Thursday Sampler: The Syrian by Cathy Sultan
November 5, 2015
In our mission to connect readers, writers, and books, Caleb and Linda Pirtle has launched a new series featuring writing samples from some of the best authors in the marketplace today. Thursday’s Sampler is an excerpt from The Syrian, a political thriller by Cathy Sultan.
As one reviewer said: I read a lot of thrillers, but few have characters that seem real and who I care about. But “The Syrian” did. I lived this harrowing story with them, and I’m still feeling nervous. A first-rate political thriller.
The Syrian is a powerful contemporary novel of passion and betrayal, set against the brutal and bewildering outbreak of the Israeli-Hezbollah war in Lebanon, 2006. Nadia, a woman who has waited thirteen years for a husband who was “disappeared,” finally decides to declare him dead so she can marry an American physician, Andrew Sullivan.
On the eve of her engagement party, her best friend Sonia, a well-connected war correspondent, rings to tell her that her husband may still be alive in a Syrian prison. Out to get Andrew for herself, Sonia draws in the powerful head of the Syrian secret police to help her in her Byzantine manipulations.
Thus begins a series of dangerous plot twists that become increasingly bloody as Nadia attempts to rescue her husband, and the border conflict with Israel escalates.
The new Damascus Central Prison was an imposing block of multi-story buildings surrounded by high walls. Barbed wire stretched along the tops of the four sides. Nadia and Mounir were ushered through the main gate by a contingent of security guards into a brightly lit courtyard. Mounir turned right and drove the length of the building. When he arrived in front of the door in the back of the building he stopped the car.
They entered with a key attached to a chain Mounir pulled from his pocket. Nadia followed him to the far end of the entrance. She watched as he unlocked a heavy steel door. Again, she followed him, this time down a narrow, steep staircase with no railings and lit by bare light bulbs. Mounir had confirmed over coffee that there were twenty-two remaining prisoners, some of whom had been disappeared a quarter of a century earlier. Still, at the bottom of the stairs, she was hardly prepared for what appeared to be a dirt-strewn burial site, a literal tomb for those still living. Each cell, approximately ten by ten feet, had a bed consisting of a cement slab, straw mattress and thin blanket. Nadia gagged on the powerful stench of urine and feces.
She turned to Mounir.
“They have no proper toilets?”
“They use a hole in the ground.”
“A hole?” These men go in the same hole every day? They’re never cleaned?”
As they stood talking, she felt something graze her leg. Startled, she looked at Mounir, wide-eyed.
“A rat,” he said. “Don’t kick him, he’s friendly. The prisoners feed him.”
Nadia shuddered but followed Mounir down a narrow passageway until he stopped before one door. He motioned with his head and eyes, inviting her to look inside. Panic-stricken, Nadia stared at Mounir. He gestured again with his head. “I’ll give you ten minutes.”
“It’s been thirteen years. Surely you can give me more time.”
“I have my orders.”
Yes, thought Nadia. Jaafar would have given such an order: Let her see her pitiful husband but just for a short while.
She turned and looked inside the cell. In the dim light, she saw a man seated on the floor, hugging his legs to his chest. Even through his loose prison garb, she noticed Elie’s diminished, withered body. His hair, once dark and curly, was now white, long and straggly. Nadia’s stifled cry caused him to look up. Nadia watched him stare at her for a few seconds before he finally spoke.
Unsure how to respond, she finally replied, “Because you’re my husband.”
Fighting back tears, Nadia watched Elie struggle to get up onto his knees and crawl to the door. With enormous effort he hoisted himself up until his eyes met hers. He reached through the bars and touched her face.
“You’ve waited for me all these years?”
She evaded both the question and a straightforward answer. Instead she brought his hands to her lips and kissed them, then pressed them into Elie’s face.
“I can’t believe you’re alive.”
“The day the Mokhabarat took me, I cried−not because of what I’d endure, but because I thought I’d never see you again. I’ve forced myself to stay alive in case…”
“In case we met again,” said Nadia.