Friday, January 23, 2009

Review: Cleopatra's Wedding Present: Travels through Syria

Cleopatra's Wedding Present
Robert Tewdwr Moss

Published by Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd

Reviewed by Michael Gellings


In Cleopatra's Wedding Present, journalist Robert Tewdwr Moss charts his travel through, among others, the rival cities of Aleppo and Damascus in Syria. There is a bit of sightseeing every couple of pages, but mainly adventurers, big and small, with people he meets along the way. His adventures are those of a European, who is admired by some and despised by others of the local population for being the exotic one in their midst. Of course, there are the usual travelers' tales of struggling with language, customs, and bureaucracy in a foreign country. But what makes this book stand out from the mass of travelogues is the author's talent for getting to know strangers without being blinded by prejudices and preconceptions. Dangerous sexual adventures in a police state can be inferred from Tewdwr Moss's account, and his romantic affair with a broken former terrorist shows that there simply are no rules for attraction.

Although Tewdwr (pronounce: Tudor) Moss traveled in Syria less than 15 years ago, his account is testimony to a bygone world. For instance, the author didn’t once check his emails in an internet cafe, as present-day travelers would. Instead he and his friends stayed in contact by handwritten letters.

Tewdwr Moss's book is a vivid and memorable account of an area that previously had been a blank spot on my mental map of the world. Syria is a country rich in history, more than 3000 years of it. Crusaders, Mongols, Arabs – the invaders came from every direction. The title of the book has been taken from the fact that Syria was once part of Marc Anthony's wedding present to Cleopatra. Today, the population is still only a pawn in the power games of the mighty. More than once, Tewdwr Moss's curious questions are met by prudent silence. The Mukhabarat secret police has its spies everywhere.

Cleopatra's Wedding Present had been out of print for nearly a decade. It is a shame that the new British edition does not include Lucretia Stewart's excellent introduction from the American edition. Stewart charts Tewdwr Moss's career as a rising star on the London literary scene. Unfortunately, his first book was also to be his last. The night after completing the book, he was murdered, the final revisions of his book lost on the stolen laptop. But even so the text shows Tewdwr Moss's talent for making sense out of myriad impressions in a foreign country. Maybe owing to the not-quite-finished state of the manuscript, the beginning is somewhat abrupt but otherwise it's a fine piece of writing that fully deserved the press hype surroundig its first publication a decade ago.

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