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To Damascus and back again: how my draft novel was kidnapped in Syria and lived to tell the tale

“I realised: as well as my wallet and keys and hundreds of dollars, as well as my bank details and personal photographs – he had my book. My second, cherished, unborn novel – lovely plotted and crafted, and for some mad, forgotten reason not backed up.”

Parts of Damascus still retain the beauty they had before the war.
Photograph: OmarSyria on Flickr, via Creative Commons

The ransom email started: “Dear Lady”.  I read it in the middle the night; it was bizarrely addressed to my sister-in-law in New York but clearly meant for me. My name, “ it continued, “Is Bassim Hamoud. I am from Damascus, Syria. Today I was walking in the street market and saw an Apple computer there. All your documents are on it. The man says he will sell it tomorrow. It cost him $800. Unless you email me tonight. Don’t delay.”

My palms were sweating as I typed a swift reply. My laptop had indeed been stolen earlier that week in Lebanon, with my entire life on it. How might Bassim suggest I retrieve it? “Don’t worry,” he wrote back, a smiley face after the lowercase, misspelt letters. “I will help you. This is your lucky day.”

I hadn’t felt so lucky until then. It had happened on Hamra Street, the once dazzling heart of old Beirut that has now run to potholes and seductively dark corners. I was walking back from a concert at the American University, through an early summer night hazy with jasmine and petrol and argileh. My laptop bag was in one hand, a change of clothes in the other. The stresses of my UN job at the centre of the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis were idling round my head, in time to a faint song floating from an open window above the road.

Then another sound rose to drown out the music – a buzz, coming from a corner – a scooter running along the pavement at speed, heading for the tiny gap between me and the mottled wall. I barely saw him in time; I jumped out of the way in panic, he leaned over as he shot past, grabbed the bag – and then he was gone.

I ran after him, of course. Even though there was no hope. And then my legs gave way underneath me as I realised. As well as my wallet and keys and hundreds of dollars, as well as my bank details and personal photographs – he had my book. My second, cherished, unborn novel – lovely plotted and crafted, and for some mad, forgotten reason not backed up.

In the week between the theft and the email I drifted from dull denial to incredulous grief. How could I have been so stupid? My Lebanese UN colleagues and friends agreed wholeheartedly. Didn’t I know crime was going up? Lebanon now has over a million Syrian refugees in a country of just four million people. They need to eat, poor souls, they said. Others scoffed: they’re mostly criminals. The oldest shook their heads in despair, recalling their own bitter civil war. Even back then, it wasn’t this bad, they assured me – in defiance of the old bullet-riddled buildings hidden within Beirut’s modernised cityscape.

I felt like one of those buildings as I mourned – full of holes and empty. Even a half-written novel has a life of its own, a uniqueness born of hours and months of love and thought and creativity. I can never be copied or remade; its loss is like a little death. So when Bassim’s note arrived, I was shocked back into hope, ready for any sacrifice to see it safely, miraculously home again.

And Bassim knew it. Confident of having reeled me in, he agreed to meet a friend of mine in Damascus to make the trade. His asking price was $800. My friend threatened and blustered – but Bassim was un-phased. It turned out he was affiliated to a well-known local organisation – close to the government, virtually untouchable. In the end we agreed to $600. “It’s a good scam,” my Syrian friend told me down the crackly phone line. “They pay them in Beirut to steal. And then they sell it back to the original owner. They know you’ll give anything.”

As he spoke I had a sudden memory of Damascus before, a true Arab beauty – coffee drinking, cigarette smoking, full of life and surprises.  It seemed she’d vanished as surely as my book – or so I’d thought. All that remains now is her ghost.

In the end, not 100 metres from the Four Seasons Hotel where the UN is working day and night to dispose of the Syrian’s government’s chemical weapons and gain humanitarian access to Syria’s besieged cities, Bassim got his money. My computer made its way to the Syrian border in a truck. There, it passed through customs with 10,000 others crossing into Lebanon every day, each with a worse story to tell than mine. And at last it journeyed back to the gathering dusk of Beirut to face an emotional reunion. But its fellow travellers face a more uncertain future.

Today the new book is growing (and backed up). Bassim is $600 dollars richer. The Hamra scooter-snatchers have moved onto new victims. And war and chaos continue to reign around us, spilling millions across borders to unknown destinations. Who knows how the story will go from here? I only hope we are all lucky enough to meet with such unexpectedly happy endings. 

Ishmael’s Oranges (Oneworld, £14.99) by Claire Hajaj is published on 17 July

Photo: Getty
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.