L To Damascus Again FOR the second time in six and a half years I have taken the road to Damascus. Last time it was the one Saul of Tarsus took—the road of conversion. This time it is not a metaphorical Damascus but the real one, and the road I took was an airway and I saw Damascus from a height of 17,500 ft. in a 13.0.A.C. aircraft.
Flying over it I felt that had Bunyan lived in our times and seen it from the air he would have made Damascus Pilgrim's goal. For the way to it from Beirut is across barren, precipitous mountain ranges, and the city itself is surrounded by arid desert. The road to Damascus is not one of roses.
Looking down on its squat buildings I could imagine that it would be a very lonely, unfamiliar place, too, until you got to know it--eyen though you were in the midst of many people. The Damascus of the convert can be like that, too.
THE tall new buildings near Beirut harbour are in the style of miniature American skyscrapers, but their flat tools are the same as in Old Testament times. So the old and the new come together in the Lebanon, most Catholic of all the countries of the Arab League. But it is the old which has the appearance of permanence, not the new.
'the city itself is set on the furthermost tip of the Mediterranean, with heavily wooded hills which quickly shade off into bare mountains creeping in from one side and sand from the other. Seen from the air the city looks as though its modem buildings, huddled together though they arc, are simply spread on the face of the sand, They do not quite belong there.
The road to the airport. for example, is a modern one, with two lanes of one-day traffic. But the "island" which separates the one from the other is simply a strip of the sand which was there Icing before men took it into their heads to fly. It will still be there when we have given up flying and are burrowing underneath to get away from our own inventions.
ir LYING over hundreds of miles of Arab land brings home to one again the meaning of "land-hunger." I have seen it in the Sahara. where any spot in the ocean of desert which has arty fertility left in it at all is cultivated, and tiny narrow strips of green crops follow the Nile for mile after mile.
Here, in the Arab countries of Asia Minor, one looks down on mountain areas more bare even than the heart of Sicily. But through a narrow crease high up in the unending rock may run a smear of soil. And that soil is cultivated. From it men scrape—or fail to serape—the means to exist. It is part of the pattern of the geography of hunger.
We talk of science and modern inventions one day making the desert blossom as the rose—and maybe we shall achieve it, in which case there are going to he a lot of roses in this part of the world—but the total conquest of hunger. if ever it is to be achieved, will have to involve the abandonment of man's attempt to cultivate the last grain of soil on the last desolate rock.
Which means that our victory will be Nature's too, for we shall have admitted defeat in a struggle which men have fought for thousands of years.
THE amazing things which men can achieve today, and which we so much take for granted, was brought home to mc as, flying across hundreds of miles of desert in Iraq, with no sign of animal or vegetable life any where, I saw the oil pipe-line which goes on and on, straight as a Roman road, to Bagdad.
The captain of the aircraft told me that he once did the journey along the road that accompanies it ("and a very good road, too") in a motorcoach. It took three days, with not a single variation in the desert scene the whole of the way. Iust sand, sand, sand.
But imagine what was involved in its construction; bringing out the materials, maintaining the labour force in food and, especially, drink.
It conjured up an almost frightening superhuman organisation arid efficiency as the captain told me about it—until he went on to say that keeping their bearings was the most difficult job of all and that once. at least, they got the road and pipe-line off course—so that they would have finished up on the wrong part of the Mediterranean had it not been corrected in time.
That seemed to me to be just as it should be, a necessary reminder of the fallibility of human judgment.
Basra and Bevan
'UROM Beirut in the Lebanon to I Basra on the Persian Gulf and right on to Karachi in Pakistan one hardly sees a sign of green. Throughout that enormous thirsty area, which it takes a plane averaging nearly 300 miles an hour almost 13 hours to k across, there is nothing but grey; just dust and sand and barren mountain rock.
There was just one exception-around Basra where the Tigris and the Euphrates are in flood. The tops of palms appeared to be floating on the water like great sea urchins, and the little houses were tiny islands in a sea surrounded by parched desert. Men in long narrow boats with crude sails made their way between the rows of palms.
The climate at Basra is impossible. The people are lethargic, wills fail to develop, personalities wither in the sun and steam. It takes 20 men to do the work that one would do in a temperate climate.
It was relatively cool when I was there—not much above the 100 degrees—but the humid heat kept us all soaked in sweat. We left Basra with relief. But as the steward adjusted the air control above my head he said : "1 am afraid it's not cold, sir. Just hot air in a hurry."
It was true. A jet of hot air played down on me instead of the cool stream I had hoped for. But anything that could hurry in that heat—even air—seemed to me at that moment to be worthy of respect.
Then I remembered that it was "hot air in a hurry," and that for some reason, reminded me of Mr. Aneurin Bevan, and I felt depressed again.
A LL North India and Pakistan was sweltering in one of its hottest periods of the year. At Karachi, and Delhi the night air wrapped round us like an electric blanket. And again next morning at Calcutta and Dacca it nes the same.
A few hours before we left Dacca Iwo groups of workers had clashed at a local mill. Over 100 were killed and another 200 injured in a vicious fight. Watching the people coming and going it seemed impossible to imagine that men just like those around the airport could be worked into such a passion that they could do this -appalling thing.
Once the Communists would have explained away such a clash of worker against worker as being due to the cunning of the British imperialists who deliberately fanned the sectarian fire in order to be able to divide and rule. Now, in these days of independence, new arguments have to be found.
RANGOON is a friendly, smiling place. There is all the amazing colour and confusion of the Orient in its streets—as well as the smells. The people seemed less tense by far than their sub-continental neighbours.
Going on the principle that the best way to know people is to identify oneself with them, I went by pedicar (bicycle taxi) to the enormous Shwe Dagon pagoda. which is Burma's largest and most important, where the relics of the Buddha are reputedly housed.
When T left my shoes with.a beggar Woman at the entrance a man connected with the pagoda assured me : "No steal here at pagoda. Everyone very honest." But I still went up the long flights of stairs to the 64 shrines which encircle the gold-leafed pinnacle wondering what the long walk back to my hotel would be like in stockinged feet, But the beggar woman and the shoes were still there when I came out.
You may smoke
THE old problem of "May I smoke whilst I say my Office?" does not exist for the Buddhist. As I watched the women at their devotions before the shrine I noticed that many of them were smoking cigars, just as they do in the streets.
T asked a Buddhist from Siam who travelled out with us from London whether this was normal. "Oh, yes." he assured me. "you may smoke as you pray at the shrine—so long as you have your shoes off."