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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Haj


After I returned to Australia in 1985 from my three-year-stint with the Arabs, first in Saudi Arabia and then in Greece, and contemplated my future garden-variety working life in Australia, I sometimes wondered if I hadn't come back too soon.

After all, I'd just chucked in the sort of well-paid and challenging job others would've killed for; however, being the only Western employee in an all-Saudi business required more patience than I could muster.

But neither could I tolerate my newfound idleness. I'd always totally identified with my work. It was the essence of my life. "I am what I do, and I do what I am." As much as my new neighbours at Cape Pallarenda in tropical North Queensland tried to convince that I deserved a sabbatical, I couldn't help myself watching them with envy as they drove off to work while I sat on the verandah reading a book.

The book I was reading at the time was Leon Uris' "The Haj". I thought it might help me make sense out of my recent Saudi-experience but I never finished it because things began to move fast, and suddenly I was back in Sydney, and a few months later back in Canberra.

More than thirty years later, here at "Riverbend", I've finally finished reading it, and while the author prefaces it with the remarks, "Let me emphasis that all the characters in "The Haj" are the complete creation of the author, and entirely fictional", Haj Ibrahim and his men and their world of oaths, blood, death, vengeance, and madness describe much of what I experienced and what we read daily in the newspapers.

I can relate to what Haj Ibrahim's son says on page 15, "Before I was nine I had learned the basic canon of Arab life. It was me against my brother; me and my brother against our father; my family against my cousins and the clan; the clan against the tribe; and the tribe against the world. And all of us against the world", because I worked for three Saudi brothers of whom each swore me to secrecy so as not to tell the others what work I was doing for him.

Or take page 90, "Arab fighting Arab was an established way of life, hundreds and hundreds of years old. 'If you have a hundred friends, throw out ninety-nine and be suspicious of the other.' Relatives and members of the tribe cannot be real friends because they are rivals. Sons can often be your enemy. And the religion does not permit us to make friends with strangers." Despite my total devotion to the job and controlling and recovering large sums of money for them, and rebuffing all offer of a bribe or 'backhander', they never ceased to be suspicious of me. After all, they did it, so why wouldn't I?

"Public utterances, even to a friend or relative, were always based on what was expected to be said. No one spoke of personal longings, secret ambitions, fears" (page 59) and business was conducted on the basis of "eat him for lunch before he eats you for dinner" (page 326).

"The entire Arab world is not a union of nations but a collection of tribes" (page 282) which for four-hundred was ruled by the Turks with total cruelty, total corruption, and pernicious feudalism. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the British, French, and Russians, under the Sykes–Picot Agreement, carved up the map to create Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Palestine. No wonder that to this day they confess that "We cannot function as nations. We never have been able to govern ourselves" (page 112) and remain a people who "... can only exist under a military boot and fanatical holy men" (page 456) and whose "... only unity [they have] is hatred of the Jews" (page 439).


Episode 2


And so "... every last Arab is a total prisoner of his society ... The Arabs will never love you for what good you've brought them. They don't know how to really love. But hate! Oh God, can they hate! And they have a deep, deep, deep resentment because [we] have jolted them from their delusions of grandeur and shown them for what they are - a decadent, savage people controlled by a religion that has stripped them of all human ambition ... except for the few cruel enough and arrogant enough to command them as one commands a mob of sheep. You are dealing with a mad society" (page 81).

It's only a fictitious character in the book who admits that "Islam is unable to live at peace with anyone. We Arabs are the worst. We can't live with the world, and even more terrible, we can't live with each other" (page 515) and "We have contributed nothing to human betterment in centuries, unless you consider the assassin and the terrorist as human gifts" (page 546).

And while today's Arab is a far cry from the Lawrence of Arabia stuff - we used to joke that if they ever turned off the airconditioners, they'd die like flies - here are some final observations on the true Arab, the Bedouin: "The Bedouin had always considered himself the elite of the Arabs, the true Arabs. The Bedouin had been the original driving force behind Islam ... they owed no taxes, paid no landlord, recognised no borders. The Arabian Peninsula, from which he sprang, had remained remote and beyond the grasp of the early conquests of Egypt and Rome. In the punishing desert a cruel culture evolved that matched the brutal dictates of nature. While the world of progress passed him by, the Bedouin survived largely by plundering the vulnerable. Strong sheiks with no more compassion than the blistering sun showed little mercy to the weak. A system of absolute social order emerged, so that each man had a specific place in the tribe into which he was locked from birth to death. The only way to rise was to destroy the man above and dominate the men below. The demands of survival left no room for convocations of Bedouin to debate democratic principles, for the law of the desert was absolute. The Bedouin was thief, assassin, and raider, and hard labour was immoral. Despite his raggedness and destitution, the Bedouin remained the Arab ideal, for he was the man with stars for a roof" (pages 18/19).

Perhaps I should've read the book before I went to Saudi Arabia. Still, I'm glad I've lived and worked in their mysterious and sometimes frightening world. They probably don't like it any better than I did.