Monday, 12 March 2012

Arabian Nights

   His voice was matter-of-fact. ‘There are many blue cars in the world, Paul. There are many meetings between men at night in Palestine, because the Arabs love the night. They like to plot and scheme, to talk about ideals and the perfection of the world. Now and then their talk turns to action, but rarely. Mostly they talk and dream, drink tea and smoke argileh. It’s their tragedy, the Palestinians, to dream like opium eaters while their leaders fail them. They leave it to others to act and build better houses around themselves.’
Olives, Page 193
“The Arabs love the night.” I do like that, Father Vahan the Armenian Orthodox Priest being perhaps a tad harsh in his assessment of his neighbours and countrymen. It’s true, though – the Arabs do love the night, a time for families and gathering in places such as pleasure parks and corniches, small children staying up until all hours, running around and squealing as they play.

It’s a habit born, in part, of the hot summer months, when the evenings are cooler. And perhaps it’s a habit accentuated by the customs of the month of Ramadan, when the day is given to fasting and, properly, religious contemplation - as is the night, with prayers through the early hours. But the night also becomes a time of house visits, of food gifts and gatherings, the breaking of the fast at sunset giving way to the ‘suhoor’, a meal that takes place at varying times from about 9pm onwards, depending on who’s throwing it. Here rich foods are eaten, argileh smoked alongside endless custard glasses of chai suleimani and games of tarneeb, the card play that is a passion for so many across the Arab world, battles fought, won and lost every night. Some play for money, but We Don’t Talk About That.

In Jordan, Ramadan nights also become the occasion for performances – I shall never forget walking with friends into a burlesque by Lebanese female impersonator Bassem Ferghali in Amman, entranced by the sheer naughtiness of it all to a boy used to Ramadan in the Gulf, where the evenings are perhaps a tad less riotous.

I thought Father Vahan’s summary of the Arabs would get me into more hot water, but so far it’s just elicited rueful head-shakes. Then I hadn’t predicted any of the elements of Olives that would be controversial in the Arab world (never intended as the book’s original target market, I must say), so what would I know? The name of a fictional family, the morals of a fictional girl and actually talking about the alcohol that is so frequently consumed behind closed doors – these have been the biggies, not passages like the one I quote today.

Which, I suppose, is part of what I love about the region. It’s so bloody Quixotic...
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