Lured by a princess, William Dobson fell in love with the Orient and found his calling
Looking back at my interest in the Middle East, a quotation from the Palestinian philosopher Edward Said springs to mind: ‘From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the Orient could not do was to represent itself.’ Yet, growing up in the West, it wasn’t the countless news stories, revolutions, dictatorships, or whatever other negatively charged information coming out of the region that caught my attention; no, it was tales of magic, of exoticism, of genies and beautiful princesses, strangely alluring music, and the thought of intense fragrances wafting through cavernous souks.
However, as Said’s quotation suggests and, more recently, Joobin Bekhrad in this very magazine, these ‘sights, sounds, and marvels… [which] were a source of wonder and inspiration’ were also ‘largely distorted’. It was, for instance, countless hours spent playing Prince of Persia on an Apple Mac LC475 – stolen from my father’s office – which first piqued my interest, as I desperately battled to save the beautiful princess (as gorgeous as 1980s graphics allowed her to be) from the clutches of the evil Vizier. Later, Disney’s Aladdin only heightened my curiosity with this strange and different land, full of romance and mysticism, and some intangible perfection and simplicity in my young mind’s eye.
I dreamed of palaces and tigers, magic carpets and – it goes without saying – of falling in love with princess Jasmine. Her long, black hair, olive skin, huge, coquettish eyes, and full red lips, were seemingly pursed with a constant feigned innocence.
Aged 13, a school trip to Marrakesh and the Atlas Mountains was my first opportunity to discover the region in person, rather than purely in its cartoon form. Instantly enthralled, this was an age before the health and safety police had reared their overly zealous heads, and we were allowed to wander the streets on our own, haggle with local hawkers over useless souvenirs, or be charmed by dancing cobras, so far removed from an upbringing in the sleepy university city of Oxford.
Meanwhile, in the mountains we slept a top a traditional kasbah, with only the stars for cover, entertained by traditional music and belly dancers. Yet, as I look back now, that trip was almost as ‘largely distorted’ as anything else I’d been privy to previously, as every place we visited was geared towards preserving the illusion of the ‘Orient’ for Western eyes.
Years later, as I embarked on a year abroad, the magnificent novels of the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz having persuaded me to study Arabic at University in the vain hope of one day being able to read them in their purest form, I found myself in Damascus. More real this time, actually living and breathing the culture of the Levant, I made every effort to throw myself into it with as much abandon as I could. I ate at the places that only the locals knew, drank in dive bars in the old Christian quarters, smoked nargileh in cafés frequented by old men, chatted to taxi drivers at any given opportunity, prayed in the mosque, and spent countless hours walking aimlessly through the alleyways of the Old Town, among other things.
Where a man feels at home, outside of where he was born, is where he should go
Still, though, I was always conscious of being a Westerner. However fluent my colloquial Arabic, however thick my beard, and however tanned my skin, my green eyes and imperfect accent gave the game away. Not only that, but I was constantly aware that I wasn’t from this world, and that I wasn’t able to truly understand it, however hard I tried. I was living there, but I was living as an Englishman, any seeds of discontent being oblivious to me. As a recourse, I reveled in the fact that I could eat out in the finest restaurants for four or five quid, live in palatial, courtyard houses for a pittance, and cross the border to the more exuberant weekend lifestyle of Beirut as and when I pleased.
More than that though, I loved being somewhere so full of history, culture, art, music, and literature, which were forced upon you at every turn. Despite this conscious feeling of being an ‘other’, paradoxically, Damascus always felt like home – more so than anywhere else I’d been since I moved away from the place of my birth. To quote Hemingway, ‘Where a man feels at home, outside of where he was born, is where he should go’. No place else have I felt more comfortable and simultaneously awake, so eager to explore, to discover new places, meet new people, see new things, and eat new foods. Still, four years on, there is nowhere else I feel I know better or more intricately, if not as a culture, then certainly as a town.
Unfortunately, of course, events have rendered going back impossible, and I have no idea when I’ll be able to return, or if it will ever return to being the place that I remember. Yet, even if I’m guilty of seeing the ‘Orient’ through rose-tinted spectacles, distorted by Western influences – good or bad – I still feel an obligation to share my passion and my love of the culture of the region, the food, the art, the literature, the people, and the place itself with those back home. This is especially true in light of the events of the last year and a half.
As anyone who has ever picked up a book about Middle Eastern politics, or had a heated discussion with someone well versed in the subject, it’s a topic that’s as long and complicated as the history of the region. While I don’t feel that it’s my place to comment or to judge – certainly not here – hopefully through my site, Sugar Street Review, and other writings, I can at least showcase some of the influences which have captivated me. Perhaps, amongst all the news we read about death, civil war, and destruction, someone might come away wanting to know more about all the positive aspects which fill this mesmerising and complex part of the world.