A man of Middle Eastern appearance who dreams of peace


A man of Middle Eastern appearance who dreams of peaceAt exactly 2.41 a few mornings ago, I woke suddenly from a dreamless sleep. There was an eerie luminescence in the room, yet the night was moonless. As I sat up, realising that something, some sound or aberration, must have plucked me from the shades of my Deep REM phase, or whatever kind of sleep I was having at the time, I made one of those random, unaccountable mental connections that such occasions often invoke. I thought of a poem I had to learn off by heart at school.

"Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase)/ Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace/ And saw, within the moonlight in his room/ Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom/ An Angel writing in a book of gold…"

The whole poem—induced no doubt by shock and a certain amount of fear (after all, what the hell had woken me? And where was the light coming from?)—came straight back to me, testimony to the profound and durable impact of punishment-assisted rote learning. That was how, for example, in the same period of my life I got a lasting hold on Byron.

"The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,/ And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;/ And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,/ When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee."

To reach that level of assurance, however, required an intense learning experience.

"Who came down, Matthews?"

"The Syrian, Brother." WHACK!

"The ASSyrian Matthews, ASS—very appropriate in your case. Came down like what, Matthews?"

"A ... tiger, Brother?" WHACK!

"A wolf Matthews, a wolf. And what were gleaming Matthews?"

His…? "Jodhpurs, Brother?" WHACK.

A man of middle eastern appearance who dreams of peace"Wrong continent, Matthews; wrong war. Stay in and write the whole poem out five times." And thus I gained my love of literature.

And from that same deeply buried source came the story of Abou Ben Adhem who, finding that the Angel was writing the "names of those who love the Lord" and that his was not on the list, proposed that he be recorded as "one who loves his fellow men". The Angel wrote and vanished. Returning the next night "with a great wakening light", the Angel revealed "the names whom love of God had blessed/ And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest".

This modest poetic epiphany did not, however, do anything for my predicament. The briefest of scrutinies showed me beyond any doubt that the room was absolutely devoid of angels and their accoutrements. And the light, falling a bit short of "a great wakening" effulgence was actually coming through our window, outside and above which is one of those sensor lights that switch on if they detect movement. So something was moving around outside.

Through the window I saw two very large shapes only metres away in the middle of a garden bed and just at the edge of the light’s circle. The tracery of backdrop shadows and the trickery of the arc of light made these forms look monstrous. Elephants! Only the day before, I’d been reading that something strange is happening to the world’s elephants.

They are on the rampage in Sumatra, among other places, where illegal logging and land clearances are rapidly diminishing their habitats. Wild elephants are invading residential areas at night, crushing houses, devouring crops and attacking people. In Zimbabwe, conversely, massively burgeoning elephant numbers are destroying the environment and threatening other already endangered animals. And now, here they were in the obscure light and shade of our bush garden—huge, dominant, unstoppable.

A man of middle eastern appearance who dreams of peaceOf course, just as a few minutes earlier, calmer inspection had revealed the absence of angels in our room, so now did less fevered scrutiny show me that there were two large kangaroos dining on our grasses and prostrates. This is not unusual: kangaroos graze the paddock most nights, but such proximity to the civilised bit of our place was a new and strange phenomenon. As for the sensor light, far from being frightened away by it, they seemed to appreciate the convenience.

The bright light of dawn, as it has a habit of doing, put things in perspective. Stories about elephants were no doubt exaggerated. Surely. And there was nothing weird really about the way the kangaroos were looking us straight in the eye from the middle of our garden (not to mention at sunset the next evening practically joining us for a drink on the lawn, their liquid eyes inscrutable, their haunches bunched like car springs).

And then there’s Abou Ben Adhem—a man of Middle Eastern appearance, number one with the Lord, loving all mankind and having a dream of peace! Come off it.

Next they’ll be telling us the planet’s getting hotter.



submit a comment

Existing comments

Dear Brian

I have just read "A man of Middle Eastern appearance..." and loved it. I have made a copy for our Bishop to read, as he is happy to have passed on to him "good stuff" and your piece definitely fits that category!

I then clicked on "A Fine & Private Place" and will be ordering it very soon; it sounds wonderful.
Tracey | 15 November 2006

brian just red your great book. a fine and private place. i lived at
greaves st st kilda same times as
you. got bashed by doug brady nocked
with barry o"dowd max martin colin dilena jimmy mc neill ray bullus
the howson sisters brian hamill .mad .mad. mad ecetra ....
max james | 03 December 2006


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up