Cleopatra’s Wedding Present: Travels Through Syria – Robert Tewdwr Moss

CWPThe title of the book has been taken from the fact that Syria was once part of Marc Anthony’s wedding present to Cleopatra. Today, the population is still only a pawn in the power games of the mighty.

One member of our group had recently returned from a trip which took in Syria and he thought it was an accurate description that captured the feel of the place.

Many of us recognise his description of souks where one corridor looks like another and the smell of offal and meat and piles of guts can make one sick. Pall Mall cigarettes are sold singly on streets. Squat loos and back gardens with toilet paper all around, flyovers, Victorian-like barber shops open in the evening, shaving with cut-throat razors, the mournful sound of the water wheel as ‘agonised lament’, a washbasin plumbed in to the hall, developers who destroy the most beautiful parts of a building first and then ask why anything should be preserved, power cuts and it is hot without a fan and you cannot open a window because of dust storm, aping European architecture whereas Arab houses have courtyards in the middle, the constant blare of car horns and the loop of CNN news – just like almost everywhere else in the Middle East. That feeds in to fantasies about the greenness of England – mild, ordered and urbane.

We get a description of the “hot winds,” “the blinding heat,” the “fine brown dust” from the dust storms, the “chaos of the streets and the air “clotted with diesel fumes hanging like a cloak around us.” The dirty collapsing towns had a “great past and no present” full of “the old merchants you see here – sly, and leathery, survivors.”

Then there’s the con-artists: Hisham/James speaks with a gay cockney accent and said he used to work at Heaven yet had never set foot outside Syria.

There is a Jewish area yet most Jews have moved away. It is forbidden to teach Hebrew. The rabbi turned business man keeps an eye on the synagogue: claiming to be the place where Elijah anointed Elisha, the synagogue had recently been restored.

The guide book was banned for containing anti-government information. There had been a massacre of anyone suspected of holding anti-Baath sentiments. It was an inhuman system yet the police who took passports on the bus came back with ice creams.

Eastern men share their bed with friends and it is said that an English boy in bed is ten times better than woman, yet it’s the other way round. Israelis, especially soldiers seek Palestinian lovers in Independence Park. A Hotel won’t allow friends upstairs so someone paid for three beds yet would only use one. That would keep the police at bay. There were, however, majlis, rooms for entertaining guests. An Arab would rather stand you up than say no to your face.

The night after completing the book, the author was murdered and the final revisions of his book lost on the stolen laptop. For that reason alone, you owe it to him to read this book.

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