Arabia Revisita

Reyner Banham

  • Travels in Arabia Deserts by Charles Doughty
    Dover, 674 pp, £11.35, June 1980, ISBN 0 486 23825 3

It was Nugent Monck, perennial director of the Maddermarket Theatre in Norwich, who first set me to reading Doughty’s desert monsterpiece. The ostensible reason was our glee at discovering Henry Reed’s poem about the ‘rose red sissy half as old as time’, which reads remarkably like a description of Monck himself, and which prompted him to direct my attention to the description of the rose-red city of Petra of the Nabataeans in Doughty’s second chapter. However, later remarks in unconnected conversations have given me to think that there may have been a deeper motive: as an avowed homosexualist with an extensive and curious knowledge of medical/military affairs in Cairo in the First World War, Monck (and not alone in that generation) had some kind of needle about the virtual sanctification of T.E. Lawrence by the English (Monck was Liverpool Irish). Doughty was for him (as for Lawrence) a kind of bible about the desert, a witness of truth against later romanticisers of ‘the Aarab’.

Whatever Monck’s mixed motives, the introduction was unmixed gain for me – though I suspect that I may not have reached the end of that knotted text at the first reading, because I now discover that all my choicest memories are from the first volume: the wiry sketches of landscapes and geologies, the great description of the Haj caravan going south, and those impenetrable but ever-memorable phrases, like ‘the frontispieces are often overscored with the idle wasms of the ancient tribesmen.’

As intended, Doughty became for me, too, the touchstone for all writing about deserts, Arabs, exploration, the Middle East, and so forth, and as time went by, I realised how widespread had been his influence, from Lawrence himself half-way round the world to five-cents-a-line Science Fiction authors whose deserts were obviously the Mojave, peopled by tribes lifted straight from Doughty, but re-equipped with ray-guns. And the ultimate classic of desert SF, Frank Herbert’s Dune, even echoes Doughty in its format, with an apparatus of appendices and a map.

But is that tribute paid to the book or the legend? Even among the canon of Great Unread Masterpieces, Travels in Arabia Deserta is notorious for its unreadability, and that notoriety tends to deter readers who might have tried, so that the legend is self-perpetuating. On all sides, it is acknowledged as some sort of masterpeice, but it is clear that not all who praise have actually read it, because they are often uncertain about its format, having probably read only Edward Garnett’s dim-witted abridgement.

Dover’s proper two-volume edition in paperback is a faithful (since facsimile) reproduction of the definitive 1936 version of Doughty, complete with Lawrence’s Introduction and Doughty’s three prefaces, the appendices and the 120 pages of glossarial index. And the map, which in my copy was tipped-in the back of Volume II upside down and arse-about-face so that it could not be read at the same time as the text without forcible removal and replacement. The map, however, is really the least of the probems that surround the text. The worst is Lawrence’s intro – constipated, false-modest, self-regarding, full of generalisations (‘Semites have no half-tones in their register of vision’) that might have been tolerable from a baffled pioneer like Doughty himself, but are really hard to take from someone who was supposed to be ‘good at Arabs’ and had the benefit of forty years or more of busy and sophisticated Arabian studies by scholars and explorers after Doughty’s time. Worst of all, Lawrence treats Arabia Deserta as a war-book, a guide to desert Turk-bashing, background reading on the Saudi and other people it had been useful for a British agent to cultivate.

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