I’ve started reading William Darymple’s “In Xanadu,” which is a pleasure so far although his travels in the Levant, Bilad ash-Sham, end by the third chapter. Kublai Khan’s summer palace in China is a long way from all this. After leaving Jerusalem where he discovers that the oil burning in the eternal lamps in the Holy Sepulchre has been modernized (it’s no longer olive oil from the Mount of Olives, but sunflower oil from a box, siphoned into spare plastic bottle from the Body Shop in Covent Garden), he travels from Cyprus to Syria. He lands in Lattakia, the primary coastal city here, and opens his chapter with a most unfortunate line, that “Lattakia is a filthy hole… the town smells of dead fish: you can smell it three miles into the Mediterranean.”
Now perhaps much has changed here since the Eighties, but Lattakia does not smell like fish. In fact I think we’ll go each some nice catch for dinner tonight. His description doesn’t fit the current place: a rocky beach in a rented apartment (“chalet”) outside the city center, with Turkey wide in view up the coast, marked by a mountain, Jebel Akra, across the water and behind the remaining points of north Syrian coastline. It’s beautiful here, the water is warm like a tub, and after getting here on Tuesday, the night before the start of eid, we sat with a gracious family on their veranda, breaking fast with piles of salads, rice dishes, and meats, while twenty-one cannons went off between the muezzins’ wails of two neighboring mosques stationed at each end of the street. The cannons signaled the start of the holiday that ends Ramadan.