In the Footsteps of the Gods
A Quiet Day in Damascus 1926
The hotel window looks out onto the garden. The room itself reminds me of a cell, but the sun comes clamouring at the window so strongly that by dawn I am woken by its rowdy brilliance. I open the casements: sun, sunlight, radiance, and from the garden the full-blown spectacle of early summer blazes at me, the fruit trees already casting black shadows in the dawn light. Never was such a summer garden at the beginning of May!. Nor indeed is the hotel entirely Spartan. There is, for example, a Persian rug beside the bed. True, instead of a mattress I have a straw palliasse; there is a profusion of flowers on the table, and a great many fleas in the bed. (Athens is said to have more, and Naples the greatest number in the whole world.)
A dignified Syrian brings me breakfast under a tree in the garden. I learn that the night was “quiet”, a regional expression denoting that no one has been butchered in the inner city. The hotel, according to the waiter, falls outside the slaughter line: when the Druze decide on a little friendly butchering, they confine themselves to the outlying suburbs. ”And tomorrow night?” I inquire. No, he doesn’t think there’ll be any butchering tomorrow night. The French haven’t bombed Suwayda for three days now, so there’s no reason for the Druze to attack. Considering what they might get up to, the Druze are punctilious in observing the protocol of these attacks. On the fourth or fifth night following a French bombardment, a band of horsemen will charge off to the outskirts of Damascus, storm a few suburban houses or one of the less well fortified French guard posts under cover of darkness, massacre for half an hour or so, set fire to houses, and within the next thirty minutes have disappeared back to the mountains. Following this, the next day the French will send aircraft to Suwayda to drop a few bombs. Whereupon the Druze, some four or five days later, will scurry down from the hills. And this has been going on for two years now.
Thus the Syrian war. It has rarely come to a pitched battle. I sit in the Damascus garden under the plane tree, staring at the breakfast and remembering how, over the same meal in Paris, I used to read the telegram-style headlines in the newspapers: Bloodbath in Damascus. During the night, marauding bands of Druze tribesmen carried out acts of butchery in the outer suburbs and set fire to the Arab quarter. Damascus in flames. This I read time and time again, often over breakfast. In Paris the news always excited me; here in Damascus I remain unmoved. What’s wrong with these people, to make them want to slaughter in this calm and brilliant sunshine? After breakfast I’ll go and have a look at Damascus, and the bloodbath.
Damascus is the archetypal great Eastern city, offering the most spectacular memories to the traveller. It is the Orient: pure, almost completely unspoilt. By day, you sense a hint of that life moving warily in the streets. Of its three hundred thousand citizens a third, the rich and the moderately well off, have fled, many to Palestine, many to Beirut, many just to the countryside closest to hand. The Muslim poor of course remain behind, as do one or two religious dignitaries; the highest ranking public officials have wandered off to Beirut. Today the famous large bazaar is empty. A few traders stand around in their booths proffering worthless items or small daily necessities. There is little competition, and the prices are fairly high. In a great many places they work in Egyptian pounds, as does the hotel. In peacetime, the city has direct links to the Far East; now its usual mighty throng of traders and visitors is completely paralysed. Its famous (and infamous) shops, the elegant boutiques selling fabrics, silks, knives, inlaid furniture, enamelled bowls, are all closed and boarded up. In all Damascus I managed to visit just one of those fabled bathhouses of the East, with their mosaic pavings. The rest were shut. In Damascus, not to resist a horrific pun, the only baths the locals take these days are in blood.
The streets are silent, bare. The festival is over and the guests have plucked the garlands from their brows. What is missing in the city, the thing that makes you forget the filth of the houses, the rubbish in the streets, the thing that infuses colour and movement into the bald, dusty squares and the lifeless souks, the dark, narrow streets of the bazaar covered in boarding and canes, is the vitality of the East-the busy idleness, the brisk lethargy bustling to and fro the whole day lest it betray the fact that it has nothing to do-and the spontaneous delight in colours, the cheerful ostentation of gaudy rags, in which the camel driver and the rich equally take pleasure. As for the slaughtering, I never quite managed to discover the whole truth, since every time word of these atrocities gets round, the response of the locals is to regale you with blood-chilling, tear-jerking horror stories, in which the terrible details are given special emphasis and enlivened by loud lamentations, suckling babes torn from the mother’s breast and grandfathers impaled on swords.
Coming as I do from Europe, none of this is particularly new or strange to me. The Druze, this wild nomadic people as I have got to know them from the tales I have heard, conduct the slaughter with the traditional short sword. They know nothing of mustard gas, mortars, tanks or hand grenades, and they have no planes. Their cruelty, in a word, is old-fashioned, and does little to impress Europeans. But for the citizens of Damascus, that humble, devout community, it is quite enough, and anyone who can has already left the treasured city. Now, only the poor remain; and the French Foreign Legion.
I am no particular expert on the military virtues, but seeing the work of the French Foreign Legion has not been without interest. The division currently based in Syria came from Morocco, from the Riff theatre of operations. This bunch of men, quite unlike any other in its composition and mentality, was shunted directly from one conflict on to the next. To such men it can be of absolutely no consequence whether they will die the next day fighting Riff Kabils, the Druze or Senegalese negroes. They are equally ignorant about their enemy and without interest in the struggle. They are inspired by neither patriotic or military slogans. To them it is a matter of supreme indifference whether the France under whose flag they fight is victorious or bleeds to death. And certainly it would require some strength of imagination for a bunch of unfortunates scrambled together from all the countries of the world to work up any enthusiasm for a war against the Druze, in the presence of whom so many of them must feel like gaping tourists. And yet the Legion fights and, it is usual to remark, fights very well. Its men are everywhere in Damascus.
Patrols are seen continuously. All routes leading to the outer suburbs are sealed off with wire and sandbag barricades. More sandbags and armoured cars protect individual public buildings. The troops are encamped in tents around the city, or in makeshift barracks in the central squares. In the canteens, where wine is available, I hear them speaking Italian, Russian and German, one of them with a splendid Viennese accent. A fair number are very young. Their faces show physical fatigue and general unconcern. A few shady-looking characters are to be seen among them, but for the most part they are boyish and simple. There are plenty of Slav faces, plenty of blond Germans. Here in Damascus, I am told, there was a spot of bother with the Germans. The Palestinian border is very close, with the nearest German Consulate to be found in Haifa, and a good number of them took the opportunity to desert under its protection. Escape is always on the agenda. They put up with things for a year or two, but after that the majority try to escape at any cost. Most are caught, sentenced and thrown into the fort prison. If they offend again, they spend the rest of their lives in Biribi-the disciplinary battalion.
The Legion’s officers are the cream of the French army. Chosen for their intelligence, they are humane and fair-minded, all from good families, thoroughly well-bred. The sergeants are the lowest curs in the whole organisation, little tin gods with dog-whips, sadistic modern pashas strutting among their charges like animal tamers. Against their orders there is no appeal. For disciplinary reasons even the officers are required to stand aside and not interfere in their system of training. True, these non-commissioned officers rarely die a natural death. The Legion’s discipline is strong, but the mentality of the men, discipline apart, is one of unwavering casual indifference. A legionnaire might serve three years under the iron regime without reproach and still have no hesitation in beating the sergeant to death with the butt of his rifle, should the opportunity arise. Attacks on officers by the rank and file are less frequent. But where is the military discipline that can genuinely restrain such men, thrown together as they are from Moscow, Vienna, Munich, Budapest, New York, only to be beaten to death in the interests of France, in Morocco today, Syria tomorrow, and Indo-China the day after that. or God knows where, or why?
Five-man patrols are out on the streets. Steel helmets, bayonets, barricades, machine guns: a state of permanent war. Every house in the city has a garden, and most gardens have a secret nook where insurgents lie hidden. Sometimes the householder is aware of his guest, sometimes not. The Druze are the lesser enemy; the greater one is invisible, the seditious mood of the mob that has come to prevail in every city of the East in recent years. The patrols, the Legion, defend Damascus from the Druze; but sometimes an outsider might get the impression that they are defending Damascus from its own people.
The French governor comes here for a few days every month. The visit is supposed to reassure the local population. They throw up a couple of houses here and there in the suburbs, in the long rows of burnt-out streets. There is little point. Whatever they build by day can be swept away by morning in the fire that breaks out night after night. The city is sultry, silent, paralysed. Naturally, martial law is in force. The war zone claims other victims too. For a simple act of theft-the national occupation of the lower orders in Syria-the penalty is death. But this type of punishment isn’t always taken to its full conclusion, or it would soon carry off the remaining population of Damascus.
It is now afternoon, and rain is falling silently on the mute, stifled, paralysed city. In a Parisian-style café some officers sit around chatting. Where is the real Damascus; where can I hope to find it? Where are its artists, its traders, its imams, its tramps, comedians, tyrants, sages, beggars? An oriental city with not a beggar in sight, because there is no one to give! When the ill-starred French General Sarrail threw the delegation of Druze leaders off the dance floor, that one foolish, kid-gloved gesture suffocated one of the loveliest cities of the East, and brought fire and sulphur down on its peaceful houses. It is impossible, quite impossible, to grasp, to make any sense at all, of the things we Europeans do in this world. What business has the Legion in this place? Where is the law, human or divine, the League of Nations mandate, the Papal Bull or Patriarchal Beard that can justify the French waging war in Syria? Who can comprehend, or explain, this silent, stifled Damascus? Look in the empty streets, and into the faces white with rage, where every movement bespeaks hatred, despair and contempt. What is Europe doing here, what does it want of them, why does it choose to bless them with its tanks and flying machines? And what would happen if these crowds ever stirred themselves and in one concerted single blow struck back at us Europeans in our homelands, with our ridiculous houses, our tanks and treaties, and drove us from a world where, through our greed-fuelled, avaricious, wickedly cruel behaviour, we have totally forfeited their respect? “Islam prescribes the sword.”
After six in the evening, crowds are assembling in the mosques. This is the only time you see people in the streets. The minarets begin to chant, in thin, shrill voices. Inside, packed close together, the poor kneel on mats. I don’t know the prayers, but I know that they have some sort of bearing on Europe.
The Foreign Legion, aeroplanes, barricades, bayonets. Always and everywhere. This is the flower of our knowledge, this is our human mastery. It is a disease, leprosy. There is no escaping it, it leaps out at you wherever you go, in Paris and Damascus, changing guard and flashing its bayonets. What sort of life is this, what sort of gods watch over us? I leave this place utterly ashamed. Nothing can excuse this, and there is so very little to hope for.