8.4.13 … Learned something new today: Lawrence of Arabia was real …

Learned something new today, Bruce Feiler’s “Walking the Bible”, “Lawrence of Arabia “, T.E. Lawrence, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, Middle East, history: So, I am reading Bruce Feiler’s Walking the Bible, and my daughter and a friend are going to watch Lawrence of Arabia this weekend.  I knew in the back of my mind this movie character was real, so I search my Kindle copy of Walking and realize how significant T.E. Lawrence is to the Middle East …

Taking my cue from the stack of books at his side about the making of Lawrence of Arabia, I asked Biltaji what he thought of Lawrence. “Personally, I think he wasn’t much of an archaeologist or a spy,” he said. “Archaeology, like espionage, is not a science; it’s an art, the art of interpretation. I always thought that good archaeologists went in search of the truth, not with the intention of proving something they already believed.” Okay, I suggested, turning the conversation toward archaeology. A new ministry publication I had seen in the lobby discussed over twenty biblical sites in Jordan and said that the Bible was “an excellent tour guide” to the country. I asked Biltaji if he thought these sites could be a source of common ground between Israel and Jordan. Again his response caught me off guard. “We don’t see anybody looking for Jewish connections to the Arabs,” he said. “Ishmael was dissected; he was thrown out of the family, simply because his mother was Egyptian. And that’s where we feel bitter, and dismayed, that so much injustice was done. Because this kind of injustice continues to separate us as Arabs and Jews, when we should be cousins.” “So do you feel the Bible is hostile to Arabs?” I asked.

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“To start, I’m going to quote Hanan Ashrawi”—the Palestinian leader—“when she says, ‘God was not in the real estate business. To promise land and give land to begin with is a dangerous thing.’ ” He then went off into what could only be described as a diatribe, blasting Israel for “destroying democracy” and “dismaying the world” through its treatment of Palestinians. “If they are so godly, what gives them the authority to strafe people with machine guns?” he asked, apparently rhetorically. “What’s happening in Israel is a great distortion to the beauty of the world’s Jews, who all along, through persecution, have managed to rise and excel.” I started squirming, but Biltaji showed no signs of letting up. “Palestine is my homeland,” he continued. “God must have had a reason to make it the center of his spiritual kingdom. But it’s nobody’s property, it’s God’s property. I’ve always felt comfortable with sharing the best with both sides. That’s the spirit of God. When I go sometimes on Fridays to Bethany, to the spot where John baptized Jesus, which Jordanian archaeologists just uncovered and which we’re just opening to visitors, I see it bringing peace, not war.” Taking this as a possible olive branch, I asked Biltaji if when he closed his eyes he saw Israeli settlers opening fire, or Christian pilgrims coming to sites like Bethany in Jordan. “I force myself to see people, carrying the Bible and the Koran, praying their own way.” “You force yourself, or you believe it?” “I believe it. The Buddhists have a saying: ‘Your creator is your own mind.’ Your mind is the one who takes you to your god. So before we can make peace, we have to make it in our minds.”Read more at location 6783   • Delete this highlight

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“If the British wanted to help the Arabs they would have. They just wanted to help themselves.” “Didn’t Lawrence help start Arab nationalism?” “No. It started with the Nabateans.” Our final stop on our mini-Lawrence tour was a desert mountain at the end of a small ridge. The mountain was divided into a series of vertical strata that look like lady fingers squeezed together around a Bundt cake. Because these colonnades look remarkably like pillars, local bedouin call the mountain “Lawrence,” even though there are only five such pillars (and even though the title is never explained in the book). We stopped the car, and I decided to walk across the desert floor to get a closer view. The afternoon was hot, and a small herd of camels grazed nearby. The ground was covered with chips of granite—gray, black, purple, brown. I picked up one and slipped it into my pocket, the first time I had done that since Jebel Musa. As I did, I thought again about Lawrence’s legacy and what it said about my own experience in the desert. For all the lingering fascination with him, few people today hold Lawrence up as a hero worth emulating. One reason may be a largely forgotten part of his story. Lawrence is remembered for his romanticism, for shucking his English khakis and taking up the warrior tradition of his adopted tribe. But by the end of his three-year tenure, Lawrence himself rejects that ideal. As he writes in Seven Pillars, “The effort for these years to live in the dress of Arabs, and to imitate their mental foundations, quitted me of my English self.” But, he continues, “I could not sincerely take on the Arab skin: it was affectation only. Easily was a man made an infidel, but hardly might he be converted to another faith.” This coldhearted reality, not his warm-fuzzy idealism, is Lawrence’s true legacy: Not only can you go home again; you must. In this way, I was as much a disciple of Lawrence as of Moses. Few who enter the desert today do so with the notion of leaving themselves behind and becoming somehow bedouin. Though my journey was certainly romantic in its own way, I never suffered delusions nor seriously considered fantasies of “leaving myself behind” and becoming something else entirely. I had traveled too widely and seen too many shallow transformations to put much credence in that. Instead, what I think I was trying to do—and, to an extent, what I think I was doing—was becoming something that I already was: namely, a person with these places living inside me. The desert, as I was discovering, was part of my own geography just as much as my own hometown. And the best way I could explain this feeling to myself was to believe that the desert wasn’t a new place for me; it was an old place, a familiar place, that I never quite knew. This was a major revelation: I didn’t need to stay here forever to reach some kind of transformation. I was carrying around this place—and perhaps even that transformation—already within me.

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Insofar as that slogan is true today, Fawaz Abu Tayeh would make an outstanding emissary. Abu Tayeh is the grandson of Ada Abu Tayeh, the bedouin prince who served as Lawrence’s chief military officer and who was played in Lean’s film by Anthony Quinn. Through a friend, he had agreed to meet us and talk about his family’s heritage, and we were shown into an ornate living room, filled with Arabian rugs and European furniture. Abu Tayeh greeted us graciously and offered us Earl Grey tea and cakes. He was tall, with a prominent belly, and was dressed in luxurious white ankle-length robes, a white kaffiyeh, and a purple silk shawl that altogether, he later confided, cost $10,000. “In order to look good in bedouin clothing,” he said, “you need to be brown and tall.” Abu Tayeh was born in Amman in 1933, studied law at Jordan University, and later received a master’s degree in politics from Oxford, a poetic turnabout considering that Lawrence had come from Oxford to lead his grandfather into power. For twenty years Abu Tayeh served as the chief of royal protocol for King Hussein and was later rewarded with ambassadorships to Romania and Bulgaria. On his wall (like Bil-taji’s) were oversized photographs of him with assorted luminaries: Alexander Haig, Barry Goldwater, Helmut Kohl, Margaret Thatcher, Queen Elizabeth II. Power is etched grandly in Amman’s salons. Befitting his status, Abu Tayeh was diplomatic—and noncommittal—when I asked him about the remarkable rise of the Hashemite family from Arabian tribe to leaders of a nation. “We are open. We are proud of our history. We are proud of our goals,” he said. He was a bit more forthcoming when I asked about the role of his grandfather in this story. “My grandfather was the most famous warrior of the desert,” he said. “When Ada Abu Tayeh met Faysal Hussein, Lawrence of Arabia said, ‘Now I know the Arab Revolt will succeed. When the prophet—Faysal—meets the fighter—Abu Tayeh—this is what the Arabs need.’ ” He was downright charitable on the subject of Lawrence. “When it comes to Lawrence, as a person, my opinion is always positive, never negative,” he said. “We consider him a great man, a great help. As a young British officer, to endure the difficult life of the desert, Lawrence must have been a great admirer of the Arab cause.” The conversation went on like this for half an hour, and I began thinking of ways to extract myself, when, apropos of nothing, I asked Abu Tayeh, “What do you think of the desert?” The change that came over him was instantaneous. He suddenly seemed to shuck his diplomatic reserve and speak to me like a friend. “The desert is a way of life!” he said, his eyes brightening. “The Jewish tribes, led by Moses, came from the most advanced civilization, in Egypt. They crossed the desert to the Promised Land, where they civilized again. But during their journey in between they were bedouin. And look what happened to them. The desert, because of its uncertainty, forces you to feel more attached to the higher power.” “So can someone like me, who was not born in that world, feel that attachment?” I asked.

“I don’t know why not,” he said, now openly giggling. “I wasn’t born in the desert, and I feel the same!” He leaned forward, as if in confession. “I’m not a specialist in this,” he said, “but when you go to the mountains along the Jordan Valley, if you know the Bible, and if you leave the roads behind and walk two or three miles by yourself, you expect Moses to come looking for you!

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via Amazon Kindle: Your Highlights.

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