Dancing Bare

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 35

Middle East

After changing money at one of the innumerable Beirut Bureaux de Change advertising competitive exchange rates, the others went sight-seeing, shopping and night-clubbing, I said I'd meet them in two days and hitched north to Byblos. Poetry in stone. An amphitheatre topped by a row of elegant Roman columns on a small hill against a backdrop of the azure Mediterranean. Below nestled an ancient little port with fishing boats the Phoenicians might have sailed in. After making a couple of sketches, I hitched to a gorge that boasted caves with stalactites that were not as grand as Waitomo. A short distance from the caves a track led down to a small river. I descended, checked it was private, then after a refreshing wash, let myself drift a little downstream. When I returned, a woman was standing beside my rucksack.

She was devoid of make-up, wearing a skimpy white sun frock with nothing underneath. Scrawny, angular, a large mouth and looked about forty. I didn't believe her compliments about Greek gods, I'd seen too many genuinely handsome Lebanese to know I wasn't in the same league. She was French; a spiritual beatnik practising natural healing in a commune with a dozen other similar people. Would I like to visit? It was late afternoon; I had to find somewhere to sleep and she looked harmless, so I agreed and went to put on my shorts. They were gone. She held them up, said I wouldn't be needing them, and tripped lightly up to her ageing Renault. I followed, put my rucksack in the boot with my shorts and joined her in the front. She had removed her dress.

"I love driving naked," she laughed, "Don't you?"

I agreed it was liberating, silently hoping she didn't fancy me, and suggested she concentrate on the road that wound deep into a gorge with cliffs on one side and a drop to the river on the other. But she kept chatting. She'd been shopping for food for her commune and always stopped by the caves on the way home because young foreigners often visited and some, like me, were sympathique. I was the sixth one she'd taken home that summer.

When I asked why French women weren't frightened to pick up hitch-hikers, and how she knew I wasn't a desperado, she laughed again and said girls in France aren't taught to be frightened of men; and criminals didn't choose romantic streams in which to bathe naked.

To my relief we arrived safely at a clearing in front of a rundown villa, the garden overgrown with weeds. After dumping my bag and the supplies in the kitchen she led me through to a sun-drenched terrace scattered with a dozen naked men and women lounging under sun umbrellas or sitting on the edge of the pool. Ignored by everyone, a couple were copulating on a tartan rug spread over the grass.

"This is Rigby," my hostess announced proudly. They hoisted themselves to their feet and came across to shake hands and inspect me with impertinent curiosity, asking personal questions and commenting bluntly on my appearance. They were all tanned and healthy, aged between forty and sixty, bodies ranging from emaciated women to stocky men, all, except a perky Ethiopian who looked as if he'd spent his life running marathons, were European.

I'd expected spiritual beatniks to be ethereal; skin translucent from fasting; drifting around in flowing white robes thinking noble thoughts and exuding auras of empathy with the cosmos. But there was nothing spiritual about these worldly people. They were sharp, at ease, and confident of their intrinsic worth; indifferent to the opinions of others. The copulating couple separated, complained about the heat, drifted across and shook my hand, dived into the pool and after a few lengths went to prepare the evening meal.

The Ethiopian invited me to swim. He had the fine, acute facial features I find irresistible, so we splashed around in the pool, then lay on sun beds and talked about this and that. When I asked about 'Spiritual Beatniks' he laughed and explained it was our hostess's little joke. Every summer the same group, all wealthy ex French Colonials, came here to relax and remember the 'good old days'.

But the Lebanese government was no longer sympathetic to ex French colonists (he was French with an Ethiopian mother) and Lebanon was becoming increasingly politically unstable. As for the locals, no matter how much they offered, young men and women from the surrounding area would no longer come to 'entertain' them, so they had to put up with the occasional tourist like me. They couldn't even get household help, so they'd probably go to Tunisia next year.

I was surprised to learn that the sectarian system of government in Lebanon specifies that the resident should always be a Maronite Catholic, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, the head of the house of representatives (in Arabic called nayeb - the plural nawwab) a Shi'ite Muslim, the Minister of Defence is a Christian when Foreign Affairs is a Druze (which switches around at times) and the Chief of Staff and Head of the Army a Christian. Surely governments had nothing to do with religion? I was indeed very ignorant. I was also a bit disappointed that instead of the spiritual enclave of peace and harmony I'd been looking forward to, I'd stumbled on a pack of wealthy, middle-aged nudist libertines who had only invited me along because they couldn't get a local youth to ogle.

After supper, to stave off boredom they asked what I'd been doing. I told them about hitching across North Africa. They thought I was very brave – but of course I wasn't. Ignorant is nearer the mark. It isn't brave to react sensibly to an unforeseen situation when you have no choice. Bravery is deliberately putting oneself in danger for altruistic notions. However, I'm not convinced altruism is more than a wishful concept.

When they learned I'd danced for a Tunisian Government Minister, they put on Arab music and I had to perform, joined after a few minutes by the Ethiopian whose sleek flexibility and sensuality rivalled that of the workers in France. The atmosphere was liberating and arousing. We writhed together in simulated sexual congress, encouraged by clapping and increasingly bold comments.

These people didn't care if we were queer or straight, they simply wanted to be amused and, as they'd given me shelter for the night, it seemed only polite to complete the exercise. The Ethiopian sank to his knees and leaned back, obsidian obelisk pointing to the sky. I grasped it firmly and worked it until short bursts of semen shot into the air. Then to add a little variation, I did a handstand against a trellis while my partner performed delicate fellatio.

It was athletic and fun. Not as spectacular as Rudolph Nureyev's amusing exhibition in New York, when he hung by one arm from a balcony and masturbated over his fellow partygoers – but it indicates I had the mind of a dancer, if not the ability.

Everyone seemed to be physically healthy and in full control of themselves, even when voyeurism mutated into what I can only describe as a genteel bacchanal. The evening was natural fun, bearing no resemblance whatever to Hazel's nauseating 'Katherine Mansfield' orgy.

The following day Ethiopia drove me to Baalbek where my stupefaction at the colossal temple ruins of ancient Roman Heliopolis so entranced him that he asked me to live with him in Paris. He was wealthy, owning many apartment buildings and a car radiator factory. With disarming honesty, he admitted I wasn't very handsome, but character was more important. Naturally, I'd have preferred to be handsome than characterful, and couldn't help wondering how long it would be before a truly handsome and younger fellow proved more appealing. Grateful for the offer, I declined and returned to Beirut.

Robert, Mike, and I shared a taxi to Damascus – an hour's drive during which I was regaled with lusty tales of their night clubbing with naked strippers shoving whole vegetable gardens up their fannies. One had wrapped her bra round Robert's neck and squashed her tits against his face. I didn't tell them about my adventure – they would have been deeply shocked.

At the border, the Syrians were difficult and demanded payment in exchange for a dodgy visa we knew we didn't require. Mike became irate and harangued them with details of how much aid the USA was pumping into to the area. It was a load of codswallop, but they didn't know, so let us through. It was nice to learn I wasn't the only politically ignorant person.

At the Damascus youth hostel, we encountered Pamela and Barbara, (Dutch) and Monique (Swiss), who were too terrified to leave the hostel because of the abusive attentions of Syrian men. I was surprised because I'd found them to be exceedingly friendly, helpful, and generous—like most of the men I met across North Africa and the Middle East. I still have a small wooden sculpture, carved while I watched, then given to me by an amusingly energetic roadside wood turner in Damascus.

Robert willingly accompanied Barbara, Mike thought he'd won the lottery with Pamela, and I was talked into protecting Swiss virtue. We hitched in pairs, then met up and shared a room in Amman where we admired the amphitheatre; then again in Petra, where we rode horses into that fairy-tale gorge and Pamela and I sang duets in a cave.

After two days crossing a moonscape we arrived in Aqaba, Jordan's Red Sea port, where we slept on the beach near the old town, at night looking across a few miles of water to the lights of Eilat in Israel. Four countries almost meet at that 'point' and if they hadn't been at war with each other and it wasn't too hot, a fit man could sprint around the coast from Egypt through Israel and Jordan to Saudi Arabia in a single day.

I snorkelled in the limpid Red Sea with lean and handsome Arabs who lent me their gear and cured spiny-sea-urchin wounds on my legs and back with a burning cigarette. Their gentleness and concern for my wellbeing were a further revelation to me regarding the possibilities of male behaviour. Courage, fiery pride, nobility of carriage, a love of poetry and gentleness are all combined in so many Arab males – and beauty too in the young. Nothing could be further from my experience in New Zealand and the U.K.

The Swiss Miss, offended at my lack of sexual interest, gave herself to the local police sergeant and went clubbing and dancing and, I imagine, fucking in the modern town near the port. I remained for a few days after the others left, snorkelling with my handsome but sexually uninterested young men, then got a lift with a Bedouin family who sold me a fake old silver dagger with a jewel-encrusted handle. The silver wore off with the first cleaning and the stones were glass, but it remains a very lethal weapon.

Like Kanu's clan, their simple life did not mean they were simple people. Their philosophy was encapsulated in the saying: Nature is god; thought is prayer, the sanity of which appears to be beyond the comprehension of westerners.

The Dead Sea was as buoyant as predicted, and revoltingly greasy and abrasive. I descended into a very deep hole near Jericho where an archaeologist assured me the pottery shards had been handled by the ancestors of the locals ten thousand years before. Black Bedouin tents spread their wings on barren hillsides as they had for millennia. Donkeys carried loads. Arab kids smiled and asked questions. Old Jerusalem was nearly as perfect as Fez – unchanged for a thousand years, encircled by ancient walls pierced by arched gateways. It still belonged to Palestine/Jordan and was treasured for itself and its history as the major city of the ancient homeland of the Semitic tribes of Palestine. I wanted to remain forever in the calm, timeworn guesthouse with walls a metre thick in the heart of the city.

It was 1964. Three years later, everything I'd seen and enjoyed was destroyed in six terrible days – if not physically, certainly spiritually and culturally.

After so many months immersed in Arab culture, my first hours in New Jerusalem were traumatic. If I could, I'd have retreated to Jordan/Palestine, but it was a one-way trip to Israel. Women with painted lips and faces wearing revealing clothes designed to sexually arouse were deeply shocking. Everywhere, huge advertising hoardings, vulgarity, commercial activity. Cars, noise, western music and obscene graffiti! All senses were assaulted, and I despised my own culture that the Israelis had brought with them when they migrated from Europe and the USA.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that Israelis were mostly not Semitic. My nose was still larger than everyone else's! Many years later I learned that ninety percent of Israeli Jews are descended from Ashkenazy Jews who originate in central Europe, converting to Judaism in the middle ages in the vain hope of avoiding war. As they have no ancestral links to Palestine, it is unsurprising they have no regard for the land and only contempt for the history and culture of the original inhabitants.

Hitching was easy, and Israeli social workers took me to Hebron – a Palestinian enclave where we visited elderly people and dispensed 'assistance'. Compared to the Israelis, here was dire poverty and I was repelled at the patronising way they talked to and about Arabs - as if they were retarded. They'd had nothing to do with them except invade and displace them! To give me a treat and prove their lack of racism, we lunched on Arab food: foule and falafel! My excuse that a diet of those things for a month in Egypt had hospitalised me, was dismissed as ingratitude.

After an idyllic night alone on a quiet beach at Lake Tiberius, I hitched north to a small town on the coast. I'd just set out my sleeping bag on the beach when Duff arrived. An unpleasant coincidence. He was also not pleased to see me. I asked how he'd been, but he interrupted.

"Are you queer?"


"That fellow in the camping ground in Spain?"

I grinned and nodded. His mouth opened in dismay. "And I slept in the same tent with you!"

I nodded.

"Why didn't you…?"

He didn't take it well when I told him he was physically unattractive as well as a selfish, morose prick. Heterosexuals always think they are infinitely attractive and every gay will want to screw them. He shouldered his rucksack and disappeared – and that was the last I ever saw of him.

A happier coincidence occurred the following day. Mike, Robert, Pamela, and Barbara were on the same ferry as I, heading for Cyprus. It was a joyful reunion until an Australian as dour and repressed as Duff asked if he could join us. I'm far too polite.

Cyprus was divided, and the Turks were treated abominably by the Greeks under Archbishop Makarios. I was sitting on the walls of the old city of Famagusta, in which Turks had been incarcerated for years, when a carload of Turks attempted to drive out through the arched entrance directly below. They were reduced to pulp by Greek machineguns. Blood poured from the car and ran into the gutters. It was my first experience of the horrors encouraged by theocratic government.

We wanted to see Kyrenia on the northern, Turkish-controlled coast. The British army in Nicosia invited us to an alfresco lunch and warned us not to go because the mountains each side of Kyrenia pass were lined with gun emplacements and that very morning a convoy of cars had been shot up. We thanked them politely, shouldered our rucksacks, and walked. The Greeks waved to us from their forts in the hills on the left, the Turks from theirs on the right. They weren't at war with us and Kyrenia was very beautiful.

After Rhodes, the Australian and I crossed to southern Turkey and the others returned home. In Turkey I was back among the simple kindness, hospitality and intelligence of a sectarian Muslim state. They weren't as handsome as the Arabs, but less excitable and easier to live with. My Australian companion didn't see it like that. To him the country was primitive, the food inedible, transport antediluvian, the villages decrepit, and Istanbul when we eventually arrived, was smelly, dirty, overcrowded, and backward. Even the jewel-like Eyup mosque failed to move him. He became increasingly impatient with my increasingly voluble enthusiasm for all things Turkish, and one day simply disappeared without a word, never to be seen again. Like Duff in Seville.

I've figured that I am initially attractive to straight men who don't make friends easily, because I look and act like a regular bloke and they confuse friendliness with friendship. Foolishly, they imagine I'm the mate they're searching for. However, when they realise I'm nice to everyone and don't share their views on most things, easy chatter that used to amuse gets on their nerves and they leave before they succumb to the urge to strangle me. I've finally learned not to be too easy and friendly with heterosexuals of either sex.

Teaching at an exclusive boarding school for a hundred boys in Istanbul just up the hill from Galatea Bridge seemed the perfect job. It was like being in an all-male Scottish camp school without the outdoors. I was 'father' to twenty fifteen-year-olds, taking them for physical education, swimming, and English, as well as sleeping in a room at one end of the dormitory block. None were Turkish – all were the sons of foreign businessmen, diplomats, and other wealthy people who either travelled a lot or simply couldn't be bothered to keep their children at home. English was the lingua franca.

The boys were polite but basically dull. I always thought it a shame that money couldn't buy enthusiasm and intellect. Istanbul was exciting at times and often beautiful, but although they insist they are European, the culture was an unhappy compromise between Muslim East and Christian/Secular West with an insufficient leavening of secularism.

After six months without finding a nice young man to share my affections, the contrast between the wealth of the parents and the daily struggles of the city's poor, of which I was one, became so distressing I handed in my notice and hitched west.

A Spanish Jew on his way home from holiday offered me a ride all the way to the South of France – all expenses paid as long as I shared his bed. Seemed reasonable – he wasn't too bad looking. Unfortunately, I had no Bulgarian visa and my passport was too full to permit their full-page stamp, so I had to walk back into Turkey and then hike several miles toward the Greek border.

Turkey and Greece were at war on the mainland as well as Cyprus and their joint border was closed. About a kilometre before the old frontier the road had been dug up and the army was dug in with gun emplacements, bunkers, barracks – the works. A courteous officer watched me approach, saluted, asked my business, then warned me to go no further or the Greeks would shoot me. Remembering Kyrenia, I thanked him and retraced my steps until I was out of sight and found a good spot to sleep. It was getting dark and too late to cross, anyway.

The following morning the guard had been changed, so before they realised what I was doing and tried to stop me, I told them Turkey was tjok guzel (very beautiful) and marched briskly along the bombed and torn up strip of old bitumen toward the Greek military post about a kilometre away, just becoming visible through rising mist.

As I approached, Greek soldiers called out, "Hurry! The Turks will fire on you!"

So impressed were they with my bravery, they gave me breakfast. War! So utterly stupid; if only the soldiers would learn they are simply pawns in the profit-making intrigues of banks and big business.

The train from Thessalonica to Cologne was worse than that from Cairo to Aswan. Greek guest workers occupied every square inch of the train including corridors, entrances, and even toilets, so getting rid of waste products was a complicated procedure. I sat on my rucksack jammed against the toilet door for two nights and a day, unable to sleep, no food, only a small water bottle. I daren't move or I'd lose even that hellish spot.

The train stopped at the Yugoslav border for hours, so I got out to look for food, found none, but they wouldn't let me back in! My rucksack was in the train guarding my place, the train was taking off, so I hung on the outside of the open window unable to let go as we gathered speed. Eventually someone reached out and pulled me inside.

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