“The Man Cold” meets “Lawrence of Arabia”

I just finished up a weekend of reflection with my fellow Middle East Travel Seminar-ians and remembered that I never posted anything about my Middle East Trip.  So now I am scheduling blog posts over the next several days…  These are excerpts from a reflection paper that I wrote for my fellow travelers.  So when you read the words “you” or “your,” picture the b.a. women in the photo below, plus 25 other women & men from seminaries around the southeast of the United States.

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I spent most of my journal writing down book recommendations from fellow METS travelers.  Many, but not all, were inspired by the places and the people that we visited; others reflected our diverse backgrounds.  They ranged from what Christina described as “a cheater’s prayerbook” to a light-hearted look at death in Stiffed to archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon’s biography to Max’s favorite, “Cosmology, Ontology, and the Travail of Biblical Languages.”  <–fabulously, this has been assigned for my systematics class on Tuesday!

The book range—which leaned toward Jonathan Edwards and Eugene Petersen more than Sharon Olds’s erotic topographical poetry (although that was included, too)—was not nearly as diverse as my METS-recommended movie list, in which I listed Lawrence of Arabia and the BBC’s I, Claudius right next to Orlando Bloom’s Kingdom of Heaven and the youtube feature “The Man Cold.”

As eager as I was to learn about your recommended books and movies, I did not share many of my own recommendations—discounting, of course, my backpack full of guidebooks covering each country we visited.  To make up for that omission, I submit to you today Manuel Rivas’s 1998 Galician novel, O Lapis do Carpinteiro, published in English as The Carpenter’s Pencil.  In the opening scene, the protagonist Doctor Da Barca shares his opinion of national boundaries:

“The only good thing about borders are the secret crossings.  It’s incredible the effect an imaginary line can have.  It gets traced one day by some doddering king in his bed or drawn on the table by powerful men as if they were playing a game of poker…  Fortunately, however, this border will soon be swallowed up in its own absurdity.  True borders are those that keep the poor away from a share of the cake.”

While Da Barca’s borders describe the Iberian Peninsula, the Middle East Travel Seminar could easily apply the quote to both the borders we crossed in our forty-passenger tour bus and, more importantly, the borders that God broke down in our hearts.

We know all too well the effects of “an imaginary line”: the difference between “Israeli Arab” and “Palestinian,” the transition from Zones A, B, and C in Palestine, and the distinct economies of the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and Gaza are examples found within the territory that Israel claims.  The effects of the imaginary lines are just as severe outside of Israel/Palestine.

Our multiple border crossings highlighted their own absurdity:
Why did Egypt insist on “scanning” on our bags when the scanner was quite obviously not turned on?
Why did Jordan pull all the floral bags and then refuse to search them when it turned out they were women’s bags?  (I would like to think that they do not have the same stereotypes about women and floral prints, but even that would not explain their utter horror at seeing women’s shoes).
Why was gender and age profiling so acceptable at the Israeli border?

The effects from the imaginary lines extended far beyond these border examples.  Just think about how sick we got careening down the narrow, straight, bumpy road in the Syrian military region.  Fearful of going suspiciously slow, we all got nauseous as we sped down the road.  The mutual fears of the Syrian and Israeli governments created an atmosphere of fear for everyone who comes within their borders.  Da Barca hopes that borders will be “swallowed up in [their] own absurdity,” but until then the absurdity is grounded in historical processes and mutual fears.

The absurd effects of these imaginary lines have their roots in the absurd, imaginative claim that with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Europe had the mandate to dictate where the lines would go.   These lines were, truly, “drawn on the table by powerful men… playing a game of poker.” The diplomats and governments involved in carving up the Middle East were gambling the future of the area for short-term financial gain.  While Hollywood reveres T.E. Lawrence riding out of the desert, we know that in Paris in 1919 Lawrence’s government, the British, decided where these borders—these imaginary lines—would go.  The British are not the only ones to blame, however.  The rest of Europe was in on the act, and we are, too, whenever we act to define others, reminding them that what is best for them is always the same as what is best for us.

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