i wish i were….
They were hitting him over the head with an iron pole. One of those iron poles used to roll up the shutters of small shops in the souk. You could hear the sound of metal smashing into bone. His eyes were wide open, staring straight at me. “You see? You see?” he screamed in English. See what? Blood, too much blood all over his blue shirt. His hands and arms were crushed as he tried to shield his face. When he collapsed to his knees and the five men closed in on him, our muscles moved, at last. We ran.
It was our third day in Aleppo. We’d met Idris outside a mosque. He was a tout. Yet another ‘professor of English’ at a university that didn’t exist. Slipping on his shoes after midday prayers, he grabbed R’s elbow and cajoled us towards his hope of a commission. All with non-stop smiles and chatter. 12th century doors, a 15th century caravansary, a khan (where Venetian traders and other Europeans first set up shop) vied with carpets, caftans, and “treasures for the lady. Very, very old lapis bracelet. Not made yesterday, I assure you, Madam.” I was happy. I had even become accustomed to meandering behind my husband. The man.
When that pole cut open his forehead, it cleft our journey in two. It shut us down. We left a euphoric before for everything that came after. Thirty minutes before, we had wandered through the souk, enraptured. Blissful with the shock of what for us is always new: the unimaginably old. Dizzy with the perfume of cloves, cardamon, saffron, dried roses. The stink of grease and sweat. It was like leaping into some scene on medieval MTV: camel’s heads hanging from a butcher’s stall. Mountains of freshly sheared wool. Ropes, pegs, pillows for tents. Bare bulbs flickered, dimmed and plunged us into split seconds of primordial darkness. Then candles and kerosene lamps shed a magic light on shelves of gold, cotton, copper, silver and silk. These were men not machines whittling wood, working looms, shoveling dough into huge clay kilns, and forging hammers from chunks of red hot iron. They had been doing this for thousands of years, ever since the days of satraps, caliphs, and kings.
Suddenly, that souk seemed to asphixiate every feeling but fear. A giddy, gut fear that swallowed us whole. There was no light. No air. Burros laden with burlap sacks blocked the alleyways. The crowds inched forward. Past Beduoins pushing sheep and black shrouded women. When we escaped into the sunlight, our knees shaking, we weren’t travelers anymore. We were tourists. The wish for vulnerability had given way to barely suppressed suspicion. No longer welcome guests in the land of Aladdin and the Arabian nights, we were Infidels lost in the land of Jew killers, terrorists, and other unforgiving fundamentalists. Was hospitality just another form of the veil which masked hostility? Ruthlessness? Why had they attacked Idris? It couldn’t have been over a commission? Had someone finally stopped it? If only we had walked a second slower or faster. We would have missed him, never met him. Had they taken him to a hospital? Was he dead?
Stupid questions. All stupid questions. Because here there are no questions. Only faith. “There is no God but God. And Mohammad is the prophet of God.” The Shahala. Here, everything is written. And dawn breaks with the muezzin’s call: “Come to prayer. Come to progress. Prayer is better than sleep.” Here, everything is exactly as God wills it. Inch’Allah!”
I thought of Lawrence in the David Lean epic. Lawrence who jeopardized the fate of fifty men to ride back into the Nafoud and rescue a single man. The very same man he would later have to execute. Was it God’s will or coincidence that led us back to his favorite hotel. The Baron. Perhaps, he’d sat in this same cracked leather chair, sipping whiskey, faced with the futility of asking why. His signed bar bill is framed in the lobby. So is his book, Letters Home. The Baron was the last stop, the terminus hotel for the now defunct, once glorious Orient Express. “Recommended by the Anglo American Touring Club 1948″ announces the plaque outside its portals.
Everyone has slept at the Baron: Dame Freya Stark, Agatha Christie, Teddy Roosevelt, Lord Mountbatten, Charles Lindburgh. And no one has changed the sheets or vacuumed since. The rooms still boast 14 ft. ceilings, gigantic armoires,porcelain bathroom fixtures from the French firm, Porcher, and bedbugs. Garbage sits heaped and ignored in the hallway W.C.’s. The carpets are original: frayed and filthy. And Russians mob the bar. Not the “Old” Russians, the ones who came as Soviets. But the “new” ones, the orphans of an empire who charter buses and arrive en masse from across the border to barter and to buy: to bring something home to sell. The city’s whores and dancing girls are mostly Russian–a cruel twist of fate that surely appeals to the men who exploit them.
“Hospitality, Service, and Tradition,” claims the flimsy, tissue thin brochure. “Morning calls. English Tea. Leave your order with the night porter.” One look at the thug-like night porter would probably send everyone, including the Russians, packing. Because no one these days works at the Baron. They work “It.” Smarmy men in shiny suits with “best deal” on dollars, guided sightseeing tours, “special night club actions.” All or at least some of which is its charm. The Baron is on its last legs. But it is an arrogant ruin. Living on the richesse of memory, its stands at a haughty and dilapidated distance from the ill-mannered present. Unlike its modern facsimiles, the great pretenders, The Baron suffers no delusions of grandeur. Take the Sham Palace, for instance. Syria’s own four-star chain. Unbeknownst to its Armenian owner, the name is hilariously apropos. With is fluorescent overhead lighting, its marbled and woody veneers and its babbling atrium fountain, it succeeds only in living up to its local nickname: the Shabby Sham.”
That morning, over breakfast in the Baron’s vast, empty dining room, we had devoured cheese and olives, bread and yogurt and talked about our dreams. Dreams we now recognized as premonition. I had dreamt of sitting on a dirt floor, crying and cradling R’s head in my lap. He’d dreamt of directing a movie. A gaffer, an electrician, was hit on the head by a falling beam. Desperate calls to 911 went unanswered. He woke up panicked. I had experienced only one other real premonition. The morning of my father’s stroke, I woke up sobbing. I’d dreamt of being trapped in a falling elevator; of lying paralyzed, unable to speak while people screamed my name. As a group of Georgian women slugged back shots of vodka and dumped suitcases of polyester dresses all over the floor, we wondered about other eerie coincidences, connections, here in Syria.