The solitude of the Arab soul

“This,” I thought, “is what the surface of Mars must look like.”

It was late February, and we were driving on a two-lane highway that spiraled up like a dark ribbon across a barren desert, through red, desiccated plains, along mountainsides with red rock surface and no vegetation — an angry, desolate place with no sign of human life except, here and there, a gray, one-room hut dug into a cliff. We had left Eilat in the early morning, crossed the border on foot, mounted a large, fancy bus that was to take us on a four-hour drive through Jordan, 2,500 feet above sea level, to Petra on the slope of Mount Hor.

I hadn’t been to Eilat for many years, and I was (not so pleasantly) surprised to find that it now looked so much like Cancun, or even, God forbid, Las Vegas — all modern buildings and convention sites and hotels with names like Herod’s Palace and Magic Palace and Royal Garden and Orchid. But the real shock had come at the border itself, on the three-minute walk on a fenced pathway that led into Jordan. A small, weather-beaten billboard displayed a faded picture of King Abdullah II trying hard to look at once forbidding and friendly. Behind it, a pair of shiftless soldiers in crimped, baggy uniforms scanned the tourists with undisguised indifference. You could tell they didn’t like us and didn’t like the Israeli border guards across the way, but you could also tell they didn’t like themselves, or their job, or the baby-faced man on the billboard, either. They watched us cross in a few hundred feet the colossal distance that lay between modern Israel and their own —Third World — country, and you could tell they knew how strange we would find this other place, this country that had changed so little compared to its neighbor in the decades since Israel’s inception.

All the way toward Petra, I stared at the empty landscape outside the bus and asked myself when, if ever, the government of Jordan would build something — anything — within it. Our tour guide was a Palestinian man from Jordan with sarcastic eyes and a smoker’s blue-black lips. At a tourist stop in a “local” teahouse clearly built to cater to foreigners on their way to Petra, I asked him where he had learned to speak English so fluently. He said he had gone to college in the United States, studied English literature, returned to Jordan to marry and raise a family. At lunch in another “local” eatery, I watched as he sat with a few other tour guides, speaking Arabic and smoking Marlboro Lights. The menu consisted of chicken nuggets and penne Alfredo, and when I asked for tea, I was handed a cup of warm water and a Lipton tea bag.

“I mean real tea,” I told the waiter, and he, assuming I didn’t know the difference answered, “Yeah, tea, Lipton.”

My fellow American tourists were staring at me like I thought I was Paris Hilton stuck on the farm, asking for caviar when fish eggs had been served. The tour guide looked up from his corner and muttered something in Arabic to the waiter. I don’t know what he said, but his voice was tired and laced with resentment.

What’s it like, I wondered, to have a bachelor’s degree in literature, only to end up working as a tour guide? To come from an ancient, once-celebrated civilization, only to have to mediate disputes involving the definition of “real” tea? To know you are capable of so much and to be able to do so little? That no matter how well you raise your children, they’re not going to do any better than their parents?

Jordan, to me, is a metaphor for the great tragedy of the Arab experience: bordered by three other Arab countries plus Israel and the West Bank, comprising both the Fertile Crescent and the Great Arabian Desert, heir to many an ancient civilization, it is neither at odds with the West, nor at war with Israel. Its people are its greatest natural asset. Its king and queen are by and large popular with the nation. And yet.

And yet little has changed for the people of Jordan since the end of the British Mandate more than half a century ago. The battles they have fought, internally and otherwise, have been mostly against other Arabs. The financial assistance their leaders have relied on has been provided mostly by the West.

What’s it like to know, in your heart of hearts, where no one will hear you say it, that the great tragedy of your world is not what has been done to it by others, but what your own people, and your own leaders, have failed to do? Because this, I believe, is what ails the Arab world more than any other factor, what lies at the root of the rage — the sense of impotence, the outbreaks of violence that we have witnessed throughout the past half century: More than the looting and robbing of their resources by the West, more than colonization, more than the existence of the State of Israel and the loss of Palestinians’ land, the source of Arab anguish today is the awareness that they have been, repeatedly and in myriad ways, betrayed by their own.

This isn’t to exonerate the West of unabashed plunder of the East, or to overlook the wrongs that Israel, as an occupying force, is bound to make to the occupied. It isn’t to say that one culture is superior to the other. But suppose you get rid of the British stealing your oil, and you find that your own kings and colonels steal even more. Suppose you throw out the colonizer and replace it with a President for Life. Suppose you look around, at the experience of countries like Iran, and fear that the only alternative to the Son of the President for Life would be the Supreme Leader.

I think they know this in Jordan and Libya and Bahrain, just as they learned it in Shiite Iran after the 1979 revolution. I fear they may learn it again in Egypt and Tunisia, just as they learned it in The Islamic Republic after the 2009 elections: The greatest harm done today to the citizens of Arab nations is not by the West or by Israel — it is by their own lunatic presidents and delusional kings, the megalomaniacal mullahs and bloodthirsty generals. The greatest crimes committed by those leaders are not against other nations, but against the men and women who once believed in the promise of salvation, who prayed for the savior to come, paved the road for him with their own children’s blood.

So I follow the goings-on in Libya and the rest of the region, and I pray that history will not repeat itself this one time. I watch those young people baring their chests before police bullets, and pray that from among them, a leader will emerge whose first and ultimate loyalty is — not to God or the West or offshore bank accounts, but — to his or her own nation. Because that, as I see it, is the only way there will ever be peace within the Arab world and between it and others.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.