Hama and the Waterwheels of Death
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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,
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
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.
"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?"
"New Orleans is close to Texas.
"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
"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."
"Little room at the end of
the hall. This is my treat. Do you like egg and pasta?"
"I know it sounds uninteresting;"
"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
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
Had it been the Korean lady? The Lebanese mother-daughter duo? A
coin had just been dropped, from quite a distance, my head being
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.