Book Review - Cleopatra’s Wedding Present; Travels through Syria by Robert Tewdwr Moss
Duckworth-Overlook 2008, paperback 208 pp., ISBN 978-0-7156-37487
Cleopatra’s Wedding Present is bewitching, one of the most original and compelling travel books to have been published over the last twenty years. It is a true reflection of its creator: slim and stylish, funny and passionate but also a compulsive page-turner.
However it is also a book that should be read with care. Perhaps even published with a warning, a bit like that which the cigarette makers are forced to add to their packages, “Beware; a scintillating instance of Modern Orientalism.” For Cleopatra’s Wedding Present is only partially interested in observing and interpreting the political, social and historical realities of modern Syria. Instead the true landscape that the book chronicles is that of the interior transformation of the young narrator.
For Robert Tewdwr Moss’s Syrian journey proved to be a turning point in his young life, the place where he transformed himself from a flamboyantly dressed youth with a self invented surname into a self composed man in a white T shirt, where he learnt to accept his homosexuality rather than aspire to become yet another failed father, as well as struggling to transform himself from a mere journalist (a hired hack churning out criticism and social gossip) to a self-determining writer. These various transformations and ambitions are so honestly drawn, so fiercely fought-for and imagined that the reader is at once drawn entranced in his wake. And Robert keeps us at his side, with his telling eye for detail, whether it is the impenetrable world of Syrian pigeon fanciers, where “all the birds were decorated with ornate leg rings and even necklaces’ and there is “something exclusive and faintly sinister about the gathering” or when he observes yet another launch party dominated by “besuited men trailing around with their trophy wives, eyes flitting around busily to see if there was anybody more interesting to talk to.”
He also invites the reader to share in his stream of malicious wit, which to my ear brought echoes of the comic savagery employed by Evelyn Waugh or Paul Bowles. So that within the first few pages we witness a chance meeting with an experienced old writer, Daniel Farson (a name-dropping, alcohol sodden, closet homosexual) at the bar of the old Barons Hotel in Aleppo. This encounter reaches its comic denouement with a scene at the hotel restaurant, began by “ a looming presence hovering over the table and the appearance of a pudgy hand by the pepper mill steadying a tottering, overweight frame. It was F..” But by the end of this chapter, entitled “A Fellow Englishman”, you have witnessed one of the most ruthless and comic destructions of a literary character in English letters. Other chance encounters are reported with the same flippant humour, but with a pinch more mercy, such as when ‘we were surrounded by chattering young stallholders, more eager to clap eyes on our wares than the other way round. Or ‘Please sir, take tea with us. Do not fear. It is nothing to worry about,’ said one strange, white-faced youth called Boy George, who had pale, mystical, staring blue eyes. It is only our Syrian bestiality. I’m sorry, hospitality.”
Fortunately Robert is able to keep his wit on a leash, so that we can travel with him to the house of the 18th century traveller, Jane Digby and leave it with simple but effecting scene of his Syrian guide Hussein (who had already refused all offers of payment) gently chatting to the impoverished occupant, “showing respect, keeping the old man company ‘in the way the Arab young do to the elders of their community, regardless of class or profession.” Other quiet heroes that we encounter include Peter Clark, a wonderfully sympathetic director of the British Council, Dr Khoust, a Syrian architectural conservationist, as well as Gunde, another extraordinarily impressive woman of conviction and energy. Gunde is a German-borne Palestinian who has sought to support her adopted homeland by employing hundreds of Palestinian refugees in her co-operative embroidery workshops.
It is however with ‘Jihad’ that Robert has the most passionate relationship. Jihad is a physically handsome but spiritually broken Palestinian refugee, whose 33-year old body has been scarred by the battles he has fought for his lost homeland since he was the age of six. But even this love affair, conducted in Jihad’s tiny bedsit is given a potent twist of black humour, for sometimes a crippled beggar, (in fact an uncle of Jihad’s) makes use of a pile of rags on the floor in which to doss down, from where he mutters out casual obscenities. Jihad translates one such utterance thrown to them from the floor, which turned out to be crude enough but also completely free of any ethical judgement, “He says you English are incredible. First you will suck my penis like a puppy and then you will suck the breasts of a woman like a little calf. You English will have anything..” Another telling instance of cross-cultural translation is when Robert begins to advise Jihad to look after his health better, but “what is the point” replies Jihad. “The point is that you will live longer!” protests his friend Robert. To which Jihad replied, “But I am quite happy to meet my God.”
Robert’s own fears of death punctuate the book, whether from the eccentric electrical wiring that encircles Jihad’s iron bed, or due to his predilection for sexual encounters with strange men, or from the powers that protect the Syrian state. Indeed the book concludes with an occluded threat when an old Syrian antique dealer directly instructs Robert, “Ah my dear…be very, very clever with what you write. Or else…” he performed a dismembering motion with his hands. ‘They will tear it all up to pieces. Be very, very careful. They have the power. They can destroy everything.”
On my first reading of Cleopatras’s Wedding Present, this conclusion seemed to come with a haunting sense of prescience as well as a disturbing instance of the long reach of the men of power. For as I heard it at the time, Robert Tewdwr Moss was killed in his own bed in the summer of 1996, by three unknown Middle Eastern men, the very night that he finished the last draft of his book. The only thing they took was his computer, which contained the only finished draft of his book, which was never recovered. Fortunately a series of earlier drafts allowed his writing to survive his death, but an intriguing whiff of conspiracy, of unexplained facts, perhaps even an assassination by the long arm of foreign intelligence service, surrounded the finished book. It may have helped give Cleopatras’s Wedding Present its cult status and propelled the murdered Robert into (an unexpected) heroic niche. This atmosphere certainly worked its magic on me at the time of its first publication.
Ten years later, I re-read Cleopatras’s Wedding Present, which confirmed my delight in the text. I also noticed that it had gone out of print, and made an offer to the original publishers to take it on, and add it to the Eland list of travel books that I publish. Indeed whilst talking about the book to Peter Mayer (the new owner of the publishing company Duckworths) I was perhaps a little unguarded in my enthusiasm, so that by the end of our meeting, he had added it to his own reprint schedule.
But my interest in the title didn’t stop there. Indeed looking back over the subject matter of the book on a third reading (for this review), I realised that there is actually very little in it, to give mortal offence to the Syrian authorities. For Syria is revealed to be a place of many faiths, many ethnicities and the adopted, but protective homeland to many refugees. Whilst Robert’s conspiratorial fear that his activities amongst the mass graves of murdered Armenians would irritate the regime, seem almost comically unfounded. For the Arabs of Syria are practically the only people to emerge out of this ghastly tale of horror from the First World War with any moral credit. Whilst the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood and the resulting battle for Hama of 1981 are not so much state secrets as one of the chief battle honours by which the regime continues to prove its legitimacy.
Nor on closer inquiry were the three men who killed Robert strangers from the Middle East, let alone employed by any state as a professional hit-team. Abdul Aziz seems to have been a casual acquaintance of Robert’s: a morally confused 21 year old student and a convert who had began his life under the name of Darren Garner. It was Aziz, who brought along two other unemployed youths, a nameless character known as TJ and the 19 year old Rondell Pereira to Robert’s flat the night that he died. There they appeared to have accepted tea and then a drink and in the early hours of the morning, they apparently over-powered Robert, and probably attempted to extort money from him, tying him to his bed with whatever was close to hand, electrical cord and television flex and gagging him with a pair of socks. He had bravely continued to struggle, and was ultimately beaten around the face and head by a blunt instrument, whilst his ribs were found to have been crushed by someone standing or kneeling on his chest. His attackers when charged with their crime were accused not of pre-meditated murder, but of killing, of not caring whether he lived or died. The fact that his three killers had been speedily arrested by the Metropolitan Police’s Anti-Terrorism Squad was not proof of any foreign conspiracy but a neighbourly coincidence, for this crack team of police officers are based in the Paddington Green Police station which was only a stone’s throw from Robert’s London flat. His killers had indeed stolen his computer on which he was working on his book, but it seems unlikely that he had yet achieved a finished book, just another revised draft to show to his editor. The publisher who had first commissioned him to write up his Syrian travels (for an advance of £8,000) was Christopher Potter of Fourth Estate. The first typescript that Robert delivered had been considered “unpublishable, baggy and undisciplined”. Indeed after Robert’s death, Fourth Estate decided to formally relinquish any interest in the project.
Cleopatras Wedding Present was only resurrected from a limbo of early drafts due to the energy of a close friend of Roberts’, Robin Baird-Smith, who happened to work as an editor at another publishing company, Duckworths. It has always been a moot point, as to how much of the final published version of Cleopatras Wedding Present, was the achievement of the skilled editing of Robin Baird-Smith and how much can be directly attributed to the first textual draft delivered by Robert Tewdwr Moss. Initially Robin Baird-Smith aspired only to create a fitting memorial to his dead friend which would be privately printed – not commercially published. But the crucial importance of an editor (whose work is inevitably unsung and unacknowledged) will not surprise anyone with any hands-on experience of publishing.
The emotional history behind Robert’s creativity is also a bizarre and fascinating story. He was born on 29th December 1961 to the deputy head-mistress of a girls boarding school in Cheshire (Bostock Hall), who had fallen passionately in love with a 19 year old man who worked on the school gardens. This love match was not ultimately able to withstand the considerable differences in age and education. So it was that Robert’s handsome young father left his intellectual wife, taking with him just his eldest child (his daughter Jane) whilst the two boys, were brought up by their mother. She eventually had them educated at another well-known Cheshire school, Sir John Deane’s College at Northwhich. When he was 19, Robert’s mother died on Christmas day (struck down by a sudden embolism), but he had already revealed himself to be a fine scholar in her eyes. He would study English at Bedford College of the University of London, where he fell in love with an Iranian exile, Afsaneh Parvizi, who would remain a lifelong friend and an inspiration (indeed Cleopatras Wedding Present is dedicated to her). He left University with a first class degree in English and famously good looks, which were combined ‘with the air of a lost child clad’ clad in the uniform of a turn of the century decadent: off-white silk cravats, velvet jackets from which might emerge a long frayed cotton sleeve. He found employment as a man of letters in London: writing articles, book reviews and interviews for the literary and social pages of the Tatler, Harpers & Queen as well as for such papers as the Telegraph and Sunday Times. It was in such a milieu of louche young publishers, literary agents and free-lance writers that he added the additional surname ‘Tewdwr” to give a whiff of exoticsm to plain Mr Moss. It also helped differentiate him from another active journalist, also called Robert Moss, and was part of his continuous quest for identity and for cast-iron friendships that would replace his lost parents. As his friend Philipa Scott wrote about him (in a collection of travel writing about Syria), he loved the company of women, cats and habitually used the ‘carnation pong’ of Floris’s Malmaison. “He had a wonderful, almost magical gift for friendship, a genuine liking for and curiosity about people irrespective of age and sex, and an endearing openness, which made him attractive to all. This blessing was ultimately his tragedy.”
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by Barnaby Rogerson