Polvo photo by Ashley Worley
Through the tinted windows of the bus, I could imagine that I was staring out through snow fields instead of the infinite desert.
I was ill-prepared to endure the August heat, which was upwards of 115 degrees. I tried to rest and began to visualize walking among the ruins while pane after pane of beige emptiness passed the window. Suddenly, an interruption; a sign for the lone crossroads between Bagdad and Amman. And just as quickly, it was behind me and I was back to the stillness.
It was 1997 and I was here, on the desert road between Damascus and Palmyra, for the usual reasons; curiosity, adventure, restlessness. But there was a parallel pull that had also led me to Charley Patton's grave in the Delta, and to Jimi's grave in Reston and to the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi. I found the music first and wanted to feel it, touch it, internalize it, visceralize it, have it tap me on the shoulder so it would cease to be intellectual and become experiential. Making these respectful pilgrimages, immersing myself in these places I imbued with magic powers, meeting the people who carried the music along would enrich me somehow. On this trip through Turkey and Syria, I walked the streets propelled by imagining cascading oud solos.
I usually bring my radio along on these trips. On a past trip, I was spoiled by the abundant democracy of Indian radio, which carried me off to sleep every night. Here in the desert, there was nothing across the dial but aural snow and I didn't feel like putting in a cassette. I usually hate watching movies on the bus, but I'd had my fill of staring out and watching the sand sift by.
Only paying half-attention to the television at the front of the bus, I soon recognized William Holden. While that was registering, I slowly realized that the film was taking place during the 1972 Olympics. I eventually learned that it was 21 Hours at Munich, a television movie. Until this point on the trip, the fact that I was born Jewish was an afterthought. I had no hesitation about venturing into this territory and only glancingly considered the possibility of friction, either toward my heritage or my nationality. If I choose to block out the film and return my focus to the sand, I would be stuck with my imagination, which seemed worse. I settled into my seat and watched. My immersion in the story helped fight the urge to scope the reactions of my fellow riders. I could feel their eyes watching the screen and imagined their approbation. I knew how this story began but didn't know how it ended, so while I was waiting for the narrative resolution, I gave in to my compulsion and furtively surveyed the faces on the bus.
Not a soul was paying attention. Families were being tended to, people were reading and talking, some were sleeping. I was probably the only one watching. I was relieved. But then all the needling questions involving ethos, identity and upbringing entered. My only answer was that if music was my entry point, I could console myself with the salve that music was a discharge from the soul, and was evidence that the soul is ultimately a place of connection and possibility.
Turning back to the movie, I was surprised at the utter nihilism of the ending. Whoever vetted the movie for this audience tacked on a coda explaining in English (why?) with Arabic subtitles that there was another hijacking that ended with the surviving Palestinians afforded a hero's return in Tripoli.
On arrival, I filed this away, eased out of my mind by the brutal heat and anticipation of my day among the ruins. Nothing was resolved, but the intensity dissipated. I was already unconsciously editing it into an isolated anecdote to share with my friends back in New York City on my return.