Sunday, February 26, 2023

Q&A with Howard Kaplan




Howard Kaplan is the author of the new novel The Syrian Sunset. His other books include the novel The Damascus Cover.


Q: What inspired you to write The Syrian Sunset?


A: Prior, I had written three novels of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the need of both sides to humanize the other. Exhausted from the lack of progress on the ground, I wanted to turn to a new direction.


My first novel, The Damascus Cover, was unexpectedly filmed in 2017, many years after the novel had been published, starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Sir John Hurt. New interest in the novel emerged, for me too. It was an Israeli-Syrian thriller that closes with a dramatic twist.


I decided to return to writing about Damascus, a miraculous desert oasis. Once on the caravan trade route from China to the Mediterranean, Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited city on the planet.


I wanted a larger tableau this time than in The Damascus Cover and wanted to paint the tragedy of the Syrian civil war and the West’s failure to confront the Russians there. This reluctance emboldened Vladimir Putin, after he faced no resistance from the Allies in Syria, to continue into Ukraine.


Despite Obama declaring a “red line” if President Assad used chemical weapons, when he did in Eastern Syria, killing a thousand with sarin, the world hesitated. Because it’s a painful story, I wanted the novel also to be funny, maybe the way Catch-22 achieved, to make it an enjoyable read.


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I had deeply researched Syria for The Damascus Cover so I had those materials, including a huge wall city map of Damascus I had obtained from the Syrian tourist agency in Damascus.


I have a friend, Brooks Newmark, a former British MP who had advocated the American-British joint bombing of President Bashar al-Assad’s barrel bomb capabilities with Cruise missiles. He gave me a list of nonfiction books that were inordinately helpful. From there I followed updates online on a number of websites.


My fictional characters move through actual historical events throughout The Syrian Sunset. I enjoy describing locales in detail, want to give readers the feel and scents of actually being there.


I used Google images often, for example to describe the renovated 27,000-square-foot Khan As’ad Pasha, the 18th century caravanserai in Damascus. The ruins of similar caravan inns, which supported commerce on old trade routes, can be found in Israel, complete with camel stables.


I suppose I was both surprised and not about the barbarity of Syria’s prisons. In an accurate scene in the novel, Assad complains to Nancy Pelosi that in rendition he interrogated Iraqi prisoners from that war, and emptied them for the Americans. So why are they not more grateful? This scene takes place in the boutique Talisman Hotel, once a large Jewish mansion.

Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I taught creative writing for a decade at UCLA Extension. One of my cardinal suggestions is that it’s invaluable to know the ending before you begin. John Irving will spend a year or more plotting out a novel before he starts writing. This way every scene has direction towards where the novel is headed.


However, in The Syrian Sunset, I did not know how it would end in terms of the characters. I was however, clearly bound by the actual history of the war. In this case, and the same thing happened when writing The Damascus Cover, a new character I created midway played a vital role in pulling the entire story together and featured prominently in the ending.


That surprise character in the new one is Alisher Karimov. Initially I wanted to blackmail a Russian oligarch into aiding an Israeli intelligence agent working with a CIA operative. I had these latter two on the shoreline in Monaco about to enter this oligarch’s house there.


How am I doing to blackmail him? I asked myself. Everything I could think of, and the list was short, was tedious and a cliche.


In the early years of the Soviet Jewry movement, while bringing Hebrew texts into the USSR, my tour took me to Tashkent in Uzbekistan. While wandering in Old Tashkent during free time, I happened upon a group of Yiddish-speaking tailors working on Singer sewing machines. Stalin had moved them during World War II from Ukraine.


So stymied in the new novel, I remembered that General Colin Powell spoke Yiddish. As a kid he had worked in a Jewish baby furniture story in Brooklyn. So I thought what if the oligarch is a wary friend, from Tashkent, who speaks Yiddish with the Israeli Mossad agent.


To my great surprise, Karimov turned out to be a delight. A friend of mine in Moscow explained that old Soviet movie houses are being turned into entertainment centers with an ice rink, beauty salon, video game arcades, and shops. That became Karimov’s profession, erecting these entertainment centers, and with it he is a lover to movies.


The Tom Hanks film Castaway began with the Hanks character working at FedEx in Moscow; the plane that crashed and stranded him is was a FedEx cargo plane. So Karimov tells the spies, I do not believe the great Tom Hanks would work at Fed Ex. Of course, he would save Private Ryan, but Hanks at Fedex, nyet.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am only teasing out a new novel but it will be something with Karimov.


Q: What do you see looking ahead for Syria, especially after the recent earthquake?


A: We have lost Syria and betrayed the Syrian people. The Syrian Free Army, once a proud fighting force, hardly exists anymore. The essential problem, as The Syrian Sunset portrays, was the war in Iraq.


After that sham and disaster, the West had no will to help Syria. The British did not want to follow Obama in the way Tony Blair had disastrously acceded to George Bush. Likely the Syrian helicopter barrel bomb capability could have been taken out with Cruise missiles but even that the West could not manage.


Angela Merkel, already overwhelmed with Syrian refugees, feared an attack on Syrian military airfields would lead to internal repercussions there and another flood of refugees.


In essence we fought the wrong war in Iraq, and because of it, lacked the will to fight the good fight in Syria. So Bashar al-Assad, with Putin’s aid, remains ascendant and in power.


The Jordanians closed the border with Syria, at great loss of trade, to support the Syrian revolution. Eventually and inevitably they reopened it and Syrian goods, and especially an apricot paste that is featured in the novel that is made into a drink at Ramadan, flows through Jordan to the economic powerhouse, the Gulf Cooperation Council. The revolution was over.


The recent earthquake is, as so often happens in history, misery piled atop misery.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: There is some talk about turning The Syrian Sunset into a film. At the end of the novel Karimov says that when the film of this great, historic story (the novel) is made he wants Tom Hanks to play him. So we’re going to approach Hanks to do exactly that.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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