An Awkward Question

The rain moved away to the northern hills as evening fell, leaving a humid warmth quite unlike the preceding dry heat of summer. Little more than a month since the fall of Damascus, much had changed. First, armistice with the Ottomans, now news of armistice with Germany, Berlin in the grip of revolution, the Kaiser ousted and flown to Holland, Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence returned to London. Captain Cavendish-Meadowes’s desert adventures with the Sharifian Army were conceivably at an end, but it was not yet time to leave his Hashemite brothers in arms. The city of Damascus could offer up any number of surprises yet.

“Gosh, this beastly Victoria Hotel is insufferably dull. Omar, what say you to dinner at the Barjeel restaurant over the river?” Cavendish, forever looking for adventure.

“My friend, we have travelled far together, from Aqabah to Damascus, across the deserts. We have witnessed mutilated corpses in the ruins of Tafas, held children in our arms as they died; we have bayoneted Turks until their blood ran cold into the desert sands. Together we conquered Damascus, the new capital of the Arabic nations. We made history. But tonight the machine guns are silent, and to dine with you in style would be my greatest pleasure.”

The Barjeel was brimming with customers but the waiter found them a small table at the rear and handed them thick leather-bound menus decorated in gold fleur-de-lys. Cavendish and Omar studied carefully. After their many victories from Aqabah to Medina and now finally Damascus, this was the first time such a choice had been offered at the evening meal.

“Cavendish, what is Ratatouille Provençale?”

“Wonderful French specialty from Provence, vegetables sautéed in olive oil with garlic and onions. Southern France is so beautiful this time of year, although do go in summer if you get the chance, when the fields are purple and the scent of lavender fills the air.”

“No French specialties please, Cavendish, not for a victorious Arabian.”

“Do try it someday. I suspect you could really get to like what the French have to offer. But we shall consider all the choices tonight.”

“Coq au vin, Escargots, Confit de canard…Is every dish in this restaurant French?” Omar, becoming indignant. He shouted across to the waiter:

“Explain the meaning of this. We are not in Paris.”

“Is there a problem, Sir?”

“Omar, let me handle it, diplomacy is the order of day at moments like this and that’s firmly on the British side of the tennis court. I’ll whack it back to him good and proper.” Cavendish turns to the waiter on his backhand. “Garçon, to explain, my good friend would like to order something that isn’t sourced from an onion seller on a bicycle, if you get my drift.”

“Sirs, we have countless specialties from around the world, including many not listed on the menu, something to suit every visitor. This evening we have some very good Pesce alla pizzaiola.”

“Italian swordfish?”

“Yes, we have an agreement with an Italian customer: he said he would very much like a share of the menu, although what exactly what was meant by a share was rather vague. It has led to some confusion...”

“I don’t think swordfish will do. What else do you offer?”

“Perhaps you would like a Waldorf salad? It’s all the rage with visitors from the American Bureau of Navigation. I suggest it must be excellent too, sailors are travelling far inland to find it.”

“Humbug, American Naval Intelligence getting lost, side-boys. They think Oxbridge is an English village. We don’t want salad tonight.”

“Well, let me see, we have some gefilte fish with horseradish, a most savory dish…”

“The Arab revolt defeats six hundred years of Ottoman rule and you offer the victors Zionist food!” Omar, now with rage mounting in his voice.

“Well, we recently had a German visitor. He suggested gefilte fish and some interesting dishes too. He intimated we should prepare for many Jewish guests in future. Although strangely he didn’t seem partial to the gefilte fish, perhaps he intended it for others.”

At the adjacent table a stocky man with a ruddy pox-scarred complexion put down the cigarette he’d been rolling and leaned across to Omar, breath reeking of pungent Turkish tobacco. “Comrade, if you are not keen on the European fare let me offer some advice, try the Selyodka Pod Shuboi, herring covered with grated vegetables. The French are taking many liberties with the menu, but you can trust Muscovites to deliver the goods.”

Cavendish raised a hand to stop him. “Refrain from butting in, old chap. We will come to a sensible accord, balancing all interests, including what part is played by France, without your interference.” Obviously impatient to put a halt to any subsequent interruptions from the Russian.

Omar, for the first time uncertain if Damascus was meeting expectations, spoke from his heart. “Today, Cavendish, I want to celebrate our friendship, the promises we made, signed with our brothers’ blood in the desert sands. We have reached Damascus, the Ottomans defeated. Now it is time to taste our victory with simple Arab food, perhaps fatayer, humus, a little yoghurt…”

“Believe me, my nomadic warrior, you are like a magician, finding sustenance in the barren desert sands. But city life gets complicated. I think you should try some of the French offerings; accept what’s available, make the most of it. Now’s not the time to make a big fuss.”

The Russian turned to Omar and whispered in his ear. “I ask you, has your English friend discussed Sykes-Picot? It is an awkward question, not one for tonight, but one day you should ask him what is really on the menu. Myself, I dine at this restaurant every evening. You may not like what it offers, but when you wish to talk, you know where to find me.”

Image: Ministry of Information First World War Official Collection © IWM (Q 12370)