Syria is the graveyard of ancient civilizations, and a mosaic of tribes, nations, religions, schisms, ideologies and invaders. Greeks, Romans, Alawites, Hittites, Aramaeans, Druzes, Crusaders…. It’s hard to know what to make of it, either past or present. And it’s still in flux.
Five days before we leave France in March 2011, troubles break out in the southern town of Dara’a. The travel agent assures us that there is no cause for concern. The Syrian guide ignores the unrest as long as he can, and then dismisses it. The situation doesn’t seem dangerous, but it’s uncomfortable. Nevertheless, at the end of a week, we are relieved to cross into Jordan.
I’m travelling with a group of French people, aged from sixty to eighty. It’s my first foray into group travel since my husband died. Some of the group formerly worked for the Paris suburban water board and call themselves the Anciens des Eaux. Some of the rest have travelled together before. I’m the only one who knows no one. There are nineteen of us in all.
On our arrival in Damascus, the advantages of group travel are immediately apparent: no visas to queue up for, no money to change, no taxis to haggle with. The guide takes charge of our passports, changes our money, assigns us hotel rooms. His name is Afif, and he’s a plump, rather oily gent, in a spiffy pin-striped suit. We are staying at the Ebla Palace, a faux luxury hotel in the middle of nowhere, with an ostentatious lobby and paint-stripper toiletries. The restaurant has a three-piece band, an empty dance floor and a singer crooning antiquated hits to assorted multi-national tour groups.
Next morning we set out to see Damascus. We start off in the Architectural Museum, which has some fine pieces but is cramped and badly laid out. The displays jump anarchically from one period to another. It’s hard to follow when you haven’t seen the sites. But then it’s on to the Old City which has extensive souks, an imposing mosque, the head of John the Baptist, and the tomb of Saladin. Ladies are issued with unflattering robes to visit the mosque and Saladin’s mausoleum: we are allowed to provide our own headscarves. The gentlemen make sympathetic comments and take our photo. The Great Mosque of Damascus and the Azem Palace (the Ottoman governor’s residence) are fine examples of Islamic architecture, one dating from the eighth century, and the second from the eighteenth.
When we’ve finished with the serious stuff, Afif escorts us on a walk through the souk, pointing out places of interest, which include a lot of Christian churches (he himself is a Christian, we discover). It’s quite relaxing not to have to grope your way forward with one eye on the guidebook and the other on the city plan. Marianne, who is seventy-eight and a very nice lady, walks behind me and saves me from being run over by motor scooters a few times. Purchases are authorized, in emporia selected by Afif. We are not allowed to straggle. At the end of the day, we drive up to the top of a hill overlooking the city to admire Damascus by night. On the way we pass the Presidential Palace, which is dark and unlit, and possibly swarming with military in the shadows. Afif fobs off questions about the current unrest with some chat about how visitors are traditionally welcomed into a guest palace at the bottom of the hill before being conducted to the Presence at the top. He says the arrangement is modeled on Ebla, one of the ancient sites we will visit in the course of our stay. That evening, the BBC reports fifteen dead in Dara’a.
On to Palmyra. Travelling through the suburbs of Damascus on the way east, I’m struck by the amount of unadorned concrete dwellings: half-finished houses with metal struts sticking up in the air and heaps of rubble and used tyres in front of the door. (Later we hear that the reason for the unfinished look is that people like to think that they can build on an extra storey for relatives if the spirit moves them.) Afif boasts that everyone in Syria is entitled to free medical care and that there is no unemployment because, unlike France, people are not paid unemployment benefit, and so everyone “figures something out.” Well, that’s nice. Everyone is busy phoning their relatives in France to reassure them that we are nowhere near Dara’a. Afif pretends not to hear. Our road takes us across the steppe, which is flat and not very interesting, with a few miserable-looking Bedouin tents hunkered down here and there. Afif says that Bedouins are free to camp where they want with no need for government permits. We make a pit stop at a place called the Bagdad Café, and take lunch in a Bedouin-run restaurant featuring steam-cooked lamb, a local delicacy, which is truly disgusting.
The first sight of Palmyra is amazing. Coming round the last bend on the featureless steppe road, we’re suddenly confronted with the ruins of the ancient city, floating like a mirage in the desert air. The clouds have lifted and the sun has come out. High points of the visit are the Archeological Museum, which is more focused and better laid out than the one in Damascus; Queen Zenobia’s baths; and the temple of Baal, which was built in the Roman style, only bigger and better, to make sure everyone seeing it was properly humbled. The gods of the Middle East seem to have been a remarkably ferocious and repressive lot. One sees exactly where Yahweh comes from. The local tribes needed to be kept in line and terrorized into good behaviour. The oasis can be traced back to the nineteenth century BC, and gets several mentions in the Old Testament. When the Romans moved in, they straightened out the unruly nomads, and the city became an important trading centre on the caravan routes. Zenobia became queen in 267 AD and set out to challenge Roman power in Egypt and Asia Minor. Obliged in the end to surrender, she may have been killed – or else she may have ended her days in Rome as a senator’s wife. You can choose what you want to believe. Palmyra fell gradually into obscurity until the first Western travellers started arriving in the seventeenth century, and the archeologists some time thereafter.
The Hotel Zenobia Cham is not up to the late queen’s standards. It has dark little rooms hung with dark little carpets, and some rather alarming plumbing. Afif has inveigled us into attending an evening of Bedouin dancing. We file into a tent, sit in a row, and listen to four or five guys playing screechy music on unidentifiable instruments. A man in black robes claps his hands and get us all to clap too. A few men dance, but respectable Bedouin ladies are not allowed to dance in front of strangers, so instead Sophie and Claire from our group are borne off to the back of the tent, kitted out in embroidered robes, and encouraged to do the dancing. They do not get a share of the €10 we all forked out.
Next day it’s off to Aleppo, via Hama, Apamee and Ebla, and the many layers of Syria’s past start to pile up in confusion. Hama has been settled since five thousand years before Christ. In the second millenium it was ravaged (possibly) by someone called the Hyksos, then it became the capital of an Aramaean kingdom which paid tribute to King David, then the Assyrians ravaged it and then the Romans moved in. At last, someone I’ve heard of! Hama is reputed to be the most traditionalist town in Syria today, and was the site of a bloody attack by Hafez al Assad in 1982, that Afif assures us was regrettable but necessary. It’s Friday today, the Day of Prayer, and the town is quiet when we visit mid-morning, but our visit is confined to the nurias, the gigantic water-wheels that were used until recently to bring water into the city from the River Orontes, followed by cream cheese delicacies in a nearby coffee shop. Afif tucks in, and gets them to make up a parcel for him to take home. Claire, who at sixty-seven still has something of the little girl about her, tells me about her husband who worked for Air France and didn’t like to travel. And wouldn’t let her travel either. So she’s making up for lost time. Next stop is Apamea for a pleasant walk in the sunshine along the Cardo, two kilometres long, edged by colonnades, set amid greenery with sheep grazing nearby. Apamea was a garrison town under the Greeks and the Romans, and the Cardo is the main drag where the shops used to be. Some of the flagstones underfoot have been there for two thousand years. Lunch takes place at a truckdrivers’ halt, and consists of a tasty lamb dish.
The last stop of the day is Ebla, which is where the vertigo really kicks in. Not much is left of the site, but they found archives. We’re looking at a major city from the third millenium BC, which controlled a good part of north-western Syria, owned vast herds of cattle and sheep, and traded with Mesopotamia. It was destroyed first by the Assyrians around 2300 BC, then by the Hittites in 1200 BC. A Bedouin guide escorts us round, throwing pebbles at the uncovered foundations in an alarming fashion to attract our attention to anything he deems noteworthy. The locals are out and about, picknicking, taking walks with their children, enjoying their day of leisure in the sunshine. Girls in long coats and headscarves titter and stare, boys shoot past on scooters, people say hello and ask us where we’re from.
On to Aleppo, and back to the twenty-first century. Photos of Baal’s successor, Bashar al-Assad, are plastered up on buildings and on cars. Bashar has a furtive smile and an uneasy gaze. He was trained as an opthalmologist before dynastic imperatives obliged him to take over as heir apparent when his elder brother was killed in a car accident. Youths in pick-up trucks sporting pennants of Bashar are driving up and down the main thoroughfares hooting and yelling. They look as though they’re having a good time. It’s an exciting way to round off the Day of Prayer. The BBC talks of demonstrations, shootings, and unconfirmed numbers of dead. It’s not clear what’s happening where. There are no foreign journalists in Syria, and eyewitness reports cannot be authentified. France 5 claims one hundred dead (a nice round number), and the BBC suggests forty-five, unconfirmed. Afif has talked us into another evening of entertainment in a nearby hotel. The original plan was to go there on foot, but the lads in the pick-up trucks have changed his mind, and we take the bus instead. The whirling dervishes are worth seeing: one is fortyish, experienced, and very convincing; the other is a boy of twelve at most, learning the trade, and it’s touching to see him teeter round. How on earth do they stay on their feet? But the belly dancer is a disaster. Her belly doesn’t move, her hips barely sway, she has no sense of rhythm. She moves flabbily round from table to table and fidgets unbecomingly in front of each. To judge by her set smile and constant fiddling with her hair, she is as embarrassed by the proceedings as we are. Afif gets up to dance with her and tucks a note into her over-padded bra. Part of the €14 we paid for the evening?
The next day was supposed to be spent in Aleppo, but because of the disturbances we spend the morning out of town visiting a ruined Byzantine cathedral in a place called Saint Simeon, named after an ascetic monk who spent most of his life perching on top of a stone platform, for reasons that are not entirely clear. The church was partially destroyed by an earthquake, but the ruins attest to a harmoniously laid out building, and the site is spectacular. A Spanish group accompanied by a priest says mass and sings, and a group of well-dressed Syrian schoolgirls wearing make-up and headscarves produce mobile phones and ask to have their photos taken with us. We assume they live in the fancy apartment blocks that are going up on the outskirts of Aleppo. There is presumably a correlation between Westernized clothes and better housing, just as there must be links between the rundown buildings in the town centre and the dark covering coats of the women on the streets there. Afif is hard to pin down on socio-economic questions (no one dares ask political questions). Some of what he says is confusing, and some is plainly evasive.
Back in Aleppo, we have lunch in a former palace where surly waiters grimly process yet another batch of tourists. Their put-upon expressions remind me of the musicians who played for us last night, who couldn’t get out of the door fast enough at the end of the show. People are tired and cross today, and quite a few have upset stomachs. “No stamina,” says Simone disdainfully. Simone is turning out to be the Wicked Witch of the East. She is seventy-five. In her previous existence she must have terrorized the typing pool. Her conversation is of earth-shattering banality, and she likes to be the centre of attention. Next stop is the Citadel, but enough is enough. I sit at a café terrace with a few other dropouts, and we watch the world go by. The Citadel is the place to go for an afternoon out. Ladies wearing sober coats and headscarves with lipstick teeter past. Young men stride in leather jackets, old men shuffle along in long robes. We see lots of families with children. Behind us in the café, two young girls smoke a narguileh. We take a stroll through the souks, visit the factory where they make Aleppo soap, and move on to the shops where Afif is sure of his commission. We are staying in the Riga Palace, which is thankfully less Soviet than its name implies. It has decent toiletries, a bathroom big enough to dry one’s laundry, and an excellent view of the city from the seventh-floor restaurant. According to the BBC, there has been one death in Lattakia, where we are due to stay tomorrow night, and the city has been closed off. In Amman, where we will be in three days’ time, one hundred people have been hurt in a fight between supporters and opponents of the government. Great timing.
From Aleppo we drive north through the mountains to Saladin’s Castle, with an unscheduled stop in a village for Claire, who is feeling poorly, to throw up by the roadside. An interested crowd of teenagers, some clutching portraits of Bashar, immediately surrounds us. Nothing this exciting has happened in the village for years. Saladin’s Castle is a spectacular ruin on a hill dominating the countryside. It was built by the Crusaders and fell to Saladin in 1188. A spectacular pillar of rock juts up at the entrance, left over from when they dug out the moat. Once the pillar supported the drawbridge, several metres above the ground. After lunch, we drive through a wooded Mediterranean landscape towards Lattakia. A lot of high-end construction work is going up: holiday apartments, apparently, financed by rich Saudis, who need somewhere cooler to spend the summer. Since there seems to be nothing to do, and it’s not close to the beach, the choice of location seems odd, but apparently they party all night and sleep all day.
Police are checking cars at the entrance to Lattakia, but they let us through, and we drive through the town by a circuitous route avoiding the centre. Traffic is light, the streets are virtually deserted, and the shops are almost all shuttered. There are army patrols and police checkpoints at several crossroads. We take the turn off to Ugarit, the city of the Canaanites, who are also known as the Phoenicians. The origins of the site date back to 4000 BC, but the ruins currently visible belong only to 2000 BC or thereabouts. Did I mention that Syria is confusing? Ugarit’s main claim to fame is the invention, in about 1500 BC, of an alphabet whose signs corresponded to sounds, not syllables. That alphabet, engraved on a cylinder of dried clay, is in the Damascus Archeological Museum, and we saw it on our first day, but of course out of context. It’s a pity they didn’t keep it on the site: it would have been more meaningful to see it here. We repair to the café across the road for fresh orange juice, but break camp when a couple of young men on scooters with rifles ride by.
Our new hotel is on the beach, and we are quartered in vast holiday studios with kitchenettes big enough for a family of four. Unfortunately we arrive late and there’s hardly time to look outside before the sun goes down. CNN airs an interview with an old friend of Bashar now living abroad who says that Bashar used to be a nice guy but he isn’t any more. Rather than sit alone in my large, cold room until dinner, I repair to the bar, order arak and write up my journal. This does not seem to be the done thing, but it puts me in a better frame of mind for dinner, which consists of the usual buffet, made up of the usual mezze, the usual lamb stew, the usual steamed vegetables, the usual rice, all accompanied by the usual platitudes from Simone. The Anciens des Eaux have their drinking rituals with apéritifs and bottles of wine, but the rest of the group is sadly non-alcoholic. Simone has announced that she never drinks, and that seems to have set the tone. The small amount of whisky I brought with me ran out in Aleppo. Poor planning.
When we leave Lattakia the next day, the army is still guarding the entrance to the city. We drive past a huge pennant of Bashar hanging from a fourth floor apartment down to the street. Afif informs us that Bashar’s supporters are strongest in this region, because his tribe, the Alawites, are from around here. He assures us that everything will be resolved, that Bashar will adress the nation, that he will revoke the state of emergency that has been in force since 1963, and accede to the people’s demands. Does he really believe this, or is he just playing it safe by giving us the Party line? As a Christian, he presumably has a vested interest in the current socialist regime. Even if the Muslim Brotherhood aren’t as fanatical as they’re reputed to be, if they came to power it would no doubt upset all kinds of little tribal and religious balancing acts. Bashar is an Alawite, which is apparently a tribe, but it’s also the name of a schism from the Shiites. Does that mean they’re the same? I ask Afif if he could tell us something about the different tribes, since this is something Westerners overlook, but instead he tells us that snipers fired on to a crowd and killed thirty policeman. No one ventures to question this odd claim. He adds that the troubles are caused by Bashar’s uncle and cousins, and by the ex-deputy head of the opposition who fomented a coup and was sent into exile. Right.
Visits today include Tartus, which was a Frankish stronghold (after belonging to the Phoenicians and the Greeks and the Romans) and has a cathedral which was converted into a mosque, then a military depot, and finally a museum. Then on to Amrit just down the road, an important port around 1500 BC. The Arvadites and the Aradites and the Phoenicians were here, and one of other of them constructed some deep dark tombs surmounted by phallic-looking towers. I’m suffering from archeological burnout. In the distance, we can make out the guns at the nearby military camp aimed over Amrit at the sea. A few kilometres further on is the Krak des Chevaliers, the biggest and best of the Crusader castles remaining in Syria. It is huge, gloomy, draughty and oppressive. The sun that was shining when we left Lattakia this morning has vanished, and there’s a cold wind blowing in from the desert. Michel tells me how his wife collapsed and died in front of his eyes at dinner the previous year. Afif traipses us along long stone walkways pointing out where they put the horses, where they put the wine, and where they put the guards. The castle seems to have been a holding pen capable of accomodating huge numbers of soldiers ready to pour out and fight the Infidel as needed. Thinking of these Frankish warriors so far from home in this austere fortress in the bitter Syrian winters depresses me. I’m glad when the visit is over and it’s time for lunch.
After a final night in Damascus, we drive south to cross into Jordan. Sophie, who is seventy-eight but can pass for twenty years younger, tells me she was so lonely when her husband died six years ago that she went to a dating agency, but it didn’t work out. The usual frontier post is at Dara’a, which is still cordoned off, so we will cross a few kilometres further on. There’s a big pro-Bashar demonstration scheduled for today, and we see people grouping and preparations being made along our route. Don’t take photos, says Afif. We stop at Shaaba for the mosaics and Bosra for the theatre. Afif points out the town hall, the police station and the palace of justice in the towns we pass through, as he always does: as always they are glitzy modern buildings. The television in the restaurant where we stop for lunch shows massive street demonstrations, in Aleppo, apparently. We should tell everyone at home that things are under control in Syria, says Afif, and that everything is normal. He shepherds us through the Syrian border controls and leaves us on the edge of no man’s land. The Syrian bus is to drive us down to Amman, while he returns to Damascus in a taxi. His farewell is terse. He was less than pleased with the contents of the optional gratuity envelope that we passed round. I suspect he got his revenge by making us stumble through some of the danker, darker, more treacherous passages in Krak des Chevaliers.
The Jordanian guide, whose name is Mustafa, meets us at the Jordanian border, and takes care of the entrance formalities while we recover from the rigours of Syria with Turkish coffee and Cadbury’s chocolate at the border café. Mustafa is a large, nonchalant man in jeans and desert boots. Escorting tour groups round Jordan is his day job: his true vocation is teaching snorkelling in Aqaba. He is more at ease in French than Afif, and more willing to answer questions about the current situation. On the drive down to Amman, he explains the rationale behind last Friday’s demonstrations in Amman which left one hundred wounded, saying that the demonstrators want respect for the constitution, not the overthrow of the King. He claims that the economic situation in Jordan is better than Syria, and it’s true that Amman looks much more prosperous than anything we’ve seen in Syria. It could almost be an American suburb. The hotel is in a residential neighbourhood with nice houses and gardens, and some very fancy cars in the streets. Taking a walk on my own round the block (no one else wants to come), I’m impressed. Of course this is a city where people walk: the pavements are high and narrow and cluttered with garbage bins. Nor is there public transport to speak of: you have to take your car or find a cab. Staying briefly in Amman a year ago with my daughter, we got round in taxis, but had problems with drivers speaking Arabic only, and fell foul of a bizarre metering system that made us think a single journey was costing us thirty dinars (about €30), when in fact it was only three.
Sightseeing in Amman is limited to one site in the centre of the city that includes the Citadel, the Roman theatre, and a small though impressive Archeological Museum with exhibits going back to the seventh millenium BC. The theatre is closed for renovation. Apparently the whole of the city centre is about to be razed. The current mix of scraggy shops and rundown buildings will be revamped, and access to the archeological site will be improved. Who’s paying for this? Jordan has no resources and an unstable demographic mix, but Palestinian and Iraqi capital has been flowing in for the past two decades. Let’s hope it lasts.
One of Jordan’s problems is lack of water. Mustafa highlights this when we drive out to the desert castles east of Amman. “Castles” is not the best word to describe them: they’re more like fortified hammams. Most of them were built by the Omeyyads (the first dynasty of caliphs: 661 to 750 A.D.), for rest and relaxation at a suitable distance from the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Qasr Amra is notable for the frescos in the audience room and hammam showing human faces and forms, which is rare in Islamic art. Qasr el Asraq was where T.E. Lawrence plotted tactics with Prince Faisal during the Arab revolt against the Ottomans in 1917. It was once an oasis, and Mustafa explains that there was still a lake there only twenty years ago, but that now the steppe is being pumped dry to meet the needs of Amman. Unlike Afif, Mustafa doesn’t march us round the castle pointing out the baths, the stables and the guardroom. He takes a more lateral approach, giving us a fascinating account of Lawrence’s psychological problems, and how this affected the political development of the Middle East. He points out the room where Lawrence conspired with Faisal, and then leaves us free to wander round and look at the rest on our own. Or else take pictures. The group includes a few camera junkies who are destined to spend more time watching film of the trip than they actually spent on the road.
Next morning, it’s back to the Christians (and the Jews). From Mount Nebo you can see over the River Jordan into Israel, and this is where Moses is thought to have glimpsed the Promised Land. From the church in Madaba, which has an intriguing sixth-century mosaic map of Palestine, we move on to the local handicrafts centre, where we all spend far too much money, and then drive down the spectacular King’s Highway to Kerak, another Crusader castle. Sparing us another guided tour of another fortress, Mustafa sits us down and talks about the reasons for the Crusades, such as the poor economic situation in Europe, and the role played by the Templars, and his own epiphany on hearing a guide say when he visited France that Vienna had been saved from the “Infidel.” He, of course, had been taught to think of Europe as the “Infidel,” and this made him sit up and think. He says he has read a lot since then, trying to see things from different angles, and it shows in what he’s saying. He gives us things to think about as well as things to look at. Afif, though archeologically sound, was incapable of presenting a factual overview in a coherent manner.
And so to Petra. Petra was the first place the spice caravans reached on their way north from Arabia. It was ideally placed for levying taxes, and this is what the Nabateans, its founders, did, in the sixth century BC. Petra was their warehouse and their fortress. From here they controlled the region, organizing and taxing from their city in the rock. The architecture is cut out of the rock face: the builders started at the top and worked down. The Treasury, the most famous site, is the height of a ten-storey building. Access to the city is through a long narrow natural gorge (the Siq) that winds for a kilometre and a half. When you catch the first glimpse of Al Khazneh, the Treasury, gleaming in the morning sun, through the last cleft in the Siq, it takes your breath away. The area is subject to storms and flash floods, and the Nabateans set up a highly sophisticated irrigation system which controlled the water pouring in by means of dams, cisterns and water conduits. This meant the city could store water for periods of drought (and sell it too). In its heyday, Petra was famous for its gardens, but alas they are long gone. Still, the site is remarkable. The visit involves a lot of walking, though there are carriages, horses, donkeys and camels on offer along the way, but most of it is flat. Petra is what stays in the mind after two weeks of intensive archeology. It’s completely unlike any of the other sites in the region. The facades sculpted in the rock have something other-worldly about them. When you walk out of the Siq, it’s as though you’ve landed on another planet. Despite the tourist hordes and the souvenir shops, it’s like going back in time. “A rose-red city, half as old as Time,” wrote John William Burgon. Not that the Nabateans would recognize their city now – for sand and water have done their work of erosion – but in the constantly changing colours of the rock, there is something archaic and resistant.
After the Treasury, the path widens out, there’s more walking, more tombs, a theatre, colonnades, and there’s also Fatima’s Place, a pleasant café in the shade. We stop there with the guide on the way out, and the group straggles back in twos and threes on the way back. Fatima is a sharp little Bedouin girl who serves the drinks and rakes in the cash. The whole site of Petra is run by Bedouins. They live in a town nearby and entire families work on the site, selling soft drinks, postcards, souvenirs, passing out toilet paper at restrooms, hiring out camels, providing whatever tourists want, or can be persuaded they need. Schooling is a problem, says the guide, because the little kids are sent out to pester tourists with postcards, and have no incentive to get an education or move on to other professions. Lunch is naturally in a Bedouin restaurant. It’s here that the Schism takes place. The Anciens des Eaux settle themselves at one end of a long table, Simone moves her three main acolytes sharply down to the other end, and the rest of us lurk uneasily in the middle. I haven’t seen anything like it since primary school. But thus is formed the “bande à Simone,” and for the rest of the trip the four of them are inseparable.
After a spin through the desert in the Wadi Rum, we head back north to the Dead Sea. The hotel is right on the shore of the sea, a vast tourist complex with spa, beach, and swimming pools catering to a multinational clientèle that includes a lot of Russians and Ukrainians. The décor is Soviet, but the food is pretty good. After breakfast, everyone rushes off to sit in the sea and then smother themselves with mud. Since I tried this last year already (and once is enough), I spend the morning peacefully by the pool. Next stop is Bethany, on the banks of the River Jordan, where John the Baptist allegedly plied his trade. Mustafa gives us an exposé based on Bible references and archeology showing that the allegations are probably true. The Jordan is narrow and mucky because it’s been travelling through sand. We are allowed to poke in our fingers and toes. On the way back to Amman, we stop in a shop selling beauty products made of Dead Sea mud that claim to be the elixir of eternal youth, and as usual spend too much money.
The Dead Sea was hot, but Amman is colder, and the next day it rains. It’s our last day in Jordan and I am sick of travelling, sick of archeological sites, sick of the group. We head north to Jerash, and then on to Umm Qeis, where, in a café overlooking Lake Tiberias, opposite the Golan Heights, Mustafa concludes our education with a little realpolitik: Balfour Declaration, State of Israel, Israeli pilfering of Jordanian water resources – all credible, though coming from a slightly different angle than one is used to. But then he spoils it by claiming that the current Israeli Foreign Minister is hoping to take advantage of the regional turmoil to impose something called the Great Transfer, which means that all Arabs living on Israeli soil would be shipped out to neighbouring Arab countries such as Jordan. This puts rather a dent in his credibility.
On the plane back to Paris, cut off from the group by the computer at check-in, I find myself sitting next to the Ghost of Jordan Past: a stringy little woman of indeterminate age, who has clearly never been on a plane before, and who has put on her best grey velvet dress for the occasion. Every time she moves, I get a blast of mothballs. All the way across Europe she fidgets, poking me with her sharp little velvet elbows, invading my space with her sharp little bare feet, twisting round in her seat to offer me the meat out of her sandwich. Not the usual suave behavior one expects from one’s neighbour on the plane, but I don’t really mind. At least I don’t have to make conversation and pretend to like her.
POSTSCRIPT: May 2015.
Palmyra has just fallen to the Islamic State, who are reported to be hacking their way through the museum. Visiting the ruins there four years ago, I bought a necklace I didn’t want off a pleasant young man who said I was his first customer that week. I imagine our group was one of the last to be admitted to Syria before the troubles started. The soap factory in Aleppo no longer exists, the souk there is in ruins, and I sometimes wonder what became of the teenage necklace vendor of Palmyra.