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Issue 10 - A Journal of Letters and Life
Foreign Desk
Road to Damascus
by John Verlenden

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If you're trekking the Eastern Mediterranean, it's hard not to trip over the ghost of Paul the Apostle. On Rhodos Island we discovered that God created for Paul's ship a miraculous opening into the small harbor at Lindos. Tsambikos, our guide, stood on the promontory of the old Crusader fort, its rotted-tooth battlements long ago stormed by Ottoman troops. Looking at the calm rock-encircled Mediterranean waters, he began in this way: "It is said…"
     Two months later, when we got to Ephesus (Efes), the adventures of Paul had become more quotidian. In that vast Hellenic sanctuary, no doubt near the great library with its standing facade and its beheaded statue of Sophia, Paul boiled up sermons that threatened the vendors who sold little Artemis statuettes. A local Roman official told an angry mob of these vendors and their families that a legal tool known as the court system was invented by the Romans to take care of ravers like Paul. The people went away. Nothing was done about Paul or the vendors.
     Of course, his letters remain, First and Second Ephesians, as does the Temple of Artemis. That is, the temple's foundations are barely visible above, and often beneath, a sump of water. The temple was number one on the list of Ancient Wonders, but we know it by historical description only. In contrast, Paul has avoided becoming a ruin.
     And why not? In a world of metamorphosis, Paul experienced the most famous religious transformation on record. Certainly he never made a more fateful journey than when he set forth in 33-34 C.E. under his Jewish name, Saul, plying his way from Jerusalem to Damascus. People inevitably think that Saul was struck blind, which was never quite the truth. Also, people forget that Saul tried to out-Nero Nero - the regent who took off Paul's head in 66 AD. Sure, Saul was bad. But how bad?
     Here are the facts. He was caravaning to Damascus to collect a team of Christian prisoners and return to them to their oh-so-just desserts in Jerusalem. Apparently, to Saul's taste, they were having it too easy under the Jewish elders in Damascus. The Romans were still snubbing all revealed religions, but, utilizing the colonialist formula, letting the Jews take care of the Christian renegades. We'll never know if Saul had a mass execution on his mind, because he never followed through with his mission.
     Instead a platinum bolt, like a monumental burst from a strobe light, dazzled Saul and made him fall down, as I imagine partyers at the Fillmore West falling down when faced with the light show of Jimi Hendrix on his first American tour. The difference, however, was that in the midst of Saul's psychedelic experience, a voice cut through clear and cold: "Saul, why are you doing this to me?"
     To me.
     Saul made it, shaken no doubt, to Damascus. Maybe he was thinking of shrugging off the incident, calling it a fit brought on by dehydration. Immediately, however, a complete stranger found Saul's quarters in the city (unknown to anyone) and confronted him with a question: "What are you going to do about that moment on the road back there?"
     Within, or shortly after, this moment of internal lightning, the world's most famous circuit-riding preacher assumed his new identity: Paul the Apostle. Paul the Wanderer.
     Blinded on the road to Damascus. The phrase lingered -- for mankind, and for me. While I sat within a one room office of an unnamed taxi company in Amman, Jordan, I realized that all of my friends that year had made several trips to Syria, to Damascus. Yet not once had I heard anybody mention Paul's name. Such is life in a Muslim country.
     Across the street on the vast open pavements of Al Abdali station, taxi touts shouted their destinations.
     "King Hussein Bridge (to Israel)!"
     "Aqaba (the Red Sea port that Lawrence took from the desert side)!"
     "Madaba (near the perch where Moses sighted the holy land)!"
     In and out of the huge lot puffed a battery of ancient white Mercedes - beneficent metal microbes of the Third World. Hijabed women carrying string-wrapped boxes got into their back doors. Men in possession of prayer caps jammed into front seats, sitting atop one another. The taxis went east, west. They rumbled off to the south. But within my vision, only one 1967 Buick LeSabre sat with its trunk open, my travel bag dotting its cavernous interior, its destination described by its single tout as "a-Souriya, Damasq."
     As I waited, and hoped, for other applicants to haggle over the five dinar price tag ($7.50), I wondered what would be exacted of me on this balmy spring day in the first year of the Third Christian Millenium. After all, Road To Damascus.
     But blindness was not on the menu. On the contrary, the road to Damascus, and to Syria in general, shed nothing but light and more light, such that the thought drifted to mind that I had indeed been blind. About Syria, I mean. It, along with Damascus, turned out to be nothing like what I'd been led to expect.
     For one, I dimly remembered Syria as a Soviet satellite. In relation to the U.S., in this decidedly post-Sputnik era (what am I saying? Post-Soviet era), such countries are known as client states. Regardless of changing political vocabularies, Syria's air force flew horrid little MIG fighter planes that zoomed like yellow jackets through my mind as I watched bomb shelters taking up suburban backyards in the mid-sixties in the Southern U.S.A..
To compound matters, my high-achieving older brother had spent a college summer abroad in Israel, had seen Masada, had shaken hands with Moshe Dayan - all this in 1966. Also, he intimated to me alone that he had perhaps had his first fleshly encounter with the opposite sex. I looked at this possible consort in his handheld photograph: a kibbutz-er, tanned and hearty.
     He himself returned tanned and hearty, like a Tolstoy character. He was ebullient, muscle-hardened, con brio - a man now literally knowledgeable of Chianti baskets. With tensed lips, he wove tales of Syrian MIGs terrifying a brave people, much as the Roman General Silva had terrified the small band at Masada. Weren't we all comrades in arms with such people?
     After four hundred slide photos, with full historical descriptions, the state of Israel became as sacrosanct to our household on Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, as the nearby Chattanooga Lookouts AAA baseball club. Attack the Lookouts? In 1967, Syria's jets did just that.
     The Six Days flamed in my mind forever, it seemed. For one thing, I'd managed to start a disastrous marriage, barely twenty years old, on Day One. Imagine putting on the dark blue suit in an Arkansas motel with the Six Day War on the television. My brother had sat on the bed's edge, his hands curled into fists. He was my best man.
     Then, relentlessly, for three decades, Syria had given us the visage of an unsmiling man with clam-straight mouth, a veritable knife thrust surmounted by thin brush mustache. Wasn't Herr Hitler ghosting about in that image? By means of a vast forehead, this man had daunted half a dozen U.S. presidents. Stern, pissed off, immortal. Enter Hafez al Assad, otherwise known as Syria-in-the-flesh.
     Assad and MIGs. Like Baucall and cigarettes.
     Here, of course, it stuck in my head that Hafez Al Assad, Syrian President in perpetuum, had expired less than seven days prior to my gathering of backpack and underwear.
     As well, I had to remind myself that no one had been talking about MIGs for a decade.
     So now, with the Lenin-like image of Assad out of the way, I hoped to ramble in the cracked egg of his country and become properly amazed at my ever-leafing ignorance.
     "Vacationing?" the middle-aged man said to me. He and I were squashed together on the left side of the Buick's backseat. After sitting alone in the Amman taxi office for an hour or so, I had watched a sudden onslaught of single men - mostly without bags - descend from several hillsides and light upon our car. Finally, with this man, the car had filled up. The trunk was slammed down. We threaded our way through Amman and then drove an hour and a half with the front seat crew presenting endless puns.
     Now we were stopped just south of the Syrian border. Out in the middle of nowhere was a café serving colas. Sure. As if. The driver had taken the proprietor outside where they talked under a sliver of shade cast against the desert ground by the bumpy roof.
     I watched the two men laughing, most likely about contraband. Cartons of Marlboro, rings of dates, CDs and fake jeans, electronica of all descriptions, these were the topics that made people smile in northern Jordan. Otherwise, the largest lot of them were Palestinians (disenfranchised), and the smaller lot were Bedouin (marginalized, stripped of identity). Smiles were as common as blue eyes.
     I said to my fellow traveler, "No. I'm not vacationing."
     "Not quite that either."
     He sighed. "I understand completely. When is one ever really free?" He drew one hand through the air. "But getting away for a while: can we call it that?" He gave out a dry, little laugh, the hallmark of an intellectual. I had been made.
     Dr. Nefai at my service.
     Dr. Nefai had received his medical degree from my worthy country of origin, been forced by lack of green card to take the lucrative ("May I say simply 'realistic'") salaries offered in Saudi Arabia. Otherwise he would have set up a clinic in his home country (cough, cough) Palestine, there to live like a pauper. Presently he oversaw one hundred and forty beds.
     "But one needs a break from Saudi Arabia, if you know what I mean," he said.
     "No," I said, "I'm not sure I do."
     "Certain pleasures," he whistled the words in a low voice. "Would you be a man of pleasure, sir?"
     "I am a man of art and learning," I said.
     "God, sorry to hear that." He raised his water bottle to his lips. I did the same with my own. "As two people standing outside our cultures, I was hoping we could rendezvous in Damascus."
     He examined me in an unfocused way. I realized I had seen him before. On the covers of magazines. It was Salman Rushdie. Only this version possessed not a flicker of Rushdie's genius. Nevertheless, here were the half-bearded cheeks, the half-masted eyes. Insouciant? My god, was he not insouciant! Who could view such a face and not feel incipient systems of chaos wiring themselves telepathically to the brain?
     "We will find separate pleasures on this trip, I believe, sir," I said.
     Stilted English approximates the decorum in Arabic, hence is instantly understood. You pay a price, strictly to yourself, of feeling like a genteel ass, but then you move on when your interlocutor smiles without saying, 'Aw, come off it.'
     "Ah," he said now.
     "Ah, ah," I said.
     "Ah" serves as yes. "Ah ah ah" means yes yes yes, and makes a trilling end to any loose rope of conversation.
     Our driver signed off with his compatriot - a buss on either cheek, something weighty and dark placed from one hand to another. Denver roll of bills? Pocket Qoran? Wad of Kodak family pix?
     The other passengers strolled out of the café's dark innards. They housed their clear glass cola bottles in the wooden rack, set like a Hollywood prop against the front wall. Doors were slammed, puns were soon placed into the air. We rumbled and wove our way to Damascus.

Taxi square, heart of old Damascus. Shaking my hand, the doctor said, "We will now pursue our separate pleasures, eh? Good luck!" He gave my mitt a final pump and released it.
     As he walked off, mouth parted, eyes pinched in concentration, chest angled forward, I wondered if I might not hale him before it was too late. Just what were those pleasures again, sir?
     But no. The almighty gut had spoken. Besides, he had said, with determination, "I will probably leave my room as little as possible." And only barely chuckled.
     When dumped by a servees taxi near a bustling Arab terminal, I find it best to put one foot in front of the other. No good can come from the one or two, then dozens, of touts who finally sniff out your imperial presence.
     Walking hard and with purpose, I, as usual, got lost. Strictly speaking, such a condition wasn't necessary, since my pocket contained a map that Adam, my Arabist friend in Amman, had carefully penned for me.
     But I didn't want to examine the map in the street. Instead I kept walking, looking for a café, or a public square where I might sit down, draw the paper out as if it were a list of friends' phone numbers.
     None of these gambits work, incidentally. I suppose everyone has his own system of entering a new city. My system works no less ineffectually than most others, excluding, of course, those of persons who actually have a plan. Frost, I believe, wrote the poem that covers the seemingly small crisis of my divergence from that fold long ago.
     One foot after the other. I began to feel joyous. The ambulatory movement jolted my Arabic down from my inner nostrils back to my tongue where it belonged. Pleasant coming into one's own self, on an afternoon in a strange never-before-seen city raked by the world's largest dust storm.
     I'd thought the same about Cairo years before, the look of it, that is. Cairo, and now Damascus, looked as if a dump truck had upended a load of ashes on it, producing a haze that would never settle. Loess, the geologic name for such powdery dust, is ancient stuff. To appreciate it, you have to picture Abraham ship-shipping his sandals through this same warm powder while searching the horizon for camels or scrub or dots of herdsmen.
     I've just described it: the philosophical long view that separates those who love the Middle East from those who keep listening for the distant thump of a discoteque. Those kind will always be finding bars in Beirut or Tel Aviv. There they bray out their horror stories of brown, brown everywhere, and not a hint of palladium. Sure, there's a crowd for that kind of thing. That they come six thousand miles for the pleasure seems too steep of a luxury to me. But then I'm aware how much our pocketbooks determine our aesthetics.
     Incidentally, an absolutely jaded American novelist, thoroughly unappreciated in his native country, told me that draft beer in Beirut was thirteen dollars a mug.
     My street reached a terminus. A white arrow on a sign, no script to accompany, pointed left. A person would have to be an idiot to ignore such a cosmic hint. I proceeded as directed.
Presto. Less than a block away, I stood at one of the eastern world's most fabled crossroads. Drawing my eyes skyward was a three-story-high black banner bearing the face of Hafez al Assad. What the banner's canvas was roped to, and straining to cover, was nothing less than the Hejaz Railroad Station.
     Hadn't I, fifteen months earlier, lain feverish in a New Orleans bed, listening to far-off Mardi Gras parades toodling away far into the night while I sweated my way, with glory, through T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom? Was he not forever concocting schemes to bungle up the tracks of this very railroad that once proceeded out of this now-empty station?
     Surely the Hejaz Railroad station is the orientalist delight of all Syria. A monumental example of Ottoman architecture built in the first years of the twentieth century, it is already a bit British, certainly influenced by the blockiness of Byzantium. As well, it carries a weak though indelible stamp of Hellenism overrun by Turkish cavalry.
     Fascistic, grand, a railroad might never span the earth that was built for loftier purpose: to carry souls.
     Yes, the Hejaz Railroad was designed for the express purpose of chugging hordes of pilgrims on Haj, out of Asia Minor to their beloved Mecca.
     I'm sorry. Several amendments need to be made to this historical generalization. First, the railroad was never completed to Mecca, but only to Medina (later to Habigh). Secondly, the railroad was built primarily for military and political purposes. However, Ottoman coffers were so depleted by affairs like the Crimean War, they had to ask for donations from the Muslim community. They had to lie and say that helping pilgrims complete their Haj, one of Islam's pillars, constituted the railroad's single purpose.
     No wonder no one studies history.
     Another thing: the railroad didn't get to Mecca, in part because another group of nominal Muslims, the Bedouin, kept swooping down out of the hills and killing the workers. For centuries, Bedouin nomads had supplied camels to Haj pilgrims. The railroad represented an end to their cartel. Anyone in a similar position, like, say, Microsoft, would fight to their last heir in swaddling clothes to protect such a regal situation. Or at least pour tens of millions into court cases. Because of the Bedouin, the people who eventually finished the track were conscripted Ottoman troops. They worked hard, then went for their carbines when dust began to rise on the hilltops or along the wavering horizon.
     World War I stopped everything, including, finally, any hope of the tracks making it to Mecca. Note that Lawrence had no trouble getting almost every Bedouin tribe he encountered to help him blow up sections of track. What amazed him was how rapacious their attacks became. They left hardly a survivor, including the passengers. Any number of times, Lawrence had to step in to save little old ladies simply trying to flee the war zones. Such murderous zeal is not born of an empty seed husk. The Bedouin had seen something in the train - namely, the whole twentieth century. Since the end of WWI and the mandates that followed, since the invention of Israel and the presence everywhere of border guards, the Bedouin's lot in life has been hack-cut to the quick. By the end of 1919, they had lost more than a trade in camel-hiring. They had lost themselves.
     So I was standing where this twentieth century juggernaut - the Hejaz Railroad Station - had its source. Like Livingstone at Lake Victoria (let us humor the analogy). Had the Ottomans been richer, the railroad would have begun in Istanbul. As it was, the limited project from Damascus took every cent the empire had. The government docked all workers on its rolls (enormous rolls, of course) a tenth of their salaries for the holy task. Even the sultan slid a hefty sum across the table: 50,000 gold pieces.      Unprecedented.
     Such sacrifices change the world. By making the difficult, often months-long pilgrimage into a luxury excursion, the Hejaz Railroad tooted Islam into the Industrial Age of Western Europe.
     For me, it mattered little that a local clunker now ran the tracks from Damascus to Amman. The amazing thing was that, ninety years later, the station doors still stood open. Listening to my hiking boots produce their deft clomp on the floor, I walked beneath the banner of the stern gentleman with short mustache and into the foyer.
     This boxlike room, two stories high, had a walkway around its top floor giving onto a suite of offices with darkly stained wooden doors, all of them now shut. I easily peopled the room with three hundred pilgrims shoulder-to-shoulder churning among the ground-floor's ticket windows. These ornate, wrought-iron cages had been identified in French - Billets - as well as Arabic, though not with Turkish. Through the rear windows of the foyer I saw three ancient train cars - you could tell they were originals. Taking a few steps closer, I made out a red-painted English script on one of them: Hejaz Bar.
     I was thirsty, but the foyer still held me. From my position at the center of the floor I looked up and saw black streamers with small, hanging pictures of Assad festooning the upper reaches of the station.
     I unsheathed my Minolta.
     My picture looks like the interior of a pre-shoot set for Fritz Lang's Metropolis.
     Perhaps the station's paradoxical spirit exists in no better form than this five year record of the Hejaz Railroad's service:

               Civilian          Military
1908-1909          168,448          77,661
1909-1910          171,101          27,390
1910-1911          182,662          47,941
1911-1912          232,563          43,484
1912-1913          213,071     

The soldiers creep up on the numbers of pilgrims. Then, World War I.
I walked to the mothballed dining car known as the Hejaz Bar. Standing on the skinny platform where passengers would have once milled by the thousands, I felt eerily alone.
     Actually, I was not. A single heavily mustochioed pensioner crooked his arm in an open window of the Hejaz Bar and gave me a smile. In his palm he gripped an icy, dripping mug of beer.
     Should I go in? I looked at the car's dismal interior and sensed the presence of a thousand midnight roaches scurrying over every surface. The beer could wait. I raised my camera. The white-haired fellow waved "why not?" so I clicked him into the eternity of my home-closet photo files in New Orleans. A man is a man, thank god, and his picture is guaranteed to hold up.
     Before I made it to the street again, I glanced at a schedule board mounted onto the dining car. It seemed a bit hokey. The cities had been doped on, white, with thick, sign painter's script, onto a blackboard-ish background:
     "Istanbul, Bucharest, Budapest…Paris, London."
     Just in case anyone were taking a lift in the opposite direction from Mecca. I suppose, for that matter, that everyone in this car was heading a different direction, since drinking is proscribed for Muslims.
     Once I got onto the sidewalk in front of the station, I looked at my watch. I'd been in Damascus for fifteen minutes.
     Maybe I'd suffered my Paul-like conversion already. If so, I could only gird myself for the most mellifluous, slow-as-eternity of illuminations. Story of my life.
     Rivaling my presence on the sidewalk was not one other koaga, or foreigner. Nearby, a bandoliered policeman was soaking me up as if I were a kangaroo sprung from a wooden crate. I smiled, nodded, gave him a greeting in Arabic.
     His mouth stretched so wide, so quickly, that he had to look away or laugh outright in my face.
     "Inta min?" he said, repossessing himself.
     He matched his lips together, his mustache spreading beneath warm eyes. "Ahlan wa sahlan."
     Music to the ears: the Arabic welcome. It comes out in two distinct aspirations with each "h," thereby demanding that it be said with some vigor, even if it's not meant. In fact, it almost always is.
     Now that I had a friend, a protector, nearby, I took out my white sheet of folded paper, Adam's map. By the plain light of day, I saw that I was two blocks from Adam's recommended hotel. Cardinal rule: no hotel over ten dollars. Five was preferable.
     So which was it? Should I proceed in the policeman's direction? Six blocks beyond his amused face, I could see the high medieval walls enclosing the bazaar and the famous Ummayad Mosque. "Go to the Ummayad Mosque." Those had been my wife's last, brief words to me (issued, however, close to my ear).
     Fifty-year-old buses tilted as they turned the long, soft left in front of the walls, which, at first glance, resembled a brown cube.
     Or, for a second choice, did I proceed at a diagonal, through Martyr's Square, and onto my hotel?
     Since it was only two blocks away, I chose the hotel. As I soon found out, it was a much more complicated journey than the long march to the old city could possibly have been. Two reasons: business and people.
Next installment:
     The Ummayad Mosque, Saladin, and John the Baptist's Severed Head,
Not to Mention Hussein the Imam's Severed Head.

Note: Hejaz Railway information drawn from The Hejaz Railway and the Muslim Pilgrimmage, A Case of Ottoman Political Propaganda by Jacob M. Landau, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1971. further note: this book contains another book inside it, which occupies most of its pages, namely, The Book of the Increasing and Eternal Happiness - The Hejaz Railway by al-Sayyid Muhammad 'Arif (exists as a manuscript in the Yildiz Palace Library in Istanbul; no previous publication record in any language).

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