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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

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State