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Never Trust a Monk

Father Henry was tapping his watch when we arrived. “You’re late,” he said. It was five minutes past six in the morning. “We’d better hurry,” he explained, “or we’ll be fried sausages once the midday sun comes up.” Midday? “How long’s it going to take?” asked my friend Mike.

When we met Father Henry in his Oxford college a couple of weeks before setting out to the Holy Land, he’d mentioned that he might be there at the same time, and suggested we join him on a walk. The idea sounded great: we’d stroll alongside this septaguenarian cleric, up to the Mount of Olives and back between tea-time and supper. But what he euphemistically sold as “a nice jaunt in the Judean desert,” turned out to be anything but: Father Henry doesn’t do jaunts.

Back at Oxford, where he runs a Benedictine College, Father Henry is famed for his roller-blading. Excited undergraduates point out the mad monk speeding round the quad or gliding down the thoroughfare, a picture of serenity on a pair of legs that look like they’re just about to snap. He insists that he doesn’t exercise in his cassock: it would restrict his aerodynamicism.

Father Henry’s other cause of notoriety was a former pupil whom he had been “instructing in the Catholic faith.” Princess Diana hadn’t converted, but his connection with the late World’s-Most-Famous-Woman certainly attracted the tabloids, who used to hide behind convenient columns and medieval stairwells to catch a glimpse of Oxford’s celebrity guru.

Now, standing outside the Ecole Biblique, a French-run academic institute in Arab East Jerusalem, he was here to work on his other hobby: translating the Bible. Not an update of the King James version, nor even a rendition from Latin or Greek. Father Henry is liturgical translation’s equivalent of Marlon Brando. He’d learnt Hebrew and Aramaic in order to take the text back to its source. His impressive New Jerusalem Bible had cemented his reputation as one of Britain’s most respected Biblical scholars. Now, he was concentrating on the Revelation of St John the Divine, which turned out to be eerily appropriate during a ‘jaunt’ that nearly turned into the End of Days.

Our route was to take us from Abu Dis, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, to Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in caves once inhabited by the Essenes, a separatist Jewish sect. The terrain would be arid and, if we didn’t keep a brisk pace, blisteringly hot. But a more direct danger might be the Israeli Defence Force, which apparently used the area as a firing range.

As we started, there was a cool breeze and the rocky ground occasionally allowed for a clump of bracken or a cluster of trees. Bedouin encampments provided reassuring signs of desert life: corrugated iron and canvassing propped up over a couple of donkeys and a woman stirring a pot. The Lord of the Manor would lean pensively on his crooked staff, peering into the yellow distance.

As we bore on, the sun gradually peeked out from its hiding place, sending rays of stifling heat, as if it wanted to warn us of its potential. The terrain became rockier and harder on the feet. The constantly receding skyline offered little consolation. We’d approach what seemed to be a ledge leading to the sea, only to find more sterile land stretching out miles into the distance. As if to warn us of what happens when you get out of your depth in the desert, we found hundreds of snails’ shells, scattered on the ground. Thye were chalk-white and brittle, disintegrating in our hands. One thing puzzled us and provided plenty of conjecture: how had they actually got here?

We reached a ledge, overlooking a valley below, straddled by a beautifully beguiling river. On a patch of flat land, several stalks stood upright in the sun, spaced at regular intervals. As we moved closer, the stalks turned out to be camels. But not one of them moved: they held their heads high and still and paid no one the slightest attention. Perhaps their apparent disdain was justified: what had looked like paradise soon let its true nature be felt as it wafted up our nostrils: stinking, putrid, odious sewage. This clearly wasn’t going to be a refeshment stop.

And so we continued, on and on in the ever more stifling heat. The skyline would approach us, the end apparently in sight, and then we’d discover another ledge to descend, another turn to make, miles more hiking to be done. We were running out of water, my make-shift keffiyeh – a sweater wrapped round my head – kept falling off, and Father Henry’s vague attempts at direction – “Yes, why not go this way – I’m sure I came along here in the eighties” – were doing little for anyone’s peace of mind.

In this potentially fatal situation (whether the prospect loomed of wilting from heatstroke, or being left to bury the corpse of that nice monk we’d just strangled for disorientation) an unlikely saviour appeared. In fact, he parked in front of us, wound down his window, and offered us a lift. He was an Israeli on his Shabbat run-around. “I like to drive around the desert on Shabbat,” he explained, “it gives me a chance to unwind.” We couldn’t have cared less why he was out here. We just jumped in the back with profusions of “toda”, “toda” (“thankyou”) and smiles that even the mythical firing range would have struggled to wipe away.

The jeep lurched back and forth as it negotiated the undulations of the dunes, so that each time I tried to take a sip of water, it would spill down my shirt. Father Henry and the Saviour chatted about desert-driving, Holy Land ‘jaunts’, and the Book of Revelations, before we were dropped by some caves that led us down a winding route towards the modernised site of Qumran: coaches and cars parked outside a cafeteria and a souvenir shop, with a little bit of space left for the caves where the scrolls were found (the scrolls themselves have been moved to the Israel museum).

After a tour round the site which had been punctuated by yawns and the sudden need to sit down, we attempted to hitch a lift back to Jerusalem. An Israeli army truck drove past, its occupants sneering at us and pointing their guns; various cars with few or no passengers picked up speed once they saw our thumbs. So, we had to settle for a taxi, provided by an Arab called Maher who agreed to reduce the price (albeit by about ten shekels – less than two pounds) on condition that we entertained him. So we told him about our ‘little jaunt’.

“Four hours in the heat?” he exclaimed. “You crazy people? I mean, I walk, sure, in the evening, with my wife or my children, for maybe half an hour. But four hour. You wan’ die?” The conversation gradually proceeded to Maher’s family, one of whom had set up a “restaurant high quality” in Yorkshire. “What sort of food do they serve?” I asked, expecting it to be Middle Eastern fare – schwarma and felafel and mensaf. But, when in Rome. “It is for the fish and chips,” said Maher. “He say there no business if you no serve the fish and chip. You eat much fish and chip in England?”

And so the questions flowed, as Maher conducted an off-the-cuff census of Britain’s Arab population.

“There are many Arabs in Britain?” he asked. “Oh yes, a great many.” “They are rich, or poor?” “Some rich, some very poor.” We told him about Mohammed Al-Fayed, as an example of a rich Arab. “And this Harrod, it sell many different thing?” “It is like one big souk, all owned by one man.” “He must be rich. But what do other Arabs do in England?” “Some have shops, some have businesses, some are involved in oil.” “And the Palestinians?” “Oh,” said, Father Henry, “they’re all engineers.” Maher didn’t actually regard himself as a Palestinian: “I am Arab,” he said. “Israeli Arab, Palestinian Arab – it doesn’t matter.” “So you get on with the Israelis?” I asked. “I have many friends who are Jews,” he said, “my boss is a Jew!” In fact, he was more critical of the Palestinian Authority than the government of Israel: “They are very poor, the Palestinians,” he said. “Don’t they get much money from abroad?” “Oh, they get the money, but it goes straight to the leaders, and they do not spread it. And if anyone complains – .” At this Maher ran a hand across his neck. “Is best not to get involved in politics here,” he said. And so we moved on to religion. “You are Christian?” Maher asked me. “Yes.” “But you believe in God?” “Yes.” “Many Christian in England?” “Yes. But there are many who don’t believe in God.” “What, no believe? What do they believe in?” “Er – television.” “But what will happen to them? How can you no believe? Is the best thing to believe in God – look what he does for us, he looks after us.” Unfortunately, Maher had chosen the wrong time to express such theological positivism. We were passing through one of the slums of Jerusalem. Ramshackle houses looked like they were about to keel over streets strewn with the debris of everyday living. Old men sat on steps staring out at the road. Little boys dressed in tattered shorts and T-shirts they’d outgrown kicked rusty coke-cans across the street.

“There are two things only that are important,” said Maher, nodding at the scene. “One is God, one is family. Everything else is nothing.”

He parked outside St Stephen’s Gate. Between us, Father Henry, Mike and myself were just about able to cover the fare. “No chance of a reduction?” I asked. Maher frowned. “You pay the price we agreed. This is business.”

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