Clive Sinclair
Tomorrow they fly, but tonight they are on the beach at Ashqelon. There are five of them: the Lone Ranger and his sidekick, Seth, plus his Israeli friends Pamela and Jonathan, and their daughter, sweet Ma'ayan. The coast is curved like a long bow; on the southern tip (some 10 kilometres away) the lights of Gaza burn, to the north are the cities of Zion. A crescent moon lies low over the land, like the illuminated toenail of a recumbent deity. They, too, are reclining, faces turned heavenwards, hoping to spot shooting stars. "The firmament remains as indifferent to my existence as Michelle Pfeiffer," laments the Lone Ranger, "as does the inky sea." A few days earlier he took Seth to gaze upon the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where they had also seen a manuscript of the First Theory of Relativity (in Einstein's own hand). Though they couldn't understand a word of either exhibit, there was inspiration here: both, in their different ways, had attempted to decipher divinity's teasing code, the stellar hieroglyphics embossed upon the velvet sky.

These were night thoughts. During the day the Lone Ranger would have been contemplating those more material mysteries concealed by bikinis. He is feeling philosophical - well, guilty - because the vacation has passed and he hasn't written a single postcard. However, he takes comfort from complying with King David's royal edict: "Publish it not in the streets of Ashqelon." Anyway, the flavour of the ancient city can be easily savoured elsewhere, for Ashqelon is a word that may be eaten with relish. That essential ingredient of coq au vin, the shallot, derives its name from ascalonia, an onion the Romans cultivated hereabouts.

The previous Wednesday, the same company took the night plane to Amman, formerly a forbidden city. In the old days, it seems, every town had to have its resident strongman. Ashqelon boasted Samson (who ended up eyeless, down the coast), while Amman co-opted Heracles. At the omphalos of Amman is a hill, called Jabal al-Qal'a, or the Citadel, upon whose summit stand the ruins of a Roman temple dedicated to the mythic superhero. Far below is the 6,000-seat theatre built by Marcus Aurelius when Amman was known as Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. It was the Umayyads who renamed it, recognising its ancient name, Ammon. Now the city is in the hands of the Hashemites, and its genius loci is King Hussein. He is every citizen's household god; his portrait ubiquitous. Even so, the itinerants never felt Big Brother was watching them. If anything, the diminutive monarch resembled Sean Connery's kid brother.

The Lone Ranger wondered at the vast size of the Roman Empire as he contemplated the ravished splendour of Jarash, some 50 kilometres north of Amman and about 4,000 kilometres east of contemporaneous Verulamium (latterly St Albans), his home. The ruins of Verulamium are circumspect, neat masonry protruding apologetically from the greensward, but those of Jarash are an eloquent display of Levantine excess. Indeed, the regular rows of honey-coloured columns could be the exposed skeleton of some colossal ichthyosaurus. What can one say of such a place save, ichabod, the glory has departed? So, too, did they.

The Arabs, who replaced the Romans as local overlords, constructed a castle on a hilltop at Ajlun, from where, on clear days, it is possible to look down upon both Syria and Israel. "It was built in 1185 by Izz ad-Din Usama, cousin of the more famous Saladin," explained the guide. "See how strong the walls are. Sandstone is a much better building material than semen." "Does he remind you of anyone?" the Lone Ranger asked Pamela. "Benny Hill," she replied without hesitation. "Uncanny, isn't it?" said the Lone Ranger.

He wandered off to take some photographs and, upon his return, was astonished to hear the ersatz Benny Hill quoting Robert Frost. "'The woods are lovely, dark and deep,' he quoth, 'But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep ...' Those lines always make me think of tourists," he continued, "as they flit from one beauty spot to the next, without ever penetrating the surface ... My philosophy is: live for the moment, seize the day." As they handed him his tip, this ettrick shepherd shyly confessed that he too wrote poetry. "Of course, it is in Arabic," he said. "However, I'll translate a few lines for you. The subject is a spring which rises near the castle in the rainy season and descends into the valley below. The water flows simply to express itself. The frogs in the valley wait for it. The sheep on either side of the dry bed also await its coming."

The Lone Ranger recalls those lines on the beach at Ashqelon as the relentless sea advances and withdraws.

Clive Sinclair's new collection of stories, 'The Lady with the Laptop', will be published by Picador in October.

Comments