I persuaded Clive to take me on a camel trek. Apart from our guide, there was no one else. We slept under the stars. I wanted to experience the emptiness of the desert and hear what it sounded like. It is a sort of hanging stillness unlike any I had ever felt.
We walked along the crests of the magnificent dunes and looked out over the endless landscapes. I felt as if we had traveled beyond our world.
The Israelites fleeing Pharaoh required forty years for that which our plane accomplished in less than two hours. If one had spent weary decades wandering through sterile wadis and scalding plains of baking sand and gravel, then the eastern region of the Mediterranean might have seemed an oasis by comparison. But to the modern traveler it can be a letdown.
“It is a hopeless, dreary, heartbroken land, with no dreamy blue mist to soften the perspective. The naked hills appeared to have committed some terrible sin for which they had been stoned to death”, wrote Mark Twain.
A hundredfifty-some years later I saw nothing to amend that assessment. For thirty centuries, “Cut down all the trees!” was every general’s order at the beginning of every siege. From the British to the Crusaders, before them Pompey and Josephus told us that Titus axed every remaining tree within ten miles of Jerusalem. And if any survived the armies, there were the locusts to denude them and goats that climbed into the topmost branches to crop their leaves.
Until you see the region, Charles told me, you cannot truly understand the many passages of the Scripture, Old and New, in which the commonness and troublesomeness of stones are drawn upon for metaphor. And the Arabs, too, have a legend that explains the stones, Charles continued. “When Allah made the world, he put all the stones that were to be used across the entire earth into two bags and gave them to an angel to distribute over the land. While the angel was flying over this region, one bag broke.”
Arabs, Lebanese, Djebel Druses, Syrians, Kurds and Armenians, native-born Jews and European settlers, Turks, Persians and Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Palestianians, a thousand Bedouin tribes, and Colonial interests, all of these, and more, wanted something that usually involved taking land from someone else.
The sad fact is that each war begins in hope: hope of restoring lost honor, hope of redressing injustices and reclaiming tarnished glory, hope of a brave new world. Each war ends with the black seeds of the next war sown: honor newly lost, injustice freshly inflicted, a world more broken than before. Always someone steps forward, ready to water and weed and harvest those black seeds. The rationales warp, twist and shift. The closer war comes, the simpler the choices. Are you a warrior or a coward? Are you with us or against us? I thought that we had learned some enduring lessons from the stupendous carnage of war. I honestly believed we had finally learned to value peace and progress and prosperity.
I wish I could argue that, but already the twenty-first century does not provide much evidence to deploy. You can see why God must weep; how sad to grant free will and see it used so poorly. Observing human history has turned out to be a terrible exercise in monotony.