Today on Compelling Reads we are joined by Howard Kaplan, author of The Damascus Cover (The Jerusalem Spy Series Book 1
When I was in my early twenties backpacking through Europe, a friend and I flew on a lark to Lebanon. In Beirut, we learned a shared taxi service—nine seat diesel Mercedes Benzes—ran regularly between Beirut and Damascus and Syria routinely issued visas at the border. Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited city on early, an oasis surrounded by apricot orchards as underground rivers from Lebanon come up there. So we went. Later, I wanted to set a suspense novel there with rich details, sights, sounds and smells of this marvelous city. What I didn’t know then was that so much devastation was on the far horizon, and that the novel would end up, as an artifact of what Damascus was like pre civil war.
Michael Wallace of 60 Minutes had done several programs about the Jewish community in Damascus, 5,000 people preventing from emigrating by President Hafez al-Assad, the current president’s father, living in the Jewish quarter as bargaining chips for future negotiations with Israel. We went to the quarter but soon realized we were being followed by a man we’d seen in the Great Omayyad Mosque and we immediately left the area. I began doing research on the city and learned that a sizeable contingent of former Nazis had been welcomed by Syria as military advisers and were living comfortably in Damascus. Only a few years ago the BBC Reported the Alois Brunner, Hitler’s assistant, had died in Damascus. Wonderfully, we have the great German actor, Jurgen Prochnow, star of Das Boot and who appeared in The Da Vinci Code as the main ex-SS man in the film adaptation of the novel. Jonathan Rhys Meyers heads The Damascus Cover cast and Sir John Hurt plays the head of the Israeli Secret Service, who is the puppet master behind the plot.
I set out with a goal that receded through the writing, and gratefully so. I wanted to expose the plight of the Jewish community in Damascus. So the plot’s surface mission is to smuggle out a group of children from the ghetto there. But I realized I was writing suspense not polemics and the whole issue of Jews in Syria receded in importance and the novel became about both the ruthlessness of secret services, including the Mossad, and how they will use their own people to achieve a greater good. The reason that the book was filmed, is it is about how secret services and the military—both in Syria and Israel—can circumvent the politicians and clandestinely work together to really achieve that greater good. So in its secret depths it’s a story of reconciliation. On the romantic front too and a relationship is central to the story.
When I was at it full bore, about two-thirds of the way through, I suddenly realized—one of my few life’s epiphanies–that I could create a significant twist at the end of the story. Most people tell me they don’t see it coming, maybe because I didn’t either.