Thursday's book; Cleopatra's Wedding Present: travels through Syria by Robert Tewdwr Moss

Philip Hoare
Thursday 06 November 1997 00:02 GMT

Within the first few pages of this book its languidly English author has learnt the secret of violet-scented tea from a Syrian cloth- seller called Aladdin, met Boy George, and encountered the corpulent figure of photographer Dan Farson, who pounces on Tewdwr Moss at a restaurant, accusing him of all manner of calumny while helping himself to a plate of roasted sparrows, "stuffing them into his mouth - little ornithological corpses, sliding down into the maws of hell".

Tewdwr Moss's engrossing account often lingers at the maws of hell - in scrapes and sexual assignations enough to rival Joe Orton's - but all the while it is perfumed with his prose, as heavily scented as the man himself. "Perfume is the one luxury I allow myself when travelling into the unknown," he opines.

Yet the feyness never grates; he is too funny, acutely observant and emphatic. He drifts through souks, falling in love with Jihad, a Palestinian ex-commando. He meets a Shiite Muslim girl who, in a mosque, shows him her silver cross, an act "which could result in the girl getting stoned, and me with her... I realised that however much I loved the Arab world, my liking was indissolubly linked with my gender".

Beyond the politics of modern Syria is the history of the entire region: the dead cities of the desert; the modern cities seemingly about to go the same way. Tewdwr Moss is paradoxically at home in a land magnetic to outcasts. Death or its threat impinges on his narrative more than once: his meeting with Jihad, when he goes back to share the Palestinian's bed, is "overlaid with the familiar excitement that risk never fails to induce".

Ironically, it was in a flat in "civilised" London that his love of risk left him asphyxiated on his bedroom floor, the last edit of Cleopatra's Wedding Present completed that night. It would be hard to find a more archly entertaining, slyly informative, or poignant travel book than this.

Duckworth, pounds 16.95

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