My Dinner with Lawrence and David

by Craig Bolotin
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picture 090.jpg We were going to take a cab to Damascus for dinner, but we couldn’t get our visas, so we headed south.   I was in Jordan, the Middle Eastern Sundance Lab had ended.  The aspiring filmmakers and their mentors were dispersing back home to Cairo, Beruit, Ramallah and Casablanca.

With time on our hands – the writer’s strike had been called 24 hours before – a fellow mentor and I headed south with our guide, Mohammad Gabaah,  to the desert of the Wadi Rum (The Valley of the Mountains, in southern Jordan.)  You’ve all seen it –  yes, you have – even though you don’t realize  it.   It’s the last leg of the journey T.E. Lawrence took, when he crossed on camel to get to Aqaba, 45 miles west.  (The guns are no longer facing the wrong direction.)   And where David Lean spent nine months shooting his hagiographic biopic.

xsevenpillars.jpg We drove down the  long thin piece of licorice which slices through the Jordanian desert called Kings Highway, past the blue road signs saying Iraq this way,  Saudi Arabia that way,  past the cluster of  mountains Lawrence named the Seven Pillars, which later became the title of his book.  When we’d hit 90 miles per hour, the jeep would beep, indicating Gabaah should slow down.  Not in the cards.  Instead,  every time we crossed the magical threshold, Gabaah shouted, “Shut-up baby.” “Take it Easy Baby,” (in that order) and smashed the dashboard with his hand. He’d drop down to 85 mph, for a few minutes, allowing us just enough time do nod off,  before the pummeling and shouting would commence again, with such ferocity,  I thought  the Turkish Army must've returned to restore the Ottoman Empire.  

picture 098.jpgFinally arriving in the village of Wadi Rum, we jerked to a halt in front of the ‘best’ (according to Gabaah) and, not surprisingly, only butcher shop in this tiny Bedouin outpost.  If Michelangelo Antonioni were here, he’d have shot our preparation for the main course all in one.  We sat in the car and watched through the car window – would it be 1.66 or 1.85? – our guide, maître d’ and chef hopped out,  promptly selected a chicken from one of the many criss-crossing the yard, and handed it off to the butcher.  In one clean blow, the chicken’s head was sliced off, the butcher went to work  plucking the feathers, rinsed the bird off with a garden hose before handing it back in a small plastic bag to our guide who tossed the bag in the back of our 4x4. Total elapsed time?  Less than five minutes.

picture 089.jpg The sun was sinking.  We tore down the residential street until the road disappeared – not ended – and we were fishtailing our way through the pinkish-red sand of the Wadi Rum.

The Baedeker's Tour of requisite stops followed: where T.E. Lawrence was a alleged to have camped; the sandstone monuments carved by the wind, one named The Mushroom – yes it does look like one – and the tried and true Natural bridge – as opposed to the unnatural ones, which we’re familiar with.

Gabaah got  great pleasure driving up the 30 degree pitched sand dunes – “Do you remember where the young boy in Lawrence of Arabia runs down the hill, stumbles and rolls down head over heels!? This is the same dune!” 

picture 100.jpgThen after cresting the dune at 30 mph – I could swear we were airborne – Gabaah squealed with delight as we crashed down on the other side.  The only thing safe was the chicken, because it was already dead.

I won’t bore you with the details of the tourist camp we passed – full of French tourists singing "Le Marseillaise" at the top of their lungs from inside a Bedouin tent  (I’m not making this up.) Soon we were driving through the thick sand through a valley flanked by tall sandstone mountains, pock marked by wind.  It’s as if someone took a NASA photo of the moon and hand tinted it sandstone pink. 

It wasn’t until we parked for the night that I noticed the silence.   No wind, no planes, no cars, no camels, no human voices, no crickets, no mosquitoes.  No-thing.  I imagine sitting under a bell jar with all the air sucked out would be the sonic equivalent.  It was so silent you had to imagine hearing something, or else you might go mad. Finally, I did hear something; it sounded exactly like when I pressed a conch shell against my ear in Chicago when I was a kid, and I was convinced I was hearing the ocean, 1,500 miles away.

picture 096.jpg Dinner.  Fire made from the brush we collected.  The pan placed directly on the coals, the chicken thrown in the same pan after the onions and chopped potatoes had been sautéed.  Desert was a bona fide Cuban cigar and Turkish coffee. The chicken was moist and sweet, (Gabaah just guessed how long to cook it under tin foil) but the silence and the stars were the best thing on the menu.

I could understand, eating dinner on our laps with the fire burning down and Turkish coffee water boiling, why Lawrence went native and why David Lean refused to get on the plane Sam Spiegel sent for him, “to get (him) out of the goddamn desert.”

nightsky.jpg I wondered what Lawrence would've had for desert.  I asked Gabaah.  He huffed. “That was a  movie, man. Fiction. Liberate the Arabs, are you kidding me?  Lawrence brought the British, that was the plan all along!” 

How about David Lean, I queried. What do you think he ended the evening with?  He said, “Whatever was at craft services.”   My tire punctured, and realizing you can never be too far from home, I unfurled my sleeping bag.
We slept en pleine air (no tent needed) and gazed at the sky, so thick with brilliant stars it would make the most hardened planetarium docent jealous.  


Pan-Roasted Chicken (Sawani Djaj)
Originally cooked over an open flame, but adapted for the more modern cook.

Two chickens
Slivers of garlic
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 lb (1 kg) potato
1 lb (½ kg) onion
1 ½ cups water
1 teaspoon each of ground allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, pepper and nutmeg.

Heat the oven to 400°F.

Wash the chicken and rub with salt, oil and spices.   Brown the chicken in the oil (about 15 minutes).

Chop the onion into thin rings, and chop the potatoes into thin crosswise slices.  Combine in skillet and sauté them in the oil until the onions are clear.

Place the chicken in a greased pan, and add the onion and potato. Cover pan with aluminum foil

Place in preheated  oven and cook for 45 minutes.

Serve in roasting pan or on serving platter.  

Turkish Coffee

Boil water in a coffee pot. When the water boils, put in 1 1/3 teaspoons of the ground coffee for each cup of water and a similar amount of sugar.  Boil the coffee well , but be careful not to let it boil over.

When it is about to foam over, lift it from heat.  Repeat this several times. When pouring the coffee, put a little first in the bottom of each cup then go back and fill the cups and serve.


Craig Bolotin is a writer and director who lives in Los Angeles.


#1 Brenda Athanus 2008-03-12 15:56
I can hear the silence, see the stars and smell the food, thank you!

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