Eastward, aye, he Wandered
Forward to East – An Arab Anthology. © Paul Hemphill
In these troubled times, I look back on a part of the world that has captivated much of my intellectual life. I was drawn to the Middle East in another age, when it was the land of myth and magic, of dreamers and adventurers, of quixotic tilters at windmills, of pioneers who would make the deserts bloom, of dissemblers and deceivers bearing false promises. The ancient lands of the bible, the fabled realm of A Thousand and One Nights, and the restless quests of Richard Burton, Charles Doughty, and TE Lawrence. The pulp fiction fantasies of Frank Herbert, James Michener and Leon Uris, and the celluloid myths of Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, and Paul Newman.
These are the lands of testament and prophecy, of sacrifice and sacrament, of seers and sages, of vision and vicissitude, of warriors and holy men. The spiritual and the temporal have melded here since time immemorial. We still see the remnants of ancient empires and the echoes of their faiths. We can chart their decline and fall in the fortunes of their monuments and their mausoleums, in the “tumbled towers and fallen stones, broken statues, empty tombs” where “ghosts of commoners and kings walk the walls and catacombs of the castles and the shrines”. Histories carved in stone, mysteries locked in stone, as “canyons and castles pass ageless and ageing and captive in time”.
I first travelled through these lands when the gaze of our western world was directed elsewhere. The big stories then were the Vietnam quagmire, and the Cold War, words made flesh with the Soviet’s kibosh on the Prague Spring. Then plucky little Israel made its pre-emptive blitzkrieg against the braggadocio of Egypt, and the dubious martial prowess of Syria, Jordan and Iraq, and put the Middle East back in the news again. And there it has stayed, with hijackings, hostages and terrorism, the Oil Crisis and OPEC, civil war and invasion in Lebanon, Gulf Wars One, Two and Three, The Twin Towers and the Wars of American Vengeance. And so to the present day, the brief Arab Spring giving way to a long and bloody Arab winter, and the demolition of the Sykes-Picot dispensation with Daish’s redrawing of the map of the Middle East.
There is a place for dissertations on the state of the world, and the tectonic movements that reverberate through these most antique of lands. And this is not one. But they have been the inspiration for much of my writing, and this volume is an anthology of those pieces. And unavoidably, they reflect and comment upon ideas and incidents, actions and accidents, memories and monuments.
Embryo was the beginning literally and figuratively, setting the scene in a particular physical and spiritual landscape. “There is nothing in the desert, and no man needs nothing”, says Peter O’Toole as Lawrence of Arabia. But it is the very emptiness and nakedness of the desert that has drawn prophets and pilgrims to it over the millennia. “A voice reaches out in the thickening night, over pale and barren lands”. It references sura-t from Al Qur’an al Kar-im, ending with Al Laylat al Qadr – The “night of power” that celebrates when the Angel Gabriel dictated God’s revelation to Muhammed.
Ruins and Bones sees past and present coexist in timeless concord. It could almost be subtitled ‘In Praise of Archeology’. In rocks and the ruins, the past is manifest in stone, as seen in Jerusalem and Damascus, Palmyra, Apamea, Krak de Chevaliers and Qala’t Salahuddin. Thence we segue to the myths that gathered about events and personages, namely Alexander The Great, Ghengis Khan, and King Arthur.
E Lucivan Le Stele is likewise a catalogue, but this time, of the bad things that happen. Its title is that lovely song from Puccini’s Tosca, but the context is that of Dante Allegheri. In his famous poem, Dante begins his descent into Hell saying:”I came to myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost”. Journeying down and then back up through the seven levels of Hell, he finally returns to the surface saying: “And thence we emerged to see the stars again”. As the poet journeys downward he travels through seven levels, each representing escalating punishments for escalating degrees of crimes, from liars and cheats, through oath breakers and traitors, to robbers and murderers, and most particularly, down in the depths where languish the killers of children and other innocents. Many of these misrecreants are represented by historical figures and personalities from his own time, but here we name no names. By their deeds, we surely know them.
This, then, is the essence the poem. The new world economy where millions of souls are on the move and everything can be traded for value. “Bombs and babies, girls and guns, dollars, drugs and more besides”. False prophets and bad dreams, broken promises and forlorn hopes, obscured visions and false horizons. “And time ’tis said reveals its dead, and we will speak what was unsaid, how I was wrong, and he was led, his song I sing who gives me bread”. And blood, so much blood! “Many have perished, and more most surely will” – a line taken from WH Auden’s often overlooked masterpiece The Age of Anxiety, a meditation on a world in transition between the wreckage of The Second World War and foreboding for the impending armed peace that was itself to endure for another forty five years. It is sadly ironic that our present world is passing through another time of uneasy transition, between the fixed certainties of great power rivalry and the intractable and bloody asymmetrical conflicts of today.
The Watchers of the Water has a more limited brief. Back in the last century, before ANZAC Day became the secular Christmas that it has become, before marketing people and populist politicians saw its commercial and political potential, before the fatal shore became a crowded place of annual pilgrimage, my Turkish friend, the late Naim Mehmet Turfan, gave me a grainy picture of a Turkish soldier at Gelibolu carrying a large howitzer shell on his back. Then there was this great film by Australian director Peter Weir, starring young Mel Gibson and Mark Lee. There were these images of small boats approaching a dark and alien shore, of Light Horse men sadly farewelling their Walers as they embarked as infantry, and of the doomed Colonel Barton humming along to a gramophone recording of Bizet’s beautiful duet from The Pearl Fishers, ‘Au fond du temple saint’, before joining his men in the forlorn hope of The Nek. There were other melodies I could never quite get out of my head. One I first heard in a musical in Beirut before that magical city entered its Dark Ages – Al Mahatta, written by the famous Rabbani Brothers and starring the Lebanese diva Fayrouz.; and The Foggy Dew, one of the most lyrical and poignant of the Irish rebel songs.”Their lonely graves are by Suvla’s waves and the fringe of the grey north sea”. Three thousand Irishmen died at Gallipoli.
Rhythm of the Revolution is another compendium, of actual events. As a young man, I followed the famous Hippy Trail eastwards. In Kashmir, in the fall of 1971, war was about to break out between India and Pakistani. I was trying to get across the border before the balloon went up. The lights of army trucks break the darkness as I watch from across Lake Dal. Passing through railway stations as war is breaking out, I rush southwards as battalions of young soldiers head up the line. Cut to Egypt and the Canal “war”, the phony war that preceded the 1973 Yom Kippur or Ramadan War. The government exhorts the people to make sacrifices for the good of the battle. Cut to the Philippines in 1986. The people of Manila storm the Malacalang Palace, precipitating the fall of the Marcos dictatorship. All this against a back-drop of the revolution despoiled, hijacked, and betrayed. “The revolution’s father, the hero psychopath” shows us how hopes and dreams can be “fooled by the riddle of the revolution”. As we said in another song, All Fall Down, “words carried far in time and space can topple tyrants, but there’s no salvation”, and we are back to A Watch in the Night, shorn of its liberal optimism, and the dystopia of Red Rain.
The Darkness, or Red Rain, to use its performance title, speaks more of The Book of Revelation. As I wrote in Roman Holiday – The Poems of Meniscus Diabetes, “Meniscus’ melancholy muse was leading him down by dark waters, making him to lie down in barren pastures. He was clearly journeying through a confused ethical landscape to a sinister philosophical place. One could be tempted to postulate that his travels may have taken him off to visit the prescient seer of Patmos”.
When Freedom Comes is a tribute to journalist Robert Fisk, who could say “I walk amongst the conquered, I walk amongst the dead” in “the battlegrounds and graveyards” of long forgotten armies and long forgotten wars. If it is about any struggle in particular, it is about the Palestinians and their endless, a fruitless yearning for their lost lands. Ironically, should this ever be realized, freedom is probably the last thing they will enjoy. They like others before them will be helpless in the face of vested Interest, corruption, and brute force, and the dead hand of history. The mercenaries and the robber bands, the warlords and the big men, az zu’ama’, are the ones who successfully “storm the palace, seize the crown”. The people are but pawns in their game.
The Old Road to Jerusalem is more direct, concluding with the plight of those Palestinians after first addressing those who came before: those who passed through and more often, perished, Christian pilgrims and the Crusaders, and those who came to stay. Israelis are the “exiles in a stolen land” and the Palestinians, the “broken ones” with “hollow hears, empty hands”. As the song says, it is a “rocky road to heaven’s gate”.
For “the road of good intentions leads us to the Devil’s gate”. I Gotta Book, is a commentary on the trials and tribulations of Al Ahl Al Kitab. The People of the Book are the three monotheistic faiths that emerged out of the Middle East. In particular, it is about the potential expulsion of Christians from the Holy Land, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism that has brought them to this. I am not a religious person, and hold to no faith or creed.. But it is a sad thing that a faith that originated in these lands, and coexisted with myriad others for millennia should now reach a point of extinction. So much history, so much culture, so much shared memory. Likewise, the destruction that we are seeing today of pre-Islamic ruins, relics and monuments. Even the prophet exhorted the Faithful to learn from the civilizations that went before them, and to preserve their traces. Is this the way the world ends, in so much bloodstained rubble and dust?
After all the doom and gloom of most of the pieces in this anthology, O Jerusalem is redemption of a kind insofar it is light of heart. It is a reminder that amidst the madness and mayhem of today’s Middle East, there is still an aura of romance and magic that at this point in time has been buried amidst the man-made ruin and rubble. Will the better angels of our nature reassert themselves? Or have indeed the lights of this land been extinguished, not tot be lit again in our lifetime?
I conclude this forward with an abridged adaption of “A Watch in the Night”, a poem by the Victorian poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. It was published in 1871 in his Songs Before Sunrise, a celebration the Risorgimento, the Italian struggle for unity and independence. Swinburne wrote it as a chant of optimism and hope, of yearnings finally fulfilled after generations of sacrifice and sorrow. I have reduced its nineteen stanzas to three:
Believer, what of the night?
I cannot tell; I am blind.
I halt and hearken behind
If haply the hours will go back
And return to the dear dead light,
To the watch fires and stars that of old
Shone where the sky now is black,
Glowed where the earth now is cold.
Holy man, what of the night?
The night is horrible here
With haggard faces and fear,
Blood, and the burning of fire.
Mine eyes are emptied of sight,
Mine hands are full of the dust.
If the God of my faith be a liar,
Who is it that I shall trust?
Tyrant, what of the night?
Night with pestilent breath
Feeds us, children of death,
Clothes us close with her gloom.
Rapine and famine and fright
Crouch at our feet and are fed.
Earth where we pass is a tomb,
Life where we triumph is dead.
The poem ended with an almost exhausted exhilaration, as if to say: “Ah, it is over now. We have won!”
Liberty, what of the night?
I feel not the red rains fall,
Hear not the tempest at all,
Nor thunder in heaven no more.
All the distance is white
With the soundless feet of the sun.
Night, with the woes that it wore,
Night is over and done.
But we have not, and we shall not, for we cannot.
© Paul Hemphill August 2015