Whatever it was that made Hafez al-Assad decide to stay put in his humble little flat, the new presidential palace he ordered built on a mountain overlooking the Syrian capital is beginning to look a lot like a white elephant.
By day, the flat-topped roofs of the sprawling stone structure can be seen
from all over Damascus below. No trucks or construction workers are in sight, giving the impression that the work is completed. By night, the mountaintop is a blacker shadow against the sky, unlighted by a single floodlight or so much as a glimmer of a night light from within.
Officials are not much help in unraveling the mystery of the vacant palace. They won't even confirm the neighborhood where the president does live, much less talk about where he doesn't.
"It's our new government complex," said one well-connected Syrian, a hint of hesitation in his voice. "It's not done yet."
Foreign diplomats pass along rumors, all variations on a theme.
The only common denominators in their stories are that it was paid for primarily by the Saudis, designed by a Japanese architect, built by a series of contractors who are still waiting for their bills to be settled - and Assad is said to hate it.
Construction started in 1983 or so, and it was supposed to be finished a year or two ago.
"Now people say it will be done in one or two months," said a diplomat. ''I heard Assad was irritated and wanted changes, like a wall for security reasons."
Others say it was the opulence that turned him off. The interior is said to be lined with 20,000 squares of white Carrara marble, each costing $1,000.
"Somebody went inside and said the interior was in very bad taste," said a diplomat. "It's decorated quite heavy and baroque."
Another story has Assad complaining about a 25-foot staircase leading up to his office.
"He said how could he expect visitors to walk up it?" said a diplomat. ''The story is he never knew about it, and was shocked. But he's involved with every detail of running the country, so that's difficult to believe."
Assad has been the all-powerful head of this single-party state for 19 years, but although he rules with an iron fist, he is by all accounts a modest man uninterested in personal enrichment.
"He's not particularly into conspicuous consumption," said a diplomat. ''His office is crummy. Just a square room and few sofas. And he lives in a rundown, dingy, small apartment building.
"He's a man of simple tastes. And the signals that palace would send out would be all the wrong ones. So he said, 'It's not for me. It's for the president who follows me.' "
Just how much it cost is a puzzle, too. One diplomat said he had heard the figure $60 million. No, hundreds of millions, said another. Still another cited $1 billion.
"A lot was donated by wealthy businessmen, government entities and various parties and people seeking favor," said a diplomat. "And the total cost was not exactly the sum total of what each individual item cost. It was paid for two or three times over because of corruption.
"Not Assad's. There's no intimation he's interested in wealth. He's the equivalent of Ronald Reagan. The people around him are corrupt, but the man
himself is clean. Nothing sticks to him. It's the five to 12 people who run things around him that are very corrupt."
If all this seems like an excessive amount of secrecy, consider this: The official inflation rate has not been announced for a year, supposedly because of "computer problems." The last five-year economic plan, due out in 1986, has never been published. There are no telephone books published in Syria - if you don't know the number already, don't try to call. The national budget is published, but it's calculated with four totally different exchange rates so no one can make heads or tails of it. When Syrian clocks spring forward and fall back with the seasons, the official change is announced only the day before.
"It's very difficult to distinguish reality from rumors here," said a diplomat. "In a society like Syria, there are a lot of rumors and you really don't know what's happening. There's a very limited circle who know. Even those who should know, don't."