You Can Never Leave

If a pistol is put in a story, eventually it has to be fired.
—Checkhov


Jean and I cleaned up
the roof a little after waking up there in the morning. “Imagine if some girl came up here,” said Jean of the couches covered in drunken nests, the roof in cigarette butts, peanut skins, and broken cans of Egyptian beer. “She would think this place was crazy.” We breakfasted on falafel rolls with egg and a big blended juice at a vitamin bar, and watched some Syrian soap opera on a television above the counter.

That day two Polish girls had checked in, and Ahmad arranged for Jean and Jon to join accompany the small tour group he had arranged. One was Carolina and the other Dagmara, both very pretty and Polish. They both worked at the museum of a science institution in rebuilt Warsaw, Carolina managing and Dagmara arranging an exhibit of interactive media.

First Ahmad brought us to a nearby mosque, to a cemetery with a great block tomb topped by two towers, the sarcophagus of a Pole who converted to Islam and fought the Ottomans. “This is very meaningful for us,” said Carolina. “We should be crying.” Next we came to Pizza House, for the best pizza in Syria, an unmemorable meal. Carolina guessed that I was thirty and Jean thirty-four and a Mexican, and we guessed by her features and gunwale cheekbones that Dagmara had Central Asian blood, although none of these painful assumptions were true.

Ahmad spent the meal talking to Carolina, and after its close, when the Poles went to walk the Old Town and we to smoke hookah, he told us he intended to woo her. As he led our reunited group to the Baron Hotel, he helped Carolina buy some Arab CDs, while Dagmara stood outside in vicarious annoyance. The Baron Hotel is an old, rickety building, which cannot be renovated without loss of creaking charm. Agatha Christie stayed there, and so did TE Lawrence, who failed to pay his bill. We examined this relic, and books and photos and maps collected by that institution, before attending its multinational bar. A wild young Turk served Efes and Sakara and Lebanese white, and I talked to Dagmara and a Norwegian volleyball captain and a Dutch girl with a worn, traveled look about her, on her way to Iran.

Presently Ahmad leaned into Carolina and told her the sob story of his coming to Syria from Kuwait, of the difficulties of life in a new country, of how his long hair made him look gay, of how he was tied up by his feet and punched for being gay, and all those sorts of things. “Oh, that must have been really difficult,” cooed Carolina. Now Jean somehow got on the topic of a spill he took in Bulgaria, falling off his motorbike into the road. “Oh, that sounds so dangerous,” cooed Carolina.

Ahmad was not one to be topped! “I had an accident, too,” he said morbidly. He used to race cars in Kuwait, as all the young Kuwaitis did. Once on the speedway his best friend sat in the backseat and was climbing up to the passenger side when another car changed lanes and Ahmad swerved. The unbuckled friend launched through the window, and, “Since then I never drive a car.”

“Oh, that's so sad,” cooed Carolina. Jean just stared dumbly.

“Life is a party,” said Ahmad. “You have to dance.”

Carolina turned at him like a spotlight and said, “Yeah, yeah, I like that,” and checked his fist.

We went back to the hotel and planned to visit a discotheque the next night. When the Polish girls had gone upstairs, we stayed out talking about them, and then went across the clock tower to meet with Ahmad's personal taxi for some beer. We went to the kebab grill in the street, which included a barbecue and butcher-shop on wheels. At the butcher Ahmad picked out a few pieces of meat, I chose some clumps of mince and spices, and Jean chose a heart, several of which hung from a rail over the chopping block, attached to livers. The butcher also chopped up one of the livers and rubbed it in spices. He put aside most for the barbeque, but gave us three small slices to eat raw.

On Wednesday I got up late and found in the lobby Mr. N— giving a chronology of Aleppine commerce and textiles to Jean and Skip. “Now I know who you remind me,” he said to me,―“Chuck Norris!” Ahmad was exhibiting a video of him shooting a Kalishnakov in the air at a wedding near his mother's village of Deir ez-Zur. As I left with Jean and Skip for falafel and juice, N— said to us, “We go meet three Arab girls, and make the sex together. You say you don't want to pay, I say not expensive. Only thirty dollars. For you Joe she will give discount, because you have fat and cannot fuck so much.”

We sat around in a cafeterion sipping tea as Skip told us about the events he used to host in his backpacker's hostel: Amateur synchronized swimming, and musical chairs where the guys had to find bras, and a drag show beauty contest called Ms. Trekkerette where the five participants had five girls each to dress them up, and which became so famous that one visitor brought his own drag. Skip asked us if we would sit around talking all day again, and Jean said, “No, let's go to a hammam.”

Hammams, or bathhouses, differ depending on where you go in the old Roman and Ottoman Empires that spread the institution. In Hungary they are more relaxing, with saunas and hot tubs, and boys and girls attend together. The Turkish baths are single-sex only, and quite violent in their skin-scraping, back-pounding, shoulder-wrenching regimen, though not quite so much as Morocco, where attendants put their charges in wrestling holds and turn the skin red with sandpaper. After hearing tales of the hideous Turks who administer these discomforting tortures, including one woman named Mama Rambo, I was not so interested. But you only live once, so why not do it cleanly.

We went to a thirteenth century hammam in the Souq, Hammam Al-Nahasin, and began in a high wooden hall under ground level, with cushioned nooks all along the walls where freshly-bathed Arabs reclined and sipped tea at leisure. Next we put on towels and came into the bath chambers―a half-dozen small rooms with stone basins and metal bowls for rinsing, as well as a sauna, arranged around a central room with a tile platform for resting between the events of the bath. The concrete dome overhead had a shotgun blast of stars bored in it.

At one end on another tile platform the bird-like Arab masseuse scraped off salt-and-pepper rolls of dirt and dead skin with steel wool mitts. This was no painless process, and drew a scream from Skip when the scouring started. The masseuse applied heaps of soap with a fleece glove and rubbed it off, and another Arab washed the head with scalding water, and then you rinsed at the granite basins. An old Ottoman servant wrapped a fresh towel around the waist and a shawl on the shoulders, and tied a third around the head. He served us sugary tea and we sat under the cedar planks and reveled in our sleek cleanliness.

We ate mezes and salads at another restaurant under the Citadel, and I drank some almond milk, and we talked bullshit until Skip got up and wandered away. In the hotel lobby N— invited Jean and I to visit his office in an old hotel a few blocks away. This was one of 25 jobs he had in Aleppo, and the business put together hats for $1 a piece. He showed us around the rooms, where his workers held up their products amidst machines for sowing hats together and a monolithic Japanese device that put the logos on hats. N— sat in a leather chair behind a desk in the main room and had strong Arab coffee delivered as we asked him questions. Blank hats came from China and, after being designed, went on to markets in Lebanon or Cyprus or Italy. His friend ran the operation, he said, but he owned 70 per-cent of the business.

"You know what that logo is?” he said, pointing to a hat on one of the pigeonholes that lined the wall. It was Hezbollah, and he showed us the blank number in his phone where the group had called him. He gave us two hats: Jean a beret with the Tazmanian Devil, and me a green and yellow hat that said Ronaldo and had a flaming soccer ball burst through a net, and neither of us took a Hezbollah cap.

"Tell Jon that story about the gay guy,” said Jean.

“I hate gays," he said to begin the tale. “I was in a super nightclub in Beirut, and this gay came up to me and started touching me here. I was dancing and he came up to dance right next to me. I say to him, 'Come with me,' and we go out to my car. I drive out of town thirty-four kilometers up into the mountains, and when we get far into the mountains I say to the gay, 'Get out. Get OUT!' And then he gets out and I drive back to Beirut and back to the nightclub. Isn't it good?”

N— pointed out one of his workers, a pious man who prayed five times a day, never drank alcohol, and slept only with his wife. Once N— had brought a Jewish girl to see the factory, and when the Faithful discovered it, he said, “N— you must not deal with this girl anymore. You will lose your place in Paradise, and all your thirty virgins.” “Oh no, not the virgins!” cried N—, who told us he was Orthodox Christian even though he was a Musselman. “Yes,” said his partner, “the virgins!”

Mr. N— was an unbelievable character, and as Skip told us a Dutch proverb: “Believe none of what you hear, and only half of what you see.”

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Back at the Al-Gawaher a great council had convened on the roof. The subject: the Polish girls, who gathered a deal of attention on their return from dinner, especially Dagmara. N— gifted them with two pink berets that made them look like pop stars. There were four East Coast Americans, one a New York effete and three newly released from the Peace Corps in Bulgaria. Jean asked them to explain, and they mumbled some conceited responses about showing people how to manage businesses and achieve goals and showing the Roma minority (gypsies) that they should go to school (“But really I don't think we can do anything for those people.”), and finally one said:

"That's twenty to twenty-five per-cent of our job. We're also supposed to be an American presence in these towns, to show people that America is not something to fear, and that we have good things in mind when we go abroad. We work for the State Department. Hillary Clinton is our boss. We have three goals: to serve people, to educate them on American culture, and to educate Americans about foreign culture when we get back.”

“Well, what can you tell us about Bulgarians?”

“Aww,” they said, “they're horrible. They're so sarcastic all the time, very negative. We all dated Bulgarian girls, and they're beautiful, but all they talk about is clothes and cell phones and fashion. I mean, there are a few cool ones. They all love Metallica and heavy metal. If you're a real rocker, and you want to pick up a babe, go to Bulgaria.”

Ah, an envoy of clowns, a flatulence of foreign policy costumed in the violent colors of altruism! How much more effective than bombs are these three at whatever America intends to do abroad? The subject of this entire Syrian trip seemed to be American Empire, and women.

I talked with Dagmara and Carolina, but when N— demanded whiskey Jean and I accompanied him to buy Red Label and soda water. I didn't have any money except 20 Turkish lira, but N— said, “That man over there, he is money changer.” And he called over this fat man, who after bargaining gave me a bad exchange rate for some Syrian pounds.

The terrace couches were crowded, the Polish girls besieged, when we three kings returned with our one gift, and so we sat on carpets and cushions on the ground to drink it. N— talked about Claudia Schiffer and Brooke Shields and Marilyn Monroe, and was surprised to learn that the last of these had passed away. I met a kung-fu physicist from Taiwan and was talking with him about the momentum of a Baatchi punch when Ahmad crouched down next to me.

“Why are you being so cold to her?” said Ahmad.

“To Dagmara? Who's being cold? I talked to her all about the hammam she went to.”

“You are being cold, man.”

I brushed him off, and anyway refused to use any of Ahmad's Arab sweet talk lines―he once said to a girl, “Your eyes are inviting me to heaven. I would be the happiest man in the world if you let me be your hero tonight.”―so settled to talk about Shaolin Monks and gypsies and whatnot. After the Americans and the Poles had departed, and the whiskey was drained, and it was just Jean and Ahmad and I, we talked about Polish girls and Ahmad's slight success with catholic Carolina and Dagmara's intervention into her friend's affair. (If you want to keep a girl out of trouble with the boys, simply give her a protective friend.) We ate delivered kebab and drank more beer and talked about things while I played inexpertly a bongo drum.

Skip must have come up at some time after sunrise, since when I woke up from a nap and went down to the lobby and said lugubriously, “Where's the key, man?” he said, “In your pocket.” “No it's not.” Horror-struck, I reached in and found the clip and key. “Oh, cheers.”

Carolina and Dagmara went home that morning, and Ahmad kept up communications with the Polish girl he had been wooing. As the Arabs say, it was simmering in the pot. That was Thursday, and our last chance to see the Umayyad Mosque and Citadel that were Aleppo's chief attractions. The mosque was full of people reading Koran, the Citadel with a full staff preparing for Bashar's visit that evening. Outside was an exhibit of aerial pictures by French photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand related to sustainability and the environment. As I viewed them Skip gained a small gang of children, until he looked like an Aussie Fagin, and he had to tote a little lion statue back to the hotel.

We went with Jean and an international couple, Annette from Poland and Nicolas from Brittany, to a restaurant famous for having cooked the world's biggest kebab and composed the world's largest salad―three and a half tons. We got nearly as much food in mezes and spiced meat, baba ganoush and hummus, salads and sauces, and felt engorged on the way home.

Once Ahmad was in Istanbul and met a nice Dutch girl at a bar, who was living in that city with her Turkish boyfriend. She invited him to a party she was throwing that night, for something fun to do, and he accepted. He slept on the couch. In the morning, the Ottoman returned, to find his concubine in relative proximity with another man! Ah, there was a terrible fury and reckoning! The Turks are by nature jealous creatures, especially in romance, where an affinity for soap operas matched only by the Latinas goads them to manifest such dramatic situations in real life. The Sultan told his woman to get out, and took Ahmad aside and said, “Look me in the eyes, man to man―did you sleep with her?”

Ahmad thought this horribly trite, but replied seriously in the negative. “I don't believe you. Did you sleep with her?” No, said the Arab. “Did you kiss her?”

“Yes, I kissed her here―on the cheek, not on the mouth.”

The Turk burst! He raged about the room, shouting, “I knew it!” and found the sweet Dutch girl outside and slapped her and said, “You are a whore! We are over! I never want to see you again!” And he stormed away, perhaps expecting the same reunion that graces riven couples on his television, weekday afternoons at 2. We can only hope he was disappointed, and that Ahmad's intervention, which he felt bad about, was maintained.

That night came Mr. N—'s grand party. The Syrian had just come into some money, and spent it on bottles of Johnnie Walker Black and cans of Red Bull, to distribute among the massed guests seated in the two half-circled couches on the roof, as two musicians played bongos and dulcimer and sang traditional songs, occasionally joined by Ahmad or one of the locals.

I came onto the roof and saw Jean seated with N— and Annette and Nicolas, and next to them at the end of the couch two French girls. “Here are some French girls,” said Jean. “Jon, practice your French.”

Je ne parles pas francais," said I.

Ahmad swooped in like a hawk and put a seat for me next to those mes chéries, Marie and Emilie, and I talked to them about traveling and my trip, and hammams and their jobs. N— also steered around the gathered guests to deliver great offensive diatribes. As he told his story about driving his male suitor up from Beirut into the mountains, the faces of the Frenchman and Frenchwomen grew more and more revolted, until he screamed, “I hate gays!” over nighted Aleppo.

"You no longer care for me," said N— to me. “You are quiet all day, and now you just want to talk to French geerls. I care for you. You and Jean, you are my only friends, four months in Syria. Hello," he said, seeing a French girl. “You are most beautiful geerl! You have a boyfriend?”―Yes.―“Speak you will leave him, come with me.”

If the French girls proved unresponsive but coldly polite, the Aussie girl who later earned N—'s attentions was clearly annoyed, and this only garnered greater expressions of devotions: songs and speeches! “It is like the play of Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet,” said N—, and he quoted, “Baby, you are so hot—I love this beautiful geerl.”

He took a break to talk to Jean and I, and tell us a traditional Ukrainian love story, not for the faint of heart: “This is Ukrainian story. There is this beetch prostitute. She has sex for money to many men. Then she marry, and she and her husband, they have the sex, and after she speak, 'Okay give me the money now.' She forgets they are marry! Okay, okay, here is Arabic story. This boy meets a beautiful geerl, and he goes to father and speak, 'I want marry this geerl.' His father speak, 'You cannot. She is your sister. I fuck her mother.' So boy meet another geerl and speak to his father, 'I must marry this geerl.' But father speak, 'She is also your sister. I fuck her mother and have her.' This happen again and again with all the geerl of the village, and boy goes to his mother and speak, 'What can I do? Father he fuck all the women.' Mother speak, 'Don't worry. You think he is your father?'”

“Where did you hear that story?” I asked.

“What? When you speak to your friends, speak slowly slowly. When you fuck the girls, go fast so they have pleasure.”

Clearly N— was an obnoxious, unbelievable character, so we turn now to three same such men, who may be more familiar. The three Americans from Peace Corps were back on the roof, and talking loudly and ridiculously about stupid things. The Aussie girl whom N— loved sat in that other circle, made up mostly of package tourists from the Toucan or Intrepid tour group, and one of the Americans asked her, in a high nasally voice, about Steve Irwin and Crocodile Dundee and the Baz Luhrman movie Australia, and other things to demonstrate his ignorance.

“Okay, if I had a lot of money, I mean as much as I need,” said Big Mouth in an annoying, nasaly voice, “and one week in Australia, what should I do? I mean obviously first day swimming with killer sharks. Swimming with killer sharks. Swimming with killer sharks. And second day would be fighting killer crocodiles.”―“And boxing kangaroos! Boxing kangaroos!”―“Yeah. So we have five days left.”

The Aussie girl was very responsive to their discourse. When a lull in conversation presented itself, she put forth this question: “If you had soil on your head, instead of hair, what would you grow?” Immediately one American said, “Eggplant,” one said, “Weed,” and Big Mouth said, “Wheat grass,” and went on to speak for five minutes about wheat grass and its virtues as hair.

Ahmad and Jean called me over to talk about Americans, and we decided that Americans and Aussies are close partners, astrologically aligned. They love each others' accents, share a common origin, and live on new countries with great swaths of deserted frontier. Kiwis are closer to Brits, and the Afrikaners more similar to Dutch than any of the Anglo tribes.

Now N— was trying to recruit people to come to a Russian cabaret. “Come on, Aussie girl in black shirt, bodyguard, bodyguard's girlfriend, Cheese,”―that is what N— called Chase, one of the Americans, as we giggled in the corner―“and you, beautiful geerl, we all go to cabaret. My treat, come with me!”

“We should go guys,” said Ahmad. “N— will pay for everything. I want to get back some of the money he owes me, otherwise he'll just spend it.”

But N— left alone. The musicians had stopped playing, the French and Aussie girls had all left, the Americans were still arguing loudly about when they should wake up, and then listening respectfully to a Syrian tell them about Israel. It was that time on Christmas Eve when everything's quiet, and the only ones left are a few lousy kids and the old folks sipping brandy.

In the twilight, Ahmad said to me, “Jon can I tell you something honest.”―Sure man, what?―“Really?”―Yeah sure.―“I think,” said Ahmad, “that you and Jean, you do not know how to talk to geerls.”

"Well,” I said, “we don't have eight years of experience.” He shrugged, and told me that with French girls you have to focus on them exclusively, and talk a lot, and interject Arab sweet talk.

“But that would never work in the States,” I said. “You'd just look desperate.”

Ahmad's experience verified this, as his sweet talk works only on girls who speak English as a second language. Aussies and English and Americans are immune, so he relied on booze for the purpose of seduction. “This is something I want to ask,” said Ahmad. “I have only made sex with one American girls. What do you do to get the American girls? What do they like?”

I told him that a cold shoulder and a little devil-may-care mystery and confident arrogance, tempts them, that the potential one-night-stand suitor maybe had to show tepid interest and then take it away and give it to some other girl. Ahmad was not out to form relationships, but to generate an immediate and temporary lust in a scientific manner.

"Jon!” said N—. “I fuck this geerl from Russia.”

N— had not slept since going to the cabaret. He was riding a second wind the next morning as he told me a little of his story. The Tiger had gone to the nightclub and begun his normal regimen of attracting a Ukrainian prostitute named Nadia, though a competing Saudian suitor interrupted this. N— smashed his face into the table. A bouncer grabbed N—'s hands, but knew the Tiger too well to do much more. N— quickly returned to Nadia to rut her across a table in the nightclub. He drank more and more, and after some unmemorable confrontation called his bodyguards. They trashed the place, and the next day N— payed damages. In all he spent $700 at the cabaret, including the $300 he forwarded to Russian Nadia.

That day (Friday) Skip and Jean and I walked down to the park, where in a series of large cages stands the free zoo of Aleppo: cats in one cage, pigeons and haggard peacocks in another, there chickens and rabbits and ducks, and at one side the most popular attraction: a sagacious grey baboon, who sits in the empty dirt while children pound on his cage and throw things at him. Syrians lack any respect for animals, except the cat, since Mohammed had one. They hate dogs, and you will never see one wandering or leashed.

On the way back I bought a new camera―an old Sony Powershot for $140―and then we went up to the roof, where N— was already, or still, drinking whiskey with Rupert, a towering rugby player from the Isle of Wight, of Lebanese descent. Mr. N— looked like shit, in sweatpants and a sweatshirt.

“Tell me something Robert,” he said to Rupert. “Does Jon not look like Chuck Norris?”

He asked Skip about his marriage and children, and I listened as aptly as one who hears another ask a question he fears to put, to Skip tell of a loved son and a daughter with different tastes, and of an ex-wife with another man, which broke N—'s soft heart. I sat next to N—, who checked his cell phone for messages, a fruitless search.

“Nobody call me,” he confessed in earnest exhaustion, as vulnerable as I ever heard him. “I just don't know Jon. You know, I want to make something of myself. I think I am not lucky man... If I were lucky man, I would bang Claudia Schiffer. She would call me on phone and speak, 'Come to Germany,' and I would be on next plane. If she would call, I would drink one thousand Viagras.”

Some Canadians and I began talking about Aleppo soap, famous for its mineral qualities. A bar that costs $6 in Canada is 25 cents on the streets of Aleppo—and we could make a fortune importing the stuff!

Well, said Santiago, if you really want to make money, you can make your own soap. Rent a factory for a day and produce it there, with natural products and olive oil. I know some Kurds who are very good, and will work for cheap. We can record the production and put it on the Internet. People love to see that their stuff is handmade.

Well, said Jean, also entrepreneurial,—Let's take some samples for prospects.

Other businesses planned: A sushi restaurant in the posh Armenian quarter (too bad Arabs hate fish), a campground on the Euphrates, a line of T-shirts with famous Syrian slogans like, “Let me be your hero tonight,” “Life is a party, you have to dance,” and “The more you pay them, the more they love you.”

Jean, Skip, French girls, and I went out to dinner that night at a terrace restaurant near the Baron Hotel. We ordered mezes and chicken, arak and wine, and the French did not understand my pronunciation of Raw or Law or Oregano. We had a good time chatting.

N— showed up, rested and dressed, and asked us questions about our religion, only to find himself nearly surrounded by atheists. “Joe, you, too?” he said to Jean. “I thought you were smart man. How can you look up at the sky and see the moon and the stars and think that God does not exist? How can see the world and think that no one made it? How can you do a good thing and not kill people when they make you angry, if there is no Paradise?”

I said ethics did not depend on religion. Skip said religion was a private thing and that N— should not take a lack of it in others so personally. N— went on to tell some old jokes about Ukrainian hookers, and the two French girls went off for one of those allied bathroom trips that girls make. Skip leaned into the table and said like a father would say, “N—, there is guy talk, and girl talk. There are some things you can talk about around guys that you shouldn't say around girls. These are nice ladies. They don't want to hear you swearing about prostitutes.”

“I am glad you speak this,” said N—, and his scarred face smiled. “You are right. This is a smart man.”

When the ladies returned he was a gentleman, and later, over brandy at the Baron, he got into some story about dry-humping on the roof that Jean and I knew well. “I don't think you should tell this story man,” said Jean, horrified.

“Don't worry,” spoke N—. “Okay so this guy Jeffrey, he is on the roof, and he is very funny man. These Aussie geerls, they were asleep there, but... I stop now.” He closed his mouth and folded his hands on the table in front of him.

No one is irredeemable!

”Jean, can I ask you something secretly?” said Santiago one afternoon. “Don't tell anyone I'm saying this, since I don't want to hurt anyone, but did Ahmad tell you that N— owes him money?”

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Santiago was not his real name. His family name meant Old in Arabic, and once, according to Ahmad, he hung out with and slept in the same bed as a sweet Dutch girl, without anything more intimate—he caught the girl without bringing her home, and so became named for Hemingway's Old Man who fought the Sea. He was a lanky boy with a young, open face, and heavy hair and eyebrows, who always wore collared shirts and tight jeans. His looks invited some men to ask if he was gay, and foreign letches to make unwanted propositions. “I don't mind,” he said. “I like girls so I don't care what people say.” All the girls talked about him.

At 26 he had already exhibited that Arab entrepreneurship. He went to school to earn his TEFL certificate, ran an English school for Arabs and an Arabic school for foreigners, and led tours out of Al-Gawaher, although without a license. Those were difficult and costly to get from the government, as foreigners tipped well. There was as much money in the Syrian tourist industry as in the oil business, and its traders were equally ruthless, though they wore a friendly mask. Santiago came from a small town library which nurtured in him a sweet and gentle nature. He was in no way ready for the world he entered out of interest, and I worry that the Mahabarat, who sought to employ him for his associations with foreigners and local philoxenics, for his language skills and intellect, would hold that license out for him like a baited fishing line.

Santiago was friends with several characters that Ahmad no longer liked, in a cafe that Ahmad no longer visited, though he had helped to start it. One day while working Ahmad's self-imposed insomnia caught up with him, and he fainted from exhaustion, but his partners were too busy talking to girls to take any notice. A German Couchsurfing couple staying there had to care for him. Ahmad got rid of his shares in the cafe, at a loss, and disassociated himself from those friends who weren't really friends at all. Santiago the innocent still went there because the cafe hosted many Couchsurfers, and the young teacher and tour-guide was involved in that community and liked to take the visitors around town.

One of these partners was a man named Adam, a shifty character with tattooed arms and a shaved head who told any girl who would listen, over a massage, about the two years he spent in Tibet, about his art, and his free love philosophies. He had received a loan of $1000 from a nice Polish girl but did not pay it back before she left. Santiago saw this happen and borrowed money from friends to buy the loan from her, since he could collect it from Adam—a few hundred pounds every couple days when he came around asking at the cafe or at Adam's shop in the Souq.

Now in this shop were various antiques and antiquities, and near the Circassian knives and yataghans and sabres, under that wall on a wooden stand, rested a Samurai sword, a katana from Japan. X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X.

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Our plan to visit Lattakia and the hometown of Mr. N— and X X X X X X X X X fell through due to a classic case of French indecision, so Jean, Skip, and I went camping instead. Ahmad took us to Lake Al-Assad on the Euphrates. He called the camping site ahead of us, to say he was bringing three foreigners. “Where are they from?” said the phone. Ahmad told. “The French and Canadian are fine, but the American cannot stay here!”

Ahmad calmed them down somehow. In the Aleppo bus station he bought his daily three packs of Marlboroughs and found our microbus. He wrote out our names in Arabic on the passenger manifest so no one would check our passports. The bus had a blacklight in the back, and more colors flickered above the windshield. The fourteen-year-old who managed ticket sales chainsmoked cigarettes next to me on the crammed bench. When we departed at a town near the lake, Ahmad found a taxi, which took us to a heavily-guarded roadblock on the French-built dam that made this lake.

“I don't like people with big guns,” I said uneasily. “It's disconcerting.”

Skip asked, “What's the problem? They're not going to do anything.”

“Still there's no need for it. I don't like being around it.”

“Well you'd better get used to it. Kalishnakovs are all over the place in Egypt. Each town has a defense station that buses have to drive through. Look, these guys are professionals, they know what they're doing.”

I looked at the guy carrying the gun around, younger than me, and didn't say anything.

At the campsite on the rocky beach they called in the chef to make us a fish dinner. We sat around a table under electric candlelight, next to the main one. Both were full during the summer, and Ahmad often took crowds from his hotel out to the river; but now it was only us and the family that ran it.

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“It's impossible man,” said Ahmad. “It's just not possible. If they get together I will sell my hotel.”

“If they get together,” said Jean, “I'll kill myself. She does women's rights, and all N— talks about is Ukrainian bitches. It's like a lion and an antelope. Like a tiger and an antelope.”

“It's like a cat and a dog,” I agreed. “They have nothing in common.”

We drank beer that we brought ourselves and smoked a shisha. When the coals ran out, we tried lighting a fire and heating some pinecones, but the smoke they produced was too harsh to use. We slept on mattresses, under rags, and in the morning pulled the wool up over our eyes to keep the flies off. The water of the Euphrates was warm, the breakfast good, the tea sweet. Jean bargained down the price from 1000 Syrian pounds each to 700 with French obstinance, and Ahmad had our taxi go up the river to a castle he knew. Supposedly he did not know that a camp site was there, but the owner greeted him like an old friend and offered us tea. Ahmad offered us a business proposition—to take over the camp site—and asked Skip for advice on running his hotel.

Our group did not get back to Aleppo until late, and then we took a taxi to Ahmad's home in the suburbs. His mother and sisters made us a feast, though they hid their faces whenever we passed the kitchen. A younger brother served the plates of buttered rice, grilled chicken, lamb and beans, lentil soup, salad, and bread, and we ate on the floor.

Here I'll relate another story Ahmad told to a girl, since there's no other place for it. X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X XX X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X XX X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X XX X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X XX X X X X X X.

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X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X. Amelia, whom Ahmad called Emily, had stayed at the Al-Gawaher a week before, and was back with her friend Kate, both from Melbourne. The next day was Amelia's birthday. They brought to the roof a young, shabby, fair dinkum Australian travel aquaintance, Steve of Victoria, who had instructed windsurfers for a month in Dahab, withheld from washing his hair through four countries, and spoke with a dinky-die, Steve Irwin accent that embarrased others from his state and continent.

The Iraqi gentleman who lived at the hotel came up and offered Amelia a pack of gum with an electrocuting metal stick, which shocked her. He got Kate with another trick: Ahmad told her that the Iraqi's lighter used a special fuel source and jetted a flame when you clicked it. Instead it zapped her arm. Brash and friendly Steve also took the bait, but voluntarily. Then the Iraqi pulled out his cell phone and made Steve flinch. He told Steve to push the center button but Steve shook his head and said, “No way mate!” The Iraqi pushed the button himself. It did nothing. He laughed at his joke and left.

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X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X XX X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X XX X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X XX X X X X X X X X X X X X X X.

The day of the Australian birthday party, Jean and I found N— looking dejected in the second floor gallery. His rocky features sank into themselves, and he crossed his hands over his knees and spoke, "Twelve years in this city teach me: with money you can make anything. Anything. I will do work for Dracula if I win money. You maybe think I'm angry between yesterday and now?"

"I make you angry?"

"No, you not make me angry. No Europe people make me angry. I not want talk about it. Some people you meet, you think they are Angel, but they wear mask. Are Dracula. Sometime, could be one month, could be six, mask will drop. Everyone has mask. Except you Joe. I think you do not wear mask," he said smiling, "I think no mask would fit your face." He foamed into laughter.

“Bastard,” said Jean.

We planned to leave, and Skip had done so. “Will you guys ever leave?” he said. But it was Monday, and there was a birthday party that night for Amelia. I went that day for a tour of San Simon, where a saint sat for most his life on top of a column, ever increasing its height to avoid contact with the pilgrims who flocked to him, and refusing to speak to women or even his own mother. Kate and ocka Steve went with me, and Saira, and a Bavarian named Fabian. We set our cameras on timers to take pictures of our group.

Jean went with N— and Saira to Baron Hotel, and to a market to pick up money from a debtor, and X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X XX X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X. Amelia received a big cake with Anita wrote on the front and fireworks out the side. Santiago was there for a while but refused any alcohol. By five most everyone had left, and I fell asleep with Kate on my shoulder, while Jean and Ahmad took photos in front of us.

The day after, I felt alright, and Kate and Amelia felt horrible, and N— was broken-hearted, begging Saira to stay. I wanted to go to Deir ez-Zur, to see the Roman fort of Dura Europos, but Ahmad warned against it. Four months ago, he said, an American helicopter flew across the border from Iraq and landed troops to shoot up the house of an alleged gunrunner, killing the man and the other six of his family, including an infant. The town was furious at Americans. If I went there, said Ahmad, the hotel would see my passport and report me to the Mukhabarat, who would track me, and as soon as I took a picture or wrote something down, arrest me as a spy. “If you wait until Friday,” he said, “I will go with you, and take you to my mother's village.” But I wanted to leave.

I met with Steve to exchange music, and went to an Internet cafe, and on returning found myself under suspicion of leaving without paying—my bag was too small to notice in the lobby. Upstairs, N— was crestfallen, Saira desperate, and she left with me on the bus to Hama, to meet with Jean in the Riad Hotel. We three talked all night, combined our knowledge of Al-Gawaher, and decided that it was the strangest place any of us had stayed.

Comments

  1. After having read for longer than I actually stayed in that place (perceived time) I equally like and agree with your bottom line!

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