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In search of Lawrence of Arabia
Photograph by Preeti Verma Lal

I first saw him amidst the melancholy mountains and languid sand dunes. The sun was peeping from the chink of the tarp tent, hot winds were nudging out errant clouds and a boxy Bedouin Arab was pounding coffee beans and cardamom in a wooden mortar. In the desert, I was perched on a jeep, sipping chilled mint/lime brew when a skewed glance distracted me. I saw him. No, he was not on his George Brough bike (he had 7 of them!), but I know he adored this maze of monolithic rockscape, poetically describing it as “vast, echoing and God-like”. He had once walked 1,100 desert miles in three months; I was racing around on a four-wheel looking for 4,000-year old rock drawings. For him, I shunned the rock drawings. I could have huffed up hell to meet him, I could chant his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom as a hymn, I could swap my tiara for his keffiyeh. For he fascinates me. He, the Lawrence of Arabia .

Then, I saw him, the British soldier/writer who organized and led the Arab revolt against the Turks from 1916 onwards. In Wadi Rum, Jordan ’s most magnificent desert landscape, Thomas Edward Lawrence aka Lawrence of Arabia was etched on a buff sandstone boulder. Just his face, the straight lines withered by wind, the stone frayed, but the valour still palpable in his piercing eyes. It was here that Prince Faisal Bin Hussein and the Lawrence of Arabia based their headquarters during the Arab revolt; it was here that David Lean’s eponymous film with Peter O’Toole as the protagonist was shot. It is here that noisy tourists jostle for a photo-op, giddy girls stand smitten and sunburnt tour guides narrate tales in hurried monologues. Lawrence forever looks stately in stone. I did not elbow past the zealous crowd; I stood far away from his etched face. Spellbound.

Wadi Rum’s monolithic rockscapes so sedulously sculpted by wind rise as high as 1,750 metres, the unbroken range interspersed with decorative arches and quaint crevices. The rock bridges with quirky names (Um Fruth, Kharaz, Burdah, Arch Tower) look precariously poised, but ask any mountaineer and he would tell you that the more dangerous the cliff, the higher the adrenaline rush. The arch looked beautiful but my heart went faint at the thought of hopping up the boulders. From the top of the arch, the heavens would have been a mere handshake away, but naah! I am no mountaineer and the heavens could wait till I pushed the daisies up.

In Jordan , from a high, I hit a low. Actually, the lowest. For the Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth – it is 430 metres below sea level. That’s the nadir, I muttered as the car drove past unending stretches of barren terrain, with only olive orchards as green pauses. But the highs of the lows were luring me to one of the saltiest water bodies in the world – the Egyptian mummies were embalmed with the Dead Sea mud which is laden with minerals and nutrients; perhaps it was this mud that lent Cleopatra that famed porcelain sheen. I scooped a handful of mud from an earthen pot, sealed each pore, walked down the jetty and dipped my toe in the emerald water. In the sea stood sculpted rocks embellished with salt deposits and far away the silhouette of Israel shimmered in the sunlit haze. I jumped into the Dead Sea and bobbed. Forget Cleopatra, I felt like a roguish cork, bobbling randomly without the fear of getting drowned. I thought I was imprudent till I saw a floating bespectacled man reading a book on the sea as if he were in a pew.

I could have floated forever, but I stuck to the 20-minute rule because the saline water is extremely corrosive. Should I walk to the Garden of Eden now? I mulled. No, I had not gone woozy enough to be seeking the Garden a few footsteps away. History had me believe that somewhere in the Jordan River Valley around the Dead Sea was the Garden of Eden (Garden of the Lord as mentioned in the Book of Genesis), and somewhere in the windswept promontory of Mount Nebo, Moses died.

In Jordan , I bumped into saints, gladiators, soldiers; my school history and catechism lessons were proving handy, but there was someone I wanted to meet, I wanted to walk the path that he had walked some 5,000 years ago. I wanted to go where the Lord had gone before – to Bethany Beyond Jordan, the site of John the Baptist’s settlement where Jesus was baptized. The actual baptism site has been identified between Tell al Kharrar and John the Baptist Church area on the east bank of Jordan River . I travelled back in time to those three days that Jesus stayed in Bethany – it was here that Jesus was anointed by God, first prayed to God and gathered his first disciples. I looked at the arid terrain and the trickle that River Jordan is and thought of Elijah who is believed to have ascended to heaven in a whirlwind on a chariot of fire. I stood mesmerized, the golden church dome gleamed like jewels against the cobalt sky and the priest in black robe blessed me with a beatific smile.

Piety, mythology, a dead sea. I had seen all of it in Jordan. But on the brown canvas that Jordan is, I could not forget the Lawrence of Arabia. I remembered what he once wrote: I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my handsand wrote my will across the sky in stars….

I would go to Jordan again. Only if the Lawrence of Arabia promises to take me on a bike ride through the languid sand dunes. The Wadi Rum mountains would never be melancholic again!

The Economic Times, 2011

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