They meet for tea every Thursday at the coffeehouse on campus, drinking strong Earl Grey with lemon from heavy cups that settle hard on the saucers. At first, they scarcely speak except to exchange a few perfunctory words of greeting--You're looking well today, Dr. Lawrence and How are you bearing the cold, Dr. el-Kharish?
Ali is, in fact, bearing the cold rather well. He has spent four years living in Moscow; the first good English chill merely gives him the occasion to wear a scarf with his peacoat. Long ago, he had discovered that Europeans regarded his accomplishments with considerably less disbelief if he dressed as a dapper Western intellectual and took winter in his stride.
It is uncharitable, though, to think that Dr. Lawrence holds such a low opinion of him. Thomas is no Paki-bashing hooligan, no sneering Cockney yahoo; he is better-versed in twelfth-century Arabic poetry than is Ali himself, and better-traveled in Egypt and Syria. While Ali was in Moscow, learning to speak the double-language of the Russian intelligence community, Thomas was dodging bombs in Baghdad. He had walked out of the First Gulf War an Iraqi folk hero, responsible for organizing fire brigades and evacuating children from crumbling buildings. If any man on this godforsaken island might treat Ali ibn el-Kharish with courtesy, it is Thomas Edward Lawrence.
Nonetheless, he cannot help thinking it a matter of poor taste to ask about the cold.
"I've found," says Lawrence, once he has half-finished his tea, "That the number of students interested in crusader history has increased nigh-exponentially in the past three years."
"We might attribute that to the success of your book," answers Ali with affected unconcern. He knows that he is being drawn to talk of politics, and he has quite enough occasion to do so in his own classroom. "There is a real poetry to your academic writing, and I for one find it refreshing. History is a living thing, not a corpse to be dissected and labeled."
"They can't only be interested in my work--I've got a girl who wants to do her thesis on the Children's Crusade, and I've written nothing at all about that."
"But neither is her research on the Children's Crusade particularly dependent upon the political climate in the Middle East, if that is what you are attempting to suggest," Ali says. He loosens his scarf, looking up to meet Lawrence's clear blue eyes across the table. "I am a student of Russian border skirmishes, and the breakup of the Soviet Union--not of the Middle East."
"You value your own culture, and your own heritage," says Lawrence. His hand rests beside his saucer (ungloved; it has always been Lawrence's way to pretend an immunity to the cold). "When the National Museum of Iraq was looted--"
"--Iraq lost many of its greatest cultural treasures, yes." He finishes his tea, slowly, in part to drive Lawrence mad with waiting for him to finish. "But I am not a historian or an anthropologist, as you are; I do not wish to place history in glass cases with explanatory plaques. The past is a living thing, Dr. Lawrence, and its value is in its utility. Our heritage" and he does not think it strange, to include Lawrence among the inheritors "is useful now in purely political terms. It is a display of wealth and power--nothing more. How many have been fed from the spoil of looting?"
"Fewer than you would like," says Lawrence, "Although I am sure there is some utility in that."
For a moment, the chatter of students and the low chime of cups on saucers overwhelms them. In the silence, they hold one another's gaze; it is the first time in many years, thinks Ali, that he and Thomas have truly fought.
When the moment ends, he reaches across the table and folds Lawrence's bare hand in his own gloved one. "I spoke hastily," he says, although he said nothing that he would not have said after deliberation.
"I was heedless," Lawrence answers, closing his fingers around Ali's and then letting go. "It's not the museum that matters to me--although it does matter to me, a great deal--but the loss of everything that's distinct and valuable about the culture. It's meant to be some sort of great leap forward, that there are televisions in Iraqi houses and a democratic right to elect whichever man the Yanks approve--"
"Your distaste for Americans is only equaled by your distaste for progress," says Ali. "I like the Americans no better than you do, but they are a fact of life, and we must adapt to them. Global capitalism is, for better or worse, the way of the twenty-first century--but you would shut Baghdad in a box, five hundred years ago, and preserve it exactly as it was then."
"I only want to see Iraq under Iraqi rule, working to preserve its past and its future. Tell me, at least, that we can take the same side in this."
Warmly, Ali answers, "Of course we can. In principle, our wants are the same."
"Only in principle, Dr. el-Kharish?"
He has been trained either to radicalism or to pragmatism; political science has little room in it for reactionary idealism--but ism is only the word for name, and he may call his idealism by another name if he chooses. "At times," he admits, "I do long for a kind of ... mythical past. Although I know it to be a myth."
"You're the son of sherifs," says Lawrence, softly. The faint Welsh lilt to his voice always becomes more pronounced when he speaks of the past. He leans over the table, hands braced on the smooth wood, eyes alight. "Not long ago, your grandfathers were riding free across the desert, pushing the Turks before them."
"My great-grandfathers, you mean," laughs Ali. "I am not so old as that. And my grandfathers sit in Riyadh and Dammam, before the televisions that you so despise."
"Nonetheless." Lawrence looks out the window and onto the frost-touched quadrangle.
"Nonetheless." His chair scrapes hard against the tile as he stands. "If you will excuse me, I have promised a friend that I would attend his match."
"The rugby player?"
"The same." He hesitates, for although Lawrence is a brilliant colleague and even a friend, they have never met properly off campus. He finds that he knows nothing at all of Lawrence's interests beyond the most overtly academic and political; whether Lawrence has a wife, or a dog, or an interest in collecting coins, he does not know. To close that distance now is to admit that something in Lawrence's idealism has struck him like lightning, and that their professional relationship has changed irretrievably.
Perhaps, nearly a hundred years ago, they might have driven the Turks to the sea together. The thought halts him, his hand still closed on the back of the chair.
"You may join me, if you wish," he says, eventually. "Auda could easily arrange for another ticket."
"I would enjoy that," Lawrence answers, with a light laugh. "But I'm not so easily distracted from my politics."
Ali finds that he is grinning, broadly, his fingertips fiddling with the fringe of his scarf as though he is a delighted schoolgirl. "So long as you do not distract me from the game," he says, "You may speak all you like of politics."