You’ll be shocked to hear that, here at Bookish, we like books. You get a bunch of book people in a room, and the “what are you reading” conversation happens — here, early and often — and while you’re as likely to hear about Murakami as you are about James Lee Burke, when someone fires off a Robert Tewdwr Moss reference, it’s a head-turner. Who? Right.
Moss was a gay British writer who documented his travels through mid-1990s Syria in “Cleopatra’s Wedding Present,” the best travel book you’ve probably never heard of — and, of course, it’s not really a travel book. With the monumental change sweeping across the Middle East — Qaddafi’s dead, Tunisia’s on the road to building a new government, Egypt’s sorting out what its post-Mubarak era will look like — Syria’s the hold-out amid ever-louder cries for regime change. And yet, if you wanted to know more about the small desert police state, you’d be hard pressed to find anything that goes deeper than what the news cycle demands — and before the country’s run of front-page headlines, nobody was really writing about it other than diplomats and scholars.
Except for Moss. Sadly, “Cleopatra” is his first and only book. He was murdered in London — the victim of a robbery gone very wrong — the day he completed his final revisions.
The book is quietly available in the U.S. as part of the Wisconsin University Press gay literature series, and it has enjoyed a small, evangelical readership. “Cleopatra” deserves its long overdue moment. After all, the gay girl in Damascus — remember her? The straight, married American guy who lived in Scotland and pretended to be a lesbian Syrian blogger? — was an imitator: Moss was the original gay in Damascus.
His story begins at the bar of the Baron Hotel, in Aleppo in northern Syria, “the last outpost of faded splendor in an otherwise rackety and filthy town,” where Agatha Christie reportedly wrote the first part of “Murder on the Orient Express.” Moss has no trouble finding male companions — in fact, young men can’t help but throw themselves at him — and soon after he lands in Damascus, he’s in bed with Jihad, a former Palestinian commando. “What gay man wants a gay libber for a lover when he can have a Palestinian commando?” Moss asks as they wander through Damascus, tailed by the secret police. Moss is also exposed to the country’s bloody history; while on a trip to eastern Syria, he ends up at the site of a mass grave from the 1980 slaughter of nearly 1,000 political detainees, their murders a retaliation for a failed presidential assassination.
Moss goes light on travelogue staples like the spice vendors in the souqs, the food, the magnificent ruins, the shisha bars, the tea, the call to prayer. His Syria is as tense as it is shabbily gorgeous. It’s loud, hot, and dirty, a diesel-stinking mess of contradictions — and home to an endless supply of people who will happily invite you into their home, even if it means a visit from the secret police later.
It’s a terribly sad love letter to a place that’ll be, once the smoke settles and the atrocities are tallied, irrevocably changed — hopefully for the better. However it shakes out, we’re lucky to have had Moss there. He is wise and canny, and his dry humor, skepticism, curiosity, and scalpel-sharp observations are just the thing to stoke your wanderlust. Indeed, when he makes that perhaps unwise decision to follow yet another stranger into a dark warren of ancient alleyways, it’s exhilarating and little heart-breaking: It was his London that did him in, not Syria.