Howard Kaplan, author and academic, talks with Jlife about the process of writing The Damascus Cover. The spy novel, about an Israeli agent deeply entrenched in the upper echelon of Syrian intelligence, is being adapted to film and stars Jonathan Rhys Meyer, John Hurt and Olivia Thirlby.
Thank you so much for your time. Sure, where would you like to begin?
I understand you have a background in espionage work yourself. Can you tell me about that and how it influenced your choice of subjects for your story telling? I spent my junior year abroad in Jerusalem, and after that I became involved with a group that was studying about the Soviet Jewry Movement and sending people to Russia. So in the summer of ’71, I went to London and then into Moscow. I brought Hebrew books to Hebrew teachers and also smuggled out microfilm. I returned to Russia the following summer, but that time I got caught. Fortunately, I wasn’t caught with anything on me. I probably got in the most trouble out of anyone with the Movement. I guess I believed that my American passport would protect me during an era of détente between the US and Russia. Whether that was true or naïve, nobody knows, only that I was arrested and interrogated for four days, but humanely. I was questioned in the hotel manager’s office, rather than KGB headquarters. I certainly was not beaten or tortured, I could take bathroom breaks, I was fed. They arrested a number of young people and they threatened them all with various terms of imprisonment, but as far as I know, no foreigner from the Soviet Jewry Movement was actually tried. They were ejected like I was. But you never knew if you were going to be the one that they arrested and put on trial, which would’ve completely halted the movement. There was some danger, maybe more than I believed at the time.
Not many people know that in Syria, and more specifically Damascus, there remained a Jewish presence well into the 1970s. What was life like for these Jews under Hafez al-Assad’s regime? At that time there were about 5,000 Jews in Damascus. By this point, Jews from Arab countries had by and large been expelled, but this last shrinking community remained. If I recall correctly, the overall Syrian-Jewish population had once been 50,000. They were in a crumbling ghetto, allowed to leave the ghetto but not the country. They were really being held as pawns for some kind of ultimate settlement with Israel. Though in the end they trickled out over time until there were only a few left. When I was there we actually went to the Jewish quarter, but it was clear we were being followed so we veered off and didn’t go in because it seemed unsafe.
How much do you think conflicts in the contemporary Middle East have opened up the mainstream moviegoer’s interest in the region’s history? I think Syria is certainly of interest. What the filmmakers did is move the timeline of the novel from 1975 to 1989 for two reasons. One is the obvious, that you couldn’t have people running around in contemporary Damascus without acknowledging the devastation of the civil war. The second is really interesting. There was a fairly significant population of expatriate Nazis living in Damascus that helped train the Assad regime in various ways. So my point is, we wanted to move the timeline forward from 1975 to make it more relatable, but we couldn’t move it too far forward. Not only because of what’s happened in Syria, but also because the Nazi characters had to be young enough to be somewhat “mobile” in order for the plot to work. They chose 1989 because they wanted to tie-in the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Do you anticipate that the film will be better appreciated by an audience with an interest in history, or is it primarily a spy story that will appeal to fans of James Bond or Jason Bourne? That’s a really interesting question; I haven’t been asked that before. Hopefully it will work on both levels. For example, the fact that there were Nazis in Syria post-World War II. What their community was like and how they were living, I think that’s of historical interest. But they’re really organic to the story. It was written to include them as an integral part of the plot. They were there and a big part of the spine of the novel. Many people have told me they didn’t know there were Nazis in Damascus. Most people know about Nazi immigration to Latin America but they don’t know about Syria. The historical part has to be organic and I think it really is. Α
Perry Fein is a writer and contributing editor to Jlife.