Review: Cleopatra's Wedding Present, Travels Through Syria


Around twenty years ago, a young English journalist by the name of Robert Tewdwr Moss packed his bags and headed to Syria. Much like his colonial forbearers of the previous century, Moss was drawn explicably to the romantic, even Orientalist ideals of this most Arab of nations.

As a journalist, he wanted to unravel the complexities of this largely middle-class, secular, educated, authoritarian state; as a gay man, he thirsted for adventure, and sought to play the role of a post-colonial Englishman whose blonde hair and blue-eyes would open doors to people, and places, few were fortunate enough to penetrate.

Syria in the 1990s was a place tourists rarely visited; as a journalist, Moss was essentially barred without government approval, and since many of his articles in the English press dealt with matters of society, a contemporary Truman Capote if you will, it was doubtful he would be successful in obtaining permission.

So Moss, not untruthfully, traveled on a tourist visa. And travel he did, across the length and breadth of the country, from the coastal cities of Lattakia and Tartous, to Palmyra and Al-hassake, even crossing precariously into the Iraqi Kurdish boarder (the Gulf War a not too-distant memory).

At each stop along the way he found beautiful doe-eyed boys and eager men who were curious about this handsome dandy. Moss always knew the right questions to ask to get the information he sought, and how to get to where he wanted to go.

For Moss wasn't some depraved Western sex tourist, he would never be so base as that. Rather, Moss was steeped, deeply, in Syrian history.

From the Assassins of the eleventh-century, to the seemingly endless Crusades, and the Victorian ex-pats who flourished in this alien culture (visiting Jane Digby's crumbling mansion a particular highlight), Moss knew the history of Syria better than an academic. Moreover, he was unafraid to go off the beaten path, to places people said were too dangerous and remote even for Syrians to go.

But, as Moss knew and made apparent, his ability to obtain access to worlds that would generally be closed to most everyone else, was a privilege. He knew his privilege, that tomorrow he could jump on a plane and be back in London (or anywhere for that matter) in a few hours. It was that privilege, which he held as both a blessing and a curse, that gave him courage.

Aleppo and Damascus held the greatest jewels of Syria, each laying claim to being the oldest inhabited cities in existence. It was here that Moss found, perhaps, what he was seeking, even if he did not truly know what that was.

The most beautiful romance of the book is his rather long affair with a Palestinian commando who fought in the Lebanese civil war, during his teenage years no less, named Jihad. Encountering this young man at a coffee shop in Damascus, Moss is immediately drawn to him.

Eventually, after a few encounters, Jihad invites Moss to his ramshackle home. Filled with apprehension, fear, and desire, Moss is nearly overwhelmed with emotion and hesitates at being drawn into this man's life. Yet he is, eventually traveling across the desert together, arriving in Palmyra where they watch the sunrise over the ancient city from atop Palmyra Castle.

Even after leaving Syria and returning to England, Moss cannot get Jihad out of his mind. He unexpectedly travels to Beirut six months later and crosses the border into Syria for two days.

His first stop is Jihad's home, only to find that he is not there, the street deserted; but as he leaves a woman appears, curious. He asks about Jihad and learns that he is away in eastern Syria, working. Moss realizes this is Jihad's mother and thanks her. He places a few mementos on the bed and leaves, never to see Jihad again.

Before leaving Syria for the last time, Moss stops in an antique shop in Damascus. He mentions to the owner that he plans on writing a book about his travels. The owner replies:

"Be very, very clever with what you write. Or else...' He performed a dismembering motion with his hands. 'They will tear it all up to pieces. Be very, very careful. They have the power. They can destroy everything."

This haunting prophecy, which Moss included as one of the last lines of the book, is much more chilling now, for it came true.

Returning to London, Moss began writing his travel memoir, which would be his first, as well as his last novel. The evening he completed his final edits, before sending them to his editor, Moss went out to celebrate.

Before coming home, he picked up two young men of Arab descent. The next day, Moss was found bound and gagged in his apartment, dead from asphyxiation, his laptop gone.

The two men were later found, arrested, and convicted of murder. The laptop was recovered, but the edited files were missing, erased from the hard drive.

Over the next few years his editor and close friends painfully reconstructed the narrative from the original drafts Moss submitted, which is now the current book.

Tragedy, torture, pain, and death found Moss not in the dark alleys of Aleppo or the hidden souks of Damascus, but in bustling, Western, liberal London.

This book is his legacy, his final word on a world that now no longer exists. A country that exists in name only, destroyed by the ravages of war, bombs, genocide, and starvation. Moss saw Syria as it was, a troubled, complex, and beautiful country whose people welcomed him into their lives and homes.

I think it would greatly sadden Moss to see what Syria has become, though even he too acknowledged, all those years ago, that peace among the people was fragile, held together only by fear, repression, and an iron fist. Even then, the romanticism of Syria was an ideal found only in books.