Even in the year 1903, caravans still traveled the Silk Road to Damascus, but they were no longer the great treasure trains of Arabian legend. Since the building of the Suez Canal, the ancient trade had dwindled. No more did one hear the shivering of bells on the harnesses of a thousand camels. The caravanners who stubbornly continued to ply their trade were as resigned as the brutes they cursed and coaxed out of the desert wastes. Times were hard. Even the bedouin bandits let them pass in peace. A score of half-laden camels were scarcely worth the fight. Western travelers were more likely to swoop down upon them in these days, cameras clicking. The drivers posed for piasters, but their smiles were worn and as bleak as their prospects. Then on they plodded to Damascus, travel-worn memorials to the passing of an age, knowing they would have little trouble finding a bed. The Eight-Gated City with its soaring minarets still dominated the fertile Syrian plain, but now that steamships carried the riches of the Orient to Beirut, the inns of landlocked Damascus were silent and empty. Some compared the city to a once-pampered courtesan who had turned spiteful and hard.
Not that she had ever been even-tempered. Men had fought over her beguiling favors for centuries, and she had encouraged these attentions. Nor could she be trusted. Damascus was like a lover, wrote a Sufi poet, who lifted her veil while concealing a knife behind her back. Perhaps this history of deceit was on the mind of Tayeb Faroun as he spoke to his son, Nikolai, in the garden of their newly acquired villa overlooking the ancient city.
“A Turkish general was murdered here,” said Tayeb Faroun. “Before this place became ours.”
“In his bath. By his body servant.”
Young Nikolai turned his attention from a column of listless Turkish cavalry ambling through the Gate of Jupiter, or, as the Arabs called it, the Bab Al-Jabiyah, the Gate of Blessings. Sitting on the stone wall of the villa, he was practically eye to eye with the taciturn man in the business suit. He knew his father did not make up stories. His mother had been the storyteller. But his father kept much to himself and rarely said anything at all.
“Why did he kill the general, sir?”
“How old are you, Nikolai?”
Tayeb Faroun took out an English cigarette and tapped it thoughtfully on a gold case before lighting up.
“The motive, it was rumored, was revenge. It seems the old general favored the company of young men and so the jealous body servant cut his throat while he was bathing. But I don’t think that is what really happened. The true story is that the general had become very popular, and this offended the Sublime Porte.”
“The Grand Door?” young Nikolai asked.
“That is the title—the honorific—by which the sultan in Istanbul is known.”
“So the general offended the sultan?”
“Oh, yes. The body servant was merely carrying out the sultan’s instructions. Sultans can be very jealous too.” Tayeb Faroun released smoke in a long exhale and turned his attention to the city below. “Every house you see in the town below us, every room in every tenement of that city beyond,” said Tayeb Faroun to his son, “has a thousand dark stories like that one, as far back as men remember.”
“Why is that, Father?”
“Because Damascus is the oldest city in the world. Even older than Jericho in Palestine, I’m told.”
“Older than Jericho?” the boy asked in disbelief.
Tayeb Faroun pointed to a hill in the distance. Nikolai stood on the garden wall to get a better look. “Abel is buried there.”
“Cain slew him in envy,” said the boy a bit self-consciously.
“Unfortunately, that murder wasn’t the last. You might say the idea caught on,” he chuckled, pleased at his grim joke.
“What happened to Cain, Papa?”
“God banished him to wander the earth.”
“The police didn’t put him in jail?”
“God was the police,” said Tayeb Faroun. “And he was a lot tougher than the Turks.”
Nikolai could not say for certain that this memory had been an omen, but now that he was chief of the Damascus Prefecture, he would often take his lunch to the promontory known as Abel’s Tomb and look over the restive city whose peace he was assigned to keep. In the thirty years since young Nikolai had spoken with his father in the villa garden, great changes had overtaken Syria. The Turks had been defeated in the Great War and expelled from most of the Near East. For a brief moment of time, Prince Faisal al-Husseini, the grave and dignified warrior who had led the famed Arab Revolt against the Turks, had ruled the land. But in 1920, the French had driven the prince from Damascus and taken over Syria and Lebanon under a League of Nations mandate. The French were supposed to prepare their Arab wards for self-government, but everyone knew the occupiers intended to stay. So Arab resistance groups sprang up and the result was revolt, riot, and assassination. The French were heavy-handed, favoring artillery to diplomacy, a policy that fed the resistance.
By 1933, and six months after Nikolai Faroun had joined the Damascus civil police force known as the Prefecture, Syria verged on anarchy. The journey that had led Faroun to this post had begun when the young man had defied his father and signed up with a French Legionnaire unit during the Great War. It took many years for him to find his way home to Lebanon, but when he returned to Beirut, he learned that his father had died of heart failure in 1922. Gone were the fortune and his father’s properties. The Maronite businessman from Lebanon had lost everything in speculation following the war. All that remained was the modest red-tiled villa in Mohajirene overlooking Damascus. The villa had been boarded up for years.
Faroun had been pleased to claim and renovate the property. He had hired some workmen. They had done a good job of restoring the roof and the façade. The interior of the house was still crammed with unpacked boxes, but Faroun was getting around to the task. The hours at the Prefecture were long, and some nights he didn’t come home at all.
It was noon and one of Faroun’s pleasures was to bring his lunch to Abel’s Tomb. From this vantage point, the policeman could just discern the outline of the wall where he had once listened to father’s story about the general and the sultan. He had just turned forty, a passage that seemed defined by his isolation. Long before his father died, his Russian mother had disappeared into the depths of her native land. An only child, he was the last of his father’s line. A Lebanese working for the French occupiers, he was not a popular man. When his German girlfriend had thrown him over for a French officer a month ago, she had left behind a brindled cat. The cat had run away. Perhaps if he had been home once in a while and fed the thing, it would have stayed. Faroun folded the piece of wax paper that had held his egg sandwich and slipped it into his pocket. There was not much to mark the tomb of the Old Testament’s first murder victim, an ancient stone cairn topped by a weathered iron crescent. Lunch over, he flipped up the kickstand of the Triumph motorbike and charged the air with the roar of the impatient engine. Down below, the crumbling honey-colored walls of Damascus were wonderfully picturesque. The oldest city in the world seemed in harmony with perfect creation, the navel of the earth, home of our first garden, the crossroads of ancient empire, and a place where all caravans found their end and their beginning. It looked picture-postcard sweet.
Abel’s Tomb held a far deeper truth, as Nikolai Faroun’s father had pointed out so long ago. Murder had begun here and it had caught on.
Copyright © 2006 by Frederick Highland