I have been thinking about my recent post, Once More on the Road to Cairo, and about my dad – an amazing man who I still miss very much – and about my research trip to Jordan, pre-9/11, which he inspired.
Dad was in Transjordan and North Africa during WWII and, being in the supply chain, didn’t see a lot of action. A North London lad who had never left the city, he suddenly found himself out there in the desert in a culture that was like nothing he’d ever experienced. Having left school at 14 or 15, he’d never been that interested in history, not until the day the army dumped his unit outside the Roman city of Leptis Magna. He had never seen anything like it and it blew him away.
This is just one of the stories I grew up on, my childhood was laced with exotic names … Petra, Benghazi, Leptis Magna and Jerash.
Dad loved the people he met in North Africa and Transjordan – Corporal Benison often got into trouble with his superiors because soldiers weren’t supposed to mix with the local population! But Dad didn’t think that was right. He got to know people, started to learn the language, feasted in the desert. I can still count to 10 in Arabic and there was a time, as a seven-year-old, when I could count to 100.
There was a box in Dad’s shed and in that box was a keffiyeh (Arab headdress), and an agal (the black cord that keeps the keffiyeh in place). A badge of honour was the permanent pale band around his wrist where his watch had been; even in the 1960s his skin remained tanned by the desert sun.
There was one story, about a halt in the middle of nowhere with nothing to see but the desert and the mountains and what he descibed as a lone, Greek Orthodox monastery. Inside that monastery, he told me, there was a mosaic showing the River Jordan flowing into the Dead Sea. The fish depicted in the river first swam towards the sea then, repelled by the high salt levels, turned and swam back the way they’d come.
I loved the story, the idea that the fish could be turned back by the salt…
That story never left me and in the late nineties I visited Jordan with the British Museum. I went to the Roman city of Jerash, I visited Petra (my dad travelled there riding a pregnant donkey who was so plump that his knees brushed the sides of the siq) and I went to Madaba and that’s when I remembered the story about the monastery and the mosaic. I mentioned it to the BM guide and he said, ‘follow me…’
Dad’s lone monastery turned out to be the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George and far from being isolated, it was surrounded by the town of Madaba, but the mosaic was there, just as he described it. In the cool, dim light of the ancient building, I found myself standing over the depiction of the Dead Sea and the River Jordan and those fish swimming first in one direction, then back again.
It was a powerful and deeply moving moment, every story Dad had ever told me sprang into vivid, three-dimensional life. When I got home, I set about writing my WWII novel, The Gift.
Two years later, I encountered a problem. I had the story I wanted to tell (which had nothing to do with Dad) my dad’s stories to give it authenticity and life, and I also had my research…it was just too big, felt very much like driving a three-horse chariot without any reins; so I put the novel aside. The idea was to let it incubate, then go back to it…
Time passed. Life moved on – and now the world has changed and I realise how lucky I was to have visited the Middle East when I did – Cairo, Damascus, Petra and Lake Tiberius. I think it’s high time for me to go back to those notes and that novel and see whether it’s possible to pull it into shape.