Entry 5

The Journal of an Apprentice Orientalist

Entry 5

The Journal of an Apprentice Orientalist

Entry 5
A weeklong electronic journal.
Jan. 30 2004 2:16 PM

The Journal of an Apprentice Orientalist

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Jihad is holy war. Jihad is the struggle each person must wage against his own worst nature. But Jihad is also the name of a 26 year-old Bedouin who loves William Blake. He was studying English literature in a local college but instead of teaching, the professor just gave dictation. "He would say 'comma,' " Jihad explains. "And 'new paragraph.' I told him this was ridiculous. We're studying literature! He said, 'Do what I say or you'll get a zero.' So I took a zero and now I'm studying archeology."

Jihad manages the guest house at the Dana Nature Reserve, one of the eco-tourism projects run by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature. Sadly, I saw no oryx, nor jackals, nor caracoles, nor hyenas, nor even the rose finch—Jordan's national bird. Most of these animals will be back come spring. Not the noble Arabian leopard, though, who became extinct in 1989.  My friend Ali asked Jihad if he thought the Bedouins were dying out as well, or rather whether their way of life was dying out. Jihad answered indirectly. "You know the khamsa?" he asked. I said I knew that besides being the number five, the word referred to the five main types of Arabian horse bloodlines. It was something else as well. "When you're in trouble," Jihad explained, "You take a knife in your hand and drop it to the ground. You open your palm finger by finger and say, 'I am Jihad, son of so and so, who is son of so and so, son of so and so, who is son of so and so.' Everyone who originates from that fifth family is going to help you."

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The phone rang and Jihad skidded off down the hall to answer it; it was a call he was expecting from a woman in Switzerland. Though he tells me that there are members of his tribe in Saudi Arabia and the West Bank that he can't visit, other borders are open to him that weren't to Bedouins five generations ago. After an hour on the phone, he returned with a large smile on his face. "To me," he said, "being a Bedouin is about freedom."

"But what about the way of life," Ali persisted. "Wandering from place to place with your herds, sleeping in tents under the stars? Won't that be missed?"

"I'll tell you what my dream is," Jihad said. "I want to be a professor, but I want to come back here to teach. That's my dream, to have my books and to have my sheep."

The other day King Abdullah had told me that Jordan was the country in the Middle East that managed to hold on to tradition while looking toward the future. I wonder if he'd like Jihad's vision of it.

Jihad's hoping for a scholarship to Italy where he can learn how to restore mosaics, an art form Jordan seems to specialize in. My favorite mosaic is in a Byzantine church on the top of the mountain where God is supposed to have teased Moses with a view of the promised land, which God told him he'd never see. The mosaic is of a camel painted like a giraffe. The idea is that the artist disbelieved reports of an animal the size and shape of a giraffe so he gave the beast's characteristics to another one he knew. (The Bedouins call the camel safinat as-sahara, or "ship of the desert." This is not only because they're desert-worthy, but because they sway as they walk.)

Yesterday at Bethany, where Jesus was baptized, I saw the remains of three churches built on top of each other over hundreds of years. There's a front entrance, and then, in the back, another where the congregation would walk down to the Jordan river to get baptized, just like Jesus. The stones remain, but the river's changed its course by more than a hundred yards. A quiet wind blew through the dry tinder, and I realized I was hoping for some sort of sign. But if the desire for signs and the understanding of them is human, maybe better to get one from a human anyway. So, today as I left Dana, Jihad quoted a saying of the prophet Mohammed's (a pretty Blakean prophet, at least in Jihad's idea of him). "Souls are like soldiers," Jihad quoted. "They recognize each other and go to each other's sides." Better than a sign.