Ali had approached him, by a well in the desert, as he would any other British soldier. Men who stunk of milk tea and rainwater, with their trousers tucked into their socks and their armpits soaked with sweat under their tight, pristine uniforms. Men full to the brim of “Now see here”’s and “God save the King”’s. Men who would laugh at his “quaintness” and “barbarity”. These men brought England with them into the desert and expected it to survive under the oppressive weight of the sun and over the unstable swamps of sand. They were England, every inch of them screaming of their green and pleasant land.
Lawrence was not.
Lawrence had not the loudness of the bustling western cities, nor the tight discipline of their military. His eyes wandered over you, untrained, unafraid of where they may land. He was as quiet as the desert, and yet the little he said had the sting of a scorpion.
He was not England, he was the desert.
Ali could see not a trace of the country in the man upon first look, who was betrayed only by his white skin and bright blue eyes, but even these had left the shores of his little island. His skin was not the white of the cliffs of Dover, nor the white of the milk that Englishmen absorbed like sponges. It was a hot white, the white that burns you so much you start to feel cold, the white heat of the top layer of sand, of the sun at midday. A man could get lost traversing the expanse of his skin, which gave way to two shining Oasis’ of blue. They were a refreshing pitstop from the tirade of heat, and Ali found himself revisiting often upon their first meeting, before he tore himself away and left, exhausted by the journey through this stranger
It was their second meeting, inside the tent of Prince Feisel, where he could truly compare these two climates. Sat next to Lawrence was Brighton; a man so full of England it invaded his very name. Who screwed his face up at the sweetness of the mint tea, and drifted off during the reading of the Quran. The foliage and wildlife threatened to seep out of him, as he tried to spread it round the room, and into the mind of their Prince. Many have said that too much rainfall would be hazardous to the desert; it would not survive such a shock to its ecosystem. Perhaps this is why Lawrence speaks up, his eyes cast downwards, voice soft as untouched sand.
Brighton may as well have been wounded, the way he shouted in response, and Ali can not stop the smile that spreads across his face, and he looks at Feisel. He has seen it too, the desert born from a land of rain and mud. Then his eyes lock onto the the Englishman's blue ones, and Ali can see he has fallen. England can not save the desert, but an oasis can save a tribe of thirsty men.
The third time they meet, Ali fears he may have been wrong. He surely must be a fool, and no fool is made from the desert. A man who proposes to cross the uncharted plains of the dry desert, with an army, to attack a fortified city, is one who has grown up with what they call a “stiff upper lip”. He sees the Englishman's eyes light up as they lock with his, those slender hands grasping his shoulders tightly, and again Ali is lost in the safety he promises in his eyes, in his words, and he again sees the desert. He hopes and prays that it is no mirage, as they set off.
They lose a man. Gassim, Ali remembers he is called. He fell from his camel, the heat and lack of water causing him to collapse. Lawrence wants to go back, to find him, rescue him. Like one of their funny melodramas, where the caped crusader goes back and rescues the pretty damsel. It is not an adventure story, this is the desert. There are no more miracles, not in a time of bloodshed and war. It is written, they tell Lawrence, that this is where Gassim shall die. Written by forces that no one has the power to reason with. But the British have never known the meaning of reason. As Ali watches him retreat onto his hopeless mission, he screams the only thing he can think to; “English! English!”
It is only the fourth time they meet that he is certain.When he sees the figure emerging from the sand wastes, as gradual as the sun rising in the east. The Englishman, with Gassim in tow, on a camel close to collapse. He is met with cheers and cries as men crowd round with offers of water and bedrest. He says nothing, his blue eyes clouded by dust and exhaustion. Until he sees Ali. He removes the wrap secured round his head, takes the water held out to him, and with a voice once smooth and fresh, now gritty and somehow aged, he says “Nothing is written.”
That night, they lie side by side and look at the stars, unobscured by light pollution, and they speak. And the more they speak, the more Ali understands. Lawrence is not yet the desert, but has lost almost every scrap of England left in him. Abandoned and abused by family, rejected by society. He is too much; too soft, too strange, too whimsical. Too quaint and barbaric. Ali bites back anger at how he has been treated, at how his own country have refused to accept him.
Rainwater is fatal to the desert.
To the men of England, truly his eyes are nothing more than mirage, the large expanse of his body deemed impenetrable, alien, barbaric and dangerous. The heat that emanates from him burns regular men who are unused to such extremity, and when they look into his eyes they taste nothing but sand. Their fear of the unknown turned into the hatred of the unknown, leaving a half formed terrain, an impossible feat of nature. As Lawrence turns over to sleep, Ali see’s his uniform bundled up nearby, stained with sweat and sand. He takes them and throws them into the fire, watching the clothes of the country that hurt him curl and burn in the heat.
The next morning, Ali dresses Lawrence in robes of white. Light, clean linen that dances in the wind, floating around him as if he were the eye of a hurricane. He is reborn, smiling in a way Ali has not seen him smile, that spreads the heat of the man through to his very heart which beats hard in his chest, as Lawrence takes to his camel, letting the wind blow right through him as if he were a spirit. Perhaps he still has some of England left in him, but to anyone looking, he is no different from the sand dunes and sunlight.
The fifth time, they reconvene at nightfall. The heat that emanates from the two of them is strong inside the small tent, and has nowhere to escape, forcing both men to confront it. Ali takes another trip to his eyes, and sees they are wide, expectant. They look at him as though they would not rather look at any human being on earth, as if they had in that moment surveyed the whole world and had come back to him, having made its decision that there was nowhere, and no one else, worth looking at. The water from this Oasis was sweet, addictive, and Ali can not resist leaning in as his mouth envelops the other mans, and he explores.
He is now in uncharted territory, explored by no Englishman and no Arab. He can understand why so many great prophets were made in the desert, at the centre of the world. Right now, Ali is at the centre of Lawrences world, and Lawrence is in the centre of his, as they explore each other in a way no other has done, or perhaps ever will. The heat turns to passion, and for an instant Ali feels as though he and Lawrence are one and the same person.
The white robes are abandoned, and now Ali can see the full expanse of never ending land. The white sand is smooth, wrapped tightly around a thin skeleton, which breaks away now and then into scars and bruises; signs of battles, both lost and won, both at home and away. Ali places tender kisses to each one, as if just a gentle touch could restore the battered stone and mortar of the crumbled castles to their former, impenetrable glory, torn apart by harsh words and cruel, cudgeling hands.
Ali knows that in Lawrence’s mind there are more wrecks, more battlegrounds, that Ali can not reach. He wonders if over time, kind words can heal these too. He wonders if Lawrence looks into Ali’s eyes and finds refreshment too, if looking into his very soul feels like coming home, whether they be in sunshine or rainfall. Lawrence might be the desert, or he might be England. He may be foolish, he may be wise, he may be arrogant, he may be stubborn. But he is Lawrence. And in a tent of hide, underneath the stars, hidden from all eyes, that is enough.