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Guest Blog Post: Howard Kaplan

In the way nothing happens for a reason, you can learn, grow and exploit what does happen.


by Howard Kaplan  

When I was a fledgling writer, I watched a Ken Follett television interview about his novel of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Though the locales were remarkably detailed, he explained that he had never been to Afghanistan. I took note.

While an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, I was in Damascus, Syria for a day. During my junior year 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. 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.

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 the Great Omayyad Mosque now 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.

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.

After I graduated from Berkeley, I started to write THE DAMASCUS COVER, a spy novel about the rescue of Jewish children from the ghetto in Damascus as a subplot to highlight the plight of those 5,000 held captive in Syria. I wrote this, my first novel of Syria, before the internet. After Dutton bought THE DAMASCUS COVER, I flew to NY to meet my editor. He soon handed me a copy of HARRY'S GAME, by Gerald Seymour, a novel of Northern Ireland. He said: when you read this you feel like you're in Belfast, the scents, the sights. I want a rewrite; do that for Damascus.

So I wrote the tourist office in Syria and they sent me a fabulous huge street map so my characters would know where they were walking and driving. Lucky for me the British have been everywhere, written about it, and in English even, so I found such a travel memoir called MIRROR TO DAMASCUS and cribbed crazily from it for the rewrite. I remembered little of those hours in Damascus other than my whetted appetite for the vast and pulsating city, an oasis in the desert and the longest continuously inhabited city on the planet.

I learned a lot from HARRY'S GAME. The Chicago Daily News wrote about THE DAMASCUS COVER: "Exceedingly rich in color about the Syrian capital." Ideally when I write about locales, I like to travel there and inhale. I prefer to describe in a journal rather than photograph as then when I recreate in a novel I'm already a long step closer to the final written words.

To write my new novel, THE SYRIAN SUNSET--about the Syrian Civil War, the failure of the West to save the Syrian people, and how that inaction against the Russian incursion in Syria emboldened Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine—I didn't dare return to Syria with my journal.

Enter the internet. For example, I needed to describe the Talisman Hotel for a scene. It's a gorgeous boutique hotel in the old Jewish Quarter of Damascus. No Jews remain in Syria and their legacy plays a role in the new historical novel. In 2007, President Bashar al-Assad, and his British-Syrian wife Alma, often featured on the cover of Vogue and similar periodicals, entertained Nancy Pelosi and her entourage at the Talisman Hotel. I do not use Google maps to find the actual location. I find the images secondary to what I can pull up just by searching 'Talisman Hotel images' for individual photographs. When I entered Talisman Hotel an entire page of photos came up. Similarly when I needed to recreate the Syrian checkpoint in the desert between Jordan and Syria, I found a photo online of that too. The low concrete barriers across the road there to slow vehicles had freshly painted Syrian flags on it, not a detail I'd have conjured from my imagination. The rich decor of the Talisman was fun to describe.

When I describe places I know or can reach, like Jerusalem, I use a combination of personal trekking, asking questions, and Google images. For example, a Palestinian shopkeeper in the Old City of Jerusalem, who prominently displayed Christian icons, explained that Russian tourists vacation in Charm el-Sheik in the Sinai Desert, fly to Israel for the day from the airport there and purchase these icons with crisp hundred dollar bills. Readers enjoy these details. I like to find ways to integrate them into the plot rather than just describe. A Russian oligarch in THE SYRIAN SUNSET has a devout girlfriend, so a Mossad agent buys one of these icons for her and describes their provenance. I too only on the internet learned that a Miro statue called The Brain resides in the rose garden adjacent to the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset. When I was a student walking those gardens it was not yet there. I found some photos of the statue to integrate into a character taking off from the Knesset helipad who is suffering from headaches.

As far as locales, the movie adaptation of THE DAMASCUS COVER was shot in Casablanca with a B-roll filmed in Israel. The latter is a crew without actors, to economize, and then those shots are spliced in with the Moroccan footage. So a scene in the film in Mea Shearim, the actors part was filmed in Casablanca and the establishing shots recognizable as the actual place.

People tell me the detailed descriptions are vital to their enjoyment of my novels, so I highly recommend that effort to aspiring writers. 

 HOWARD KAPLAN, a native of Los Angeles, has lived in Israel and traveled extensively through Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. At the age of 21, he was sent on a mission into the Soviet Union to smuggle a dissident's manuscript on microfilm to London. His first trip was a success. On his second trip, he transferred a manuscript to the Dutch Ambassador inside his Moscow embassy. A week later, he was arrested in Khartiv in the Ukraine and interrogated for two days there and then two days in Moscow, before being expelled from the USSR. The KGB had picked him up for meeting dissidents and did not know about the manuscript transfers. He holds a BA in Middle East History from UC Berkeley and an MA in Philosophy of Education from UCLA. He is the author of five novels. DAMASCUS COVER is now a major motion picture starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Sir John Hurt and Olivia Thirlby.

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Tuesday, 16 July 2024

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