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“The East is another name for the West”—Sufi proverb

In Memory of Stephen J. Masty

te-lawrence

T.E. Lawrence

When, in happier days, she was inscrutable “Arabia,” and felix the plucky cognomen-ex-virtute honoring a mythological lineage of Sheban queens, Roman misadventure, and flourishing trade routes scented in cinnamon and frankincense, the greatest of English explorers submitted to her virgin charms, keen as they were to deflower this uncorrupted desert rose. One among them was Wilfred Thesiger, the aristocratic writer-adventurer and decorated World War II veteran who lay starving on a dune one day in 1946 while attempting to cross one of the most spookily remote places on earth, the Rub al Khali, or “Empty Quarter,” a life-hating desert the size of France spread across the southeastern tier of the Arabian Peninsula. While deteriorating over the course of three days as he awaited his Bedouin companions to return with whatever meager ration of water they might find, the Eton- and Oxford-educated Thesiger was tortured by hallucinations then starting to overwhelm his sanity: visions of “cars and lorries” that would bring him to civilized safety. “No,” he later wrote in his 1959 memoir, Arabian Sands, “I’d rather be here starving as I was than sitting in a chair, replete with food, listening to the wireless and dependent on cars to take me through Arabia.” It was his greatest fear that his life of sublime asceticism—so wonderfully refined during his youth as an ambassador’s son in what was then the festively plumed “Abyssinia” and where he later served as advisor to Emperor Halle Selassie—would be irretrievably compromised. Back on the dune and his loyal Bedu at last on the scene, Thesiger escaped both death and, luckily, the trappings of modern life; recovered his health with Nature’s cure-all of dates and camel’s milk, and so many years later wrote bitterly, beautifully, of the experience and of his “mystical regard for tradition” in that impassioned and understated memoir of his. In a passage from another excellent work, The Life of My Choice (1980), he reminisced:

It is difficult to analyze the motive that induced me to make those journeys, or the satisfaction I derived from such a life. There was, of course, the lure of the unknown; there was the constant test of resolution and endurance [‘they met every challenge; every hardship, with the proud boast: ‘we are Bedu,” Thesiger wrote of his local desert guides]. When I joined them I asked for no concessions: I was determined to live as they had lived, to face the hardships of the desert on equal terms with them. I knew I could not match them in physical endurance, but, with my family background, Eton, Oxford, the Sudan political service, I did perhaps think I could match them in civilized behavior.

Major Sir Wilfred Patrick Thesiger, liberator of Ethiopia from the Italians, SOE commander in Syria and Oxford boxing champion, hero-worshipped Character and considered the heroic tolerance of hardship as a man’s highest possible achievement. These qualities made him part of a cult-generation of remarkable English explorer-diplomats in the Middle East that included Harry St. John Bridger Philby (Kim’s equally colorful, if somewhat less dangerous, father); Sir Percy Cox, Sir John Glubb, Bertram Thomas and, foremost among them, T. E. Lawrence—knightly men of a twilight époque who swash-buckled onto the world stage just before their sense of life was wiped out in the trenches of Mons and Ypres. The world has never seen the likes of them again.

Their unusual, some might insist irrational, dedication to the Arabs and their “Cause” brings to mind one of the more curious aspects of a certain kind of fictile Western personality manifest in the man-of-thought and man-of-action circles of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: That in an age of vaunted-slash-vilified imperialism, nationalism, colonialism, blunt class structures and blatant consciousness-of-class entrenched at the fast-clinging roots of such society, there should evolve this odd genus of adventurer sprung to life by utter love for the bewitch and beguile of the East, all the while remaining the consummate product of the most elite institutions and traditions of the West. Unshackled by the insipid constraints of modern-day political correctness, these men were cut from the cloth of educated cultural sensitivity and sophisticated human compassion finely-spun and well-woven into their gallant manners, their fluent Arabic and their offbeat penchant for Arab dress and customs. Just as Thesiger once noted that the brutalities of life at Eton were what taught him to “endure” the desert, these men could not have blended so fluidly into the self-questioning East had they not so been so immersed in the arch confidence of the West—a nuance of mind totally lost on our intellectual life, our cultural life, our social life, our literary life, today.

Lawrence taking over Damascus and patiently holding the city waiting for Allenby to arrive. The first Saudi king’s Rolls Royce whisking Philby to Mecca. Thesiger, grandson of the Lords of Chelmsford, who thought the Bedu the noblest race he ever knew. The high style and uncanny grace under pressure of Sir Percy Cox as he carved Iraq out of Mesopotamia while assiduously giving voice to the local Iraqis. Also, Parker T. Hart, the astute American ambassador to Riyadh in the 1960s, praising “Wahhabi Islam”—now despised as a violent ideology—as the modernizing force that unified the kingdom via the personality of its founding king, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, one of the great statesmen of the twentieth century. The decades all these men spent studying and exploring and mapping and writing about the Arab world. While not overtly religious, one cannot help but imagine that these men were driven, as Thesiger questioned of himself, by some mysterious, otherworldly motive; that they were possibly compelled by a kind of Constantinian skyward vision of their own given the vehement self-sacrifice that overtook them despite the massive geopolitical tragedies overwhelming them. It is such epic struggles as these that bring to mind the poignant quote of Lamartine that the true essence of Man is that of a fallen god who, limited in nature and infinite in his desires, spends life on earth remembering Heaven.

“It was my first taste of the Happy Arabia of the ancients,” swooned Harry St John Bridger Philby in an address to the Royal Geographic Society in January 1933, as he described the initial impressions of his trek the year prior through the Rub al Khali under the auspices of the first royal Saudi government. For Philby, the adventure was an exploit he regarded as “one of the few great prizes open to the old-fashioned explorer, who is being now so rapidly supplanted by the votaries of speed and spirit.”

While Bertram Thomas, assistant British Resident in Transjordan turned finance minister and “Wazir” of the Sultan of Oman, was the first to cross, south to north, the Rub al Khali—a camel journey of 900 miles in 1930-31—Philby’s exploit as the first European to cross from east to west was, according to historians, far more difficult. Having struck out at the most difficult geological terrain of that desert—“the cheerless unknown” as Philby referred to it—for ninety days straight, he constantly fought off starvation, tribal hostility and the looming death sentence of the thirst-wrought collapse of one’s noble camelus dromedarius, all of it a trial of forbearance across “the empty land, the land without water, without pastures, without inhabitants, nomad or otherwise, without anything.” And still, still, Philby’s account of the crossing is so detailed right down to the last glimmer of desert dust; so full of lyrical language possessed only by those who live a life that is truly for the living, that one is reminded how, for individuals as these, the more difficult the external conditions they endure the more romanticized the emotional affection they develop for the very source of their suffering. He writes: “It was at Jabrin that we bade what was to prove a long, long goodbye to the human race, and it was not till we reached Sulaiyil, fifty-three days later, that we again looked upon the sons and daughters of men.” His descriptions of the terrain were as poetic, observing “a swelling ocean of sand, of which the ridges were waves.” That sand, he noted, when stirred by wind, had a music all its own and one evening, over a supper of raw camel meat with his Bedu companions, Philby recalled: “The sands refused to sing any more, but raced along the ridges like black squadrons of Valkyries with banners streaming in the wind.” Summing up his journey, he recounted: “When I look back on those early days of our adventure and remember the tones of awe and horror in which we spoke to each other over the camp fire or on the day’s march of the dreary prospect before them, I marvel that we should, after all, have held together for ninety days and accomplished so much that was then cursed so freely and loudly as the stuff of dangerous dreams and raving madness.”

Of course, Philby, like his British explorer-brethren, was every inch the mad dreamer and dangerous raver; an eccentric patchwork of vivid colors and mismatched quirks that he wore like a hero’s cape once employed as no less than the self-appointed intermediary between the two great rival desert chieftains, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud and Hussein Ali, Sherif of Mecca, who competed for the title of King of Arabia. (Great Britain favored the latter; Philby and the others, the former). Educated at Cambridge, fluent in Urdu, Persian, Punjab, and Arabic, Philby was recruited in 1915 by Sir Percy Cox to help organize the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans, then became an intelligence officer, and then finally emerged as “Sheikh Abdullah,” when, grabbing opportunity by the forelock, he undertook a ceremonial conversion to Islam in order to become the political confidante of ibn Saud, whom he immediately saw as the future ruler of the future unified state. Having tuned his life to the just the right pitch of lawless bravado tempered by a loyal sense of service, Philby famously embarked upon a secret and rather reckless backdoor crossing from Riyadh, the seat of ibn Saud’s power, to Jeddah, on the west coast where the Sherifs of Mecca held sway, in order to prove that ibn Saud was, indeed, in control of the highlands and not Hussein Ali.

It was the unfortunate but remarkably consistent fate of these British gentlemen-adventurers that their duty to their own governments should have become so irreconcilably strained over British policy and the “Arab Question,” specifically as regarded such milestones as the Balfour Declaration, the Sykes-Picot Agreement and, later, Jewish immigration into Palestine. In November 1918, Britain and France issued the Anglo-French Declaration to the Arabs promising self-determination, yet Philby saw in this policy the ultimate betrayal of that promise, with Balfour and Sykes-Picot planting the seeds of the disillusionment to come. [Briefly, the Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 1916 was a secret negotiation between Britain and France to dismember the Ottoman Empire into the British and French-administered areas, or “Mandates,” of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine; “Balfour” refers to a letter of November 2, 1917, written by British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Baron Lionel Rothschild, expressing British government support for a Jewish homeland]. In November 1921, Philby was named chief head of the Secret Service in Mandatory Palestine, working with T. E. Lawrence and meeting with Philby’s American counterpart, Allen Dulles. At the end of 1922, he travelled to London to participate in meetings with the entire beau monde involved in the Palestine question, including Winston Churchill, George V, Prince of Wales, Walter Rothschild, Chaim Weizmann and Wickham Steed; he was then forced to resign his post in 1924 over differences of allowing Jewish immigration to Palestine, and after having been found to have had unauthorized correspondence with Ibn Saud—the connotation of espionage essentially blacklisting Philby once and for all. Defiant till the end, he proclaimed in 1925 that ibn Saud had brought unprecedented order into Arabia and therewith secured himself a post as the chief negotiator between the British and the Americans over the first oil concession in the country—between the Anglo-Persian oil company and a joint venture between Standard Oil of California (SoCal) and Texaco (these two later to merge into ARAMCO). Throughout, Philby’s primary loyalty was to the Saudi King.

During many centuries, Arabia had been a mere geographical name. In the nineteenth century, a contest for control of this vast territory set in between Great Britain, for whom it was a link to India, and the Ottoman Empire, with its social and intellectual framework based on Islam. But Arabia itself had an obscure history and no conscious identity. Over the course of the First World War, the military campaigns in the Near East attracted relatively little attention from either the British public or the British High Command. Compared to the Western Front and its titanic battles, something like the fight against the Turks in such countries as Palestine, Arabia, Jordan, and Syria seemed remote and negligible. The Mandate system in the Middle East that emerged from that war was the result of two factors: first, the promises of independence which Great Britain had given Arab leaders in return for military support against the Turks; second, President Wilson’s insistence on the principle of self-determination as a basic condition to the peace settlement at Versailles. Despite the influence of Wilsonian ideals on then-incipient Arab nationalism, the United States did not seek a Mandate role in the Middle East at the time and would only take center stage as the predominant player in the region after the establishment of ARAMCO—one of the best examples of peaceful, industrial diplomacy in world history (in which Washington was pointedly kept at a distance)—and, about a decade later, with U.S. support for the creation of Israel. Thus, Great Britain and its brave band of can-do Arabists reigned as the most profound political, intellectual and moral force in the Middle East well up through the 1940s. “To Britain,” wrote Hans Kohn in an essay, “The Unification of Arabia,” for the October 1934 Foreign Affairs, “must go the greatest share of credit in attempting to work out a policy which kept pace with popular movements; gave a measure recognition to the mandate principle and promoted her interests at the same time.” Sadly, this liberal spirit in British policy—as Philby, Sir John Glubb and, of course, T.E. Lawrence before them would learn—eventually strayed too far from its ideals, resulting in severe disappointment for these men who had personally, at times much too unwisely, promised the Arabs so much.

“I spent 36 years living among the Arabs,” wrote Sir John Bagot Glubb, also known as “Glubb Pasha,” in his 1959 memoir A Soldier with the Arabs. Sir John had led and trained the Arab Legion of Transjordan (as Jordan was then called) between 1939 and 1956 as its commanding general. Though his fame is not widespread, he played an extraordinary role as the British commander of the only Arab army to gain combat experience in World War II. Already in the First World War, Transjordan was the only Arab state to support the Allied cause and stood by Britain. “During the first 19 of these years,” recounts Glubb, “I lived almost entirely with them, rarely meeting Europeans and sometimes not speaking a word of English for weeks on end. I originally went to Iraq in 1920 as a regular officer for the British army, seeking fresh fields of adventures and a wider knowledge of the many different forms of modern soldering.” He continues: “But when I had spent five years amongst the Arabs, I decided to change the basis of my whole career. I made up my mind to resign my commission in the British Army and devote my life to the Arabs. My decision was largely emotional: I loved them.”

In red and white headdress and robes, the blue-eyed Brit began with a one hundred-man army of rag-tag Bedouins to build up his famous desert patrol, which, having been originally formed in 1921 under Col. Frank G. Peake, grew into a force renowned for discipline and marksmanship. From 1921 to 1951, while the country was under the excellent rule of King Abdullah, Transjordan was led with moderation and a broad-minded comprehension of East and West. Sir John formally became commander of the Legion in 1939 and during World War II, his Legionnaires suppressed a pro-Axis revolt in Iraq and fought alongside the Free French and British forces in Lebanon and Syria. “His own four rows of ribbons included the Distinguished Service Order for his service in those campaigns,” wrote The New York Times in an obituary on the occasion of Sir John’s death in March 1986. During the 1948 Palestine war, his Legion scored the only substantial victory over an Israeli force, which stirred strong feeling—and a death sentence—against him in Israel. He was as well the author of twenty books, the majority of them on the history of Islam and the Arab world, but in his 1952 The Fate of Empires and the Search for Survival, a short but trenchant work on the life-cycles of civilized States, Sir John sees all too clearly that the fate of the West and of the East are inextricably linked:

Decadence is a moral and spiritual disease, resulting from too long a period of wealth and power, producing cynicism, decline of religion, pessimism and frivolity. The citizens of such a nation will no longer make an effort to save themselves because they are not convinced that anything in life is worth saving.

One must credit Sir Percy Cox, the chief political affairs officer of the Mesopotamian Expedition Force, as the dashing liege to such a spirited band of faithful esquires. “He was naturally modest and self-effacing, his reputation in the councils of the great Bedouin tribes of Arabia, the sheiks of the Persian Gulf coast and the political leaders in Iraq was greater than that ever reached by any other British officer,” wrote The Geographical Journal in July 1937, in honor of Sir Percy’s legacy following his death in February of that year. In his dealings he was “stoic, patient and tolerant, never allowing any hint of frustration no matter how perverse the commands of his government or the action of his people.” The Journal goes on to add: “It was earned unostentatiously by the inspiration of high example and a sympathy that enabled him to see the other man’s point of view, combined with a strong personality, a dignified bearing and an honesty of purpose that was never doubted. Sir Percy Cox’s name will go down in history as the greatest personality of his generation in the tale of British influence and achievement in the Middle East.”

Cox considered peace the priority in the maintenance of good relations with the Ottomans, who held all the tribal loyalties, whilst prompting the British government to change policy towards Ibn Saud, “the Wahhabi Ruler of Nejd,” and later king of Saudi Arabia—a view he had held from as early as 1906.

As the first British Acting Political Resident to Persia, Sir Percy had just landed in Teheran when he was entrusted with the most monumental task of a life that had already attained stunning achievement. It was suggested that an independent and Arab state should be established in Iraq under Mandate by the League of Nations. A natural-born scholar and researcher, Sir Percy, to be named High Commissioner of Iraq, handled this potentially explosive situation meticulously. Though British diplomats as himself were aware of the ultimate power of the British civil administration in the Middle East, they were clever enough to retain “the cold skeleton of the old Turkish regime,” for, in spite of all its faults of omission and commission, “it was a system that the population understood,” the Journal commented. Within that context, tribal matters were dealt with in accordance with tribal customs and a sympathetic attitude was adopted towards the various “races, religions and factions” that comprised the people of Iraq. Not too long into the new post, Sir Percy enthroned King Faisal of Iraq in August 1921, a young emir “whose dignified bearing and courtly speech won the hearts of Mohammadean, Christian and Jew.” (For his part, King Faisal “acknowledged without reserve the debt that he and the young kingdom owed to the creative genius of the High Commissioner.”) For the next year, Cox was of central importance to the Government of Baghdad, living in a large house where he entertained high society Sheikhs who, in turn, instilled confidence in the British Residency.

By 1914, Cox had become a champion of Arab nationalism, working closely with Gertrude Bell—the brilliant and daring feminine figure among this class of gentlemen-rogues—and T.E. Lawrence; to this end, Sir Percy’s popularity was as well-known and widespread as “Lawrence of Arabia.” (Bell noted that the respect that Cox enjoyed among Arab leadership of the day was unparalleled, declaring: “It’s really amazing that anyone should exercise influence such as his…I don’t think that any European in history has made a deeper impression on the Oriental mind.”) It was Sir Percy who first attempted to secure an alliance with Ibn Saud and Cox’s main priority was to protect and prevent Saud from joining the Turkish side in the war.

His affection for Arabia was as profound as the influence of his political vision. It was Sir Percy’s personal friendship with Ibn Saud that had enabled him to obtain permission for Major Robert Cheesman—Cox’s private secretary, an ornithologist of the first-rank who collected over 300 Arabian species for the British Museum, and cartographer whose work mapping the Arabian coastline was presented to Ibn Saud in 1924—to make his journeys to Salwa in 1921 and 1923 to reach the oasis of Jabrin. As President of the Royal Geographic Society from 1935 to 1937, Sir Percy had heard Bertram Thomas describe to the Society the first crossing of the Empty Quarter—for, he had known Thomas as one of his junior officers in Basra—and of the expedition of Philby, whom Sir Percy had dispatched on a mission to Saud at Riyadh in 1917. “Kokkus,” as the locals called Cox in mispronouncing his name, “bestrode the Persian Gulf from shore to shore like a modern Colossus,” in the words of scholar Saul Kelly, and was picturesquely described by the Arabs as “the man with a thousand ears and only one tongue”—perhaps the most trusting, highest compliment any foreign diplomat, or any man for that matter, could be paid within the walls of the puzzle palace that is the modern Middle East.

It was, of course, T.E. Lawrence who was “the inspirer and moving spirit of all,” according to explorer Bertram Thomas. He added that Lawrence’s “way with the Arabs” became “the unrecognized canon of conduct.” A slight man of staggering courage, genius for guerrilla warfare and unrelenting sympathy for the Arabs, his landing at Jeddah in October 1916 was inauspicious. “His military experience was nil,” wrote the historian C. Kaeppel in an article on the Lawrence enigma in The Australian Quarterly, March 1936. “But,” continues Kaeppel, “he had had an extraordinary good training for all that was to come, though only an exceptional mind could use that training to the full.” At Oxford, fellow students testified to Lawrence’s oft-stated dream of “freeing the Arab from the Turkish yoke” and how with this in view he learned Arabic. “Even more important,” wrote Kaeppel, “was his profound study of military history and military theory and we know from another friend that he spent many vacations trampling Syria and thinking out the campaigns of Saladin.” Lawrence had toured the Near East on foot before the war in order to study the architecture of the Crusades, accompanying the great English Arabist D.G. Hogarth to the Euphrates to excavate the site of Carchemish for the British museum (of Hogarth himself, H. St. John Philby had written: “No man…had a more encyclopedic knowledge of Arabia, for which strange country he always had a peculiarly tender spot in his great heart”). There, Lawrence pursued ancient basalt reliefs “with no less energy than he would expend on the destruction of a Turkish battalion in the war.”

The nature of the fame of T.E. Lawrence has suffered extraordinary vicissitudes, but the best biographies of Robert Graves (1927), Liddell Hart (1934) and, best of all, of Jean Beraud-Villars (1955) set the record straight following years and decades of sarcastic detractors (Richard Aldington’s rancid and mean “biographical enquiry” foremost), ultimately confirming that the man behind The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926) was genuine and consistent with the man found in Lawrence’s letters (Selected Letters of T.E. Lawrence, ed. David Garnett, 1954), as was the portrayal in Pillars of the Arab Revolt, give or take a historical omission or exaggeration along the way. (One must keep in mind that Lawrence had lost the manuscript of Pillars in early 1919 and had to write the entire first eight chapters from memory). Naturally, there will always be the desk-chained scholar-dullard ever ready to wheedle, needle and pinprick some unearthed sputum about “the real Lawrence” and “the flawed man” in an attempt to dismantle the cloak of myth worn like the royal purple around Lawrence’s name in hopes of exposing the mere invention of American PR via Lowell Thomas’ fantastic imagination. Despite all this, the magnificence of the person of El Aurens has endured, and it has endured brilliantly.

From October 1916 to October 1918, Major Lawrence had labored tirelessly with the Arab forces as an advisor to the Sherif Feisal and other Arab leaders, shaping policy and taking part himself in the guerrilla warfare of the desert that was being waged in the Hejaz (western Arabia), Jordan and southwestern Syria. Two main elements comprised the Lawrence tradition: the military importance of the Arab war against the Turks in those lands, and Lawrence’s dominating role in this irregular desert warfare “as military genius and outstanding leader,” wrote Kaeppel. As described by scholar J.T. Laird, in a March 1960 article, “T.E. Lawrence and the Problem of Interpretation,” “[T]hose who had known Lawrence intimately testified in the strongest terms to his strength of character, qualities of leadership, and his role in the Arab Revolt.” As to the self-aggrandizement thought to be part and parcel of “the Lawrence myth,” even the annotated notes by Lawrence on Graves’ favorable biography of him contains corrections by Lawrence asserting a more modest interpretation of events than what Graves sought to portray. Then, too, the scholar Laird adds that one must not forget that in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence states outright that his was a junior rank in the hierarchy of British officers and makes it clear that the scope of his duty was of limited range. Of that stunning work, Laird writes:

The descriptive element in the writing vividly re-creates the life Lawrence led during his two years among the Arabs, in all its drama, color and strangeness and with an intensity that none of the biographies can match. There are also numerous passages of self-revealing comment, confession and introspection in which, sometimes intentionally and at other times only half intentionally, Lawrence bares his soul. It is those subjectivity and descriptive powers that constitute the main merits of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, making it an autobiographic work of rare and abiding interest.

The other instance of this deep self-criticism was to be found in Lawrence’s published Letters. As A.J Dunston, writing in The Australian Quarterly, September 1955, remarked: “Some of the letters, revealing the depths of suffering to which [Lawrence] subjected himself in the Army make such painful reading that one may wonder why his friends have given them to the world”. Another book, The Mint, published posthumously, was Lawrence’s description of his time in the Royal Air Force into which he enlisted after World War I and where he sought to shake off his fame and assume a low-key identity. The book is a “worthy companion to Seven Pillars,” writes Dunston; it was highly praised by E.M Forster. To paraphrase a later comment of Dunston, one can only speculate on the further greatness to which the literary genius of Lawrence could have attained.

“What he had done in Arabia—more important, what he had experienced—was epic in its proportions and even a glance at his life prompts one to speculate about the equivocal nature of heroism in our century,” wrote Irving Howe in the Autumn 1962 edition of The Hudson Review. “For the minority of men to whom reflection upon human existence is both a need and a pleasure, Lawrence still seems to matter”—a statement to which one might have answered: those are the only kind of men who would have mattered to Lawrence, anyway.

And still yet, there was also the figure at the center of it all who made it possible for these legends to become the very stuff of legend: King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the first ruler of the unified Saudi state.

Islam, as is well known, grew very fast and eventually became much too vast for Arab cohesive and constructive forces. Soon the Arabian Peninsula, after having established a permanent ascendancy for the Arab language and civilization outside Arabia proper, relapsed into chaotic disorganization. It took many centuries until it was awakened again, this time by the religious impulse of what is called “Wahhabism” in the West, a once popular term for the school of Sunni Islam followed in Saudi Arabia yet generally considered pejorative by Saudis themselves as their belief does not permit a personalized, messianic interpretation (think: “Calvinism,” or “Leninism”). In an article of 1955 by C.C. Lewis, “Ibn Saud and the Future of Arabia,” the author states: “The death of King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud on November 9, 1953 a fortnight before his seventy-third birthday closed a great chapter in the history of the Arabian peninsula: certainly the greatest since the days when the Prophet Mohammad and his successors spread the fame of Arabia through the world ‘with the Book and Sword of Islam’ and created an empire of which the desert homeland of the Arabs became an insignificant province.” Lewis continues: “Such it remained for a millennium until the Islamic renaissance of Sheikh Mohammad ibn Abdul Wahhab in the middle of the eighteenth century laid the foundation of a new dispensation in Arabia, which has flowered in our time in what may be fairly called a golden age of peace and prosperity… A process of secularization settling in, wealth hastening a moral and material transformation.”

Ibn (or “bin,” meaning “son of”) Saud, the climax of generations of tribal chieftains in the Nejd, central Arabia, spent his exiled childhood lounging about the cafes and streets of cosmopolitan Kuwait, “a swaggering buck of inexhaustible physical activity,” according to Philby in an April 1954 essay on the Saudi king for Foreign Affairs. He returned to Arabia at the beginning of the twentieth century to re-establish the rule of his family in the Nejd, which was also the birthplace of Mohammad ibn Abdul Wahhab around 1750, Islam’s equivalent of a firebrand Cromwellian Puritan reformer. Saud himself was known to be pious, but was far from being fanatic; the dominant idea of his life was never Pan-Islamism but ardent Arab nationalism. He was persuaded that Arabs could be great again, but for this, they had to be “inflamed by an idea” that, according to Philby, “would purge away their incessant bickerings.” Philby goes on to describe how Ibn Saud was “striving, and with success, to divert the religious enthusiasm of his followers into modern social activity. Arabia has not only to organize but also to enter the complex civilization which, having originated about two hundred years ago in Western Europe is now on its way to becoming universal since the world war.”

In 1914, four important Arab noble families could be considered as possible competitors for the hegemony of Arabia: The Hashemite Sherifs of Mecca, the ibn Rashids in the north, the ibn Sauds in the Nejd and the Imam of Yemen. The first pulses of Arab nationalism had just reached the interior of the secluded regions of Arabia and these began to inspire new ambitions to hegemony. For one of these families to secure such hegemony, there were two things necessary: a great idea and a radical economic transformation for tribal life in the Peninsula. “It was this unyielding land and this wayward people that ibn Saud set himself to rule,” wrote Philby. “He laid a relentless hand on the stiff necks of the quarrelsome desert dwellers who never before had been tranquilized. One of his ways of dealing with them was to exploit their very unruliness.” The meeting of this material reorganization of Arab life and the spiritual idea of unification “under the Wahhabi banner” became the main forces of transformation and Saud’s enemies were never more than raiding Bedouins “worn down by his magnetism, vitality, and patience.” By 1912, he had removed the last opposition in the Nejd, where he crushed an insurrection generated by his cousins and accomplished his transition from the status of desert sheikh to that of a state power.

Ibn Saud held rigorously to strict Sunni Islam but was known to love life, enjoyed great humor, and bore a profound distrust of any thinking that was extreme. Foremost on his mind was economic development. In 1924 there were three cars in the Hejaz; within a few years, 1500. As another scholar noted: “He conducts negotiations with foreign capitalists. For the opening of a state bank, for the construction of railways, for the granting of concessions for the exploitation of the mineral resources of his country, for the supply of electric power outside two or three cities which possess it already. He is moderate, he encourages moderation among the Wahhabis and there is a distinct lack of savagery.”

That distinct lack of savagery was also observed by Parker T. Hart, the U.S. Ambassador to Riyadh in the 1960s and, in 1949, the first foreign official to open a consulate in Dhahran, the site of the newly discovered oilfields in the kingdom. He recounts in his 1999 posthumously published memoir the story of one of the king’s incessant confrontations with his own Ikhwan, a kind of Wahhabi gendarme, fanatic in the extreme. Upon seeing a radio at Ibn Saud’s modest desert “palace” one day, these forces demanded that the satanic technology be destroyed at once under threat of violence. Ibn Saud calmly regarded the wild tribesmen before him, took note of the time, leaned over to turn on the radio, and tuned into Radio Cairo’s evening broadcast. The call to prayers had just come on and a muezzin’s voice filled the space between the royal chief and his warring nomads. The Ikhwan fell into stunned silence. “Is this the satanic evil to which you were referring?” Saud asked them. The men looked on, saying nothing. The king then commanded: “Now, get out of here and don’t ever tell me again what is evil on this earth and what is not.”

The year 1924 was a decisive year in the history of Arabia. It marked the beginning of a new epoch: The active re-entry of the desert peninsula into world history and the effort of the nomad to adopt himself to the conditions of modern life and civilized society. In the fall of 1925, a British mission was sent to Riyadh to come to a final understanding with ibn Saud after years of supporting his rivals. By 1926, his dominions stretched from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea, yet his biggest achievement was to bring peace and security to the desert and within a few months he had established complete order among the unruly tribes. In 1933, the “Sultan of the Nejd and King of the Hejaz” became the King of Saudi Arabia. “After much procrastination and many false starts,” wrote Philby, “the British government bowed its head to what could no longer be avoided and recognized that ibn Saud was the master of Arabia.”

The flood of fabulous riches to follow with the discovery of oil eventually wrought much moral and social damage, not to a mention religious-clerical backlash only to worsen over the decades. Yet, at the time, the old king remained invulnerable to the ethical distortions and excess of sudden wealth. “Faisal, Saud is your brother. Saud, Faisal is your brother. There is no power and strength save in God,” he said to his sons in warning them of the temptations of money and power, as quoted by author Leslie McLoughlin’s Ibn Saud: Founder of a Kingdom (1993). It is no wonder this king was so admired by the zealous gaggle of great Western adventurers who plundered Arabia for knowledge, wisdom, and self-discovery, and who sought out the presence and approval of this most Eastern of potentate-leaders. For, they were, all of them, one in the same man, of the same mind, and sharing the same soul.

In 1991, a team of British and American archaeologists with the assistance of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) of NASA discovered through infrared satellite imaging the lost city of Ubar deeply buried in the Rub Al Khali desert just within the Saudi-Omani border. The fabled lost city was successfully found when the JPL was able to compare Ptolemaic maps of the Arabian Peninsula with recent Land Sat maps and “imaged” trails leading into the desert. No visible ruins could be seen on the ground, but from space and with ground penetrating radar, ruins could be seen under the sand. The city was built around the great frankincense trade, that intoxicating resin once as valuable as gold at a time, three thousand years ago, when it was easier to travel the length of Arabia than it was in the early twentieth century. The archaeologists unearthed a fortress buried deep within the killer sands, a structure ten stories high with eight towers in the corners of its octagonal structure. According to the Koran, Ubar went under as a city of iniquity; its legend lived on in the Thousand and One Nights.

The legend of Ubar has existed from time immemorial but the first authentic information about the interior of Arabia came to Europe from the ill-fated expedition of Aeilus Gallus, the Roman. The spice routes of southern Arabia had long carried on active trade with East and West and that wealth created seats of powerful kingdoms. In Genesis, Paran is thought to be the area of Hejaz in Saudi Arabia today (where Mecca is located) and Hadhramaut, a city in Yemen, is derived from the name of the son of Joktan, the ancestor of all South Arabian kingdoms, from which a civilization sprung up which only echoes in the Muslim tradition. The dark past of Arabian Peninsula was lit up and long before the days of Islam; it was a land of culture and literature, a seat of kingdoms and trade, all of which exercised their influence upon the history of the world.

It took the romantic curiosity of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth scholar-adventurers to unearth this secretive land once more, men who toiled till the end for their belief in Arab independence, never ceasing to be spellbound by that land’s still-bewitching effects. “I pray God that these clouds may pass,” wrote Sir John Glubb of the violent and depressing consequences suffered by the region upon the resolution of the United Nations Partition of Palestine at the end of the British Mandate in November 1947. He wished “that old friendships may once more be renewed and that one day the nightmare of hatreds in which we live will be succeeded by a wiser, happier, more tolerant and more charitable age.”

That age has not come, nor will it, as men of such caliber rarely, if at all, exist today, mostly because they are not allowed to, mainly because few men see the need for, or the purpose of, a life of high moral stature. As is known, these great explorers were disillusioned by the very calling that defined their lives, yet it could not have been any other way. One is reminded of the Hermann Hesse character, Demian, who asks: “I wanted only to try to live in obedience to the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?” It is this ordinary summons that makes for extraordinary men, no matter how so very difficult the journey. The complexity of its aphoristic simplicity is, too, a mystery of existence, one perhaps as unknown as a pristine desert that, like anything, remains clean until soiled by human touch devoid of the divine spark—a quality present only in those fallen gods who live life on earth with a sense of Heaven in themselves, and struggling to find out how he and the mankind he serves may return there.

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3 replies to this post
  1. What a pleasure to read your work on these pages once again. And what a splendid contrast to the bleak sense of reading a recent CNN article in praise of an Iraqi womam who “boils the heads of ISIS enemies” as if such savage practices on the part of a woman – simply because they were performed against savages – thus made her a modern feminist icon. If something of the caliber of your essay had formed the content of contemporary Western thought about the Arab world sooner, it is possible we might find our bearings rather than suffer the violent emotions between bomb-them-all rage and to-hell-with-them futility.

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