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Lost in Arabiyya

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Friday 10th February 2012
Lost in Arabiyya
from O Little Town of Bethlehem

In February I needed to leave Israel to renew my visitor visa, and I went to the Sinai peninsula in Egypt.


Sinai BedouinSometimes I wonder whether I’m channelling karmic threads from Lawrence of Arabia, Glubb Pasha and their friends – relatively enlightened British people who spent a lot of time in the Middle East. They were some of the rather courageous, relatively open-minded Brits who, over the centuries of colonialism, went native. In colonial days this was unacceptable, a betrayal of civilised Britishness, inviting rejection back in Old Blighty.

I was reflecting on this while sitting with an old Bedouin lady who had wandered along to our camp. The Bedouin come along a path aside the Sinai shoreline, avoiding the road, on foot or on camels, and they sit awhile at the camp to drink tea and just be, with us Europeans. Their capacity just to be, to sit still with no intent except to be here, is admirable. Of course, to Westerners, they are busy doing nothing, but no, they are holding up the world, giving us something we ourselves lack, making sure the waves continue to lap upon the shore and the mountains continue committing their geological acts of wanton existentiality.

Part of me is semi-consciously schmoozing over a cultural divide, losing some of my Britishness, and not unwillingly so. But there’s more. Sitting there with the Bedouin lady, she with her fifty words of English and me with my thirty of Arabic, it was as if she were my mother – though she’s probably younger than me – and as if I were her father, with my relative power and wealth in my own sphere as a Westerner. Seeing me in my violet jalabiya (an ankle-length, cotton, light one-piece robe worn by local Bedouin), she pulled out a darker violet headscarf and arranged it on my head, almost religiously. All I needed now was a camel.

I’m more at home on camels than horses. I love their steady, thoughtful nature and the way they run. Something in me could stay here forever, wandering the craggy mountains of Sinai or the hot wastes of the Hejaz over in Arabia. But I won’t, not in this life. Like T E Lawrence, I’m on a mission to support people here in becoming themselves, in discovering their true interests, not as adjuncts to the West but as people with their own rich cultural continuity, in some ways superior to our own. But it’s Palestine where this work is to be done.

My respect for the Bedouin grows the more I get to know them. They have an interiority, a knowingness grounded in the earth and the shimmering void of the desert. The Bedouin go back millennia, being desert nomads who have customarily avoided the rule of empires and monarchs, often involved in camel caravans and herding in former days and looked on as ‘true Arabs’. Many are interrelated. They are spread from Morocco to Iran and Arabia to Azerbaijan, products of a cultural choice made long ago to live in simplicity, leading an existential life shared with the mountains, the dunes and the almost tideless sea. Today many of them drive taxis, buses and trucks but, if this ends, they’ll go back to their tents and camels, tucked away in the folds of the mountains and dunes, needing little, demanding little and taking care of nature and the world. They live a tough life but, the way they see things, it’s not as tough as ours.

I’m going partially native, losing layers of my Britishness. This is partially because I’m an independent activist, defining my own rules, able to act as I think best. People back home sometimes ask, why don’t I get a job with an NGO to help pay my way and to do good through them? It’s simple: to earn my pay I would have to comply with an NGO’s rules, requirements, regulations and objectives, and it would involve a lot of desk-work, meetings and report-writing, and I would not be able to use many of my special skills, my intuitive, empathic and quirky ways of making decisions, my healing abilities, intelligence work and personality. Many Palestinians trust me because I am me, not because of the organisation I represent. I would have to practice a certain professional detachment and to avoid certain kinds of situations. Some of my ‘secret’ gifts – such as the ability to use astrological methods to diagnose situations, to use a pendulum in researching issues or to do psychic and earth-healing work – would distinctly not be permitted in an NGO.

The mountain of the Sinai peninsulaThe NGO sector does worthy work, but working within its norms and constraints is not my style, and in my judgement it sometimes has a negative effect on Palestine and other places, which I do not wish to be part of. I’m not ‘professional’ in my approach. But then, ‘Amateurs built the Ark and professionals built the Titanic’. The NGO sector generally helps countries according to a Western-shaped development model. The West brings forth wonderful things but it also charges its price – just look at the plastic bags blowing across the desert, and the film of sunscreen floating on the surface of the oceans. It seeks to incorporate the world’s population into its market system yet, in so doing, it doesn’t think far enough. It wants humans to serve its system, when the system should serve humans.

Here's an example of something I couldn’t do in an NGO because it would be deemed partisan. I’m in process of arranging a settler incursion early-warning system in our area, working with Israelis living in nearby settlements who have reservations about Israeli policy and settler behaviour. Settlers are trying to get into Al Khader by laying a biblically-based claim to two locations in our area. Whether or not the claim is true or even important, it’s incendiary and it’s being done aggressively. To me, this isn’t acceptable: it’s a form of warfare. My aim here is not to help Palestinians fight back, but to give them a chance to devise non-violent, strategic responses to such threats and incursions and to minimise the damage done. Often, Palestinians panic when aggressive settlers arrive on the scene, and my aim is to get them to think further, so that they can teach settlers a lesson without actually fighting them.

One example arose when two busloads of settlers invaded a place to make their point. We had advance warning and I advised the locals not to protest or fight, but to let the settlers in – let them feel as if they were winning this encounter, since it makes them relax and indulge in their hubris. That can make them unwittingly vulnerable. But… here’s the trick. I suggested they spread broken glass in a visible place across the road that the settlers would travel along when leaving. Then the locals need simply to hide and watch. When the settlers boarded their buses to return home, they saw the glass and were forced to get out of their buses, exposed to what they feared was potential danger, in order to clear the road. They knew many eyes were watching. We let them leave. But, guess what, they didn’t come back.

This is a game. One mustn’t get too serious. As the Russian wisdom teacher Gurdjieff once said, humans are like mad machines. We operate according to our conditioning and it’s a matter of playing with that psychology and using the weaknesses and fears of the other side to teach them a lesson. The settlers delight in provocation, so it’s a matter of depriving them of that strength and exposing their weakness and defencelessness. It can work. That’s strategy.

The Sinai desertT E Lawrence argued against the splitting of the Middle East into small countries by the British and the French around 1920. He rooted for a united Arab nation, knowing it was in everyone’s best longterm interests. He had ‘gone native’, seeing things from the viewpoint of Arabs and empathising with it. In the end he failed: the men in suits back in Westminster had their own way – divide and rule, yet again. But he was right, nevertheless. The Middle East should have been made into one Arab nation, not a series of small countries with borders that often were straight lines drawn across the land in some distant conference.

Today, I tell people that the Palestine conflict will be resolved by uniting the Middle East. Impossible, comes the reply. Yet the process will emerge within the coming years or even decades. Peace is coming, sometime, and it’s a matter of laying the ground for it. It is likely to come when the region is reunited, when the multi-layered, multicultural aspect of the Middle East is accommodated more properly, as it has been for millennia, in a wider community and market. It’s likely to happen when the oil industry and oil wealth decline and the region transforms into a more normal society and economy.

I’m leaving the Sinai and returning to Beit Lahem in three days’ time. Over that border into Israel, up on the bus to Jerusalem and back on my favourite bus, the 21 to Bab-al-sqaq in Bethlehem. And a phone call to Ismael to come pick me up. He has become my brother. Then another chapter will unfold.


© Text and pictures copyright Palden Jenkins 2011. This is an extract from the book O Little Town of Bethlehem by Palden Jenkins. You may print it out in single copies for your own non-commercial use or forward it by e-mail as long as the piece is unaltered and properly attributed to the author. The book's website is at www.palden.co.uk/pop

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