Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Desert Copts

Yesterday I was looking to confirm a name of one of my father's friends and was rereading his autobiography Far Away Places With Strange Sounding Names. I found the name but in doing so came across this little anecdote regarding a drilling project in Egypt:

Our proposed drill site was approximately 30 kilometers west of the highway between Cairo and Alexandria. The driving instructions to the rig were rather easy. Drive to the "Halfway House", a petrol station and restaurant - the only building on this 400 kilometer road between the two cities, and turn left. While surveying the site where we planned to drill, I did a little exploring of the area. I was roughly 20 kilometers northwest of the drill site and came across a remarkable community. I had crossed over a sand dune and saw before me a small basin oasis, perhaps 2 kilometers in diameter. In the center was what looked like a mud-walled fort straight out of a "Beau Geste" movie. I drove on down to the front door, got out of my Land Rover, and encountered "Bernard", a monk.

I had stumbled on a Coptic Christian Monastery, in an otherwise, uninhabited desert. There were about 35 monks living there, more or less self-sufficient and independent of the world outside. They had a water well which allowed them to grow crops and raise goats and sheep, all inside the one hectare area surrounded by the walls. According to Bernard, they spent six hours per day at worship or in prayer. The rest of their waking hours were spent tending the crops and animals. Bernard gave me a tour of the chapel and living quarters. The chapel was decorated quite ornately, but the living quarters gave true meaning to the word, simplistic. I didn't feel it appropriate to inquire, "why the hell are you spending your life like this", but that was certainly the uppermost question in my mind. History teaches us that men have been living in monasteries since religion was invented, but I can't even begin to understand why. Bernard invited me to join them for the evening meal. I was, however, getting a bit nervous about finding my way back to civilization before dark, so I declined, thanked him for the tour and headed back to town. It was a unique experience, best described as "baffling".

Perhaps one answer is in the environment of the desert monasteries. Last night I finished Alan Moorehead's A Late Education and in it came across this passage. Moorehead is describing the effect of the desert upon him and his companions in the early days of the war when the massive armored build-up had yet to occur:

And yet the story of the desert war seemed to write itself. There never was a place which so moved one to composition. Within an hour of arriving in the desert ideas came crowding into one's mind, and if there was no action for days together it made no difference. Life there was so completely abnormal that the first element of a newspaper story was always present: the element of contrast, the spectacle of familiar people (in this case the soldiers) reacting to a strange place. But the real reason why the war correspondents did rather better in the desert than anywhere else was because the issues were simple. There were no distractions, no cities, no railroads, shops, cinemas, markets, farms, children or women. There was no fifth column, and there were no politics. We never saw money or crowds or animals or hills and valleys. We saw the arching sky and the flat desert stretching away on every side. Consequently the small incident (as distinct from the set-piece battle) achieved a significance it would never have had in Europe or the tropics, and we saw it clearly, we saw all round it, we knew its beginning and its effect. Certiainty of detail like this seldom falls to the journalist. He works at such speed he has no time for a methodical checking of his facts and so he has to hedge, to qualify, to suggest rather than to state a fact. In the desert it was much easier. We could state a thing boldly because we saw it in isolation, and most events other than the actual battles came as clearly before our eyes as a single ship at sea. Moreover our own lives were simple.

The desert had an antiseptic effect upon nearly everyone who went there in the war. That is to say it destroyed most of the small indulgences and even the vices that eat like parasites into our lives in normal times. In this immense untenanted space it was nearly impossible to commit any of the deadly sins; the food was appalling (mostly bully beef and biscuit), liquor virtually non-existent, and so the glutton inside oneself withered away. In the complete absence of women, even of pornographic books, advertisements and entertainments, there was no stimulus to sexual desire except that which was self-induced by dreams and secret memories; and even the echoes of such vicarious, unanswered lust tended to to grow faint after a time. It was absurd to be avaricious, envious or jealous where no one had any possessions or privileges to speak of, and the desert by its very nature compelled the slothful man to bestir himself in order to remain alive. Then, too, the fear of death and wounding in this distant place was a mighty destroyer of pride. This enforced monasticism might, of course, in itself have been more deadly, more stultifying, than any sin, had not the desert provided its own distractions and its own bizarre rewards.

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