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The Sirens of Suspense




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.

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item1 A STORY 39 YEARS IN item1


In 2016, thirty nine years after its initial publication, the film adaptation of my novel, The Damascus Cover, will open in theaters worldwide, starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Sir John Hurt, Olivia Thirlby (Juno) and Navid Negahban (Abu Nazir in Homeland.) The idea for the novel sprung from a trip I made to Syria in 1971.

When I was a student on my junior year abroad in Jerusalem, a friend said, “Why don’t we fly to Egypt, wave an Israeli flag in front of the pyramids and sell the photos to Life Magazine.” This was six years before Israel and Egypt made peace. I’m not sure if we’d have dared it, like to think we would but we flew to Cyprus with no flags in our backpacks. I doubt there were any Israeli flags for sale in Cairo, then or know. On Cyprus, we each got a new passport at the American Embassy. The Egyptian consular officer in Nicosia took one look at these pristine passports and said, “When did you boys get here from Israel?” She continued that she’d grant us visas if we’d return with our old passports, which actually were not destroyed but kept for our return to Israel in the American Embassy. Not enamored by this idea, instead we flew to pre civil war Beirut, where a Canadian Sergeant Major sitting beside me on the plane offered to procure us the best gold and the cleanest girls.

In the Cyprus youth hostel someone mentioned there was a UCLA student studying at The American University of Beirut and gave us his name. When we knocked on Cary’s dorm room on a Friday afternoon, his Syrian roommate appeared in the entrance. Cary was gone for the weekend and he asked if we were friends. I explained the only connection was that I was a student at Berkeley. I then had my first of what would be many experiences of remarkable hospitality in the Arab world: he invited us to come in and stay until Cary’s return. Arab culture has roots in the vast deserts where strangers were always welcomed in from the harsh terrain.

This Syrian suggested we also see Damascus, and explained it was a simple matter to take a shared taxi to the Syrian capital, only fifty miles from Beirut, and that visas were routinely granted at the border. Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited city on early, an oasis surrounded by apricot orchards as underground rivers from Lebanon come up there. So we went.

The idea for The Damascus Cover, about an Israeli agent who works his way high up in the Syrian echelons was born when I visited Damascus’ central Marjeh Square, where the actual Israeli spy, Eli Cohen was hanged after being uncovered in 1965. He had risen to be the highest advisor to the Syrian Minister of Defense. A few short years later, I wanted to set a suspense novel there with rich details, sights, sounds and smells of this marvelous city I had walked through. What I didn’t know then was that so much devastation was on the far horizon, and that the novel would end up, as an artifact of what Damascus was like pre civil war.

Back in Beirut, we stopped in at the PLO office, bought a bunch of books and pamphlets and headed to the Egyptian Embassy. Our passports decorated with visas of two Arab countries, they reasily stamped in an Egyptian visa. Cary had regaled us with stories of the fascist Israelis he had actually never seen. We did not tell him we were students in Jerusalem but from the Beirut airport I wrote him a letter explaining we’d be back in Israel within two weeks and suggesting he come see for himself. We dropped the idea of waving the flag in front of the pyramids but traveled all over Egypt. One of my strongest memories of Egypt in 1971, five years after the Israeli huge victory in The 6-Day-War, was that every glass exhibition case in the great Egyptian Museum was criss crossed with masking tape to protect the contents in the event of another war and Israeli bombing raids on the city.

When we returned to Israel for final exams, sitting in my dorm room was Cary. Knowing nothing, my Israeli roommate had invited him to stay and taken him through East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In the spring of 2015, I spent a week on set of The Damascus Cover shoot in Casablanca and from there continued via Paris to Jerusalem. From an internet telephone book, I found this old Israeli roommate who I had not seen in 25 years. Neither of us was much changed and he insisted I come to his apartment immediately which I did. I saw Cary again once, Israeli folk dancing with a Jewish girlfriend at Hillel at UCLA.

In 1977, The Damascus Cover rose on the Los Angeles Times best seller list for 3 months in hardcover. All then ten paperback reprint houses bid on the rights for the paperback version which went to Fawcett, the highest bidder at auction. The book was published separately in Great Britain by John le Carré's esteemed British publisher, Hodder and Stoughton and translated into seven languages.

The book had been decades out of print. A director was interested in doing a Middle East film and happened to mention it to a friend of mine who said, “Let me give you The Damascus Cover.” He read it, called me, we met for coffee and the deal was done then and there. He wrote the script himself and showed it to one of the producers of Gosford Park who jumped aboard.

With all the requisite twists and a surprise ending, the novel at heart is a plea for Middle East reconciliation. The director explained that’s what for him made it so timely today. I wrote a new foreword and The Damascus Cover has now been republished as an eBook and paperback and is being well received by a new generation of readers.


HAS SOMETHING COME BACK TO YOU YEARS LATER? TELL US or leave a comment on the blog below or on our Facebook page and you’ll be entered to win a copy of THE DAMASCUS COVER! (US entrants only, please.)



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