Working in Israel is linguistically challenging when you don’t speak Hebrew or Arabic. I am trying to learn as best and as quickly as possible – it’s always helpful to be able to communicate directly. So I learn to count to ten, learn how to say ‘please’, ‘thank you’ – ‘left and right’… bathroom, you know.
There’s always the period in each meeting where I get to interact and exchange ideas and sentiments with the help from a translator. Sometimes I feel like one of those TV evangelists preaching the gospel in Africa or China, where you say a phrase in English, like, “The Druze are uniquely positioned to be a cultural bridge between Arabs and Jews” – and then turn and look with earnest intent to your translator who could just as well say, “The balloons fly easily this time of day” as far as you know… but you pause and hear your sentiment in Hebrew usually, and then look to the recipient to see how they react. It’s totally Benny Hinn in Kenya, you know?
These experiences in the final frontier of communication remind me of one the most slight-of-hand translation routines to ever occur in History -- at the auspicious Peace Conference in Versailles after World War I. Versailles was not only famous for the draconian war reparations leveled at Germany which contributed to the rise of Adolf Hitler, but it is also known for chopping up the geography of the Middle East, eventually installing Western controlled Kings in newly formed artificial national entities like Iraq.
Recently in a sit down with Gore Vidal, as we were waxing historical, I remember sharing a hilarious story about Versailles with him from Margaret McMillan’s book “1919- Six Months That Changed the World”. It concerned Lawrence of Arabia (T.E. Lawrence) and the Future Hashemite King Faisal (for Hollywood fans, played by Sir Alec Guinness in “Lawrence of Arabia”).
Faisal and Lawrence wanted a hearing at the post-WWI Peace Conference in Versailles. The French were reticent to give Faisal standing as he was perceived to be a pawn of the British, running around with the likes of TE Lawrence. Arabic Bedouin Headdress withstanding, “Lawrence of Arabia” was still a British agent sent to consolidate the Empire’s interests (oil / trade) in the Middle East. There was a power struggle going on to divvy up the post-war spoils of the Middle East, with France’s power concentrated in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine (The Levant) and England focusing on Iraq, Egypt and Palestine with a little Persian oil thrown in for good measure and good empire. Faisal, donning populist-nationalist-garb, purported to be the one who could unite the Arabs, an idea as old as the nomadic Bedouin themselves. The Ottoman Turks had been defeated in WWI (they picked the losing side) and as the war wound up they had been largely ejected from the Middle East retreating and abandoning their strongholds and fortresses. Faisal and Lawrence’s Arab Nationalist Movement got the credit for more than a few victories, although it was probably over for the Ottomans either way. Back to 1919 and the Conference at Versailles – the French will not give standing to Faisal as an Arab Populist leader, they deny him for fear of overreaching English manipulation and control -- but eventually he is allowed to address the commission as the Sherif of Mecca’s son (Sharif Hussein). The three principles from the Allied Powers were Georges Clemenceau, Woodrow Wilson and Lloyd George. All that back story just so you can be prepped to receive the joke—here it comes—get ready for a smile, maybe even a guffaw.
So there they are, TE Lawrence in full desert Bedouin headdress alongside future Hashemite King Faisal. Faisal begins and recites memorized passages from the Koran, for example,
“Do you not see that Allah is He Whom do glorify all those who are in the heavens and the earth, and the (very) birds with expanded wings? He knows the prayer of each one and its glorification, and Allah is Cognizant of what they do. (The Light 24.41)”
Lawrence is pretending to listen attentively and translate on the fly, but the translation was improvised…
“Emir Faisal expresses his deep reverence for the principles of democracy, and in the spirit of brotherhood is honored to be here. The Arabs want democracy and the Arabs want self-determination, and it’s these shared values that make Arab nationalism a worthy partner for the Allies.”
I always thought that would make a great scene in Lawrence of Arabia, Faisal reciting the Koran and Lawrence going on about fraternity, equality and self-determination. But today here in Israel with my repeated experience of having to trust those who filter one’s language into an alien tongue, the real scene in history with Faisal and Lawrence misrepresenting and deceiving the Peace Council seemed pretty risky and ambitious by comparison.
Tomorrow I will be making a speech addressing the Druze community, a mysterious and spiritual sect of people largely living in the mountainous communities of Lebanon, Israel and Syria. Also tomorrow I will be dependent upon translation to speak to the religious and community leaders that will be assembled. In this case, we're going to try to be consistent between the original spoken word and the translation. The Druze are a well respected community in Israel by Jewish Israelis. Many Druze have served the State of Israel with distinction and loyalty. As Arabs with a track record of trust and respect among the Jewish Israelis, the Druze are uniquely positioned to be a cultural bridge to bring healing to a nation that in so many ways is missing the mark. It’s a lack of understanding that perpetuates fear, and the Druze have the potential in a political sense to act as cultural liaisons to bring understanding, temper fear and illuminate the path towards peace and justice between Arabs and Jews.
The Druze religious views are evolved, transcendent and kept secret – after breaking bread and speaking at length with Sheik Hmdan, his son Raif Hmdan and his wife Sohir (Brit Olam slate #4, first Arab Druze woman to run in an Israeli election), I learned that the philosophical and spiritual views of the Druze are very familiar to me. I was raised in Christian Science which has a penetrating Spiritual definition of the Universe, as opposed to a material interpretation of the world.
This belief set is mirrored in virtually all the mystery schools and/or metaphysical sects of the world’s major religions:
Sufi (from Islam)
Sikh (from Hinduism with Sufi influence),
Kabbalah (from Judaism),
Baha’i (from Shia Islam and Zoroastrian influence),
Mandaeism (from Early Prophets, esp. John the Baptist)
Manichaeism (from Iranian Gnostic with Buddhist and Zoroastrian influence)
Nazarenes, Notzrim and Essenes (Jewish Sects)
and of course the Christian Gnostics, including, in my opinion, Christian Science.
Many of these religious belief systems involve a shedding off of the formal primitive material selfhood towards a spiritual identity and an expanded and transcendent understanding of the world. Many of these gnosis (knowledge) belief sets harken to a wholly autonomous and independent origin, not being in contact in any way with one another and yet echo many of the same precepts and thoughts, alluding to being drawn from the same well via Divine Inspiration. These metaphysical ideas and belief systems absolutely posses a uniform similarity--and together could be viewed as different facets of a unified understanding of the evolution of human consciousness.
Brit Olam, the progressive political party I am helping here in Israel, speaks to the heart of the Spiritual beliefs of the Druze, and if things go well tomorrow, we will have won a lot of support for Brit Olam. A shift in consciousness is what is needed in Israel to begin the healing and to provide dignity, care and rights to all her residents, Arab, Druze and Jew alike.
Nitzanhon la Shalom, Pirozi Ba Sol, Mansour Ya Salaam and Victory to Peace!
In your service,