Statement of Record

The Oriental Master

T

The Oriental Master

T

by David Winner

 

Dorle and Georges at Palmyra in the mid-thirties 

The European, whose sensibility tours the Orient, is a watcher, never involved, always detached, always ready for new examples of what the Description de l’Egypte called “bizarre” The Orient becomes a living tableau of queerness. Edward Said

I had struggled to read handwriting of the letters from Georges Asfar, the shadowy Syrian with whom Dorle had been so fond, but it got much easier when Sheila Canby and Mecka Baumeister from the Metropolitan Museum borrowed them in search of insight into the Ottoman room and gave their interns the frustrating job of transcribing them.

I sorted through them until I found the earliest one, April 24, 1935, a letter that should tell me exactly how they met.

But what became immediately clear as I struggled through Georges’ elliptical grammar and frequent French words was that they already knew each other well.  It was written in the midst of their affair. Seventy years had passed. There was no way to know where they actually met.  But, surely, Dorle would have chosen not to meet Georges, her Oriental lover, in the dirty Depression-era streets of the city in which she was born but among the souks and minarets of Syria.

                                               Damascus 1932         

Wide-eyed child Dorle, Arabian Nights in hand, had summoned handsome sultans in flowing garb, whispery genies granting wishes.  She’d conjured the silken voice of Scheherazade herself, telling a thousand and one tales of a magical, mystical world that would make any normal, turn-of-the-last-century poor little rich New York Jewish girl yearn for distant desert kingdoms.

Once child Dorle had grown to adult Dorle and begun sailing back and forth across the Atlantic, it was only a matter of time before she made her way to the Middle East.

Long before her marriage to Dario, several decades before my own birth, I think she visited Damascus.

In 1932, it is in French hands, a tense respite between struggles for independence.

Donkeys and carts clog the streets and only the occasional automobile rumbles by.  The craggy medina artisans look like they’re from the Middle Ages.

Dorle stays at the recently built art deco Grand Orient Hotel in Hidjaz Square, its resplendent white stones glimmering over the skyline.

On her first day, tired from the long journey and disoriented by the heat, she remains at the hotel, cooled by ceiling fans and cocktails and dines alone at its Ali Baba restaurant.

The following morning, wearing a blue dress with white polka dots that she worries is too cutesy, she proceeds to the medina in the heart of the old city.  The percussive hawking of wares reminds her of the discordant music considered shocking in her childhood:  The Rites of Spring, Pierrot Lunaire.

Later, Dorle will describe the medina to her mother.

“All of the business is done in bazaars or ‘souks’ and each souk is dedicated to a specialty—cloth or saddles and decorations for donkeys and horses, cord, wool, leather slippers, ‘keffiehs’ which are the flowing clothes the Arabs wear on their head, trunks, kitchen things.” 

Only occasionally does she glimpse westerners, probably French, in European dress, but no one particularly notes her atypical attire and lighter, though already sun-burned, skin. 

As she has been charged by Arthur Judson, her boss back in New York, to buy a “fine” but “affordable” Oriental carpet, she stops a grizzly, smoking Frenchman and asks where the best carpets are to be had.  “Tapis de qualite” she calls them, noting the sweat stains on the man’s white shirt, the dirt under his fingernails and worrying that he was too proletarian to have much idea about quality.

But he resonantly responds, “Souk Hamdie,” delicately touches her shoulder blade, allowing her a whiff of strong cologne, and points her in the right direction.

 “Le meillure de Hamdie?” she asks, the best place in the Souk Hamdie.  “Asfar,” the Frenchman exclaims without a moment’s hesitation. It’s the first time she hears the name. “C’est de Asfar.”  With a wry wave, the Frenchmen is off, leaving her alone in the teeming market.

“The shop of the Asfars is the most important bazaar in the Souk Hamdie,” she will later boast to her mother.

Taking a deep breath and steeling her courage, she takes off in the direction suggested by the Frenchmen.  Quickly, she slips forward past knife salesmen, perfume venders, goats and goat hides.

 At the next white face she sees, she points in the direction in which she heads for confirmation, “Hamdie?”

Oui, c’est ca.”

Not many steps farther, she sees an ornate stone arch with the words “Souk Hamdie” imprinted upon it.

At that very moment, better quality Arabs—some in western dress, some in robes—approach, grabbing her hands and pulling her toward their stores.    

“Asfar,” she declares.

“Asfar,” she repeats like a spell.

The discouraged salesmen mutter disparagingly.

Mais ou est le magasin Asfar?” she demands.         

And unexpectedly, a teenage boy with long beautiful eyelashes beats his way through the touts.

Magasin Asfar, Madame,” he tells Dorle, “viens avec moi.”

“The Asfar shop is the largest in the city,” Dorle will later describe it, “jammed haphazardly with Roman antiques, old swords, rugs, brocades, seventeenth century robes, old faiences, Hittite remains.”

The lovely boy disappears the moment they enter the dusty Asfar domain, leaving Dorle crouched hesitantly between a huge vase that looks Chinese and a broken Roman torso of a woman with a luxuriant stomach and one medium-sized breast.

The next person to enter, a handsome man in his early thirties with dark hair and more southern European than Arabic features, wears the requisite white suit, favored by westerners in the tropics.  Grabbing her hand, he performs a low nearly Japanese bow, and apologizes for having kept her waiting.

“Englishmen,” he whispers, looking askance, had been taking up his time but now he is all hers.

She tries to explain as best she can, apologizing for troubling him and trying to describe the sort of carpet required by Judson.

Grabbing her hand once more, Georges Asfar frowns slightly to indicate that there are niceties they must perform before business can be transacted.  In his odd French/Arabic accent, he explains that he has carpets of all types and prices, but surely, they must drink coffee first.

Snapping his fingers at the boy, who turns out to have already reentered the room, he commands that it be brought for them. 

“Arab coffee,” Dorle would later write “is very strong, bitter, flavored with something which looks like an almond, but I think is a cardamom seed.”

The next room of the store, into which they stride a moment later, delicate demitasses in their hands, is filled with intricately shaped, bold-colored ceramics, the one after that transported without alteration from the glory days of the Ottoman era: chairs, divans, wooden carvings with abstract designs.

When Dorle sighs, shakes her head and confesses that his carpets may be more than she can pay, a perfectly constructed panic passes through Georges’s face, quickly replaced by a winning smile.

Si le mademoiselle (a bold assumption) n’as pas l’argent pour acheter un tapet, elle a besoin de manger avec moi.  I know the perfect place.”

And there is little reason to refuse.  She has romantic entanglements in New York, but in the Orient one leaves one’s past behind.  Being taken out to dinner will not be bad, as the extravagance of the journey has stretched her finances.  And while under normal circumstances, she might hesitate to dine with a shopkeeper, she has to consider the elegance of the shop and of the person.  He’s handsome too, even if his nose is a tad too Semitic like her own.

And the restaurant where Georges takes her that evening after picking her up at her hotel takes her breath away, an enormous dining room in an old Ottoman house in an affluent neighborhood overlooking the city.  The ceramic tiles on the floor and table explode in colorful squares, cubes and circles.

Many of the diners, unlike the meager tourists at Dorle’s hotel restaurant, have robes, fezzes and other forms of Oriental dress.  The western men wear perfect summer suits like out of the cinema, and the women tend towards scanty dresses in the twenties mode though the thirties had already begun, the market back home having recently crashed. 

The meze is pungently spiced and generously portioned.  The delicately grilled fish that follows somehow fits into their stomachs along with the honeyed desserts, the sharp coffee, the wine and the digestives.

And it is only after the promised tour of Damascus and an elaborate lunch the next day that Georges makes the subtlest most magnanimous of moves, delicately tracing her hands with his own, a slow accumulation of touch and taste that end up in the grand king-sized bed in an Ottoman room, inhabited by Asfars, or so Dorle imagines, for generations.

                                           

                                      Heavenly Words of Love        

The earliest Asfar letter in Dorle’s possession was from April of 1935, three years after my flight of fancy took her to Damascus.

All the other letters pick up the story in the midst of Dorle and Georges’s affair, beginning with Georges writing from a France-bound ship after a disappointing visit with Dorle.  This first one tells little about their relationship but exposes the basic tropes at play between them. 

Of men and women, of masters and mistresses.

Georges, a Christian, instructs Dorle, a Jew, on how to be a proper Muslim mistress.

Long before 9/11 then Trump’s ascendance, “Mohammedism” as it was often called, must have conjured the romance of the Orient, the exotic religion practiced in the land of the Arabian Nights.

“I don’t want you to take it for a reproach,” Georges explains, “but your remark that woman is the friend of the man just proves that you are a stranger to the…giving, to the melting your will and desire into one man’s will.”  

“What you take as a slavery is a feeling which will remain a stranger to you as long as you consider yourself and your Master as two persons…  I don’t blame you not to understand these heavenly words of love…Have faith in your Master. He will teach you the language.  You will join the chorus of these loves.”

Mid-thirties Dorle in her 57th Street apartment pores over these words, alarmed, enticed.  Bill Barker, another of her lovers and a British officer in Palestine, could speak of cyclamens and sign off in Arabic, but only Georges could be her Oriental master.

 

                                               The Golden Palace

Georges writes Dorle from a ship sailing from New York to France on route to Syria. 

“I went to sleep this morning, Dorle. I feel like a lost lamb on this ship.  I haunt the lounge to talk or look at anybody.  I carried my chair to the front part of the ship and there for hours passed in review all what happened to me.”  

“The main reason of my heart broken was the deception I gave you.  You went through certainly many dull, boring evenings waiting for me…I shall go back and first wash away any trace of Kevork from our mind, then I will start my work, live quietly and economically, plan and dream of what we shall do together. I love you habibi [sweetheart]. Goodnight.”

 We know he went to New York to sell the Ottoman room now on display at the Metropolitan Museum to a wealth patroness who wanted to build a museum of “Mohamedadan” art in the Palisades:  the expanse of sharp cliffs and sweeping views on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River where the Georges Washington Bridge had recently been built.  The trip to America to arrange this tremendous sale had been planned as a romantic idyll for Georges and Dorle but Georges’s arch-nemesis, the Armenian antiquities merchant, Hagop Kevorkian (“Kevork”), had convinced the patroness to kill the deal.

The failed sale consumed Georges completely, eating up the time and energy he had planned to devote to Dorle.

Dorle waits for him one evening not long after the disaster at The Golden Pavilion, a Chinese restaurant a few blocks south of her apartment.  The exterior is indeed shaped like a pavilion, a brilliant red and orange faux Chinese palace, clashing flamboyantly with the colorless office buildings, stores and restaurants nearby.  The interior is crammed with paper dragons, enormous vases and waiters rushing back and forth with plates of Chop Suey, Egg Foo Young and flaming Pu Pu Platters.  In a back booth lit by candles, Dorle finishes the martini she’s been nursing for over an hour.

Georges’s absence stings.  So many men want to drink and dine with her, she reminds herself, while she’s stuck waiting for this unreliable little man.

Mobile phones will not start ringing for nearly seventy years, but somewhere in back of the restaurant, Dorle hears the braying of a telephone.  A moment later, one of the waiters in his Mandarin suit arrives to explain in a strong Chinese accent not particularly resembling Charlie Chan that the “gentleman not coming, Madam, big problem, emergency, gentleman very sorry.”

She glares at the man for a few good seconds before trying to smile instead as there’s no point in shooting the messenger.

 

                                          Many Years Later

Towards the end of the nineties, my father is visiting Dorle in New York and has invited a younger colleague from the University of Virginia who he wants to impress, Tan Lin, the brother of Maya Lin.  Angela and I have also been invited.  

Already blind and quite senile, Dorle is now cared for by Novlet Ewbanks, a woman from Jamaica who stayed with her from 1996 until Dorle’s death in 2002.

My father decides that he would rather not have Dorle join us for drinks.  Explaining to Dorle about his visitor, he asks Novlet to serve her evening gin, tonic and cigarettes in the living room on the other side of the large apartment and cook dinner for her afterwards.

Lin arrives.  We have our drinks, and are preparing to walk across the street to a restaurant when Dorle’s marvelously old-fashioned New York voice rings loudly and resonantly from the other side of the wall, “Is the Chinaman still here?”

                                                  Back on Ship

Later in the letter in which Georges Asfar apologizes for deceiving Dorle, he turns a cable she has sent him into an infant version of herself.

“I pushed your cable in my jacket, devoured my steak … took my baby round the deck for a long walk and had the best time.  You fussed quite a bit when we headed to the windy upper deck, but I threatened to stop taking care of you if you are not an obedient girl.”

 For Georges, Dorle was an infant in grown woman form, flying in the face of her financially and sexually independent New York life to accept the role of docile Oriental mistress, turning him (so mild-mannered looking in his picture) into the powerful figure of an Oriental man.

Later in the evening when loud jazz drives Georges out onto the deck, he leaves Dorle’s cable behind to continue his fantasy of her: not wild animal but vulnerable infant, needing his protection.

“I do not dare take you out for a walk.  It is so windy and cold. I cannot keep you in the reading room, the trepidation is awful, so, my Dorle, I leave you alone in your bed.”

Verb Tense  

“I left Paris by train to Damascus. My mind all the time was flying from New York to Damascus.  Every time a beautiful sight was in view I was thrilled at the idea that you and I will be together there.  I watched the narrow dangerous zigzag car road through Asia Minor and dreamed of a thousand and one incidents we had in our crossing.”

“Incidents we had” is a tense slip-up.  He means “will have,” as he’s plotting Dorle’s next trip to the Orient. 

                         Politics:  Les Arabes  

When Georges reaches Damascus, where he must wait for several months for Dorle to visit, he discusses the political situation in the Middle East and the world at large. 

In the Middle East at that time, the British were trying to settle Jews into their Palestinian colony while suppressing Arab resistance, and a larger pan-Arabic movement was picking up steam, Syria itself soon to be liberated from the French.  But where does that leave Georges, a well-heeled Christian who did most of his business with westerners?

A friend who is part of the longstanding Syrian/Lebanese Christian community in Brooklyn has always felt kinship with the Palestinian struggle, viewing Palestinians as fellow Arabs.  When she visited her Lebanese relatives in Beirut for the first time, she was shocked to discover their enmity towards Muslim Arabs, particularly Palestinians.

We see something of this in Georges eighty years before.

“After the Syrians obtain their complete independence… I don’t think the Christians can possibly live here. They will be always subject to a sudden uprising endangering their life. The surexcitation [agitation]of the Moslems is reaching every day a new height. Unless the government is wise to allow the Jews to settle in Syria, Syria will be a ruin economically in the very near future, and depression and miseries are responsible for the wave of fanatisme raging all over the Moslem countries now.”

                                               Politics:  Les Juives

When Georges wishes the “government” would allow in Jews and warns of financial disaster if they don’t, he may be trying to win the sympathy of his Jewish mistress, but his next letter is not to flattering.  “Balfour gave [the Jews] Palestine to get their money and used the German Jews against the German nation during the war.  They tried and obtained from a German Jew the gag asphyxiate used in the German army.” 

But Georges’s next letter doesn’t mention it, so Dorle does not appear to have objected to how he cast the Jews.    

But why was she silent?

When an evil general in Costa Gavras’s Z disparages a Jewish insurgent and is reminded that the man was only half Jewish, he declares that halves were worst because they considered themselves superior.  My own half Jewish disconnect takes us too far astray, but it’s worth noting that Dorle, her husband Dario and Faie, her sister and my grandmother, were not very Jewish Jews, particularly when it came to the Holocaust, an event which occurred when they were in early middle age.   Even though Dario came to America from Italy to flee it, the only time I remember anything like it being brought up is the strange case of Uncle Arturo.  An ostensibly funny family story has the implicitly gay Arturo just not getting how serious it was to be imprisoned by the Fascists and trying to send for his manservant to bring along his dressing gown.

It’s a long journey psychically as well as geographically from German and Eastern European Jews on transports to Auschwitz and Dachau to Dario, the son of another Jewish banking family that lost their fortune, leaving Rome with some money and very nice clothes, to seek his fortune while his parents and all other relatives that I’m aware of survived the war back in Italy.   (Eighty percent of Italian Jews survived the Holocaust, and I’m sure the wealthier you were the easier that got.)  But even that PG-rated Holocaust survival must have had its own taste of terror.

A lovely, pine-cone-shaped, red plush ottoman made it all the way from Dario’s parents’ Roman apartment to Brooklyn only to contend with our dog and cat.

I imagine Dario’s parents seated upon it one afternoon towards the end of the thirties.

Dario’s two trunks are packed, and he wears a light summer suit appropriate for a July ocean-crossing.

His parents aren’t driving with him to Naples where he will board the SS. Conte Grande to New York, a ship that will be requisitioned by the US Navy several years later after the war has started and Italy has been defeated.

Because that would make the farewell harder to bear.

When he’d shipped off to Eritrea with the Italian army five or six years before, the atmosphere had been so much lighter.  There was always danger in a long journey to a colonial territory, but Asmara was firmly in Italian hands, and the lives of Italian Jews back in Italy were safe, comfortable, and in many cases prosperous.

But an ominous rumbling can be felt just about everywhere by the Sorias and their friends now that Mussolini has bonded with Hitler, and a not too distant threat can be easily imagined.  The family conversations have involved opportunity rather than danger, the great possibilities available for an ambitious young man in the United States and the dwindling ones at home.  What’s happening to Jews over the German border has been more silently fretted upon than openly discussed, but the tension is palpable.

So when Dario hugs his parents goodbye before beginning the short journey to Naples in order to launch the long one to New York, they cling to each other for longer than before.                

                                                  A Carpet Tale

Back in 1936, the time of our story, Dorle returns from a long day of work to find a much more amusing letter with nothing about Arabs or Jews.  She laughs buoyantly at an incredible story of the rug business with a dramatis personae including Eric Remarque, the writer of All Quiet on the Western Front, and King Edward the V111th of Britain.

The division into acts is Georges’s, not my own.

                                                   Act One

Georges plans to sell a carpet for a relatively cheap price to an unnamed woman, as he is desperate “to realize cash.”  When he somehow learns that the woman plans to sell the carpet to Remarque, who, in turn, plans to sell it to King Edward for three times the price, he calls off the deal.  The woman offers to split the profit of the Remarque resale, but Georges refuses.

                                                    Act Two

The same woman finds “a wealthy friend … to Flandrin, the French Minister who knows full well Remarque who is going to give the price offered by these dealers and sell to Remarque or directly to Edward V111 and share the profit.”  Georges proceeds to accept basically the same offer he rejected in Act One.  Act Two also features a diatribe against Calouste Gulbenkian, a member of Georges’s least favorite tribe, the Armenians.

                                                    Act Three

In the not very dramatic final act, Asfar goes “quite often to the shop of this woman [the one from Act One and Two] who has a charming husband, and the two are very fond of me, and every word they told me after examination was the very truth.”

                         Syria Again: The Hunt for Gazelles

When Dorle finally arrived back in Syria, she and Georges went on a gazelle hunt.

Before I started,” she wrote her mother, “the idea was dreadful to me.  Gazelles were beautiful and to hunt them in cars not particularly sportsmanlike.  But it turned out to be most exciting.  In fact I found out later that I was lucky in two ways – first to be taken along as there are often accidents and women are apt to be a nuisance, second to have had the luck to see two herds as often trips are made for nothing.  We left at three in the morning from Damascus with a friend of George’s and a great sportsman, the head of the Bank of Syria here.  At four, we arrived at a small Arab village, the property of Hussein Bey Ibisch.  Ibisch is a famous hunter.  Every year he goes with his friend, Prince Joseph Kamal of Egypt, to India or the Sudan for big game and his collection of trophies is being made into a museum.  His family had been active in politics for generations, but he has retired to this village where he lives a semi-feudal life very typical of many parts of Syria.  There we left Georges’s closed car and changed to a dilapidated open one, specially adapted for hunting, with a floor stained brown with old blood.  In the back were Georges and me. On the two small seats in the back with guns ready were two Bedouins. The driver’s job is the most difficult.  You must know the land thoroughly, be an expert hunter so as to search out the gazelles and anticipate their movements, and be able to drive under the most trying conditions.  We went for about a half hour or so from the village until we were in the midst of the Hamad, not actually the desert but a large belt of semi-arid land outside of Damascus.  During the day the gazelles stay in the Wahr or rocky parts surrounding the Hamad but at dawn come down into the planes to sip the dew off the bits of grass and small scattered shrubs.  It is forbidden by law to hunt them and there is a fine of 125.00 for every animal you are found with, but Ibisch is a law unto himself in this particular section. 

The air was very fresh, quite cold, and there was a wind.  Even close the gazelles are hard to see as they are white with tan markings and easily camouflaged by the stones and bits of dried grass. We drove about for a while.  Here and there taking our direction for reasons I couldn’t understand.  Orders were to kill only males.

Suddenly a herd was spotted far off in the distance, like rabbits.  Off we went at breakneck speed.  Gazelles, before they are tired, run at 75 kilometers an hour.  The herd divided, one was shot, the other finally outdistanced us.  By this time, it was almost six o’clock, usually too late to hunt.  However we kept on, finally after ten or fifteen minutes wandering about, one of the Bedouins shouted.  I looked in the direction indicated. The Arabs have extraordinary eyesight because it was not until we had driven for at least three or four minutes that I could, with the greatest difficulty, make out small moving spots far away.

The car went mad.  The doors loose, banged open, were not shut.  In front of me, the Bedouin stood up, swaying back and forth with the movement of the car, his gun cocked.  I was thrown left and right.  I hung desperately to my seat and to Georges and was knocked black and blue.  But in the excitement, I never noticed anything.  The Arabs shouted contradictory directions – right—left—straight ahead.  Only a man of Ibisch’s experience could have kept his head.  With drivers of less concentration, accidents often happen.  Cars upset, guns go off in the wrong direction. 

We neared the herd, they ran like the wind in front of us.  We finally shot five, three escaped much to the Arabs’ chagrin.  The chase over, we turned back, with difficulty retracing the path the car had taken, to find the gazelles we had shot as we went.  Each time we stopped, the Bedouin got out of the car, turned the head of the dying gazelle south towards Mecca and slit its throat.  When we got back to the village, the Arabs took out the entrails of the animals, then brought them to a great stone in the middle of the Khan or courtyard where the sheep are kept during the night.  The stone looked like a primitive sacrificial altar.  There the gazelles were cleaned with water.  We were back at the hotel by nine o’clock.  We took one gazelle with us.  I will bring you the antlers.  We ate the gazelle the next day.  I didn’t want to but Georges is impatient with my sentimentalities so I tasted it.  The meat originally is dry but good.  It was prepared with wine, much like a rabbit, and so disguised that I didn’t recognize it as a gazelle and liked it very much.                                                        

                                                 Palmrya    

Next Dorle went to “Palmyra, a ruined city of the third century in the heart of the desert… Some 1700 years ago Palmyra was a great city where caravans coming from Bagdad and from Damascus went and exchanged goods.  At that time there was a famous Queen Zenobia who by her charm and cleverness created a centre famous throughout the Orient.  Now there is nothing left but ruins of enormous temples and low rows of broken columns showing where the city streets had been.”

 In the snapshot of Georges and Dorle at Palmyra in the Library of Congress archives, they hold hands in the desert, Roman columns lying behind them.  

Dorle stands erect, energetic and determined.  Her mouth is slightly ajar, revealing the tips of her teeth: a wry, sphinx-like half-smile.  It is her expression of appreciation.  She employs it when she listens to people she admires or watches theater or opera.  Of course, she smiles like that while standing with her Oriental lover under the hard Oriental sun.

At first glance, Georges looks worried, unsure how things are working out, but what I see when I zoom in is that the sun is in Georges’s eyes, part of the reason for the tension in his face.  His mouth also looks ajar, a version of a smile, but mostly he looks dazed.  Dorle has returned.  The event he’s spent months preparing for is finally underway.

                             Time Travel: A Horror Movie

 Of course, reading Dorle’s letters to her mother and her lovers’ letters to Dorle sent me back and forth between my present and Dorle’s past.

As I read about Palmyra in recent times and go through the tourist postcards Dorle brought back from there eighty odd years ago, I can’t stop myself from sending her on a sadistic voyage.

Dorle–curious, explorative, unlikely to stick with any lover or guide– slips behind a nearby Roman temple because she hears a peculiar mechanical sound.

In back of the temple, the sun shines in her eyes, she wipes them, blinks, but the strange scene remains in front of her.  Men in black clothes with black veils over their heads and black scarves over their mouths, wearing unfathomable twenty-first century running shoes, carry objects over their shoulders, which resemble rifles.  Some cluster silently in groups as if they don’t know what to do with themselves.  Others apply massive machines to drill their way through a temple that Dorle and Georges had only just seen, bits of it falling off onto the ground. 

I’ll pull Dorle back to Georges in 1934 before she sees the decapitated body of an archaeologist and becomes somehow visible herself and subject to however ISIS would treat the sudden appearance of a white western woman in inconceivably old-fashioned clothes.

                             The Return to Damascus       

“I left Haifa as a drunk man,” George describes his journey back to Damascus after dropping Dorle off a Haifa to begin her journey home. “My foot on the gas clutch was trembling.  I started out with the feeling all the time that I was on the wrong road.  I knew there was only one road, but everything looked so different to me.” 

Georges actually wishes trouble upon himself in order to have a more dramatic tale to tell to Dorle. At the frontier, mandate Palestine, “the man kept me waiting for more than twenty minutes looking over and over my passport….  It’s the only time I didn’t mind to be arrested with a false passport …it would have been the climax of our romance.  I was pleading that my love for you brought me to use a false passport when suddenly the officer wakes me up from my dream and handed me my passport.”

Once back in Damascus, poor Georges can only go through the motions.  “Everyone is nice with me here.  I boast with false cheerfulness to be the same, but I am afraid that I am not such a good comedian.”

                                          New York

Georges’s next letter introduces a topic that will dominate their correspondence, Dorle’s apparent insistence that he decamp to New York.  

The fearless elderly Dorle I’d known as a child and younger adult; even the adolescent Dorle of her diaries, tough-minded about the inevitable course of human affection, just didn’t seem like the same woman who hedged her bets by begging not only Georges but also her other loer, John Carter, to uproot themselves for her.   In my last days in Dorle’s apartment before it was cleared out and sold, I sat at her desk in the company of her furniture and her filing cabinets, and tried to picture her going back and forth to work at Columbia Artists, sailing by herself to Europe and the Middle East, enjoying a freedom that the letters from John and from Georges suggested she was desperate to surrender.   In Georges’s letters, Dorle’s neediness began to seem incontrovertible, her words to her mother about how close she’d felt to him suggesting it all the more.  No genie had magically dissolved the social and emotional pressures to find a man. 

I can still hear Dorle clearing her throat dismissively after someone praised her for succeeding professionally in an era in which few women did.   Now, I wonder if she’d forgotten how contemptuous her father had been of her own journalistic ambition.  Perhaps she just viewed it as par for the course.  Days could be too hot or too cold, dogs bark, men could be difficult.  One succeeded despite rather than because of them. 

The mantle of feminism fit her awkwardly.  A complex concoction of strength and insecurity, Dorle pooh-poohed the struggles of women and probably wasn’t kidding about them generally being nuisances on gazelle hunts.

                                    Interlude:  Master Harasser

Dorle told several tales of famous conductors of her day that hinted of sex, malice or both. When George Szell tossed hot peppers on her face, according to legend, Dario got out an old family sword. Somehow, she found herself driving through Mexico with Fritz Reiner, who laughed uncontrollably at every sign that said “curva” because apparently it meant whore in his native Hungarian.  (I was surprised to fact-check the story and find it true at least linguistically.)

Recently, my father told me a story born for the #MeToo era about another conductor, Otto Klemperer, whose son would play Colonel Klink on Hogan’s Heroes.   One look at Klemperer’s beaky face makes it painful to imagine him chasing Dorle around her desk at her office at Columbia Artists, trying to pin her down and assault her.

But she was lithe enough to escape, and Klemperer was not rewarded (like Weinstein, Franken et al) with humiliation and termination from his post at the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  Dorle would have been laughed out of town had she made a fuss about such common male behavior, so she played it for laughs, turning the incident into comic cocktail party fodder.

                                    Some Strange Lost Gender

Dorle was in the middle of her eighties, very much in her prime, when her grandnephew (me) landed at a hippy, nudist vegetarian coop at Oberlin College.  Now, decades on, I imagine what would have happened were she’d visited me.

She strolls the halls with her stick, what she called her cane, peering at the peculiar, long-haired, desperately sensitive men.  Their exposed junk and bizarre attire don’t bother her terribly, but their mode of masculinity confounds.   Not fighting Franco, hunting gazelles nor conducting symphonies, they huddle in silly circles on the grass, strumming discordantly on guitars.  Not proper men or women, some strange lost gender.

Dorle must have gone about her days during the difficult period when Georges was back in Damascus: her meetings with musicians and businessmen; her dinners with her mother and her sister; her concerts and her cocktail parties, bearing a secret sadness.  You could catch it at stray moments. A solitary tear creeps down her face at her office at Columbia Artists.  Her shoulders sink after Georges’s latest missive deflects the idea of coming to New York.  Her smile collapses, and she places her head in her hands while a supercilious conductor is in the bathroom during a dreary business lunch, only to buoy herself back up again when he returns as one has to make a show.

                                    Transparency

When Georges next writes Dorle, nearly a year has passed with no concrete plan for the two of them to see each other, and Georges speaks frankly about his interest in prostitutes.        

“Fouaz proposed to cheer me up to take me to a Pazon… The adventure would have amused me if you were with me; bring back a concubine, I would have loved to watch your reaction; but a concubine behaves so well toward the legitimate wife, that I am sure you would have been enchanted.”       

John Carter, another of her lovers, wrote of Dorle “curing love with love” when she disclosed her intention to see other men.  Carter complains about “Mr. Asfar,” and his “hashish cigarettes” letting us know that Dorle had revealed with whom she planned to be curing it with.  And in the same letter in which Georges talks about prostitutes, we learn that Dorle has told him about yet another lover, Bill Barker. 

“It seems to me, Dorle, that your policeman in Palestine is quite assiduous in his correspondence with you.  I must call on him one day.”

Georges, himself, is strikingly transparent about his own struggles with fidelity. “I confess to you, Dorle, that never before in my life I have enjoyed the pleasure of being faithful (even though it was relative faithfulness in the beginning!).”   Such candor and tolerance come as a surprise from a man in the thirties who had suggested his mistress take on the submissive role of an “Oriental” wife.

                                            New York, Again

Dorle and Georges continue to write back and forth about the possibility of his moving to New York.

 If the American courts rule in Kevorkian’s favor, Georges’s immense sale of antiquities for the museum of Islamic art may go through, and his pockets will be lined with gold. But if they do not, it would be nearly impossible to transplant a struggling antiquities business from the Damascus medina to New York.   

 Georges’s next letter already has something of a valedictory tone.    “Je vous dois tous le success de ces jours,” he says, wishing her success for the rest of her days as if they were unlikely to include him.

                                            The Verdict

 By the next time he writes, the verdict is in.

The question to be decided by the Court was must the court of Syria inquire into the merit of the N.Y. court judging or not; the decision comes out…It will be too long to write to you the detail of this judgment, but it was a shock to everyone and contrary to our laws; Kevorkian has planned this judgment as a general plans a battle.”

Asfar’s hope that the case be brought back to a Syrian court has been dashed, leaving the Kevorkian affair a devastating defeat.  The New York Times describes the verdict as follows:

“A judgment for $50,046 filed in Supreme Court in favor of Hagop Kevorkian, collector of Mohammedan art objects, against Asfar and Sarkis, dealers in Islamic art objects at Damascus, Syria, has disclosed an unusual litigation over the importation of the two interiors that Mr. Kevorkian, as the buyer, was justified in cancelling the contracts for the houses on the grounds of misrepresentation.”

“I have all the time so vivid and intense the memories of my happiness with you.  I don’t know if I can ever get interested in any other woman … I love you, Dorle, as much as any time before.”

At her desk one morning a few weeks later, Dorle rereads Georges’s letter as well as The Times story about the verdict, more melancholy than distressed.  How strange that a little story in the morning paper could change both of their lives.  She had already suspected that the verdict would go against Georges, and even if it didn’t, she wasn’t sure he would fulfill his promise and move to New York.  She is nearing forty and men have promised her many things.  Now, she won’t have to approach Mother about marrying either a New England or Syrian gentile, a silver lining of a sort.

 

                                          Flashing Forward

Dorle and Dario sit in their living room on 55th Street one evening in the middle of the seventies watching the six o’clock news with Walter Cronkite.  Vietnam is a few years past, but strife from around the world still appears and disappears on the state-of-the-art television that RCA gave Dario, safely contained inside its imposing screen.

Except the following has arrived from Georges.  Around the time of Syrian independence in the forties, he had moved his family and business to Beirut.  Now civil war has driven him from Lebanon. 

“You must be surprised to learn that we are all living in Paris, since last June, when bombing and insecurity became unbearable…You probably heard that the St. George Hotel and our shops were looted by the Palestinians, and burned, thank God, most of our precious antiquities and rugs were put away some time before.”

Dorle sits with her drink across from Dario, hears the rattle of gunfire and flinches when a bomb explodes a building.

“Georges” slips from her mouth.

And Dario looks across at her, remembers the man forced from Lebanon who was once his wife’s lover and sighs sympathetically while Nancy Walker selling Bounty replaces Lebanon on the screen.

Georges’s final letter to Dorle in 1980 condoles her for the loss of Dario.

 “Du Courage ma chere Dorle, et souhaite nous encore a nous beaucoup de courage, J’espere qui ou passera ensemble a Paris l’annee prochaine …. Je t’embrace tres fort.”

Sending her a firm embrace, he tells her to have courage, what Dorle and Dario themselves would say to those who’d lost loved ones, using coragio, the Italian word.

Georges hopes they can meet each other in Paris, and I like to imagine that they did.

Following her and Bill Barker’s now very old footprints, she leads him from Monmartre to Notre Dame, one of her favorite walks.

Old landmarks and new restaurants rescue their conversation when it lapses, and Dorle periodically glances over at the weathered, round face of the 73-year-old Georges, remembering her determination to bring him back to New York.

They are crossing the Pont Neuf over to the Île de la Cité just as Georges’s harangue finally closes.  He catches Dorle’s eye.  His face flushes.  His eyes dart bashfully downward.

“It was no lie,” he suddenly declares in French as if he stands accused, “if Kevork had lost, I would have gone to New York.  You would have had to tell your mother you were marrying a Christian.”

Dorle smiles warmly, imagining the very different life she would have led.  Looking over at Georges and recalling her magnificent Dario, she feels grateful, for a treacherous moment, to Kevorkian for taking Georges away from her.

Guilty about that that thought, she grabs Georges’s hands and pumps it with her own, a gesture bound to be misinterpreted.

But soon, just a few steps farther, the familiar façade of Notre Dame provides them with easier conversation.

About the author

David Winner is the author of two novels: Tyler's Last and The Cannibal of Guadalajara. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, The Millions and other publications in the US and the UK. He is the fiction editor of the Rome-based magazine, The American, a contributing editor for Statorec.com and a regular contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.

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