28 October 2004
It took those dastardly Crusaders several months to return to England from the Holy Land. It took me five hours. International plane travel never ceases to fascinate me. To transport oneself from the developing world to the developed world--from the land of want to the land of plenty--in less time than it takes to prepare a good pot roast can be a bit jolting. The differences between the two places come suddenly and sharply into focus.
As I write this, dear reader, I am on a week’s leave from the Middle East. I am sitting in a quiet, simple guestroom at Hertford College, Oxford (founded 1282). There is no TV, no radio. It is a bit chilly. I am typing by a small desk lamp. This place feels like home to me. Actually, Hertford was my home during graduate school. A few of my friends are still here, finishing up their doctorates. It has been a treat to see them. Getting caught up. Telling old jokes.
The first thing I was struck by when I got off the plane in London was how chilly it was. It was 100 degrees Fahrenheit this week in Amman. In the UK, I had to put on a sweater for the first time in I don’t know how long. On the bus ride up the M40 to Oxford, I was mesmerized by the thousands of acres of lush rolling green hills and stands of leafy trees bursting with fall colors (or “colours” as they say here). From horizon to horizon, everything was green and soft looking, not dry, dead, and hard like the desert. The hills were alive with clusters of grazing sheep, sprouting thick white wool. Their lives appeared much better than their ragged, dirty, skinny goat cousins I'd seen last week along the Jordan Valley Highway.
That first night back in Oxford, as I waited to meet a friend of mine outside of the King’s Arms pub on Broad Street, it started to rain. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen rain. Having neither umbrella nor raincoat, I stepped inside to the laughter, shouts, cigarette smoke, and clinking beer glasses of the KA. Back in Iraq, there are shouts, but not as much laughter. The smoke comes from impacting mortar rounds and exploding car bombs. The clinking noise comes from the rolling tracks of the tanks and Bradleys. A month ago, I was in the Green Zone Café in Baghdad. That place has since been bombed out of existence. The KA has been around for years and will likely remain for many more.
After a night at the pub, I needed to drink some water before going to bed. The shops were all closed, so I could not buy a bottle of Evian or Dasani. At first I felt helpless; I was thirsty and there seemed no way of finding sweet relief. The thought of drinking from the tap didn’t even occur to me until I stepped into the loo and spied the faucet. For a few seconds I stood there debating whether or not I should risk it. I never dare drink from the tap in Iraq or Jordan. “Did I use to drink from the tap when I lived here?” I asked myself. Pretty sure that I had, I decided to go ahead and drink my fill. So far, I have not been visited by King George’s revenge.
The morning after that good “piss up”—the English term for a night of boozing—a rejuvenating run was in order. Oxford is arguably one of the prettiest places in the world in which to run. (Though, unlike oft-repeated street scenes in the Arab world, there isn’t much arguing going on in genteel Oxford.) I ran through the campus and along the Thames (called the “Isis” in these parts) in shoes I purchased at the 82nd Airborne’s PX in Fallujah last January. I ran past buildings that are six, seven, eight hundred years old. I went Past All Souls College, where T.E. Lawrence studied. He was the man who liberated Aqaba from the Turks. Not just Aqaba, but Petra, Wadi Rum, and Damascus, too. Once a million miles away in my imagination, I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen all of these places in the past year. As I passed the gates of All Souls, I gave a little nod of respect and professional courtesy to the memory of Colonel Lawrence. Had I a cap, I would have doffed it.
There were girls on the street that early morning doing the walk of shame. The young girls in Oxford dress in a way that can only be described as inappropriate. I don’t write this with a judgmental or moralist tone, it’s just that I can’t think of a better word to describe their look. Short, short denim skirts, knee-high leather boots, and tiny skin-tight blouses that barely contain their chests and reveal a bare midriff is the standard uniform for most of the local girls. No matter how cold it is outside, they remain dressed like this. Modesty is not really an issue with these girls, even though it is clear to an impartial observer that this look may not be the most flattering for all of them. Many of these gals carry a lit cigarette in their hands as they step it out across the wet cobblestones on their way to a night of inebriation at a club, pub, or friend’s house. Quite a difference from Baghdad or Amman, where many educated women walk around with their heads covered, and even the more liberal ones never show skin and are home with mom and dad by ten or eleven.
When I tell people where I’ve been living since I left this place, they can hardly believe it. While I haven’t met one person yet here who supports the effort in Iraq, they have nothing against the troops, and they all want to know what it’s like over there. I try telling them that there is a lot more nuance to the story in Iraq than is being told on TV. I hold their interest for a minute, but then eyes start to glaze. Thoughts turn to who is buying the next round. It’s not that they doubt the veracity of my statements, it’s just that they really don’t care. It doesn’t affect them. It’s like when you ask someone how they are doing and instead of the polite, “fine thanks,” they actually do tell you about something going on in their lives. People can only devote a minute of their time to any given topic. So give me the Cliff Notes version. Are things good or bad over there? “Well it’s more complicated than that…” I’m sorry, time’s up. Not that I’m any better. There are hundreds of thousands of people starving to death in Sudan right now, and I only think about them when it comes on the news.
Like everything else, the crisis in Sudan and the troubles in Iraq will eventually pass. One of the soothingly nice things about visiting Oxford is that it reminds me of the temporal nature of human passions and events. The honey gold buildings in the “city of dreaming spires” have been silent witnesses to hundreds of years of wars, pandemic diseases, scientific and political revolutions, and everything else mankind has fiddled with over the better part of the past millennium. Some of those towers and cloisters even saw those dastardly crusaders returning, licking their wounds. No doubt they will witness peace in our time again, too.