Again -- winter, deep, dark, and from time to time madness-inducing. Pray for spring!
As the Middle East pulsates from Iran to Libya with wars barely winding down and wars unmistakably coming into full ferocity I am reminded of the wisdom of my friend Jamsheed Marker, at one point the Pakistani ambassador to the United States. Himself a Zoroastrian, he viewed the periodic outbreaks of cataclysm in the region as a kind of incurable Arab disease, something to expect that usually took about seven years to burn itself out for the cycle. Westerners, beware!
I can't help remembering the first inkling I had that things might work this way. In August of 1956, during one of the long semester breaks that were the glory of the German university system, I was on a ferryboat during a very stormy night crossing of the English Channel. Beside me on the rail was a sallow youngster on vacation from one of the Swiss boarding schools. Our common sea-sickness seemed to establish a bond, and at some point the boy invited me to visit him at the cottage in Sussex where his family had settled recently.
I went directly to London to meet a prep-school classmate who had come over from the States to travel with me, and once we settled in called the telephone number my companion at the rail had given me. He was still enthusiastic; we arranged to spend a couple of days with his family over the upcoming bank holiday.
As things turned out my new friend was the only son of a personage who was at the moment perhaps the most famous man in England: Sir John Bagot Glubb, known to the tabloids as Glubb Pasha. Except for Winston Churchill, Glubb was the only living Englishman to have been designated a Knight of the Garter. Glubb Pasha himself met our commuter train and carted my classmate and me to his surprisingly modest rental in Sussex to spend the holiday with his son.
I had some idea who my host actually was: both Time and Der Spiegel had recently run articles on Glubb's triumphs and setbacks. Sir John amounted to the last in a long line of British adventurers starting perhaps with Robert Clive who had infiltrated one decayed Eastern culture or another, negotiated with the local warlords, and extended the British Empire into the Third World. Lawrence of Arabia was Glubb's immediate predecessor. A professional soldier, Glubb Pasha had organized the Arab Legion in Jordan, without a doubt the most effective fighting force on the Arab side during the Arab-Israeli wars. His patron, King Hussein, certainly appreciated Glubb's professionalism but was unable to hold off criticism from the other Arab monarchs at depending on an Englishman to crush the Israelis, and had very publicly thrown Glubb out a few months before I turned up. He was now licking his wounds in Sussex.
A small, wiry fellow, Glubb appeared to have no chin: the one he was born with had been hacked off during a saber fight on camel-back while Glubb was helping King Hussein consolidate Aman's hold on the tribes. The irreverent British papers of the time sometimes referred to Glubb as "the chinless wonder of the Arab world."
Glubb was very high-strung, hyper-alert. At dinner, as he carved the ceremonial goose, he spoke, somewhat indirectly, about returning to the Arab world, about rectifying the situation with the Israelis. Overlays and battle plans were spread across tables throughout the small public rooms, and the great man was obviously watching me carefully. I was quite young -- barely into my twenties -- but the CIA had been known to recruit some unlikely informants. Mrs. Glubb -- a cheerful, somewhat heavyset woman in a print dress who had roasted the goose herself while looking after the family's two adopted Arab daughters -- worked hard to make me and my travelling companion comfortable. But the great man was increasingly uneasy.
We had been invited for the weekend. But as soon as we finished the desert pudding Sir John ventured that it was time for us the catch the last commuter train back to London. It happened that the train would pass through the village before we could make it. That didn't deter Sir John. He pushed us into his little, rented Humber and we gave chase, powering along the hedgerows at close to a hundred miles an hour and missing the train as it paused at the next village but overtaking it perhaps halfway to London. We were offloaded with very little ceremony in time to clamber aboard while Glubb stood watching, making sure.
This utterly accidental encounter with the politics of empire suggested the intensity of emotion players at The Great Game brought to their calling. The Middle East could devour you. In the end, it devoured Sir John. That supercharged bank holiday amounted to my introduction to where meddling with Arab politics could leave a Westerner. More lay ahead.
Good luck and inspiration to all of you during 2014.