1. MR. Q, I LOVE YOU
Oriental Studies Meets the Middle East
Two watermelons can’t be held in one hand.
I urged my gaze back down to the book of Arabic grammar that lay open on my lap. However hard I pressed my lips together, the curling script kept dancing away from me. My eyes went back up to the flimsy door of my hotel room, rattling in its frame. The knocking was growing insistent. I prayed that Jean-Pierre Thieck, the exuberant Frenchman who had persuaded me to visit Syria, would soon return.
Over lunch on a faraway house boat moored to a grassy canal bank near the River Thames south of Oxford, Jean-Pierre’s wild stories of Eastern adventures had put me under his spell. Now we lodged on the upper floor of a brothel in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. He had left on an obscure mission and, as the evening lengthened, he had not returned. From time to time, bursts of machine-gun fire echoed over the rooftops. I was only dimly aware of the cause of the fighting. I was paying more attention to the man banging on the door, a tall, virulent Iraqi truck driver from the next-door room. He was clearly determined to break in: first through the door, and then my own efforts to defend my virtue.
“Mr. Q! Mr. Q!” the Iraqi roared, beating the plywood panels. “Open the door!”
Then came silence. He’d be back, I knew. I gave up on the cartoon images of the grammar’s polite get-to-know-you conversations. Arabic Without Pain was its title, but the promise was false. I sat staring at the wall, anxiously waiting for Jean-Pierre. I was a second-year student of Persian and Arabic at Oxford University, and felt as if I was getting nowhere. Back at home, it humiliated me that friends in other faculties were climbing the foothills of scientific achievement or testing the boundaries of philosophical debate, while I spent most of my first year copying the ever-changing curves and dots of the Arabic alphabet chalked up on a blackboard as if I were in primary school. The droning of the lecturers, bored numb by our hours of simplistic drudgery, often left me fighting with sleep. None of it seemed relevant to real life. The narrow historical scope of my Oriental Studies course seemed so disconnected from everything I read in the newspapers about the dramas of the modern Middle East.
Still, those same news stories had made me anxious about traveling to the region alone. Over our house boat lunch, Jean-Pierre, then visiting Oxford for his research into the administration of Middle Eastern cities in the nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire, had gaily insisted that I fly out on my next vacation to join him in the field. When I eventually tracked him down to the cardamom-coffee-scented corridors of a French institute in the Syrian capital of Damascus, he swept me off to Aleppo, two hundred miles to the north. Guidebook in hand, I begged to stay in the colonial-era Baron Hotel, with its creaky, cavernous iron beds, its skyward-ho airline posters from another age, and its threadbare memories of guests like Agatha Christie. After one night, however, Jean-Pierre declared the atmosphere of genteel decay claustrophobic and demanded that we decamp into a rough-and-ready hotel around the corner. It took me awhile to realize that the reason the floor below us was populated by fleshy, middle-aged ladies was that this was a whore house known locally as Madame Olga’s.
We spent three weeks in Aleppo. Sometimes Jean-Pierre took me to help with his research, notably in an ancient Aleppo merchant’s khan, or trading house in the bazaar. Here we dug out everything from nineteenth-century photographs to handwritten Korans to Chinese porcelain, buried deep in a cluttered storeroom behind the colonnaded courtyard, where years earlier camel caravans unloaded their wares. I jostled with donkeys and black-swathed house wives through the narrow souks of the bazaar, drinking in the smell of spices and the elixir of being utterly distant from England. Nearly everyone wore ankle-length gowns, not Western dress. The medieval-looking arched alleys had shops on aged wooden platforms, with a knotted rope suspended above to help the shop keeper heave himself in. At other times I stayed at home and struggled on with my Arabic catechism, sitting upright on one of the two beds in our bare room of whitewashed cement. My ritual of study kept the chaotic rush of new experiences at bay and offered the distant promise that one day I might be able to comprehend them.
My academic efforts, however, were rapidly being overtaken by a crash course in Middle Eastern reality. At five A.M. on our first morning in Madame Olga’s, we awoke to dozens of large explosions shaking the city. Later that morning we discovered that the Syrian army had ringed and sealed all roads into the city. The shopkeepers had declared a general strike, locking down their metal shutters in what I was to learn was the time-honored but often futile fashion of Middle Eastern urban protest. Now a few keystrokes on a computer can dig out reports on the Aleppo troubles of March– April 1980 as part of the Syrian government’s unending quest to crush its domestic opponents. Some commentaries say power-hungry Islamic extremists were fighting to overturn the secular order. Others note that moderate Islamists were finding sympathy among businessmen frustrated with impoverishment and corrupt economic mismanagement. Apparently, conservative Sunni Muslims were chafing at domination by the schismatic Alawite Muslim minority who monopolized the country through their strongman, President Hafez al-Assad. Perhaps all of the above was true. Back then, I couldn’t have told these concepts apart, and nobody was framing events in these easy sound bites anyway. News agencies and radio stations in Beirut eventually carried a few confused reports from Aleppo, but they were short, appeared days later, and vaguely quoted “travelers from the city.” We did not hear about these. Not even Jean-Pierre’s vivacious cross-questioning of everyone we met could explain what was going on.
The populace lived in a swirl of conflicting rumors. The bazaar was nearly empty except for the soldiers. A few tradesmen watched in silence as army platoons smashed the padlocked shop fronts open with sledgehammers, making the stone vaults ring with metal clangs and explosions of glass. The army conducted searches for Islamist dissidents, district by district, house by house. I spent most of the first evening on our tiled balcony, hypnotized by the lines of tracer bullets lacing through the night sky. Armored vehicles clanked along the nearby main road, occasionally passed by columns of open trucks filled with frightened civilian captives in pajamas or flowing nightgowns. I could read stress on the faces of everyone, but the population was not necessarily cowed. One of our ladies at Madame Olga’s did her share, emptying a bucket of water over the heads of two soldiers as they left the establishment. That image of a prostitute servicing the oppressors but at the same time supporting supposedly “Islamist” rebels implanted in me a long-lasting suspicion of all ideological interpretations of the Middle East.
The soldiers arrested Jean-Pierre and me several times. They were unpredictable, either extraordinarily friendly or so nervous that they armed their guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers and rammed them into our bellies. Once, when Jean-Pierre’s loose-leaf photocopies of Ottoman texts were mistaken for the flyers calling for shop keepers to strike, we spent an uncomfortable hour in one of the impromptu torture and interrogation centers set up in construction sites on the edge of the city.
With my donkey outside the ancient city of Petra on the edge of the southern Jordanian desert, age four. My family took me on frequent trips to the eastern Mediterranean as a child, one likely cause of a lifelong addiction to the Middle East. 1964. (Phyllis Garle)
Jean-Pierre charmed the officer in charge, teaching me that an ability to make people laugh was an essential survival skill. Protected by Jean-Pierre, the edginess was exhilarating. I soon gave up trying to read the few history textbooks I had taken with me.
We did escape for a while from Aleppo, leaving Madame Olga’s and its insatiable Iraqi truck drivers behind. One day, Jean-Pierre suggested we visit nearby Alexandretta, over the border in neighboring Turkey. I brushed off my guidebook to line up the most interesting ancient sites to see along this stretch of the Fertile Crescent, cradle of some of the world’s first civilizations. I felt a comfortable surge of familiarity. My father, a scholarly detective in the decipherment of ancient scripts, and my mother, a handsome Englishwoman of the indefatigable school, had marched me through countless eastern Mediterranean classical ruins. This was done with little reference to contemporary peoples around them, rather as my university course in Oriental Studies seemed uninterested in modern Middle Eastern culture. At Oxford, Lawrence of Arabia’s exciting epic of desert adventures was considered more part of English literature than the Islamic history we had to study from difficult modern theorists. I had not yet discovered the delights of reading accounts by Victorian adventurers, imperial proconsuls, and romantic travelers who could really communicate their broad and intimate relationships with the Middle East, great writers like Richard Burton in the Arabian deserts, Freya Stark in remote mountain villages, Gertrude Bell as she paced the boundaries of modern Iraq, and John Glubb Pasha, who commanded Jordan’s Arab Legion. My era judged such nonacademics as lightweight and unworthy. The fashion was for bookish specialization and, partly thanks to the shaming impact of Edward Said’s critique of “Orientalism,” there was a scorn for Westerners dabbling in Eastern adventures. “Persian,” one British professor warned me sternly, “is not a subject for dilettantes.”
My antidote to all this was Jean-Pierre, and a new lesson in how to take in the Middle East came in a nondescript village a few hundred yards after the tortuous formalities of the Turkish border crossing. Just as I was relishing picking up speed again, the beat of a drum and the wail of a reed horn made Jean-Pierre’s ears prick up. He pulled his car onto the shoulder and headed over to a small crowd gathered in an uneven space before one of the mud-brick houses. A wedding party was getting under way. With cheerful waves we were ushered into seats of honor next to the bridegroom in a wide circle of chairs. I marveled at Jean-Pierre’s unending appetite for conversation but was unable to follow more than the overall cut and thrust of the talk. The afternoon wore on.
“Jean-Pierre, shouldn’t we be leaving? It’s getting dark.”
“Take it easy, Hugues. Don’t you see how fascinating this is? A pure Kurdish celebration in the midst of Turkey. They’ve cast aside all their inhibitions . . .”
“But Jean-Pierre, please. If we’re to get to the mosaic museum in Antioch, we have to . . .”
He wasn’t listening anymore, dragged away by an invitation to join the line of young men who were dipping and dancing to the music, their leader delicately twitching a white handkerchief high in the air and then sweeping it low over the beaten earth courtyard. Jean-Pierre joined in seamlessly yet outrageously, energizing the line with his extra, laughing pirouettes, a jester who had found his court. His hosts would have been surprised to learn that he was actually half Jewish, brought up in the house of a French banker. His conception was as exotic as his life, being the fruit of a brief affair between his French Marxist mother and an English trade union leader from the northern town of Wigan, both of whom had attended the same Socialist conference in Vienna.
Just being part of his sparkling circle made me feel like I was on a romantic Eastern journey. His boisterous chat and infectious laughter charmed all into believing that they were living a special moment, flattered by his boundless curiosity about their lives and politics and disarmed by his wide-open blue eyes, broad forehead, and bald head. Certainly, our hosts were upholding the Eastern obligation of hospitality. But in this Kurdish village, Jean-Pierre intuitively understood how to unlock the clannishness of the occasion, which, if we had driven straight on past, would have been bound by narrow conventions of a village whose livelihood derived from two wheat harvests scratched out each side of the blazingly hot summer months. However, it was linguistically and culturally impenetrable to me. I had a lot to learn and felt like an outsider.
“Jean-Pierre, let’s go,” I pleaded again. My Oxford cocktail party training had at least helped me spot a natural break in proceedings as people got up and moved around. “We’re not going to find a hotel at all if we don’t leave now.”
“The party’s only just starting. Come on!” He led me into a house where torn limbs of freshly roasted lamb lay heaped on a mound of rice.
I had no choice but to follow my guide. I was forced to set aside my English reserve, which I now realize was actually my anxious determination not to be separated from my long-laid, book-guided plan, from my habits of chairs, tables, and restaurants, and from my control over the company and conversation. Jean-Pierre cheered me up by teaching me to plump rice into a ball with my right hand. He reminded me in a whisper that, in the absence of toilet paper, the left hand was used only with water for personal hygiene. Seeing my nose wrinkle, Jean-Pierre rolled his eyes and insisted that this toilet procedure was actually far more pleasurable.
“Don’t be so disgusting,” I snorted.
“I’ve even installed a special tap for the purpose in my flat in Paris, you know,” he teased me. “It’s much cleaner than our filthy ways.”
He turned to discuss an aspect of sheep grazing with our host, and I applied myself to the feast before me, and in the right hands of my neighbors, who would pass choice morsels on to me. When I next ate with a knife and fork, I noticed a hard, metallic coldness that I had never tasted before. Many years later, a new generation of upmarket restaurants in Turkey, after de cades of imitating Western manners, would come full circle and make a marketing point of doing away with the cutlery.
Back in the village, I spent the night on a thin mattress on the concrete floor of our hosts’ main living room, shared with half a dozen other men snoring and scratching away. Hopes that we would be away at dawn came to naught, as a new host captured Jean-Pierre for a breakfast that took yet another millennium. Twenty-four hours later, my touristic plans were in tatters, but Jean-Pierre had acquired an encyclopedic overview of the villagers’ life, hopes, and relationships that no guidebook could ever have captured. I gave up on ancient sites and simply followed him, understanding a little more each day. I learned to enjoy the Middle East for what it was, not what it had been or what the guidebooks told me to expect. Above all, Jean-Pierre taught me how to use a magic cloak of unprejudiced openness that guarded him from all suspicion. It was a gift that would serve me well.
Jean-Pierre was, however, not all innocence. He was an enthusiastic homosexual and, thanks to events in a Chicago bath house, HIV positive years before either he or anybody else in the Middle East had heard of AIDS. He spiced his love of people with several sexual contacts a day, and I now shudder to think what a swathe the illness may have cut through the communities in which we stayed. He passed away in 1990, adored by a wide circle of friends and honored by French academia with a collection of his writings titled Passion d’Orient.
Before those warning twinkles in Jean-Pierre’s eyes forced me to take note of it, I had no idea of the homosexual current that runs through much of the Middle East. Unlike in the West, consorting with another male is usually not a statement of sexual identity but mostly a pragmatic solution to the lack of available women. I bumped against it often. After a visit to a Greek Orthodox church in Aleppo, I was astonished to find one of the junior priests looking me up in my hotel and offering me a “massage,” which, he claimed, was his day job. And three weeks after I moved to a Syrian village to try to perfect my Arabic, living cheerfully among families with children, all the men in the extended family of my kind hosts invited me to drink tea after dinner.
The conversation took a familiar turn.
“Who are you, Mr. Q, really?”
All eyes were on me, sympathetic and expectant. I sighed.
“I’ve told you a hundred times. I’m English! Mohammed here and his sister Ayshe visited me in Oxford.”
It was true. Jean-Pierre had introduced me to the village during my first visit to Syria in 1980, and I had subsequently guided this pair of unexpected guests around the colleges for a day.
Everyone smiled indulgently. My denials that I was Israeli or American were never taken very seriously. Clearly, they didn’t believe a word I was saying.
“No, no, what are you, Mr. Q? What are you?”
“I’m a student, a student! If I was a spy, they would have trained me a bit better than this, wouldn’t they?”
The looks all implied that they had seen through my double act long ago and had forgiven me.
“Mr. Q! What we want to know is this,” their spokesman said. “Are you Iraqi? Or are you Lebanese?”
This went beyond the most imaginative accusations hurled at me yet, and I looked around the happily smiling group in absolute incomprehension.
“Relax, Mr. Q! What we mean is, do you like to do it, like an Iraqi, or have it done to you, like a Lebanese?”
I retreated the next morning to a new abode in Damascus, where I learned to limit propositions from all and sundry by growing a mustache. Although unlovely, I wore it as a prophylactic talisman for the next fifteen years.
Men assumed that European men were easy game, just as they did Europe an women. Jean-Pierre showed me how a disproportionate number of my contemporaries embraced the Middle East with their interest in male company in mind. It was an attraction to the East shared by famed Western explorers, painters, and adventurers in the past, from T. E. Lawrence to the legendary photographer of the Arab marshes and deserts, Wilfred Thesiger. Indeed, Peter Avery, the Cambridge academic with whom I first discussed my interest in studying Persian, practically sat me on his knee. The achievements of such men had played a big role in firing my imagination, and I wondered whether my lack of a homosexual drive would doom my small attempt to follow in their footsteps. Perhaps their ability to go with the Middle Eastern sexual flow was the key to the success of their exploits—or at least the route to learning some decent Arabic. Perhaps it would lessen the alienation I felt dragging me down when Jean-Pierre was not on hand to interpret events. I even criticized myself for my confused unwillingness to adopt this lifestyle, fearing that without it I would never be able to commune with the storied inner world of the East. In more desperate moments, I wondered if it was my own primness that was perverted.
It took a long time for me to realize that it was actually the absence of women in the public space that was disorienting me, or, given that I had lived in a brothel, perhaps I should say the lack of educated women. Problematic attitudes burst from a Syrian epic film set in medieval times that I went to see in Aleppo. It quickly taught me more about male perceptions of the lusts of war than all my years of reading short, dry accounts of battles in Oxford’s Oriental Institute library. For two hours, the turban-clad costume drama indulged in a merry abandon of nonstop massacre, pillage, merciless executions, and the indelible delusion of a rape scene in which the female victim gave a postrape smile of happy satisfaction.
Seeking entertainment during my introduction to Aleppo under siege, Jean-Pierre took me to a nightclub, open in the afternoon because of the curfew. We watched women strippers work a meager audience of bedouins in checkered kaffiyehs, blowing the proceeds from a market-day sale of sheep or goats on the establishment’s bootleg whisky. One lady from Angola danced around a chair as her prop but surprised us with her choice of background photographs as she removed her clothes: huge black-and-white images of Adolf Hitler. The few waiters made a show of rushing up to the stage after each successive act, holding a battered, champagne-shaped bottle in one hand and its cork in the other. The audience had no idea of what real champagne was, I supposed, and the performance may have resembled a nightclub scene from 1950s Egyptian films. But I wasn’t ready for the climax. As the lady made her bows, the waiters shouted “pop” and flung the cork of what turned out to be an empty bottle onto the stage. Western ways and images might have been a sexy escape from Middle Eastern reality, but the Middle East had made them all its own.
Back on that early evening at Madame Olga’s, much of my education was still ahead of me. It was getting late, Jean-Pierre had not returned, and the Iraqi truck driver was back, knocking and Mr. Q-ing me ever more insistently. None of the several Iraqis had any more money for the ladies downstairs. Jean-Pierre was bored of them. He had seduced the brothel’s night porter and left to prowl the dark passageways leading to the many shops in our quarter, which had become impromptu barrack rooms filled with soldiers in uniform. This, he declared, was the kind of dangerous excitement that he liked best, even though one morning he had returned bruised and bleeding like a cat that had been worsted in a fight. So the truck drivers were turning to me as the next best available thing. I was young, beardless, and a foreigner in Jean-Pierre’s company, so I must therefore share his sexual tastes. Cooped up by the military operations around us, this matter was a subject of general debate. It amused all but me.
“You can’t have him,” Jean-Pierre would trill in my defense, explaining that I was a waqf, or charitable endowment as ordained by Islamic law, whose assets could not be touched by the state, or rather, in this case, the domineering Iraqis. For a while they followed Jean-Pierre’s lead in calling me waqf, but it was only a temporary defense. They soon went back to the Arabic mispronunciation of my name that stuck fast over the de cades to come. But the beating on my door forced me to an early epiphany in the face of all these competing pressures.
“Mr. Q! Where are you? My friend!” said the Iraqi, returning to the offensive with a series of knocks that approached the strength of a battering ram.
“My friend after one minute he will return!” I slowly articulated through the door in my schoolboy Arabic.
“Mr. Q! Mr. Q!” he bellowed. “Mr. Q, I love you!”
A clear response came to me at last: No. I would not be fresh meat for an Iraqi truck driver. I made a hurried calculation. I put down my grammar and laced up my shoes. I faced a lesser threat outside in the shooting and dark army curfew. Smartly exiting the room, I dodged past the astonished Iraqi and out of the brothel. I made it to a nearby restaurant, one of the few that stubbornly kept their doors open onto the deserted streets.
Safe from immediate harm, I felt elated. Yes, it had seemed dangerous. But I had got away with it. Over a heartwarming bowl of lentil soup, I considered my experiences of the previous few days. I realized that I was tasting history in the making and felt a heady awakening of survival instincts never tested in England.
Brave again, and with no patrols in sight, I slipped around the next corner to the Baron Hotel. There I could celebrate my new state of mind with a drink at the bar and, just possibly, a conversation with someone of my own kind. As I mounted the wide stone steps, I looked through the deep-set illuminated windows. My luck was holding. A busload of foreign tourists was checking in. The Syrian state was proving its skill at pretending that nothing untoward was happening in the country. Soon enough I was chatting with a young secretary from a coal mine deep in the Australian Outback, discovering the world on a yearlong tour. My head didn’t just spin with my sudden change of fortune. As I ordered us a new round of cold Syrian beer, it dawned on me that my few days of Aleppo siege living had made me an insider, glamorous in her eyes. Jean-Pierre’s high-wire acts had persuaded me that I could not be his kind of orientalist. My South African childhood and early Mediterranean travels meant I was never likely to be fully comfortable in Britain. That evening, I began laying the foundation of my own future in the Middle East. As I unrolled my new-learned wisdom, the Australian traveler gazed up at me in amazed admiration. I was hooked.
Excerpted from Dining With Al-Qaeda by Hugh Pope.
Copyright © 2010 by Hugh Pope.
Published in 2010 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.