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Volume 13, Number 8October 1962

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Arabian Odyssey

A 21-month visit with the people of the desert gave Charles Doughty one of the closest Western looks at Arab life.

Shaikh Zeyd sits cross-legged in his tent and welcomes the circle of Bedouins who have come for morning coffee before the caravan moves out. He offers a special greeting to the man directly across from him—an unusual figure garbed in Arab robes, but with blue eyes, blond hair and European features.

"If I can help you in any way, my friend," the shaikh says, "you will do me an honor to say so."

The European replies in fluent Arabic with the bare trace of an English accent: "You are most kind, O Shaikh, but it is enough that I may travel with your caravan and mingle with your people. My notes are almost complete. I shall write my book when I return to London. Perhaps you will favor me once more by accepting a copy?"

Shaikh Zeyd nods his assent and thanks. Then both become absorbed in the conversation of the coffee circle.

Charles Montagu Doughty had come a long way to reach the tent of Shaikh Zeyd in what is now Saudi Arabia. He was born in Sussex, England in 1843. As the youngest son of a clergyman's family, his natural vocation was the church, but he had a taste for adventure and tried for a career in die Royal Navy instead. The naval doctors rejected him because of a slight speech defect that never interfered with his subsequent linguistic accomplishments.

Still thirsting for adventure and well grounded in the classics by his father, he decided to combine scholarship and travel. After mastering everything from geology to Greek and Arabic at London and Cambridge Universities, Doughty wandered across Europe, deciphering ancient Scandinavian inscriptions and tramping over Roman remains in Spain.

But his destiny was calling him across the Mediterranean, across Syria, to the vast, fascinating Arabian desert, and to the people who spoke the mellifluous language he found so enchanting.

He went to Damascus in 1876, joined a caravan headed into the desert, found the life of the nomad everything he had hoped it would be, and spent two years visiting one of the world's most interesting lands. The Bedouins welcomed him. He repaid the compliment by devoting to them a masterpiece of travel literature: Travels in Arabia Deserta.

The superiority of this book to the countless others written by visitors to Arabia is partly a matter of style. Doughty deliberately chose to write in the Arab idiom, as far as he could translate it into English. His sentences are not polished and sinuous in the tradition of Swift and Addison. They recall an earlier period when constructions were bolder and the flow of rhetoric was habitually interrupted by staccato interjections because it was meant to be spoken rather than read. His style is seen in a passage describing a caravan setting out from Damascus.

"The hajjaj were this year by their account...6,000 persons; of these more than half are serving men on foot; and 10,000 of all kinds of cattle, the most camels, then mules, hackneys, donkeys and a few dromedaries of Arabians returning in security of the great convoy to their own districts. We march in an empty waste, a plain of gravel, where nothing appeared and never a road before us. Hermon, now to the backward, with his mighty shoulders of snows closes the northern horizon: to the nomads of the East, a noble landmark of Syria, they name it Towil eth-Thalj, 'The Height of Snow'."

Doughty was in Arabia to learn about the desert and its peoples. He kept his eyes and ears open wherever he went, and every aspect of nomadic life was carefully recorded in his notebook.

The caravan, a long file of men and animals, is like a town on the march, Doughty remarks. The camels, those indispensable members, plod along in bovine contentment, unmindful of heat or sand or occasional showers. The mules are less patient: they have to be goaded when they don't like the sun or the footing. The baggage sways from side to side as the sand gives way, perilously tilted but rarely falling off. The owners ride or walk, generally in good-humored acceptance of the hardships of their way of life. Doughty rides or walks beside them, marveling at their composure even when blistering sandstorms whip up.

He finds the camel drivers a beguiling tableau as they squat on the sand drawing patterns with their sticks until it is time to mount, after which they become the pilots of the caravan. They are also the first to know when it is time to halt, for they are sensitive to the diminishing strength of their desert steeds.

The heat of the day is no time to be out on the burning sands. With expert speed tents are unfolded and set up, animals taken care of, and everyone retires indoors. Many of the caravaneers promptly begin their siesta. Still, there is always someone stirring—camel drivers repairing harnesses, women cooking meals, children playing. They will all reappear in the writings of the English stranger who strolls among them and who can be seen busily jotting down notes when the flap of his tent is open.

With the cool of the evening, the encampment comes to life. Now is the time for sociability. Visits are paid between tents. There is shouting and singing and lively conversation. Doughty is struck by the exchange of pleasantries, news and gossip: "A pleasure it is to listen to the cheerful musing Bedouin talk, a lesson in the traveller's school of mere humanity."

The intimacy with which Doughty entered into the life of the desert is amazing considering the transience of his stay. Unlike other famous Westerners, such as St. John Philby and T. E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia"), whose extensive knowledge of the Arabs came from years spent among them, Doughty was simply a visitor. He remained in Arabia for only 21 months and returned to England when his visit was over. He never again saw the land which had lured him halfway around the world. That is why his achievement seems so miraculous.

He held a mirror to Bedouin life, as in the masterful literary portraits that give drama and sparkle to his pages. Here is his description of the Nimrod of Kheybar.

"Amm Mohammed—endowed with extraordinary eyesight—was more than any in this country, a hunter. Sometimes, when he felt himself enfeebled by this winter's (famine) diet of bare millet, he would sally, soon after the cold midnight, in his bare shirt, carrying but his matchlock and his sandals with him: and he was far off, upon some high place in the Harra, by the day dawning, from whence he might see over the wide vulcanic country."

Doughty took notes day by day instead of leaving the book he had in mind to his memory and creative imagination. Although he was far more interested in the people than in anything else, he managed to record scientifically the geology of the peninsula, the topography from the Syrian border to Mecca, the character of the towns along the way. He noticed everything from the historic inscriptions of Mada'in Salih to the pumpkin gardens of Jiddah.

Although most of his observations are recorded in words, many are recorded in pictures as well, for he was a skilled draftsman. His drawings include topographical reproductions such as those of the plain of Tebuk and the mountains of Anaz. He lets the reader see what the ancient coins of Arabia looked like, and how the Syrian rock inscriptions appear today. There are diagrams of town architecture and Bedouin tents. But the greatest achievement of Doughty as illustrator of his own book is the splendid map he drew of the areas where his Arabian odyssey took him. He called it "A Sketch Map Itinerarium of Part of North Western Arabia and the Negd." A cartographer's delight because of its accuracy, the map is also a reader's delight because of its brilliant coloring and stylized layout.

Doughty was so meticulous with his facts and figures, so authentic in his drawings and diagrams, that to this day travelers carry his Arabia Deserta as a guidebook.

With a scholar's devotion to a subject he loves, Doughty labored over his manuscript for nine years before it went to the printer. During this decade he lived in England almost as a recluse, gratified when St. John Philby brought a party of Arab friends to see him during World War I. Travels in Arabia Deserta occupied Doughty through three editions.

What was Charles Montagu Doughty's most memorable achievement? Doubtless he himself would have pointed to the legend he left behind in Arabia. The Arabs still were talking about their remarkable visitor when T. E. Lawrence arrived years later. Lawrence wrote: "I spent nine months in Western Arabia, much of it in the districts through which he had passed, and I found that he had become history in the desert."

This article appeared on pages 13-15 of the October 1962 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for October 1962 images.