Landscapes, in childhood’s dream, were so vast and silent… The avenue of Rumm…gorgeous in sunset colour, the cliffs as red as the clouds in the west, like them in scale and in the level bar they raised against the sky…Such whelming greatness dwarfed us, stripped off the cloak of laughter we had ridden over the jocund flats….
It didn’t take much for T.E Lawrence to draw his florid pen, but, my God, when it came to Wadi Rumm, the man could play it like Carmignola’s violin.
And how I remember Wadi Rumm! Five years ago, on foot, towards our tents just about ready to enter its mouth and decamp in a past unsullied and hush-hush, the present roars by on a hollering four-wheel drive. Such is the harassed state of this magnificent patch of the desert, you have to trek long and deep before you’re able to fade into the clefts and sand.
But Rumm is not Sergio Leone’s parched wilds. In that desolate expanse of rolling balls of thorn, bad men, frightened village folks and women in constant fear of being raped, only the sight of Clint Eastwood reassures. In Rumm throbs a glorious medley of life. Just so, that master of masters, Ali al Jabri wrote:
A titanic apocalypse-geology of a collapsed volcanic system, granite and sandstone, the one chipped and slivered in smooth cliff-faces like polished metal edged in shimmery blues; the other a hallucination of brilliant orange/red/gold sculpted filigree, like Hindi temples rising out of the pink…floor. People call it the desert but it’s really full of life, vast horizons studded with positive/negative polka dots of vegetable growth, alternately darker or lighter as the sun makes his short solstice trajectory…
To David Lean, of course, the world owes the first cinematic nod to the Jordanian Wadi. After all, how could he give justice to the high drama of Lawrence of Arabia if he did not release Peter O’Toole to play the hero among those same old sand dunes? But as deferential as Lean is towards Wadi Rumm and its moods, in the end, his film is a Western fable, much like the agent provocateur himself. The Bedouin and his dominion are backdrops here, as they were for Lawrence back in 1916.
When I watched Theeb, a Jordanian feat and an Arab production, at last year’s Venice Film Festival, I thought, finally, the native’s own ode to the land and its people. Because of all the narratives spun about those seismic times, Theeb gently eases into the shadows the larger context—the advent of the railway, the death of the pilgrimage caravans, war, imperial intrigue…--all the while languorously caressing the indigenous ways to which it was about to lay waste.
You could say, on the face of it—and what a face it is—that Theeb is a story about innocence lost, that very moment when the future, in all its strangeness, barges in and yesterday, with all its precious familiarities, folds. A budding son of Wadi Rumm and its tribes, Theeb (as in wolf), by sheer hard happenstance, is jolted out of his blissful childhood at a time when the Levant was being yanked out of its Ottoman induced stupor by forces much larger than itself. In Theeb, both the child and his desert grapple with intrusions that are near incomprehensible to them. We know that Theeb at the end of his journey beats down the odds. We know as well that, at the end of ours, we Arabs do not.
But this is just the theme that nudges along the essential storyline. If you want a chaperone, the writers of this original script (Bassel Ghandour and Naji Abu Nowar) oblige you with this one, as if to tempt you to let go everywhere else. And surrender you must, for—truly!—what unfolds is a poem of love: love of this inscrutable terrain, by turns stunning and frightening; love of the silence, the only sound it cares to know; love of the sky above and the stars that dress it gemlike as pearls would a black velvet gown; of the day as it crawls content towards the finish line; of “the lonely moving individual, the son of the road, apart from the world as in a grave.” Love of the single breathtaking shot, fleeting and yet profound. Doesn’t the heart stop early in the movie as Hussein, Theeb’s older brother, clad in pure white, vanishes into black, ushering in the stranger and his life changing plot?
Theeb is the stuff of movie making at its most wondrous and audacious. Ghandour, as writer-producer, and Abu Nowar, as writer-director, drop anchor at home and, with little resources, put raw talent to work. Not only theirs. The brilliant cast of the movie comes to you courtesy of those landscapes, not a single one of them with a minute’s experience of acting before the two filmmakers came knocking.
And when they did, the Wadi Rumm of 1916 had all but disappeared. The progeny of that generation scattered in listless makeshift villages on the outer edges of the desert, a destination now for tourists like me desperate for a night of solitude among its ravines.
Theeb is currently playing in many Arab cities, including Beirut. North American rights have been acquired recently, but release dates have not been set.
(Disclosure, just in case you’re wondering: Bassel is my nephew. And for that act of providential kindness, I am eternally grateful.)
 Lawrence, TE, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, p. 351.
 Ibid., p.375.
 Letter from Ali al Jabri to his friend, Antonia Gaunt, January 14, 1979.
 Lawrence, SPW, p. 638.