I was in Damascus, Syria in 1971 for a day. While a student at the Hebrew University, with a friend we flew to Cyprus, got new passports at the American Embassy and winged to Beirut. In a youth hostel in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, we met someone who told us an American from UC Santa Barbara, Cary, was studying at the American University in Beirut (AUB.)
In the way nothing happens for a reason, but you can learn, grow and exploit what does happen, a few hours upon arrival, that Friday, at AUB, we knocked at Cary’s dorm. His Arab roommate, a Syrian, opened the door. Cary was away for the weekend. We exaggerated and explained we were from the same university in California. I was at Berkeley and my friend at Madison. He invited us to spend the weekend with our sleeping bags until Cary returned on Monday. It was my first experience with the wonderful and expansive Arab hospitality. During that weekend, he explained we could take a shared taxi to Damascus, fifty miles away, and easily obtain visas at the border. He did not explain the visa would take up two pages.
At that time 5,000 of Syria’s once 75,000 Jews remained in the country. In Damascus they lived in a ghetto in the eastern part of the city. After hitting some tourist spots, we headed for the ghetto. My friend Steve, just outside the entrance, grabbed my arm. Well he probably didn’t but he was very concerned. He had spotted someone he had seen at Great Omayyad Mosque across the street. We were being followed. We immediately headed to Marjeh Square, where the Israeli spy Eli Cohen had been hung in 1966, and returned by shared taxi to Beirut. From there we flew to Cairo where all the glass exhibits in the great Egyptian Museum were criss-crossed by masking tape as Israeli air strikes continued to hit Egypt into the 1970s.
So began a lifelong fascination, interest, passion with Syria. My parents were both Holocaust survivors, and while some of such progeny skew towards vigilance, believe they know better than others the dangers of extremism and how to guard against it, I felt otherwise. I knew nothing about toughness. Instead, I wanted never to treat others as an untermensch, subhuman, the way my mother had been in Auschwitz. This went for African-Americans in my high school, Latinos in my city of Los Angeles, and Palestinians in my frequent stays in Israel.
So in 1973, I began a doctoral program in Humanistic Education at UCLA and started to write THE DAMASCUS COVER, a spy novel about the rescue of Jewish children from the ghetto in Damascus as a subplot. It was published in 1977 and hung onto the lower rungs of the Los Angeles Times best seller list for some months. 40 years later it was filmed with Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Sir John Hurt, rather a surprise. My son, always protective maybe in his version of a progeny of survivors said at the film news, “You sure they got Jonathan Rhys Meyers?” They had. I had began a career highlighting social justice through thrillers, as I felt they might have a longer reach. Today, October 23, 2022, THE DAMASCUS COVER is number 191,274 of all kindles sold in the world. Nobody’s banging down my door to interview me but it’s not at all bad.
A few years ago, I met Brooks Newmark on Facebook, a former Conservative member of British Parliament who had advocated for the Western bombing of Bashar al-Assad’s barrel bomb capacity to give the Free Syrian Army, a robust outfit then, a fighting chance against the murderous regime. Some months later, walking on Pico Boulevard in LA, Brooks said, “It’s time for you to go back to Syria.” To highlight the lack of justice and the war’s devastation.
Figuratively. He meant a new novel. Since my last three books about the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum had exhausted me in the lack of political progress on the ground, I thought, “Good idea.”
So on November 22, 2022, THE SYRIAN SUNSET, my novel about the Syrian civil war and why allowing Putin to rampage in Syria opened the door for his doing so in Ukraine will be published. I have trouble with titles, had called THE DAMASCUS COVER, A SORDID AFFAIR. When I first met my New York editor at Dutton in person in LA, at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, from a file he pulled out my first look at the cover of my first novel. The new titled, unbeknownst to me was obviously, THE DAMASCUS COVER. The cover was great so I was happy with it. I particularly liked the artwork of the flag in the gun muzzle. The title, THE SYRIAN SUNSET came to me immediately as soon as I’d finished the book and said, well now I have to think of a title. The PR people won’t let me post the cover of the new novel yet, so like with the Dutton editor, I’m again not in charge.