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Volume 48, Number 4July/August 1997

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Dos Passos in the Desert

Written by Robert W. Lebling Jr.
Photographed by Norman MacDonald

On a cold December morning in 1921, a battered Model-T Ford chugged into Ramadi, a town on the west bank of the Euphrates in British-mandate Iraq. Ramadi, on the eastern edge of the Syrian Desert, was the staging point for camel caravans carrying goods from Baghdad across the desert to Damascus. The car pulled up to the edge of a caravan encampment. Great bales of tobacco, rolled Persian carpets and boxes of other goods were stacked in mounds, ready for the pack camels.

Four bearded men in Arab dress stepped out of the car and headed toward the caravan master's tent. The youngest of the four, about 25 years old, wore a brown robe with a broad white stripe, and a black-and-white checked headcloth held in place with a black cord. His beard was about three weeks old. If it weren't for the steel-rimmed spectacles he wore, he might have been taken for an Arab.

He was in fact American: a young novelist named John Dos Passos. Months earlier, he had left his old college friend, poet E.E. Cummings, in Paris, boarded the Orient Express and headed alone to the Middle East, in part to escape the literary swirl of Paris and New York on the eve of the publication of his second novel, but also to satisfy a long-standing fascination with the region, its history and its peoples. After an eventful personal odyssey through Turkey, Iran and Iraq, he was now on his way back to the United States—the hard way.

John Dos Passos is recognized today as one of America's great writers. In his day, he was also one of its most controversial. Dos Passos gained fame as a writer of "proletarian literature"—books like Manhattan Transfer (1925) and the U.S.A. trilogy (1938), which attacked the materialism and hypocrisy of the United States between the World Wars and exposed the stark realities of life in the American working class. He was influenced by the innovative James Joyce and by Swiss anti-literary writer Blaise Cendrars, but he developed a distinctive style of his own, which in turn had its impact on writers like Alfred Döblin and Jean-Paul Sartre. His novels were impressionistic and often sharply satirical. He interspersed fictional narratives with actual fragments of popular culture—songs, news headlines, advertisements, slogans—in ways that captured the flavor, and often the essence, of the world surrounding his characters.

While 20th-century America was the subject matter of his novels, Dos Passos early developed a personal interest in the Middle East that was to stay with him his entire life. It led to three major trips to the region, each at a turning point in his life. He wrote of his Middle Eastern exploits in three nonfiction works, Orient Express (1927), Journeys Between Wars (1938) and The Best Times: An Informal Memoir (1966). For Dos Passos, the region was a repository of images, lifestyles and values that he drew comfort from in difficult times. Early in his career, when the intense literary world of New York began to close in on him, inducing a kind of professional claustrophobia, he would escape to the Middle East. There he found a uniquely personal kind of freedom that reinvigorated him and restored his perspective.

Above all else, Dos Passos's novels are permeated with a passionate attachment to the American working class, the struggling men, women and children, without money, power or special privilege, who are often victimized by the powerful currents of economy and politics. In 1937, disillusioned with the Communists' role in Spain's civil war, he began a gradual swing from left to right in his political orientation, a change that cost him friendships in New York's literary world, including Ernest Hemingway's. But Dos Passos, for all the apparent conservatism of his later years, never lost his fundamental faith in the American worker.

The Middle East of John Dos Passos echoed his America. He was most attracted to those without power or privilege: the villagers, the Bedouin, the craftspeople of the towns. He found the palaces and monuments of the region interesting—after all, the ebb and flow of history gave context to his own writings—but personally he did not feel the resonance of the great artifacts. He loved nothing more than traveling on his own, often on foot, from village to village, or sharing the simple life of desert travelers. Here he found basic human values most sharply delineated, without the softening filter of the sophisticated urban world he had left behind.

John Roderigo Dos Passos Jr. was born in Chicago in 1896, the son of a prominent attorney and the grandson of a Portuguese immigrant. Born out of wedlock but later legitimized, he was a bright boy who showed promise. His strong-willed father saw that he received a classical education, and his high-school years were spent at the exclusive Choate School in Connecticut. At 15, he passed the entrance examinations for Harvard University.

Dos Passos's interest in the Middle East can be traced back to his youth. A voracious reader, he was aware of the region's connections with Western civilization, and was intrigued by its differences. As a teenager, he once said, he was a romantic who dreamed of running off to sea and visiting foreign cities like Carcassonne, Marrakesh and Isfahan.

Dos Passos's first encounter with the Middle East occurred when he was 15. Before starting college at Harvard, his father thought, he should spend some months traveling in Europe and the Near East, to give context to his education and teach him something about the world. In November 1911, Dos Passos was sent abroad in the company of a tutor on what he called "the Grand Tour": England, France, Italy, Greece and Egypt. "Having already traveled extensively throughout Europe, which held little sense of mystery for him, Jack longed for the exotic sounds, sights, and culture of northern Africa and the Middle East," wrote biographer Virginia Spencer Carr. "He wanted to view ancient Islamic civilizations, Egypt and the Nile Valley...." A four-day visit to Istanbul, capital of the Ottoman Empire, was added to the tour at Dos Passos's request: He was eager to sample life in the fabled city of the Ottomans, a centuries-old dynasty that would soon fall victim to the relentless forces of modernization and the Great War. A decade later, Dos Passos began dreaming again of journeying to the Middle East. Behind him were his Harvard years, and harrowing experiences as a ambulance driver on the battlefronts of France in World War I. "Dos," as he was known to his friends, was now living in New York City. He had just sold his second book—an antiwar novel called Three Soldiers, based on his wartime experiences—and was impatiently awaiting publication. In those days he spent many hours with E.E. Cummings, who was the center of a literary circle in Greenwich Village.

Cummings and Dos Passos went to Paris in the spring of 1921. But Dos Passos stayed only a short while. He had received a cash advance on Three Soldiers and was eager to travel on. "My preoccupation was finding ways and means of getting to the Near East," he wrote forty years later in The Best Times. "It was the only region still highly colored enough to suit my craving for new sights."

He boarded the Orient Express for Istanbul, where he hoped to find work with the Red Cross that would enable him to travel as far as Persia. The job fell through, but he pressed on by Black Sea freighter to the new Soviet republic of Georgia, then inland by train to its capital, Tiflis, and by a succession of boxcars across a grim postwar landscape—through Armenia, "where everyone was dying of cholera and typhus and starvation," to Tabriz and Tehran. In the Persian capital, he contracted malaria.

He took massive doses of quinine to bring the disease under control. "Dos Passos was glad he had traveled into Persia, he reminded himself when he was not miserable with malaria, but he discovered that he was not a journalist at heart," wrote another of his biographers, Townsend Ludington. "Journalism was not his forte, and the sooner he got home and settled down to writing, the better."

The Iraq that Dos Passos entered in the fall of 1921 had recently been subjected to a British mandate, just as Syria had fallen under French control. The Arabs of both countries regarded the foreign rule as a betrayal of their revolt against the Turks, which had helped speed Allied victory in the Great War.

When Dos Passos reached Baghdad, "the great goggle-eyed banshee of malaria" flared again. He spent three weeks recovering at the Hotel Maude, a shabby inn that housed British junior officers.

Although his family had deep pockets, Dos Passos was traveling on limited funds. He couldn't afford a steamship ticket from Basra to Marseilles. The British were willing to fly him by military plane to Damascus, but the young writer decided to cross the Syrian Desert by camel caravan—a journey few Westerners, and apparently no Americans, had ever attempted.

The US consul in Baghdad introduced Dos Passos to Gertrude Bell, the celebrated archeologist, Arabist and now chief of British intelligence for Mesopotamia. This small, plain Englishwoman was "incredibly learned in the languages of the middle Orient," Dos Passos said. "She knew all the dialects. She had the tribal histories and the family histories of the Bedawi at the tip of her tongue."

When the young writer explained his plans, a British officer on Bell's staff told him he was crazy. The Arab tribes were angry with Britain and France, and any European who tried to cross the desert would be in grave danger.

"Fiddlesticks," Bell retorted. "They won't hurt an American." She knew some Arabs who would take him across the desert. "They aren't all quite on our side," she said, "but they are quite reliable."

The next morning, Dos found himself seated on a richly decorated carpet in a diwan in old Baghdad, sipping tiny cups of Arab coffee and discussing his travel plans with a white-bearded shaykh of the 'Agail people and with Jassem al-Rawwaf, an 'Agail caravan master.

The 'Agail had originated in the towns of the Najd, in present-day Saudi Arabia. A tribe or confederation of tribes in antiquity, they were no longer organized along tribal lines and had no blood enemies. Though townsmen, they knew camels better than most, and were expert camel breeders and traders. They were skilled fighters, and often worked as bodyguards and camel cavalrymen. With the consent of the tribes, they controlled the caravan trade across the Syrian Desert.

Dos Passos described al-Rawwaf as "a pale darkbearded man with a higharched nose and a high forehead under his heavy headband." They negotiated in Arabic with the help of one of Gertrude Bell's military interpreters. The caravan master agreed to transport Dos Passos across the desert to the Hotel Victoria in Damascus, on several conditions: He must let his beard grow, wear Arab dress and bring two weeks' supply of food. Al-Rawwaf would furnish a camel and a tent. The cost of the journey would be 20 gold pounds Turkish.

Three weeks passed as the caravan was being organized. Dos Passos waited "on pins and needles" at the Hotel Maude. He had spent the rest of his money on two saddlebags of canned goods and his traveling garb. He began studying Arabic, "the most difficult language I ever came up against."

In early December, the caravan was ready to depart. Dos Passos, al-Rawwaf and several Arab travelers boarded the ailing Model T and headed for the staging point at Ramadi.

Al-Rawwaf had provided Dos Passos with "a magnificent conical tent, striped with crimson like a fuchsia flower and ornamented with pink and blue diamond shapes." Dos Passos was introduced to a man named Fahad, who would be his helper, and to a youth named Saleh, who had worked for the British and would act as his interpreter.

They spent four days at Ramadi, waiting out a driving winter rainstorm. Finally, at dawn on the fifth day, Dos Passos and Fahad packed up his tent and belongings in huge tasseled saddlebags, and the American writer was helped onto the back of his riding camel, Rima.

"The 'Agail all stood around anxiously waiting to see if I would fall off when she jerked to her feet," he wrote. "The hobble round her knees was unloosed. Rima grunted and groaned and opened herself up like a jackknife. My head poked above the low clinging mist into sunlight. She pirouetted her soft pads and followed the long string of baggage camels away from the flat roofs and date palms of Ramadi over the bare crumbly hills to the westward; and there I sat, jouncing and bouncing to the camel's mincing gait, wearing an embroidered Baghdad gown over my khaki shirt and pants, with a huge headcloth draped over my steelrimmed spectacles, the funniest-looking Arab anybody ever saw."

The caravan was setting out at a time of great regional tension. Tribal discontent was mounting over the imposition of British and French rule. To the south, just weeks earlier, 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud, founder of the modern Saudi state, had declared victory over the forces of the al-Rashid in Hail. Scattered remnants of the defeated al-Rashid army had fled north from the Najd into the Syrian Desert, where they resorted to raiding to sustain themselves. The desert was under the control of no central government. Security became the 'Agail camel master's top priority.

Al-Rawwaf's caravan, which consisted of more than 500 camels, was protected at the front by 'Agail outriders on fast mounts, who often scouted ahead of the main party to assure safe passage. The caravan master and other 'Agail leaders headed the caravan, followed by strings of baggage camels loaded with carpets, tobacco and other goods. Then came a handful of "passengers"—among them Dos Passos; a Syrian merchant and his wife in a litter; "Sayid Mahomet," nephew of the naqib (leader) of Madinah; an old man in a green turban setting out on his second pilgrimage to Makkah; and "a hearty man named Abdullah who herded twenty skittish mules." There followed a great herd of brood camels and their young, grazing as they traveled. Bringing up the rear was "a straggle of weak camels and solitary riders who attached themselves to Jassem's outfit for protection." Finally, on the flanks were some "hardboiled" riflemen on ponies, guards for the early portion of the journey, furnished by the head shaykh of the local Dulaym tribe.

The weather turned cold and rainy. Whenever the caravan stopped for the night, Dos Passos would sit warming his hands and feet by al-Rawwaf's campfire, protected from the biting winds by a great half-circle of cargo bales. He drank "endless tiny cups of the most delicious coffee ... coalblack and almost as bitter as quinine." Each night, he shivered in his crimson-striped tent. But in the daily journal he kept, he declared he was "as jolly as a lark." He wrote to one friend: "There was never a pleasanter method of traveling." To another: "This caravan across the desert is the finest thing I ever did in my life."

Word had spread across the desert that an American was traveling with the caravan. More than once, armed detachments from rival tribes confronted the travelers. At night, the 'Agail and representatives of the desert tribes would sip coffee and negotiate for long hours over the terms of continued safe passage. "Not understanding yet how careful the Arabs were with firearms I kept wondering when the shooting would begin," the writer said. "Guns were brandished but not a trigger was pulled."

Before the journey had reached the halfway point, Dos Passos ran out of food. He had expected the trip to last two weeks; in fact, it would be 39 days before he saw the outskirts of Damascus. Al-Rawwaf came to the writer's rescue, inviting him to eat with him and his men for the rest of the trip. "The trouble was that the 'Agail ate so very little. A handful of dates and rice was a day's ration for a desert Arab. And it was bad manners to eat more than the next man. Night after night, I dreamed of roast goose."

The caravan continued at breakneck speed through a region that reminded Dos Passos of the Old West—"a badlands country of eroded mesas and stony gulches." One day, al-Rawwaf allowed the caravan to encamp early, so the travelers could rest and bathe at a waterhole in a nearby wadi. "Each man retired modestly behind his own separate rock to wash himself," Dos Passos said.

That night, as the American and the 'Agail caravaners sat around the campfire, sipping fragrant coffee and talking about their countries, Dos Passos felt a "special sense of wellbeing." A few of the 'Agail had traveled to America, and had returned with tales of great cities and fabulous wealth. These men of the desert found it hard to believe that huge ships made of iron could float upon the ocean.

"Jassem, pronouncing his words very carefully, as for a child, tried to tell me about the Najd, his country in the dry south of Arabia. All their eyes fastened on my face when I tried to explain how much I liked their life in the desert. Hadn't I better give up the stinking cities, said Jassem, and come to live with them where the air was fit for a man to breathe."

It seemed to Dos Passos that al-Rawwaf and his men were "the finest people I had ever met. These desert people, more than any people I had ever known, seemed to take a man for what he was. Each man stood up by himself, in the fearful wind, under the enormous sky. What did I care how long it took to get to Damascus? I had more than half a mind to take up Jassem's offer."

The caravan, as it neared Syria proper, had several more encounters with armed men, one involving a band on horseback that rode in circles around the drawn-up camels "like the Indians in 'Custer's Last Stand,' which used to be the climax of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show." Dos Passos and the other passengers huddled together, fearing they had finally been pinned down by robbers. But the "attackers" turned out to be friends—kin of tribesmen who had protected them earlier in their journey—and the men on horseback became their guardians in the western reaches of the desert.

Cold January rains slowed them down. The camels showed signs of exhaustion. Dos Passos recorded that his shoes had split open and his feet were suffering from chilblains. Their food had been cut to half rations: They sat about the campfire eating "a tiny bit of rice and a concoction of fried dates known as khastawi that I found increasingly delicious."

Dos found he was surviving quite well on a "starvation diet." He wrote: "Let them take a thousand years to reach Esch Scham [Damascus]. I don't care. I never sat at such fragrant fires with such fine people as the 'Agail.... I feel hearty, bearded, Whitmanic. All the bile out of my belly—all the wrinkles planed out of my mind by the great cold purple flint flatiron of the desert."

Once they had crossed the border of mandatory Syria, the caravan master's chief concern was to avoid the French camel corps and customs officials. The 'Agail did not recognize French authority in the region, and were not about to pay customs duties to an imposed regime. Late one night, as they camped not far from a village, al-Rawwaf oversaw the quiet transfer of camels and goods to local merchants and middlemen. Dos Passos recalled: "The last thing I heard before I went to sleep was the clink of coins being counted from palm to palm. When I awoke before day the caravan had vanished. Camels, bales of tobacco and rugs ... all the goods had vanished into the blue haze."

Al-Rawwaf was sitting by the campfire, grinding coffee. Dos Passos sipped the last three tiny cups of coffee with him. Al-Rawwaf "gently insinuated" that when Dos Passos was questioned by French officials in Damascus, he should plead ignorance of how many camels there had had been, and which route they had taken. The writer assured the caravan master he had "a very bad head for figures."

Dos Passos approached Damascus on a jaunty white stallion, then switched to a more comfortable dromedary in the company of Sayid Mahomet of Madinah, his cook and one of the 'Agail. They stopped at an inn, drawn by smell of roasting meat. "After six weeks without a green thing to eat a plate of green beans was a marvel. There was curd cheese and kebab. It was hard for me to mind my manners and eat no more than the sayid ate."

They hired a horse-drawn carriage and, as Dos Passos put it, "entered the oldest city in the world lolling in a landau." Dos Passos could think of nothing but a hot bath. But before heading to the Hotel Victoria, he made a round of visits with his companions, stopping to see relatives of Sayid Mahomet, as well as bearded old men in the Scribes' Bazaar, and "mysterious people in courtyards who seemed to be plotting against the French."

In time, he was safely tucked away at the hotel, in a "fine oldfashioned high-ceilinged European bedroom" with a bath and hot and cold running water. He slept for more than 12 hours.

The next day, shaved and refreshed, he faced the world. A packet of mail was waiting for him. His new book, Three Soldiers, was selling quite well, and he would have money in the bank. He spent long hours with French officials, explaining—and ultimately justifying—his presence in Syria. He wrote letters to his friends, toured the city, and then headed to Beirut by train. From a luxurious Beirut hotel room, on January 10, he wrote to an American friend about his friends, the 'Agail:

"I felt like kissing their feet I was so fussy and gawky beside them. I've never known people so intense, so well balanced, so gentle. I actually found myself crying after I said goodbye to them."

The parting in Damascus had not been easy. Dos Passos had shaved off his beard and resumed Western clothing. Wearing a "freshpressed civilian suit," he went out to tour the city and its famous bazaars. By coincidence, he encountered the caravan master, Jassem al-Rawwaf, at the entrance to the Umayyad Mosque. Al-Rawwaf was wearing a new headcloth and a new Baghdad robe.

"When I walked up to Jassem with my hand outstretched he looked at me with an expression of incredulous horror on his face. Where was my beard? his hands said. I fingered my smooth chin. Tears came to his eyes as he saluted me gravely. Then with a gesture of utter repudiation he turned his back and, picking up his slippers, walked off across the ... carpet of the mosque."

Dos Passos's crossing of the Syrian Desert was a unique opportunity for an American, never to be repeated. In a few short years, motorized transportation would spell the end of the caravan era in the Syrian Desert. By the fall of 1923, the Nairn brothers, Gerald and Norman, would be making their first exploratory automobile crossings of the desert—in three days, as opposed to a month or more for a caravan—and three years later they would start their celebrated bus service between Damascus and Baghdad. (See Aramco World, July/August 1981.)

The crossing was not Dos Passos's last adventure in the Arab world. In 1925, while nervously awaiting publication of Manhattan Transfer, he set off for North Africa alone, and wandered through Algeria and Morocco. He spent the winter holiday season "absolutely alone roaming around the mud villages of Beni Ounif and watching caravans come in from the Tuareg country." The desert once more revived him. He began studying Arabic again. He wrote impulsively to a friend, "I might embrace Islam," but then, suspecting that the notion was only his romantic streak at work, rather than a true calling, he just as quickly retreated from the idea.

Once he told a friend that when "the final disgust" with Western materialism eventually seized him, he would "retire to the Najd." But as he well knew, that day would never come. Twentieth-century America was in his blood; here lay his social concerns, his passions. He continued writing novels and histories about the American experience until he died in 1970 in Baltimore, Maryland, at the age of 74.

But throughout his life, John Dos Passos's Middle Eastern experiences were never far from the surface of his memory. They emerged occasionally as echoes in his writings. More importantly, they served as personal reminders, keeping him focused on essential human values, shared by prince and beggar alike and easily forgotten in the tumult of everyday life.

Robert Lebling, formerly assistant editor of Aramco World, writes about Middle-Eastern topics from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. He thanks his wife Linda for her Internet research in support of this article.

Free-lance artist Norman MacDonald lives in Amsterdam and on his farm near Toronto.

This article appeared on pages 2-11 of the July/August 1997 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1997 images.