Christian Fiction

Spiritual Passage in Arabia

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A deep look into theology and life in a different culture that brings a man to the pit and out again.

Synopsis

Why does God take His time with us? Are we worth it? Life in the Arabian Peninsula during the first half of the twentieth century is a place of trials for its inhabitants. Muslims have it tough enough. But for Christians - well that's another matter. Our hero, Pliny Oslander, an Englishman and missionary, lives hard, thrives, fears his enemies, loves his Arab friends, adopts the ways of the Bedouins, and struggles with himself in matters of faith. He and his Bedouin wife are forced to flee Kuwait, but they return again to resume their struggle. Our story takes Pliny through the key forty years of his life in the Middle East. How will God lead Pliny through his long battle? What are the costs? Can God make everything right again? For Pliny, Spiritual Passage in Arabia is an expedition only God can organize.

Jim Carroll takes us on a memorable ride that mixes cultures and religions, and peppers in some questions of faith in his fiction novel, “Spiritual Passage in Arabia.”


There’s adventure, a little bit of romance, and a lot of conflict. It’s one of those books where you read while sitting up straight – on the edge of your seat, literally. The pages begin with the introduction of Pliny Oslander – the English missionary who is living in the Arabian Pennisula with his wife – who is Bedouin. Pliny finds himself wondering why God hasn’t helped the people there and made it where the Christians aren’t persecuted. The Muslim culture is dominant. Though life for everyone there is hard, Pliny discovers it’s even harder for him. And he is a missionary. The Oslanders have to leave because of cultural differences. Even though Pliny had adopted the ways of the people and their traditions, he still found himself struggling.


In the book, the author explores Pliny’s exploration – literal and spiritual – while in Arabia. Jim Carroll makes the story one that each and every one of us can understand. Irony wasn’t lost on me, as I realized that the timeline of the story centered on 40 years of Pliny’s life. The first few pages are in Pliny’s words – telling the story of his family, his eccentric father, and equally-quirky mother – both considered misfits, and both in the career of working for the Lord. Readers can get a good grasp on Pliny, his character, his mindset and how his background plays on his future as an adult and with his wife in the foreign country. You realize right away that Pliny's family’s future will be questionable, especially when even the directors of the church restrict what they can do. The response of those in the country made it even clearer.


“... and Aziz conveyed this directly. ‘ You and your family cannot spread the word of Jesus.’ My father had already accepted this as a condition for Mubarak’s acceptance of our family. No problem there … If our only purpose was as ‘placeholder’ for the physicians, how, why would we even persist?” (Pliny speaks)


I recommend this for adults and possibly, for a theological book club.

Reviewed by

Becky has had a 'serious love affair' with books since she was old enough to know what the word 'love' meant.

A former award-winning newspaper editor with a bachelor's degree in English/journalism and a master's in psychology, her goal is to help you get your book out there.

Synopsis

Why does God take His time with us? Are we worth it? Life in the Arabian Peninsula during the first half of the twentieth century is a place of trials for its inhabitants. Muslims have it tough enough. But for Christians - well that's another matter. Our hero, Pliny Oslander, an Englishman and missionary, lives hard, thrives, fears his enemies, loves his Arab friends, adopts the ways of the Bedouins, and struggles with himself in matters of faith. He and his Bedouin wife are forced to flee Kuwait, but they return again to resume their struggle. Our story takes Pliny through the key forty years of his life in the Middle East. How will God lead Pliny through his long battle? What are the costs? Can God make everything right again? For Pliny, Spiritual Passage in Arabia is an expedition only God can organize.

Pliny Speaks



My father named me Pliny. Why did he choose an obscure Roman

naturalist as the namesake for his son? Did such a name arise from my

father’s love of history? Some considered him an odd bird. My father,

Arthur Oslander, and my mother, Eloise, were misfits, by ability and

social status, in their position as pastor and wife for our conservative,

affluent Anglican church. Indeed, I overheard these comments from

several in my father’s congregation. Did father intend to foist off his

eccentricity on me, too, by his choice of the obscure name?

My unorthodox name was just another reason for my schoolmates to

ridicule me. “Pliny, Pliny, miny moe.” There were other reasons, too,

not the least of which was the fact that I bested them in academics.

My father’s position in his well-off church had allowed me a post in

the Lambeth School for Boys, a school our social station would not

normally have warranted. But the end of that period in my life came

when Father was drafted by the Reformed Church in America for their

Arabian mission.

He was deemed eligible for work with the Reformed church because

he had tried to lead his congregation in the direction of Evangelicalism,

the British term of the day for the reformed faith, a product of the

Reformation. This was not popular with the staid congregation. Having

failed in this endeavor, the American Reformed Church saw him as a

potential missionary, and for the Anglicans, it was a way to get rid of

a failing pastor.

When I announced to classmates my departure for the Middle East

with my family, my fellow students stood stiffly, quietly, no smiles,

as they attempted to administer a satisfactory goodbye. Thus, I was

not sad to depart the grim and particulate fog produced by the burning

of soft coal that fueled London, and along with haze, the dung in the

streets generated by the thousands of horses that pulled the city.

And for the three Oslanders, a spiritual journey lay before us.

I had just reached my fifteenth birthday when we departed on

December 1, 1896. I carried with me the mental picture of my fellow

students’ stolid expressions as I endured six weeks of travel by sea to

our new home, bored by the endless blue-gray waves and revolted by

seasickness as we coursed over a waterscape that had no end. For all I

observed, the earth was probably flat.

The thick, gray clouds pouring from the ship’s two smokestacks

reminded me of the foul London air, but at least we left the smolder

and pollution behind us, as the two square-sail masts allowed our ship

to outrun the smoke from the boilers. In the Gulf, first, there were

stops to leave off cargo in Doha and then Bahrain, where the Reformed

medical mission was already established. We transferred to a thirtymeter

wooden vessel, the Jamila, with two triangular sails. My

mother’s last happy words were, “My gracious what a beautiful boat.”

On January 14, 1897, the Jamila pulled into the well-sheltered, halfmoon

shaped harbor, the water as smooth as a giant lake abutting the

gently sloping sand in front of Kuwait City. We saw dozens of vessels

of varying sizes, the smaller pulled up on the beach and the larger

moored in shallow water. The vessels were unfamiliar to me in their

design, with their graceful triangular sails, rough-hewn masts, and

broad hulls, which sloped downward from bow to stern, with every

view of them showing all flowing ropes and sails.

Indeed, there was nothing that looked familiar. I put my head down on

my forearms resting on the prow of our ship, trying, failing, to conceal

the tears from my parents, who strived (I thought half-heartedly) to

comfort their displaced son. My father said, “Don’t worry, Pliny, it’ll

be fine.” He was not at all convincing. Their distress was evident

to me in the tight corners of their faces, in their lack of any smiling

encouragement.

Yes, we were really going to live in this alien, dusty cranny tucked

in a corner of a blue- green sea. Small, gray-silver fish, some

beaching themselves, scattered before the Jamila’s bow. The dock and

gangplank on the shore, which our vessel could not access because

of the shallow beach, were covered by yellow dust, and there was

nothing I could see that was not swathed in its coating, the product of

a recent toz (Kuwaiti term for a sand storm). All my life, my parents

had expressed the dictum that cleanliness was a component of one’s

spiritual development, and I repeated this to myself as I surveyed the

filth in front of me, still mindful of my parents’ authority. That precept

vanished in the stiff breeze that arose from the land carrying the finegrained

sand that lodged between my teeth and stung my eyes.

Such a venture to the Near East was not my choice, although leaving

school chums and football pitches in London was not a complete

regret. I lifted my head from the prow to view our new home. And

seeing Kuwait, I sorely missed the green hills of our homeland. When

I looked inland from the gentle sea lapping against the sandy shore,

yellow and white stretched before me, the only visible colors. My

mother, father, and I, along with our belongings, were carried by the

porters across the shallow water to the beach, an undignified landing.

At intervals along the beach, human feces were scattered awaiting

washout by the next tide. Would I ever get used to that sight?

Our family had not come by choice. Andrew Zwemer, already

designated by the religious of the day as the hero-evangelist to the

Arabs, had asked, no, really commanded, my father to leave his

Anglican congregation in south London and proceed to this pitiful

Christian outpost at the head of the Persian Gulf. My father had

obeyed, and here we were.

And for what purpose? Were the three of us to be missionary cannon fodder?

We didn’t speak Arabic. The fifteen King James Bibles we

brought with us, carefully boxed and each protected by foil from the

elements, were in English, heavy books with leather covers (their

bindings already crumbling in the strange climate) with thin pages

and small print. How futile to give these books to those who read only

Arabic. Was this even a cruel, insulting gesture? And, since we were

warned not to proselytize, to whom would they be awarded? To my

question, “What do we do with these books?” my father and mother

had no response.

Physicians from the Reformed Mission, already active in Bahrain, had

been promised, too, for Kuwait by the Reformed Church. There were

no more doctors available to be sent, so my parents were the promise

of their delivery. I could glean no other role for our presence.

The harbor hands, bare-chested, skin shining with sweat, heads wrapped

in once-clean red and white checkered cloth, unloaded our family’s

belongings and provisions, some of the crates already fractured, with

my mother’s underclothes spilling out. My father objected, “Help me

pick up her clothes.” But my mother was too struck by the outrage of

our undertaking to be embarrassed by her underwear, and the Arabs

showed no interest in the dress of a white woman, as if she were

another species.

The dock men loaded the boxes onto five donkeys, two gray and

three brown, but all yellow from the dust matted in their wiry fur, and

set out for one of the white, rectangular structures several hundred

meters away from the sea. One of the men, his chest exposed, with

no fat on his bones and stringy muscles, led the others in a rhythmic

chant. His rich bass voice sounded out a four-beat cadence, which

his men followed as they tugged on their donkeys’ halters. I couldn’t

understand the words, but their guttural consonants captured my ear.

My mother directed an unsmiling glance at father – no, steely would

be a better word, no blinking in her gaze, no words of encouragement.

“I’ll never clean up all the dust.” Little had been said between the two

on the voyage up the coast from Doha, and I observed they had not

touched each other in affection for weeks now. I had heard Mother

talking to her friends in the congregation before their departure. She

told them she was opposed to the journey. Hearing Mother say this, I

had long dispensed with any sort of optimism for the venture.

We trekked up the sandy beach, following our belongings toward

a mass of white structures that lined narrow streets of yellow dust.

The city, I learned, housed twenty thousand Arabs. The buildings

were rough, with few structures of equal height and little evidence of

measured construction. The edifices lacked much solid stone, which

was rare in the desert, rather, they were composed of mud or baked

bricks and wood pillars. Some structures were covered with stuccolike

material. The larger homes, one to which we were assigned, had

central courtyards for privacy. These homes possessed walled roofs

to allow for additional private open space. Our assigned home was

generous compared to most: a large kitchen with iron stove with an

adjacent eating area, no table, an anteroom for sitting with guests, a

separate room for the women, and four bedrooms on the second floor,

the stairway leading to the second floor and the rooftop navigated by a

challenging stone staircase of uneven stairs.

Our arrival at the house secured for us by Sheikh Mubarak, the Kuwaiti

ruler, did little to lessen the ongoing parental conflict. As much as the

dust caked the outside of the structure, it was nothing compared to

the coverage on the inside. Mother sat in the one available, roughly

appointed wooden chair, her head down, sobbing. Father wandered

about the house, stopping first at the large, empty water jug in the

kitchen and then at the strange toilet in the courtyard, where one’s

waste could be washed with water down a hole in the sand. His face

was gray, stone-like. We spent our first night on the floor on piles

of large pillows, with no food or water, staring at the boxes of our

remaining belongings, those that had not been destroyed during the

ship transfers and the rugged voyage. Conversation? No, there was

none among us.

In the morning, an Arab woman dressed in a head covering, the nakab

(draped down to the neck, covering all but the eyes), and a long robe

called an abaya (the black-cloth total-body covering), appeared with

tea, bread, melted butter, and what she referred to as laban (a type of

fermented milk). “Ana Janiah.” (I am Janiah).

The three of us, as new Kuwait residents, roused and gobbled the

bread. The bread was like nothing I had ever known – thin, crisp

on the outside, small bubbles formed in the crust, soft in the center,

warm, and ready for the melted butter that accompanied it. We weren’t

prepared for the thick, tart laban.

What about water for drinking and washing? Janiah gave a few coins to

a street seller who passed by with water jugs carried by three donkeys,

and our supply for two days was secured.

There could, would, be life for us in Kuwait.

I exhausted the first day resenting what my parents had done to me.

My parents didn’t speak to each other, and I didn’t speak to them. They

had severed me from my familiar, if unpleasant, school surroundings.

Now what? But the days settled into routine, each pretty much the

same: bread and tea for breakfast, then fish or chicken, each always

with heavily buttered rice, along with the grease from the animal

prepared for us, brought by the silent, black-robed Janiah. Later, we

learned most Kuwaitis could not afford regular meat servings. We had

no forks, so we ate with our hands. Were we such pitiful creatures that

we must be fed like stock animals in a pen?

First, who had sent Janiah to serve us? She had stayed throughout

the first morning assisting my mother with the unpacking. My father

sat in the one chair, uncertain what to do. Then the Arab woman,

clearly the person in charge of us, directed the men as they brought

in tables, chairs, and cushions that the sheikh had selected for us. We

later learned the cushions were to teach us the Arab style of sitting

on the floor. She came twice daily with food and provisions, which

we had no means or ability to procure for ourselves. For cooking and

heat, she carried in piles of brushwood, which we had seen transported

on donkeys led by young boys as they returned from the desert. This

sequence continued for a month until, finally, our family learned to

venture out to the town on our own.

There were shops intermixed among the homes selling vegetables;

fruit, some we had never seen; fish fresh from the sea; sheep, each

hanging down from a hook, skinned and gutted; live chickens; and

metal components for cooking. “I could never kill a chicken,” said my

father.

My mother responded, “I’ll kill the chicken. We must eat.” A purposeful

exchange, at least.

The first mystery we had to solve was who sold what. If there were

signs, and there were few, we couldn’t read them. Our collective

bewilderment over the new home lessened, and the extraordinary

sights we encountered on a daily basis became less strange.

Thank God we were British. Otherwise, Sheikh Mubarak would not

have even allowed our landing in port. There would have been no

help at the dock, no porters for our frail belongings, and no shelter set

for us. And it was Mubarak who sent the Arab woman, Janiah, who

supplied all our food and water for a month and the men who delivered

our beds and other furniture.

Soon our family became aware of our on-site benefactor and his

associates. There was Mubarak himself, soon to be designated Mubarak

the Great, the now recognized leader of Kuwait, an intimidating figure

for sure, with all his impressive height and demanding presence

(perhaps threatening would be a better word), his clarity, obvious even

in the unfamiliar Arabic, and certainty in giving orders. And of course,

we heard the rumors (they were not merely rumors) that Mubarak had

murdered his two half-brothers, Mohammed and Jarrah, just a year

earlier, in order to ascend as the sole leader of Kuwait.

Since we had no skills in Arabic, Mubarak saw the necessity of

assigning Fouad, an English speaker, for our family’s guidance.

He first set us straight on desert politics. “Mubarak saw the need to

remove his brothers from the scene. Such efforts at self- preservation

are standard for the Gulf. This was necessary for the good of all. We

need a strong leader.”

Our first question to Fouad was, “Where does the fresh water come

from?” At least we knew the importance of clean water.

“The water is brought via camels and donkeys from the estuary of the

Tigris and Euphrates to the north.” Another indication of the fragility

of our survival.

And why were we allowed refuge in his kingdom? Fouad was clear

here, too. “You are here as the Reformed Missions’ guarantee of the

arrival of the doctors.”

We had no other role.

Often, beside Mubarak, I saw his adopted protégé, Abdul Aziz ibn

Saud (meaning Abdul Aziz son of Saud), who took care to observe

Mubarak’s methods. The young man’s family had been given refuge

in Kuwait as they fled from their enemies, the Al-Rashids, the current

family in power in the Arabian Peninsula.

At seventeen, Aziz was two years older than I, broader at the shoulders

and six inches taller. Our acquaintance, while incongruous in many

ways, was orchestrated by Mubarak, who urged the lad Aziz, as I called

him, to befriend me. Aziz was obedient to Mubarak and that was the

end of it for the moment. I think Aziz deemed me unworthy of his

attention. But Mubarak continued to encourage Aziz in establishing

the relationship.

Looking back, I think he wanted Aziz to experience more exposure to

the West. Aziz had some English, and I had no Arabic, so English was

our initial mode of communication.

An absolute requirement, set by Mubarak for Aziz, was his attendance

at the majlis (the Middle Eastern equivalent of the court of the king).

This gathering was often held in the Seif Palace near the sea. The

palace, built perpendicular to the water’s edge, was a large white

structure with more rooms than I could imagine, up to three stories in

places, with arched windows and wooden balconies extending out over

the courtyard. The inner court of the palace was a large rectangular

room, an ornately patterned carpet in the center, thick green curtains

adorning the wall, pillows around the periphery, and an awkwardlooking,

dark wood chair with a thick cushion at the back of the room.

I learned the events of the majlis as Aziz took me with him, reluctantly at

first. “Pliny, watch Mubarak, even his hands and eyes.” He interpreted

events to me in the court, the seating area where official business

was conducted–sometimes it was in the courtyard outside the palace,

sometimes in the expansive Seif Palace itself–and I conveyed the

necessary information to my parents, truly an awkward arrangement.

But one that worked. As the two of us, just young boys, joined in the

spectacle of Mubarak’s majlis, I observed, by gesture, even without

understanding Arabic, that the sheikh told Aziz to translate for me, so

that I might get the sense of the goings-on. One message was clear,

and Aziz conveyed this directly. “You and your family cannot spread

the word of Jesus.” My father had already accepted this as a condition

for Mubarak’s acceptance of our family. No problem there.

If our only purpose was as “placeholder” for the physicians, how, why,

would we even persist?

About the author

I retired last year from academic medicine. I worked for some time in the Middle East. My writing focuses on cultural life there. In 1990 I was trapped by the Iraqi army in Kuwait. My wife and I later wrote a memoir: Faith in Crisis. My novels also include a trilogy dealing with changes in Kuwait. view profile

Published on July 16, 2020

50000 words

Genre: Christian Fiction

Reviewed by

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