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Flirting with disaster

Cleopatra's Wedding Present Travels Through Syria Robert Tewdwr Moss University of Wisconsin Press: 248 pp., $24.95

October 19, 2003|Edmund White | Edmund White is the author of numerous books, including "Fanny: A Fiction," "The Married Man: A Novel" and the guidebook "The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris." He teaches writing at Princeton University.

SOME gays like to think they have an automatic entree into exotic societies, that they can cut through linguistic barriers and class lines, across religious frontiers and age categories, and arrive quickly and efficiently at the very heart of another world. I suppose in a rigid, authoritarian police state like Syria, where ordinary citizens are forbidden to talk to foreigners, the travel writer must resort to extraordinary means in order to escape the narrowly prescribed round of officially permitted activities.

Indisputably, Robert Tewdwr Moss, a sometime book reviewer on London's literary scene, saw and experienced a lot in Aleppo and Damascus, in Palmyra and the ruins of the destroyed town of Hama (it had recently been leveled for rebelling against the government). Without ever taking a pedantic tone in "Cleopatra's Wedding Present: Travels Through Syria," he manages to convey the grimy, dusty look of these cities with their Soviet-style apartment blocks, their constant, noisy traffic, their poor families picnicking on the sparsely planted traffic islands of major thoroughfares. We learn about the Turkish slaughter of the Armenians and encounter the few descendants of the survivors of that holocaust. We're filled in on the legend of the Assassins, an 11th century terrorist organization. We are told that Syria was part of Marc Antony's wedding present to Cleopatra. We are made aware of the ubiquitous spies of the late Hafez Assad's regime and its powerful, sophisticated propaganda arm. (Syrian films critical of the government are financed and shown at international film festivals but never distributed at home, for instance.)

Moss has a painter's knack for rendering the people and places he visited in the mid-1990s. He enters a Shiite tomb, for instance, that has been lavishly "restored" by Assad:

"The ceiling was of cut mirror work, so that the revolving silver ceiling fans were picked up in each tiny segment and the light seemed to shimmer all around us. It was like standing in a room being fanned by a thousand butterflies.... It was ostentatious, weird and magical -- something you might expect to find at Eurodisney in the Arabian Nights room.... Black-veiled women were ... sliding up and down the glass, kissing it in adoration, like large, black, amorphous sea slugs moving slowly over a tank, feasting off lichen."

Moss seems unafraid of typhoid, dark alleyways, encounters with armed strangers, even sex with a Palestinian terrorist. The lonely, sexy Palestinian, as much a stranger in Damascus as is Moss, is appropriately named Jihad.

Moss writes that even though he knew how dangerous it was for him to go on seeing Jihad and sleeping with him, he couldn't resist. "Was the risk addiction getting out of control?" he asks himself. Earlier he mentions "the familiar excitement that risk never fails to induce."

We learn from Lucretia Stewart's excellent introduction that Moss' risk addiction ended horribly, and that he lived only long enough to finish this single book: "Tewdwr Moss was murdered in his flat in Paddington, London, on August 24, 1996, the day after he completed it." The two young male prostitutes he had picked up and brought to his apartment were later sentenced to life imprisonment for binding and gagging Moss and ultimately causing his death by asphyxiation, according to Stewart. The book was first published in Britain in 1997 and is only now being published in the United States.

I don't want to read his life story backwards from the circumstances of his death, but Moss' extravagance (he wore carnation scent, earrings and velvet and brocade clothes) and his recklessness animate this astonishing account of Syria with its grim government and frightened, deeply civilized people. Moss is as open to women as to men, to Jews and Christians as to Muslims, and this book is a long gallery of memorable and variegated portraits.

But Moss' homosexuality (and youth and blond good looks) did give him access to strange and revelatory moments. At one point, a group of Syrian men are teasing Jihad and laughing hard. When Moss asks what they were saying, Jihad replies diplomatically, "They said I was very lucky to have such a beautiful young man to be my special friend." When Moss presses for the fuller explanation, Jihad says, "They said that an English boy was ten times better in bed than a woman. They will do everything your wife does and more beside. And you can make love to them all night long."

Although Moss is slightly offended, he reasons: "If you choose to go out with a Palestinian terrorist, you can hardly expect him to be a gay libber into the bargain.... Besides, what gay man wants a gay libber for a lover when he can have a Palestinian commando? It was the ultimate gay dilemma."

The story may seem bizarre, but I can testify to its reliability. I remember traveling through Damascus with a small, beautiful blond Frenchman in his early 20s shortly before Moss paid his visit there. The Frenchman and I were coming out of the great mosque (where, oddly enough, John the Baptist is buried) when suddenly his hand was seized by a tall mustachioed Syrian, who was surrounded by his followers. There was an actual tug of war as I pulled on his other hand in the opposite direction. At last the Syrian shrugged and released him, and we all laughed. Later, as he thought about the incident, my French friend was rather cross with me for interfering and "saving" him. *

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