Heat waves rise from the sun-burnt landscape as I rest in the shade of a stone column. I am in the Syrian countryside, walking in the ruins of the Roman city of Apamea. It’s mid-June, and the temperature has topped 100 degrees.
My stomach is in a raging boil, the result of something I ate last night. Reaching the end of the colonnade, I look for my driver, Abdul, a short, pudgy man with cauliflower ears and a shaven head. All morning we cruised buckled highways in his yellow taxi, shooting across the rises and dips like water-skiers riding the waves. His rudimentary English and my rough Arabic have met halfway to form a workable union. “You want to stop, say stop,” he’d say. “You want to eat, we eat.”
But eating is now the last thing on my mind. I find Abdul praying in the shade of the entrance booth, a piece of cardboard for his prayer mat. When he is finished, I tell him about my condition. Soon we’re back on the road. At the city of Homs, site of a church that displays a piece of cloth believed to be a belt worn by the Virgin Mary, we pay our respects, then plunge into the crowded souk in search of a pharmacy. Abdul quizzes the man in the white jacket behind the counter, and moments later we emerge with a box of tablets.
“See, good—made in Germany,” he says.
An hour later, and my stomach has calmed. Abdul pops a tape into the...