Tadmor, Syria -- I'm sitting in a café in the middle of Syria's eastern desert, my singed right hand on a large pack of frozen green beans.
My boyfriend and I are in the town of Tadmor, huddled next to the ancient site of Palmyra, which dates back to the second century AD. Palmyra was once a thriving, wealthy nexus, ruled by the Romans. A revolt led by the legendary Queen Zenobia resulted in the city's burning. The defiant Zenobia was carried through Rome in chains.
In some ways, I'd like to believe I'm also making history here. Strange things happen in Palmyra for instance, my scorched hand.
As we left our hotel room to go to dinner, I'd reached over to switch off our lamp. Zap! I was hit by an electric shock, and when I forced my hand away from the lamp I could see the tiny volcanic beginnings of blisters. I ran my hand under cold water, and then we headed to this café off the dusty main artery.
After being seated, I asked the waiter for packed ice. He gave me the frozen green beans. Brilliant.
As we dig into our pistachio rice topped with vegetables and bits of chicken, I notice that the waiters are admiring the new metallic-grey three-piece suit of one of their colleagues. When I catch the proud waiter's eye, he yells out, "You like?"
"It's very smart," I reply, giving him a thumbs-up.
Intrigued, he comes over, wearing a wide smile.
"You speak English? Where are you from?"
"Oh, that's wonderful. Then you also write English?"
"Actually, I write for a living."
"Fantastic. I need you to help me write a letter. Will you help me?"
What the hell. I'm stuck there for the evening anyway, with my blistering hand and my less-than-coordinated left hand spooning food into my mouth.
He introduces himself as Tamer. He has the bushy moustache typical of Syrian men.
"This," he says, pointing to his suit, "is for the return of my girlfriend. She is French."
Tamer wants us to write a love letter. He says a woman from Paris arrived here three months ago, and they got along well so well that she abandoned her tour group and stayed in Tadmor for two weeks, until her holiday was over. I assume English is their common language.
He gives my boyfriend a pen and paper and slowly dictates the letter.
"My beautiful, lovely Martine"."
Tamer is a romantic. It's easy to see how Martine might have been swept off her feet by this adoring man.
"I miss you much, and you are always existing in my mind."
I correct him and suggest, "I miss you so much and I am always thinking about you and wondering what you are doing."
It goes back and forth like this for about half an hour.
"I feel closer to you more and more. Since you are gone, I feel empty and I am wanting you in my arms every day."
You get the gist. In the letter, Tamer details the conversations they had and implores his French lover to write to him, asking when she will return to Tadmor. We discover that Tamer is in his early 30s, Martine in her 40s. Unwittingly, my boyfriend and I are being drawn into the Martine/Tamer vortex.
I ask if Martine's English is good and if that was how they communicated while she was here.
"Oh, no. We can speak a little French to each other. I can write it."
Then why are we writing her in English?
"She has asked me to telecopy you say fax? letters to her in English to her office, because she lives with a man. He doesn't know English."
"Oh, yes, Martine has a boyfriend for a long time. She wants to leave him. We are in love."
Here we are, complicit in the potential breakup of a relationship thousands of miles away, of people we don't even know. Martine is Shirley Valentine come to life.
Tamer is grateful for our help and gives us free tea and dessert.
I have no souvenir of that evening I never got blisters and I don't have a copy of the letter.
Martine, wherever you are, I hope it turned out well.