Al-Rabie Hotel, Old Damascus (1995)

The Al-Rabie Hotel

  12+   The photograph is gloomy, and the colours are fading. But it was twenty-five years ago. I'm sitting in the high-ceilinged inner courtyard of the Al-Rabie Hotel in Old Damascus, catching up my travel journal.

My wife calls out from the first floor. I stop writing, look up and wave for the camera. Her photo doesn't capture the verdant vines hanging from the railings or the song of the caged birds. Nor the soothing rhythm of the fountain splashing in the centre of the courtyard. The Al-Rabie is an olde worlde oasis amid the concrete and congestion of the Syrian capital.

"Have you been long in Syria?" a clipped accent asks as I return to my journal. I look up again and see a tall, tanned, blonde-haired man with piercing blue eyes.

"Seven days," I reply, "from Aleppo, down through Hama and Homs, and across to Palmyra. My wife and I arrived in Damascus this afternoon."

"Ah, the tourist route," he says, in a tone that jars. "Klaus," he introduces himself, sitting down and holding out a hand. 

After his snooty response, I'm keen to get back to my journal, but I suppress a sigh and return his firm handshake. "Robert." 

Klaus explains he's a Swiss archeologist, working in the Syrian desert and is in Damascus for a week to catalogue his latest findings at the National Museum. 

"You must go to the museum," he tells me. "It has an excellent exhibition of Byzantine jewellery, with necklaces and pendants of gold, sapphire and pearls. Your wife would like it."

I thank Klaus for the tip but say no more, hoping he'll get bored with me.  

"Will you be heading to Amman, next?" Klaus enquires.

"Yes," I confirm. "My wife and I plan to spend a few days in Damascus. And then we'll take the tourist route to Jordan." I trust Klaus notes my sarcasm and moves on.

"Good, you will enjoy Jordan. I have worked there on several digs, including Petra."

I should press Klaus for travel tips on Petra, but I want to return to my journal. We sit not speaking for a few seconds.

"Robert, could I ask a favour?" Klaus breaks the silence, nervously running a finger around his collar. "I have an envelope. It's personal. Could you deliver it for me to a hotel in Amman?"

The colour drains from my face. "No, sorry, I can't do that, Klaus. Goodnight." I stand and head to my room, not mentioning the strange encounter to my wife.

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Later that night, there is a commotion in the courtyard. I get up and watch from the first floor as a pair of police frogmarch Klaus from the hotel. He glances up, fixes me with his piercing eyes, smiles and winks. Suddenly I feel scared. I wake my wife, and the next morning we leave Damascus. 

Unlike the photo, my memory of that distant evening hasn't faded. Nor of the envelope, Klaus somehow slipped into my travel journal at the Al-Rabie Hotel.

© 2020 Robert Fairhead

I wrote The Al-Rabie Hotel in November 2020 for the Australian Writers' Centre's monthly short story competition, Furious Fiction. The rules for November were:

  • Each 500-word story had to take place at a HOTEL
  • It had to include a PHOTOGRAPH
  • And the words: COLLAR, GLOOMY, POLICE, RHYTHM, SAPPHIRE

When the brief for the 55-hour deadline arrived, I was working on travel piece based on ten days spent in Syria in 1995. In addition to my travel journal from that period, I had pulled out photos to use in the piece. And one was of me sitting in the courtyard at the Al-Rabie Hotel in Damascus.

In my journal were entries about chatting with a well-travelled American in the hotel courtyard, whom I'd described as a "know-all". But I also noted we'd had a good conversation when I steered it towards "subjects on which he had knowledge as opposed to those where he had an opinion."

And my journal records another traveller had offered to write a letter for me to give a hotel manager in Aman to claim a book which he'd left behind. 

I used the photo and my travel journal entries to create a short mystery story set in the Al-Rabie Hotel. You can find the required words — each is only used once. 

And I'll leave it to your imagination as to what Klaus's envelope may have contained. It is worth mentioning, the black market and Syrian security forces were ever-present back in 1995.

I hope you enjoy your brief *stay* at the Al-Rabie Hotel as much as I did back in 1995. You might also like to read my Furious Fiction entry for October 2020, The Dark Web

Robert Fairhead

A middle-aged dad and dog owner, Robert Fairhead is an editor and writer at Tall And True, and blogs on his eponymous website, RobertFairhead.com.

His favourite pastimes include reading and writing, walking his dog, and watching Aussie Rules Football with his son. He is also a part-time dog trainer and runs classes at his local dog training club and through Robert's Responsible Dog Training.

Robert has worked as an electrician, a computer programmer, and a sales and marketing consultant, and he is the principal copywriter at Rocher Communications.

His book reviews and writing on dogs have appeared in newspapers and online. And in 2020, he published a collection of short stories, Both Sides of the Story.

Robert has also enjoyed a one-night stand as a stand-up comic.