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.

Of course, it is very interesting for a reader in the 1980s to discover in Doughty the lineal ancestors of the smug bearded persons who appear fairly regularly on our television screens explaining that there never was any death of any princess, and if there was, then it is no concern of ours and, by the way, the price of oil is going up again. But, even in the Twenties, it was already a very different Arabia from that in which Doughty had travelled – as Doughty himself clearly understood. The third preface makes the point clear: ‘The great War of our times has brought the Land of the Arabs into the horizon of Western Nations,’ he observes, and then devotes most of the rest of the page to points of archaeology, finishing up by underlining, once again, the ancient Biblical parallels with Arabia as he saw it: ‘We almost feel ourselves carried back to the days of the nomad Hebrew Patriarchs.’

The fact is, however, that Travels in Arabia Deserta isn’t a useful guide to anything much except what happened to Doughty in the Desert, a short passage of Arabian history intersecting an aberrant fragment of the development of English literary sensibility, an unrepeatable moment in which everything is already different from the way it had been when Burton penetrated Mecca in drag, and from the way it would be when the Blunts and Gertrude Bell cut their own very different tracks across the Peninsula.

So the reader of the 1980s would be well-advised to skip all the Introductions and Prefaces, and start straight in with that weird double-taken opening sentence:

A new voice hailed me of an old friend when, first returned from the Peninsula, I paced again in that long street of Damascus which is called Straight; and suddenly taking me wondering by the hand ‘Tell me (said he), since thou art here again in the peace and assurance of Ullah, and whilst we walk, as in the former years, toward the new blossoming orchards, full of the sweet spring as the garden of God, what moved thee, or how couldst thou take such journeys into that fanatic Arabia?’

Doughty is off and running, and you are either gripped or lost – the passage functions, craftily, like the come-on action that precedes the opening titles of a movie, sampling the action and setting the mood; and observe how, equally craftily, the evocation of the security of Damascus and its greenery concludes with that phrase, left hanging like a doom over the 600,000 words that follow – Fanatic Arabia.

Not only is the long adventure here presaged, but the knotted, elliptic, allusive language of the rest of the book is clearly signalled too. The reader has been warned; the faint-hearted should quit at the end of that sentence; the tough should gird their loins, take on provisions and brace themselves for a long rough ride which – should they survive – will leave them purged by pity and terror, for this will be one of the most terrible journeys ever described in English.

That first sentence also exhibits the basic (and doubtless unintentional) deception on which everything turns in the book, because it begins with a human voice and a human presence, and, while it may have been geographical propriety to call the terrain Arabia Deserta, ‘deserted’ is what the book is not. The text is thronged by the human race, swarming with proper names and reported conversations, the identities of tribal ancestors and the racial characteristics of Christians, Arabs, Bedouin and Jews.

There is, conspicuously, a lot of geography and archaeology in the book as well: the ostensible object of the trip was to survey territory and record monuments, but both Doughty and the reader forget this for long chapters as he battles with the consequences of the people on the way – people usually careless or stupid rather than deliberately unfeeling or treacherous, and, above all, fanatical people. For what drives the narrative on and reveals the characters of the protagonists is the constant threat and mind-sapping tension provoked by this maniac Nasrany (Christian), who will never be anything but a Christian, will not dress up Arab like his predecessor Richard Burton, will not make the conventional declaration of Muslim faith, La ilah ill’Ullah wa Mohammed rasul Ullah, even in the face of crazed psychopaths armed with knives and the conviction that ‘with a Nasrany who need keep the Law?’

It is difficult to think of anything in the whole history of European exploration to match this stiff-necked bloody-mindedness of Doughty’s, his cast-iron self-rightousness, his condescending compassion for his adversaries – or his stoical endurance of the penury, ailments, frustrations and present dangers to which his inflexibility dooms him in this land of Wahabi-Revival fanaticism. Within this network of hostility, which is mostly of his own creation, the odd acts of humanity, the fidelity of friends, stand out like beacons – as does his own single recorded lapse from the absolutes of his faith and doom.

At El-Kasim, he lies in his teeth to have a cheap revenge on robbers who claim themselves justified in making off with his possessions and beating him around, because he would not say La ilah ill’Ullah, as usual. ‘This is their falsehood,’ he declares, ‘for to please them I said it four or five times, and hearken! I will say it again, La ilah ill’Ullah.’ But the falsehood is his for he clearly implies on the facing page (Volume II, page 342) that he had not said it. Whether he lies to the reader or to the Emir’s man who comes to restore order does not matter: the shock of catching him in uncharacteristic falsehood serves its purpose in making us understand the straits in which he had landed himself, the extremity of the situation in which his cool could finally desert him.

Even when the façade of decorum and gravity does not crack, however, one is always aware of the discomforts of journeying among fanatics: the frustrations of exile, the tedium of house-arrest, the casual dishonesty, the broken promises, the robberies and physical violence, the treachery of officials and the fallibility of supposed friends. And all this in an inhospitable landscape that barely affords sufficient sustenance for those who are free to shift for themselves and have the skills to survive. Volume II in particular becomes a horrible adventure story, in which even the least empathetic reader must become inextricably involved – though anyone who has survived the narrative thus far will have long since ceased to pretend to anything but total identification with the narrator, and will share without question the anti-climactic relief of that last sentence which is, in its way, as remarkable as the first:

On the morrow I was called to the open hospitality of the British Consulate.

                                  THE END

Anti-climax, however, is Doughty’s most brilliantly deployed narrative device. Arabia Deserta is no cliff-hanger: nothing ever happens in the nick of time. Rescue always arrives too early to be dramatic, or too late to be any help, because the threat has somehow evaporated or his attackers have lost interest or some official has inexplicably changed his mind or Doughty has managed to face down his opponents, more or less. The great artifice of the book is to have the narrative move at the infuriating speed of life, not the gratifying speed of art, and to make this happen, the unbelievably procrastinatory style, the diversions and dilations, the sentences that have to be read more than once to be understood, are all absolutely necessary.

Too many of Doughty’s admirers seem to miss this point entirely, and for Edward Garnett to say, ‘the style is the work,’ in the process of introducing his second attempt at an amputated version (Passages from Arabia Deserta) seems gratuitously obfuscatory, for a shortened version can be neither the work nor the style. The longueurs and tangled detours are integral to Doughty’s method. To offer ‘selections’ is a temptation since the book is full of splendid set-pieces, but as often as not these admired-in-isolation passages are as diversionary as the allegedly boring bits, and one of them is as near totally gratuitous (and monstrously over-written) as anything in the book – the description of the eruption of Vesuvius in 1872. Most, however, like the account of the coffee ceremony or the long discussion of the subjection of women in Volume I, are inextricably part of the whole.

However, one must admit that much of the calculated tedium of the text is tolerable only because what is being described is interesting in itself and interestingly described. English writers with a real commitment to the craft of writing are often very good at writing about other totally absorbing crafts: Corvo’s conspicuous command of Venetian boatmanship and canal topography in The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole is the most obvious case in point, and Doughty’s account of the management and protocol of the Haj caravan is almost a match for it. The long description of the position of women is a different matter: however closely it is tangled with the technology of the Bedouin’s travelling life (tent-craft being entirely womens’ work), it begins as a gloss on the predicament of one particular woman – Hirfa, the estranged wife of the sheikh Zeyd – and this brings up an aspect of Doughty which I have seen little discussed: his attitude to women.

His attitude to male Bedouins is almost as idealising as that of Lawrence and other romanticisers, but his view of women throughout the book is remarkably frank, sympathetic and reasonable. To some extent, this is part of his conscious Christian superiority to the ways of savages, but Hirfa is not just an anthropological observation – she is a person in her own right, wronged but resourceful, whose story runs, on and off, for nearly one hundred and fifty pages. Many of the women who cross these pages are offered to Doughty as wives, some offer themselves, but he excuses himself courteously and sometimes with humour. One, a negress, he sees nearly naked (a freak of the wind), but he mentions the fact to no man and thus preserves her from ribaldry and ridicule.

For courtesies such as these one can forgive much – the code of the English gentleman is superior to the code of the Arab, it seems – but questions of forgiveness, or any other kind of judgment, can only exist at a safe and scholarly remove from the experience of holding the book in one’s hand and reading it. The reader of the text has no option but to become Doughty, for the book demands total identification – and gets it, because there is really no other way to proceed than to become as absorbed in Doughty as he was in himself. It would be gentler to say ‘as he was in his journey’, but that was a task self-imposed, and turns us back on the man himself once again, and the unanswered question of the opening sentence of the whole aching epic: ‘what moved thee, or how couldst thou take such journeys ... ?’ The answer is the journey itself, unquestioned by the traveller even in the deepest despair or direst straits, and the reader will only find the answer by going the whole way, unquestioning, with Doughty, and, having arrived at the British Consulate exhausted and exalted, will probably decide that it was a silly question anyhow. The travelling of Arabia seems not unlike the climbing of Everest, but the correct reply is not ‘Because it is there!’ but ‘Because I was there!’