Midnight At the Oasis

You were in the oldest city in the world—you must have seen something besides pretty women, places to buy whiskey, and the rooftop.
—My Mother


When Jean checked into
the Riad Hotel in Hama, the man at the desk, a Palestinian named Abdullah, asked him, “When will your friends be arriving?”

“Later I think,” said Jean. “They're taking the bus.”

“The young man and the old man, right?”

“No,” said Jean. “A man and a woman, Jon and Saira.”

At the time Jean thought nothing of this supposition, but later it became an injection of paranoia in a conspiratorial pharmacy. Just how many pairs of Mentor and Telemachus traveled Syria, that Abdullah would guess at my own past associations? Let's say it is common—then how did he know, or think he knew, that Skip and I would be coming? The answer: The Mukhabarat had their eye on Little Jonnie the American writer, that lone traveler keeping notes in their den, hanging around jobless and aimless in Aleppo.

Twas my pen condemned me! writing choice quotes in front of N—. He was only joking when he said I must be from the CIA (“Please, do not send me to Guantanamo! Instead you must give me green card, only for Las Vegas!”), but he offered to buy my laptop and its contents for $300. Just what was he doing, this Jon? He certainly kept strange company!

The suspect and Saira met an Algerian named Whalid on the bus from Aleppo to Hama, who said he was a liar and was really a lawyer. Reunited with Jean and the Riad Hotel, all four went out to get chicken at a rotisserie place behind the office of Whalid's brother that showed The Scorpion King on the television in the corner.

We went to a large outdoor kafeterion on the river. Since Saira was with us, we sat in the family section, and some of the women at the table next to ours gave us nuts. The water was high enough to move one of the Noiras, the centuries-old waterwheels that are Hama's star attractions, and the wheel creaked and groaned. "It is a concert," said Whalid. Over shisha the Algerian told us about the 50,000 killed in Hama in the 1980s for being members of an opposition party, or for living in the same house.

When we were alone in our room, we went over the evidence, covered N—'s actions and things he'd said. Saira had been with him most intimately, had seen the incriminating evidence. N— was Mukhabarat, though N— did not want to be anymore. We wondered paranoid things: Was Whalid an agent sent to track us? We wondered about Ahmad: Why had we stayed at that trashy camp site with the nice one just around the road, and why had he brought us there and proposed starting a business?

I felt deceived. N—'s humor was a cover for espionage, and Ahmad's friendliness occasionally drifted into disingenuous business. Still, I am sure they were genuinely our friends and was not upset. I did not appreciate being watch-listed, though, or relish the paranoia of my adventure.

Ah, trailed by secret police! Never did I think I would write on a piece of paper, “What if they are listening?” and have two sane people nod sympathetically, and one of them—and she an intellectual—look in an intercom for the planted bug.

Hama (22)

Wednesday we sat around.

After mint tea we walked down through the old town to the Grand Mosque, then to a marshy river with a waterwheel, Al-Maamoorich Noria, thirty meters high and seven centuries old. I was jumping around on the side, trying to make it turn a little in the low autumn stream, when one of the Arabs squatting next to the base put out his cigarette and called me over. He led me up a steep staircase to the middle of the wheel, and started climbing up on the spokes. Boards were riveted between the two spokes with wooden bolts, and he used these as ladders on the nearly vertical ones to get to the top. I followed close behind, and wedged myself up onto the aqueduct to have a few daring pictures taken.

When we rejoined Saira on the bridge, she had received a rose from a child, a father's stern warning about sharing the company of kefiri men, and also an invitation to have tea in a lumber mill on the river. We had a tour of the little room where they tore apart the platforms of shipping crates, then sat there drinking tea with three of the workers, while Saira translated. They tried to pantomime the meaning of her name, which had something to do with fighting. I was the first American one of them had met, and they all told me, Welcome to Syria. Don't be sad because your government is bad. We love American people, just not the politics. Tell more Americans to come here, we never see them.

I thought, You don't know what you're asking for, and as we left did an impression of Americans swaggering down the street, yacking loudly about the insulting poverty, demanding to know what's in the felafel, asking for it on a plate without bread, as per the Atkins Mandate, and fussing over the bill.

As we walked people stared and said, “Hello.” Some boys shouted from a third-floor balcony, but hid behind the railings when I looked up. We got felafel without fussing at a street shop in the old town, then were lured over to a shop by calls of, “Pizza!” Some white girl in a hijab told us, “This is the best pizza in town,” and after buying some and talking to her, we found she was from Seattle!

The American girl had been sweet-talked into marrying a Damascene ten years ago, and had moved to Syria to teach English two years ago. She invited Saira to a dinner party with the other teachers that night―boys were not allowed, unless we would put on a burka and be very quiet. We did meet a Kiwi named Keith who had come over from Al-Gawaher on the way back to the Riad Hotel, who invited us men to hang out with some Syrian blokes he had met. Segregated fun—how antiquarian!

Keith had promised the two Hamites, Wissam and Hossein, to bring two Aussie girls from the hotel, but rather showed up with three guys: an American, a Frenchman, and Han Wen, a Dutchman working for Google in Brazil. I began sucking up to Han Wen, so that I might get an invitation to Google Wave. We drank tea, and a hot drink with lemon, cumin, mint, and salt. Wissam asked us about politics and fielded questions about his politics and religion. He told us his teacher was married to a girl from San Barbara, who had converted into the full burka.

Saira was late to her dinner party since N— drove down to see her for a moment. He was serious. Back in Al-Gawaher, we later heard, he was talking about marriage and buying a house.

“Really?” said Ahmad. “Who says that man?”

Whenever N— received a text, he would study it with great interest and then turn the screen to his friend and say, “Ahmad, what does this mean?” He handed over the phone to Skip, who had returned to Aleppo, and had the old Aussie type in a lovely message.

When we reconvened with Saira, we three launched into a discussion of the burka—for what could persuade a California girl to don such a shackle, to become a ghost? Long years of prejudice and misinformation in cold Toronto had predisposed Saira to snap to the defense at any criticism of Islamdom, especially women's issues. “Western men feel they have to crusade against the burka,” she said, “but more often than not its voluntary. Women want to wear it. They want to be more than a pair of tits with legs.” One thing we can agree on: women are sex symbols in both cultural hemispheres, abused as prostitutes in the West and feared as seducers in the East.

We turned on the television. Al-Jazeera delivered stories about bombings in Pakistan and Iraq, conditional US aid to the former, Israeli war crimes, hunger among one billion people, the melting polar ice caps, and―this just in from America, where the story received non-stop national news coverage―a six-year-old is stuck in a weather balloon! “Are you serious?” asked Jean between guffaws. “Is this the most important thing happening in America?” The most important thing happening in the world, I think!

Hama (26)

We took our planned trip to Krak de Chevaliers on Friday, without a plan. We found our way there somehow and putted around the grand halls that the knights built. It was a castle of legend. Ruined stone, wide open and submerged in shadow, permitted exploration and imagination. Great courts and towering arches and massive towers and an imperious position. “I will spare you the attempt to describe what you would hardly comprehend without going to see it.” We wandered until we got hungry, then returned from a restaurant until it grew very late and the Krak was about to close.

We asked around in the parking lot. A bus operator named Haytham offered to take us to near Homs, where we might catch a microbus back to Hama. There were two of his buses, both Swiss models from 1958, decked out outside and inside in a maniacal style. Many Syrian microbuses and taxis distinguish themselves with flashing LEDs and undercarriage lights and carpets and hanging gardens. Tassled carpets and leather seats saddle cheap Chinese bikes. But the two vans that Haytham rode were the bee's knees. They aggregated the styles of a State Fair, a cheesy bar, and grandma's house, with its 1920s furniture.

We sat in the front, under a verdant ceiling of fake grape vines, while the Syrian and Iraqi tourists tried to engage us. Haytham, the emcee, turned on a huge amplifier, some subwoofers, and a television with Syrian music videos. “When this gets going,” he said, “the people, they go crazy.” With the turn of the key and the rumble of a hastily maintained engine, the bus lit up like a spaceship console in Star Wars, and fired off in the general direction of Damascus.

Krak des Chevaliers (32)

We found Kate and Amelia had arrived that evening, and though Kate was sick, Amelia went with us to share shisha and gossip. She told us that Skip had returned to the Al-Gawaher a few days after Jean and I left. He said, “I met someone in Damascus who lives here in Aleppo, and, well, at my age, when something like that happens, you have to take chances.” He had dyed his gray hair brown and asked Ahmad about renting an apartment.

Some old enemy of N—'s had shown up and seated himself across the street from the hotel to shout up drunkenly into the valley between buildings. The two teenage workers vanished one day and were fired and replaced from a list of hopefuls. Some Afrikaners showed up and got everyone trashed on the roof, so that the Swiss who had walked all the way to Aleppo had to be carried back to his hotel.

Ahmad had developed a deep affection for Amelia, and told her that in front of all the guests. He behaved himself when they played backgammon together and bristled when she beat him. He brought roses to her door, and Amelia flustered and slammed the door on him. “I don't get it,” Ahmad told Skip in front of her. “Why does this girl not like me? What do I have to do? What do I have to say?”

Skip was sympathetic, and told Ahmad privately that some girls did not respond to his aggressive science of courtship. Perhaps a little arrogant detachment would lure them better. "Treat 'em mean, keep 'em keen," as the Aussies say. On the roof one night after Amelia left, Skip later told us, Ahmad dressed up like a Sheikh and sat back from the crowd, imperious in his desert garb and his managerial nobility. The girls could not keep their eyes off him.

Since the hotel was full, Skip was staying in Ahmad's room at night, while the night receptionist slept there during the day. Ahmad kept his clothes there, and would come in to take them off and dance around. “Hey Dad, you like my underwear?” he said. One night Ahmad met a ragged, boney Asian woman with a face that Skip compared to "a ski slope"—a high forehead with parted bangs, and a chin long as the piedmont. The manager woke up Skip with the urgent request, “Give me a condom.” In the morning he returned and said, “Your condoms are shit. They broke.”

“They're about ten years old,” said Skip.

Palmyra (26)

Jean and I planned to go to Palmyra with Keith and Han-Wen, but since both of these were sick we stayed in Hama on Saturday. We met with Saira's friend, a kind girl in a hijab, who gave us a tour of the town. In Oriental Batman's (a family name) antique shop, we looked at daggers and backgammon boards, and in the Souq, Saira bought gifts to take home. Every time she bought something she received a free gift of nuts or sweets, and she was ready to share, so Jean and I happily tagged along. She went to have dinner with her friend, and we to the Riad.

We went to dinner at the Aspasia Restaurant in an old Damascus-style mansion with the Aussie girls and Fabian of Munich. It was too fancy for threadbare travelers, but delicious. We spent hours gossiping over Al-Gawaher, and telling all our stories. Amelia added to our sum knowledge Ahmad's attempts at winning her heart, and we arranged to meet her and Kate in Amman on the 23rd.

The next day Jean and I went to the bus station and caught a bus into the bleak desert to Palmyra, that the Arabs call Tadmor. I nodded off until Jean pointed out a train of camels out the window. The bus dropped us off, and we walked out from the modern city to the ancient one across a plain of sand, sparsely scrubbed and dotted with the rubble of antiquity. The contours of the sunset made a matte painting of the desert and the western ridges, where a fortress stood at the crenelated pinnacle of a hill and the end a snaking road.

A ten foot wall encircled Palmyra, and stretched on one side from the concrete and glass and English signage of Tadmor to the jebels and wadis of Arabia. A cobbled road led into the city, where broken pillars and arches stood like flags and spears on a battlefield against the horizon. Alongside it a dustier road was crowded with Bedouin on motorcycles. The cobbles were too uneven for the speeds to which they were accustomed.

Though the design is Roman, the structure of Palmyra is Eastern sandstone, wind-polished and mystically preserved, alien and dreamily suggestive. Colonnades run along both sides of the main avenue, from the monolithic Temple of Bhaal, the details of its carvings and cracks visible through the shadows, and off through a graveyard of civilization. A canopy billowed on the theater, which spotlights illuminated from within, like a colossal candle holder. Once the desert city supported half a million people and a queen who rebelled against Rome. The Silk Road flowed through it, and the parallel colonnades would have supported a roof and a warren as magic in its sight and sound and smell as the Souq of Aleppo.

When it got dark we walked back through the dusty palm plantations of the oasis, on narrow roads between walls of crumbling clay. Little trucks and bicycles and motorcycles careened down the winding trail, their horns their only caution. We ate Bedouin food in the city and smoked a narghile without hurry. We wanted whiskey for warmth and went around asking about it, but did not find anything, though a little sandwich shop secretly served us cold beers. When it was late we went to the end of town and in the last shop bought water. “Whiskey?” we asked. They brought out a dusty flask of some horrible Syrian stuff, and we smiled and took it. Then the power went out all across the city.

We navigated out into the ruins by torchlight, though the moon lit thoughtfully the empty ruins. Iron gates closed the door to the theater. Inside, an old man wrapped in a blanket got up from his fire and waved his child to stay. He came to the grate and told us that we could not camp there. We went up around the odeon and further into the ruins. Turning left from the colonnade, we came into a wide marketplace with a few scattered flagstones remaining. I marked a few columns northeast of us. They were the Tetrabel.

The Tetrabel was a great pedestal, and on it four smaller pedestals, each twice as tall as a man. On these, four columns supported high platforms, and cover four cracked and empty altars. The stone was the same burnished sandstone as the rest of the city. Jean and I settled on the main stage, under one of the four pedestals, and drank our whiskey and Coke beneath the precise stars. A pack of stray dogs darted by, sharp and four-legged shapes in the gloom, but other than the disturbance of their distant howls, they never bothered us. I slept in my clothes and my silk sheet, Jean in his sleeping bag.

Jean woke me up in the morning when the early-rising French photographers and Bedouin camel hawkers started to filter into the ruin and wander right under our illegal campsite. We packed our things and got our first real look at Palmyra. The oasis greened the eastern horizon, an the sun bloomed gold in the hazy sky. We followed the columned street until the flagstones vanished into dust, and then scrabbled across a wasteland of foundations and pits. At the end we found a palace of the governor, converted by Diocletian to a temple of the army barracks, when Palmyra became a bastion against the Parthians. Stairs led up through the backdrop of the ruin, abutting a hill near the city's perimeter, to the top of it, and a view of the hazy sunrise and the long sprawl of stone.

South and west of the palace, a wide wadi of dunes and thickets passed between two rows of hills supporting the towers of Roman tombs. We followed a path between them, and looked inside at the pigeonholes that once held Roman funeral masks and the ashes of citizens. Near the end we turned back. Two children hailed us from a hill. One carried a table on his head, and his sister a basket full of one-string violins. “You want buy?” they asked. Jean and I saw the innards of the Temple of Bhaal, the ruins of its carvings devoted to an Arab god like Zeus, and then turned back into the city for a tea.

“That stand down there serves the best falafel,” said a man when we asked him. “I go there every morning. You are from America? I do not mind, as long as you did not elect George Bush. Obama!” The falafel stand served its wraps with pickled turnips and pressed them in a grill. We ate till full and boarded a sweltering microbus destined for Homs.

The bus was full except one seat when it took off out the parking lot, but two big soldiers stopped us from a pickup truck. The boisterous driver got out and slammed the door open for them. He pointed one soldier to the seat, and the soldier obliged him. For the other, he slapped a bucket wedged in the corner, in a sliver of room too small for a child. The soldier got a horrified look on his face, but what could he do? He sat there, half-hanging out the window, legs intertwined with those of his comrade-at-arms, and watched as my snoozing head drooped and shifted like a metronome with the roll of the bus.

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