2 silver st, hawick, TD9 0AD

Extract from Chapter One: Daud finds himself at a loss

Daud the Arwadi awakened to himself crouching, naked and shivering behind a bush as dawn broke upon the mountains. He recalled the events of the previous night. He had risen to answer a call of nature. Then they had attacked. That was hours ago and now he found he was still clutching his shrunken member. In the excitement he had lost the urge to pee. With the coming of the sun he realised he had lost a lot more besides.

Daud was not the same man he had been just three weeks earlier when he had crossed the short sea passage from Arwad to the mainland. In Tartus he had loaded his camels with bales of cloths and spices, precious ores and other riches, and begun what should have been a brief overland trek south to Damascus. At the point of departure he still had the light of plenty in his eyes, that light which comes from the comfortable self-satisfaction of having achieved success in the world: material, marital and political success, in that order.

Arwad is a tiny island which lies about a mile off the coast of Syria in the furthest east of the Mediterranean Sea. It is a small island of strange people. Clever, resourceful people, but more often it was 'us against the world and the world against us'. Without a doubt Daud was resourceful, and independent, but his natural curiosity and appetite for life kept him free of the usual insular xenophobia...

... Daud had forsaken the usual trade of shipbuilding, which most Arwadites have entered as a matter of course at their fathers' sides since times biblical (and we know that the Arwadites were there at the Genesis, or at least shortly after the seventh day... well, after the Flood, at any rate, along with the Zemarites and the Hamathites and the Jebusites and the Amorites, and all the other generations of Noah and Shem and Ham and Japheth). Turning his back on the adze and awl and a life of lumber, from a young age he embarked upon a career as a merchant. Daud realised early on that the people who built ships had a hard life for limited reward and little adventure. And those who sailed them upon the high seas, while somewhat better off in the short term, more often than not suffered the ultimate consequences of their pelagic wanderings. They would eventually disappear off the map, either through storm or piracy, or just simply getting lost. Daud was definitely of the type who believe that worse things happen at sea.

But trading was different. The work was not laborious, and the risks rarely mortal. It demanded a different style of throat-cutting from that meted out on the high seas. In addition to business acumen, a successful merchant trading in the Levant requires determination, patience and a high level of 'people skills'...

... And so it was that at the age of forty-one, Daud found himself on the road to Damascus. He was travelling with an enormous caravan: 200 camels loaded with goods that he had collected in his entrepots on the coast. This convoy of riches was timed to coincide with the pilgrimage season, when hundreds of thousands of people would pass through Damascus on the way to, and returning from, Mecca. Mecca, the Holy City of Arabia, where first Abraham had established that men and women worship according to unity; Mecca, where he set the imprint of his feet in the wondrous Black Stone fallen from heaven and which became the orientation and lodestone in this world for the travellers in the spirit of the next.

The caravan journeyed safely along the coast road south from Tartous, turning inland just before the great mountain range of the Jebel Lubnan. As the land rose to green, fertile hill country, Daud spied in the distance the beautiful and forbidding white stone fortress of Krak de Chevaliers. Even Saladin had decided to bypass this virtually impregnable redoubt in the interests of economy and effective warfare. The now-abandoned hilltop castle commanded both the coast and the entrance to the Bekaa and the fertile valleys of Lebanon. It also guarded the mountain passage know as the Homs Gap which led to Damascus and the desert routes further east, to Baghdad and Arabia. Daud mused that this would have made a splendid entrepot...

...It was early spring. As the caravan headed south, the road climbed again, leaving the greening pasture of the river plains. Although warm in the day, old winter snow still lay in scattered drifts in the deeper folds of the hillsides and at night the drivers huddled in groups around campfires to keep warm. They were not so far now from their goal, but still, these were wild places on the edge of the sown. The desert stretched away forever on one side, and desolate rocky mountains rose on the other, mountain paths that must traversed before arriving at the destined oasis of Damascus. One night, as the noble camel drivers curled by the fireside under the mountain sky, and the flames of the earthen hearths sank and only glowing embers remained, black shapes gathered unseen in the shadows of evening. The dark raiders of the Banu Merg fell upon the camp in silence. The forty souls, already surrendered to death's gentler cousin, sleep, were dispatched as peacefully as the sacrificial lambs of the Id al Fitr.

Daud, who had drunk too much tea that night, had woken to answer an urgent call of nature at what transpired to be a supremely opportune moment. As the assailants were conferring before the final murderous act, the trader of Arwad had risen quietly to perform his toilet. Consequently, of the forty one wayfarers, he alone survived the massacre. From his vantage point, crouching under a bush in a cleft in the rocks a few yards away, naked under a thin camelhair wrap (for unlike the rest of the crew, he had an abhorrence of sleeping in his clothes), he watched as the event unfolded. A hundred or so black-cloaked demons crept noiselessly into the camp and lay gently down over the sleeping caravaneers, as if to cover each in an extra blanket. A sound like the frothy gurgling of a ruminating camel, came from each doubled form as short blades of Damascus steel gently unseamed their victim's throats. Forty breaths escaped their prisons of flesh and bones and joined the soft night air. The slaughter performed, the baggage camels were gathered and reloaded. Then, still in silence, the fully dressed corpses of the caravaneers were loaded on their own riding camels, and the camel train moved off in the direction of the desert, lit by the newly risen waning moon.

Daud, who in the shock of the aforesaid drama had forgotten to pee, now emptied his bladder over the purple-dark stones of the mountain and stood up. With the dawn came the realisation that he had lost everything. The main purpose of this journey had been to transfer the bulk of his assets to the more secure stronghold of Damascus. His caravan had carried gold in considerable quantity, hidden in the bales of cloth and carpets which comprised the manifest cargo. Now all that remained of his fortune was a piece of camelhair cloth.

The Story of the Damascus Drum

Christopher Ryan

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About the book...

Daud is a successful trader from the island of Arwad, Takla a young cook in the famous Convent of Seydnaya, and Shams, an old billy goat from the hills above Damascus. The Damascus Drum takes them on a journey in time, space, and beyond through the Syrian landscape of the 19th century. It is a journey of love and self-discovery, an adventure replete with villains and heroes, life and death, fools and wisdom people, and a lot of goats...

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