Leopold of Arabia

Born in 1900 to a Jewish family in Lvov, Leopold Weiss died nine years ago as Muhammad Assad, a pious Muslim who helped create the country of Pakistan. While meeting the founding fathers of Zionism in Palestine in the 1920s, he dared to voice criticism of the movement's dismissal of the Arab presence in the land - a phenomenon that still haunts the region today. The riveting story of a Jew who changed his name, his faith, his wives, his nationality - and the face of the Islamic world

Amir Ben-David
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Amir Ben-David

NEW YORK - Talal Assad, professor of anthropology, leans back and immerses himself in childhood memories. His words are spoken in a pleasant British accent and a detached academic tone, but at times, they seem to be the product of a successful collaboration between an Arab creator of proverbs and a Hollywood screenwriter who specializes in period sagas.

The circumstances in which the story is told add a contemporary layer to the twisting plot, which extends across an entire century. The conversation takes place in Assad's office in the Department of Anthropology of the City University of New York (CUNY), six floors above Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, a little more than a month after Muslim terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center.

The surging patriotism that was unleashed by the September 11 attacks continues to gain momentum. Television programs and the major magazines are still preoccupied with the subject of Islam and Muslims, and with the overriding question: Why do they hate America? The phrase most bandied about in discussions is "clash of civilizations."

Talal Assad - a Muslim intellectual who holds American citizenship and was born in Saudi Arabia, raised in India, came of age in Pakistan, studied in England and lives in New York - hates no one and objects vehemently to the "clash of civilizations" theory. If the family story he relates has a universal message of any kind, it's that civilizations don't necessarily have to clash. The fact is they coexisted harmoniously in the biography of at least one person: his father.

Behind the barbed wire fence

Talal Assad remembers himself as a boy of eight or nine in India, accompanying his father almost every evening on relaxed walks - a memory which he treasures fondly. The two couldn't go very far on those walks, because they were incarcerated in a detention camp. Muhammad Assad, Talal's father, was arrested by the British in 1939, a day after the war started. As an Austrian national and the author of many articles in the German press over the years in which he bitterly attacked British imperialism, Assad had been under close scrutiny by the British for some time. The tension in Europe was reason enough to arrest him for the duration of the war.

A year later he was joined by his wife, Monira, and their son, Talal, and the three were transferred to a detention camp for families near Bombay. Most of their neighbors in the facility were well-established Jews from Western Europe who held German or Austrian nationality, who had managed to escape the SS by fleeing to the East, only to fall into the clutches of the British. So, in just one of the historical absurdities to be found scattered liberally throughout this story, these Jews found themselves imprisoned in India because of their country of origin, at a time when soldiers from their country of origin were murdering their families because of their religion.

The situation of the Assad family was even more complicated. They were the only Muslims in the detention camp. Talal's mother, Monira, the daughter of a sheikh from Saudi Arabia, had ended up in India purely by chance, because of her love for her husband. Muhammad Assad was very close to the Muslim leaders of the subcontinent, who had already begun to lay the foundations for the establishment of the Muslim state of Pakistan. However, in that turbulent period, he was troubled by a very different matter: the fate of his Jewish father and sister, who remained in Europe. His desperate efforts to obtain a visa for them and extricate them from the conflagration were unsuccessful, and they were murdered by the Nazis.

Talal Assad has a vivid memory of the day on which the bitter news reached the detention camp. "My father was an intellectual type, not particularly emotional," he recalls. "The only time in my life that I remember seeing him actually cry was when he was informed at the end of the war that his father and his sister had perished in the death camps. That was the only time he asked me not to join him on his evening stroll, the only time he wanted to be alone."

Muhammad Assad never hid his Jewish past, not from his son and not from his surroundings. To his Muslim friends, it wasn't a problem, as he had obviously chosen the right path. Jews, however, found his choice difficult to swallow.

"Once, when we were still in the detention camp," Talal relates, "Father escorted me to the school, and on the way we stopped at a shop that was run by Jews who were always very nice to us. Father stopped to speak with them, and during the conversation they discovered, to their great amazement, that he had been a Jew who decided to convert to Islam. Naturally, they couldn't understand that and they asked him why he did it. Father reflected for a bit and replied, `Don't you think that it's preferable. After all, before I didn't believe in anything. Now I at least believe in God.' Of course, they could not accept that."

Muhammad Assad spiced his many evening walks with his son by telling him stories about his childhood in Lvov, Galicia, his adolescence in Vienna and Berlin, his first visit to Jerusalem - which utterly transformed his life - and the many subsequent trips that led him, through Syria and Jordan, to the royal court in Saudi Arabia and the decision to convert and take an Arab name.

At the end of the war, after the family had been released and Muhammad Assad had taken part in the establishment of Pakistan and represented the new state in the United Nations, he wrote a memoir of his coming of age, published as "The Road to Mecca" - a book written with gusto in which he describes his road from Judaism to Islam. There are not many people who can write 380 engrossing pages about their life until the age of 32.

In the introduction to the book he wrote: "The story I am going to tell in this book is not the autobiography of a man conspicuous for his role in public affairs; it is not a narrative of adventure - for although many strange adventures have come my way, they were never more than an accompaniment to what was happening within me; it is not even the story of a deliberate search for faith - for that faith came upon me, over the years, without any endeavor on my part to find it. My story is simply the story of a European's discovery of Islam and of his integration with the Muslim community."

Alienated in Vienna

"Simple" is the last adjective that should be applied to the story of Muhammad Assad, even though he himself, with characteristic modesty, chooses to use it. Until his death almost 10 years ago at the ripe old age of 92 in Mijas, in the Costa del Sol region of southern Spain, his spirit was free of any prohibition or convention.

The fact he was born in Europe did not prevent him from becoming an Arab; the fact he was the scion of a family of rabbis did not prevent him from ending his life as a pious Muslim; the fact that at an early age he gained recognition and status as a journalist on the Frankfurter Zeitung, one of the most important papers in early 20th-century Europe, did not prevent him from dropping everything and settling in Saudi Arabia; the fact he was close to the royal court there did not prevent him from continuing to wander eastward, in pursuit of the dream to establish a Muslim utopia in Pakistan; the fact he was arrested by the British did not deter him from sending his son, Talal, to study at Oxford; and the fact that he took part in the establishment of Pakistan and reached a very senior position there did not stop him from abandoning everything and spending the second half of his life in the West.

And the fact that his major life project was an annotated translation of the Koran into English did not turn him into a blind follower of the Muslim religion; the fact that many of his naive dreams shattered in front of his eyes did not cause him to lose faith in people; and the fact that, in his last years, he was saddened by the developments in the countries and cultures he loved, did not make him lose the magnificent optimism that guided him throughout his life.

Nothing in his pleasant childhood presaged the adventurousness and restlessness that was to characterize him later. He was born in 1900 as Leopold Weiss, son to Karl Weiss, a Jewish lawyer, grandson to the rabbi of Czernowitz and scion of a generations-old rabbinic dynasty. The family lived in Lvov, which was then under Austrian rule. Leopold sometimes went with his family to the summer house of his maternal grandfather, an affluent banker, where he played on the banks of a river. He also traveled with his parents to Vienna and Berlin, to the Alps and the forests of Bohemia, to the shores of the North Sea or the Baltic Sea.

Years later, trying to decipher the mystery of his life and explain to himself his wanderlust, he remembered those family vacations and wrote: "Every time one set out on such a journey, the first whistle of the train engine and the first jolt of the wheels made one's heart stop beating in anticipation of the wonders that were now to unfold themselves."

Another key may lie in the stories he heard about an uncle on his father's side, whose name was never spoken aloud and who was, like many men in the family, an ordained rabbi. One day, without any advance warning, he shaved off his beard, left his wife - whom he didn't love - and went off to London, where he converted to Christianity and, according to the family legend, became an important astronomer and a member of the nobility. Leopold Weiss's parents talked about the mysterious uncle with the awe and pent-up anger reserved for a black sheep of the family.

At the age of 13, Leopold was already familiar with the sacred texts of Judaism. He knew the Bible well and delved into the Mishna and Gemara. To accomplish this, he acquired a passing fluency in Hebrew and Aramaic, which, he said, vastly simplified things years later when he wanted to learn Arabic. However, the deeper he went in his Jewish studies, the more his faith diminished.

"I soon developed a supercilious feeling toward many of the premises of the Jewish faith," he admitted years later. "It seemed to me that the God of the old Testament and the Talmud was unduly concerned with the rituals by means of which His followers were supposed to worship Him. It also occurred to me that this God was strangely preoccupied with the destinies of one particular nation, the Hebrews."

Leopold decided to depart from the path that had been carved out for him. It was a time of great historical turmoil and revolution. The values that had been dominant in Europe collapsed in the face of the horrific carnage of 1914-1918, the years of Leopold's adolescence, when his consciousness was being formed. Europe was shaken by ideological ferment and political unrest.

It was a breathless, insecure time, which the writer Stefan Zweig described in "World of Yesterday" as wild and anarchic. Spiritual ecstasy was intertwined with crude fraud. Every extravagant movement that eluded the critique of common sense enjoyed a golden age: theosophy, spiritualism, anthroposophy, palm reading, graphology, mystic doctrines from the Far East. Anything that promised external release, including drugs like morphine, heroine and cocaine, was in great demand. Incest and patricide were the preferred themes in the theater. Art turned to Dadaism. Communism and Fascism had a heyday. Correctness and moderation were cast aside. Millions of confused young people wandered in a daze through European capitals searching for a new road that would release them from their spiritual plight.

"In the absence of any reliable standards of morality, nobody could give us young people satisfactory answers to the many questions that perplexed us," Leopold Weiss wrote many years later.

After the war the Weiss family moved to Vienna, where Leopold, increasingly restive, began to study the history of art at the local university and to look for answers to the vexatious questions posed in the cafes frequented by the intelligentsia. He was especially enthralled by the arguments between the pioneers of psychoanalysis, such as Alfred Adler, Wilhelm Steckel and Otto Gross, who impressed him but left him bewildered and alienated. He felt an instinctive resistance to the intellectual arrogance of the new science, which, he felt, seemed determined to reduce the mystery of human existence to a series of neurological reactions. Weiss felt there must be a more complex answer.

In the meantime, he became involved in a series of affairs with women he met in cafes. A by-product of World War I was to free sex of its Victorian shackles: Sexual passion was no longer something to be ashamed of. "In all those youthful loves of mine," Weiss wrote in "The Road to Mecca," "however flimsy and short-lived, there was always the lilt of hope ... that the frightful isolation which so obviously separated man from man might be broken by the coalescence of one man and one woman."

Interview with Madame Gorky

At the age of 20, Leopold Weiss decided to sever himself from his family for good, and went to Berlin, determined to become a journalist. In his pocket he had a gold ring inherited from his mother, who had died a year earlier, and a furious letter from his father, in which he wrote that he could envisage Leopold ending his life as a pauper in the gutter. To this, Leopold replied that he had no intention of ending up in the gutter - he was aiming for the top of the ladder.

Not that he had the slightest idea where the top was or how to reach it. After a few weeks in Berlin, enjoying himself thanks to the proceeds he received from selling his mother's ring, friends introduced him to the rising film director Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau. Within a few years, Murnau would gain international acclaim as one of the great filmmakers of the silent era, along with Fritz Lang and Ernst Lubitsch. For two months, Weiss worked as Murnau's personal assistant, with no financial worries, enjoying the favors of starlets. It took another year, of wandering around Europe's capitals and working at odd jobs, for his breakthrough into the world of the press to occur.

Weiss began working in the new offices of the United Telegraph news agency, which had just set up operations in Berlin. His job was to read news items over the telephone to papers in the provinces, but the ambitious Weiss believed he deserved better.

One of his friends, a doorman in a hotel, told him the wife of the renowned Russian writer, Maxim Gorky, was staying at the hotel under an assumed name. Madame Gorky was then the subject of considerable popular interest in Europe, because of her struggle on behalf of the starving masses in Russia. Weiss called on her in her hotel room, turned on his charm, and talked her into giving him an interview. After it was published, the energetic employee was promoted to the position of reporter. When his editors discovered that he was fluent in a number of languages, he was made deputy editor in charge of the Scandinavian press.

Leopold's professional success pleased him but did not make him happy. Along with many other young people like him, who were looking for a way up the ladder, he spent much time in the fashionable cafes of Berlin.

"I was not unhappy," he wrote in his autobiography, "but my inability to share the diverse social, economic and political hopes of those around me - of any group among them - grew in time into the vague sense of not quite belonging to them, accompanied, vaguely again, by a desire to belong - to whom? - to be part of something - of what?"

It was just then, in the spring of 1922, that he received a letter from his uncle, Dr. Dorian Feigenbaum, his mother's younger brother. Feigenbaum, one of Sigmund Freud's first students, was a psychiatrist who was then running an institution for the mentally ill in Jerusalem. Being a bachelor, an opponent of Zionism and not especially attracted to the Arab culture, he felt quite lonely. In his letter to his nephew, he recalled the good times in Vienna, when he had guided him through the labyrinthine world of psychoanalysis, and concluded with a generous offer: "Why don't you come here and stay some months with me? I will pay for your return ticket; you will be free to go back to Berlin whenever you like. And while you are here, you will be living in a delightful old Arab stone house which is cool in summer (and damned cold in winter). We shall spend our time well together. I have plenty of books here, and when you get tired of observing the quaint scenery around you, you can read as much as you want."

Leopold Weiss needed no more than that. The next morning, he informed United Telegraph that due to "important business considerations," he was compelled to go to the Middle East and therefore also compelled to resign. Weiss traveled to Romania, then embarked on a long sea voyage to Alexandria followed by an exhausting train ride to Jerusalem, where one of the most tumultuous chapters in his amazing life was about to begin.

Ussishkin's prophecy

The Arab stone house that Dorian Feigenbaum described in his letter was as promised. It was located on the edge of the Old City of Jerusalem near Jaffa Gate. Its spacious, high-ceilinged rooms seemed to Leopold to be suffused with the memories of the lives of the aristocracy from bygone eras. The sounds of the vibrant life of the market penetrated even the thick walls of the house and fired the imagination of the young European newly arrived from frozen Berlin.

Weiss had nothing but time on his hands and he used it to observe patiently the life of the city. The Arabs who came to the market caught his attention almost at once. They seemed to be representatives of "a world which lacks all defining limits but is, nonetheless, never formless; which is fully rounded in itself - and nevertheless open on all sides."

One day, as he was watching a tall Bedouin standing motionless and looking to Weiss like a figure out of a legend, he had a vision: "For all at once I knew, with that clarity which sometimes bursts within us like lightning and lights up the world for the length of a heartbeat, that David and David's time, like Abraham and Abraham's time, were closer to their Arabian roots - and so to the Bedouin of today - than to the Jew of today, who claims to be their descendant."

The Jews of his time were poised at the gateway to a new era that was filled with danger and promise. Only five years had passed since the declaration by Lord Balfour that, for the first time ever, accorded the Zionist movement the international recognition it craved. The Third Aliyah (wave of immigration), then at its peak, brought some 35,000 ardent Zionists from Eastern Europe to Palestine. They were a tough breed, whose ideal was articulated by their hero, Josef Trumpeldor, who had been killed two years before in a battle with Arabs at Tel Hai in Galilee: "We will need people who are ready for whatever the Land of Israel will demand ... We have to create a generation that will harbor no interests and follow no fixed habits. An ordinary bar of iron. Flexible - but iron.

"A metal from which it will be possible to forge whatever the national machine needs. A wheel is missing? A nail, a screw, a flywheel? Take me. Earth has to be dug? I dig. Is it necessary to shoot? To be a soldier? I am a soldier ... I am the pure idea of service that is ready for anything. I have no ties to anything. I know only one imperative: to build."

Leopold Weiss, however much he was searching for something big to attach himself to, could not identify with the frame of mind reflected in Trumpeldor's words. He was too independent, too much of an intellectual - receptive to adventurousness, yes, but too sensitive to be swept up by such revolutionary sentiment. He had not come to Palestine "to build and be built," but to think and write.

Since he grasped very quickly that great and fascinating events were taking place around him, he decided to try and interest the European press in what he was learning. He sent an article about the Middle East to 10 major papers in Europe and, to his astonishment, received a positive response from the Frankfurter Zeitung, the most important newspaper in Germany. Not only did the paper appoint him its special correspondent for the Middle East, it also gave him a contract to write a book, which he would complete upon his return to Europe.

The opinions Weiss published in the German paper were far from pleasing to Zionist readers of the 1920s. Even today, 80 years later, they are not easy reading for a Jewish Israeli. Weiss's views were the total opposite of the national ethos of that period, familiar to anyone who has taken a high school matriculation examination in the history of the Jewish people.

The Jews Weiss saw in Jerusalem made a very poor impression on him and he thought the ideas of the Zionist movement were both immoral and dangerous. The Jews he met, who were mostly recent immigrants from Poland and Russia, seemed to "carry with them so much of the smallness and narrowness of their past lives in Europe that it was surprising to think they claimed to be of the same stock as the proud Jew from Morocco or Tunisia."

Weiss was astounded to find out that although the European Jews were so obviously out of all harmony with the picture that surrounded them it was they who set the tone of Jewish life and politics and thus seemed to be responsible, in his view, for the almost visible friction between Jews and Arabs.

"What did the `average European' know of the Arabs in those days?" he wonders in "The Road to Mecca," and replies: "Practically nothing. When he came to the Near East, he brought with him some romantic and erroneous notions, and if he was well-intentioned and intellectually honest, he had to admit that he had no idea at all about the Arabs. I, too, before I came to Palestine, had never thought of it as Arab land. I had of course vaguely known that some Arabs lived there, but I imagined them to be nomads in desert tents and idyllic oasis-dwellers.

"Because most of what I had read about Palestine in earlier days had been written by Zionists - who naturally had only their own problems in view - I had not realized that the towns were also full of Arabs. That, in fact, in 1922 there lived in Palestine nearly five Arabs for every Jew, and that, therefore, it was an Arab country to a far higher degree than a country of Jews.

"When I remarked on this to Mr. [Menachem] Ussishkin, chairman of the Zionist Committee of Action, whom I met during that time, I had the impression the Zionists were not inclined to give much consideration to the fact of Arab majority; nor do they seem to attribute any real importance to the Arabs opposition to Zionism. Mr. Ussishkin's response showed nothing but contempt for the Arabs: `There is no real movement here against us - that is, no movement with roots in the people. All that you regard as opposition is in reality but the shouting of a few disgruntled agitators. It will collapse of itself within a few months, or at most a few years.'"

Weizmann raises an eyebrow

Leopold Weiss, in contrast, didn't think the opposition by the Arabs was a passing thing. The more he delved into their culture, the more alienated he became from his own people. The Zionists naturally viewed him with suspicion and outrage. They found it difficult to understand how a Jew living in the Land of Israel could write such hate-filled articles for a respected German paper, and impossible to understand what a person raised on the culture of Europe could possible be looking for in the primitive world of the Arabs.

"According to them," Weiss wrote, "[the Arabs] were no more than a mass of backward people whom they looked upon with a feeling not much different than that of the European settlers in central Africa. They were not in the least bit interested in what Arabs thought; almost none of them took pains to learn Arabic; and everyone accepted without question the dictum that Palestine was the rightful heritage of the Jews."

Ultimately, Weiss was categorized by the Zionists as one of those who were "bought" by the Arabs, or as an eccentric intellectual who was drawn to the exotica of the East. And having reached that conclusion, they stopped taking him seriously. Fortunately for him, not all the Jews in Palestine were Zionists. Weiss found a friend: Jacob de Haan, a lawyer from the Netherlands who was in Jerusalem as the correspondent of the British paper, The Daily Express. De Haan objected to Zionism for reasons similar to those enunciated by Weiss, though de Haan's views were also influenced by his ultra-Orthodox belief that the Return to Zion must wait for the advent of the messiah.

"We Jews," de Haan said in one the many talks he had with Weiss, "were driven away from the Holy Land and scattered all over the world because we had fallen short of the task God conferred upon us. We had been chosen by Him to preach his word, but in our stubborn pride, we began to believe that He had made us a chosen nation for our own sake and thus we betrayed Him."

At first Weiss tried to argue with the Zionists. The clash with Ussishkin ended in frustration, as could have been expected. Ussishkin, after all, was a zealous Zionist who brooked no compromises. There was no chance that Weiss or anyone like him would induce him to change his mind. Not even Theodor Herzl was able to do that. When the founder of political Zionism asked Ussishkin on one occasion whether he truly believed that the Jews would gain control of the Land of Israel, the arrogant reply was: "Yes, and if you do not believe it, there is no place for you at the head of this movement."

Weiss had greater expectations of Dr. Chaim Weizmann, the leader of the Zionist movement at the time. Unlike most of the Zionist leadership, Weizmann had met several of the most prominent figures in the Arab world between 1916 and 1921, as Amos Elon notes in his book "The Israelis: Founders and Sons" : "With his great charm and gift of persuasion, he set about relentlessly assuaging Arab fears, preaching the idea of Arab-Zionist cooperation, and winning to it Arab friends. He did not lose sight of Arab national aspirations ... The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem had warmly welcomed Weizmann in Jerusalem in 1918, by quoting a hadith, a tradition of the Prophet: `Our rights are your rights, and your duties our duties.'"

The impression Weizmann left on Leopold Weiss was distinctly different. "I met [Dr. Weizmann] in the house of a Jewish friend," he recalls in "The Road to Mecca." "One could not but be impressed by the boundless energy of this man - an energy that manifested itself even in his bodily movements, in the long, springy stride with which he paced up and down the room - and by the power of intellect, revealed in the broad forehead and the penetrating glance of eyes.

"He was talking of the financial difficulties that were besetting the dream of a Jewish national home, and the insufficient response to the dream of the people abroad, and I had a disturbing impression that even he, like most of the other Zionists, was inclined to transfer the moral responsibility for all that was happening in Palestine to the `outside world.' This impelled [me] to break through the deferential hush with which all the other people present were listening to him and ask: `And what about the Arabs?'

"I must have committed a faux pas by thus bringing such a jarring note into the conversation, for Dr. Weizmann turned his face slowly toward me, put down the copy he had been holding in his hand, and repeated my question: `What about the Arabs ...?'

"`Well, how can you ever hope to make Palestine your homeland in the face of the vehement opposition of the Arabs who, after all, are in the majority in this country?'

"The Zionist leader shrugged his shoulders and answered dryly: `We expect they won't be in a majority after a few years.'

"`Perhaps so ... but does not the moral aspect of the question ever bother you? Don't you think it is wrong on your part to displace the people who have always lived in the country?'

"`But it is our country,' replied Dr. Weizmann, raising his eyebrows. `We are doing no more than taking back what we have been wrongly deprived of.'"

Weiss tried to engage Weizmann in a debate, adducing various historical arguments and explaining to the Zionist leader that, even according to the Bible, the Land of Israel was inhabited, before the arrival of the Hebrews, by Amorites, Edomites, Philistines, Moabites, Hittites and others, who were obviously the forefathers of the Arabs now living in Palestine.

"Weizmann," Weiss summed up, "smiled politely at my outburst and turned the conversation to other topics."More...



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