As far as I’m concerned, there are three mystical places in the world. The desert outside Santa Fe, the tree of life in the Arab emirates of Bahrain, and the restaurant at Sunset and Crescent. –Harris K. Telemacher (Steve Martin): L.A. Story.
Just off the eastern side of the Arabian Peninsula sits the tiny island nation of Bahrain. Unique among the other countries of the region, Bahrain is noted for its social and religious tolerance, a relatively safe political environment, and its thriving middle class. It has its own Formula One racetrack, publishes more books than any other country in the Persian Gulf, and, for a time, served as the home-in-exile of Michael Jackson. This desert kingdom is also home to what local tradition says is the biblical tree of life.
The fabled tree is located in the desert wilderness about twenty miles south of the capital city of Manama. Seeing it in the distance as we approached by car, surrounded by mile after mile of inhospitable nothingness, the first thing I wondered was how it managed to survive. Upon arriving at the tree our tour guide, Hassan, a slightly rotund, middle-aged, lifelong native of Bahrain, then told us his version of the biblical story, which, answered my question.
In the Garden of Eden there were two famous trees. The first and most renowned was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the fruit of which was forbidden to Adam and Eve by God. Forgotten by most people, however, was a second tree, the tree of life, which the Lord had placed in the garden so that his beloved human creatures would never have to suffer the agony of death. In time, Eve and her husband disobeyed God and ate from the first tree. For this they were banished from the Garden of Eden. To prevent them from returning and eating from the tree of life as well, the Lord blocked their way with an angel and a flaming sword.
Looking around at the scorching desolation that surrounded us, I could almost imagine this fiery desert as a metaphor for the divine flaming sword. Hassan then told us of how plant experts are completely baffled by the tree’s ability to live without any obvious water source. He smiled slightly as he mentioned this last detail, probably because he knew something that those men of science did not: he knew with all of his heart—as most people do who’ve ever stood in its sacred presence—that this is, indeed, the very tree of life spoken of in the biblical Scriptures.
When Hassan finished his story, I took a small walk out into the desert to get some photos of the tree. When I returned, I walked around its base, rubbing my hands on the papery bark and just simply taking in the transcendent spirit of the place. I noticed down near the base of the front of the tree that previous visitors had left several small bouquets of orange and white flowers. I also saw that around the back side of the tree there was a level line of what looked like recently bored-out insect holes, maybe about a hundred of them. Hassan, seeing my curiosity, walked to where I stood and, with an air of resignation and acceptance so common in the Middle Eastern Moslem tradition, told me what happened.
“Mr. Richard,” he said, “those are bullet holes. Last year, a couple of soldiers emptied several clips from their AK-47 machine guns into the tree in order to try to kill it.” He then also pointed to several of the lower limbs that looked as if they had been set on fire. He said that another group of men had tried to burn the tree down.
For a couple of seconds, all I could do was stand there completely dumbfounded! Incredulous and stunned to the very marrow of my bones, I looked over at Hassan and nearly broke into tears. When at last I got myself back under control, the only question I could muster was, “Hassan, why would these men want to do something so senseless?
“Mr. Richard,” he said, “please come with me.” I then followed him back around to the front of the tree. When we got there, he pointed to the flowers lying near the base of the tree. “We have guest workers from India who visit this old tree on their days off from work. As a gesture of respect, they leave small offerings behind. It’s their Hindu tradition.” Hassan then paused for a second as if he was trying to put off as long as possible what he needed to say; I could tell that it genuinely pained him to speak of it.
“Our religion strictly forbids the worship of idols. Both the men with their fire bomb and the soldiers with their bullets, overwhelmed by their fundamentalist zeal, interpreted these offerings of respect as a form of idolatry. They believed with every ounce of their being that by killing this innocent tree, they were doing God’s work.”
I remember for few minutes being just blown away by the lunacy of it all. Neither of us said a word. We just stood there, two men, Moslem and Christian, both believing ultimately in the same God, both of us saddened beyond words by the wanton act of willful destruction perpetrated upon this old patriarch. The temptation was there to question the men’s humanity, but I then thought to myself: Who are we to pass judgement?
What we both witnessed was just one more tragic example of how otherwise reasonable and rational people can be driven to madness in the name of politics or religion. It doesn’t matter who they are or when or where they lived, whether they’re barbarians plundering ancient Rome, Catholic crusaders sacking the Byzantine Christians of Constantinople, the Church of England ransacking Catholic monasteries in Scotland, the Chinese Communists’ attempt to obliterate Tibetan Buddhism, the Tamil Tigers blowing up Hindu temples. Since the dawn of humankind, their story is always the same: it’s all just a senseless waste.
But Hassan, seeing my obvious bewilderment, put his hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eye and smiled one of those beautiful, all-knowing smiles that people who are at peace with the world seem so capable of. He then said to me, “Mr. Richard, as young boy I remember my grandfather bringing us to this tree for picnics with our family. He often told us of how his grandfather brought him and his parents to picnic under this holy tree when they were small children!” Hassan said that he still brings his wife and children to this spot for family picnics.
“Don’t worry about this old tree. God is protecting it. I have every faith that my great-great-grandchildren will someday share in the cool and refreshing shade of this grand creation, just as we are right now.
In my heart of hearts, I sure hope he is right.