The story I am going to tell in this book is not the autobiography of a man conspicuous for his role in public affairs; it is not a narrative of adventure - for although many strange adventures have come my way, they were never more than an accompaniment to what was happening within me; it is not even the story of a deliberate search for faith - for that faith came upon me, over the years, without any endeavour on my part to find it. My story is simply the story of a European's discovery of Islam and of his integration within the Muslim community.
I had never thought of writing it, for it had not occurred to me that my life might be of particular interest to anyone except myself. But when, after an absence of twenty-five years from the West, I came to Paris and then to New York in the beginning of 1952, I was forced to alter this view. Serving as Pakistan's Minister Plenipotentiary to the United Nations, I was naturally in the public eye and encountered a great deal of curiosity among my European and American friends and acquaintances. At first they assumed that mine was the case of a European 'expert' employed by an Eastern government for a specific purpose, and that I had conveniently adapted myself to the ways of the nation which I was serving; but when my activities at the United Nations made it obvious that I identified myself not merely 'functionally' but also emotionally and intellectually with the political and cultural aims of the Muslim world in general, they became somewhat perplexed. More and more people began to question me about my past experiences. They came to know that very early in my life I had started my career as a foreign correspondent for Continental newspapers and, after several years of extensive travels throughout the Middle East, had become a Muslim in 1926; that after my conversion to Islam I lived for nearly six years in Arabia and enjoyed the friendship of King Ibn Saud; that after leaving Arabia I went to India and there met the great Muslim poet-philosopher and spiritual father of the Pakistan idea, Muhammad Iqbal. It was he who soon persuaded me to give up my plans of travelling to Eastern Turkestan, China and Indonesia and to remain in India to help elucidate the intellectual premises of the future Islamic state which was then hardly more than a dream in Iqbal's visionary mind. To me, as to Iqbal, this dream represented a way, indeed the only way, to a revival of all the dormant hopes of Islam, the creation of a political entity of people bound together not by common descent but by their common adherence to an ideology. For years I devoted myself to this ideal, studying, writing and lecturing, and in time gained something of a reputation as an interpreter of Islamic law and culture. When Pakistan was established in 1947, I was called upon by its Government to organize and direct a Department of Islamic Reconstruction, which was to elaborate the ideological, Islamic concepts of statehood and community upon which the newly born political organization might draw. After two years of this extremely stimulating activity, I transferred to the Pakistan Foreign Service and was appointed Head of the Middle East Division in the Foreign Ministry, where I dedicated myself to strengthening the ties between Pakistan and the rest of the Muslim world; and in due course I found myself in Pakistan's Mission to the United Nations at New York.
All this pointed to far more than a mere outward accommodation of a European to a Muslim community in which he happened to live: it rather indicated a conscious, wholehearted transference of allegiance from one cultural environment to another, entirely different one. And this appeared very strange to most of my Western friends. They could not quite picture to themselves how a man of Western birth and upbringing could have so fully, and apparently with no mental reservations what-ever, identified himself with the Muslim world; how it had been possible for him to exchange his Western cultural heritage for that of Islam; and what it was that had made him accept a religious and social ideology which - they seemed to take for granted - was vastly inferior to all European concepts.
Now why, I asked myself, should my Western friends take this so readily for granted? Had any of them ever really bothered to gain a direct insight into Islam - or were their opinions based merely on the handful of clichés and distorted notions that had been handed down to them from previous generations? Could it perhaps be that the old Graeco-Roman mode of thought which divided the world into Greeks and Romans on one side and 'barbarians' on the other was still so thoroughly ingrained in the Western mind that it was unable to concede, even theoretically, positive value to anything that lay outside its own cultural orbit?
Ever since Greek and Roman times, European thinkers and historians have been prone to contemplate the history of the world from the standpoint and in terms of European history and Western cultural experiences alone. Non-Western civilizations enter the picture only in so far as their existence, or particular movements within them, has or had a direct influence on the destinies of Western man; and thus, in Western eyes, the history of the world and its various cultures amounts in the last resort to little more than an expanded history of the West.
Naturally, such a narrowed angle of vision is bound to produce a distorted perspective. Accustomed as he is to writings which depict the culture or discuss the problems of his own civilization in great detail and in vivid colours, with little more than side glances here and there at the rest of the world, the average European or American easily succumbs to the illusion that the cultural experiences of the West are not merely superior but out of all proportion to those of the rest of the world; and thus, that the Western way of life is the only valid norm by which other ways of life could be adjudged - implying, of course, that every intellectual concept, social institution or ethical valuation that disagrees with the Western 'norm' belongs eo ipso to a lower grade of existence. Following in the footsteps of the Greeks and Romans, the Occidental likes to think that all those 'other' civilizations are or were only so many stumbling experiments on the path of progress so unerringly pursued by the West; or, at best (as in the case of the 'ancestor' civilizations which preceded that of the modern West in a direct line), no more than consecutive chapters in one and the same book, of which Western civilization is, of course, the final chapter.
When I expounded this view to an American friend of mine - a man of considerable intellectual attainments and a scholarly bent of mind - he was somewhat skeptical at first.
'Granted,' he said, 'the ancient Greeks and Romans were limited in their approach to foreign civilizations: but was not this limitation the inevitable result of difficulties of communication between them and the rest of the world? And has not this difficulty been largely overcome in modern times? After all, we Westerners do concern ourselves nowadays with what is going on outside our own cultural orbit. Aren't you forgetting the many books about Oriental art and philosophy that have been published in Europe and America during the last quarter-century ... about the political ideas that preoccupy the minds of Eastern peoples? Surely one could not with justice overlook this desire on the part of Westerners to understand what other cultures might have to offer?'
'To some extent you may be right,' I replied. 'There is little doubt that the primitive Graeco-Roman outlook is no longer fully operative these days. Its harshness has been considerably blunted-if for no other reason, because the more mature among Western thinkers have grown disillusioned and skeptical about many aspects of their own civilization and now begin to look to other parts of the world for cultural inspiration. Upon some of them it is dawning that there may be not only one book and one story of human progress, but many: simply because mankind, in the historical sense, is not a homogeneous entity, but rather a variety of groups with widely divergent ideas as to the meaning and purpose of human life. Still, I do not feel that the West has really become less condescending toward foreign cultures than the Greeks and Romans were: it has only become more tolerant. Mind you, not toward Islam - only toward certain other Eastern cultures, which offer some sort of spiritual attraction to the spirit-hungry West and are, at the same time, too distant from the Western world-view to constitute any real challenge to its values.'
'What do you mean by that?'
'Well,' I answered, 'when a Westerner discusses, say, Hinduism or Buddhism, he is always conscious of the fundamental differences between these ideologies and his own. He may admire this or that of their ideas, but would naturally never consider the possibility of substituting them for his own. Because he a priori admits this impossibility, he is able to contemplate such really alien cultures with equanimity and often with sympathetic appreciation. But when it comes to Islam - which is by no means as alien to Western values as Hindu or Buddhist philosophy - this Western equanimity is almost invariably disturbed by an emotional bias. Is it perhaps, I sometimes wonder, because the values of Islam are close enough to those of the West to constitute a potential challenge to many Western concepts of spiritual and social life?'
And I went on to tell him of a theory which I had conceived some years ago - a theory that might perhaps help one to understand better the deep-seated prejudice against Islam so often to be found in Western literature and contemporary thought.
'To find a truly convincing explanation of this prejudice,' I said, 'one has to look far backward into history and try to comprehend the psychological background of the earliest relations between the Western and the Muslim worlds. What Occidentals think and feel about Islam today is rooted in impressions that were born during the Crusades.'
'The Crusades!' exclaimed my friend. 'You don't mean to say that what happened nearly a thousand years ago could still have an effect on people of the twentieth century?'
'But it does! I know it sounds incredible; but don't you remember the incredulity which greeted the early discoveries of the psychoanalysts when they tried to show that much of the emotional life of a mature person - and most of those seemingly unaccountable leanings, tastes and prejudices comprised in the term "idiosyncrasies"- can be traced back to the experiences of his most formative age, his early childhood? Well, are nations and civilizations anything but collective individuals? Their development also is bound up with the experiences of their early childhood. As with children, those experiences may have been pleasant or unpleasant; they may have been perfectly rational or, alternatively, due to the child's naive misinterpretation of an event: the moulding effect of every such experience depends primarily on its original intensity. The century immediately preceding the Crusades, that is, the end of the first millennium of the Christian era, might well be described as the early childhood of Western civilization.
I proceeded to remind my friend - himself an historian - that this had been the age when, for the first time since the dark centuries that followed the breakup of Imperial Rome, Europe was beginning to see its own cultural way. Independently of the almost forgotten Roman heritage, new literatures were just then coming into existence in the European vernaculars; inspired by the religious experience of Western Christianity, fine arts were slowly awakening from the lethargy caused by the warlike migrations of the Goths, Huns and Avars; out of the crude conditions of the early Middle Ages, a new cultural world was emerging. It was at that critical, extremely sensitive stage of its development that Europe received its most formidable shock - in modern parlance, a 'trauma' - in the shape of the Crusades.
The Crusades were the strongest collective impression on a civilization that had just begun to be conscious of itself. Historically speaking, they represented Europe's earliest - and entirely successful - attempt to view itself under the aspect of cultural unity. Nothing that Europe has experienced before or after could compare with the enthusiasm which the First Crusade brought into being. A wave of intoxication swept over the Continent, an elation which for the first time overstepped the barriers between states and tribes and classes. Before then, there had been Franks and Saxons and Germans, Burgundians and Sicilians, Normans and Lombards - a medley of tribes and races with scarcely anything in common but the fact that most of their feudal kingdoms and principalities were remnants of the Roman Empire and that all of them professed the Christian faith: but in the Crusades, and through them, the religious bond was elevated to a new plane, a cause common to all Europeans alike - the politico-religious concept of 'Christendom', which in its turn gave birth to the cultural concept of 'Europe'. When, in his famous speech at Clermont, in November, 1095, Pope Urban II exhorted the Christians to make war upon the 'wicked race' that held the Holy Land, he enunciated - probably without knowing it himself - the charter of Western civilization.
The traumatic experience of the Crusades gave Europe its cultural awareness and its unity; but this same experience was destined henceforth also to provide the false colour in which Islam was to appear to Western eyes. Not simply because the Crusades meant war and bloodshed. So many wars have been waged between nations and subsequently forgotten, and so many animosities which in their time seemed ineradicable have later turned into friendships. The damage caused by the Crusades was not restricted to a clash of weapons: it was, first and foremost, an intellectual damage - the poisoning of the Western mind against the Muslim world through a deliberate misrepresentation of the teachings and ideals of Islam. For, if the call for a crusade was to maintain its validity, the Prophet of the Muslims had, of necessity, to be stamped as the Anti-Christ and his religion depicted in the most lurid terms as a fount of immorality and perversion. It was at the time of the Crusades that the ludicrous notion that Islam was a religion of crude sensualism and brutal violence, of an observance of ritual instead of a purification of the heart, entered the Western mind and remained there; and it was then that the name of the Prophet Muhammad - the same Muhammad who had insisted that his own followers respect the prophets of other religions - was contemptuously transformed by Europeans into 'Mahound'. The age when the spirit of independent inquiry could raise its head was as yet far distant in Europe; it was easy for the powers-that-were to sow the dark seeds of hatred for a religion and civilization that was so different from the religion and civilization of the West. Thus it was no accident that the fiery Chanson de Roland, which describes the legendary victory of Christendom over the Muslim 'heathen' in southern France, was composed not at the time of those battles but three centuries later - to wit, shortly before the First Crusade - immediately to become a kind of 'national anthem' of Europe; and it is no accident, either, that this warlike epic marks the beginning of a European literature, as distinct from the earlier, localized literatures: for hostility toward Islam stood over the cradle of European civilization.
It would seem an irony of history that the age-old Western resentment against Islam, which was religious in origin, should still persist subconsciously at a time when religion has lost most of its hold on the imagination of Western man. This, however, is not really surprising. We know that a person may completely lose the religious beliefs imparted to him in his childhood while, nevertheless, some particular emotion connected with those beliefs remains, irrationally, in force throughout his later life -
'- and this,' I concluded, 'is precisely what happened to that collective personality, Western civilization. The shadow of the Crusades hovers over the West to this day; and all its reactions toward Islam and the Muslim world bear distinct traces of that die-hard ghost…'
My friend remained silent for a long time. I can still see his tall, lanky figure pacing up and down the room, his hands in his coat pockets, shaking his head as if puzzled, and finally saying:
'There may be something in what you say. .. indeed, there may be, although I am not in a position to judge your "theory" offhand ... But in any case, in the light of what you yourself have just told me, don't you realize that your life, which to you seems so very simple and uncomplicated, must appear very strange and unusual to Westerners? Could you not perhaps share some of your own experiences with them? Why don't you write your autobiography? I am sure it would make fascinating reading!'
Laughingly I replied: 'Well, I might perhaps let myself be persuaded to leave the Foreign Service and write such a book. After all, writing is my original profession...'
In the following weeks and months my joking response imperceptibly lost the aspect of a joke. I began to think seriously about setting down the story of my life and thus helping, in however small a measure, to lift the heavy veil which separates Islam and its culture from the Occidental mind. My way to Islam had been in many respects unique: I had not become a Muslim because I had lived for a long time among Muslims - on the contrary, I decided to live among them because I had embraced Islam. Might I not, by communicating my very personal experiences to Western readers, contribute more to a mutual understanding between the Islamic and Western worlds than I could by continuing in a diplomatic position which might be filled equally well by other countrymen of mine? After all, any intelligent man could be Pakistan's Minister to the United Nations - but how many men were able to talk to Westerners about Islam as I could? I was a Muslim - but I was also of Western origin: and thus I could speak the intellectual languages of both Islam and the West...
And so, toward the end of 1952, I resigned from the Pakistan Foreign Service and started to write this book. Whether it is as 'fascinating reading' as my American friend anticipated, I cannot say. I could do no more than try to retrace from memory - with the help of only a few old notes, disjointed diary entries and some of the newspaper articles I had written at the time - the tangled lines of a development that stretched over many years and over vast expanses of geographical space.
And here it is: not the story of all my life, but only of the years before I left Arabia for India - those exciting years spent in travels through almost all the countries between the Libyan Desert and the snow-covered peaks of the Pamirs, between the Bosporus and the Arabian Sea. It is told in the context and, it should be kept in mind, on the time level of my last desert journey from the interior of Arabia to Mecca in the late summer of 1932: for it was during those twenty-three days that the pattern of my life became fully apparent to myself.
The Arabia depicted in the following pages no longer exists. Its solitude and integrity have crumbled under a strong gush of oil and the gold that the oil has brought. Its great simplicity has vanished and, with it, much that was humanly unique. It is with the pain one feels for something precious, now irretrievably lost, that I remember that last, long desert trek, when we rode, rode, two men on two dromedaries, through swimming light . . .
— 1 —
WE RIDE, RIDE, two men on two dromedaries, the sun flames over our heads, everything is shimmer and glimmer and swimming light. Reddish and orange-coloured dunes, dunes behind dunes beyond dunes, loneliness and burning silence, and two men on two dromedaries in that swinging gait which makes you sleepy, so that you forget the day, the sun, the hot wind and the long way. Tufts of yellow grass grow sparsely on the crests of the dunes, and here and there gnarled hamdh bushes wind over the sand like giant snakes. Sleepy have become the senses, you are rocking in the saddle, you perceive hardly anything beyond the crunching of the sand under the camels' soles and the rub of the saddle-peg against the crook of your knee. Your face is wrapped in your headcloth for protection against sun and wind; and you feel as if you were carrying your own loneliness, like a tangible substance, across it, right across it ... to the wells of Tayma ... to the dark wells of Tayma that give water to him that is thirsty ...
'... right across the Nufud to Tayma ... 'I hear a voice, and do not know whether it is a dream-voice or the voice of my companion.
'Didst thou say something, Zayd?'
'I was saying,' replies my companion, 'that not many people would venture right across the Nufud just to see the wells of Tayma...'
ZAYD AND I ARE returning from Qasr Athaymin on the Najd-Iraq frontier where I went at the request of King Ibn Saud. Having accomplished my mission and with plenty of leisure time at my disposal, I decided to visit the remote, ancient oasis of Tayma, nearly two hundred miles to the southwest: the Tema of the Old Testament of which Isaiah said, 'The inhabitants of the land of Tema brought water to him that was thirsty.' The abundance of Tayma's water, its huge wells which have no like in all Arabia, made it in pre-Islamic days a great centre of caravan trade and a seat of early Arabian culture. I have long wanted to see it; and so, disregarding the circuitous caravan routes, we struck, from Qasr Athaymin, right into the heart of the Great Nufud, the reddish sand desert that stretches itself so mightily between the highlands of Central Arabia and the Syrian Desert. There is no track and no path in this part of the tremendous wasteland. The wind sees to it that no footstep of man or animal leaves a lasting trace in the soft, yielding sand and that no landmark stands out for long to guide the wayfarer's eye. Under the strokes of the wind the dunes incessantly change their outlines, flowing in a slow, imperceptible movement from form to form, hills ebbing into valleys and valleys growing into new hills dotted with dry, lifeless grass that faintly rustles in the wind and is bitter as ashes even to a camel's mouth.
Although I have crossed this desert many times in many directions, I would not trust myself to find my way through it unaided, and therefore I am glad to have Zayd with me. This country here is his homeland: he belongs to the tribe of Shammar, who live on the southern and eastern fringes of the Great Nufud and, when the heavy winter rains suddenly transform the sand dunes into lush meadows, graze their camels in its midst for a few months of the year. The moods of the desert are in Zayd's blood, and his heart beats with them.
Zayd is probably the handsomest man I have ever known: broad of forehead and slim of body, middle-sized, fine-boned, full of wiry strength. Over the narrow wheat-coloured face with its strongly moulded cheekbones and the severe and at the same time sensual mouth lies that expectant gravity which is so characteristic of the desert Arab - dignity and self-composure wedded to intimate sweetness. He is a felicitous combination of purest beduin stock and Najdi town life, having preserved within himself the beduin's sureness of instinct without the beduin's emotional lability, and acquired the practical wisdom of the townsman without falling prey to his worldly sophistication. He, like myself, enjoys adventure without running after it. Since his earliest youth his life has been filled with incident and excitement: as a boyish trooper in the irregular camel corps levied by the Turkish government for its campaign in the Sinai Peninsula during the Great War; defender of his Shammar homeland against Ibn Saud; arms-smuggler in the Persian Gulf; tempestuous lover of many women in many parts of the Arab world (all of them, of course, legitimately married to him at one time or another, and then as legitimately divorced); horsetrader in Egypt; soldier of fortune in Iraq; and lastly, for nearly five years, my companion in Arabia.
And now, in this late summer of 1932, we ride together, as so often in the past, winding our lonesome way between dunes, stopping at one or another of the widely spaced wells and resting at night under the stars; the eternal swish-swish of the animals' feet over the hot sand; sometimes, during the march, Zayd's husky voice chanting in rhythm with the camels' tread; night camps, cooking coffee and rice and occasional wild game; the cool sweep of the wind over our bodies as we lie at night on the sand; sunrise over sand dunes, red and violently bursting like fireworks; and sometimes, like today, the miracle of life awaking in a plant that has been watered by chance.
We had stopped for our noon prayer. As I washed my hands, face and feet from a waterskin, a few drops spilled over a dried-up tuft of grass at my feet, a miserable little plant, yellow and withered and lifeless under the harsh rays of the sun. But as the water trickled over it, a shiver went through the shrivelled blades, and I saw how they slowly, tremblingly, unfolded. A few more drops, and the little blades moved and curled and then straightened themselves slowly, hesitantly, tremblingly... I held my breath as I poured more water over the grass tuft. It moved more quickly, more violently, as if some hidden force were pushing it out of its dream of death. Its blades - what a delight to behold! - contracted and expanded like the arms of a starfish, seemingly overwhelmed by a shy but irrepressible delirium, a real little orgy of sensual joy: and thus life re-entered victoriously what a moment ago had been as dead, entered it visibly, passionately, overpowering and beyond understanding in its majesty.
Life in its majesty ... you always feel it in the desert. Because it is so difficult to keep and so hard, it is always like a gift, a treasure, and a surprise. For the desert is always surprising, even though you may have known it for years. Sometimes, when you think you can see it in all its rigidity and emptiness, it awakens from its dream, sends forth its breath - and tender, pale-green grass stands suddenly where only yesterday there was nothing but sand and splintery pebbles. It sends forth its breath again - and a flock of small birds flutters through the air - from where? where to? - slim-bodied, long-winged, emerald-green; or a swarm of locusts rises up above the earth with a rush and a zoom, grey and grim and endless like a horde of hungry warriors . . .
Life in its majesty: majesty of sparseness, always surprising: herein lies the whole nameless scent of Arabia, of sand deserts like this one, and of the many other changing landscapes.
Sometimes it is lava ground, black and jagged; sometimes dunes without end; sometimes a wādi between rocky hills, covered with thorn bushes out of which a startled hare jumps across your way; sometimes loose sand with tracks of gazelles and a few fire-blackened stones over which long-forgotten wayfarers cooked their food in long-forgotten days; sometimes a village beneath palm trees, and the wooden wheels over the wells make music and sing to you without stopping; sometimes a well in the midst of a desert valley, with beduin herdsmen bustling around it to water their thirsty sheep and camels - they chant in chorus while the water is drawn up in large leather buckets and poured with a rush into leather troughs to the delight of the excited animals. Then again, there is loneliness in steppes overcome by a sun without mercy; patches of hard, yellow grass and leafy bushes that crawl over the ground with snaky branches offer welcome pasture to your dromedaries; a solitary acacia tree spreads its branches wide against the steel-blue sky; from between earth mounds and stones appears, eyes darting right and left, and then vanishes like a ghost, the gold-skinned lizard which, they say, never drinks water. In a hollow stand black tents of goat hair; a herd of camels is being driven homeward through the afternoon, the herdsmen ride on bare-backed young camels, and when they call their animals the silence of the land sucks in their voices and swallows them without echo.
Sometimes you see glimmering shadows far on the horizon: are they clouds? They float low, frequently changing their colour and position, now resembling grey-brown mountains - but in the air, somewhat above the horizon - and now, for all the world to see, shady groves of stone pines: but - in the air. And when they come down lower and change into lakes and flowing rivers which quiveringly reflect the mountains and the trees in their inviting waters, you suddenly recognize them for what they are: blandishment of the jinns, the mirage that has so often led travellers to false hopes and so to perdition: and your hand goes involuntarily toward the waterskin at your saddle...
And there are nights full of other dangers, when the tribes are in warlike commotion and the traveller does not light fire while camping so as not to be seen from the distance, and sits wide awake through long hours, his rifle between the knees. And those days of peace, when after a long, lonely wandering you meet a caravan and listen in the evening to the talk of the grave, sunburned men around the campfire: they talk of the simple, great things of life and death, of hunger and satiety, of pride and love and hatred, of the lust of the flesh and its appeasement, of wars, of the palm groves in the distant home village - and you never hear idle babbling: for one cannot babble in the desert...
And you feel the call of life in the days of thirst, when the tongue sticks to the palate like a piece of dry wood and the horizon sends no deliverance but offers flaming samūm wind and whirling sand instead. And in yet different days, when you are a guest in beduin tents and the men bring you bowls full of milk - the milk of fat she-camels at the beginning of spring, when after strong rainfalls the steppes and dunes are green as a garden and the animals' udders heavy and round; from a corner of the tent you can hear the women laugh while they cook a sheep in your honour over an open fire.
Like red metal the sun disappears behind hills; higher than anywhere else in the world is the starry sky at night, deep and dreamless your sleep under the stars; pale-grey and cool dawn the mornings. Cold are the nights in winter, biting winds flap against the campfire around which you and your companions huddle together in search of warmth; burning the days in summer when you ride, ride on your rocking dromedary through endless hours, your face muffled in your headcloth to protect it from the searing wind, your senses lulled into sleepiness, while high above you in the noon heat a bird of prey draws its circles...
— 2 —
THE AFTERNOON GLIDES slowly past us with its dunes, and its silence, and its loneliness.
After a while, the loneliness is broken by a group of beduins who cross our path - four or five men and two women - mounted on dromedaries, with a beast of burden carrying a folded black tent, cooking-pots and other utensils of nomad life, with a couple of children perched on top of it all. As they come upon us, they rein in their animals: 'Peace be with you.'
And we answer: 'And with you be peace and the grace of God.'
'What is your destination, O wayfarers?' 'Tayma, inshā-Allāh,'
'And whence come you?'
'From Qasr Athaymin, brothers,' I reply; and then there is silence. One of them, a gaunt, elderly man with a sharp face and a black, pointed beard, is obviously the leader; his glance also is black and pointed when, passing over Zayd, it rests suspiciously on me, the stranger of light complexion who has so unexpectedly appeared from nowhere in this pathless wilderness; a stranger who says he is coming from the direction of British-held Iraq, and might well be (I can almost read Sharp-Face's thought) an infidel surreptitiously entering the land of the Arabs. The old man's hand plays, as if in perplexity, with the pommel of his saddle while his people, now loosely grouped around us, obviously wait for him to speak. After a few moments, he seems to be unable to bear the silence any longer, and he asks me:
'Of which Arabs art thou?' - meaning to what tribe or region I belong. But even before I am able to reply, his features light up in a sudden smile of recognition:
'Oh, I know thee now! I have seen thee with Abd al-Aziz! But that was long ago - four long years ago... '
And he stretches his hand in friendliness toward me and recalls the time when I was living in the royal castle at Riyadh and he came there in the retinue of a Shammar chieftain to pay the respects of the tribe to Ibn Saud, whom the beduins always call by his first name, Abd al-Aziz, without any formal, honorific title: for in their free humanity they see only a man in the King, to be honoured, no doubt, but not beyond the deserts of man. And so we go on for a while reminiscing, speaking of this man and that, exchanging anecdotes about Riyadh, in and around which up to a thousand guests live daily off the King's bounty, receiving on departure presents that vary in accordance with each man’s status - from a handful of silver coins or an abāya to the heavy purses of golden sovereigns, horses or dromedaries which he frequently distributes among the chieftains.
But the King's generosity is not so much a matter of the purse as of the heart. Perhaps more than anything else, it is his warmth of feeling that makes the people around him, not excepting myself, love him.
In all my years in Arabia, Ibn Saud's friendship has lain like a warm shimmer over my life.
He calls me his friend, although he is a king and I a mere journalist. And I call him my friend - not merely because throughout the years that I have lived in his realm he has shown me much friendliness, for that he shows to many men: I call him my friend because on occasion he opens his innermost thoughts to me as he opens his purse to so many others. I love to call him my friend, for, despite all his faults - and there are not a few of them - he is an exceedingly good man. Not just 'kind-hearted': for kindness of heart can sometimes be a cheap thing. As you would admiringly say of an old Damascene blade that it is a 'good' weapon because it has all the qualities you could demand from a weapon of its kind: thus do I consider Ibn Saud a good man. He is rounded within himself and always follows his own path; and if he often errs in his actions, it is because he never tries to be anything but himself.
MY FIRST MEETING with King Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud took place at Mecca early in 1927, a few months after my conversion to Islam.
The recent sudden death of my wife, who had accompanied me on this, my first, pilgrimage to Mecca, had made me bitter and unsocial. I was desperately striving to clamber out of darkness and utter desolation. Most of my time was spent in my lodgings; I had contact with only a few people, and for weeks I avoided even the customary courtesy call on the King. Then one day, while visiting one of Ibn Saud's foreign guests - it was, I remember, Hajji Agos Salim of Indonesia - I was informed that by order of the King my name had been entered on his guest list! He seemed to have been apprised of the reason of my reserve and to accept it with silent understanding. And so, a guest who had never yet seen the face of his host, I moved into a beautiful house at the southern end of Mecca near the rocky gorge through which the way to Yemen passes. From the terrace I could see a large part of the city: the minarets of the Great Mosque, the thousands of white cubes of houses with roof balustrades of coloured bricks, and the dead desert hills domed by skies that glared like liquid metal.
Still, I might have gone on postponing my call on the King had it not been for a chance encounter with Amir Faysal, his second son, in a library under the arcades of the Great Mosque. It was pleasant to sit in that long, narrow room surrounded by old Arabic, Persian and Turkish folios; its stillness and darkness filled me with peace. One day, however, the usual silence was broken by the swishing entry of a group of men preceded by armed bodyguards: it was Amir Faysal with his retinue passing through the library on his way to the Kaaba. He was tall and thin and of a dignity far beyond his twenty-two years and his beardless face. In spite of his youth, he had been given the important position of viceroy of the Hijaz after his father's conquest of the country two years earlier (his elder brother, Crown Prince Saud, was viceroy of Najd, while the King himself spent half the year in Mecca, the capital of the Hijaz, and the other half in the Najdi capital, Riyadh).
The librarian, a young Meccan scholar with whom I had been friendly for some time, introduced me to the Prince. He shook hands with me; and when I bowed to him, he lightly tipped my head back with his fingers and his face lit up in a warm smile.
'We people of Najd do not believe that man should bow before man; he should bow only before God in prayer.'
He seemed to be kind, dreamy and a little reserved and shy - an impression which was confirmed during the later years of our acquaintance. His air of nobility was not assumed; it seemed to glow from within. When we spoke to each other on that day in the library, I suddenly felt a strong desire to meet the father of this son.
'The King would be happy to see thee,' said Amir Faysal. 'Why dost thou shun him?'
And the next morning the amīr's secretary fetched me in an automobile and took me to the King's palace. We passed through the bazaar street of Al-Maala, slowly making our way through a noisy throng of camels, beduins and auctioneers selling all kinds of beduin wares - camel-saddles, abāyas, carpets, waterskins, silver-inlaid swords, tents and brass coffeepots - then through a wider, quieter and more open road, and finally reached the huge house in which the King resided. Many saddled camels filled the open space before it, and a number of armed slaves and retainers lounged about the entrance stairway. I was made to wait in a spacious, pillared room whose floor was laid with inexpensive carpets. Broad, khaki-covered divans ran along the walls, and green leaves could be seen through the windows: the beginnings of a garden which was being grown with great difficulty out of the arid soil of Mecca. A black slave appeared.
'The King invites thee.'
I entered a room like the one I had just left, except that it was rather smaller and lighter, one side opening fully onto the garden. Rich Persian carpets covered the floor; in a bay window overlooking the garden the King sat cross-legged on a divan; at his feet on the floor a secretary was taking dictation. When I entered, the King rose, extended both hands and said:
'Ahlan wa-sahlan' - 'Family and plain' - which means, 'You have now arrived within your family and may your foot tread on an easy plain': the most ancient and most gracious of Arabian expressions of welcome.
For just a second I was able to gaze in wonderment at Ibn Saud's gigantic height. When (by then aware of the Najdi custom) I lightly kissed the tip of his nose and his forehead, I had to stand on my toes despite my sue feet, while he had to bend his head downward. Then, with an apologetic gesture in the direction of the secretary, he sat down, pulling me to his side on the divan.
'Just a minute, the letter is nearly finished.'
While he quietly continued to dictate, he also opened a conversation with me, never confusing the two themes. After a few formal sentences, I handed him a letter of introduction. He read it - which meant doing three things at once - and then, without interrupting his dictation or his inquiry after my welfare, called for coffee.
By that time I had had an opportunity to observe him more closely. He was so well proportioned that his huge size - he must have been at least six and a half feet - became apparent only when he stood. His face, framed in the traditional red-and-white- checked kufiyya and topped by a gold-threaded igāl, was strikingly virile. He wore his beard and moustache clipped short in Najdi fashion; his forehead was broad, his nose strong and aquiline, and his full mouth appeared at times almost feminine, but without being soft, in its sensual tenderness. While he spoke, his features were enlivened by unusual mobility, but in repose his face was somehow sad, as if withdrawn in inner loneliness; the deep setting of his eyes may have had something to do with this. The superb beauty of his face was slightly marred by the vague expression of his left eye, in which a white film was discernible. In later times I learned the story of this affliction, which most people unknowingly attributed to natural causes. In reality, however, it had occurred under tragic circumstances.
Some years earlier, one of his wives, at the instigation of the rival dynasty of Ibn Rashid, had put poison into his incense vessel - a little brazier used at ceremonial gatherings in Najd - with the obvious intention of killing him. As usual, the brazier was handed first to the King before being passed around among his guests. On inhaling the first whiff, Ibn Saud immediately sensed that there was something wrong with the incense and dashed the vessel to the ground. His alertness saved his life, but not before his left eye had been affected and partially blinded. But instead of avenging himself on the faithless woman, as many another potentate in his position would surely have done, he forgave her - for he was convinced that she had been the victim of insuperable influences at the hands of her family, who were related to the House of Ibn Rashid. He merely divorced her and sent her back, richly endowed with gold and gifts, to her home at Hail.
AFTER THAT FIRST MEETING, the King sent for me almost daily. One morning I went to him with the intention of asking, without much hope of its being granted, permission to travel into the interior of the country, for Ibn Saud did not, as a rule, allow foreigners to visit Najd. Nevertheless, I was about to bring this matter up when suddenly the King shot a brief, sharp glance in my direction - a glance which seemed to penetrate to my unspoken thoughts - smiled, and said: 'Wilt thou not, O Muhammad, come with us to Najd and stay for a few months at Riyadh?'
I was dumbfounded, and so, obviously, were the other people present. Such a spontaneous invitation to a stranger was almost unheard of.
He went on: 'I would like thee to travel by motorcar with me next month.'
I took a deep breath and answered: 'May God lengthen thy life, O Imām, but what use would that be to me? What good would it do me to whizz in five or six days from Mecca to Riyadh without having seen anything of thy country beyond the desert, some sand dunes and perhaps, somewhere on the horizon, people like shadows ... If thou hast no objection, a dromedary would suit me better, O Long-of-Age, than all thy cars together.'
Ibn Saud laughed: 'Art thou thus tempted to look into the eyes of my beduins? I must warn thee beforehand: they are backward people, and my Najd is a desert land without charms, and the camel-saddle will be hard and the food dreary on the journey - nothing but rice and dates and occasionally meat. But so be it. If thou hast set thy heart on it, thou shalt ride. And, after all, it may well be that thou wilt not regret having come to know my people: they are poor, they know nothing and are nothing - but their hearts are full of good faith.'
And some weeks later, equipped by the King with dromedaries, provisions, a tent and a guide, I set out by a roundabout route to Riyadh, which I reached after two months. That was my first journey into the interior of Arabia; the first of many: for the few months of which the King had spoken grew into years - how easily they grew into years! - spent not only in Riyadh but in almost every part of Arabia. And the saddle is hard no longer...
'MAY GOD LENGTHEN the life of Abd al-Aziz,' says Sharp- Face. 'He loves the badu and the badu love him.'
And why should they not? - I ask myself. The King's open-handedness toward the beduins of Najd has become a standing feature of his administration: not a very admirable feature, perhaps, for the regular gifts of money which Ibn Saud distributes among the tribal chieftains and their followers have made them so dependent on his largesse that they are beginning to lose all incentive to improve their living conditions by their own endeavours and are gradually lapsing into the status of dole-receivers, content to remain ignorant and indolent.
Throughout my conversation with Sharp-Face, Zayd seems impatient. While he talks with one of the men, his eyes frequently rest on me, as if to remind me that there is a long way before us and that reminiscences and reflections do not quicken the camels' pace. We part. The Shammar beduins ride away toward the east and soon disappear behind dunes. From where we stand, we can hear one of them intone a nomad chant, such as a camel-rider sings to spur his beast and to break the monotony of his ride; and as Zayd and I resume our westward course toward far-off Tayma, the melody gradually fades away, and silence returns.
— 3 —
'LOOK THERE!' Zayd's voice breaks through the silence, 'a hare!'
I turn my eyes to the bundle of grey fur that has leaped out of a clump of bushes, while Zayd slides down from his saddle, un-slinging the wooden mace that hangs on the pommel. He bounds after the hare and swings the mace over his head for the throw; but just as he is about to hurl it, he catches his foot in a hamdh root, falls flat on his face - and the hare disappears from sight.
'There goes a good supper,' I laugh as he picks himself up, ruefully eyeing the mace in his hand. 'But mind it not, Zayd: that hare was obviously not our portion ...'
'No, it was not,' he replies, somewhat absent-mindedly; and then I see that he is limping painfully.
'Didst thou hurt thyself, Zayd?'
'Oh, it is nothing. I only twisted my ankle. It will get better in a little while.'
But it does not get better. After another hour in the saddle I can see beads of perspiration on Zayd's face; and when I take a look at his foot, I find that the ankle has been badly sprained and is angrily swollen.
'There is no use going on like this, Zayd. Let us make camp here; a night's rest will restore thee.'
ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT Zayd seems to be restless with pain. He awakens long before dawn, and his sudden movement stirs me also from my uneasy sleep.
'I see only one camel,' he says: and when we look around, we discover that one of the beasts - Zayd's - has indeed disappeared. Zayd wants to set out on mine to search for it, but his injured foot makes it difficult for him even to stand, not to speak of walking and mounting and dismounting.
'Thou rest, Zayd, and I shall go instead; it won't be difficult to find my way back by retracing my own tracks.'
And in the breaking dawn I ride away, following the tracks of the lost dromedary which wind across the sand valley and disappear behind the dunes.
I ride for one hour, and another, and a third: but the tracks of the strayed animal go on and on, as if it had pursued a deliberate course. The forenoon is well advanced when I stop for a short halt, dismount, eat a few dates and drink from the small waterskin attached to my saddle. The sun stands high, but somehow it has lost its glare. Dun-coloured clouds, unusual at this time of year, float motionless under the sky; a strangely thick, heavy air envelops the desert and softens the outlines of the dunes beyond their usual softness.
An eerie stir over the summit of the high sand hill in front of me catches my eye - is it an animal? The lost camel perhaps? But when I look more carefully, I see that the movement is not above but in the dune crest itself: the crest is moving, ever so slightly, ripplingly, forward - and then it seems to trickle down the slope toward me like the crest of a slowly breaking wave. A murky redness creeps up the sky from behind the dune; under this redness its contours lose their sharpness and become blurred, as if a veil had suddenly been drawn across; and a reddish twilight begins to spread rapidly over the desert. A cloud of sand whirls against my face and around me, and all at once the wind begins to roar from all directions, crisscrossing the valley with powerful blasts. The trickling movement of the first hilltop has been taken up by all the sand hills within sight. In a matter of minutes the sky darkens to a deep, rust-brown hue and the air is filled with swirling sand dust which, like a reddish fog, obscures the sun and the day. This is a sandstorm, and no mistake.
My crouching dromedary, terrified, wants to rise. I pull it down by the halter, struggling to keep myself upright in the wind that has now assumed the force of a gale, and manage to hobble the animal's forelegs and, to make it more secure, a hind leg as well. Then I throw myself down on the ground and draw my abāya over my head. I press my face against the camel's armpit so as not to be choked by the flying sand. I feel the animal press its muzzle against my shoulder, no doubt for the same reason. I can feel the sand being heaped upon me from the side where I am unprotected by the dromedary's body, and have to shift from time to time to avoid being buried.
I am not unduly worried, for it is not the first time that I have been surprised by a sandstorm in the desert. Lying thus on the ground, tightly wrapped in my abāya, I can do nothing but wait for the storm to abate and listen to the roar of the wind and the flapping of my cloak - flapping like a loose sail - no, like a banner in the wind - like the flapping of tribal banners carried on high poles by a beduin army on the march: just as they flapped and fluttered nearly five years ago over the host of Najdi beduin riders - thousands of them, and I among them - returning from Arafat to Mecca after the pilgrimage. It was my second pilgrimage. I had spent one year in the interior of the Peninsula and had managed to return to Mecca just in time to take part in the congregation of pilgrims on the Plain of Arafat, to the east of the Holy City; and on the way back from Arafat I found myself in the midst of a multitude of white-garbed Najdi beduins, riding in a tense gallop over the dusty plain - a sea of white-garbed men on honey-yellow, golden-brown and red-brown dromedaries - a roaring, earth-shaking gallop of thousands of dromedaries pushing forward like an irresistible wave - the tribal banners roaring in the wind and the tribal cries with which the men announced their various tribes and the warlike deeds of their ancestors surging in waves over each detachment: for to the men of Najd, men of the Central Arabian highlands, war and pilgrimage spring from the same source ... And the numberless pilgrims from other lands - from Egypt and India and North Africa and Java - unaccustomed to such wild abandon, scattered in panic before our approach: for nobody could have survived who stood in the way of the thundering host - just as instantaneous death would have been the portion of a rider who fell from the saddle in the midst of the thousands and thousands of galloping mounts.
However mad that ride, I shared the madness and abandoned myself to the hour and the whirr and the rush and the roar with a wild happiness in my heart - and the wind that rushed past my face sang out: 'Never again wilt thou be a stranger . . . never again, among thy people!'
And as I lie in the sand under my flapping abāya, the roar of the sandstorm seems to echo: 'Never again wilt thou be a stranger...'
I am no longer a stranger: Arabia has become my home. My Western past is like a distant dream - not unreal enough to be forgotten, and not real enough to be part of my present. Not that I have become a lotus-eater. On the contrary, whenever I happen to stay for some months in a town - as, for instance, in Medina, where I have an Arab wife and an infant son and a library full of books on early Islamic history - I grow uneasy and begin to yearn for action and movement, for the dry, brisk air of the desert, for the smell of dromedaries and the feel of the camel- saddle. Oddly enough, the urge to wander that has made me so restless for the greater part of my life (I am a little over thirty-two now) and lures me again and again into all manner of hazards and encounters, does not stem so much from a thirst for adventure as from a longing to find my own restful place in the world - to arrive at a point where I could correlate all that might happen to me with all that I might think and feel and desire. And if I understand it rightly, it is this longing for inner discovery that has driven me, over the years, into a world entirely different, both in its perceptions and its outer forms, from all to which my European birth and upbringing had seemed to destine me. . .
WHEN THE STORM finally subsides, I shake myself free of the sand that has been heaped around me. My dromedary is half buried in it, but none the worse for an experience that must have befallen it many times. The storm itself, it would seem at first glance, has not done us any damage apart from filling my mouth, ears and nostrils with sand and blowing away the sheepskin from my saddle. But soon I discover my error.
All the dunes around me have changed their outlines. My own tracks and those of the missing camel have been blown away. I am standing on virgin ground.
Now nothing remains but to go back to the camp - or at least to try to go back - with the help of the sun and the general sense of direction which is almost an instinct with someone accustomed to travelling in deserts. But here these two aids are not entirely reliable, for sand dunes do not allow you to go in a straight line and so to keep the direction you have chosen.
The storm has made me thirsty, but, not expecting to be away from camp for more than a few hours, I have long ago drunk the last sip from my small waterskin. However, it cannot be far to the camp; and although my dromedary has had no water since our last stop at a well some two days ago, it is an old campaigner and can be relied upon to carry me back. I set its nose toward where I think the camp must lie, and we start at a brisk pace.
An hour passes, a second, and a third, but there is no trace of Zayd or of our camping ground. None of the orange-coloured hills presents a familiar appearance; it would be difficult indeed to discover anything familiar in them even if there had been no storm.
Late in the afternoon I come upon an outcrop of granite rocks, so rare in the midst of these sand wastes, and recognize them immediately: we passed them, Zayd and I, yesterday afternoon, not long before we made camp for the night. I am greatly relieved; for though it is obvious that I am way beyond the place where I hoped to find Zayd - having probably missed him by a couple of miles or so - it seems to me that it should not now be difficult to find him by simply going in a southwesterly direction, as we did yesterday.
There were, I remember, about three hours between the rocks and our night camp: but when I now ride for three more hours, there is no sign of the camp or of Zayd. Have I missed him again? I push forward, always toward southwest, taking the movement of the sun carefully into account; two more hours pass, but still there is no camp and no Zayd. When night falls, I decide it is senseless to continue further; better rest and wait for the morning light. I dismount, hobble the dromedary, try to eat some dates but am too thirsty: and so I give them to the camel and lie down with my head against its body.
It is a fitful doze into which I fall: not quite sleep and not quite waking, but a succession of dream states brought about by fatigue, broken by a thirst that has gradually become distressing; and, somewhere in those depths which one does not want to uncover to oneself, there is that grey, squirming mollusc of fear: what will happen to me if I do not find my way back to Zayd and to our waterskins? - for, as far as I know, there is no water and no settlement for many days' journey in all directions.
At dawn I start again. During the night I calculated that I must have gone too far to the south and that, therefore, Zayd's camp ought to be somewhere north-northeast of the place where I spent the night. And so toward north-northeast we go, thirsty and tired and hungry, always threading our way in wavy lines from valley to valley, circumventing sand hills now to the right, now to the left. At noon we rest. My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth and feels like old, cracked leather; the throat is sore and the eyes inflamed. Pressed to the camel's belly, with my abāya drawn over my head, I try to sleep for a while, but cannot. The afternoon sees us again on the march, this time in a more easterly direction - for by now I know that we have gone too far west - but still there is no Zayd and no camp.
Another night comes. Thirst has grown to be torment, and the desire for water the one, the overpowering thought in a mind that can no longer hold orderly thoughts. But as soon as dawn lightens the sky, I ride on: through the morning, through noonday, into the afternoon of another day. Sand dunes and heat. Dunes behind dunes, and no end. Or is this perhaps the end - the end of all my roads, of all my seeking and finding? Of my coming to the people among whom I would never again be a stranger. . . ? 'O God,' I pray, 'let me not perish thus ...'
In the afternoon I climb a tall dune in the hope of getting a better view of the landscape. When I suddenly discern a dark point far to the east, I could cry with joy, only I am too weak for that: for this must be Zayd's encampment, and the waterskins, the two big waterskins full of water! My knees shake as I remount my dromedary. Slowly, cautiously, we move in the direction of that black point which can surely be nothing but Zayd's camp. This time I take every precaution not to miss it: I ride in a straight line, up sand hills, down sand valleys, thus doubling, trebling our toil, but spurred by the hope that within a short while, within two hours at the most, I shall reach my goal. And finally, after we have crossed the last dune crest, the goal comes clearly within my sight, and I rein in the camel, and look down upon the dark something less than half a mile away, and my heart seems to stop beating: for what I see before me is the dark outcrop of granite rocks which I passed three days ago with Zayd and revisited two days ago alone...
For two days I have been going in a circle.
— 4 —
WHEN I SLIDE DOWN from the saddle, I am entirely exhausted. I do not even bother to hobble the camel's legs, and indeed the beast is too tired to think of running away. I weep; but no tears come from my dry, swollen eyes.
How long it is since I have wept... But, then, is not everything long past? Everything is past, and there is no present. There is only thirst. And heat. And torment.
I have been without water for nearly three days now, and it is five days since my dromedary has had its last drink. It could probably carry on like this for one day more, perhaps two; but I cannot, I know it, last that long. Perhaps I shall go mad before I die, for the pain in my body is ensnarled with the dread in my mind, and the one makes the other grow, searing and whispering and tearing...
I want to rest, but at the same time I know that if I rest now I shall never be able to get up again. I drag myself into the saddle and force the dromedary with beating and kicking to get up; and almost fall from the saddle when the animal lurches forward while rising on its hind legs and, again, when it lurches backward, straightening its forelegs. We begin to move, slowly, painfully, due west. Due west: what a mockery! What does 'due west' amount to in this deceptive, undulating sea of sand hills? But I want to live. And so we go on.
We plod with the rest of our strength through the night. It must be morning when I fall from the saddle. I do not fall hard; the sand is soft and embracing. The camel stands still for a while, then slides down with a sigh on its knees, then on its hind legs, and lies crouched by my side with its neck stretched on the sand.
I lie on the sand in the narrow shadow of the dromedary's body, wrapped in my abāya against the heat outside me and the pain and thirst and dread within me. I cannot think any more. I cannot close my eyes. Every movement of the lids is like hot metal on the eye-balls. Thirst and heat; thirst and crushing silence: a dry silence that swathes you in its shroud of loneliness and despair and makes the singing of blood in your ears and the camel's occasional sigh stand out, threateningly, as though these were the last sounds on earth and you two, the man and the beast, the last living beings, doomed beings, on earth.
High above us, in the swimming heat, a vulture circles slowly, without ever stopping, a pinpoint against the hard paleness of the sky, free and above all horizons...
My throat is swollen, constricted, and every breath moves a thousand torturing needles at the base of my tongue - that big, big tongue which should not move but cannot stop moving in pain, backward, forward, like a rasp against the dry cavity of my mouth. All my insides are hot and intertwined in one unceasing grip of agony. For seconds the steely sky becomes black to my wide-open eyes.
My hand moves, as if of its own, and strikes against the hard butt of the carbine slung on the saddle-peg. And the hand stands still, and with sudden clarity the mind sees the five good shells in the magazine and the quick end that a pressure on the trigger could bring. . . Something in me whispers: Move quickly, get the carbine before you are unable to move again!
And then I feel my lips move and shape toneless words that come from some dark recesses of my mind: 'We shall try you ... most certainly try you ...' and the blurred words slowly assume shape and fall into pattern - a verse from the Koran: We shall most certainly try you with fear and hunger and with the lack of possessions and labour's fruits. But give the good tiding to those who remain steadfast and, when calamity befalls them, say: 'Behold, to God we belong and unto Him do we return.''
Everything is hot and dark; but out of the hot darkness I sense a cooling breath of wind and hear it rustle softly - wind rustling, as if in trees - over water - and the water is the sluggish little stream between grassy banks, near the home of my childhood. I am lying on the bank, a little boy of nine or ten years, chewing a grass stalk and gazing at the white cows which graze nearby with great, dreamy eyes and the innocence of contentment. In the distance peasant women work in the field. One of them wears a red head-kerchief and a blue skirt with broad red stripes. Willow trees stand on the bank of the stream, and over its surface glides a white duck, making the water glitter in its wake. And the soft wind rustles over my face like an animal's snort: oh, yes, it is indeed an animal's snort: the big white cow with the brown spots has come quite close to me and now nudges me, snorting, with its muzzle, and I feel the movement of its legs by my side. . .
I open my eyes, and hear the snort of my dromedary, and feel the movement of its legs by my side. It has half raised itself on its hind legs with uplifted neck and head, its nostrils widened as if scenting a sudden, welcome smell in the noon air. It snorts again, and I sense the excitement rippling down its long neck toward the shoulder and the big, half-raised body. I have seen camels snuffle and snort like this when they scent water after long days of desert travel; but there is no water here. . . Or - is there? I lift my head and follow with my eyes the direction toward which the camel has turned its head. It is the dune nearest us, a low summit against the steely bleakness of the sky, empty of movement or sound. But there is a sound! There is a faint sound like the vibration of an old harp, very delicate and brittle, high-pitched: the high-pitched, brittle sound of a beduin voice chanting on the march in rhythm with the camel's tread - just beyond the summit of the sand hill, quite near as distances go, but - I know it in a fraction of an instant - far beyond my reach or the sound of my voice. There are people there, but I cannot reach them. I am too weak even to get up. I try to shout, but only a hoarse grunt comes from my throat. And then my hand strikes, as if of its own, against the hard butt of the carbine on the saddle . . . and with the eye of my mind I see the five good shells in the magazine. . .
With a supreme effort I manage to unsling the weapon from the saddle-peg. Drawing the bolt is like lifting a mountain, but finally it is done. I stand the carbine on its butt and fire a shot vertically into the air. The bullet whines into the emptiness with a pitifully thin sound. I draw the bolt again and fire again, and then listen. The harp-like singing has stopped. For a moment there is nothing but silence. Suddenly a man's head, and then his shoulders, appear over the crest of the dune; and another man by his side. They look down for a while, then turn around and shout something to some invisible companions, and the man in front clambers over the crest and half runs, half slides down the slope toward me.
There is commotion around me: two, three men - what a crowd after all that loneliness! - are trying to lift me up, their movements a most confusing pattern of arms and legs... I feel something burning-cold, like ice and fire, on my lips, and see a bearded beduin face bent over me, his hand pressing a dirty, moist rag against my mouth. The man's other hand is holding an open waterskin. I make an instinctive move toward it, but the beduin gently pushes my hand back, dunks the rag into the water and again presses a few drops onto my lips. I have to bite my teeth together to prevent the water from burning my throat; but the beduin pries my teeth apart and again drops some water into my mouth. It is not water: it is molten lead. Why are they doing this to me? I want to run away from the torture, but they hold me back, the devils. . . My skin is burning. My whole body is in flames. Do they want to kill me? Oh, if only I had the strength to get hold of my rifle to defend myself! But they do not even let me rise: they hold me down to the ground and pry my mouth open again and drip water into it, and I have to swallow it - and, strangely enough, it does not burn as fiercely as a moment ago - and the wet rag on my head feels good, and when they pour water over my body, the touch of the wet clothes brings a shudder of delight. . .
And then all goes black, I am falling, falling down a deep well, the speed of my falling makes the air rush past my ears, the rushing grows into a roar, a roaring blackness, black, black . . .
— 5 —
...BLACK, BLACK, a soft blackness without sound, a good and friendly darkness that embraces you like a warm blanket and makes you wish that you could always remain like this, so wonderfully tired and sleepy and lazy; and there is really no need for you to open your eyes or to move your arm; but you do move your arm and do open your eyes: only to see darkness above you, the woollen darkness of a beduin tent made of black goat hair, with a narrow opening in front that shows you a piece of starry night sky and the soft curve of a dune shimmering under the starlight. . . And then the tent-opening darkens and a man's figure stands in it, the outline of his flowing cloak sharply etched against the sky, and I hear Zayd's voice exclaim: 'He is awake, he is awake!' - and his austere face comes quite close to my own and his hand grips my shoulder. Another man enters the tent; I cannot clearly see him, but as soon as he speaks with a slow, solemn voice I know he is a Shammar beduin.
Again I feel a hot, consuming thirst and grip hard the bowl of milk which Zayd holds out toward me; but there is no longer any pain when I gulp it down while Zayd relates how this small group of beduins happened to camp near him at the time when the sandstorm broke loose, and how, when the strayed camel calmly returned by itself during the night, they became worried and went out, all of them together, to search for me; and how, after nearly three days, when they had almost given up hope, they heard my rifle shots from behind a dune...
And now they have erected a tent over me and I am ordered to lie in it tonight and tomorrow. Our beduin friends are in no hurry; their waterskins are full; they have even been able to give three bucketfuls to my dromedary: for they know that one day's journey toward the south will bring them, and us, to an oasis where there is a well. And in the meantime the camels have fodder enough in the hamdh bushes that grow all around.
After a while, Zayd helps me out of the tent, spreads a blanket on the sand, and I lie down under the stars.
A FEW HOURS LATER I awaken to the clanking of Zayd's coffeepots; the smell of fresh coffee is like a woman's embrace.
'Zayd!' I call out, and am pleasantly surprised that my voice, though still tired, has lost its croak. 'Wilt thou give me some coffee?'
'By God I will, O my uncle!' answers Zayd, following the old Arab custom of thus addressing a man to whom one wants to show respect, be he older or younger than the speaker (as it happens, I am a few years younger than Zayd). 'Thou shalt have as much coffee as thy heart desires!'
I drink my coffee and grin at Zayd's happy countenance. 'Why, brother, do we expose ourselves to such things instead of staying in our homes like sensible people?'
'Because,' Zayd grins back at me, 'it is not for the like of thee and me to wait in our homes until the limbs become stiff and old age overtakes us. And besides, do not people die in their houses as well? Does not man always carry his destiny around his neck, wherever he may be?'
The word Zayd uses for 'destiny' is qisma - 'that which is apportioned' - better known to the West in its Turkish form, kismet. And while I sip another cup of coffee, it passes through my mind that this Arabic expression has another, deeper meaning as well: 'that in which one has a share.'
That in which one has a share . . .
These words strike a faint, elusive chord in my memory ... there was a grin that accompanied them . . . whose grin? A grin behind a cloud of smoke, pungent smoke, like the smoke of hashish: yes - it was the smoke of hashish, and the grin belonged to one of the strangest men I have ever met - and I met him after one of the strangest experiences of my life: while trying to escape from a danger that seemed - only seemed - to be imminent in its threat, I had been racing, without knowing it, into a danger far more real, far more imminent, than the one I was trying to elude: and both the unreal danger and the real one led to another es-cape…
It all happened nearly eight years ago, when I was travelling on horseback, accompanied by my Tatar servant Ibrahim, from Shiraz to Kirman in southern Iran - a desolate, thinly populated, roadless stretch near Niris Lake. Now, in winter, it was a squelchy, muddy steppe with no villages in the vicinity, hedged in to the south by Kuh-i-Gushnegan, 'the Mountains of the Hungry'; toward the north it dissolved into the swamps that bordered the lake. In the afternoon, as we circumvented an isolated hill, the lake came suddenly into view: a motionless green surface without breath or sound or life, for the water was so salty that no fish could live in it. Apart from a few crippled trees and desert shrubs, the salty soil near its shores did not allow any vegetation to grow. The ground was lightly covered with muddy snow and over it, at a distance of about two hundred yards from the shore, ran a thinly outlined path.
The evening fell and the caravanserai of Khan-i-Khet - our goal for the night - was nowhere in sight. But we had to reach it at any price; far and wide there was no other settlement, and the nearness of the swamps made progress in darkness extremely hazardous. In fact, we had been warned in the morning not to venture there alone, for one false step might easily mean sudden death. Apart from that, our horses were very tired after a long day's march over oozy ground and had to be rested and fed.
With the coming of the night heavy rain set in. We rode, wet and morose and silent, relying on the instinct of the horses rather than on our useless eyes. Hours passed: and no caravanserai appeared. Perhaps we had passed it by in the darkness and would now have to spend the night in the open under a downpour that was steadily mounting in strength... The hooves of our horses splashed through water; our sodden clothes clung heavily to our bodies. Black and opaque hung the night around us under its veils of streaming water; we were chilled to the bone; but the knowledge that the swamps were so close was even more chilling. Should the horses at any time miss the solid ground - 'then may God have mercy upon you,' we had been warned in the morning.
I rode ahead, with Ibrahim following perhaps ten paces behind. Again and again the terrifying thought: Had we left Khan-i-Khet behind us in the darkness? What an evil prospect, to have to spend the night under the cold rain; but if we proceeded farther - what about the swamps?
All of a sudden a soft, squishy sound from under my horse's hooves; I felt the animal slide in the muck, sink in a little, draw up one leg frantically, slide again - and the thought pierced my mind: the swamp! I jerked the reins hard and dug my heels into the horse's flanks. It tossed its head high and started working its legs furiously. My skin broke out in cold perspiration. The night was so black that I could not even discern my own hands, but in the convulsive heaving of the horse's body I sensed its desperate struggle against the embrace of the swamp. Almost without thinking, I grabbed the riding crop which ordinarily hung unused at my wrist and struck the horse's hindquarters with all my might, hoping thus to incite it to utmost effort - for if it stood still now, it would be sucked, and I with it, deeper and deeper into the mud. .. Unaccustomed to such ferocious beating, the poor beast - a Kashgai stallion of exceptional speed and power - reared on its hind legs, struck the ground with all fours again, strained gaspingly against the mud, jumped, slipped, heaved itself forward again, and slipped again - and all the time its hooves beat desperately against the soft, oozy mire...
Some mysterious object swept with a swish over my head ... I raised my hand and received a hard, incomprehensible blow ... what from? Time and thought tumbled over one another and became confused... Through the splashing of the rain and the panting of the horse I could hear, for seconds that were like hours, the relentless sucking sound of the swamp... The end must be near. I loosened my feet from the stirrups, ready to jump from the saddle and try my luck alone - perhaps I could save myself if I lay flat on the ground - when suddenly - unbelievably - the horse's hooves struck against hard ground, once, twice ... and, with a sob of relief, I pulled the reins and brought the quivering animal to a standstill. We were saved...
Only now did I remember my companion and called out, full of terror, 'Ibrahim!' No answer. My heart went cold.
'Ibrahim..!' - but there was only the black night around me and the falling rain. Had he been unable to save himself? With a hoarse voice I called out once again, 'Ibrahim!'
And then, almost beyond belief, a shout sounded faintly from a great distance: 'Here ... I am here!'
Now it was my reason's turn to stand still: how had we become so widely separated?
'Here ... here!' - and following the sound, leading my horse by the reins and testing every inch of ground with my feet, I walked very slowly, very carefully toward the distant voice: and there was Ibrahim, sitting calmly in his saddle.
'What has happened to you, Ibrahim? Didn't you also blunder into the swamp?'
'Swamp ...? No - I simply stood still when you suddenly, I don't know why, galloped away.'
Galloped away ... The riddle was solved. The struggle against the swamp had been only a fruit of my imagination. My horse must have simply stepped into a muddy rut and I, thinking that we were being drawn into the morass, had whipped it into a frenzied gallop; cheated by the darkness, I had mistaken the animal's forward movement for a desperate struggle against the swamp, and had been racing blindly through the night, unaware of the many gnarled trees that dotted the plain. . . . These trees, and not the swamp, had been the immediate, real danger: the small twig that had struck my hand could as well have been a larger branch, which might have broken my skull and thus brought my journey to a decisive end in an unmarked grave in southern Iran...
I was furious with myself, doubly furious because now we had lost all orientation and could no longer find a trace of the path. Now we would never find the caravanserai. . .
But once again I was mistaken.
Ibrahim dismounted to feel the terrain with his hands and so perhaps to rediscover the path; and while he was crawling thus on all fours, his head suddenly struck a wall - the dark wall of the caravanserai of Khan-i-Khet!
But for my imaginary blundering into the swamp we would have gone on, missed the caravanserai and truly lost ourselves in the swamps which, as we subsequently learned, began less than two hundred yards ahead. . .
The caravanserai was one of the many decayed remnants of the epoch of Shah Abbas the Great - mighty blocks of masonry with vaulted passageways, gaping doorways and crumbling fireplaces. Here and there you could discern traces of old carving over the lintels and cracked majolica tiles; the few inhabitable rooms were littered with old straw and horse dung. When Ibrahim and I entered the main hall, we found the overseer of the caravanserai seated by an open fire on the bare ground. At his side was a bare-footed man of diminutive size draped in a tattered cloak. Both rose to their feet at our appearance, and the little stranger bowed solemnly with an exquisite, almost theatrical gesture, the right hand placed over the heart. His cloak was covered with innumerable multicoloured patches; he was dirty, entirely unkempt; but his eyes were shining and his face serene.
The overseer left the room to attend to our horses. I threw off my soaked tunic, while Ibrahim immediately set himself to making tea over the open fire. With the condescension of a great lord who forfeits none of his dignity by being courteous to his inferiors, the odd little man graciously accepted the cup of tea which Ibrahim held out toward him.
Without any show of undue curiosity, as if opening a drawing-room conversation, he turned to me: 'You are English, jawāb-i-āli?'
'No, I am a Namsawi' (Austrian).
'Would it be improper to ask if it is business that brings you to these parts?'
'I am a writer for newspapers,' I replied. 'I am travelling through your country to describe it to the people of my own. They love to know how others live and what they think.'
He nodded with an approving smile and lapsed into silence. After a while he drew a small clay waterpipe and a bamboo rod from the folds of his cloak; he attached the rod to the clay vessel; then he rubbed something that looked like tobacco between his palms and placed it carefully, as if it were more precious than gold, in the bowl of the pipe, covering it with live coals. With a visible effort, he drew in the smoke through the bamboo rod, violently coughing and clearing his throat in the process. The water in the clay pipe bubbled and a biting odour began to fill the room. And then I recognized it: it was Indian hemp, hashish - and now I understood also the man's strange mannerisms: he was a hashshashi, an addict. His eyes were not veiled like those of opium smokers; they shone with a kind of detached, impersonal intensity, staring into a distance that was immeasurably removed from the real world around them.
I looked on in silence. When he finished his pipe at last, he asked me:
'Will you not try it? '
I refused with thanks; I had tried opium once or twice (without any particular enjoyment), but this hashish business seemed too strenuous and unappetizing even to try. The hashshashi laughed soundlessly; his squinting eyes glided over me with a friendly irony:
'I know what you are thinking, O my respected friend: you are thinking that hashish is the work of the devil and are afraid of it. Nonsense. Hashish is a gift from God. Very good - especially for the mind. Look here, hazrat, let me explain it to you. Opium is bad - there can be no doubt about it - for it awakens in man a craving for unattainable things; it makes his dreams greedy, like those of an animal. But hashish silences all greed and makes one indifferent to all things of the world. That's it: it makes one contented. You could place a mound of gold before a hashshashi - not just while he is smoking, but at any time - and he would not even stretch out his little finger for it. Opium makes people weak and cowardly, but hashish kills all fear and makes a man brave as a lion. If you were to ask a hashshashi to dive into an icy stream in the middle of winter, he would simply dive into it and laugh... For he has learned that to be without greed is to be without fear - and that if man goes beyond fear he goes beyond danger as well, knowing that whatever happens to him is but his share in all that is happening...'
And he laughed again, with that short, shaking, soundless laughter between mockery and benevolence; then he stopped laughing and only grinned behind his cloud of smoke, his shining eyes fixed on an immovable distance.
'MY SHARE IN ALL that is happening...' I think to myself as I lie under the friendly Arabian stars. 'I - this bundle of flesh and bone, of sensations and perceptions - have been placed within the orbit of Being, and am within all that is happening . . . "Danger" is only an illusion: never can it "overcome" me: for all that happens to me is part of the all-embracing stream of which I myself am a part. Could it be, perhaps, that danger and safety, death and joy, destiny and fulfilment, are but different aspects of this tiny, majestic bundle that is I? What endless freedom, O God, hast Thou granted to man…'
I have to close my eyes, so sharp is the pain of happiness at this thought; and wings of freedom brush me silently from afar in the breath of the wind that passes over my face.
— 6 —
I FEEL STRONG ENOUGH to sit up now, and Zayd brings me one of our camel-saddles to lean upon. 'Make thyself comfortable, O my uncle. It gladdens my heart to see thee well after I had mourned thee for dead.'
'Thou hast been a good friend to me, Zayd. What would I have done without thee all these years if thou hadst not followed my call and come to me?'
'I have never regretted these years with thee, O my uncle. I still remember the day when I got thy letter, more than five years ago, calling me to Mecca... The thought of seeing thee again was dear to me, especially as in the meantime thou hadst been blessed with the blessing of Islam. But just then I had married a Muntafiq girl, a virgin, and her love pleased me exceedingly. Those Iraqi girls, they have narrow waists and hard breasts, like this' - and, smiling with remembrance, he presses his forefinger against the hard pommel of the saddle on which I am leaning - 'and it is difficult to let their embraces go. .. So I told myself, "I will go, but not just now: let me wait for a few weeks." But the weeks passed, and the months, and although I soon divorced that woman - the daughter of a dog, she had been making eyes at her cousin - I could not make up my mind to forsake my job with the Iraqi agayl, and my friends, and the joys of Baghdad and Basra, and always told myself, "Not just now; after a little while... "But one day I was riding away from our camp, where I had collected my monthly pay, and was thinking of spending the night in a friend's quarters, when suddenly thou earnest to my mind and I remembered what thou hadst told me in thy letter of thy dear rafiqa’s*  death - may God have mercy on her - and I thought of how lonely thou must be without her, and all at once I knew I had to go to thee. And there and then I pulled off the Iraqi star from my igāl and threw it away; then, without even going to my house to collect my clothes, I turned my dromedary's head toward the Nufud, toward Najd, and started out, stopping only at the next village to buy a waterskin and some provisions, and rode on and on until I met thee at Mecca, four weeks later...'
'And dost thou remember, Zayd, our first journey together into the interior of Arabia, southward to the palm orchards and wheat fields of Wadi Bisha, and thence into the sands of Ranya which had never before been trodden by a non-Arab?'
'And how well I remember it, O my uncle! Thou wert so keen on seeing the Empty Quarter,†  where the jinns make the sands sing under the sun . . . And what about those badu living on its rim, who had never yet seen glass in their lives and thought that thy eyeglasses were made of frozen water? They were like jinns themselves, reading tracks in the sand as other people read a book, and reading from the skies and from the air the coming of a sandstorm hours before it came. . . And dost thou recall, O my uncle, that guide we hired at Ranya - that devil of a badawi whom thou wantedst to shoot down when he was about to abandon us in the midst of the desert? How furious he was about the machine with which thou makest pictures!'
We both laugh at that adventure which lies so far behind us. But at the time we did not feel at all like laughing. We were about six or seven days' journey south of Riyadh when that guide, a fanatical beduin from the Ikhwān settlement of Ar-Rayn, fell into a paroxysm of rage when I explained to him what my camera was for. He wanted to leave us there and then because such heathenish picture-making endangered his soul. I would not have minded getting rid of him had it not been that we were just then in a region with which neither Zayd nor I was familiar and where, left to ourselves, we would certainly have lost our way. At first I tried to reason with our 'devil of a beduin', but to no avail; he remained adamant and turned back his camel toward Ranya. I made it clear to him that it would cost him his life to leave us to almost certain death from thirst. When in spite of this warning he set his dromedary in motion, I aimed my rifle at him and threatened to fire - with every intention of doing so: and this, at last, seemed to outweigh our friend's concern about his soul. After some grumbling, he agreed to lead us to the next large settlement, about three days ahead, where we could place our dispute before the qādi for decision. Zayd and I disarmed him and took turns standing guard during the night to prevent him from slipping away. The qādi at Quwa'iyya, to whom we appealed a few days later, at first gave judgment in favour of our guide, 'for,' he said, 'it is shameful to make pictures of living beings' (basing it on a wrong interpretation of a saying of the Prophet: for despite the belief - so prevalent among many Muslims to this day - that the depicting of living beings is forbidden, Islamic Law contains no injunction to this effect). Thereupon I showed the qādi the open letter from the King 'to all amīrs of the land and everyone who may read this' - and the qādi’s face grew longer and longer as he read: 'Muhammad Asad is our guest and friend and dear unto us, and everyone who shows him friendliness shows it to us, and everyone who is hostile to him will be deemed hostile to us. . .' Ibn Saud's words and seal had a magic effect on the severe qādi, and he ultimately decided that 'under certain circumstances' it might be permissible to make pictures. . . . Nevertheless, we let our guide go and hired another to lead us to Riyadh.
'And dost thou remember those days in Riyadh, O my uncle, when we were guests of the King and thou wert so unhappy to see the old stables of the palace filled with shiny new motorcars . . . And the King's graciousness toward thee. . .'
'And dost thou remember, Zayd, how he sent us out to explore the secrets behind the beduin rebellion, and how we journeyed through many nights, and stole into Kuwayt, and at last found out the truth about the cases of glittering new riyāls and rifles that were coming to the rebels from across the sea. .. ?'
'And that other mission, O my uncle, when Sayyid Ahmad, may God lengthen his life, sent thee to Cyrenaica - and how we secretly crossed the sea to Egypt in a dhow - and how we made our way into the Jabal Akhdar, eluding the vigilance of those Italians, may God's curse be upon them, and joined the mujāhidīn under Umar al-Mukhtar? Those were exciting days!'
And so we continue to remind each other of the many days, the innumerable days we have been together, and our 'Dost thou remember? Dost thou remember?' carries us far into the night, until the campfire flickers lower and lower, and only a few pieces of wood remain glowing, and Zayd's face gradually recedes into the shadows and itself becomes like a memory to my heavy eyes.
In the starlit silence of the desert, with a tender, lukewarm wind rippling the sands, the images of past and present intertwine, separate again and call to one another with wondrous sounds of evocation, backward through the years, back to the beginning of my Arabian years, to my first pilgrimage to Mecca and the darkness that overshadowed those early days: to the death of the woman whom I loved as I have loved no woman since and who now lies buried under the soil of Mecca, under a simple stone without inscription that marks the end of her road and the beginning of a new one for me: an end and a beginning, a call and an echo, strangely intertwined in the rocky valley of Mecca. . .
'ZAYD, IS THERE some coffee left?'
'At thy command, O my uncle,' answers Zayd. He rises without haste, the tall, narrow brass coffeepot in his left hand and two minute, handleless cups clinking in his right - one for me and one for himself - pours a little coffee into the first cup and hands it to me. From under the shadow of the red-and-white-checked kufiyya his eyes regard me with solemn intentness, as if this were a much more serious matter than a mere cup of coffee. These eyes – deep-set and long-lashed, austere and sad in repose but ever ready to flash in sudden gaiety - speak of a hundred generations of life in steppes and freedom: the eyes of a man whose ancestors have never been exploited and have never exploited others. But the most beautiful in him are his movements: serene, aware of their own rhythm, never hurried and never hesitant: a precision and economy that reminds you of the interplay of instruments in a well-ordered symphony orchestra. You see such movements often among beduins; the sparseness of the desert is reflected in them. For, apart from the few towns and villages, life in Arabia has been so little moulded by human hands that nature in her austerity has forced man to avoid all diffusion in behaviour and to reduce all doing dictated by his will or by outward necessity to a few, very definite, basic forms, which have remained the same for countless generations and have in time acquired the smooth sharpness of crystals: and this inherited simplicity of action is now apparent in the true Arab's gestures as well as in his attitude toward life.
'Tell me, Zayd, where are we going tomorrow?'
Zayd looks at me with a smile: 'Why, O my uncle, toward Tayma, of course...?'
'No, brother, I wanted to go to Tayma, but now I do not want it any more. We are going to Mecca. . .'
 * 'Companion' – i.e., wife.
 † Rub’ al-Khali, the vast, uninhabited desert which covers about one quarter of the Arabian Peninsula.
— 1 —
IT IS NEARLY EVENING, a few days after my encounter with thirst, when Zayd and I arrived at a forlorn little oasis where we intend to stop for the night. Under the rays the setting sun the sand hills in the east shine like iridescent masses of agate with ever-changing pastel shadows and subdued light reflexes, so delicate in colour that even the eye seems to do violence to them as it follows the barely perceptible flow of shadows toward the greyness of growing dusk. You can still see clearly the feathery crowns of the palms and, half hidden behind them, the lowly, mud-grey houses and garden walls; and the wooden wheels over the well are still singing.
We make the camels lie down at some distance from the village, below the palm orchards, unload our heavy saddlebags and remove the saddles from the animals' hot backs. A few urchins assemble around the strangers and one of them, a big-eyed little boy in a tattered tunic, offers to show Zayd a place where firewood is to be found; and while the two set out on their errand, I take the camels to the well. As I lower my leather bucket and draw it up filled, some women come from the village to fetch water in copper basins and earthenware pitchers, which they carry free on their heads with both arms outstretched sidewise and bent upward - so as to balance their loads better - holding the corners of their veils in uplifted hands like fluttering wings.
'Peace be with thee, O wayfarer,' they say.
And I answer: 'And with you be peace and the grace of God.'
Their garments are black, and their faces - as almost always with beduin and village women in this part of Arabia - uncovered, so that one can see their large black eyes. Although they have been settled in an oasis for many generations, they have not yet lost the earnest mien of their forefathers' nomad days. Their movements are clear and definite, and their reserve free of all shyness as they wordlessly take the bucket rope from my hands and draw water for my camels - just as, four thousand years ago, that woman at the well did to Abraham's servant when he came from Canaan to find for his master's son Isaac a wife from among their kinsfolk in Padan-Aram.
He made his camels kneel down without the city by a well of water at the time of the evening, the time that women go out to draw water.
And he said, 'O Lord God of my master Abraham, I pray Thee, send me good speed this day, and show kindness unto my master Abraham. Behold, I stand here by the well of water; and the daughters of the men of the city come out to draw water. Let it come to pass that the damsel to whom I shall say, "Let down thy pitcher, I pray thee, that I may drink," - and she shall say, "Drink, and I will give thy camels drink also"; let the same be she that Thou hast appointed for Thy servant Isaac; and thereby shall I know that Thou hast showed kindness unto my master.'
And it came to pass, before he had done speaking, that, behold, Rebecca came out. . . with her pitcher upon her shoulder. And the damsel was very fair to look upon, a virgin, neither had any man known her: and she went down to the well, and filled her pitcher, and came up.
And the servant ran to meet her, and said, 'Let me, I pray thee, drink a little water of thy pitcher.' And she said, 'Drink, my lord'; and she hastened, and let down her pitcher upon her hand, and gave him drink. And when she had done giving him drink, she said, I will draw water for thy camels also, until they have done drinking.' And she hastened, and emptied her pitcher into the trough, and ran again unto the well to draw water, and drew for all his camels. . .
This Biblical story floats through my mind as I stand with my two camels before the well of a little oasis amidst the sands of the Great Nufud and gaze at the women who have taken the bucket rope from my hands and now draw water for my animals.
Far away is the country of Padan-Aram and Abraham's time: but these women here, with the power of remembrance their stately gestures have evoked, obliterate all distance of space and make four thousand years appear as of no account in time.
'May God bless your hands, my sisters, and keep you secure.'
'And thou, too, remain under God's protection, O wayfarer,' they reply, and turn to their pitchers and basins to fill them with water for their homes.
ON MY RETURN to our camping place, I make the camels kneel down and hobble their forelegs to prevent them from straying at night. Zayd has already lit a fire and is busy making coffee. Water boils in a tall brass coffeepot with a long, curved spout; a smaller pot of a similar shape stands ready at Zayd's elbow. In his left hand he holds a huge, flat iron spoon with a handle two feet long, on which he is roasting a handful of coffee beans over the slow fire, for in Arabia coffee is freshly roasted for every pot. As soon as the beans are lightly tanned, he places them in a brass mortar and pounds them. Thereupon he pours some of the boiling water from the larger pot into the smaller, empties the ground coffee into it and places the pot near the fire to let it slowly simmer. When the brew is almost ready, he adds a few cardamon seeds to make it more bitter, for, as the saying goes in Arabia, coffee, in order to be good, must be 'bitter like death and hot like love'.
But I am not yet ready to enjoy my coffee at leisure. Tired and sweaty after the long, hot hours in the saddle, with clothes clinging dirtily to my skin, I am longing for a bath; and so I stroll back to the well under the palms.
It is already dark. The palm orchards are deserted; only far away, where the houses stand, a dog barks. I throw off my clothes and climb down into the well, holding on with hands and feet to the ledges and clefts in the masonry and supporting myself by the ropes on which the waterskins hang: down to the dark water and into it. It is cold and reaches to my chest. In the darkness by my side stand the drawing-ropes, vertically tautened by the weight of the large, now submerged, skins which in daytime are used to water the plantation. Under the soles of my feet I can feel the thin trickle of water seep upward from the underground spring that feeds the well in a slow, unceasing stream of eternal renewal.
Above me the wind hums over the rim of the well and makes its interior resound faintly like the inside of a sea shell held against the ear - a big, humming sea shell such as I loved to listen to in my father's house many, many years ago, a child just big enough to look over the table top. I pressed the shell against my ear and wondered whether the sound was always there or only when I held it to my ear. Was it something independent of me or did only my listening call it forth? Many times did I try to outsmart the shell by holding it away from me, so that the humming ceased, and then suddenly clapping it back to my ear: but there it was again - and I never found out whether it was going on when I did not listen.
I did not know then, of course, that I was being puzzled by a question that had puzzled much wiser heads than mine for countless ages: the question of whether there is such a thing as 'reality' apart from our minds, or whether our perception creates it. I did not know it then; but, looking back, it seems to me that this great riddle haunted me not only in my childhood but also in later years - as it probably has haunted at one time or another, consciously or unconsciously, every thinking human being: for, whatever the objective truth, to every one of us the world manifests itself only in the shape, "and to the extent, of its reflection in our minds: and so each of us can perceive of 'reality' only in conjunction with his own existence. Herein perhaps may be found a valid explanation for man's persistent belief, since the earliest stirrings of his consciousness, in individual survival after death - a belief too deep, too widely spread through all races and times to be easily dismissed as 'wishful thinking'. It would probably not be too much to say that it has been unavoidably necessitated by the very structure of the human mind. To think in abstract, theoretical terms of one's own death as ultimate extinction may not be difficult; but to visualize it, impossible: for this would mean no less than to be able to visualize the extinction of all reality as such - in other words, to imagine nothingness: something that no man's mind is able to do.
It was not the philosophers and prophets who taught us to believe in life after death; all they did was to give form and spiritual content to an instinctive perception as old as man himself.
I SMILE INWARDLY at the incongruity of speculating about such profound problems while engaged in the mundane process of washing away the grime and sweat of a long day's journey.
But, after all, is there always a clearly discernible borderline between the mundane and the abstruse in life? Could there have been, for instance, anything more mundane than setting out in search of a lost camel, and anything more abstruse, more difficult of comprehension, than almost dying of thirst?
Perhaps it was the shock of that experience that has sharpened my senses and brought forth the need to render some sort of account to myself: the need to comprehend, more fully than I have ever done before, the course of my own life. But, then, I remind myself, can anyone really comprehend the meaning of his own life as long as he is alive? We do know, of course, what has happened to us at this or that period of our lives; and we do sometimes understand why it happened; but our destination - our destiny - is not so easily espied: for destiny is the sum of all that has moved in us and moved us, past and present, and all that will move us and within us in the future - and so it can unfold itself only at the end of the way, and must always remain misunderstood or only half understood as long as we are treading the way.
How can I say, at the age of thirty-two, what my destiny was or is?
Sometimes it seems to me that I can almost see the lives of two men when I look back at my life. But, come to think of it, are those two parts of my life really so different from one another - or was there perhaps, beneath all the outward differences of form and direction, always a unity of feeling and a purpose common to both?
I lift my head and see the round piece of sky over the rim of the well, and stars. As I stand very still, for a very long time, I seem to see how they slowly shift their positions, moving on and on, so that they might complete the rows upon rows of millions of years which never come to a close. And then, without willing it, I have to think of the little rows of years that have happened to me - all those dim years spent in the warm safety of childhood's rooms in a town where every nook and street was familiar to me; thereafter in other cities full of excitements and yearnings and hopes such as only early youth can know; then in a new world among people whose mien and bearing were outlandish at first but in time brought forth a new familiarity and a new feeling of being at home; then in stranger and ever stranger landscapes, in cities as old as the mind of man, in steppes without horizon, in mountains whose wildness reminded you of the wildness of the human heart, and in hot desert solitudes; and the slow growth of new truths - truths new to me - and that day in the snows of the Hindu-Kush when, after a long conversation, an Afghan friend exclaimed in astonishment: 'But you are a Muslim, only you do not know it yourself...!' And that other day, months later, when I did come to know it myself; and my first pilgrimage to Mecca; the death of my wife, and the despair that followed it; and these timeless times among the Arabs ever since: years of deep friendship with a royal man who with his sword had carved for himself a state out of nothingness and stopped only one step short of real greatness; years of wandering through deserts and steppes; risky excursions amidst Arabian beduin warfare and into the Libyan fight for independence ; long sojourns in Medina where I endeavoured to round off my knowledge of Islam in the Prophet's Mosque; repeated pilgrimages to Mecca; marriages with beduin girls, and subsequent divorces; warm human relationships, and desolate days of loneliness; sophisticated discourses with cultured Muslims from all parts of the world, and journeys through unexplored regions: all these years of submergence in a world far removed from the thoughts and aims of Western existence.
What a long row of years...
All these sunken years now come up to the surface, uncover their faces once again and call me with many voices: and suddenly, in the startled jerk of my heart, I perceive how long, how endless my way has been. 'You have always been only going and going,' I say to myself. 'You have never yet built your life into something that one could grasp with his hands, and never has there been an answer to the question "Whereto?" ... You have been going on and on, a wanderer through many lands, a guest at many hearths, but the longing has never been stilled, and although you are a stranger no more, you have struck no root.'
Why is it that, even after finding my place among the people who believe in the things I myself have come to believe, I have struck no root?
Two years ago, when I took an Arab wife in Medina, I wanted her to give me a son. Through this son, Talal, who was born to us a few months ago, I have begun to feel that the Arabs are my kin as well as my brethren in faith. I want him to have his roots deep in this land and to grow up in the consciousness of his great heritage of blood as well as culture. This, one might think, should be enough to make a man desirous of settling down for good, of building for himself and his family a lasting home. Why is it, then, that my wanderings are not yet over and that I have still to continue on my way? Why is it that the life which I myself have chosen does not fully satisfy me? What is it that I find lacking in this environment? Certainly not the intellectual interests of Europe. I have left them behind me. I do not miss them. Indeed, I am so remote from them that it has become increasingly difficult for me to write for the European newspapers which provide me with my livelihood; every time I send off an article, it seems as if I were throwing a stone into a bottomless well: the stone disappears into the dark void and not even an echo comes up to tell me that is has reached its goal...
While I thus cogitate in disquiet and perplexity, half submerged in the dark waters of a well in an Arabian oasis, I suddenly hear a voice from the background of my memory, the voice of an old Kurdish nomad: If water stands motionless in a pool it grows stale and muddy, but when it moves and flows it becomes clear: so, too, man in his wanderings. Whereupon, as if by magic, all disquiet leaves me. I begin to look upon myself with distant eyes, as you might look at the pages of a book to read a story from them; and I begin to understand that my life could not have taken a different course. For when I ask myself, 'What is the sum total of my life?' something in me seems to answer, 'You have set out to exchange one world for another - to gain a new world for yourself in exchange for an old one which you never really possessed.' And I know with startling clarity that such an undertaking might indeed take an entire lifetime.
I CLIMB OUT of the well, put on the clean, long tunic which I brought with me, and go back to the fire and to Zayd and the camels; I drink the bitter coffee which Zayd offers me and then lie down, refreshed and warm, near the fire on the ground.
— 2 —
MY ARMS ARE CROSSED under my neck and I am looking into this Arabian night which curves over me, black and starry. A shooting star flies in a tremendous arc, and there another, and yet another: arcs of light piercing the darkness. Are they only bits of broken-up planets, fragments of some cosmic disaster, now aimlessly flying through the vastness of the universe? Oh, no: if you ask Zayd, he will tell you that these are the fiery javelins with which angels drive away the devils that on certain nights stealthily ascend toward heaven to spy upon God's secrets ... Was it perhaps Iblis himself, the king of all devils, who has just received that mighty throw of flame there in the east... ?
The legends connected with this sky and its stars are more familiar to me than the home of my childhood...
How could it be otherwise? Ever since I came to Arabia I have lived like an Arab, worn only Arab dress, spoken only Arabic, dreamed my dreams in Arabic; Arabian customs and imageries have almost imperceptibly shaped my thoughts; I have not been hampered by the many mental reservations which usually make it impossible for a foreigner - be he ever so well versed in the manners and the language of the country - to find a true approach to the feelings of its people and to make their world his own.
And suddenly I have to laugh aloud with the laughter of happiness and freedom - so loud that Zayd looks up in astonishment and my dromedary turns its head toward me with a slow, faintly supercilious movement: for now I see how simple and straight, in spite of all its length, my road has been - my road from a world which I did not possess to a world truly my own.
My coming to this land: was it not, in truth, a home-coming? Home-coming of the heart that has espied its old home backward over a curve of thousands of years and now recognizes this sky, my sky, with painful rejoicing? For this Arabian sky - so much darker, higher, more festive with its stars than any other sky - vaulted over the long trek of my ancestors, those wandering herdsmen-warriors, when, thousands of years ago, they set out in the power of their morning, obsessed by greed for land and booty, toward the fertile country of Chaldea and an unknown future: that small beduin tribe of Hebrews, forefathers of that man who was to be born in Ur of the Chaldees.
That man, Abraham, did not really belong in Ur. His was but one among many Arabian tribes which at one time or another had wound their way from the hungry deserts of the Peninsula toward the northern dreamlands that were said to be flowing with milk and honey - the settled lands of the Fertile Crescent, Syria and Mesopotamia. Sometimes such tribes succeeded in overcoming the settlers they found there and established themselves as rulers in their place, gradually intermingling with the vanquished people and evolving, together with them, into a new nation - like the Assyrians and Babylonians, who erected their kingdoms on the ruins of the earlier Sumerian civilization, or the Chaldeans, who grew to power in Babylon, or the Amorites, who later came to be known as Canaanites in Palestine and as Phoenicians on the coasts of Syria. At other times the oncoming nomads were too weak to vanquish those who had arrived earlier and were absorbed by them; or, alternatively, the settlers pushed the nomads back into the desert, forcing them to find other pastures and perhaps other lands to conquer. The clan of Abraham - whose original name, according to the Book of Genesis, was Ab-Ram, which in ancient Arabic means 'He of the High Desire' - was evidently one of those weaker tribes; the Biblical story of their sojourn at Ur on the fringe of the desert relates to the time when they found that they could not win for themselves new homes in the land of the Twin Rivers and were about to move northwest along the Euphrates toward Haran and thence to Syria.
'He of the High Desire,' that early ancestor of mine whom God had driven toward unknown spaces and so to a discovery of his own self, would have well understood why I am here - for he also had to wander through many lands before he could build his life into something that you might grasp with your hands, and had to be guest at many strange hearths before he was allowed to strike root. To his awe-commanding experience my puny perplexity would have been no riddle. He would have known - as I know it now - that the meaning of all my wanderings lay in a hidden desire to meet myself by meeting a world whose approach to the innermost questions of life, to reality itself, was different from all I had been accustomed to in my childhood and youth.
WHAT A LONG WAY, from my childhood and youth in Central Europe to my present in Arabia; but what a pleasant way for remembrance to travel backward...
There were those early childhood years in the Polish city of Lwöw - then in Austrian possession - in a house that was as quiet and dignified as the street on which it stood: a long street of somewhat dusty elegance, bordered with chestnut trees and paved with wood blocks that muffled the beat of the horses' hooves and converted every hour of the day into a lazy afternoon. I loved that lovely street with a consciousness far beyond my childish years, and not merely because it was the street of my home: I loved it, I think, because of the air of noble self-possession with which it flowed from the gay centre of that gayest of cities toward the stillness of the woods on the city's margin and the great cemetery that lay hidden in those woods. Beautiful carriages would sometimes fly past on silent wheels to the accompaniment of the brisk, rhythmic trap-trap of prancing hooves, or, if it happened to be winter and the street was blanketed with foot-deep snow, sledges would glide over it and steam would come in clouds from the horses' nostrils and their bells would tinkle through the frosty air: and if you yourself sat in the sledge and felt the frost rush by and bite your cheeks, your childish heart knew that the galloping horses were carrying you into a happiness that had neither beginning nor end.
And there were the summer months in the country, where my mother's father, a wealthy banker, maintained a large estate for his large family's pleasure. A sluggish little stream with willow trees along its banks; barns full of placid cows, a chiaroscuro mysteriously pregnant with the scent of animals and hay and the laughter of the Ruthenian peasant girls who were busy in the evenings with milking; you would drink the foaming warm milk straight from the pails - not because you were thirsty, but because it was exciting to drink something that was still so close to its animal source… Those hot August days spent in the fields with the farmhands who were cutting the wheat, and with the women who gathered and bound it in sheaves: young women, good to look at - heavy of body, full of breast, with hard, warm arms, the strength of which you could feel when they rolled you over playfully at noontime among the wheat stacks: but, of course, you were much too young then to draw further conclusions from those laughing embraces...
And there were journeys with my parents to Vienna and Berlin and the Alps and the Bohemian forests and the North Sea and the Baltic: places so distant that they almost seemed to be new worlds. Every time one set out on such a journey, the first whistle of the train engine and the first jolt of the wheels made one's heart stop beating in anticipation of the wonders that were now to unfold themselves… And there were playmates, boys and girls, a brother and a sister and many cousins; and glorious Sundays of freedom after the dullness - but not too oppressive a dullness - of weekdays in school: hikes through the countryside, and the first surreptitious meetings with lovely girls of one's own age, and the blush of a strange excitement from which one recovered only after hours and hours...
It was a happy childhood, satisfying even in retrospect. My parents lived in comfortable circumstances; and they lived mostly for their children. My mother's placidity and unruffled quiet may have had something to do with the ease with which in later years I was able to adapt myself to unfamiliar and, on occasion, most adverse conditions; while my father's inner restlessness is probably mirrored in my own.
IF I HAD to describe my father, I would say that this lovely, slim, middle-sized man of dark complexion and dark, passionate eyes was not quite in tune with his surroundings. In his early youth he had dreamed of devoting himself to science, especially physics, but had never been able to realize this dream and had to content himself with being a barrister. Although quite successful in this profession, in which his keen mind must have found a welcome challenge, he never reconciled himself to it fully; and the air of loneliness that surrounded him may have been caused by an ever-present awareness that his true calling had eluded him.
His father had been an orthodox rabbi in Czemowitz, capital of the then Austrian province of Bukovina. I still remember him as a graceful old man with very delicate hands and a sensitive face framed in a long, white beard. Side by side with his deep interest in mathematics and astronomy - which he studied in his spare time throughout his life - he was one of the best chess players of the district. This was probably the basis of his longstanding friendship with the Greek-Orthodox archbishop, himself a chess player of note. The two would spend many an evening together over the chessboard and would round off their sessions by discussing the metaphysical propositions of their respective religions. One might have presumed that, with such a bent of mind, my grandfather would have welcomed his son's - my father's - inclination toward science. But apparently he had made up his mind from the very first that his eldest son would continue the rabbinical tradition which went back in the family for several generations, and refused even to consider any other career for my father. In this resolve he may have been strengthened by a disreputable skeleton in the family cupboard: the memory of an uncle of his - that is, a great-great-uncle of mine - who had in the most unusual way 'betrayed' the family tradition and even turned away from the religion of his forefathers.
That almost mythical great-great-uncle, whose name was never mentioned aloud, seems to have been brought up in the same strict family tradition. At a very young age he had become a full-fledged rabbi and been married off to a woman whom he apparently did not love. As the rabbinical profession did not bring sufficient remuneration in those days, he supplemented his income by trading in furs, which every year necessitated a journey to Europe's central fur market, Leipzig. One day, when he was about twenty-five years old, he set out by horse cart - it was in the first half of the nineteenth century - on one of these long journeys. In Leipzig he sold his furs as usual; but instead of returning to his home town as usual, he sold the cart and the horse as well, shaved off his beard and sidelocks and, forgetting his unloved wife, went to England. For a time he earned his living by menial work, studying astronomy and mathematics in the evening. Some patron seems to have recognized his mental gifts and enabled him to pursue his studies at Oxford, from where he emerged after a few years as a promising scholar and a convert to Christianity. Shortly after sending a letter of divorce to his Jewish wife, he married a girl from among the 'gentiles'. Not much was known to our family about his later life, except that he achieved considerable distinction as an astronomer and university teacher and ended his days as a knight.
This horrifying example seems to have persuaded my grandfather to take a very stern attitude regarding my father's inclination toward the study of 'gentile' sciences; he had to become a rabbi, and that was that. My father, however, was not prepared to give in so easily. While he studied the Talmud in daytime, he spent part of his nights in studying secretly, without the help of a teacher, the curriculum of a humanistic gymnasium. In time he confided in his mother. Although her son's surreptitious studies may have burdened her conscience, her generous nature made her realize that it would be cruel to deprive him of a chance to follow his heart's desire. At the age of twenty-two, after completing the eight years' course of a gymnasium within four years, my father presented himself for the baccalaureate examination and passed it with distinction. With the diploma in hand, he and his mother now dared to break the terrible news to my grandfather. I can imagine the dramatic scene that ensued; but the upshot of it was that my grandfather ultimately relented and agreed that my father should give up his rabbinical studies and attend the university instead. The financial circumstances of the family did not, however, allow him to go in for his beloved study of physics; he had to turn to a more lucrative profession - that of law - and in time became a barrister. Some years later he settled in the city of Lwów in eastern Galicia and married my mother, one of the four daughters of a rich local banker. There, in the summer of 1900 I was born as the second of three children.
My father's frustrated desire expressed itself in his wide reading on scientific subjects and perhaps also in his peculiar, though extremely reserved, predilection for his second son – myself – who also seemed to be more interested in things not immediately connected with the making of money and a successful 'career'. Nevertheless, his hopes to make a scientist of me were destined to remain unfulfilled. Although not stupid, I was a very indifferent student. Mathematics and natural sciences were particularly boring to me; I found infinitely more pleasure in reading the stirring historical romances of Sienkiewicz, the fantasies of Jules Verne, Red Indian stories by James Fenimore Cooper and Karl May and, later, the verses of Rilke and the sonorous cadences of Also sprach Zarathustra. The mysteries of gravity and electricity, no less than Latin and Greek grammar, left me entirely cold - with the result that I always got my promotions only by the skin of my teeth. This must have been a keen disappointment to my father, but he may have found some consolation in the fact that my teachers seemed to be very satisfied with my inclination toward literature - both Polish and German - as well as history.
In accordance with our family's tradition, I received, through private tutors at home, a thorough grounding in Hebrew religious lore. This was not due to any pronounced religiosity in my parents. They belonged to a generation which, while paying lip service to one or another of the religious faiths that had shaped the lives of its ancestors, never made the slightest endeavour to conform its practical life or even its ethical thought to those teachings. In such a society the very concept of religion had been degraded to one of two things: the wooden ritual of those who clung by habit - and only by habit - to their religious heritage, or the cynical insouciance of the more 'liberal' ones, who considered religion as an outmoded superstition to which one might, on occasion, outwardly conform but of which one was secretly ashamed, as of something intellectually indefensible. To all appearances, my own parents belonged to the former category; but at times I have a faint suspicion that my father, at least, inclined toward the latter. Nevertheless, in deference to both his father and his father-in-law, he insisted on my spending long hours over the sacred scriptures. Thus, by the age of thirteen, I not only could read Hebrew with great fluency but also spoke it freely and had, in addition, a fair acquaintance with Aramaic (which may possibly account for the ease with which I picked up Arabic in later years). I studied the Old Testament in the original; the Mishna and Gemara - that is, the text and the commentaries of the Talmud - became familiar to me; I could discuss with a good deal of self-assurance the differences between the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds; and I immersed myself in the intricacies of Biblical exegesis, called Targum, just as if I had been destined for a rabbinical career.
In spite of all this budding religious wisdom, or maybe because of it, I soon developed a supercilious feeling toward many of the premises of the Jewish faith. To be sure, I did not disagree with the teaching of moral righteousness so strongly emphasized throughout the Jewish scriptures, nor with the sublime God-consciousness of the Hebrew Prophets - but it seemed to me that the God of the Old Testament and the Talmud was unduly concerned with the ritual by means of which His worshippers were supposed to worship Him. It also occurred to me that this God was strangely preoccupied with the destinies of one particular nation, the Hebrews. The very build-up of the Old Testament as a history of the descendants of Abraham tended to make God appear not as the creator and sustainer of all mankind but, rather, as a tribal deity adjusting all creation to the requirements of a 'chosen people': rewarding them with conquests if they were righteous, and making them suffer at the hands of nonbelievers whenever they strayed from the prescribed path. Viewed against these fundamental shortcomings, even the ethical fervour of the later Prophets, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, seemed to be barren of a universal message.
But although the effect of those early studies of mine was the opposite of what had been intended - leading me away from, rather than closer to, the religion of my forefathers -I often think that in later years they helped me to understand the fundamental purpose of religion as such, whatever its form. At that time, however, my disappointment with Judaism did not lead me to a search for spiritual truths in other directions. Under the influence of an agnostic environment, I drifted, like so many boys of my age, into a matter-of-fact rejection of all institutional religion; and since my religion had never meant much more to me than a series of restrictive regulations, I felt none the worse for having drifted away from it. Theological and philosophical ideas did not yet really concern me; what I was looking forward to was not much different from the expectations of most other boys: action, adventure, excitement.
Toward the end of 1914, when the Great War was already raging, the first big chance to fulfil my boyish dreams seemed to come within grasp. At the age of fourteen I made my escape from school and joined the Austrian army under a false name. I was very tall for my years and easily passed for eighteen, the minimum age for recruitment. But apparently I did not carry a marshal's baton in my knapsack. After a week or so, my poor father succeeded in tracing me with the help of the police, and I was ignominiously escorted back to Vienna, where my family had settled some time earlier. Nearly four years later I was actually, and legitimately, drafted into the Austrian army; but by then I had ceased to dream of military glory and was searching for other avenues to self-fulfilment. In any case, a few weeks after my induction the revolution broke out, the Austrian Empire collapsed, and the war was over.
FOR ABOUT TWO YEARS after the end of the Great War I studied, in a somewhat desultory fashion, history of art and philosophy at the University of Vienna. My heart was not in those studies. A quiet academic career did not attract me. I felt a yearning to come into more intimate grips with life, to enter it without any of those carefully contrived, artificial defences which security-minded people love to build up around themselves; and I wanted to find by myself an approach to the spiritual order of things which, I knew, must exist but which I could not yet discern.
It is not easy to explain in so many words what I meant in those days by a 'spiritual order'; it certainly did not occur to me to conceive of the problem in conventional religious terms or, for that matter, in any precise terms whatsoever. My vagueness, to be fair to myself, was not of my own making. It was the vagueness of an entire generation.
The opening decades of the twentieth century stood in the sign of a spiritual vacuum. All the ethical valuations to which Europe have been accustomed for so many centuries had become amorphous under the terrible impact of what had happened between 1914 and 1918, and no new set of values was yet anywhere in sight. A feeling of brittleness and insecurity was in the air - a presentiment of social and intellectual upheavals that made one doubt whether there could ever again be any permanency in man's thoughts and endeavours. Everything seemed to be flowing in a formless flood, and the spiritual restlessness of youth could nowhere find a foothold. In the absence of any reliable standards of morality, nobody could give us young people satisfactory answers to the many questions that perplexed us. Science said, 'Cognition is everything' - and forgot that cognition without an ethical goal can lead only to chaos. The social reformers, the revolutionaries, the communists - all of whom undoubtedly wanted to build a better, happier world - were thinking only in terms of outward, social and economic, circumstances; and to bridge that defect, they had raised their 'materialistic conception of history' to a kind of new, anti-metaphysical metaphysics. The traditionally religious people, on the other hand, knew nothing better than to attribute to their God qualities derived from their own habits of thought, which had long since become rigid and meaningless: and when we young people saw that these alleged divine qualities often stood in sharp contrast with what was happening in the world around us, we told ourselves: 'The moving forces of destiny are evidently different from the qualities which are ascribed to God; therefore - there is no God.' And it occurred to only very few of us that the cause of all this confusion might lie perhaps in the arbitrariness of the self-righteous guardians of faith who claimed to have the right to 'define' God and, by clothing Him with their own garments, separated Him from man and his destiny.
In the individual, this ethical lability could lead either to complete moral chaos and cynicism or, alternatively, to a search for a creative, personal approach to what might constitute the good life.
This instinctive realization may have been, indirectly, the reason for my choice of history of art as my main subject at the university. It was the true function of art, I suspected, to evoke a vision of the coherent, unifying pattern that must underlie the fragmentary picture of happenings which our consciousness reveals to us and which, it seemed to me, could be only inadequately formulated through conceptual thought. However, the courses which I attended did not satisfy me. My professors - some of them, like Strzygowski and Dvorak, outstanding in their particular fields of study - appeared to be more concerned with discovering the aesthetic laws that govern artistic creation than with baring its innermost spiritual impulses: in other words, their approach to art was, to my mind, too narrowly confined to the question of the forms in which it expressed itself.
The conclusions of psychoanalysis, to which I was introduced in those days of youthful perplexity, left me equally, if for somewhat different reasons, unsatisfied. No doubt, psychoanalysis was at that time an intellectual revolution of the first magnitude, and one felt in one's bones that this flinging-open of new, hitherto barred doors of cognition was bound to affect deeply - and perhaps change entirely - man's thinking about himself and his society. The discovery of the role which unconscious urges play in the formation of the human personality opened, beyond any question, avenues to a more penetrating self-understanding than had been offered to us by the psychological theories of earlier times. All this I was ready to concede. Indeed, the stimulus of Freudian ideas was as intoxicating to my young mind as potent wine, and many were the evenings I spent in Vienna's cafes listening to exciting discussions between some of the early pioneers of psychoanalysis, such as Alfred Adler, Hermann Steckl and Otto Gross. But while I certainly did not dispute the validity of its analytical principles, I was disturbed by the intellectual arrogance of the new science, which tried to reduce all mysteries of man's Self to a series of neurogenetic reactions. The philosophical 'conclusions' arrived at by its founder and its devotees somehow appeared to me too pat, too cocksure and over-simplified to come anywhere within the neighbourhood of ultimate truths; and they certainly did not point any new way to the good life.
But although such problems often occupied my mind, they did not really trouble me. I was never given much to metaphysical speculation or to a conscious quest for abstract 'truths'. My interests lay more in the direction of things seen and felt: people, activities and relationships. And it was just then that I was beginning to discover relationships with women.
In the general process of dissolution of established social mores that followed the Great War, many restraints between the sexes had been loosened. What happened was, I think, not so much a revolt against the strait-lacedness of the nineteenth century as, rather, a passive rebound from a state of affairs in which certain moral standards had been deemed eternal and unquestionable to a social condition in which everything was questionable: a swinging of the pendulum from yesterday's comforting belief in the continuity of man's upward progress to the bitter disillusionment of Spengler, to Nietzsche's moral relativism, and to the spiritual nihilism fostered by psychoanalysis. Looking backward on those early post-war years, I feel that the young men and women who spoke and wrote with so much enthusiasm about 'the body's freedom' were very far indeed from the ebullient spirit of Pan they so often invoked: their raptures were too self-conscious to be exuberant, and too easy-going to be revolutionary. Their sexual relations had, as a rule, something casual about them - a certain matter-of-fact blandness which often led to promiscuity.
Even if I had felt myself bound by the remnants of conventional morality, it would have been extremely difficult to avoid being drawn into a trend that had become so widespread; as it was, I rather gloried, like so many others of my generation, in what was considered a 'rebellion against the hollow conventions.' Flirtations grew easily into affairs, and some of the affairs into passions. I do not think, however, that I was a libertine; for in all those youthful loves of mine, however flimsy and short-lived, there was always the lilt of a hope, vague but insistent, that the frightful isolation which so obviously separated man from man might be broken by the coalescence of one man and one woman.
MY RESTLESSNESS GREW and made it increasingly difficult for me to pursue my university studies. At last I decided to give them up for good and to try my hand at journalism. My father, with probably more justification than I was then willing to concede, strongly objected to such a course, maintaining that before I decided to make writing my career I should at least prove to myself that I could write; 'and, in any case,' he concluded after one of our stormy discussions, 'a Ph.D. degree has never yet prevented a man from becoming a successful writer.' His reasoning was sound; but I was very young, very hopeful and very restless. When I realized that he would not change his mind, there seemed nothing left but to start life on my own. Without telling anyone of my intentions, I said good-bye to Vienna one summer day in 1920 and boarded a train for Prague.
All I possessed, apart from my personal belongings, was a diamond ring which my mother, who had died a year earlier, had left me. This I sold through the good offices of a waiter in Prague's main literary cafe. Most probably I was thoroughly gypped in the transaction, but the sum of money which I received appeared like a fortune. With this fortune in my pocket I proceeded to Berlin, where some Viennese friendsintroduced me to the magic circle of litterateurs and artists at the old Cafe des Westens.
I knew that henceforth I would have to make my way unaided; I would never again expect or accept financial help from my family. Some weeks later, when my father's anger had abated he wrote to me: 'I can already see you ending one day as a tramp in a roadside ditch'; to which I replied: 'No roadside ditch for me - I will come out on top.' How I would come out on top was not in the least clear to me; but I knew that I wanted to write and was, of course, convinced that the world of letters was waiting for me with arms wide open.
After a few months my cash ran out and I began to cast about for a job. To a young man with journalistic aspirations, one of the great dailies was the obvious choice; but I found out that I was no 'choice' to them. I did not find it out all at once. It took me weeks of tiresome tramping over the pavements of Berlin - for even a subway or streetcar fare had by then become a problem - and an endless number of humiliating interviews with editors-in-chief and news editors and sub-editors, to realize that, barring a miracle, a fledgling without a single printed line to his credit had not the slightest chance of being admitted to the sacred precincts of a newspaper. No miracle came my way. Instead, I became acquainted with hunger and spent several weeks subsisting almost entirely on the tea and the two rolls which my landlady served me in the morning. My literary friends at the Cafe des Westens could not do much for a raw and inexperienced 'would-be'; moreover, most of them lived in circumstances not much different from my own, hovering from day to day on the brink of nothingness and struggling hard to keep their chins above water. Sometimes, in the flush of affluence produced by a luckily placed article or a picture sold, one or another of them would throw a party with beer and frankfurters and would ask me to partake of the sudden bounty; or a rich snob would invite a group of us strange intellectual gypsies to supper in his flat, and would gaze at us with awe while we gorged our empty stomachs with caviar canapés and champagne, repaying our host's munificence with clever talk and an 'insight into bohemian life.' But such treats were only exceptions. The rule of my days was stark hunger - and in the nights my sleep was filled with dreams of steaks and sausages and thick slices of buttered bread. Several times I was tempted to write to my father and beg him for help, which he surely would not have refused; but every time my pride stepped in and I wrote to him instead of the wonderful job and the good salary I had...
At last a lucky break came. I was introduced to F. W. Murnau, who just then was rising to fame as a film director (this was a few years before Hollywood drew him to still greater fame and to an untimely, tragic death); and Murnau, with that whimsical impulsiveness which endeared him to all his friends, at once took a fancy to the young man who was looking so eagerly, and with so much hope in the face of adversity, toward the future. He asked me if I would not like to work under him on a new film he was about to begin: and although the job was to be only temporary, I saw the gates of heaven opening before me as I stammered, 'Yes, I would . . .'
For two glorious months, free of all financial worries and entirely absorbed by a host of glittering experiences unlike anything I had ever known, I worked as Murnau's assistant. My self-confidence grew tremendously; and it was certainly not diminished by the fact that the leading lady of the film - a well-known and very beautiful actress - did not prove averse to a flirtation with the director's young assistant. When the film was finished and Murnau had to go abroad for a new assignment, I took leave of him with the conviction that my worst days were over.
Shortly afterward, my good friend Anton Kuh - a Viennese journalist who had recently come to prominence in Berlin as a theatre critic - invited me to collaborate with him on a film scenario which he had been commissioned to write. I accepted the idea with enthusiasm and put, I believe, much work into the script; at any rate, the producer who had commissioned it gladly paid the sum agreed upon, which Anton and I divided fifty-fifty. In order to celebrate our 'entry into the world of films,' we gave a party in one of the most fashionable restaurants in Berlin; and when we received the bill, we found that practically our entire earnings had gone up in lobster, caviar and French wines. But our luck held out. We immediately sat down to writing another scenario - a fantasy woven around the figure of Balzac and a bizarre, entirely imaginary experience of his - and found a buyer on the very day it was completed. This time, however, I refused to 'celebrate' our success, and went instead on a several weeks' holiday to the Bavarian lakes.
After another year full of adventurous ups and downs in various cities of Central Europe, involving all manner of short-lived jobs, I succeeded at last in breaking into the world of journalism.
THIS BREAK-THROUGH took place in the autumn of 1921, after another period of financial low. One afternoon, while I was sitting in the Cafe des Westens, tired and disconsolate, a friend of mine sat down at my table. When I recounted my troubles to him, he suggested:
'There might be a chance for you. Dammert is starting a news agency of his own in co-operation with the United Press of America. It will be called the United Telegraph. I am sure that he will need a large number of sub-editors. I'll introduce you to him, if you like.'
Dr. Dammert was a well-known figure in the political circles of Berlin in the twenties. Prominent in the ranks of the Catholic Centre Party, and a wealthy man in his own right, he enjoyed an excellent reputation; and the idea of working under him appealed to me.
Next day my friend took me to Dr. Dammert's office. The elegant, middle-aged man was suave and friendly as he invited us to be seated.
'Mr. Fingal' (that was my friend's name) 'has spoken to me about you. Have you ever worked before as a journalist?'
'No, sir,' I replied, 'but I have had plenty of other experience. I am something of an expert on Eastern European countries and know several of the languages.' (In fact, the only Eastern European language I could speak was Polish, and I had only the vaguest idea of what was going on in that part of the world; but I was resolved not to let my chance be spoiled by undue modesty.)
'Oh, that is interesting,' remarked Dr. Dammert with a half-smile. 'I have a penchant for experts. But, unfortunately, I can't use an expert on Eastern European affairs just now.'
He must have seen the disappointment in my face, for he quickly continued: 'Still, I may have an opening for you - although it may be somewhat beneath your standing, I wonder...'
'What is the opening, sir?' I enquired eagerly, thinking of my unpaid rent.
'Well... I need several more telephonists... Oh, no, no, don't worry, not at a switchboard: I mean telephonists to transmit news to the provincial newspapers ...'
This was indeed a comedown from my high expectations. I looked at Dr. Dammert and he looked at me; and when I saw the tightening of the humorous creases around his eyes, I knew that my boastful game was up.
'I accept, sir,' I answered with a sigh and a laugh.
The following week I started my new job. It was a boring job and a far cry from the journalistic 'career' I had been dreaming of. I had nothing to do but transmit by telephone, several times daily, news from a mimeographed sheet to the many provincial newspapers that subscribed to the service; but I was a good telephonist and the pay was good, too.
This went on for about a month. At the end of the month an unforeseen opportunity offered itself to me.
In that year of 1921 Soviet Russia was stricken by a famine of unprecedented dimensions. Millions of people were starving and hundreds of thousands dying. The entire European press was buzzing with gruesome descriptions of the situation; several foreign relief operations were being planned, among them one by Herbert Hoover, who had done so much for Central Europe after the Great War. A large-scale action within Russia was headed by Maxim Gorky; his dramatic appeals for aid were stirring the entire world; and it was rumoured that his wife would shortly visit the capitals of Central and Western Europe in an attempt to mobilize public opinion for more effective help.
Being only a telephonist, I did not participate directly in the coverage of this sensational episode until a chance remark from one of my chance acquaintances (I had many of them in the strangest places) suddenly drew me into its midst. The acquaintance was the night doorman at the Hotel Esplanade, one of Berlin's swankiest, and the remark had been: 'This Madame Gorky is a very pleasant lady; one would never guess that she is a Bolshie...'
'Madame Gorky? Where the hell did you see her?'
My informant lowered his voice to a whisper: 'She is staying at our hotel. Came yesterday, but is registered under an assumed name. Only the manager knows who she really is. She doesn't want to be pestered by reporters.'
'And how do you know it?'
'We doormen know everything that goes on in the hotel,' he replied with a grin. 'Do you think we could keep our jobs for long if we didn't?'
What a story it would make to get an exclusive interview with Madame Gorky - the more so as not a word of her presence in Berlin had so far penetrated to the press... I was all at once on fire.
'Could you,' I asked my friend, 'somehow make it possible for me to see her?'
'Well, I don't know. She is obviously dead-set on keeping herself to herself... But I could do one thing: if you sit in the lobby in the evening, I might be able to point her out to you.'
That was a deal. I rushed back to my office at the United Telegraph; almost everyone had gone home by that time, but fortunately the news editor was still at his desk. I buttonholed him.
'Will you give me a press card if I promise to bring back a sensational story?'
'What kind of story?' he enquired suspiciously.
'You give me the press card and I'll give you the story. If I don't, you can always have the card back.'
Finally the old news-hound agreed, and I emerged from the office the proud possessor of a card which designated me as a representative of the United Telegraph.
The next few hours were spent in the lobby of the Esplanade. At nine o'clock my friend arrived on duty. From the doorway he winked at me, disappeared behind the reception desk and reappeared a few minutes later with the information that Madame Gorky was out.
'If you sit here long enough, you're sure to see her when she returns.'
At about eleven o'clock I caught my friend's signal. He was pointing surreptitiously to a lady who had just entered the revolving door: a small, delicate woman in her middle forties, dressed in an extremely well-cut black gown, with a long black silk cape trailing on the ground behind her. She was so genuinely aristocratic in her bearing that it was indeed difficult to imagine her as the wife of the 'working-man's poet,' and still more difficult as a citizen of the Soviet Union. Blocking her way, I bowed and proceeded to address her in my most engaging tones: 'Madame Gorky ...?’
For an instant she appeared startled, but then a soft smile lighted her beautiful, black eyes and she answered in a German that bore only a faint trace of Slav accent: 'I am not Madame Gorky... You are mistaken - my name is so-and-so' (giving a Russian-sounding name which I have forgotten).
'No, Madame Gorky,' I persisted, 'I know that I am not mistaken. I also know that you do not want to be bothered by us reporters - but it would mean a great deal, a very great deal to me to be allowed to speak to you for a few minutes. This is my first chance to establish myself. I am sure you would not like to destroy that chance...?' I showed her my press card. 'I got it only today, and I will have to return it unless I produce the story of my interview with Madame Gorky.'
The aristocratic lady continued to smile. 'And if I were to tell you on my word of honour that I am not Madame Gorky, would you believe me then?'
'If you were to tell me anything on your word of honour, I would believe it.'
She burst out laughing. 'You seem to be a nice little boy.' (Her graceful head reached hardly to my shoulder.) 'I am not going to tell you any more lies. You win. But we can't spend the rest of the evening here in the lobby. Would you give me the pleasure of having tea with me in my rooms?'
And so I had the pleasure of having tea with Madame Gorky in her rooms. For nearly an hour she vividly described the horrors of the famine; and when I left her after midnight, I had a thick sheaf of notes with me.
The sub-editors on night duty at the United Telegraph opened their eyes wide on seeing me at that unusual hour. But I did not bother to explain, for I had urgent work to do. Writing down my interview as quickly as I could, I booked, without waiting for editorial clearance, urgent press calls to all the newspapers we served.
Next morning the bomb burst. While none of the great Berlin dailies had a single word about Madame Gorky's presence in town, all the provincial papers served by our agency carried on their front pages the United Telegraph Special Representative's exclusive interview with Madame Gorky. The telephonist had made a first-class scoop.
In the afternoon a conference of editors took place in Dr. Dammert's office. I was called in and, after a preliminary lecture in which it was explained to me that no news item of importance ought ever to go out without first being cleared by the news editor, I was informed that I had been promoted to reporter.
At last I was a journalist.
— 4 —
SOFT STEPS in the sand: it is Zayd, returning from the well with a filled waterskin. He lets it fall with a plop on the ground near the fire and resumes cooking our dinner: rice and the meat of a little lamb that he bought in the village earlier in the evening. After a final stir with his ladle and a burst of steam from the pot, he turns to me:
'Wilt thou eat now, O my uncle?' - and without waiting for my reply, which, he knows, cannot be anything but Yes, he heaps the contents of the pot on to a large platter, sets it before me, and lifts one of our brass cans, filled with water, for me to wash my hands: 'Bismillāh, and may God grant us life.' And we fall to, sitting cross-legged opposite each other and eating with the fingers of the right hand.
We eat in silence. Neither of us has ever been a great talker. Besides, I have somehow been thrown into a mood of remembrance, thinking of the times that passed before I came to Arabia, before I even met Zayd; and so I cannot speak aloud, and speak only silently within myself and to myself, savouring the mood of my present through the many moods of my past.
After our meal, as I lean against my saddle, ray fingers playing with the sand, and gaze at the silent Arabian stars, I think how good it would be to have by my side someone to whom I could speak of all that has happened to me in those distant years. But there is nobody with me except Zayd. He is a good and faithful man and was my companion in many a day of loneliness; he is shrewd, delicate in perception and well versed in the ways of man. But as I look sidewise at his face - this clear-cut face framed in long tresses, now bent with serious absorption over the coffeepot, now turning toward the dromedaries which rest on the ground nearby and placidly chew their cud - I know that I need quite another listener: one who not only has had no part in that early past of mine but would also be far away from the sight and smell and sound of the present days and nights: one before whom I could unwrap the pinpoints of my remembrance one by one, so that his eyes might see them and my eyes might see them again, and who would thus help me to catch my own life within the net of my words. But there is nobody here but Zayd. And Zayd is the present.
— 1 —
WE RIDE, RIDE, two men on two dromedaries, and the morning glides past us.
'It is strange, very strange,' Zayd's voice breaks through the silence.
'What is strange, Zayd?'
'Is it not strange, O my uncle, that only a few days ago we were going to Tayma and now our camels' heads point toward Mecca? I am sure thou didst not know it thyself before that night. Thou art wayward like a badawi... like myself. Was it a jinn, O my uncle, who gave me that sudden decision, four years ago, to go to thee at Mecca - and gave thee now thy decision to go to Mecca? Are we letting ourselves be thus blown around by the winds because we do not know what we want?’
'No, Zayd - thou and I, we allow ourselves to be blown by the winds because we do know what we want: our hearts know it, even if our thoughts are sometimes slow to follow - but in the end they do catch up with our hearts and then we think we have made a decision ...'
PERHAPS MY HEART knew it even on that day ten years ago, when I stood on the planks of the ship that was bearing me on my first journey to the Near East, southward through the Black Sea, through the opaqueness of a white, rimless, foggy night, through a foggy morning, toward the Bosporus. The sea was leaden; sometimes foam sprayed over the deck; the pounding of the engines was like the beat of a heart.
I stood at the rail, looking out into the pale opaqueness. If you had asked me what I was thinking then, or what expectations I was carrying with me into this first venture to the East, I would hardly have been able to give a clear answer. Curiosity - perhaps: but it was a curiosity which did not take itself very seriously because it seemed to aim at things of no great importance. The fog of my uneasiness, which seemed to find something related in the welling fog over the sea, was not directed toward foreign lands and the people of coming days. The images of a near future, the strange cities and appearances, the foreign clothes and manners which were to reveal themselves so soon to my eyes hardly occupied my thoughts. I regarded this journey as something accidental and took it, as it were, in my stride, as a pleasing but nevertheless not too important interlude. At that moment my thoughts were perturbed and distracted by what I took to be a preoccupation with my past.
The past? Did I have any? I was twenty-two years old . . . But my generation - the generation of those who had been born at the turn of the century - had lived perhaps more quickly than any other before it, and to me it seemed as if I were looking back into a long expanse of time. All the difficulties and adventures of those years stood before my eyes, all those longings and attempts and disappointments - and the women - and my first assaults on life . . . Those endless nights under stars, when one did not quite know what one wanted and walked with a friend through the empty streets, speaking of ultimate things, quite forgetting how empty the pockets were and how insecure the coming day . . . A happy discontent which only youth can feel, and the desire to change the world and to build it anew . . . How should community be shaped so that men could live rightly and in fullness? How should their relationships be arranged so that they might break through the loneliness which surrounded every man, and truly live in communion? What is good - and what evil? What is destiny? Or, to put it differently: what should one do to become really, and not merely in pretensions, identical with one's own life so that one could say, 'I and my destiny are one?' Discussions which never came to an end . . . The literary cafes of Vienna and Berlin, with their interminable arguments about 'form,' 'style' and 'expression,' about the meaning of political freedom, about the meeting of man and woman.. Hunger for understanding, and sometimes for food as well... And the nights spent in passions without restraint: a dishevelled bed at dawn, when the excitement of the night was ebbing, and slowly became grey and rigid and desolate: but when the morning came one had forgotten the ashes of the dawn and walked again with swinging steps and felt the earth tremble joyfully under one's feet . . . The excitement of a new book or a new face; searching, and finding half-replies; and those very rare moments when the world seemed suddenly, for seconds, to stand still, illumined by the flash of an understanding that promised to reveal something that had never been touched before: an answer to all the questions ...
THEY HAD BEEN strange years, those early Twenties in Central Europe. The general atmosphere of social and moral insecurity had given rise to a desperate hopefulness which expressed itself in daring experiments in music, painting and the theatre, as well as in groping, often revolutionary enquiries into the morphology of culture; but hand-in-hand with this forced optimism went a spiritual emptiness, a vague, cynical relativism born out of increasing hopelessness with regard to the future of man.
In spite of my youth, it had not remained hidden from me that after the catastrophe of the Great War things were no longer right in the broken-up, discontented, emotionally tense and high-pitched European world. Its real deity, I saw, was no longer of a spiritual kind: it was Comfort. No doubt there were still many individuals who felt and thought in religious terms and made the most desperate efforts to reconcile their moral beliefs with the spirit of their civilization, but they were only exceptions. The average European - whether democrat or communist, manual worker or intellectual - seemed to know only one positive faith: the worship of material progress, the belief that there could be no other goal in life than to make that very life continually easier or, as the current expression went, 'independent of nature'. The temples of that faith were the gigantic factories, cinemas, chemical laboratories, dance-halls, hydroelectric works; and its priests were the bankers, engineers, politicians, film stars, statisticians, captains of industry, record airmen, and commissars. Ethical frustration was evident in the all-round lack of agreement about the meaning of Good and Evil and in the submission of all social and economic issues to the rule of 'expediency' - that painted lady of the streets, willing to give herself to anybody, at any time, whenever she is invoked ... The insatiable craving after power and pleasure had, of necessity, led to the break-up of Western society into hostile groups armed to the teeth and determined to destroy each other whenever and wherever their respective interests clashed. And on the cultural side, the outcome was the creation of a human type whose morality appeared to be confined to the question of practical utility alone, and whose highest criterion of right and wrong was material success.
I saw how confused and unhappy our life had become; how little there was of real communion between man and man despite all the strident, almost hysterical, insistence on 'community' and 'nation'; how far we had strayed from our instincts; and how narrow, how musty our souls had become. I saw all this: but somehow it never seriously occurred to me - as it never seems to have occurred to any of the people around me - that an answer, or at least partial answers, to these perplexities might perhaps be gained from other than Europe's own cultural experiences. Europe was the beginning and the end of all our thinking: and even my discovery of Lao-tse - at the age of seventeen or so had not altered my outlook in this respect.
IT WAS A REAL discovery; I had never before heard of Lao-tse and had not the slightest inkling of his philosophy when one day I chanced upon a German translation of the Tao-te-king lying on the counter of a Viennese bookshop. The strange name and title made me mildly curious. Opening the book at random, I glanced at one of its short, aphoristic sections - and felt a sudden thrill, like a stab of happiness, which made me forget my surroundings and kept me rooted where I stood, spellbound, with the book in my hands: for in it I saw human life in all its serenity, free of all cleavages and conflicts, rising up in that quiet gladness which is always open to the human heart whenever it cares to avail itself of its own freedom . . . This was truth, I knew it: a truth that had always been true, although we had forgotten it: and now I recognized it with the joy with which one returns to one's long-lost home...
From that time onward, for several years, Lao-tse was to me a window through which I could look out into the glass-clear regions of a life that was far away from all narrowness and all self-created fears, free of the childish obsession which was forcing us, from moment to moment, always to secure our existence anew by means of 'material improvement' at any price. Not that material improvement seemed to be wrong or even unnecessary to me: on the contrary, I continued to regard it as good and necessary: but at the same time I was convinced that it could never achieve its end - to increase the sum total of human happiness - unless it were accompanied by a reorientation of our spiritual attitude and a new faith in absolute values. But how such a reorientation could be brought about and of what kind the new valuations were to be was not quite clear to me. It would certainly have been idle to expect that men would change their aims - and thus the direction of their endeavours - as soon as someone started preaching to them, as Lao-tse did, that one should open oneself up to life instead of trying to grab it to himself and thus to do violence to it. Preaching alone, intellectual realization alone could obviously not produce a change in the spiritual attitude of European society; a new faith of the heart was needed, a burning surrender to values which tolerated no Ifs and Buts: but whence to gain such a faith...?
It somehow did not enter my mind that Lao-tse's mighty challenge was aimed not merely at a passing and therefore changeable intellectual attitude, but at some of the most fundamental concepts out of which that attitude springs. Had I known this, I would have been forced to conclude that Europe could not possibly attain to that weightless serenity of soul of which Lao-tse spoke, unless it summoned the courage to question its own spiritual and ethical roots. I was, of course, too young to arrive consciously at such a conclusion: too young to grasp the challenge of the Chinese sage in all its implications and its entire grandeur. True, his message shook me to my innermost; it revealed to me the vista of a life in which man could become one with his destiny and so with himself: but as I did not clearly see how such a philosophy could transcend mere contemplation and be translated into reality in the context of the European way of life, I gradually began to doubt whether it was realizable at all. I had not yet reached the point where I would even ask myself whether the European way of life was, in its fundamentals, the only possible way. In other words, like all the other people around me, I was entirely wrapped up in Europe's egocentric cultural outlook.
And so, although his voice was never quite silenced, Lao-tse receded, step by step, into the background of contemplative fantasies, and in time ceased to be more than the bearer of lovely poetry. One continued to read him off and on and felt each time the stab of a happy vision; but each time one put the book away with a wistful regret that this was only a dream call to some ivory tower. And although I felt very much at odds with the discordant bitter, greedy world of which I was a part, I did not wish to live in an ivory tower.
Still, there was no warmth in me for any of the aims and endeavours which at that time flowed through Europe's intellectual atmosphere and filled its literature, art and politics with a buzz of animated controversies - for, however contradictory to one another most of those aims and endeavours may have been, they all had obviously one thing in common: the naive assumption that life could be lifted out of its present confusion and 'bettered' if only its outward - economic or political - conditions were bettered. I strongly felt even then that material progress, by itself, could not provide a solution; and although I did not quite know where a solution might be found, I was never able to evince within myself that enthusiasm which my contemporaries had for 'progress'.
Not that I was unhappy. I had never been an introvert, and just then I was enjoying a more than usual measure of success in my practical affairs. While I was hardly inclined to give much weight to a 'career' as such, work at the United Telegraph - where owing to my knowledge of languages, I was now sub-editor in charge of the news service for the Scandinavian press - seemed to open many avenues into the broader world. The Cafe des Westens and its spiritual successor, the Romanisches Cafe - meeting places of the most outstanding writers, artists, journalists, actors, producers of the day - represented something like an intellectual home to me. I stood on friendly and sometimes even familiar terms with people who bore famous names, and regarded myself - at least in outlook if not in fame - as one of them. Deep friendships and fleeting loves came my way. Life was exciting, full of promise and colourful in the variety of its impressions. No, I was certainly not unhappy - only deeply dissatisfied, unsatisfied, not knowing what I was really after, and at the same time convinced, with the absurd arrogance of youth, that one day I would know it. And so I swung along on the pendulum of my heart's content and discontent in exactly the same way as many other young people were doing in those strange years: for, while none of us was really unhappy, only a very few seemed to be consciously happy.
I was not unhappy: but my inability to share the diverse social, economic and political hopes of those around me - of any group among them - grew in time into a vague sense of not quite belonging to them, accompanied, vaguely again, by a desire to belong – to whom? – to be a part of something - of what?
AND THEN ONE DAY, in the spring of 1922, I received a letter from my uncle Dorian.
Dorian was my mother's youngest brother. Our relationship had always been rather that of friends than of uncle and nephew. He was a psychiatrist - one of the early pupils of Freud - and at that time headed a mental hospital in Jerusalem. As he was not a Zionist himself and did not particularly sympathize with the aims of Zionism - nor, for that matter, was attracted to the Arabs - he felt lonely and isolated in a world which had nothing to offer him but work and income. Being unmarried, he thought of his nephew as a likely companion in his solitude. In his letter he referred to those exciting days in Vienna when he had guided me into the new world of psychoanalysis; and he concluded: 'Why don't you come and stay some months with me here? I will pay for your journey coming and going; you will be free to return to Berlin whenever you like. And while you are here, you will be living in a delightful old Arab stone house which is cool in summer (and damned cold in winter). We shall spend our time well together. I have plenty of books here, and when you get tired of observing the quaint scenery around you, you can read as much as you want...'
I made up my mind with the promptness that has always characterized my major decisions. Next morning I informed Dr. Dammert at the United Telegraph that 'important business considerations' forced me to go to the Near East, and that I would therefore have to quit the agency within a week...
If anyone had told me at that time that my first acquaintance with the world of Islam would go far beyond a holiday experience and indeed become a turning point in my life, I would have laughed off the idea as utterly preposterous. Not that I was impervious to the allure of countries associated in my mind - as in the minds of most Europeans - with the romantic atmosphere of the Arabian Nights: I did anticipate colour, exotic customs, picturesque encounters; but it never occurred to me to anticipate adventures in the realm of the spirit as well, and the new journey did not seem to hold out any special promise of a personal nature. All the ideas and impressions that had previously come my way I had instinctively related to the Western world-view, hoping to attain to a broader reach of feeling and perception within the only cultural environment known to me. And, if you come to think of it, how could I have felt differently? I was only a very, very young European, brought up in the belief that Islam and all it stood for was no more than a romantic by-path of man's history, not even quite 'respectable' from the spiritual and ethical points of view, and therefore not to be mentioned in the same breath, still less to be compared, with the only two faiths which the West considers fit to be taken seriously: Christianity and Judaism.
It was with this hazy, European bias against things Islamic (though not, of course, against the romanticized outward appearances of Muslim life) that I set out in the summer of 1922 on my journey. If, in fairness to myself, I cannot say that I was self- absorbed in an individual sense, I was none the less, without knowing it, deeply enmeshed in that self-absorbed, culturally egocentric mentality so characteristic of the West at all times.
AND NOW I STOOD on the planks of a ship on my way to the East. A leisurely journey had brought me to Constanza and thence into this foggy morning.
A red sail emerged out of the veils of fog and slipped by close to the ship; and because it had become visible, one knew that the sun was about to break through the fog. A few pale rays, thin as threads, fell on the mist over the sea. Their paleness had something of the hardness of metal. Under their pressure the milky masses of fog settled slowly and heavily over the water, then bent apart, and finally rose to the right and left of the sun rays in widespread, drifting arcs, like wings. 'Good morning,' said a deep, full voice. I turned around and recognized the black cassock of my companion of the previous evening, and the friendly smile on a face which I had grown to like during the few hours of our acquaintance. The Jesuit padre was half Polish and half French and taught history at a college in Alexandria; he was now returning there from a vacation. We had spent the evening after embarkation in lively talk. Although it soon became apparent that we differed widely on many issues, we had, nevertheless, many points of interest in common; and I was already mature enough to recognize that here was a brilliant, serious and at the same time humorous mind at work.
'Good morning, Father Felix; look at the sea… '
Daylight and colour had come up with the sun. We stood in the bow of the ship under the morning wind. Tempted by the impossibility, I tried to determine for myself the movement of colour in the breaking waves. Blue? Green? Grey? It could have been blue - but already a shimmer of amaranth red, reflecting the sun, glided over the concave slope of the wave, while the crest broke up into snowy foam and steel-grey, crinkly rags raced over it. What a moment ago had been a wave-hill was now a trembling movement - the breaking-open of a thousand minute, independent eddies in whose shaded cavities the amaranth red changed into deep, satiated green; then the green rose up, changing into oscillating violet, which at first fell back into wine red, but immediately after shot up as turquoise blue and became the crest of the wave, only to break up again; and again the white foam spread its net domineeringly over the writhing water-hills ... And on and on went the unending play...
It gave me an almost physical sensation of disquiet never to be able to grasp this play of colours and its eternally changing rhythm. When I looked at it quite superficially, only from the corner of my eye, as it were, I felt, for seconds, that it might be possible to catch all this within an integrated image; but deliberate concentration, the habit of connecting one isolated concept with another, led to nothing but a series of broken-up, separate pictures. But out of this difficulty, this strangely irritating confusion, an idea came to me with great clarity - or so it seemed to me at the time - and I said, almost involuntarily:
'Whoever could grasp all this with his senses would be able to master destiny.'
'I know what you mean,' replied Father Felix, 'But why should one desire to master destiny? To escape from suffering? Would it not be better to become free of destiny?'
'You are speaking almost like a Buddhist, Father Felix. Do you, too, regard Nirvana as the goal of all being?'
'Oh no, certainly not... We Christians do not aim at the extinction of life and feeling - we desire only to lift life out of the region of the material and sensual into the realm of the spirit.'
'But is this not renunciation?'
'It is no renunciation, my young friend. It is the only way to true life, to peace...'
The Bosporus opened itself to us, a broad waterway framed on both sides by rocky hills. Here and there one could see pillared, airy palaces, terraced gardens, cypresses rising up in all their dark height, and old janissary castles, heavy masses of stone hanging over the water like the nests of birds of prey. As if from a great distance, I heard the voice of Father Felix continue:
'You see, the deepest symbol of longing - all people's longing - is the symbol of Paradise; you find it in all religions, always in different imageries, but the meaning is always the same - namely the desire to be free from destiny. The people of Paradise had no destiny; they acquired it only after they succumbed to the temptation of the flesh and thus fell into what we call Original Sin: the stumbling of the spirit over the hindering urges of the body, which are indeed only the animal remnants within man's nature. The essential, the human, the humanly-divine part of man is his soul alone. The soul strives toward light, which is spirit: but because of the Original Sin its way is hampered by obstacles arising from the material, non-divine composition of the body and its urges. What the Christian teaching aims at is, therefore, man's freeing himself from the non-essential, ephemeral, carnal aspects of his life and returning to his spiritual heritage.'
The ancient, twin-towered fortress of Rumili Hissar appeared; one of its crenellated walls sloped down almost to the water's edge; on the shore, within the semicircle formed by the fortress walls, lay dreaming a little Turkish cemetery with broken-down tombstones.
'It may be so, Father Felix. But I feel - and this is the feeling of many people of my generation - I feel that there is something wrong in making a distinction between the "essential" and the "non-essential" in the structure of man, and in separating spirit and flesh ... in short, I cannot agree with your denying all righteousness to physical urges, to the flesh, to earthbound destiny. My desire goes elsewhere: I dream of a form of life - though I must confess I do not see it clearly as yet - in which the entire man, spirit and flesh, would strive after a deeper and deeper fulfilment of his Self - in which the spirit and the senses would not be enemies to one another, and in which man could achieve unity within himself and with the meaning of his destiny, so that on the summit of his days he could say, "I am my destiny."
'That was the Hellenic dream,' replied Father Felix, 'and where did it lead? First to the Orphic and Dionysian mysteries, then to Plato and Plotinus, and so, again, to the inevitable realization that spirit and flesh are opposed to one another ... To make the spirit free from the domination of the flesh: this is the meaning of Christian salvation, the meaning of our belief in the Lord's self-sacrifice on the Cross...' Here he interrupted himself and turned to me with a twinkle: 'Oh, I am not always a missionary ... pardon me if I speak to you of my faith, which is not yours...'
'But I have none,' I assured him.
'Yes,' said Father Felix, 'I know; the lack of faith, or rather the inability to believe, is the central illness of our time. You, like so many others, are living in an illusion which is thousands of years old: the illusion that intellect alone can give a direction to man's striving. But the intellect cannot reach spiritual knowledge by itself because it is too much absorbed in the achievement of material goals; it is faith, and faith alone, that can release us from such an absorption.'
'Faith ...?' I asked. 'You again bring in this word. There is one thing I can't understand: you say it is impossible to attain through intellect alone to knowledge and to a righteous life; faith is needed, you say. I agree with you entirely. But how does one achieve faith if one has none? Is there a way to it - I mean, a way open to our will?’
'My dear friend - will alone is not enough. The way is only opened by God's grace. But it is always opened to him who prays from the innermost of his heart for enlightenment.'
'To pray! But when one is able to do this, Father Felix, one already has faith. You choose to lead me around in a circle - for if a man prays, he must already be convinced of the existence of Him to whom he prays. How did he come to this conviction? Through his intellect? Would not this amount to admitting that faith can be found through the intellect? And apart from that, can "grace" mean anything to somebody who has never had an experience of this kind?'
The priest shrugged his shoulders, regretfully, it seemed to me: 'If one has not been able to experience God by himself, one should allow himself to be guided by the experiences of others who have experienced Him ...'
A FEW DAYS LATER we landed at Alexandria and the same afternoon I went on to Palestine.
The train swept straight as an arrow through the afternoon and the soft, humid Delta landscape. Nile canals, shaded by the sails of many barges, crossed our path. Small towns, dust-grey clusters of houses and lighter minarets, came and went. Villages consisting of box-shaped mud huts swept past. Harvested cotton fields; sprouting sugar-cane fields; abundantly overgrown palms over a village mosque; water buffaloes, black, heavy-limbed, now going home without guide from the muddy pools in which they had been wallowing during the day. In the distance, men in long garments: they seemed to float, so light and clear was the air under the high, blue sky of glass. On the banks of the canals reeds swayed in the wind; women in black tulle cloaks were scooping water into earthenware jars: wonderful women, slender, long-limbed; in their walk they reminded me of long-stemmed plants that sway tenderly and yet full of strength in the wind. Young girls and matrons had the same floating walk.
The dusk grew and flowed like the breath of some great, resting, living being. As the slim men were walking homeward from the fields, their movements appeared lengthened and at the same time lifted out of the slowly disappearing day: each step seemed to have an existence of its own, rounded in itself: between eternity and eternity always that one step. This appearance of lightness and smoothness was perhaps due to the exhilarating evening light of the Nile Delta - perhaps also to my own restlessness at seeing so many new things - but whatever the cause, I suddenly felt in myself all the weight of Europe: the weight of deliberate purpose in all our actions. I thought to myself, 'How difficult it is for us to attain to reality... We always try to grab it: but it does not like to be grabbed. Only where it overwhelms man does it surrender itself to him.'
The step of the Egyptian field labourers, already lost in distance and darkness, continued to swing in my mind like a hymn of all high things.
We reached the Suez Canal, made a turn at a right angle, and glided for a while toward the north along the grey-black bank. It was like a drawn-out melody, this long line of the canal at night. The moonlight turned the waterway into something like a real but dream-broad way, a dark band of shining metal. The satiated earth of the Nile valley had with astonishing rapidity made room for chains of sand dunes which enclosed the canal on both sides with a paleness and sharpness rarely to be seen in any other night landscape. In the listening silence stood, here and there, the skeleton of a dredge. Beyond, on the other bank, a camel-rider rushed by, rushed by - hardly seen and already swallowed by the night... What a great, simple stream: from the Red Sea, through the Bitter Lakes, to the Mediterranean Sea - right across a desert - so that the Indian Ocean might beat on the quays of Europe...
At Kantara the train journey was interrupted for a while and a lazy ferry carried the travellers across the silent water. There was almost an hour before the departure of the Palestinian train. I sat down before the station building. The air was warm and dry. There was the desert: to the right and to the left. Shimmering grey, smudged over, broken through by isolated barking - perhaps it was jackals, perhaps dogs. A beduin, heavily loaded with saddlebags made of bright carpet cloth, came from the ferry and walked toward a group in the distance, which only now I recognized as motionless men and crouching camels, ready-saddled for the march. It seemed that the new arrival had been expected. He threw his saddlebags over one of the animals, a few words were exchanged, all the men mounted and, at the same moment, the camels rose, first on their hind legs, then on their forelegs - the riders rocked forward and backward - then they rode away with soft, swishing sounds, and for a while you could follow the light-coloured, swaying bodies of the animals and the wide, brown-and-white-striped beduin cloaks.
A railway workman strolled toward me. He wore a blue overall and seemed to be lame. He lit his cigarette from mine, then asked me, in broken French:
'You are going to Jerusalem?' And when I said yes, he continued: 'For the first time?'
I nodded. He was about to go on, then turned back and said: 'Did you see over there the big caravan from the Sinai Desert? No? Then come along, let us visit them. You have time.'
The soles of our shoes crunched in the sand as we walked through the silent emptiness up a narrow, well-trodden path which led into the dunes. A dog barked in the darkness. As we went on, stumbling over low thorn bushes, voices reached my ears - confused, muffled, as of many people - and the sharp and nevertheless soft smell of many resting animal bodies mingled with the dry desert air. Suddenly - just as you might see in a city, during a foggy night, the shimmer of an as yet invisible lamp grow up from behind a street corner and make only the fog shine - a narrow streak of light appeared from down below, as if from underground, and climbed steeply into the dark air. It was the shine of a fire, coming from a deep gorge between two sand dunes, so thickly covered with thorn bushes that one could not see its bottom. I could now clearly hear men's voices, but the speakers were still invisible. I heard the breathing of camels, and how they rubbed against one another in the narrow space. A big, black human shadow fell over the light, ran up the opposite slope and down again. After a few more steps I could see it all — a great circle of crouching camels with heaps of pack-saddles and bags here and there, and among them the figures of men. The animal smell was sweet and heavy like wine. Sometimes one of the camels moved its body, which was smudged out of its shape by the darkness around it, lifted its neck and drew in the night air with a snorting sound, as if sighing: and thus I heard for the first time the sighing of camels. A sheep bleated softly; a dog growled; and everywhere outside the gorge the night was black and starless.
It was already late; I had to get back to the station. But I walked very slowly, down the path by which we had come, dazed and strangely shaken, as if by a mysterious experience which had caught hold of a corner of my heart and would not let me go.
THE TRAIN CARRIED ME through the Sinai Desert. I was exhausted, sleepless from the cold of the desert night and the rocking of the train over rails resting on loose sand. Opposite me sat a beduin in a voluminous brown abāya. He also was freezing and had wrapped his face in his headcloth. He sat cross-legged on the bench, and on his knees lay a curved sword in a scabbard ornamented with silver. It was nearly morning. You could almost recognize the outlines of the dunes outside, and the cactus bushes.
I can still remember how the dawn broke - grey-black, painting shapes, slowly drawing outlines - and how it gradually lifted the sand dunes out of the darkness and built them into harmonious masses. In the growing half-light, a group of tents appeared and rushed by, and near them, silver-grey, like fog curtains in the wind, fishing nets spread vertically between poles for drying: fishing nets in the desert - blowing in the morning wind - dream veils, transparent, unreal, between night and day.
To the right was the desert; to the left the sea. On the shore a lonely camel-rider; perhaps he had been riding all night; now he seemed to be asleep, slumped in the saddle, and they both rocked, man and camel, in a common rhythm. Again black beduin tents. Already there were women outside with earthenware jars on their heads, ready to go to the well. Out of the half-light that grew into light a diaphanous world was emerging, moved by invisible pulses, a wonder of all that is simple and can never end.
The sun struck out over the sand with broader and broader rays and the greyness of dawn burst into an orange-golden firework. We sped on through the oasis of Al-Arish, through colonnaded cathedrals of palms with a thousand pointed arches of palm fronds and a brown-green latticework of light and shade. I saw a woman with a filled jar on her head coming from the well and going slowly up a path under the palms. She wore a red-and-blue dress with a long train and was like a high lady from a legend.
The palm orchards of Al-Arish disappeared as suddenly as they had come. We were now travelling through shell-coloured light. Outside, behind the shaking windowpanes, a stillness such as I never had thought possible. All forms and movements were devoid of a yesterday and a tomorrow - they were simply there, in a heady uniqueness. Delicate sand, built up by the wind into soft hillocks that glowed pale orange under the sun, like very old parchment, only softer, less brittle in their breaks and curves, swinging in sharp, decisive violin strokes on the summits, infinitely tender in the flanks, with translucent water-colour shadows - purple and lilac and rusty pink - in the shallow dips and hollows. Opalescent clouds, cactus bushes here and there and sometimes long-stemmed, hard grasses. Once or twice I saw spare, barefooted beduins and a camel caravan loaded with palm fronds which they were carrying from somewhere to somewhere. I felt enwrapped by the great landscape.
Several times we stopped at small stations, usually no more than a few barracks of timber and tin. Brown, tattered boys ran around with baskets and offered figs, hard-boiled eggs and fresh, flat loaves of bread for sale. The beduin opposite me rose slowly, unwound his headcloth and opened the window. His face was thin, brown, sharply drawn, one of those hawk faces which always look intently ahead. He bought a piece of cake, turned around and was about to sit down, when his eye fell on me; and, without a word, he broke his cake in two and offered me half. When he saw my hesitation and astonishment, he smiled - and I saw that the tender smile fitted his face as well as the intentness of a moment ago - and said a word which I could not understand then but now know was tafaddal - 'grant me the favour.' I took the cake and thanked him with a nod. Another traveller - he wore, with the exception of his red fez, European clothes and may have been a small trader - intervened as translator. In halting English he said:
'He say, you traveller, he traveller; your way and his way is together.'
When I now think of this little occurrence, it seems to me that all my later love for the Arab character must have been influenced by it. For in the gesture of this beduin, who, over all barriers of strangeness, sensed a friend in an accidental travelling companion and broke bread with him, I must already have felt the breath and the step of a humanity free of burden.
After a short while came old Gaza, like a castle of mud, living its forgotten life on a sand hill between cactus walls. My beduin collected his saddlebags, saluted me with a grave smile and a nod and left the carriage, sweeping the dust behind him with the long train of his cloak. Two other beduins stood outside on the platform and greeted him with a handshake and a kiss on both cheeks.
The English-speaking trader put his hand on my arm: 'Come along, still quarter-hour time.'
Beyond the station building a caravan was encamped; they were, my companion informed me, beduins from northern Hijaz. They had brown, dusty, wild-warm faces. Our friend was among them. He appeared to be a person of some account, for they stood in a loose semicircle around him and answered his questions. The trader spoke to them and they turned toward us, friendly - and, I thought, somewhat superciliously - considering our urban existence. An atmosphere of freedom surrounded them, and I felt a strong desire to understand their lives. The air was dry, vibrating, and seemed to penetrate the body. It loosened all stiffness, disentangled all thoughts and made them lazy and still. There was a quality of timelessness in it which made all things seen and heard and smelled assume distinct values in their own right. It began to dawn on me that people who come from the environment of the desert must sense life in a way quite different from that of people in all other regions; they must be free from many obsessions - perhaps also from many dreams - peculiar to inhabitants of colder, richer lands, and certainly from many of their limitations; and because they have to rely more intimately on their own perceptions, these desert dwellers must set a quite different scale of values to the things of the world.
Perhaps it was a presentiment of coming upheavals in my own life that gripped me on that first day in an Arab country at the sight of the beduins: the presentiment of a world which lacks all defining limits but is, none the less, never formless; which is fully rounded in itself - and nevertheless open on all sides: a world that was soon to become my own. Not that I was then conscious of what the future held in store for me; of course not. It was, rather, as when you enter a strange house for the first time and an indefinable smell in the hallway gives you dimly a hint of things which will happen in this house, and will happen to you: and if they are to be joyful things, you feel a stab of rapture in your heart - and you will remember it much later, when all those happenings have long since taken place, and you will tell yourself: 'All this I have sensed long ago, thus and in no other way, in that first moment in the hall.'
A STRONG WIND blows through the desert, and for a while Zayd thinks we are going to have another sandstorm. But although no sandstorm comes, the wind does not leave us. It follows us in steady gusts, and the gusts flow together into a single, unbroken sough as we descend into a sandy valley. The palm village in its centre, consisting of several separate settlements - each surrounded by a mud wall - is veiled in a mist of whirling sand dust.
This area is a kind of wind hole: every day from dawn to sunset the wind beats here with strong wings, settling down during the night, only to rise again the next morning with renewed force; and the palm trees, eternally pressed down by its blows cannot grow to their full height but remain stunted, close to the ground, with broad-spread fronds, always in danger from the encroaching dunes. The village would have long ago been buried in the sands had not the inhabitants planted rows of tamarisks around every orchard. These tall trees, more resistant than palms, form with their strong trunks and ever-green, rustling branches a living wall around the plantations, offering them a doubtful security.
We alight before the mud house of the village amīr, intending to rest here during the noon heat. The qahwa set aside for the reception of guests is bare and poverty-stricken and displays only one small straw mat before the stone coffee hearth. But, as usual, Arabian hospitality overcomes all poverty: for hardly have we taken our places on the mat when a friendly fire of twigs crackles on the hearth; the ringing sound of the brass mortar in which freshly-roasted coffee beans are being pounded gives a liveable character to the room; and a mighty platter piled with light- brown dates meets the hunger of the travellers.
Our host - a small, lean old man with rheumy, squinting eyes, clad only in a cotton tunic and a headcloth - invites us to partake of this fare:
'May God give you life; this house is your house, eat in the name of God. This is all we have' - and he makes an apologetic gesture with his hand, a single movement in which the whole weight of his fate is expressed with that artless power of evocation so peculiar to people who live close to their instincts - 'but the dates are not bad. Eat, O wayfarers, of what we can offer you...'
The dates are really among the best I have ever eaten; and the host is obviously pleased by our hunger which he can satisfy. And he goes on:
'The wind, the wind, it makes our life hard; but that is God's will. The wind destroys our plantations. We must always struggle to keep them from being covered by sand. It has not always been thus. In earlier times there was not so much wind here, and the village was big and rich. Now it has grown small; many of our young men are going away, for not everyone can bear such a life. The sands are closing in on us day by day. Soon there will be no room left for the palms. This wind... But we do not complain. . . As you know, the Prophet - may God bless him - told us: "God says, Revile not destiny, for, behold - I am destiny…"
I must have started, for the old man stops speaking and looks at me attentively; and, as if comprehending why I started, he smiles with almost a woman's smile, strange to see in that tired, worn-out face, and repeats softly, as if to himself:
'. . . behold, I am destiny' - and in the nod with which he accompanies his words lies a proud, silent acceptance of his own place in life; and never have I seen, even in happy people, a Yes to reality expressed with so much quiet and sureness. With a wide, vague, almost sensual turn of his arm he describes a circle in the air - a circle which encompasses everything that belongs to this life: the poor, dusky room, the wind and its eternal roar, the relentless advance of the sands; longing for happiness, and resignation to what cannot be changed; the platter full of dates; the struggling orchards behind their shield of tamarisks; the fire on the hearth; a young woman's laughter somewhere in the courtyard beyond: and in all these things and in the gesture that has brought them out and together I seem to hear the song of a strong spirit which knows no barriers of circumstance and is at peace with itself.
I am carried back to a time long past, to that autumn day in Jerusalem ten years ago, when another poor old man spoke to me of surrender to God, which alone can cause one to be at peace with Him and so with one's own destiny.
DURING THAT AUTUMN I was living in my uncle Dorian's house just inside the Old City of Jerusalem. It rained almost every day and, not being able to go out much, I often sat at the window which overlooked a large yard behind the house. This yard belonged to an old Arab who was called hājji because he had performed the pilgrimage to Mecca; he rented out donkeys for riding and carrying and thus made the yard a kind of caravanserai.
Every morning, shortly before dawn, loads of vegetables and fruits were brought there on camels from the surrounding villages and sent out on donkeys into the narrow bazaar streets of the town. In daytime the heavy bodies of the camels could be seen resting on the ground; men were always noisily attending to them and to the donkeys, unless they were forced to take refuge in the stables from the streaming rain. They were poor, ragged men, those camel and donkey drivers, but they behaved like great lords. When they sat together at meals on the ground and ate flat loaves of wheat bread with a little bit of cheese or a few olives, I could not but admire the nobility and ease of their bearing and their inner quiet: you could see that they had respect for themselves and the everyday things of their lives. The hājji, hobbling around on a stick - for he suffered from arthritis and had swollen knees - was a kind of chieftain among them; they appeared to obey him without question. Several times a day he assembled them for prayer and, if it was not raining too hard, they prayed in the open: all the men in a single, long row and he as their imām in front of them. They were like soldiers in the precision of their movements - they would bow together in the direction of Mecca, rise again, and then kneel down and touch the ground with their foreheads; they seemed to follow the inaudible words of their leader, who between the prostrations stood barefoot on his prayer carpet, eyes closed, arms folded over his chest, soundlessly moving his lips and obviously lost in deep absorption: you could see that he was praying with his whole soul.
It somehow disturbed me to see so real a prayer combined with almost mechanical body movements, and one day I asked the hājji, who understood a little English:
'Do you really believe that God expects you to show Him your respect by repeated bowing and kneeling and prostration? Might it not be better only to look into oneself and to pray to Him in the stillness of one's heart? Why all these movements of your body?'
As soon as I had uttered these words I felt remorse, for I had not intended to injure the old man's religious feelings. But the hājji did not appear in the least offended. He smiled with his toothless mouth and replied:
'How else then should we worship God? Did He not create both, soul and body, together? And this being so, should man not pray with his body as well as with his soul? Listen, I will tell you why we Muslims pray as we pray. We turn toward the Kaaba, God's holy temple in Mecca, knowing that the faces of all Muslims, wherever they may be, are turned to it in prayer, and that we are like one body, with Him as the centre of our thoughts. First we stand upright and recite from the Holy Koran, remembering that it is His Word, given to man that he may be upright and steadfast in life. Then we say, "God is the Greatest," reminding ourselves that no one deserves to be worshipped but Him; and bow down deep because we honour Him above all, and praise His power and glory. Thereafter we prostrate ourselves on our foreheads because we feel that we are but dust and nothingness before Him, and that He is our Creator and Sustainer on high. Then we lift our faces from the ground and remain sitting, praying that He forgive us our sins and bestow His grace upon us, and guide us aright, and give us health and sustenance. Then we again prostrate ourselves on the ground and touch the dust with our foreheads before the might and the glory of the One. After that, we remain sitting and pray that He bless the Prophet Muhammad who brought His message to us, just as He blessed the earlier Prophets; and that He bless us as well, and all those who follow the right guidance; and we ask Him to give us of the good of this world and of the good of the world to come. In the end we turn our heads to the right and to the left, saying, "Peace and the grace of God be upon you" - and thus greet all who are righteous, wherever they may be.
'It was thus that our Prophet used to pray and taught his followers to pray for all times, so that they might willingly surrender themselves to God - which is what Islam means - and so be at peace with Him and with their own destiny.'
The old man did not, of course, use exactly these words, but this was their meaning, and this is how I remember them. Years later I realized that with his simple explanation the hājji had opened to me the first door to Islam; but even then, long before any thought that Islam might become my own faith entered my mind, I began to feel an unwonted humility whenever I saw, as I often did, a man standing barefoot on his prayer rug, or on a straw mat, or on the bare earth, with his arms folded over his chest and his head lowered, entirely submerged within himself, oblivious of what was going on around him, whether it was in a mosque or on the sidewalk of a busy street: a man at peace with himself.
THE 'ARAB STONE HOUSE' of which Dorian had written was really delightful. It stood on the fringe of the Old City near the Jaffa Gate. Its wide, high-ceilinged rooms seemed to be saturated with memories of the patrician life that had passed through them in earlier generations and the walls reverberated with the living present surging into them from the bazaar nearby - sights and sounds and smells that were unlike anything I had experienced before.
From the roof terrace I could see the sharply outlined area of the Old City with its network of irregular streets and alleys carved in stone. At the other end, seemingly near in its mighty expanse, was the site of Solomon's Temple; the Al-Aqsa Mosque - the most sacred after those of Mecca and Medina - stood on its farthest rim, and the Dome of the Rock in the centre. Beyond it, the Old City walls fell off toward the Valley of Kidron; and beyond the valley grew softly rounded, barren hills, their slopes thinly spotted with olive trees. Toward the east there was a little more fertility, and you could see there a garden sloping down toward the road, dark-green, hedged in by walls: the Garden of Gethsemane. From its midst shone between olive trees and cypresses the golden, onion-shaped domes of the Russian Church.
Like an oscillating brew from an alchemist's retort, clear and nevertheless full of a thousand undefinable colours, beyond words, beyond even the grasp of thought: thus you could see from the Mount of Olives the valley of the Jordan and the Dead Sea. Wavy hills and wavy hills, outlined, breath-like, against an opalescent air, with the deep-blue streak of the Jordan and the rounding of the Dead Sea beyond - and still farther beyond, another world in itself, the dusky hills of Moab: a landscape of such an incredible, multiform beauty that your heart trembled with excitement.
Jerusalem was an entirely new world to me. There were historic memories seeping from every corner of the ancient city: streets that had heard Isaiah preach, cobblestones over which Christ had walked, walls that had been old when the heavy step of Roman legionaries echoed from them, arches over doorways that bore inscriptions of Saladin's time. There was the deep blue of the skies, which might not have been unfamiliar to someone who knew other Mediterranean countries: but to me, who had grown up in a far less friendly climate, this blueness was like a call and a promise. The houses and streets seemed to be covered with a tender, oscillating glaze; the people were full of spontaneous movement and grand of gesture. The people - that is, the Arabs: for it was they who from the very beginning impressed themselves on my consciousness as the people of the land, people who had grown out of its soil and its history and were one with the surrounding air. Their garments were colourful and of a Biblical sweep of drapery, and each of them, fellāh or beduin (for you could often see beduins who came to town to buy or sell their goods), wore them in a manner quite his own, ever so slightly different from the others, as if he had invented a personal fashion on the spur of the moment.
In front of Dorian's house, at a distance of perhaps forty yards, rose the steep, time-worn walls of David's Castle, which was part of the ramparts of the Old City - a typical medieval Arab citadel, probably erected on Herodian foundations, with a slim watchtower like a minaret. (Although it has no direct connection with King David, the Jews have always called it after him because here, on Mount Zion, the old royal palace is said to have stood.) On the Old City side there was a low, broad tower, through which the gateway went, and a bridge of stone arched across the old moat to the gate. That arched bridge was apparently a customary place of rendezvous for beduins when they had occasion to come into the city. One day I noticed a tall beduin standing there without motion, silhouetted against the silver-grey sky like a figure from an old legend. His face, with sharp cheekbones framed in a short, red-brown beard, bore an expression of deep gravity; it was sombre, as if he expected something and yet did not feel expectant. His wide, brown-and-white-striped cloak was worn and tattered - and the fanciful idea came to me, I do not know why, that it had been worn out in many months of danger and flight. Was he, perhaps, one of that handful of warriors who had accompanied young David on his flight from the dark jealousy of Saul, his king? Perhaps David was asleep just now, hiding somewhere in a cave in the Judean hills, and this man here, this faithful and brave friend, had stealthily come with a companion into the royal city to find out how Saul felt about their leader and whether it was safe for him to return. And now this friend of David was waiting here for his comrade, full of dark forebodings: it was not good news that they would bring David...
Suddenly the beduin moved, started walking down the ramp, and my dream-fantasy broke. And then I remembered with a start: this man was an Arab, while those others, those figures of the Bible - were Hebrews! But my astonishment was only of a moment's duration; for all at once I knew, with that clarity which sometimes bursts within us like lightning and lights up the world for the length of a heartbeat, that David and David's time, like Abraham and Abraham's time, were closer to their Arabian roots - and so to the beduin of today - than to the Jew of today, who claims to be their descendant...
I often sat on the stone balustrade below the Jaffa Gate and watched the throng of people going into or coming out of the Old City. Here they rubbed against each other, jostled one another, Arab and Jew, all possible variations of both. There were the strong-boned fellāhīn with their white or brown headcloths or orange-coloured turbans. There were beduins with sharp, clear-cut and, almost without exception, lean faces, wearing their cloaks in a strangely self-confident manner, frequently with hands on hips and elbows wide apart, as if they took it for granted that everyone would make way for them. There were peasant women in black or blue calico dresses embroidered in white across the bosom, often carrying baskets on their heads and moving with a supple, easy grace. Seen from behind, many a woman of sixty could be taken for a young girl. Their eyes also seemed to remain clear and untouched by age - unless they happened to be affected by trachoma, that evil 'Egyptian' eye disease which is the curse of all countries east of the Mediterranean.
And there were the Jews: indigenous Jews, wearing a tarbūsh and a wide, voluminous cloak, in their facial type strongly resembling the Arabs; Jews from Poland and Russia, who seemed to carry with them so much of the smallness and narrowness of their past lives in Europe that it was surprising to think they claimed to be of the same stock as the proud Jew from Morocco or Tunisia in his white burnus. But although the European Jews were so obviously out of all harmony with the picture that surrounded them, it was they who set the tone of Jewish life and politics and thus seemed to be responsible for the almost visible friction between Jews and Arabs.
What did the average European know of the Arabs in those days? Practically nothing. When he came to the Near East he brought with him some romantic and erroneous notions; and if he was well-intentioned and intellectually honest, he had to admit that he had no idea at all about the Arabs. I, too, before I came to Palestine, had never thought of it as an Arab land. I had, of course, vaguely known that 'some' Arabs lived there, but I imagined them to be only nomads in desert tents and idyllic oasis dwellers. Because most of what I had read about Palestine in earlier days had been written by Zionists - who naturally had only their own problems in view - I had not realized that the towns also were full of Arabs - that, in fact, in 1922 there lived in Palestine nearly five Arabs to every Jew, and that, therefore, it was an Arab country to a far higher degree than a country of Jews.
When I remarked on this to Mr. Ussyshkin, chairman of the Zionist Committee of Action, whom I met during that time, I had the impression that the Zionists were not inclined to give much consideration to the fact of Arab majority; nor did they seem to attribute any real importance to the Arabs' opposition to Zionism. Mr. Ussyshkin's response showed nothing but contempt for the Arabs:
'There is no real Arab movement here against us; that is, no movement with roots in the people. All that you regard as opposition is in reality nothing but the shouting of a few disgruntled agitators. It will collapse of itself within a few months or at most a few years.'
This argument was far from satisfactory to me. From the very beginning I had a feeling that the whole idea of Jewish settlement in Palestine was artificial, and, what was worse, that it threatened to transfer all the complications and insoluble problems of European life into a country which might have remained happier without them. The Jews were not really coming to it as one returns to one's homeland; they were rather bent on making it into a homeland conceived on European patterns and with European aims. In short, they were strangers within the gates. And so I did not find anything wrong in the Arabs' determined resistance to the idea of a Jewish homeland in their midst; on the contrary, I immediately realized that it was the Arabs who were being imposed upon and were rightly defending themselves against such an imposition.
In the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which promised the Jews a 'national home' in Palestine, I saw a cruel political manoeuvre designed to foster the old principle, common to all colonial powers, of 'divide and rule'. In the case of Palestine, this principle was the more flagrant as in 1916 the British had promised the then ruler of Mecca, Sharif Husayn, as a price for his help against the Turks, an independent Arab state which was to comprise all countries between the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf. They not only broke their promise a year later by concluding with France the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement (which established French Dominion over Syria and the Lebanon), but also, by implication, excluded Palestine from the obligations they had assumed with regard to the Arabs.
Although of Jewish origin myself, I conceived from the outset a strong objection to Zionism. Apart from my personal sympathy for the Arabs, I considered it immoral that immigrants, assisted by a foreign Great Power, should come from abroad with the avowed intention of attaining to majority in the country and thus to dispossess the people whose country it had been since time immemorial. Consequently, I was inclined to take the side of the Arabs whenever the Jewish-Arab question was brought up - which, of course, happened very often. This attitude of mine was beyond the comprehension of practically all the Jews with whom I came in contact during those months. They could not understand what I saw in the Arabs who, according to them, were no more than a mass of backward people whom they looked upon with a feeling not much different from that of the European settlers in Central Africa. They were not in the least interested in what the Arabs thought; almost none of them took pains to learn Arabic; and everyone accepted without question the dictum that Palestine was the rightful heritage of the Jews.
I still remember a brief discussion I had on this score with Dr. Chaim Weizmann, the undisputed leader of the Zionist movement. He had come on one of his periodic visits to Palestine (his permanent residence was, I believe, in London), and I met him in the house of a Jewish friend. One could not but be impressed by the boundless energy of this man - an energy that manifested itself even in his bodily movements, in the long, springy stride with which he paced up and down the room - and by the power of intellect revealed in the broad forehead and the penetrating glance of his eyes.
He was talking of the financial difficulties which were besetting the dream of a Jewish National Home, and the insufficient response to this dream among people abroad; and I had the disturbing impression that even he, like most of the other Zionists, was inclined to transfer the moral responsibility for all that was happening in Palestine to the 'outside world'. This impelled me to break through the deferential hush with which all the other people present were listening to him, and to ask:
'And what about the Arabs?'
I must have committed a faux pas by thus bringing a jarring note into the conversation, for Dr. Weizmann turned his face slowly toward me, put down the cup he had been holding in his hand, and repeated my question:
'What about the Arabs ...?’
'Well - how can you ever hope to make Palestine your homeland in the face of the vehement opposition of the Arabs who, after all, are in the majority in this country?'
The Zionist leader shrugged his shoulders and answered drily: 'We expect they won't be in a majority after a few years.'
'Perhaps so. You have been dealing with this problem for years and must know the situation better than I do. But quite apart from the political difficulties which Arab opposition may or may not put in your way - does not the moral aspect of the question ever bother you? Don't you think that it is wrong on your part to displace the people who have always lived in this country?'
'But it is our country,' replied Dr. Weizmann, raising his eyebrows. 'We are doing no more than taking back what we have been wrongly deprived of.'
'But you have been away from Palestine for nearly two thousand years! Before that you had ruled this country, and hardly ever the whole of it, for less than five hundred years. Don't you think that the Arabs could, with equal justification, demand Spain for themselves - for, after all, they held sway in Spain for nearly seven hundred years and lost it entirely only five hundred years ago?'
Dr. Weizmann had become visibly impatient: 'Nonsense. The Arabs had only conquered Spain; it had never been their original homeland, and so it was only right that in the end they were driven out by the Spaniards.'
'Forgive me,' I retorted, 'but it seems to me that there is some historical oversight here. After all, the Hebrews also came as conquerors to Palestine. Long before them were many other Semitic and non-Semitic tribes settled here - the Amorites, the Edomites, the Philistines, the Moabites, and the Hittites. Those tribes continued living here even in the days of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. They continued living here after the Romans drove our ancestors away. They are living here today. The Arabs who settled in Syria and Palestine after their conquest in the seventh century were always only a small minority of the population; the rest of what we describe today as Palestinian or Syrian "Arabs" are in reality only the Arabianized, original inhabitants of the country. Some of them became Muslims in the course of centuries, others remained Christians; the Muslims naturally inter-married with their co-religionists from Arabia. But can you deny that the bulk of those people in Palestine, who speak Arabic, whether Muslims or Christians, are direct-line descendants of the original inhabitants: original in the sense of having lived in this country centuries before the Hebrews came to it?'
Dr. Weizmann smiled politely at my outburst and turned the conversation to other topics. I did not feel happy about the outcome of my intervention. I had of course not expected any of those present - least of all Dr. Weizmann himself - to subscribe to my conviction that the Zionist idea was highly vulnerable on the moral plane: but I had hoped that my defence of the Arab cause would at least give rise to some sort of uneasiness on the part of the Zionist leadership - an uneasiness which might bring about more introspection and thus, perhaps, a greater readiness to admit the existence of a possible moral right in the opposition of the Arabs. . . None of this had come about. Instead, I found myself facing a blank wall of staring eyes: a censorious disapproval of my temerity, which dared question the unquestionable right of the Jews to the land of their forefathers...
How was it possible, I wondered, for people endowed with so much creative intelligence as the Jews to think of the Zionist-Arab conflict in Jewish terms alone? Did they not realize that the problem of the Jews in Palestine could, in the long run, be solved only through friendly co-operation with the Arabs? Were they so hopelessly blind to the painful future which their policy must bring? - to the struggles, the bitterness and the hatred to which the Jewish island, even if temporarily successful, would forever remain exposed in the midst of a hostile Arab sea?
And how strange, I thought, that a nation which had suffered so many wrongs in the course of its long and sorrowful diaspora was now, in single-minded pursuit of its own goal, ready to inflict a grievous wrong on another nation - and a nation, too, that was innocent of all that past Jewish suffering. Such a phenomenon, I knew, was not unknown to history; but it made me, none the less, very sad to see it enacted before my eyes.
BY THAT TIME my absorption in the political scene in Palestine was grounded not merely in my sympathy for the Arabs and my worry about the Zionist experiment, but also in a revival of my journalistic interests: for I had become a special correspondent of the Frankfurter Zeitung, then one of the most outstanding newspapers in Europe. This connection had come about almost by accident.
One evening, while sorting out old papers which were cluttering up one of my suitcases, I found the press card issued to me a year before in Berlin as a representative of the United Telegraph.
I was about to tear it up when Dorian grabbed my hand and jokingly exclaimed:
'Don't! If you present this card at the office of the High Commissioner, you will receive a few days later an invitation to lunch at Government House…Journalists are very desirable creatures in this country.'
Although I did tear up the useless card, Dorian's joke struck a response in my mind. I was, of course, not interested in a luncheon invitation from Government House - but why should I not utilize the rare opportunity of being in the Near East at a time when so few journalists from Central Europe could travel there? Why should I not resume my journalistic work - and not with the United Telegraph but with one of the great dailies? And as suddenly as I had always been wont to make important decisions, I now decided to break into real journalism.
Despite my year's work at the United Telegraph, I had no direct connection with any important newspaper, and as I had never yet published anything in my own name, it was entirely unknown to the daily press. This, however, did not discourage me. I wrote an article on some of my impressions in Palestine and sent copies of it to no less than ten German newspapers with a proposal to write a series of articles on the Near East.
This was in the last months of 1922 - a time of the most catastrophic inflation in Germany. The German press was hard-put to survive, and only a very few newspapers could afford to pay foreign correspondents in hard currency. And so it was not in the least surprising that one after another of the ten newspapers to which I had sent the sample article replied in more or less polite terms of refusal. Only one of the ten accepted my suggestion and, apparently impressed by what I had written, appointed me its roving special correspondent in the Near East, enclosing, in addition, a contract for a book to be written on my return. That one newspaper was the Frankfurter Zeitung. I was almost bowled over when I saw that I had not merely succeeded in establishing a connection with a newspaper - and what a newspaper! - but had at the first stroke achieved a status that might be envied by many an old journalist.
There was, of course, a snag in it. Owing to the inflation, the Frankfurter Zeitung could not pay me in hard currency. The remuneration which they apologetically offered me was in terms of German marks; and I knew as well as they did that it would hardly suffice to pay for the stamps on the envelopes which would contain my articles. But to be special correspondent of the Frankfurter Zeitung was a distinction that by far outweighed the temporary handicap of not being paid for it. I began to write articles on Palestine, hoping that sooner or later some lucky twist of fortune would enable me to travel all over the Near East.
I NOW HAD many friends in Palestine, both Jews and Arabs. The Zionists, it is true, looked upon me with some sort of puzzled suspicion because of the sympathy for the Arabs which was so apparent in my dispatches to the Frankfurter Zeitung. Evidently they could not make up their minds whether I had been 'bought' by the Arabs (for in Zionist Palestine people had become accustomed to explain almost every happening in terms of money) or whether I was simply a freakish intellectual in love with the exotic. But not all Jews living in Palestine at that time were Zionists. Some of them had come there not in pursuit of a political aim, but out of a religious longing for the Holy Land and its Biblical associations.
To this group belonged my Dutch friend Jacob de Haan, a small, plump, blond-bearded man in his early forties, who had formerly taught law at one of the leading universities in Holland and was now special correspondent of the Amsterdam Handelsblad and the London Daily Express. A man of deep religious convictions - as 'orthodox' as any Jew of Eastern Europe - he did not approve of the idea of Zionism, for he believed that the return of his people to the Promised Land had to await the coming of the Messiah.
'We Jews,' he said to me on more than one occasion, 'were driven away from the Holy Land and scattered all over the world because we had fallen short of the task God had conferred upon us. We had been chosen by Him to preach His Word, but in our stubborn pride we began to believe that He had made us a "chosen nation" for our own sakes - and thus we betrayed Him. Now nothing remains for us but to repent and to cleanse our hearts; and when we become worthy once again to be the hearers of His Message, He will send a Messiah to lead His servants back to the Promised Land ...'
'But,' I asked, 'does not this Messianic idea underlie the Zionist movement as well? You know that I do not approve of it: but is it not a natural desire of every people to have a national home of its own?'
Dr. de Haan looked at me quizzically: 'Do you think that history is but a series of accidents? I don't. It was not without a purpose that God made us lose our land and dispersed us; but the Zionists do not want to admit this to themselves. They suffer from the same spiritual blindness that caused our downfall. The two thousand years of Jewish exile and unhappiness have taught them nothing. Instead of making an attempt to understand the innermost causes of our unhappiness, they now try to circumvent it, as it were, by building a "national home" on foundations provided by Western power politics; and in the process of building a national home, they are committing the crime of depriving another people of its home.'
Jacob de Haan's political views naturally made him most unpopular with the Zionists (indeed, a short time after I left Palestine, I was shocked to learn that he had been shot down one night by terrorists). When I knew him, his social intercourse was limited to a very few Jews of his own way of thought, some Europeans, and Arabs. For the Arabs he seemed to have a great affection, and they, on their part, thought highly of him and frequently invited him to their houses. As a matter of fact, at that period they were not yet universally prejudiced against Jews as such. It was only subsequent to the Balfour Declaration - that is, after centuries of good-neighbourly relations and a consciousness of racial kinship - that the Arabs had begun to look upon the Jews as political enemies; but even in the changed circumstances of the early Twenties, they still clearly differentiated between Zionists and Jews who were friendly toward them like Dr. de Haan.
THOSE FATEFUL MONTHS of my first sojourn among the Arabs set in motion a whole train of impressions and reflections; some inarticulate hopes of a personal nature demanded to be admitted to my consciousness.
I had come face to face with a life-sense that was entirely new to me. A warm, human breath seemed to flow out of these people’s blood into their thoughts and gestures, with none of those painful cleavages of the spirit, those phantoms of fear, greed and inhibition that made European life so ugly and of so little promise. In the Arabs I began to find something I had always unwittingly been looking for: an emotional lightness of approach to all questions of life - a supreme common sense of feeling, if one might call it so.
In time it became most important to me to grasp the spirit of these Muslim people: not because their religion attracted me (for at that time I knew very little about it), but because I recognized in them that organic coherence of the mind and the senses which we Europeans had lost. Might it not be possible, perhaps, by better understanding the life of the Arabs to discover the hidden link between our Western suffering - the corroding lack of inner integration - and the roots of that suffering? To find out, perhaps, what it was that had made us Westerners run away from that solemn freedom of life which the Arabs seemed to possess, even in their social and political decay, and which we also must have possessed at some earlier time? - or else how could we have produced the great art of our past, the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages, the exuberant joy of the Renaissance, Rembrandt's chiaroscuro, the fugues of Bach and the serene dreams of Mozart, the pride of the peacock's tail in the art of our peasants, and Beethoven's roaring, longing ascent toward the misty, hardly perceptible peaks on which man could say, 'I and my destiny are one…'
Being unaware of their true nature, we could no longer rightly use our spiritual powers; never again would a Beethoven or a Rembrandt arise among us. Instead, we now knew only that desperate groping after 'new forms of expression' in art, sociology, politics, and that bitter struggle between opposing slogans and meticulously devised principles; and all our machines and skyscrapers could do nothing to restore the broken wholeness of our souls . . . And yet - was that lost spiritual glory of Europe's past really lost forever? Was it not possible to recover something of it by finding out what was wrong with us?
And what at first had been hardly more than a sympathy for the political aims of the Arabs, the outward appearance of Arabian life and the emotional security I perceived in its people, imperceptibly changed into something resembling a personal quest.
I became increasingly aware of an absorbing desire to know what it was that lay at the root of this emotional security and made Arab life so different from the European: and that desire seemed to be mysteriously bound up with my own innermost problems. I began to look for openings that would give me a better insight into the character of the Arabs, into the ideas that had shaped them and made them spiritually so different from the Europeans. I began to read intensively about their history, culture and religion. And in the urge I felt to discover what it was that moved their hearts and filled their minds and gave them direction, I seemed to sense an urge to discover some hidden forces that moved myself, and filled me, and promised to give me direction...
— 1 —
WE RIDE, AND ZAYD SINGS. The dunes are lower now and wider spaced. Here and there the sand gives way to stretches of gravel and splintery basalt, and in front of us, far to the south, rise the shadowy outlines of hill ranges: the mountains of Jabal Shammar.
The verses of Zayd's song penetrate in a blurred way into my sleepiness, but precisely in the measure that the words escape me, they seem to gain a wider, deeper significance quite unrelated to their outward meaning.
It is one of those camel-rider songs you so often hear in Arabia - chants which men sing to keep their animals to a regular, quick pace and not to fall asleep themselves - chants of desert men accustomed to spaces that know neither limits nor echoes: always sounded in the major key at only one tone level, loose and somewhat husky, coming from high up in the throat, tenderly fading in the dry air: breath of the desert caught in a human voice. None who has travelled through desert lands will ever forget this voice. It is always the same where the earth is barren, the air hot and wide open, and life hard.
We ride, and Zayd sings, as his father must have sung before him, and all the other men of his tribe and of many other tribes over thousands of years: for thousands of years were needed to mould these intensive, monotonous melodies and to bring them to their final form. Unlike the polyphonous Western music, which almost always tends to express individual feeling, these Arabian melodies, with their eternally repeated tone-sequence, seem to be only tonal symbols for an emotional knowledge shared by many people - not meant to evoke moods but to remind you of your own spiritual experiences. They were born very long ago out of the atmosphere of the desert, the rhythms of the wind and of nomad life, the feel of wide expanses, the contemplation of an eternal present: and just as the basic things of human life always remain the same, these melodies are timeless and changeless.
Such melodies are hardly thinkable in the West, where polyphony is an aspect not only of music but of man's feelings and desires. Cool climate, running waters, the sequence of four seasons: these elements give to life so multiform a significance and so many directions that Western man must needs have many longings and, thus, a strong urge to do things for the sake of doing. He must always create, build and overcome in order to see himself again and again reaffirmed in the complexity of his life-forms; and this ever-changing complexity is reflected in his music as well. Out of the sonorous Western singing, with the voice coming from the chest and always playing in several levels, speaks that 'Faustian' nature which causes Western man to dream much, to desire much, to strive after much with a will to conquer - but perhaps also to miss much, and miss it painfully. For, the world of the Westerner is a world of history: eternal becoming, happening, passing away. It lacks the restfulness of staying still; time is an enemy, always to be viewed with suspicion; and never does the Now carry a sound of eternity…
To the Arab of the desert and steppe, on the other hand, his landscape is no enticement to dreams: it is hard like the day and knows no twilight of feelings. The Outer and the Inner, the I and the World, are to him not opposite - and mutually opposed - entities, but only different aspects of an unchanging present; his life is not dominated by secret fears; and whenever he does things, he does them because outward necessity and not a desire for inner security demands action. In result, he has not progressed in material achievement as rapidly as the Westerner - but he has kept his soul together.
FOR HOW LONG, I ask myself with almost a physical start, will Zayd, and Zayd's people, be able to keep their souls together in the face of the danger that is so insidiously, so relentlessly closing in on them? We are living in a time in which the East can no longer remain passive in the face of the advancing West. A thousand forces - political, social and economic - are hammering at the doors of the Muslim world. Will this world succumb to the pressure of the Western twentieth century and in the process lose not only its own traditional forms but its spiritual roots as well?
— 2 —
THROUGHOUT THE YEARS I have spent in the Middle East - as a sympathetic outsider from 1922 to 1926, and as a Muslim sharing the aims and hopes of the Islamic community ever since - I have witnessed the steady European encroachment on Muslim cultural life and political independence; and wherever Muslim peoples try to defend themselves against this encroachment, European public opinion invariably labels their resistance, with an air of hurt innocence, as 'xenophobia'.
Europe has long been accustomed to simplify in this crude way all that is happening in the Middle East and to view its current history under the aspect of Western 'spheres of interest' alone. While everywhere in the West (outside of Britain) public opinion has shown much sympathy for the Irish struggle for independence or (outside of Russia and Germany) for Poland's dream of national resurrection, no such sympathy is ever extended to similar aspirations among the Muslims. The West's main argument is always the political disruption and economic backwardness of the Middle East, and every active Western intervention is sanctimoniously described by its authors as aiming not merely at a protection of 'legitimate' Western interests but also at securing progress for the indigenous peoples themselves.
Forgetting that every direct, and even benevolent, intervention from outside cannot but disturb a nation's development, Western students of Middle Eastern affairs have always been ready to swallow such claims. They see only the new railroads built by colonial powers, and not the destruction of a country's social fabric; they count the kilowatts of new electricity, but not the blows to a nation's pride. The same people who would never have accepted Imperial Austria's 'civilizing mission' as a valid excuse for her interventions in the Balkans indulgently accept a similar plea in the case of the British in Egypt, the Russians in Central Asia, the French in Morocco or the Italians in Libya. And it never even crosses their minds that many of the social and economic ills from which the Middle East is suffering are a direct outcome of that very Western 'interest'; and that, in addition, Western intervention invariably seeks to perpetuate and to widen the already existing inner disruptions and so to make it impossible for the peoples concerned to come into their own.
I FIRST BEGAN TO realize this in Palestine, in 1922, when I observed the equivocal role of the British administration with regard to the conflict between the Arabs and the Zionists; and it became fully obvious to me early in 1923, when after months of wandering all over Palestine I came to Egypt, which at that time was in almost continual upheaval against the British 'protectorate'. Bombs were often being thrown at public places frequented by British soldiers, to be answered by various repressive measures - martial law, political arrests, deportations of leaders, prohibitions of newspapers. But none of these measures, however severe, could deaden the people's desire for freedom. Through the entire Egyptian nation went something like a wave of passionate sobbing. Not in despair: it was rather the sobbing of enthusiasm at having discovered the roots of its own potential strength.
Only the rich pashas, owners of the tremendous landed estates, were in those days conciliatory toward British rule. The innumerable others - including the miserable fellāhīn, to whom one acre of land appeared to be a bountiful possession for an entire family - supported the freedom movement. One day the itinerant newspaper vendors would cry in the streets, 'All leaders of the Wafd arrested by order of the Military Governor' - but the next day new leaders had taken their places, the gaps were filled again and again: the hunger for freedom and the hatred grew. And Europe had only one word for it: 'xenophobia'.
My coming to Egypt in those days had been due to my wish to extend the scope of my work for the Frankfurter Zeitung to other countries besides Palestine. Dorian's circumstances did not permit him to finance such a tour; but when he saw how strongly I desired it, he advanced me a small sum sufficient for the railway journey from Jerusalem to Cairo and a fortnight's stay there.
In Cairo I found lodgings in a narrow alley in a quarter inhabited mainly by Arab artisans and small Greek shopkeepers. The landlady was an old Triestine, tall, thickset, cumbrous, grey; she drank from morning till evening heavy Greek wine and floundered from one mood into another. Hers was a violent, passionate temperament that never seemed to have found itself; but she was friendly toward me and made me feel well in her presence.
After a week or so, my cash was approaching its end. As I did not want to return so soon to Palestine and the safety of my uncle's house, I began to look around for some other means of subsistence.
My Jerusalem friend, Dr. de Haan, had given me a letter of introduction to a business man in Cairo; and to him I went in search of advice. He proved to be a large, genial Hollander with intellectual interests far exceeding his own sphere of activities. From Jacob de Haan's letter he learned that I was a correspondent of the Frankfurter Zeitung; and when, at his request, I showed him some of my recent articles, he raised his eyebrows in astonishment:
'Tell me, how old are you?'
'Then tell me something else, please: who has helped you with these articles - de Haan?'
I laughed. 'Of course not. I wrote them myself. I always do my work myself. But why do you doubt it?'
He shook his head, as if puzzled: 'But it's astonishing ... Where did you get the maturity to write such stuff? How do you manage to convey in a half-sentence an almost mystical significance to things that are apparently so commonplace?'
I was flattered beyond words at the implied compliment, and my self-esteem rose accordingly. In the course of our conversation, it transpired that my new found acquaintance had no opening in his own business, but he thought he might be able to place me in an Egyptian firm with which he had dealings.
The office to which he directed me lay in one of the older quarters of Cairo, not far from my lodgings: a dingy, narrow lane bordered by once-patrician houses now converted into offices and cheap apartments. My prospective employer, an elderly, bald-headed Egyptian with the face of a time-mellowed vulture, happened to be in need of a part-time clerk to take charge of his French correspondence; and I was able to satisfy him that I could fill the role in spite of my utter lack of business experience. We quickly struck a bargain. I would have to work only three hours a day; the salary was correspondingly low, but it would be enough to pay for my rent and to keep me indefinitely in bread, milk and olives.
Between my lodgings and my office lay Cairo's red-light district - a tangled maze of lanes in which the great and little courtesans spent their days and nights. In the afternoon, on my way to work, the lanes were empty and silent. In the shadow of a bay window a woman's body would stretch itself languorously; at little tables before one or another of the houses girls were sedately drinking coffee in the company of grave, bearded men and conversing, with every appearance of seriousness, about things that seemed to lie far beyond all excitement and physical abandon.
But in the evening, when I was returning home, the quarter was more wide-awake than any other, humming with the tender accords of Arabian lutes and drums and the laughter of women. When you walked under the shine of the many electric lamps and coloured lanterns, at every step a soft arm would wind itself around your neck; the arm might be brown or white - but it always jingled with gold and silver chains and bangles and always smelled of musk, frankincense and warm animal skin. You had to be very determined to keep yourself free of all these laughing embraces and from the calls of yāhabibi ('O darling') and saāda-tak ('thy happiness'). You had to thread your way between shimmering limbs that were mostly luscious and fair to look upon and intoxicated you with their suggestive convolutions. All Egypt broke over you, Morocco, Algeria, also the Sudan and Nubia, also Arabia, Armenia, Syria, Iran ... Men in long silken garments sat side by side on benches along the house walls, pleasantly excited, laughing, calling out to girls or silently smoking their nargīles. Not all of them were 'customers': many had come simply to spend a pleasant hour or two in the exhilarating, unconventional atmosphere of the quarter ... Sometimes you had to step back before a ragged dervish from the Sudan, who sang his begging songs with an entranced face and stiffly outstretched arms. Clouds of incense from the swinging censer of an itinerant perfume vendor brushed your face. Off and on you heard singing in chorus, and you began to understand the meaning of some of the whirring, tender Arabic sounds ... And again and again you heard the soft, rippling voices of pleasure - the animal pleasure of these girls (for they undoubtedly were enjoying themselves) in their light-blue, yellow, red, green, white, gold-glittering garments of flimsy silk, tulle, voile or damask - and their laughter seemed to run with little cat-steps over the cobbled pavement, rising, ebbing down, and then growing up again from other lips ...
How they could laugh, these Egyptians! How cheerfully they walked day in, day out over the streets of Cairo, striding with swinging steps in their long, shirt-like gallabiyyas that were striped in every colour of the rainbow - lightheartedly, free-mindedly - so that one might have thought that all the grinding poverty and dissatisfaction and political turmoil were taken seriously only in a relative sense. The violent, explosive excitement of these people always seemed to be ready to make room, without any visible transition, for perfect serenity and even indolence, as if nothing had ever happened and nothing were amiss. Because of this, most Europeans regarded (and probably do even now) the Arabs as superficial; but even in those early days I realized that this contempt for the Arabs had grown out of the West's tendency to overestimate emotions that appear to be 'deep', and to denounce as 'superficial' everything that is light, airy, un-weighted. The Arabs, I felt, had remained free of those inner tensions and stresses so peculiar to the West: how could we, then, apply our own standards to them? If they seemed to be superficial, it was perhaps because their emotions flowed without friction into their behaviour. Perhaps, under the impact of 'Westernization', they also would gradually lose the blessed immediacy of their contact with reality: for although that Western influence acted in many ways as a stimulus and fertilizing agent on contemporary Arab thought, it inevitably tended to produce in the Arabs the same grievous problems that dominated the spiritual and social scene in the West.
OPPOSITE MY HOUSE, SO close that you could almost touch it, stood a little mosque with a tiny minaret from which five times a day the call to prayer was sounded. A white-turbaned man would appear on the gallery, raise his hands, and begin to chant: 'Allahu akbar - God is the Greatest! And I bear witness that Muhammad is God's Messenger ...' As he slowly turned toward the four points of the compass, the ring of his voice climbed upward, grew into the clear air, rocking on the deep, throaty sounds of the Arabic language, swaying, advancing and retreating. The voice was a dark baritone, soft and strong, capable of a great range; but you could perceive that it was fervour and not art that made it so beautiful.
This chant of the mu’azzin was the theme song of my days and evenings in Cairo - just as it had been the theme song in the Old City of Jerusalem and was destined to remain in all my later wanderings through Muslim lands. It sounded the same everywhere in spite of the differences of dialect and intonation which might be evident in the people's daily speech: a unity of sound which made me realize in those days at Cairo how deep was the inner unity of all Muslims, and how artificial and insignificant were the dividing lines between them. They were one in their way of thinking and judging between right and wrong, and one in their perception of what constitutes the good life.
It seemed to me that for the first time I had come across a community in which kinship between man and man was not due to accidents of common racial or economic interests but to something far deeper and far more stable: a kinship of common outlook which lifted all barriers of loneliness between man and man.
IN THE SUMMER OF 1923, enriched by a better understanding of Middle Eastern life and politics, I returned to Jerusalem.
Through my good friend Jacob de Haan I became acquainted with Amir Abdullah of neighbouring Transjordan, who invited me to visit his country. There I saw for the first time a true beduin land. The capital, Amman - built on the ruins of Philadelphia, the Greek colony of Ptolemaeus Philadelphus - was at that time a little town of hardly more than six thousand inhabitants. Its streets were filled with beduins, the real beduins of the open steppe whom one rarely saw in Palestine, free warriors and camel breeders. Wonderful horses galloped through the streets; every man was armed, carried a dagger in his sash and a rifle on his back. Circassian oxcarts (for the town had been originally settled by Circassians who had migrated there after the Russian conquest of their homeland in the nineteenth century) plodded heavily through the bazaar, which in spite of its smallness was full of a bustle and commotion worthy of a much larger city.
As there were no adequate buildings in the town, Amir Abdullah lived in those days in a tent camp on a hill overlooking Amman. His own tent was somewhat larger than the others and consisted of several rooms formed by canvas partitions and distinguished by utmost simplicity. In one of them, a black bearskin made a bed on the ground in a corner; in the reception room, a couple of beautiful camel-saddles with silver-inlaid pommels served as armrests when one sat on the carpet.
Except for a Negro servant richly dressed in brocade, with a golden dagger in his belt, there was nobody in the tent when I entered it in the company of Dr. Riza Tawfiq Bey, the amīr's chief adviser. He was a Turk, formerly a university professor, and had been for three years, before Kemal Ataturk, Minister of Education in the Turkish cabinet. Amir Abdullah, he told me, would be back in a few minutes; just now he was conferring with some beduin chieftains about the latest Najdi raid into southern Transjordan. Those Najdi 'Wahhabis', Dr. Riza explained to me, played within Islam a role not unlike that of the Puritan reformers in the Christian world, inasmuch as they were bitterly opposed to all saint worship and the many mystical superstitions that had crept into Islam over the centuries; they were also irreconcilable enemies of the Sharifian family, whose head was the amīr's father, King Husayn of the Hijaz. According to Riza Tawfiq Bey, the religious views of the Wahhabis could not be rejected out of hand; they did, in fact, come closer to the spirit of the Koran than the views prevalent among the masses in most of the other Muslim countries, and might thus in time exert a beneficial influence on the cultural development of Islam. The extreme fanaticism of these people, however, made it somewhat difficult for other Muslims to appreciate the Wahhabi movement fully; and this drawback, he suggested, might not be unwelcome to 'certain quarters', to whom a possible reunification of the Arab peoples was a dreadful prospect.
A little later the amīr came in - a man of about forty years, of middle size, with a short, blond beard - stepping softly on small, black patent-leather slippers, clad in loose Arab garments of swishing white silk with an almost transparent white woollen abāya over them. He said: 'Ahlan wa-sahlan' - 'Family and plain' - and that was the first time I heard this graceful Arabian greeting.
There was something attractive and almost captivating in the personality of Amir Abdullah, a strong sense of humour, a warmth of expression and a ready wit. It was not difficult to see why he was so popular in those days with his people. Although many Arabs were not happy about the role he had played in the British-inspired Sharifian revolt against the Turks and regarded it as a betrayal of Muslims by Muslims, he had gained a certain prestige by his championship of the Arab cause against Zionism; and the day was yet to come when the twists and turns of his politics would make his name odious throughout the Arab world.
Sipping coffee from minute cups that were handed round by the black retainer, we talked - occasionally assisted by Dr. Riza, who spoke fluent French - of the administrative difficulties in this new country of Transjordan, where everyone was accustomed to carry arms and to obey only the laws of his own clan - ' - but,' said the amīr, 'the Arabs have plenty of common sense; even the beduins are now beginning to realise that they must abandon their old lawless ways if they want to be free from foreign domination. The intertribal feuds of which thou must have heard so often are now gradually subsiding.'
And he went on describing the unruly, uneasy beduin tribes which used to fight with one another on the slightest pretext. Their blood feuds often lasted for generations and sometimes, handed down from father to son, even for centuries, leading to ever new bloodshed and new bitterness after the original cause had almost been forgotten. There was only one way to bring about a peaceful end: if a young man from the tribe and clan of the last victim abducted a virgin of the tribe and clan of the culprit and made her his wife, the blood of the bridal night - blood of the killer's tribe - symbolically, and finally, avenged the blood that had been spilled in homicide. Occasionally it happened that two tribes had grown weary of a vendetta which had been going on for generations, sapping the strength of both parties; and in such a case, an 'abduction' was not infrequently arranged through a middleman from a third tribe.
'I have done even better than that,' Amir Abdullah told me. 'I have established proper "blood feud commissions" composed of trustworthy men who travel around the country and arrange the symbolic kidnappings and marriages between hostile tribes. But' - and here his eyes twinkled - 'I always impress upon the members of these commissions to be very careful in the choice of the virgins, for I would not like to see internal family feuds arise on the grounds of the bridegroom's possible disappointment..
A boy of perhaps twelve years appeared from behind a partition, swept across the dusky tent-room with quick, noiseless steps and jumped without stirrup on to the prancing horse outside the tent which a servant had been holding in readiness for him: the amīr's eldest son, Talal. In his slim body, in his rapid vault on to the horse, in his shining eyes I saw it again: that dreamless contact with his own life which set the Arab so far apart from all that I had known in Europe.
Observing my obvious admiration of his son, the amīr said: 'He, like every other Arab child, is growing up with but one thought in mind: freedom. We Arabs do not believe ourselves to be faultless or free from error; but we want to commit our errors ourselves and so learn how to avoid them - just as a tree learns how to grow right by growing, or as running water finds its proper course by flowing. We do not want to be guided to wisdom by people who have no wisdom themselves - who have only power, and guns, and money, and only know how to lose friends
whom they could so easily keep as friends ...'*
I DID NOT INTEND to remain indefinitely in Palestine; and it was again Jacob de Haan who helped me. Himself a journalist of established reputation, he had many connections all over Europe. His recommendation secured for me contracts with two small newspapers, one in Holland and the other in Switzerland, for a series of articles to be paid in Dutch guilders and Swiss francs. As these were provincial newspapers of no great standing, they could not afford to pay a large  remuneration; but to me, whose habits were simple, the money I received from them appeared ample to finance my planned journey through the Near East.
I wanted to go to Syria first; but the French authorities, so recently established there in the midst of a hostile population, were unwilling to give a visa to an Austrian 'ex-enemy alien'. This was a bitter blow, but there was nothing I could do about it; and so I decided to go to Haifa and there to board a ship for Istanbul, which in any case was included in my programme.
On the train journey from Jerusalem to Haifa a calamity befell me: I lost a coat containing my wallet and passport. All that I had left were the few silver coins in my trousers pocket. A voyage to Istanbul was, for the time being, out of the question: no passport, no money. Nothing remained but to return by bus to Jerusalem; the fare would have to be paid on arrival with money borrowed, as usual, from Dorian. In Jerusalem I would have to wait for weeks for another passport from the Austrian consulate in Cairo (for at that time there was none in Palestine) and for further driblets of money from Holland and Switzerland.
And so it came about that on the next morning I found myself before a bus office on the outskirts of Haifa. The negotiations about the fare were completed. There was one hour until the departure of the bus, and to while away the time I paced up and down the road, deeply disgusted with myself and with the fate that had forced me into so ignominious a retreat. Waiting is always an evil thing; and the thought of returning to Jerusalem defeated, with my tail between my legs, was most galling - the more so as Dorian had always been sceptical about my ability to realize my plans on the basis of such meagre funds. Moreover, I would not see Syria now, and God alone knew if I would ever come back to this part of the world. It was, of course, always possible that at some later date the Frankfurter Zeitung would finance another journey to the Middle East, and that one day the French might lift the embargo on ex-enemy aliens; but that was not certain, and in the meantime I would not see Damascus ... Why, I asked myself bitterly, was Damascus denied to me?
But - was it really? Of course - no passport, no money. But was it absolutely necessary to have a passport and money...?
And, having come so far in my thoughts, I suddenly stopped in my tracks. One could, if one had grit enough, travel on foot, availing oneself of the hospitality of Arab villagers; and one could, perhaps, somehow smuggle oneself across the frontier without bothering about passports and visas ...
And before I was quite aware of it, my mind was made up: I was going to Damascus.
A couple of minutes sufficed to explain to the bus people that I had changed my mind and was not going to Jerusalem after all. It took me a few more to change into a pair of blue overalls and an Arab kufiyya (the best possible protection against the Arabian sun); to stuff a few necessities into a knapsack, and to arrange for my suitcase to be despatched to Dorian, C.O.D. And then I set out on my long trek to Damascus.
The overwhelming sense of freedom that filled me was indistinguishable from happiness. I had only a few coins in my pocket; I was embarking on an illegal deed that might land me in prison; the problem of crossing the frontier lay ahead in a vague uncertainty; I was staking everything on my wits alone: but the consciousness of having placed all on a single stake made me happy.
I WALKED ON THE ROAD to Galilee. In the afternoon the Plain of Esdrelon lay on the right below me, flecked with rags of light and shadow. I passed through Nazareth and before nightfall reached an Arab village shaded by pepper trees and cypresses. At the door of the first house sat three or four men and women. I stopped, asked whether this was Ar-Rayna, and after a Yes was about to move on - when one of the women called after me:
'Yāsīdi, wilt thou not refresh thyself?' - and, as if divining my thirst, stretched a pitcher of cold water toward me. When I had drunk my fill, one of the men - obviously her husband - asked me:
'Wilt thou not eat bread with us, and remain in our house overnight?'
They did not ask me who I was, where I was going or what my business was. And I stayed overnight as their guest.
To be a guest of an Arab: even schoolchildren hear about it in Europe. To be a guest of an Arab means to enter for a few hours, for a time, truly and fully, into the lives of people who want to be your brothers and sisters. It is not a mere noble tradition which enables the Arabs to be hospitable in so effusive a way: it is their inner freedom. They are so free of distrust of themselves that they can easily open their lives to another man. They need none of the specious security of the walls which in the West each person builds between himself and his neighbour.
We supped together, men and women, sitting cross-legged on a mat around a huge dish filled with a porridge of coarsely crushed wheat and milk. My hosts tore small pieces from large, paper-thin loaves of bread with which they deftly scooped up the porridge without ever touching it with their fingers. To me they had given a spoon; but I refused it and attempted, not without success, and to the evident pleasure of my friends, to emulate their simple and nevertheless dainty manner of eating.
When we lay down to sleep - about a dozen people in one and the same room - I gazed at the wooden beams above me from which strings of dried peppers and eggplant were hanging, at the many niches in the walls filled with brass and stoneware utensils, at the bodies of sleeping men and women, and asked myself whether at home I could ever have felt more at home.
In the days that followed, the rust-brown of the Judean hills with their bluish-grey and violet shadows gradually gave way to the more gay and mellow hills of Galilee. Springs and little streams unexpectedly made their appearance. Vegetation became more luxuriant. In groups stood thickly leafed olive trees and tall, dark cypresses; the last summer flowers could still be seen on the hill-sides.
Sometimes I walked part of the way with camel drivers and enjoyed for a while their simple warmth; we drank water from my canteen, smoked a cigarette together; then I walked on alone. I spent the nights in Arab houses and ate their bread with them. I tramped for days through the hot depression along the Lake of Galilee and through the soft coolness around Lake Hule, which was like a mirror of metal, with silvery mists, slightly reddened by the last rays of the evening sun that hovered over the water. Near the shore lived Arab fishermen in huts built of straw mats loosely slung around a framework of branches. They were very poor - but they did not seem to need more than these airy huts, the few faded garments on their backs, a handful of wheat to make bread and the fish they caught themselves: and always they seemed to have enough to ask the wanderer to step in and eat with them.
THE NORTHERNMOST POINT in Palestine was the Jewish colony of Metulla, which, I had learned earlier, was a kind of gap between British-administered Palestine and French Syria. On the basis of an agreement between the two governments, this and two neighbouring colonies were shortly to be incorporated into Palestine. During those few weeks of transition Metulla was not effectively supervised by either of the two governments, and thus appeared to be an ideal place from which to slip into Syria. It was, I understood, only later, on the highways, that identification papers would be demanded of the traveller. The Syrian control was said to be very strict; it was practically impossible to go far without being stopped by gendarmes. As Metulla was officially still considered part of Syria, every one of its adult inhabitants held, like elsewhere in the country, an identity certificate issued by the French authorities. To secure such a paper for myself became my most pressing task.
I made some discreet enquiries and was finally guided to the house of a man who might be prepared to part with his certificate for a consideration. He was a large person in his late thirties and was described as such in the crumpled and greasy document which he pulled out of his breast pocket; but as the paper bore no photograph, the problem was not insoluble.
'How much do you want for it?' I asked.
I took from my pocket all the coins I possessed and counted them: they came to fifty-five piasters, that is, a little over half a pound.
'This is all I have,' I said, 'As I must keep something for the rest of my journey, I can give you no more than twenty piasters' (which was exactly one-fifteenth of what he had demanded).
After some minutes of haggling we settled on thirty-five piasters, and the document was mine. It consisted of a printed sheet with two columns - one French and the other Arabic - the relevant data having been inserted in ink on the dotted lines. The 'personal description' did not bother me much, for, as is usual with such descriptions, it was wonderfully vague. But the age mentioned was thirty-nine - while I was twenty-three, and looked twenty. Even a very careless police officer would immediately notice the discrepancy; and so it became necessary to change the age entry. Now if it had been mentioned in one place only, the change would not have been so difficult, but unfortunately it was given in French as well as in Arabic. Despite my careful penning, I achieved what could only be described as an unconvincing forgery; to anybody with eyes in his head it would be obvious that the figures had been altered in both columns. But that could not be helped. I would have to rely on my luck and the negligence of the gendarmes.
Early in the morning my business friend led me to a gully behind the village, pointed to some rocks about half a mile beyond, and said, 'There is Syria.'
I made my way across the gulley. Although the hour was early, it was very hot. It must also have been hot to the old Arab woman who sat under a tree near the rocks beyond which was Syria; for she called out to me in a husky, brittle voice:
'Wouldst thou give a drink of water to an old woman, son?'
I unslung my freshly filled canteen and gave it to her. She drank avidly and then handed it back to me, saying:
'May God bless thee, may He keep thee secure and lead thee to thy heart's goal.'
'Thanks, mother, I do not want more than that.'
And when I turned around and looked back at her, I saw the old woman's lips move as if in prayer and felt a strange elation.
I reached the rocks and passed them: and now I was in Syria. A wide, barren plain lay before me; far away on the horizon I saw the outlines of trees and something that looked like houses; it must be the town of Baniyas. I did not like the look of this plain that offered no tree or bush behind which to take cover - which, so near the frontier, might well become necessary. But there was no other way. I felt as one sometimes feels in a dream in which one has to walk naked down a crowded street...
It was nearly noon when I reached a small streamlet bisecting the plain. As I sat down to take off my shoes and socks, I saw in the distance four horsemen moving in my direction. With their rifles held across the saddle, they looked ominously like gendarmes. They were gendarmes. There would have been no sense in my trying to run away; and so I comforted myself that whatever was to happen would happen. If I were caught now, I would probably receive no more than a few blows with a rifle butt and be escorted back to Metulla.
I waded through the stream, sat down on the opposite bank and started leisurely to dry my feet, waiting for the gendarmes to come closer. They came, and stared down at me with suspicion: for although I was wearing Arab headress, I was obviously a European.
'From where?' one of them asked me sharply in Arabic.
'And where to?'
'Oh, well, just a pleasure trip.'
'Of course ...'
And out came 'my' identity certificate and up came my heart to my mouth. The gendarme unfolded the paper and looked at it - and my heart slipped back to its proper place and started to beat again: for I saw that he held the document upside-down, obviously unable to read . . . The two or three big government seals apparently satisfied him, for he ponderously folded and handed it back to me:
'Yes, it is in order. Go.'
For a second I had the impulse to shake his hand, but then thought it better to let our relations remain strictly official. The four men wheeled their horses around and trotted away, while I continued on my march.
Near Baniyas I lost my way. What had been described on my map as a 'road fit for wheeled traffic' proved to be a hardly visible path which meandered over steppe land, swampy ground and across little streams, and in the end petered out entirely near some boulder-strewn hillocks. I wandered over these hills for several hours, up and down, until, in the afternoon, I came upon two Arabs with donkeys that were carrying grapes and cheese to Baniyas. We walked the last stretch together; they gave me grapes to eat; and we separated on reaching the gardens before the town. A clear, narrow, rapidly flowing stream was bubbling by the roadside. I lay down on my belly, thrust my head up to the ears in the icy water and drank and drank...
Although I was very tired, I had no intention of staying at Baniyas, which, being the first town on the Syrian side, was bound to have a police post. My encounter with the gendarmes had set me at rest as regards ordinary Syrian troopers, for most of them could be presumed to be illiterate and therefore not in a position to detect my forgery: but a police post, with an officer in it, would be a different story. I therefore set out at a quick pace through narrow lanes and byways, avoiding the main bazaar street where such a post would most likely be located. In one of the lanes I heard the sound of a lute and a man's voice singing to the accompaniment of clapping. Drawn to it, I rounded the corner - and stood quite still: for just opposite me, at a distance of perhaps ten paces, was a door inscribed Poste de Police, with several Syrian policemen, an officer among them, sitting on stools in the afternoon sun and enjoying the music of one of their comrades. It was too late to retreat, for they had already seen me, and the officer - apparently also a Syrian - called out to me:
'Hey, come here!'
There was nothing to it but to obey. I advanced slowly - and then a brain-wave struck me. Taking out my camera, I politely greeted the officer in French and continued, without waiting for his questions:
'I am coming from Metulla on a short visit to this town, but would not like to go back without taking a photo of you and your friend here, whose song has so enchanted me.'
Arabs like to be flattered, and in addition they delight in being photographed; and so the officer consented with a smile and requested me to send him the photograph after it was developed and printed (which I later did, with my compliments). It no longer occurred to him to ask me for my identification papers. Instead, he treated me to a cup of sweet tea and wished me bon voyage when I finally rose to 'go back to Metulla'. I retreated the way I had come, made a circuit around the town, and proceeded on my way to Damascus.
EXACTLY TWO WEEKS AFTER I had left Haifa I arrived at the big village - almost a town - of Majdal ash-Shams, which was inhabited mainly by Druzes and a few Christians. I chose a house which looked fairly prosperous and told the young man who opened the door to my knock that I would be grateful for shelter for the night. With the usual ahlan wa-sahlan the door was opened wide, and within a few minutes I found myself accepted into the small household.
As I was now deep in Syria, with several possible ways leading to Damascus, I decided to take my Druze host into my confidence and ask his advice. Knowing that no Arab would ever betray his guest, I placed all the facts squarely before him, including the fact that I was travelling on a false identity certificate. I was told that it would be extremely risky for me to travel on the highway because from here onward it was patrolled by French gendarmes, who would not let me pass as easily as the Syrians had done.
'I think I will send my son with thee,' said my host, pointing toward the young man who had opened the door to me, 'and he will guide thee across the mountains and help thee to avoid the roads.'
After the evening meal we sat down on the open terrace before the house and discussed the route we should take next morning. On my knees was spread the small-scale German map of Palestine and Syria which I had brought with me from Jerusalem, and I was trying to follow on it the course indicated by my Druze friend. While we were thus occupied, a man in the uniform of a police officer - evidently a Syrian - came strolling along the village street. He had appeared so suddenly from around a corner that I had hardly time enough to fold the map, let alone hide it from his view. The officer seemed to recognize a stranger in me, for after passing our terrace with a nod to my host, he turned back at the next corner and slowly walked toward us.
'Who are you?' he asked in French in a not unkind voice.
I repeated my usual rigmarole about being a colonist from Metulla on a pleasure trip; and when he demanded to see my identity certificate, I had to give it to him. He looked at the paper attentively, and his lips twisted in a grin.
'And what is it that you have in your hand?' he continued, pointing to the folded German map. I said that it was nothing of importance; but he insisted on seeing it, unfolded it with the deft fingers of a man accustomed to handling maps, looked at it for a few seconds, folded it carefully and handed it back to me with a smile. Then he said in broken German:
'During the war I served in the Turkish army side by side with the Germans.' And he saluted in the military fashion, grinned once again and walked away.
'He has understood that thou art an Alemani. He likes them, and hates the French. He won't bother thee.'
Next morning, accompanied by the young Druze, I set out on what must have been the hardest march of my life. We walked for over eleven hours, with only one break at noon for about twenty minutes, over rocky hills, down deep gorges, through dry river beds, up hills again, between boulders, over sharp pebbles, uphill, downhill, uphill, downhill, until I felt that I could walk no more. When in the afternoon we reached the town of Al- Katana in the plains of Damascus, I was entirely worn out, my shoes were torn and my feet swollen. I wanted to stop overnight at the place, but my young friend advised strongly against it: there were too many French police around, and as it was a town and not a village, I would not so easily find shelter without attracting attention. The only alternative was to secure a ride in one of the automobiles that plied for hire between here and Da-mascus. I had still my twenty piasters (during the entire journey from Haifa I had had no need to spend a single penny): and twenty piasters happened to be the fare for a car ride to Damascus.
In the ramshackle office of the transport contractor, in the main square of the town, I was informed that I would have to wait for about half an hour until the next car left. I parted from my friendly guide, who embraced me like a brother and set out immediately on the first stage of his way home. Sitting with my knapsack by my side near the door of the booking office, I dozed off under the rays of the late afternoon sun - only to be rudely awakened by someone shaking me by the shoulder: a Syrian gendarme. The usual questions came, followed by the usual answers. But the man was apparently not quite satisfied and told me:
'Come with me to the police station and talk there to the officer in charge.'
I was so tired that it no longer mattered to me whether I was discovered or not.
The 'officer' in the station room proved to be a big, burly French sergeant, his tunic unbuttoned, behind a desk on which stood an almost empty bottle of arrack and a dirty glass. He was completely, angrily, drunk and glared with bloodshot eyes at the policeman who had brought me in.
'What is it now?'
The policeman explained in Arabic that he had seen me, a stranger, sitting in the main square; and I explained in French that I was not a stranger, but a law-abiding citizen.
'Law-abiding citizen!' the sergeant shouted. 'You people are scamps, vagabonds who walk up and down the country only to annoy us. Where are your papers?’
As I was fumbling with stiff fingers for the identity certificate in my pocket, he banged his fist on the table, and bellowed:
'Never mind, get out of here!' - and as I was closing the door behind me I saw him reach for his glass and bottle.
After the long, long march, what a relief, what an ease to ride - no, almost glide,- in a car from Al-Katana over the broad highway into the orchard-covered plain of Damascus! On the horizon lay my goal: an endless sea of treetops, with a few shining domes and minarets faintly visible against the sky. Far away, somewhat to the right, stood a solitary naked hill, its crest still lighted by the sun, while soft shadows were already creeping up its base. Above the hill, a single cloud, narrow, long, glittering dusk; steep, distant pale blue sky; over the plain, a dove grey golden against the mountains to our right and to our left; a light air.
Then: tall fruit gardens enclosed by mud walls; riders, carts, carriages, soldiers (French soldiers). The dusk became green like water. An officer roared by on a motorcycle, with his huge goggles resembling a deep-sea fish. Then: the first house. Then: Damascus, a surf of noise after the silence of the open plain. The first lights were leaping up in windows and streets. I felt a gladness such as I could not remember.
But my gladness came to an abrupt end as the car stopped beyond the poste de police on the outskirts of the city.
'What is the matter?' I asked the driver by my side.
'Oh, nothing. All cars coming from outside must report to the police on arrival...'
A Syrian policeman emerged from the station and asked:
'From where are you coming?'
'Only from Al-Katana,' replied the driver.
'Oh, well, in that case go on' (for this was obviously only local traffic). The driver let in his clutch with a grind. We moved on and I breathed freely once more. But at that moment someone called out from the street, 'The top is loose!' - and a few paces beyond the poste de police the driver stopped the aged car to attend to the open top that had flopped down on one side. While he was thus engaged, the policeman approached us idly once again, apparently interested in no more than the driver's mechanical problem. Then, however, his glance alighted on me and I saw, with a stiffening of my whole body, that his eyes became alert. He was looking me up and down, came closer, and squinted at the floor of the car where my knapsack lay.
'Who art thou?' he asked suspiciously.
I began, 'From Metulla ..,' but the policeman was shaking his head unbelievingly. Then he whispered something to the driver; I could make out the words, 'English soldier, deserter.' And for the first time it dawned upon me that my blue overalls, my brown kufiyya with its gold-threaded igāl and my military-type knapsack (which I had bought in a junk shop in Jerusalem) closely resembled the outfit of the Irish constabulary employed in those days by the government of Palestine; and I also remembered that there was an agreement between the French and British authorities to extradite their respective deserters...
In my broken Arabic I tried to explain to the policeman that I was no deserter; but he waved aside my explanations:
'Explain all this to the inspector.'
And so I was obliged to go into the police station, while the driver, with a muttered apology for not being able to wait for me started the car and disappeared from view... The inspector was out for the time being but, I was told, would be back any moment. I had to wait in a room which contained only a bench and, apart from the main entry, two other doors. Over one of them was inscribed Gardien de Prison and over the other simply Prison. Amid these very unpropitious surroundings I waited for over half an hour, each minute more and more convinced that this was my journey's end: for 'inspector' sounded much more ominous than simply 'officer'. If I were now discovered, I would have to spend some time, perhaps weeks, in gaol as under-trial prisoner; then I would receive the customary sentence of three months; after serving it I would have to march on foot - accompanied by a mounted gendarme - back to the frontier of Palestine; and, to top it all, I might expect an eviction from Palestine as well for breaking passport regulations. The gloom in the waiting room was nothing compared with the gloom within me.
Suddenly I heard the whirr of a motor car. It stopped before the station gate. A moment later a man in civilian dress with a red tarbūsh on his head entered the room with a quick step, followed by the policeman who was excitedly trying to report something to him. The inspector was quite obviously in a great hurry.
I do not know exactly how it happened, but I presume that what I did at that crucial moment was the outcome of one of those rare flashes of genius which in different circumstances - and perhaps in different men - produce events that change history. With a single bound, I came close to the inspector and, without waiting for his questions, hurled at him a torrent of complaints in French against the insulting clumsiness of the policeman who had taken me, an innocent citizen, for a deserter and caused me to lose my ride into the city. The inspector tried several times to interrupt me, but I never gave him a chance and engulfed him in a flow of words of which, I suppose, he was hardly able to gather one-tenth - probably only the names 'Metulla' and 'Damascus,' which I repeated an endless number of times. He was evidently distressed at being kept away from something he had to do in a hurry; but I did not let him speak and continued, without stopping for breath, with my wordy barrage. Ultimately he threw up his hands in despair and cried:
'Stop, for God's sake! Have you any papers?'
My hand went automatically into my breast pocket and, still pouring out sentence after sentence in an unceasing stream, I thrust the false identity certificate into his hands. The poor man must have felt as if he were drowning, for he only quickly turned over a corner of the folded sheet, saw the government stamp, and threw it back at me:
'All right, all right, go, only go!' - and I did not wait for him to repeat his request.
A FEW MONTHS EARLIER, in Jerusalem, I had met a Damascene teacher who had invited me to be his guest whenever I came to Damascus, and it was after his house that I now enquired. A little boy offered himself as my guide and took me by the hand.
Deep evening. The Old City. Narrow lanes which the overhanging oriel windows made more nightly than the night itself could make them. Here and there I could see, in the yellow light of a kerosene lantern, a fruiterer's shop with a mound of watermelons and baskets of grapes outside it. People like shadows. Sometimes behind the latticed windows a woman's shrill voice. And then the little boy said, 'Here'. I knocked at a door. Somebody answered from inside and I lifted the latch and entered a paved courtyard. In the darkness I could discern grapefruit trees heavy with green fruit and a stone basin with a fountain. Someone called out from above:
'Taffadal, ya sīdi' - and I ascended a narrow staircase along one of the outer walls and walked through an open loggia and into the arms of my friend.
I was dead-tired, entirely exhausted, and let myself fall unresistingly on to the bed that was offered me. The wind rustled in the trees of the courtyard in front and in the trees of the garden behind the house. From the distance came many muffled sounds: the voice of a great Arabian city going to sleep.
IT WAS WITH THE excitement of a new understanding, with my eyes opened to things I had not suspected before, that I wandered in those summer days through the alleys of the old bazaar of Damascus and recognized the spiritual restfulness in the life of its people. Their inner security could be observed in the way they behaved toward one another: in the warm dignity with which they met or parted; in the manner in which two men would walk together, holding each other by the hand like children - simply because they felt friendly toward each other; in the manner in which the shopkeepers dealt with one another. Those traders in the little shops, those inexorable callers to passersby, seemed to have no grasping fear and no envy in them: so much so that the owner of a shop would leave it in the custody of his neighbour and competitor whenever it became necessary for him to be away for a while. I often saw a potential customer stop before an untended stall, obviously debating within himself whether to wait for the return of the vendor or to move on to the adjoining stall-and invariably the neighbouring trader, the competitor, would step in to enquire after the customer's wants and sell him the required goods - not his own goods, but those of his absent neighbour - and would leave the purchase price on the neighbour's bench. Where in Europe could one have witnessed a like transaction?
Some of the bazaar streets were thronged with the hardy figures of beduins in their wide, flowing garments: men who always seemed to carry their lives with themselves, and always walked in their own tracks. Tall men with grave, burning eyes were standing and sitting in groups before the shops. They did not talk much to one another - one word, one short sentence, attentively spoken and as attentively received, sufficed for long conversations. These beduins, I felt, did not know chatter, that talking about nothing, with nothing at stake, the hallmark of worn-out souls; and I was reminded of the words of the Koran which described life in Paradise: '…. and thou hearest no chatter there ... ' Silence seemed to be a beduin virtue. They wrapped themselves in their wide, brown-and-white or black cloaks and kept silent; they passed you by with a silent child's glance, proud, modest and sensible. When you addressed them in their tongue, their black eyes lit up in a sudden smile: for they were not self-absorbed and liked to be sensed by the stranger. They were grands seigneurs, entirely reserved and nevertheless open to all things of life...
On a Friday - the Muslim Sabbath - you could perceive a change of rhythm in the life of Damascus - a little whirlwind of happy excitement and, at the same time, solemnity. I thought of our Sundays in Europe; of the silent city streets and closed shops; I remembered all those empty days and the oppression which that emptiness brought forth. Why should it be so? Now I began to understand it: because to most people in the West their everyday life is a heavy load from which only Sundays can release them, Sunday is no longer a day of rest but has become an escape into the unreal, a deceptive forgetfulness behind which, doubly heavy and threatening, the 'weekday' lurks.
To the Arabs, on the other hand, Friday did not seem to be an opportunity to forget their workdays. Not that the fruits of life fell easily and without effort into the laps of these people, but simply because their labours, even the heaviest, did not seem to conflict with their personal desires. Routine, for the sake of routine, was absent; instead, there was an inner contact between a working-man and his work: and so respite became necessary only if one got tired. Such a consonance between man and his work must have been envisaged by Islam as the natural state of affairs and, therefore, no obligatory rest had been prescribed for Friday. The artisans and small shopkeepers in the Damascus bazaars worked for a few hours, abandoned their shops for a few hours during which they went away to the mosque for their noon prayers and afterward met with some friends in a cafe; then they would come back to their shops and work again for a few hours in glad relaxation, everyone just as he pleased. Only a few shops were closed, and except during the time of prayer, when the people assembled in the mosques, all the streets were as full of bustle as on other days.
One Friday I went with my friend and host into the Umayyad Mosque. The many marble columns which supported the domed ceiling shone under the sun rays that fell through the lintel windows. There was a scent of musk in the air, red and blue carpets covered the floor. In long, even rows stood many hundreds of men behind the imām who led the prayer; they bowed, knelt, touched the ground with their foreheads, and rose again: all in disciplined unison, like soldiers. It was very quiet; while the congregation was standing, one could hear the voice of the old imām from the distant depths of the huge hall, reciting verses from the Koran; and when he bowed or prostrated himself, the entire congregation followed him as one man, bowing and prostrating themselves before God as if He were present before their eyes...
It was at this moment that I became aware how near their God and their faith were to these people. Their prayer did not seem to be divorced from their working day; it was part of it - not meant to help them forget life, but to remember it better by remembering God.
'How strange and wonderful,' I said to my friend as we were leaving the mosque, 'that you people feel God to be so close to you. I wish I could feel so myself.'
'How else could it be, O my brother? Is not God, as our Holy Book says, nearer to thee than the vein in thy neck?’
SPURRED BY MY NEW AWARENESS, I spent much of my time at Damascus reading all manner of books on Islam on which I could lay my hands. My Arabic, although sufficient for the purposes of conversation, was as yet too weak for reading the Koran in the original, and so I had to take recourse to two translations - one French and the other German - which I borrowed from a library. For the rest, I had to rely on European orientalist works and on my friend's explanations.
However fragmentary, these studies and talks were like the lifting of a curtain. I began to discern a world of ideas of which hitherto I had been entirely ignorant.
Islam did not seem to be so much a religion in the popular sense of the word as, rather, a way of life; not so much a system of theology as a programme of personal and social behaviour based on the consciousness of God. Nowhere in the Koran could I find any reference to a need for 'salvation'. No original, inherited sin stood between the individual and his destiny - for, nothing shall be attributed to man but what he himself has striven for. No asceticism was required to open a hidden gate to purity: for purity was man's birthright, and sin meant no more than a lapse from the innate, positive qualities with which God was said to have endowed every human being. There was no trace of any dualism in the consideration of man's nature: body and soul seemed to be taken as one integral whole.
At first I was somewhat startled by the Koran's concern not only with matters spiritual but also with many seemingly trivial, mundane aspects of life; but in time I began to understand that if man were indeed an integral unity of body and soul - as Islam insisted he was - no aspect of his life could be too 'trivial' to come within the purview of religion. With all this, the Koran never let its followers forget that the life of this world was only one stage of man's way to a higher existence, and that his ultimate goal was of a spiritual nature. Material prosperity, it said, is desirable but not an end in itself: and therefore man's appetites, though justified in themselves, must be restrained and controlled by moral consciousness. This consciousness ought to relate not merely to man's relation with God but also to his relations with men; not only to the spiritual perfection of the individual but also to the creation of such social conditions as might be conducive to the spiritual development of all, so that all might live in fullness...
All this was intellectually and ethically far more 'respectable' than anything I had previously heard or read about Islam. Its approach to the problems of the spirit seemed to be deeper than that of the Old Testament and had, moreover, none of the latter's predilection for one particular nation; and its approach to the problems of the flesh was, unlike the New Testament, strongly affirmative. Spirit and flesh stood, each in its own right, as the twin aspects of man's God-created life.
Was not perhaps this teaching, I asked myself, responsible for the emotional security I had so long sensed in the Arabs?
ONE EVENING MY HOST invited me to accompany him to a party in the house of a rich Damascene friend who was celebrating the birth of a son.
We walked through the winding lanes of the inner city, which were so narrow that the projecting bay windows and lattice-encased balconies almost touched one another from opposite sides of the street. Deep shadows and peaceful silence dozed between the old houses of stone; sometimes a few black-veiled women passed you by with swift little steps, or a bearded man, dressed in a long kaftān, appeared from around a corner and slowly disappeared behind another. Always the same corners and irregular angles, always the same narrow lanes which cut across one another in all directions, always promising to lead to astounding revelations and always opening into another, similar lane.
But the revelation did come in the end. My friend and guide stopped before a nondescript wooden door set in a blank, mud-plastered wall and said:
'Here we are,' knocking with his fist against the door.
It opened with a squeak, a very old man bade us welcome with a toothlessly mumbled, 'Ahlan, ahlan wa-sahlan,' and through a short corridor with two right-angle turns we entered the courtyard of the house that from outside had resembled nothing so much as a mud-coloured barn.
The courtyard was wide and airy, paved like a huge chessboard with white and black marble slabs. In a low, octagonal basin in the centre a fountain was playing and splashing. Lemon trees and oleander bushes, set in small openings in the marble pavement, spread their blossom-and fruit-laden branches all over the courtyard and along the inner house walls, which were covered from base to roof with alabaster reliefs of the most delicate workmanship, displaying intricate, geometrical patterns and leafy arabesques, interrupted only by windows framed in broad, lace-like openwork of marble. On one side of the yard the walls were recessed to form, about three feet above ground level, a deep niche the size of a large room, accessible by broad marble steps. Along the three walled sides of this niche - called liwan - ran low, brocaded divans, while on the floor a costly carpet was spread. The niche walls were lined with huge mirrors up to a height of perhaps fifteen feet - and the entire courtyard with its trees, its black-and-white pavement, its alabaster reliefs, marble window embrasures and carved doors which led to the interior of the house, and the many-coloured throng of guests who sat on the divans and strolled around the water basin - all this was duplicated in the mirrors of the liwan: and when you looked into them, you discovered that the opposite wall of the courtyard was covered with similar mirrors in its entire width, so that the whole spectacle was being reflected twice, four times, a hundred times, and thus transformed into a magic, endless ribbon of marble, alabaster, fountains, myriads of people, forests of lemon trees, oleander groves - an endless dreamland glistening under an evening sky still rosy from the rays of the setting sun ...
Such a house - bare and unadorned on the street side, rich and delightful within - was altogether new to me; but in time I came to know that it was typical of the traditional dwellings of the well-to-do not only in Syria and Iraq but also in Iran. Neither the Arabs nor the Persians cared in earlier days for facades: a house was meant to be lived in and its function was limited to its interior. This was something quite different from the forced 'functionalism' so much sought after in modern Western architecture. The Westerners, entangled in a kind of inverted romanticism, unsure of their own feelings, nowadays build problems; the Arabs and Persians build - or built until yesterday - houses.
The host seated me to his right on the divan, and a barefooted servant offered coffee on a small brass tray. Smoke from bubbling nargīles mingled with the rosewater-scented air of the liwan and floated in wisps toward the glass-shaded candles which were being lighted, one after another, along the walls and between the darkening green of the trees.
The company - all men - was most varied: men in kaftāns of striped, rustling Damascus silk or ivory-coloured Chinese raw silk, voluminous jubbas of pastel-shaded fine wool, gold-embroidered white turbans over red tarbūshes; men in European clothes, but obviously completely at ease in their cross-legged position on the divans. Some beduin chieftains from the steppes, with their retinues, were there: eyes black and gloriously alive, and small black beards around lean, brown faces. Their new clothes swished with every movement, and all of them carried silver-sheathed swords. They were indolently and completely at ease: true aristocrats - only that their ease, in distinction from that of European aristocrats, was not a soft shine bred through generations of loving care and good living, but like a warm fire coming out of the sureness of their perceptions. A good air surrounded them, a dry and clear atmosphere - the same air which I had once sensed in reality on the borders of the desert: embracing in its chastity but not intruding. They were like distant friends, like passing visitors in this place: their free, aimless life awaited them elsewhere.
A dancing-girl came out of one of the doors and ran lightly up the steps to the liwan. She was very young, certainly no more than twenty, and very beautiful. Dressed in billowing trousers of some crackling, iridescent silk material, a pair of golden slippers and a pearl-embroidered bodice which not so much covered as accentuated her high, upstanding breasts, she moved with the sensuous grace of one accustomed to be admired and desired: and you could almost hear the ripple of delight that ran through this assembly of men at the sight of her soft-limbed body and her taut ivory skin.
She danced, to the accompaniment of a hand drum wielded by the middle-aged man who had entered the liwan immediately behind her, one of those traditional, lascivious dances so beloved in the East - dances meant to evoke slumbering desires and to give promise of a breathless fulfilment.
'O thou wonderful, O thou strange,' murmured my host. Then he slapped my knee lightly and said: 'Is she not like soothing balm on a wound ...?’
As quickly as she had come, the dancer disappeared; and nothing remained of her but the hazy shimmer in the eyes of most of the men. Her place on the carpet in the liwan was taken by four musicians - some of the best in all Syria, I was told by one of the guests. One of them held a long-necked lute, another a flat, single-headed drum - like a timbrel without jingles - the third an instrument that resembled a zither, and the fourth an Egyptian tambour - something like a very wide brass bottle with a bottom of drum-skin.
They began to twang and drum delicately, playfully at first, without any discernible accord, seemingly each man for himself, as if tuning their instruments in preparation for a common upward beat. He with the zither drew his fingertips lightly several times over the strings from high to low with a subdued, harp-like effect; the tambour player drummed softly, stopped, and drummed again; the man with the lute struck, as if absent-mindedly, a few low, sharp chords in quick succession, chords that seemed only by accident to coincide with the dry, monotonously repeated beat of the timbrel and to draw the tambour into a hesitant response to the strumming of the strings, now of the lute, now of the zither - and before you became quite aware of it, a common rhythm had bound the four instruments together and a melody took shape. A melody? I could not say. It rather seemed to me that I was not so much listening to a musical performance as witnessing an exciting happening. Out of the chirping tones of the string instruments there grew up a new rhythm, rising in a tense spiral and then, suddenly, falling down - like the rhythmic rising and falling of a metallic object, faster and slower, softer and stronger: in dispassionate persistence, in endless variations, this one uninterrupted happening, this acoustic phenomenon which trembled in a restrained intoxication, grew up, spread out powerfully, went to the head: and when it suddenly broke off in the midst of a crescendo (how early, much too early!) I knew: I was imprisoned. The tension of this music had imperceptibly enwrapped me; I had been drawn into these tones which in their apparent monotony recalled the eternal recurrence of all things existing and knocked at the doors of your own feelings and called forth, step by step, all that had been moving in you without your knowledge ... laid bare something that had always been there and now became obvious to you with a vividness that made your heart pound…I had been accustomed to Western music, in which the entire emotional background of the composer is drawn into each individual composition, reflecting in every one of its moods all the other, possible moods: but this Arabian music seemed to flow from a single level of consciousness, from a single tension that was nothing but tension and could therefore assume personal modes of feeling in every listener...
After a few seconds of silence the tambour rumbled again, and the other instruments followed. A softer sway, a more feminine rhythm than before; the individual voices adjusted themselves more closely to each other, warmly enfolded one another, and, as if bound together in a spell, became more and more excited; they stroked each other, flowed around each other in soft, wavy lines which at first collided, several times, with the roll of the tambour as if with a hard obstacle, but gradually grew in aggressiveness, overcame the tambour and enslaved it, dragging it along in a common, spiral ascent: and the tambour, unwilling at first, soon fell prey to the common rapture and joined, intoxicated, the others; the wavy line lost its feminine softness and raced on with rising violence, quicker, higher, shriller, into a cold furioso of conscious passion that had given up all restraint and now became a dithyrambic climb to some unseen peaks of power and sovereignty; out of the erstwhile circling flow of tones around each other emerged a tremendous rotation in unison - a rushing of wheels out of eternity into eternity, without measure or limit or goal, a breathless, reckless tightrope - walker's run over knife-edge precipices, through one eternal present, toward an awareness that was freedom, and power, and beyond all thought. And, suddenly, in the midst of an upsurging sweep: a stop and a deadly silence. Brutal. Honest. Clean.
Like a rustling of tree leaves, breath returned to the listeners, and the long-drawn murmur ' Ya Allah, ya Allah' went through them. They were children who play their long-understood and ever-tempting games. They were smiling in happiness...
WE RIDE and Zayd sings: always the same rhythm, always the same monotonous melody. For the soul of the Arab is monotonous - but not in sense of poverty of imagination; he has plenty of that; but his instinct does not go, like that of Western man after width, three-dimensional space and the simultaneity of many shades of emotion. Through Arabian music speaks a desire to carry, each time, a single emotional experience to the utmost end of its reach. To this pure monotony, this almost sensual desire to see feeling intensified in a continuous, ascending line, the Arabian character owes its strength and its faults. Its faults: for the world wants to be experienced, emotionally, in space as well. And its strength: for the faith in the possibility of an endless linear ascent of emotional knowledge can in the sphere of the mind lead nowhere but to God. Only on the basis of this inborn drive, so peculiar to people of the desert, could grow the monotheism of the early Hebrews and its triumphant fulfilment, the faith of Muhammad. Behind both stood the motherly desert.
 * At that time (1923) nobody could have foreseen the bitter antagonism which in later years would mar the relations between Amir Abdullah and his son Talal - the son hating his father's complaisance with regard to British policies in the Arab world, and the father resenting his son's passionate outspokenness. Nor could I see on that or on later occasions any sign of the 'mental disturbance' in Talal that led to his enforced abdication from the throne of Jordan in 1952.
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