah was seeing me off for the night. They'd been going up. I'd gone down. No doubt about it. Once all the way up, they bombed the American with a Syrian coin worth a tenth of a cent. I bent to the sidewalk, picked it up, and put it in the pocket where earlier I'd found my passport -- along with my wallet. Over and over I'd told myself to keep those two separated. Wedged together, you couldn't tell whether you had them both or just one. Not good, anywhere, for a traveler in crowds.
      The river flowed in dark, inviting silence at the end of the street. I could see to the left a few governmental buildings left from the French Mandate era, 1920-1946. Red and yellow and green lights had been strung in trees close to the river, marking various oases where humans lounged around tables. The norias loomed enticingly close, their clockwise movement and heavy, thirty foot wheels looking like parts of god's time factory, an accidental protrusion into the world of men whose antlike figures graced the railings along the river--gawking, as usual at this sort of thing. I turned the other way.
      Yes, take the other way, said that old familiar voice. Keep the city center waiting. It's simply too obvious; ignore it for a while. So I embarked upon a walk, at a surprisingly fast clip. Midnight. The broad, dark sidewalk was alive with families, metal perambulators, groups of boys, and here and there the solitary older man or woman, with wistful looks to their relaxed faces. Night is delicious in Syria, as it is in the entire Middle East. Nothing but the beauty of shapes awaits the fully opened eye. During the day you are always squinting against the sun's immense glare. Within this glare, objects and humans seem oven-fired, unholy, luminescent, slipping in and out of white flame. Nothing holds, everything's shape-shifting: the way we think about night in America.
      In America, we fear darkness, and not merely out of our inherited Grimm's Brothers' mind that divides the world into Manichaean good-light versus dark-evil. In Hama, this equation was turned backwards. All good belonged to the night. It was cool, breezy. You could keep a walking pace of choice. In New Orleans, as in most of America, night issues in a combat zone, one full of cheaters, of ambushers. There's no honor in the combat. The silence of bike-riding muggers, the excruciating moment of revelation once a silhouette enters the eye's periphery, especially when that silhouette is nearly beside one's shoulder, one's pantleg, one's swinging arm.
      In America, the fear of meeting the flesh or garments of a fast-approaching silhouette is sufficient to produce palpitations. Only the youngest, heartiest males feel any lust for a grisly contest of strength and guile, for positing an endgame of death. As such, America's night belongs to muggers, rapists, thieves--and high school boys. From the hours of 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., the streets are reserved almost exclusively for murderers and their victims.
      Could any contrast between Syria and America be more pronounced than with regard to night life? In Syria, people, especially men, take no notice of flesh and garments touching. No words are said, nor need to be. Is everyone not a brother? A sister? Are not all the children the community's? The night fills with nothing but silhouettes. It's jam-packed with silhouettes. Doors slam, shoes slap against concrete without the slightest hesitancy. The thought dawns upon you: this is life.
      I walked as far as the city allowed. A steady bank of leafy trees, many of them sycamores, made a colonnade for me. Here and there the river angled in closely to the sidewalk. I grew aware of the grass, my only concern being that some legitimate nocturnal animal like a rat or a snake might suddenly appear from between those thick, becalmed blades. I didn't receive that surprise. At a certain point, miles from downtown, the sidewalk ended. The road went on, but into countryside. I could see the lights of houses spread around in the valley, and turned back.
      My walk became strenuous. I'd walked off all my traveler's tension for the day, then taken out a loan against the morrow's energy. Without pretending to study the norias, I walked past the streetside nut-and-seed vendors plying the now light-flooded promenade, families bustling everywhere--many children, all of them remarkably well-behaved. Do I have to write about these family-style evening activities rather than the disparate, auto-erotic venues offered by the goof-tube? No, I don't think so.
      I silently announced my presence at an empty, rickety Maitre D's table behind which a small gardened café spread its tables both close to the river and away from it. After a brief wait I was approached by a middle-aged man who asked what I wanted. "Table beside the river, for one."
      "No, coffee would be fine."
      A wave of his hand produced a youth of eighteen or nineteen who exchanged a few words in Arabic to his boss. It was as he'd thought. Without a smile he turned to me. "This way, please," he said in flawless English. That was his special position at the café, caretaker of foreigners.
      Once seated at my table, there was a terrible moment when I asked if I could have only coffee. The youth hadn't followed my words--was that it? His face took on a hideous scowl. He twisted it both out and to one side, the sort of face that my father would have given a smack to. I asked again if having merely a coffee would be sufficient--that is, given that I was seated at such a fine table, at such a distinct vantage vis-à-vis the river, a huge grinding noria not a hundred feet away.
      "Of course, it is all right!" he said, and walked away as if I had insulted him.
      Which I had. The idea that a guest would have to request permission to spend an amount of money that he, the guest, pre-supposed his host would have rated as being minimally acceptable;this sort of thinking was not Arab. Hatem, the fabled citizen of pre-Islamic days in the Hejaz, had slaughtered his last camel for a group of strangers who arrived - without invitation - at his tent. Behold the spirit of Hatem.
      The norias are dreams. Their wooden parts are gigantic, thick-hewn. The same person who made the catapult designed the noria. Massive dark timbers, adzed into necessary shapes then bolted together. The river's incessant waters kept them drenched. No doubt if the pieces ever dried, the wheels would fall apart within the hour.
      I sipped my tiny Arabic coffee, semi-sweet, considered how alone I was, and then finally, sorry to say, lonely. I'd been abandoned at the cafe, having made a bad show of myself. Usually you can get a little bit of conversation going with the wait staff. On this night, my keeper stayed as far away as possible. Who knows? Maybe it was the time of the nation, a time of uncertainty. Or, and not disconnectedly, maybe everyone was thinking, CIA. Such a burden a man my age carries in the Middle East. I remember distinctly being told by several people at my latest university that they'd taken me, at first, to be the most obvious of CIA plants. That is, until they'd spent a while with me. 'No CIA man could have your sense of humor. It would be impossible.'
      'How so?' I asked the smiling man who said these words, a doctor teaching at the attached medical school.
      'Because we have seen CIA. They have no sense of the absurd. None. Go anywhere in the world. I bet this would be true.'
      Back at the hotel, when Abdullah and I had closed, for a second, the distance between us, I had said, "What do you think is going to happen now? In Syria?"
      He hadn't answered. He'd looked down at his empty, smeared plate and to my surprise his eyes were full of tears. "It's so sad, really," he managed. "That he's dead, you know. It's so hard to believe."
      I watched him as closely as ever I'd watched any man. Was he kidding? Was it a front? Afraid of where his words on this subject might land him?
      In my folding wooden seat, painted white as they always seem to be, I thought, no, Abdullah hadn't been kidding. Change is hard. Many fathers are dictators, yet their children mourn them. Very possibly I was experiencing the exposed back of a country's sorrow. It was 3 a.m.
      In a moment I was up, putting a tip down on the table, marching off without demanding a nod or a wave from my waiter. He'd done his part. I strolled directly toward the one splash of light that remained steadily filled with people.
      I saw - I'm quite sure about it--the very alcove where the Hama suitor had stepped out to tell Rochelle and Jorge, my wife, that they were schickens. It was beside a music store. The store was still open, with no sign of closing. Or so I thought. As soon as I entered, the owner, another young man about nineteen, walked to the door and locked it, placing a sign in its window for emphasis. Apparently the crowd were all his employees. I was always forgetting how employment was handled in the Middle East. The more, the merrier. Why have one clerk when you could have six for the price of one? Indeed, that was how the small wealth was parceled out.
      Helped on all sides, I told the store employees that I was open for a suggestion or two. What was hot? Could I have a listen? I already knew who was hot at University of Jordan. The operatically huge Nabil, for one, with his high voice. Kazem al Saher, for another. Al Saher was outright lady killer material, yet his own heart was all about the people, about Iraq and the tradition of a higher quality musical era.
      The beauty of the developing world is that intellectual property rights are nonexistent. Indeed, the idea of not sharing what should obviously be shared is both anathema and unnatural for Arabs. What exactly should be shared? Anything good that would not cause a person to suffer in order to share it. A pop singer, suffer? Impossible. To curtail greed was not the same thing as to cause suffering.
      The store burned CD's chock full of all the latest hits. You named the tunes, they had the CD in a customized plastic case on the morrow. 'No problem' (that by-now most universal English expression).
      I took two CD's, one of them a shelf product: greatest Arab music hits of the last twenty four hours. Another, Kazem al Saher.
      "Where are you from?"
      My CD's had cost me four dollars each; that made eight dollars for the owner. I believe the going price is usually three dollars, but one didn't want to haggle. It was late. Not that they weren't up for it. The lot of them were as sober as preachers--the usual situation.

* * *

T. E. Lawrence (he, of Arabia) wrote his first book while a student at Oxford. It regards the so-called Crusader castles. In fact, a number of them were built by Saracens, by Mohammedans - by the people who came to be known, as they'd always known one another, as Muslims. The one I was just now surveying, entirely alone, had been built by the Assassins. The Assassins were a major sect of Shiites--the Ismailis. The name-designation depends on their particular bloodline preference for Ismail as next-in-lineage to Ali. Ali, as will be recalled, was killed after trying to make a pact with a competing leader, Mu'awiya. Ever since, the Muslims had been split. The groups believing in bloodline are the Shias; the larger group that doesn't think Muhammed meant for anything like a tribalistic bloodline to be followed--not for any religious reasons, anyway--are the Sunnis.
      The thing to remember is that half a dozen sects of Christians, most of them living from Syria to India, haggled over how much of Jesus was body and how much was spirit. The Monophysites, the Nestorians, to name two. You will say, but that was so long ago. Not so. Syria is rife with Nestorians and Monophysites and other Christian sects, not to mention Zoroastrians. In fact, if Byzantium hadn't had so many schisms, it might have been able to ward off the Muslims in the seventh century. At that time, the Muslims were as united as they would ever get. Perhaps it's best to allow the fact that hair-splitters form part of any religion's magic carpet, the purple and crimson strands especially.
      The Assassins were reputed to fight behind hashish. When William Burroughs unearthed this fact while mainlining heroin in Morocco, he retailed it for fact. But no one really knows. What's known is that the Ismailis principally hung out in northern Iran and made life miserable for anybody who challenged them. They built fortresses on hilltops and held out. Even Salah al Din couldn't get them to admit defeat. This is the basic storyline for all Shias: holdouts who won't accept defeat. The story goes that when Salah al Din woke up one morning in his tent, he found a note and a dagger from the Assassin's leader (supposedly besieged) on his pillow. Imagine U.S. Grant getting a note on his pillow signed by Stonewall Jackson. 'Just thought I'd let you know that one of my boys watched you getting some beauty rest.'
      It was like a gorilla facing off a cobra. What's the point in such a wrangle? Salah al Din pulled up his army and that was that.
      But this castle business. It's difficult to cast oneself back in time to see what these monstrosities were all about. Some of the Crusader castles in Greece took many decades to build, at which point the Turks arrived and made themselves the first occupants. 'Castled,' as chess players say. My castle was wonderful for two reasons. One, it gave a truly magnificent view onto the entire surrounding valley, a high plain between low hills. Two, I was alone in its wasted walls.
      Even alone, there's only so much a person can do with a castle. If you're Lawrence, fine. A ponderous, nearly unreadable tome can be made of such jaunts, that is, after four years reading history at Oxford. Also, if you're eight years old and have just seen Ivanhoe, a round of fantasy might ensue. But really castles were, and are, failures. The armies inside them almost always ran out of supplies, and that is what castles were good for: staying inside until the enemy lost interest and went away. If you thought you could win the fight, you wouldn't have holed up to begin with. So there you have it. Castles are a stalemate's game. Sometimes the besieging army got tired and left. Sometimes the army inside the castle had to admit defeat and wait for the leader outside the walls to decide whether it was head-rolling time or not.
      For the record, Salah al Din let the besieged men of Richard the Lionheart leave their redoubt in Gaza. It goes on record as one of the most chivalrous acts of all time.
      The Muslims might have had a chance to claim the high moral ground for all time, if Muhammed hadn't loped off the heads of nine hundred Arab Jews who'd been pestering him about the shabby details of his Old Testament re-telling (their view, incidentally, not his or those of believing Muslims today). This particular tribe, Jews of Muhammed's adopted home of Yithrab (later renamed simply The Town: Medina), had been holed up in a Wild West-type web of houses with shared mudbrick walls. In essence, the houses formed a primitive castle. Once they shuttered themselves in, there was no way to get them out. Muhammed waited until an envoy from the besieged community emerged to ask for terms. Long story short: a big trench was dug; the nine hundred came out for death. Women and children were allowed to drift off into the desert.
      Not much chivalry on that one. Moral ground not yet sea level.
      What really held my interest on this morning was my driver's 1950 Plymouth sedan. No American cars had entered the country in half a century. But when you saw them, they were invariably mint. I made my way to a cleft in the Assassin's crumbling walls and stared down at the shining carapace of my driver's car. It was one hundred feet below me, parked on a street of a small village. I'd watched him get out and ease into a coffee shop. What a life. Get a foreign hire every three months, take them out in the Plymouth. In the meantime, he ferried around the countless Syrians who have no car at all. Yet the country was weirdly self-sufficient. Just as Assad had decided the country would become the chief manufacturer of as many of its goods as possible--for example, the ubiquitous plaid shirts--the citizens had also dug in. No laws demanded that ancient American cars needed prize-winning resto jobs. But there you had it. The Syrians were make-do people, strollers of river banks at midnight, family folk with no great pretensions to anything.
      We drove to the Crac de Chevaliers, the most famous Crusader castle of them all. I wish I'd had my friend Alex from New Orleans. In his living room, he'd expressed astonishment that I might see this fortress. Here and there the castle freaks make their niches among us usual human beings. Alex, one of their number, was a respected administrator and teacher at a private school, St. George's.
      As it turned out, St. George was huge in Syria. The Arabs called him al Khader, and you could buy his image everywhere. There was even a St. George's church, with monastery, right next to the Crac. From the vantage of St. George's, the Crac pushed its amazing profile into a peerless blue sky rendering all the green, lush countryside into something like a picnic cloth to protect its sumptuous rock walls and towers. But within St. George's, the dim portraits of Christian saints that lined its walls made the final statement. History had been dark, superstitious, a holy mess, good for stories but hell to live. And castles, the favorite places to live in all of storydom, had been awful places to hang out. The scent of booty, of honor and prestige, the incorruptible dream of chasing back the Muslims, of chasing them back into extinction, must have been real motivations for the soldiers that secreted themselves away, inside the Crac, for more than a century. Dark and eventually a deadend.
      Syria had always been a long way from home, even from its earliest days as a Roman province. At that point, Syria was basically anything that wasn't Palestine or the Anatolian Peninsula. Nothing lay beyond the Roman desert forts--at least nothing any Westerner wanted to contemplate. The desert could be empty one day, full of East Asian warriors the next. When you think of the people who manned Roman forts, you're thinking of freaks, of people who saw the unimaginable first, long before the kiddies in France or England could even dream such nightmares.
      It's in this light that you have to contemplate the Crusader castles. They were latter-day Roman forts, last bastions against an implacable Other. That Other was/is the Arab, still as much of a stranger in the West as his forefathers centuries ago. Just now, in America, we've installed a new, possibly unconstitutional martial law to mitigate their potentially ruinous effects. All of us are now living in the castle together.
      Then too one can view the castles as mobile borders. Not that these stone behemoths went anywhere, but they were occupied now by Christians, now by Muslims. Spheres of influence. Statements. In the end, hardly anything substantial about them was to matter in the least, except the imperviousness of stone to time's assault. Any castle, it turned out, could eventually be taken, and was.
      So why is the castle the central architectural pipedream for Western children? Well, they look damn cool and have as many holes as those children's pants that have pockets from waist to cuff.
      "What do you think about going to the sea today?" my driver said. I'd been having a hard time negotiating our trip, because I was still in that stage when I needed a talented, English-proficient Arab conversationalist to carry me.
      "No, I have to leave today."
      "Yes, you are taking me to Homs, aren't you?"
      "Yes, but what about tomorrow?"
      "I'll be in Amman by midnight," I told him.
      He nodded. We drove the rest of the way in silence.
      Two questions assailed me. We were twenty kilometers above Lebanon, twenty from Homs, an unremarkable city that would save me two hours of waiting and bus riding.
      First question: was it necessary to have a Hama massacre in order to guarantee civil order for the next 22 years? I couldn't believe it. Not gauging from the Syrians I'd seen and watched. Surely they didn't just rave and palaver for the bullet and the bulldozer. These were citizens as ordinary as ever plied the sidewalks of Chattanooga, Tennessee--the streets I'd walked with my mother as a schoolkid, guided by her as I now guided myself by a fist-sized place in the center of my stomach.
      Second question. How much of a nation's weal and future depended on the good will and political dispensations granted by more powerful countries? Paradoxical answer: a lot and a very little. Westerners had tinkered with Syria's inner workings up until the Strongman Assad had taken over. Then the country had been systematically demonized. Since Assad gained power in 1971, thirty years of this treatment had slipped into the minds of hundreds of millions of Americans: those most influential persons of the world who know so very little about it. Perhaps American power could actually be brought to bear upon the Syrian people--in a way that would benefit both them and us? After all, we're eyeballing their government, as well as half a dozen others. For what? For the Iraqi treatment.
      It might be wise to consider the Husni Za'im coup of March 30, 1949. Za'im, head of the Syrian Army, was boosted into his actions by the CIA, with implicit approval of the state department. Miles Copeland, writing in The Game of Nations, said that the head of the American legation in Syria "thought that once Za'im ruled the country by sheer 'naked power';our [America's] persuasiveness, sweetened by a little military aid, would result in his introducing democratic processes as rapidly the society would permit." Remember, 1949.
      Copeland, typically CIA, blames Za'im's eventual failure--not in the coup but in its aftermath--on his inability to be a successful, modern commander. We're looking at a book published in 1969. Even by then, regime change had been in full bloom for a long time--almost always a losing ticket.
      To what degree has America's constant belittling of Syria (except for that disastrous lionization of Assad on America's largest news channel) been a fallout of its horrid failure to take over the country, by proxy? Hard to say.
      A theme emerges in all of this looking back and in my contemporary investigations. The theme is that America's enemies are still waiting for the right changes to come about in America's foreign policy, especially in matters of autonomy. A sub-theme is that they are living passably well in the meantime. Or so things seemed when I crossed the border back into Jordan in June of 2000.

New Orleans
July 2003




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