Our writer reports from the frontiers of his fertile imagination with superb attention to detail and amusing historical facts.
(This is an imaginary article from this series by Robert Fisk in The Independent inspired by this article in particular)
As I got in the car, a 1962 Mercedes built in the same factory where my father had once fought the German army in 1917, the driver smiled and nodded wisely, as all taxi drivers in the Middle East do when they’re driving a foreign journalist around. Ahead lay a deceptively empty stretch of road that my imagination quickly filled with the mental image of Sargon II’s soldiers marching along, primarily to illustrate my excellent knowledge of history.
The man back at the hotel had warned me about the false tranquillity of this part of Aleppo that I was about to visit. He only identified himself as ‘the raven’, but something told me that I must trust this man dressed strangely in an Abayya made of black feathers despite the searing heat. I have stopped long ago questioning those mysterious men I encounter while reporting, and so too have my editors.
The raven sipped his black tea, sweetened with spoonfuls of the local cane sugar that was first processed when the Persians ruled this part of the Fertile Crescent, then looked at me with his piercing eyes that looked more menacing above his long beak. ‘Ask for Abu Mohomed, he will talk to you.’ He said Mohamed, but I have this habit of misspelling Arab names. When I left, the raven had disappeared. If it weren’t for the black feather on the floor, I would have thought he was a mirage.
Back on the road, the driver slowed then took a turn between two huge rocks that resembled a lion about to brush its teeth. As he sped past, I glimpsed a 7-year old child in a green and white T-shirt being hurried along by his worried mother and her brother in law’s cousin who had recently come back from Canada. Troubling times.
Inexplicably, in this paragraph I am suddenly transported to a room that the army is using as a temporary operations room. On the wall, above a wedding portrait of the previous occupiers, who now run a falafel shop in Brighton, hang a large map of the city. The commander, a 35-year old major from Tartus who liked fishing in his spare time, described to me what they were doing there. I quickly lost interest as I was more interested in dramatic anecdotes. Also, he was speaking to me in Russian which I didn’t understand.
The soldiers outside talked to me more openly. They had interrupted the football game they were playing with empty B67 ammunition bags. The goal was a makeshift target between two T-72 tanks which for some reason I must mention in all my articles. One told me about the giant leaping Chechen fighters that he had come across only three days ago, but I sternly told him that it’s my job to make things up, not his. Instead, I asked him to tell me about his fiancée and his plans to open an internet cafe when the war was over.
When I finally made it to Abu Mohomed’s hideout that afternoon, the sun was hanging low in the sky, its golden disk reminiscent of the famous necklace that the Emperor Aurelian had presented to Zenobia the Queen of Palmyra, before taking her in chains to Rome. Have we not learned anything in the Middle East?
Abu Mohomed gave me a different story to the one the Major Simba (I know, I’m the only one who meets people with such names in the Middle East) had narrated. Something about the need for political change but my mind drifted as I observed the partially collapsed gateway that had stood intact for 743 years. The stones of Syria can tell its stories better than most men. Later, as Abu Mohomed bid me farewell, I asked about the raven. He looked alarmed as he told me that the raven died six months ago.
As usual, I will end with a completely irrelevant question that has nothing to do with the rest of the article and that leaves you even more baffled. Could it be that the current conflict is the logical outcome of Allenby’s reluctance to engage the local chieftains? Did King Faisal make a fatal mistake in that summer of 1932? What is really the point of those open-ended questions? Could they be a useful way to imply that I am world-weary and have seen too much?