After several days of conferencing, our group of twenty or so takes a day-trip to the ruins of ancient Palmyra, over 200 kilometers northeast. The journey takes about two hours by bus. On the far outskirts as we leave the city before entering the desert, we drive through a monumental construction site covering an area of what looks to be several square miles, extending on either side of the highway. It is a housing project, a large-scale settlement clearly intended for and anticipating hundreds if not thousands of people. Though the buildings are in various states of completion, the vast majority is unfinished and the entire area is empty on this Monday morning, when one would expect to see teams of construction workers finishing at least part of what has been started. More than that, it looks abandoned—a strange sort of ruin of something that never was, a ghosted town of some anticipated future. Did it fail, or was it merely put on hold? Who was meant to live there? I never find out, but later on, at dinner after the trip, another of my building questions is answered by someone who’s lived in the region. I ask about the steel rods sticking out of the vertical concrete supports on houses everywhere like bristles on a brush, giving even well-occupied dwellings the disordered impression of being somehow incomplete. But I learn that there is nothing disordered in this, merely another conception of order: if prosperity should come to the next generation, another story will be added to the family home, and the supports remain as the physical mark of a hope for the future.
The further we go from the city, the fewer people and buildings we see, and soon we are travelling through an arid desert, empty of nearly everything but itself. We pause briefly for water and souvenirs at a rest stop called the Baghdad Café, and eventually we reach Palmyra. Our guide is already waiting for us at the entrance—he is a neatly dressed, sporty-looking man wearing Ray-Bans whose appearance vaguely calls to mind Peter Sellers. Knees bent and arms often extending for emphasis, he is so vigorous and earnest in his role that I begin to imagine he truly is Peter Sellers, acting in some deep satire that we will never know the end of because we are merely passing through one of many scenes, the temporary backdrop to some unknown farce. He seems kind, or perhaps I am just inclined to sympathize with someone who does his audience the honor of treating what must be a rote performance as if it were the high point of the day. He leads us into the ruins with stories of the city’s former wealth and prosperity, of Queen Zenobia and her revolt against Rome, which came to an end, if I recall correctly, not precisely when she was captured but later, when she agreed to retire from active political life in comfortable Italian seclusion.
We move on from one of the main sites, the theatre, and I am on the straggling edge of the procession when some young Bedouin men with camels approach, offering rides for a fee. The only pictures I have from that day, taken by someone else since my camera later went missing, are of me on that camel. It is a strange image to be left with as representative, one that makes of me all the more the tourist I am and can’t help being. There is a story behind this photograph, as there always is, even when conformity to stylistic conventions gets the upper hand, like all the pictures there must be in the world of smiling people standing next to celebrities and monuments. Visiting the Middle East? Be sure to get on a camel, that’s what tourists do there, they sit atop camels and get photographed. Even now I am not sure why I did it, since I then had the awkward experience of rejoining the tour group almost as an observer, riding high upon an animal imposing by reason of both size and adornment. The first, second, possibly even third requests I decline. But the young man who is making these repeated appeals does so as if he expects to be turned down, which must happen often enough since not all tourists are conformists to type. This somehow closes the deal for me. He seems sad, too. I never find out exactly why, nor do I really get to know him, because this is one of those transient encounters between passing strangers like so many in this life, either remembered somehow or forgotten. Later, two of the other women from the group also get on camels, for which I am grateful, and there is another picture of us all smiling as we make our way along a road bordered by a row of sun-bleached columns. Being on the camel leaves me on the tour’s periphery, and as Peter Sellers continues adding animating flesh to these skeletal ruins, the driver and I talk quietly in English, little things, small talk. He wants to know where I come from and I tell him Chicago, which he says he’s heard of and asks me to describe, so I do. It goes on like this and then he says to me that the three of us—me, him and the camel—should leave the group and ride away now to Chicago, that if he had a magic carpet we would fly across the ocean to America away from this place where there is nothing and no future. Another young man carrying armloads of jewelry then comes up and interrupts our conversation and this magical imagining of happier futures in faraway lands. My driver looks vaguely disgusted or annoyed with him and in the midst of their encounter I transform from confidant to tourist again as I pay too much for a necklace that has never been worn or even given away as a gift but instead still lies buried in my closet. I am far behind the tour now, I have to go, so I dismount outside the massive temple of Bel and we say goodbye, and I run to rejoin the group. Inside, the temple is full of thirty or forty senior military officers, by the look and age of them, scattered about or standing in small groups. I don’t know what it means. Perhaps they have day-trips too. We move on.
I’m straggling again when a little boy with bare feet, no more than six or seven, comes up to me with fold-out booklets of postcards whose cover reads “Palmyra—an Oasis of Civilization” in six languages. If I buy two, he indicates, he will give me a better price. I confuse him by offering to buy two for the price of three. He refuses, saying it is too much. I insist. And so I get my two booklets of postcards. After the exchange, he takes my hand in his and escorts me to the edge of the ruins near the restaurant where the group will have lunch, and we talk all along the way. He tells me about learning English, where he lives and how he makes money when the tourists come but that the rest of the time he lives nearby and studies and plays. I will likely never see him again. I feel like there is something to understand here in all this but I don’t, not then and perhaps not even now. Some fragile experience of grace.
Lunch takes place in a second-floor banquet hall overlooking date palms and all that is left of this ancient oasis in the midst of ever-encroaching desert. We talk politics at my table, and one colleague tells a story about how strange it is to meet with official academic delegations from North Korea. Afterwards, because we arrived late, there is not enough time to view the necropolis except by bus, so we drive through valleys and foothills of towering tombs before heading back to Damascus. As the sky darkens, we stop again at the Baghdad Cafe and I walk around outside alone and photograph the desert, listening to the sound of the generator.