Literary Places and Classic Titles – travel the world from your armchair
Author Howard Kaplan talks about Damascus, and the new film of his book ‘The Damascus Cover’
10th March 2018
#TalkingLocationWith…. author Howard Kaplan talks about Damascus, the setting for his thriller, The Damascus Cover, set in 1970’s DAMASCUS, and film adaptation set in 1989, starring Johnathan Rhys-Myers, Jürgen Prochnow and Sir John Hurt. It comes out this Spring!
‘In 1971, when I was twenty-one, while traveling with a friend we took a flight from Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, to Beirut. We had stayed at a youth hostel in Nicosia where some students told us there was an American, Carey, from University of California at Santa Barbara studying at the American University of Beirut. Incidentally, we could not communicate easily with the Greek speaking Cypriots and in one restaurant they took us into the kitchen and opened the lids on simmering pots. I seem to recall delicious lamb pieces in a sauce with green beans. Some of the scenes from the novel are set on Cyprus.
With no place to stay in Beirut, we headed to the American’s dorm and knocked on his door. His Syrian roommate answered. Carey was away for the weekend but since I was from Los Angeles, which was close to Santa Barbara, he invited us to stay until Carey returned on Monday. At one point, he explained that we could take a shared taxi the two-hour ride to Damascus and obtain a visa at the border. We had planned to fly from Lebanon to Egypt.
So we went and my love affair with Damascus began. I learned that Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited city on the planet, a desert oasis on the caravan route from Asia. In the film adaptation of my novel, due in theaters in the spring of 2018, the great German actor Jurgen Prochnow (Das Boot, The DaVinci Code) showing unbeknownst to him, an Israeli spy played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, the Old City of Damascus speaks the line lifted from the novel about the long habitation of the city. We went first to the great 8th century Omayyad Mosque with its massive column surrounded courtyard. Few Americans ventured into Syria in those days and soon we were followed. We returned immediately to the central Marjeh Square for a taxi back to Beirut but as we waited, I thought about how the Israeli spy, Eli Cohen, had been publicly hung in that square in 1965.
Several years later, all of this melded into an idea for the plot of The Damascus Cover, a story about an Israeli spy who infiltrates high into the Syrian Secret Service like but with a fictional plot within a plot with a twist at the end. I had walked through parts of the city including the great covered marketplace of the Street Called Straight but I needed to know more. I wrote the Syrian travel bureau in Damascus and they sent me a huge, very detailed city map which I tacked to my wall. I began to read everything in English about Damascus. Thank God for the Brits as they have been everywhere and write memoirs about it. As I read about places, I located them on the map.
When the novel was first purchased by E.P. Dutton, the editor gave me a copy of Harry’s Game, a novel set in Northern Ireland. He said that it contained not only the sights but the smells of Belfast. He wanted me to evoke Damascus that way. So back to reading I went. When I sent in the rewrite the publisher was more than pleased. The novel would ultimately be translated into seven languages.
I did not anticipate the Syrian Civil War and the destruction to the country. Unbeknownst to me when I was writing, the novel with its detailed description has become an artifact of a Syrian past.
The film adaptation so many years after the initial publication, came as more than a surprise. The director, Dan Berk, mentioned to a friend that he wanted to make a Middle East film. She went to her shelf and handed him my novel. He said that among other reasons, in many suspenseful works, the end did not really pay off but it did in my work. The screenplay Dan wrote follows the spine of the novel with some updating. I went to Casablanca for ten days of the two month shoot and daily went out with the film crew. I found that as I watched scenes exactly from the novel being shot, I thought: I wish I had done that better. The new scenes did not affect me that way as they were not mine. The film is wonderful. I saw it at the Boston Film Festival where it won best picture, best actor, best director and best ensemble cast,and maybe even better for me it’s brought the novel to a new generation of readers’.
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