I’m reading a beautiful book, The Desert and the Sown by Gertrude Bell. She was a fascinating woman, most notably (for me) she was an archeologist. This book is her journal about her travels in Syria and Palestine and was originally published in 1907. I want to be her when I grow up.
Her journey — as she relates it — is captivating and mildly incomprehensible. I recently traveled (with her) to spend some nights at Krak des Chevaliers. A crusader castle I came to “know” through T. E. Lawrence’ thesis Crusader Castles and the research I did on the Crusades for my book, Savior.
After wandering with this incredible woman for a couple hundred pages, it was a relief to reach a place I “knew.” Not that I really care all that much, but a little grounding is nice. She is welcomed by the resident political leader and housed in a beautiful room in one of the towers. After the formalities are completed, she’s able to retire to her room. She is soon visited by the man’s wife and a Christian woman who speaks English. Gertrude Bell spoke fluent Arabic which sets both her hostesses at ease. Dinner is brought in for the women to share. Then, “When dinner was over we returned to my room, a brazier full of charcoal was brought in, together with hubble-bubbles (hubbly-bubbly) for the ladies, we settled ourselves for an evening talk.”
And I’m thinking, “This long-ago British archeologist whom I admire is sitting with Arab women and a hubble-bubble in a tower of the Krak des Chevaliers.” Hubble-bubble is a hookah.
When I started this life journey — I consider it to have begun not when I was born, but when I was ten — I had a lot of dreams of traveling the whole world and getting to know the people in it. I didn’t appreciate then how big the world is or how many people there are. I didn’t even seriously consider languages. Then that other reality I didn’t know about — money. And, as we grow up and experience life, we are ourselves transformed. That 10-year-old girl is still me but with a little more knowledge. She also wanted a dog and we know how that turned out. 😉
Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria were the location of my 10-year-old girl dreams because of David Lean’s film, Lawrence of Arabia which I loved beyond logic. “I am going to be T. E. Lawrence when I grow up.” Yep. I said that. It was my first fixation. I went so far as to go to school wearing a sheet on my head… From Lawrence’s book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, I learned some Arabic, along with customs and history. In China, many of my closest friends were Chinese Muslims from the Turkic part of China, and, oddly enough, I learned a little bit more Arabic in Guangzhou along with MORE customs, greetings, and their significance.
Back in the US, teaching at the international school, I taught many Arabs — employees of Saudi Airlines, various Middle Eastern governments, some teachers, and some businessmen. My affinity — sympathy? — must have been obvious because pretty soon the Good X and I were invited to dinner at my students’ homes. In San Diego, far far far away from a castle in Syria, I shared dinners very like the one Gertrude Bell described.
I imagined Gertrude Bell sitting on the floor and the women passing the pipe between them, smoking tobacco mixed with apricots. I know that sweet aroma and how lovely the custom is. I could imagine being in that tower room in Krak des Chevaliers. In my experience, the hubble-bubble was passed in a mixed, family group, and the women didn’t join. It’s OK. I didn’t want to, but the hospitality was the same.
Reading about the dinner and the hubble-bubble, I saw that, in a way, my dreams came true. Teaching international students for 15 years, the whole world came through my classrooms. I got to spend time with Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, the Emirates, Yemen, Qatar, Kuwait, and Egypt.
But to have been Gertrude Bell? To travel on horseback through the Middle East with various guides and protectors so long ago? Before oil, before the current boundary lines, before the ambient continuing horror? Wow. The complexity of political relationships she writes about — and navigates — is beyond my understanding. But…every time she stops beside the road or enters a home she is welcomed with coffee. I understand that…
For years I wore around my neck a tiny, golden dallah, a coffee pot, given me by Salem who jokingly called himself the Epic Legendary Hero. He was a brilliant, hilarious minister from Kuwait who spent two years in the US and got an advanced degree in business. I appreciated Arabic coffee in itself and in the ritual so much that it got to be kind of a joke, but the sweet kind of joke that you love. When Salem gave me the golden dallah he was returning to Kuwait for good.
Gertrude Bell quotes a 10th-century poet that I had never heard of, Al-Mutanabbi. It’s a verse in which, Gertrude Bell writes, “…the poet puts from him the joys of youth”
“I have longed for age to still the tumult in my brain,
and why should I repine when my prayer is fulfilled?
We have renounced desire save for the spear points,
Neither do we dally, except with them.
The most exalted seat in the world is the saddle of a swift horse,
And the best companion for all time is a book.”
I’ve thought a lot about the difference between the striving years, the holding up the sky years, and these years that I’m now having the good luck to live. I’ve begun a lot of things at “this late date” — I could never “be” an artist before. I could never “do” journalism before. I moved here without knowing anyone and made a life. Maybe those things are the equivalent of Al-Mutanabbi’s “spear points.” I’m no less curious about things than I was when I was 10, but I have a better handle on geography.
The stereotypes surrounding “old age” have never been wholly true. Reading this bit of a poem written more than a thousand years ago, I thought of how literature opened a larger world to me than time, money, a profession, and destiny (spelled d-o-g-s) allowed. And I thought of how my friend Lois — who’s in her sixties — bought a beautiful horse last year, a horse she helped train and loves with all her heart. ❤️
There is no Frigate like a Book
There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the human soul
The prompt for today is “Chautauqua” — And I wrote about that here! Chatauqua
P.S. A movie was made about Gertrude Bell not that long ago. It stars Nicole Kidman. I found it unwatchable.
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