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The Steamy Side of Syria

When I was in Aleppo, Syria’s fascinating northern city, I spoke with the manager of my hotel, a young man called Abdullah, who claimed to have met the author Robert Tewdwr Moss.  He described him as a rather “curious fellow”, who on one occasion managed to make the hotelier feel quite uncomfortable.

“He was speaking to me in Arabic,” Abdullah explained in startlingly proper English, “in which he was not very fluent.  After every few sentences, he would say the word for ‘penis’, rather confusingly.  At first I thought that he had merely misspoken, but after a while it became apparent that he knew precisely what he was saying.  At the time, I found his behaviour to be quite shocking, I had never met someone like him, but now,” he paused and looked away.  When he looked back at me I noticed that he was blushing, visibly embarassed.  “Now, I understand that the Europeans are often times… in this way.”

An odd story.  Moss penned a book about his travels through Syria that was no less puzzling, called Cleopatra’s Wedding Present.  I asked Abdullah if he knew about it.

“Yes, indeed I do,” he replied, “but I have not read it.  It is difficult to find here, because it has been banned by the government.”  I had heard this before.  If it was true, it certainly wouldn’t be surprising.  The Syrian governement, under the President Hafiz Al-Assad, and now his son Bashar, has always taken care to stymie any negative opinion of its regime through a variety of methods.  In 1982, the elder Assad crushed a Sunni uprising in the town of Hama, just south of Aleppo, which resulted in the deaths of 10,000 people.  In comparison, literary censorship seemed relatively inconsequential.  I had heard that even a few travel guidebooks had been placed on the list of banned materials for containing factual (and therefore, negative) information about the government, although I did not venture to ask Abdullah how I could go about clearing my trusty guide book with the local authorities. 

I excused myself from the handful of people that had gathered in the hallway, as Abdullah steered the conversation towards “a reputable hamam quite nearby,” at which he could get us all a very competitive price for a Turkish bath.  Rather than ponder why he didn’t refer to it as a Syrian bath, I instead headed upstairs to where Abdullah kept his “library”, a makeshift bookcase full of backpackes’ gold – regional guidebooks, recent bestseller novels, and other books of interest, all available for trade or purchase and all kept under guard by lock and key.  I turned my neck on its side so I could pass my gaze over the blur of titles that sat wedged on the shelves.  Optimistically, I searched out Moss’s banned novel among the spines, hoping that Abdullah had somehow missed it during his years of cataloguing the library.  He had not.  I did, however, spy an interesting selection of supposedly banned Syrian guidebooks, found nestled in amongst less controversial subjects.   

After I returned home to Canada, I sought out Cleopatra’s Wedding Present at various bookstores and libraries.  Eventually, I found one copy available at a library across town from me.  The book was on hold, so I put in a request to have it borrowed.  Many months later, having forgotten about all this business of wedding presents and Tudor mosses, and with my vivid experiences in Syria already drifting into distant memory, I was surprised by a call from the library informing me that the book had become available.  My interest reborn, I dropped by the following week to renew my fleeting acquaintance with Robert Tewdwr Moss.   

Returning on the crosstown bus, I settled in for the ride and thumbed through the opening pages.  The book was a quick read, but I did not have to finish it to realise why it might have been banned in Syria.  Indeed, Moss does not care to conceal his (uncomplimentary) opinons about the Syrian governement in Cleopatra’s Wedding Present.  However, it is more likely that his unbridled accounts of thinly veiled homosexuality among the people he encounters was what concerned Syrian authorities the most.  Although the ruling Baath party runs a secular dictatorship, Syria is nonetheless a traditional Islamic country, with a large majority of religious Sunni Muslims.  Homosexuality is not only looked upon unfavourably, to say the least, its mere existence in society is often outright rejected.

Moss, however, recounts tales of being picked up by younger men in the labirynth Souq of Aleppo and elsewhere, seemingly inundated with male suitors during his entire stay.  His book paints a portrait of a subject rarely discussed when concerning the Arab world, yet which lies apparently just beneath the surface of daily life.  Indeed, when illustrating many of the young men whom he finds intriguing, his descriptive prose is at times excellent, at once elaborative and succint.  When he depicts a boy he meets “wearing a square black cap embroidered with the white crescent moons of Islam, beneath which a dark shaggy fringe of hair fell like a Shetland pony’s over one finely drawn oriental eye”, his prose is evocatively descriptive without being wasteful.  Yet Moss’s powers of literary portraiture seem to take their leave when he encounters characters to whom he is not attracted.  When sightseeing with friends in the town of Maaret, he meets a young man who obviously does not interest him.  Moss flippantly describes him as an “ugly boy” and proceeds to not sacrifice a further word of description on him, despite spending the better part of a day together.

His habit of selective narration aside, however, what is most disquieting about the author’s methods is his tendency to revert to a colonialist manner of thought when he surveys his surroundings.  His style is reminiscent of early explorers, returning to Europe triumphantly with tales of the savages that had awaited them in the New World, or of the early 20th century travel writers who visited the Near East, describing the Arabs with fanciful brushes of generalisation.  Indeed, when Moss encounters a hotel not up to his standards, he complains that it “was so primitive it did not even possess a sign in English.”  He prefers that his written subjects conform to his preestablished characterisations, as is evident when he attends a social function one evening, only to be disappointed by the way that those others in attendance remind him of Europeans.  “The Arabs,” he deplores, “are so much better when they behave as Arabs.”

Yet when considering the book in completion, the human faults that Moss does nothing to hide only add to the magnitude and relevance of his writing.  There are so many travel writers, it seems, who do not understand the value of translating their personalities into their descriptions.  What separates a compelling piece of travel writing from one that is merely adequate,  is not necessarily the author’s ability or originality in description, but his capacity to imbue the piece with a sense of his own personality, which forces the reader to picture not only people and their surroundings, but the author himself, standing not inconspicuously amongst his subjects.  For all that I find offensive about Moss’s attitudes, I can’t help but be drawn in by the power of his descriptions, turning each page eagerly and being disappointed with the blank spaces that end each chapter, momentarily disrupting my covert intrusion of his Syrian travels.

Cleopatra’s Wedding Present presents a view of Syria that is vibrant and insightful, but that is most importantly a new perspective on one traveller’s impression of a complicated, multilayered society.  Moss has succeeded in pulling back at least a few of these layers to reveal a side of Syria so unimaginable to most of us, and for that the book is a must read for anyone who has had the opportunity to experience the country.

According to the publisher, Robert Tewdwr Moss suffered an “untimely death” on the day that he completed Cleopatra’s Wedding Present.  An Englishman I spoke with in Syria mentioned that he had been murdered by a spurned lover, but actually on the day after he completed the book.

I remember telling Abdullah, the hotel manager, that Moss would have passed away not long after he had met him in the early 1990’s.  He seemed to stop his train of thought, and looked straight into my eyes for a moment in a manner that was genuinely saddened.  He had obviously not known this.  “It makes me unhappy to hear this,” he said, slowly.  After a pause, he turned again towards the others that had gathered there in his hotel to discuss the merits of a relaxing Turkish steam bath, of which he could procur for his guests a very special price.

Cleopatra’s Wedding Present: Travels Through Syria by Robert Tewdwr Moss. Gerald Duckworth & Co., Ltd., 1997, ISBN 0 7156 2807 0

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