By Howard Kaplan
When I was on my junior year abroad in Jerusalem in 1971, rather than study for finals, a friend suggested we travel to the Arab countries and see the conflict from the other side. We flew to Cyprus, where the American Embassy cooperatively issued us new passports without Israeli visas stamped in them. From there we continued to pre-civil-war Beirut and later took a shared taxi to Syria. Soon I was standing in Damascus’ Marjeh Square where the real-life Israeli spy, Eli Cohen, who had risen to the upper echelons of Syrian intelligence, was publicly hung. Within a few years, I wrote my first novel about a fictional Israeli agent rising inside Syria. However in The Damascus Cover, when that agent is suddenly at risk, the head of Israel’s secret service launches a mission to prevent his identity from being uncovered. He guides a second agent into Damascus, Ari Ben Sion, who does not know that a much graver operation lies behind what he has been told.
Forty two years after the book’s initial publication and ascent up several bestseller lists, Sir John Hurt plays the head of the Israeli secret service and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Ari Ben-Sion, in the film adaptation, which is out now.
The film came about through serendipity. The director wanted to do a Middle East picture, mentioned this to a mutual friend and she gave him The Damascus Cover. He read it that night, called me in the morning—I live in Los Angeles—we met at Peets Coffee in Beverly Hills, and by the second cup the deal was done. It took several years to secure financing which catapulted forward when the producer of Gosford Park came aboard. The director often says that the film follows the spine and muscle of the novel, with some changes that I like.
Originally translated into seven languages, The Damascus Cover had long been out of print everywhere. In another of our meetings at Peets Coffee, the director mentioned that he’d love to have the novel reissued to give the film gravitas. So in 2014, I started to look at my old novels, this one and Bullets of Palestine, first published in 1987 as they deal with similar themes. I’d always thought of both books as done and dead. To my great surprise, and I don’t say this disingenuously, I really was surprised—both books read better then when they were published. My novels are about Middle East hope and reconciliation, and the dearth of progress in that area has made that cri de coeur sound louder. I’ve always wanted to write suspenseful thrillers, with the story and twists paramount, that underneath carried a message.
I’ve always been a bit of an iconoclast and when the director sparked the idea to bring The Damascus Cover out again, I decided to self-publish both books. It seemed an adventure, and I liked the idea of having control over my work. The Damascus Cover hit the digital world about a year ago and Bullets of Palestine followed a few months later.
Bullets is populated by fictional characters who move through real life events. The novel opens with the assassination of the Israeli Ambassador to London, Shlomo Argov, who was indeed gunned down in that exact manner, by the followers of Abu Nidal, an extremist Palestinian faction. In Bullets, an Israeli agent is dispatched to eliminate Abu Nidal who is killing both Jews and moderate Palestinians across Europe. The chase carries the reader through historical events including the massacres in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps, and Abu Nidal’s attacks on the Rome and Vienna Airports and the Socialist International in Portugal.
To succeed Shai, the Israeli agent, must work with and win the trust of Ramzy Awwad, a high placed Palestinian agent and famous short story writer, who will use his connections to get him close to Abu Nidal. The book is equally about their relationship: Can they form a friendship that rises above the fray? What will horrible events perpetrated by each side do to this alliance? This uneasy but growing closeness is further challenged as Shai has been ordered to kill Ramzy once they have Abu Nidal.
The novel was praised by both the mainstream, Jewish and the Arab press and my favourite review comes from the Jerusalem Palestinian weekly Al Fajr:
“In a conflict where both sides have tended to dehumanize the other, Kaplan has created two extremely human characters—one Palestinian, the other Israeli. In observing such a fictional relationship I found myself looking at the Israelis that I came across this week in a slightly different manner. I found I wanted to try and shed some of the stereotypes that living on one side of the conflict had given me. Maybe this is the purpose of fiction in the first place—to break down barriers.”
HOWARD KAPLAN, a native of Los Angeles, has lived in Israel and traveled extensively through Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. At the age of 21, he was sent on a mission into the Soviet Union to smuggle a dissident’s manuscript on microfilm to London. His first trip was a success. On his second trip, he transferred a manuscript to the Dutch Ambassador inside his Moscow embassy. A week later, he was arrested in Khartiv in the Ukraine and interrogated for two days there and and two days in Moscow, before being expelled from the USSR. The KGB had picked him up for meeting dissidents and did not know about the manuscript transfers. He holds a BA in Middle East History from UC Berkeley and an MA in the Philosophy of Education from UCLA. He is the author of four novels. You can find these on Kobo.