I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
I’d rather be in my bed, eyes in the dark, lying on my back, head resting on a soft pillow, than in the desert, even in the company of Félicien David, even in the company of Sarah, the desert is an extraordinarily uncomfortable place, I’m not even talking about the sand desert, where you swallow silica all day long, all night long, it gets into all your orifices, your ears, your nostrils and even your navel, I’m talking about the Syrian-style desert of stones, pebbles, boulders, rocky mountains, heaps, cairns, hills with, here and there, oases where it’s a mystery how the red earth shows through, and then the badiya is covered with fields, winter wheat or date palms. In Syria it should be said that “desert” is a misnomer, there were people even in the most remote regions, nomads or soldiers, and it was enough for a woman to stop to pee behind a mound by the side of the road for a Bedouin to immediately pop up and nonchalantly observe the milky hindquarters of the stunned Westerner, Sarah in this case, whom we saw running toward the car, disheveled, holding her pants up with one hand, as if she’d just seen a ghoul: Bilger and I thought at first that a jackal, or even a snake or a scorpion, had lashed out at her buttocks but, having overcome her fright, she explained to us, laughing uproariously, that a red and white keffieh had appeared behind a rock, and that beneath the keffieh there was a tanned nomad, standing, arms crossed, face impassive, observing in silence what for him too must have been a strange apparition, a foreign woman squatting in his desert. A real cartoon character, Sarah said giggling, buttoning up her trousers in the back seat, what a fright I had, and Bilger added with panache, “This region has been inhabited since the third millennium BC, you have just seen the proof.”
Around us, though, there was nothing but kilometers of dull dust beneath the milky sky — we were between Palmyra and Deir ez-Zor, on the endless road that links the most famous ancient city in Syria to the Euphrates with its impenetrable reeds, in mid-expedition on the traces of Annemarie Schwarzenbach and Marga d’Andurain, the provocative queen of Palmyra who had owned, during the French mandate over Syria, the Zenobia Hotel, situated at the edge of the ruins of the caravan city, on the border of fields of broken columns and temples whose soft stone became tinged with ochre with the evening sun. Palmyra, overlooked by a rocky mountain crowned by an old Arab fortress from the sixteenth century, Qalat Fakhr ed-Din Ibn Maan: the view from up there over the site, the palm grove and the funeral towers, is so astounding that we decided, along with a group of budding Orientalists from Damascus, to set up camp there. Like soldiers, colonialists, or archaeologists from long ago, unconcerned with the regulations, or with comfort, we had made up our minds (encouraged by Sarah and Bilger: both of them, for very different reasons, were utterly enthusiastic at the idea of this expedition) to spend the night in the old citadel or on its parvis, regardless of what its guardians might think. This castle, closed in around itself, a compact block of dark Legos with no opening aside from its loopholes, invisible from a distance, seems to be teetering at the summit of the rocky slope; from the bottom of the archaeological site, it looks as if it’s leaning over the edge and, as soon as a more powerful storm than usual comes along, it would threaten to slide on the gravel all the way to town, like a child on a sled — but the closer you got, and the more the road unwound itself onto the back of the mountain, the more the building took on, in the eyes of travelers, its real mass, its real size: that of a sheer donjon keep well-protected to the east by a deep fosse, a solid building with deadly projections, which didn’t in the slightest make you want to be a soldier attacking it. The Druze prince of Lebanon, Fakhr ed-Din, who had ordered it built, knew a thing or two about military architecture — the thing seemed impregnable except by hunger or thirst: one could picture its besieged guards despairing of God, on their heaps of stones, contemplating from afar the coolness of the oasis, whose palm trees outlined a deep green lake beyond the ruins of the ancient city.
The view there was magical — at sunrise and sunset, the slanting light set ablaze by turns the temple of Baal, the camp of Diocletian, the agora, the tetrapylon, and the walls of the theater, and one could easily imagine the wonder of those Englishmen in the eighteenth century who discovered the oasis and brought back the first views of Palmyra, the Bride of the Desert: these drawings, engraved immediately in London, would be distributed throughout the whole of Europe. Bilger told how these reproductions were even at the origin of many neoclassical facades and colonnades in European architecture: our cities owed much to Palmyran capitals, a little of the Syrian desert lived secretly in London, Paris, and Vienna. I imagine today the pillagers are having a tremendous time dismantling the bas-reliefs of tombs, the inscriptions, the statues, to resell them to unscrupulous amateurs, and Bilger himself, if not for his madness, would no doubt have offered to buy these fragments torn from the desert — in the Syrian disaster bombs and excavators have replaced archaeologists’ brushes; they say that mosaics are taken apart with pneumatic drills, that the Dead Cities or the sites on the Euphrates are excavated with bulldozers and the interesting pieces resold in Turkey or Lebanon, the vestiges are an underground fortune, a natural resource, like oil they’ve been exploited forever. In Iran on a mountain near Shiraz a slightly lost young man offered to sell us a mummy, a mummy from Luristan complete with its bronze jewels, its pectorals, its weapons — it took us some time to understand what he was offering us, so absolutely incongruous did the word “mummy” seem in this mountain village, what do you expect us to do with a mummy, I replied. “Well it’s pretty, it’s useful, and you can resell it if you need money.” The boy (he couldn’t have been over twenty) offered to deliver the mummy in question to us in Turkey, and since the conversation was going on forever it was Sarah who found a very intelligent way to rid us of this nuisance: We think Iranian antiquities should stay in Iran, Iran is a great country that needs all its antiquities, we don’t want to do anything that could harm Iran, and that nationalist dousing seemed to cool the ardor of the amateur archaeologist, forcing him to agree even though, internally, he was not very convinced by the sudden nationalist fervor of these two foreigners. Watching the young man leave the little park where he had approached us, I imagined for an instant the mummy, this venerable corpse, crossing the Zagros and the mountains of Kurdistan on the back of a donkey to reach Turkey, then Europe or the United States, an illegal immigrant two thousand years old taking the same dangerous route as Alexander’s armies or the Iranians who were fleeing the regime.
The pillagers of the Syrian tombs are not offering mummies, so far as I know, but bronze animals, cylinder-seals, Byzantine oil lamps, crosses, coins, statues, bas-reliefs, and even entablatures or sculpted capitals — in Palmyra the old stones were so numerous they comprised all the garden furniture in the Zenobia Hotel: capitals of columns used as tables, the columns themselves for benches, rubble for the flowerbeds, the terrace borrowed widely from the ruins it abutted. The hotel, bungalow-style, had been built by a great forgotten architect, Fernando de Aranda, son of Fernando de Aranda, the musician to the court of Abdulhamid in Istanbul, successor to Giuseppe Donizetti as conductor of the orchestra and of imperial military fanfares: in Palmyra, then, I was somewhat at home, the desert resounded with the distant accents of the music of the Ottoman capital. Fernando de Aranda Junior had carried out his entire career in Syria, where he died in the 1960s; he had constructed many important buildings in Damascus, in a style that could have been described as Orientalist Art Nouveau, including the Hejaz train station, the university, a number of grand houses, and the Zenobia Hotel in Palmyra, which was not yet called the Zenobia, but the Kattaneh, after the investment company that had commissioned it from the rising star of modern Syrian architecture, foreseeing the opening of the region to visitors — the building was abandoned even before it was finished, left to the care of the French garrison of Palmyra (mounted soldiers, pilots, low-grade officers with no future) who looked after Bedouin affairs and the immense desert territory all the way to Iraq and Jordan, where the British were running the show. Fernando de Aranda’s hotel, of modest proportions to begin with, had one wing amputated, which made its front look lopsided: the pediment above the front door, with its two pilasters and its palmettos, no longer presided over a noble symmetry, but the beginning of a recess where the hotel terrace was, and this disequilibrium gave the whole a limping air, apt to provoke, depending on what feelings the disabled aroused in you, either tenderness or scorn. Tenderness or scorn were encouraged, too, by the interior of the building, with its strange old wicker chairs in the lobby and its tiny, stifling bedrooms, renovated today, but which, at the time, housed yellowing images of the Syrian Ministry of Tourism and dusty imitation-Bedouin furniture. Sarah and I inclined more toward tenderness, she because of Annemarie Schwarzenbach and Marga d’Andurain, and I happy to see the unsuspected fruits that the master of Ottoman music had, via his son, offered the Syrian desert.
The location of the Zenobia Hotel was extraordinary: on the side of the ancient city, you had before your eyes, scarcely a few dozen meters away, the Temple of Baal, and if you were lucky enough to get one of the rooms that overlooked the facade, you slept so to speak in the midst of the ruins, your head in the stars and ancient dreams, lulled by the conversations of Baalshamin, god of the sun and dew, with Ishtar, the goddess with the lion. Here reigned Tammuz, the Adonis of the Greeks, of whom Badr Shakir Sayyab the Iraqi sang in his poems; you expected to see the oasis covered in red anemones, born from the blood of that mortal whose only crime was to be too beloved of goddesses.
That day there was no question of a hotel, since we’d had the strange idea of sleeping in the citadel of Fakhr ed-Din to make the most of the beauty of the city at both sunset and sunrise. Of course we had no actual camping supplies; Bilger and I had piled six blankets into his SUV that could stand in for mattresses and sleeping bags, some pillows, plates, silverware, glasses, bottles of Lebanese wine and arak, and even the little metal barbecue from his terrace. As for who was taking part in this expedition aside from Sarah, I can see again a smiling French historian, a brunette with long hair, and her companion, just as dark-haired and smiling — I think today he’s a journalist and travels the Middle East for a number of French media outlets: at the time he was dreaming of a prestigious post in an American university, I think Sarah stayed in contact with that engaging couple who combined beauty with intelligence. It’s strange, all the same, that I haven’t kept any friends from Damascus aside from Sarah and Bilger the Mad, neither Syrians nor Orientalists, I realize now how unbearable I must have been with my demands and my pretentiousness, fortunately I’ve made a lot of progress since then, without that translating, in terms of new friendships, into an abundant social life, I have to admit. If Bilger hadn’t gone insane, if Sarah hadn’t been so unattainable, they would probably constitute the link with this past that knocks on my door at night, what were the names of that couple of French historians, Jeanne maybe, no, Julie and he was François-Marie, I can see his thin face, his dark beard and — mystery of a face’s harmony — his humor and mischievous look that compensated for the harshness of the whole, memory is the only thing I don’t lack, the only thing that doesn’t tremble like the rest of my body — in the late morning we had bought some meat at a butcher’s in the modern city of Palmyra: the blood of a freshly killed lamb stained the sidewalk in front of the shop window where there hung, from an iron hook, the animal’s lungs, trachea and heart; in Syria no one could forget that the tender meat of kebabs came from a mammal whose throat was slit, a woolly, bleating mammal whose viscera adorned the shop fronts.
God is the great enemy of sheep; one wonders for what horrible reason He chose to replace, at the instant of sacrifice, Abraham’s son with a ram instead of with an ant or a rose, thereby condemning poor ovines to slaughter for centuries to come. It was of course Sarah (amusing Biblical coincidence) who was in charge of the purchase, not just because the sight of the blood and the warm offal didn’t bother her, but especially because her knowledge of the dialect and her great beauty always ensured the quality of the merchandise and a price that was more than reasonable, when they let her pay: it wasn’t rare for shopkeepers hypnotized by the brilliance of this auburn angel with the crimson smile to try to keep her as long as possible in their shop, especially by refusing to take any money for their foodstuffs. The modern city of Palmyra, north of the oasis, was a well-ordered quadrilateral of low houses made of cheap concrete, bordered to the north and northeast by an airport and a sinister prison, the most famous in all of Syria, a black and blood-red prison, colors premonitory of the Syrian flag that the Assad dynasty had persisted in unfolding over the entire territory: in his jails, the most atrocious kinds of torment were a daily thing, medieval tortures systematic, a routine with no other aim than general terror, the spreading of fear over the whole country, like manure.
What interested Sarah especially about Palmyra, beyond the dazzling beauty of the ruins and the monstrosities of the Assad regime, were the traces of Annemarie Schwarzenbach and her strange landlady Marga d’Andurain, the owner of the Zenobia Hotel in the early 1930s — around the fire, in front of the citadel of Fakhr ed-Din, we spent a large part of the night taking turns telling stories, a real Assembly, a Maqâma, a noble genre of Arabic literature in which the characters speak one at a time to explore, each in turn, a given subject: that night, we wrote the Maqâma Tadmoriyya, the Assembly of Palmyra.
The guardian of the fort was a dry old man in a keffieh armed with a hunting rifle; his mission consisted of closing, with an impressive chain and padlock, the iron gate to the castle — our delegation took him entirely by surprise. We had left the Arabic speakers to negotiate with him and were observing the progress of the discussion — Bilger, François-Marie, and I — at some remove: the peasant guard was inflexible, the gate had to be closed at sunset and opened at dawn, that was his mission and he meant to carry it out, even if that didn’t suit tourists; our project was falling to pieces and we wondered how we had imagined for a second it could be otherwise, out of colonialist pretentiousness no doubt. Sarah didn’t give up; she kept arguing with the Palmyran who was toying mechanically with the strap of his weapon while periodically directing anxious glances at us: he must have been wondering why we were letting him do battle with this young woman while we three men stood there, two meters away, placidly observing the confab. Julie came over to update us on the progress of the negotiations; the guardian was determined to carry out his duty, at opening and closing. On the other hand we could stay inside the citadel, locked in till dawn, that would not detract from his mission at all. Sarah had agreed to these conditions, as a starting point — she was trying, in addition, to obtain the key to the padlock, which would allow us to leave the noble donjon in case of emergency without having to wait for the deliverance of dawn as in a fairy tale. It should be acknowledged that the prospect of being locked inside an impregnable fortress, a few kilometers away from the most sinister prison in Syria, made me tremble a little — the building was just a pile of stones, without any conveniences, empty rooms around a short cortile piled with fallen rocks, staircases without any railings leading up to more or less crenellated terraces where bats wheeled. Fortunately, the guardian was fed up; after inviting us to go in one last time, and since we were still hesitant about being locked in voluntarily (did we really have everything we needed? Matches, newspaper, water?), he abruptly closed the gate, in a hurry to go home; Sarah asked him one last question, to which he seemed to reply in the affirmative, before turning his back on us to descend toward the valley of the tombs, straight down the slope.
“He has officially given us permission to set up here.”
“Here” meant the small rocky parvis between the ancient drawbridge and the gate’s arch. The sun had disappeared behind our hill; its last rays spattered the colonnades with gold, turned the palm trees iridescent; the light breeze carried a smell of warm stones mingled, at times, with rubber and burnt household trash; down below, a tiny man was leading a camel on the oval track of the big stadium of dust where the dromedary races took place that attracted nomads from all over the country, those Bedouins Marga d’Andurain loved so.
Our camp was much more Spartan than those of the explorers of old: they say that Lady Hester Stanhope, first queen of Tadmor, proud English adventuress with an iron will, whose wealth and health the Orient sucked away until her death in 1839 in a village in the Lebanese mountains, needed seven camels to carry her equipment, and that the tent where she received the emirs of the land was by far the most sumptuous in all of Syria; legend has it that, along with her chamber pot (the only indispensable accessory in the desert, she said), the niece of William Pitt transported a gala dinner to Palmyra, a royal dinner where the most refined china and place settings were taken out of the trunks, to the great surprise of the guests; all the sheikhs and emirs in the land were dazzled by Lady Hester Stanhope, they say. Our own meal was comprised exclusively of grilled lamb, forget about sauce anglaiseand ortolans, just a few skewers, the first ones burned, the second raw, at the mercy of our capricious fire in Bilger’s manqal. Meat that we rolled up in delicious unleavened bread, that round of wheat cooked on a metal dome, which in the Middle East serves as starch, dish, and fork all at once. Our flames must have been visible for kilometers all around, like a lighthouse, and we expected the Syrian police to come kick us out, but Eshmun was watching over the Orientalists, and nothing disturbed us before dawn, aside from the freezing north wind: it was bone-numbingly cold.
Translation by Charlotte Mandel
Compass was published by New Directions in March 2017.
Mathias Énard is the author of Zone, Street of Thieves, and a translator from Persian and Arabic.
Charlotte Mandell has translated works from a number of French authors, including Proust, Flaubert, Genet, Maupassant, and Blanchot.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee