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In 1978, Edward Said, the late Palestinian-American professor of English at Columbia University, published Orientalism, a study that condemns virtually all Western literature and scholarship on Islamic matters as an instrument of imperialism. The Orient, he maintains, is the Orientalists' invention. There is in fact no Islamic civilization that circumscribes the thoughts and feelings of individual Muslims. Rather there are numberless individuals who happen to be Muslims, and who are every bit as singular in their experiences as their counterparts in Christendom, so that to spout sonorous generalities about Islamic types is an unforgivable imaginative and moral failure. In describing this Islamic Orient that doesn't exist in the first place, Western writers always get it wrong. Although Said discreetly avoids describing in any detail what a true representation would be, one gathers from scattered remarks that his Muslims are universally tolerant, peace-loving, moderate in their religious devotion, and passionate in their pursuit of political freedom -- essentially indistinguishable from their Western brethren in everything but the experience of Western oppression.
Said criticizes several distinguished professors of Oriental
Studies -- Louis Massignon, Sir Hamilton Gibb, Bernard
Lewis -- but he reserves a special disdain for some of
the great Western literary travelers through Muslim lands, such as
Chateaubriand, Edward Lane, Gustave Flaubert, Richard F. Burton,
Charles Doughty, and T.E. Lawrence. So varied and intelligent a group
of writers surely deserves a second look. The Western encounter with
Islam goes back to the Middle Ages, but even if we follow Said and
confine our attention to the past two centuries or so, the picture
that emerges is far different from the one painted in Orientalism. The
travel literature is far more open-minded and perceptive than Said's
animadversions suggest, and besides, he leaves out important figures
like Alexis de Tocqueville, John Lloyd Stephens, Mark Twain, and
Robert Byron. These writers were all earnest searchers after Islamic
civilization, and contrary to Said's caricature, what they observed
can instruct us still.
If there is a writer in this company who nearly fits Said's description of the Orientalist enterprise, it is François-Auguste-René, Vicomte de Chateaubriand, best known as a memoirist, diplomat, panegyrist of Christianity, and novelist of American Indian noble savagery. His Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem (1811) extols French martial pride in its collision with Levantine thuggery, trembles at the mystery of sacred places irradiated by eternity, derogates the Arab greed that now prevails in the Holy Land where Jesus preached charity, celebrates the superior piety of the Arab Christians, and reviles the sacrilegious monstrosity of the savage Mussulman. Against the sanctity of Jerusalem -- or at least of its Christian vestiges -- he pits the hopeless sensuality of Constantinople, where no man is master of himself. Egypt he laments as "the land where civilization was born and where ignorance and barbarism reign today." The Arabs may live "in the Orient whence all the arts, all the sciences, all the religions emerged," but they are little better than primitives now. "[W]ith the American Indian everything declares that the savage has never reached the state of civilization," he writes, "while with the Arab everything indicates that the civilized man has fallen back into a state of savagery."
Between such a race and the peoples of Christendom the natural condition is war. In the Crusades, sweet justice crossed swords with the forces of darkness, and the world would be a better place had the conflict been settled then once and for all. The Crusades "had to do, not only with the deliverance of the Holy Sepulcher, but with the question of which ought to prevail on earth, a religion inimical to civilization, systematically disposed to ignorance, to despotism, to slavery, or a religion which revived among the moderns the genius of sage antiquity and which abolished servitude.... The spirit of Mahometanism is persecution and conquest; the Gospel on the contrary preaches only tolerance and peace." Preaching tolerance and peace leaves Chateaubriand positively sweat-soaked with war fever.
But he had his reasons. The insults and injuries to which Christians and Jews are subjected under Muslim tyranny rub him raw. The priestly order that watches over Christ's tomb, Chateaubriand observes, is endlessly humiliated and tormented at the hands of Turkish officialdom. The situation for the Jew is worse still:
Particular object of all contempt, he bows his head without complaint; he suffers all insults without asking for justice; he lets himself be showered with blows without sighing; if someone calls for his head, he presents it at the cemetery.... [O]ne has to see these rightful masters of Judea slaves and strangers in their own country; one has to see them awaiting, under all these oppressions, a king who shall deliver them.
Jews in Jerusalem, Chateaubriand writes, live as Frenchmen did under the Reign of Terror. But then so do the Muslims, although it is Muslims who rule:
Accustomed to follow the fortunes of a master, they have no law that connects them to ideas of order and political moderation: to kill, when one is the stronger, seems to them a legitimate right; they exercise that right or submit to it with the same indifference... They don't know liberty; they have no property rights; force is their God.
In Said's view, these are all calumnies, and Chateaubriand is the
polluted wellspring from which the tales of subsequent travelers flow.
Alexis de Tocqueville, whose writings on Algeria Said does not mention, tells a different story. In his two "Letters on Algeria" (1837) that he wrote -- without yet having set foot in that land -- as a candidate for the Chamber of Deputies, he praises the Kabyles, who inhabit the Atlas Mountains, as the real freedom-loving noble savages, far worthier of that appellation than the Caribs and other American Indians that Rousseau eulogized. In the Atlas "he would have found men subject to a sort of social police and nonetheless almost as free as the isolated individual who enjoys his savage independence in the heart of the woods; men who are neither rich nor poor, neither servants nor masters; who name their own leaders, and hardly notice that they have leaders." Yet the Kabyles' nobility does not soften their savagery: they love their freedom so much that should "you wish to visit them in their mountains, even if you came with the best intentions in the world, even if you had no aim but to speak about morality, civilization, fine arts, political economy, or philosophy, they would assuredly cut off your head." The coastal Arabs share the Kabyles' love of liberty: they place it "above all the pleasures and would sooner flee into the desert sands than vegetate under a master." Not so peremptorily inhospitable as the Kabyles, they nevertheless "love war, pomp, and tumult above all." Yet for all their ferocity, Tocqueville's Algerians are amenable to the benefits of European progress; they want what Europeans have so long as it doesn't threaten to take away what they have: their prized liberty. These half-civilized tribesmen already possess what Tocqueville considers the better half of civilization.
In his "Essay on Algeria" (1841), written after his first voyage there, Tocqueville condemns the savagery with which the French army is attempting to impose civilization on the Arabs: "we are now fighting far more barbarously than the Arabs themselves. For the present, it is on their side that one meets with civilization." In his "First Report on Algeria" (1847), written after his second trip, he deplores the colonial administration that has gutted the native system of charity-supported schooling in religion and law. "Muslim society in Africa was not uncivilized; it was merely a backward and imperfect civilization.... [W]e have made Muslim society much more miserable, more disordered, more ignorant, and more barbarous than it had been before knowing us." He advocates cultivating the best in Muslim civilization rather than razing it and erecting a European showpiece in its place:
[W]e must demand of them things that suit their ways, and not those contrary to them. Individual property, industry, and sedentary dwelling are in no way contrary to the religion of Muhammad. Arabs know or have known these things elsewhere; they are known and appreciated by some in Algeria itself.... Islam is not absolutely impenetrable to enlightenment: it has often admitted certain sciences or certain arts into itself. Why do we not seek to make these flourish in our empire?
Among the native ways to be preserved is the Muslim faith. To try
to eradicate it as a noxious superstition would only divert legitimate
religious passions into politically incendiary channels, so that the
maddest mullahs would dominate the scene. Although Tocqueville does
not doubt for a moment that France should have an empire in Muslim
lands, his moderation and delicacy seek to transform the bloody clash
of civilizations into a relatively gentle reconciliation. No wonder
Said has no place for him in his rogues' gallery of Oriental
Another Orientalist writer with a moderate spirit and a delicate touch is Edward William Lane, author of An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1836; revised, 1860), translator of The Thousand and One Nights, and compiler of the Arabic-English Lexicon. Said typically faults him as overbearing, presumptuously encyclopedic, and unable to establish a human connection with his Egyptian subjects. But in fact Lane writes with an appealing sense of human comedy, which he finds abundant in Muslim piety; he presents it with the deft irony of the philosophes but without their scourging contempt. Of a friend's peculiar religious proclivity he composes an endearing vignette of holiness gone around the bend:
He was then a member of the order of the Saadeeyeh darweeshes [dervishes], who are particularly famous for devouring live serpents; and he is said to have been one of the serpent eaters; but he did not confine himself to food so easily digested. One night, during a meeting of a party of darweeshes of his order, at which their Sheykh was present, my friend became affected with religious frenzy, seized a tall glass shade which surrounded a candle placed on the floor, and ate a large portion of it. The Sheykh and the other darweeshes, looking at him with astonishment, upbraided him with having broken the institutes of his order; since the eating of glass was not among the miracles which they were allowed to perform; and they immediately expelled him.
Several embarrassing relapses occur before his friend becomes a recovering vitrophage. The tale is a hoot, and Lane tells it without malice or disdain.
Yet the deadpan style serves not only Lane's gentle humor, but his asperity, too, as in the description of the Egyptian child's religious upbringing: "He receives also lessons of religious pride, and learns to hate the Christians, and all other sects but his own, as thoroughly as does the Muslim in advanced age." Of those whom the Muslim hates, Jews enjoy pride of place:
Not long ago, they used often to be jostled in the streets of Cairo, and sometimes beaten merely for passing on the right hand of a Muslim. At present, they are less oppressed; but still they scarcely ever dare to utter a word of abuse when reviled or beaten unjustly by the meanest Arab or Turk; for many a Jew has been put to death upon a false and malicious accusation of uttering disrespectful words against the Kuran or the Prophet. It is common to hear an Arab abuse his jaded ass, and, after applying to him various opprobrious epithets, end by calling the beast a Jew.
Lane's imperturbable reasonableness is the perfect instrument with which to slice unreason wide open and reveal how close the amusing lies to the appalling.
The American traveler John Lloyd Stephens, author of Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea, and the Holy Land (1837) -- and of even more celebrated books about his explorations in Yucatan and Central America -- also wields a skeptical intelligence lightly in his encounters with Muslim superstition. Sound Yankee common sense and compassion are his measuring sticks, and he discovers a great deal on his journey that doesn't meet those specifications. After climbing Mount Sinai, he tells a Bedouin and an old Bulgarian monk that he remembers a traditional Muslim story in which Muhammad rides a camel to the mountaintop before ascending to the seventh heaven. Stephens had forgotten to look for the camel's footprint, which was supposedly preserved there on the rock. The blowhard monk spits all over the Muslim legend; everyone knows the camel had stumbled and broken Muhammad's neck before they got halfway up. The incensed Bedouin counters that the story is incontrovertible: it appears in the Koran, he himself has seen the footprint many times, and it is "visible only to the eyes of true believers." Abandoning all reason in their dispute, Christian and Muslim true believer become equally ridiculous to Stephens.
A little devotion goes a long way for the pragmatic Stephens:
It was strange to be brought into such immediate contact with the disciples of fatalism. If we did not reach the point we were aiming at, God willed it; if it rained, God willed it; and I suppose that, if they had happened to lay their black hands upon my throat, and stripped me of everything I possessed, they would have piously raised their eyes to heaven, and cried, 'God wills it.'
Attributing all to the will of God renders human agency pathetically ineffectual, as Stephens demonstrates with an anecdote about two Turks who smoke casually after an earthquake, their safekeeping entrusted to Allah, before being crushed by falling rubble.
Stephens finds that the will of Allah and the honor of the Prophet provide a useful excuse for beastly behavior. In Hebron he notes the profound Muslim revulsion at the Jewish presence: the Jews "were removed from the Turkish quarter, as if the slightest contact with this once-favored people would contaminate the bigoted follower of the Prophet." Jewish hospitality pierces Stephens's heart, as he and a circle of pious Jews talk of "Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as of old and mutual friends." The Hebrew patriarchs are buried under the floor of the mosque in Hebron, and Jews and Christians are forbidden to pay their respects, as Stephens finds out when he tries to do just that. The particular Muslim hatred of Jews is, as we see, a leitmotif in the early 19th-century travel literature. The contention widespread today that such hatred is a European import, or a reaction to Zionism, is clearly a self-serving canard. Stephens finds much in his travels to offend him, and his composure is often strained to the breaking point.
In the notebooks and letters that record Gustave Flaubert's journey to Egypt in 1849-1850 (collected in the volume Flaubert in Egypt, edited by Francis Steegmuller), enlightened liberal good sense is joined to libertine brio. Flaubert gambols through Egypt as a sex tourist, and his sole pious obeisance is to the spirit of Voltaire, who is constantly at his right hand, though he withdraws discreetly when Flaubert visits the whorehouse. Travel on these terms, Flaubert remarks repeatedly, is the antidote for terminal boredom. And surely there is much to divert him; the satisfaction of every lewd impulse is readily available here. He becomes an exultant connoisseur of fleshly heat and texture. Upon leaving the bed of the celebrated courtesan Kuchuk Hanem, Flaubert roars, "I felt like a tiger."
The caterwauling of dervishes in rapture also has its appeal for the traveler:
Just the evening before, we had been in a monastery of dervishes where we saw one fall into convulsions from shouting 'Allah!' These are very fine sights, which would have brought many a good laugh from M. de Voltaire. Imagine his remarks about the poor old human mind! About fanaticism! Superstition! None of it made me laugh in the slightest, and it is all too absorbing to be appalling. The most terrible thing is their music.
It is the preposterousness of the human mind, not the Muslim
mind, that most bemuses Flaubert; like Voltaire, he has found
fanaticism and superstition enough in Christendom just as in Islam.
With Flaubert, as with Stephens, one sees the beginnings of a rare
cultural clear-sightedness, in which the faults and oddities of
Western civilization are as evident to the traveler's eye as those of
the Muslim world; we will see this tendency grow more marked with
subsequent travelers. Still, there is no shortage of Oriental
bizarrerie to engage Flaubert's rapt disinterested regard, even if he
is neither appalled nor amused, or at any rate says he is not.
In The Innocents Abroad (1869), Mark Twain manages to be simultaneously amused and appalled, and by things that are mostly just appalling. When it comes to the sheer physical horror of a swarm of deformed beggars, he observes that Europe is no match for Asia:
If you want dwarfs -- I mean just a few dwarfs for a curiosity -- go to Genoa. If you wish to buy them by the gross, for retail, go to Milan... But if you would see the very heart and home of cripples and human monsters, both, go straight to Constantinople. A beggar in Naples who can show a foot which has all run into one horrible toe, with one shapeless nail on it, has a fortune -- but such an exhibition as that would not provoke any notice in Constantinople. The man would starve... O, wretched impostor! How could he stand against the three-legged woman, and the man with his eye in his cheek? How would he blush in presence of the man with fingers on his elbow?
Twain finds Levantine existence to be crippled and beggarly all around. In the Valley of Lebanon he remarks on the startling absence of technological advancement, the woeful persistence of pig-ignorance. "The plows these people use are simply a sharpened stick, such as Abraham plowed with, and they still winnow their wheat as he did -- they pile it on the house-top, and then toss it by shovel-fulls into the air until the wind has blown all the chaff away. They never invent anything, never learn anything." The homeland of material misery and squalor is also the preserve of the stunted and twisted in morals: "Mosques are plenty, churches are plenty, graveyards are plenty, but morals and whiskey are scarce. The Koran does not permit Mohammedans to drink. Their natural instincts do not permit them to be moral. They say the Sultan has eight hundred wives. This almost amounts to bigamy. It makes our cheeks burn with shame to see such a thing permitted here in Turkey. We do not mind it so much in Salt Lake, however."
Twain finds more hypocrisy to skewer, even among the Christian gentlefolk of his own touring party, who desecrate a mosque by doing what tourists do:
To step rudely upon the sacred praying mats, with booted feet -- a thing not done by any Arab -- was to inflict pain upon men who had not offended us in any way. Suppose a party of armed foreigners were to enter a village church in America and break ornaments from the altar railings for curiosities, and climb up and walk upon the Bible and the pulpit cushions? However, the cases are different. One is the profanation of a temple of our faith -- the other only the profanation of a pagan one.
Yet Twain does not remain sanctimonious for long. In Jerusalem the sight of a legendary crusader's magic sword fills his head with entrancing mayhem: "I can never forget old Godfrey's sword, now. I tried it on a Muslim, and clove him in twain like a doughnut ... [I]f I had had a graveyard I would have destroyed all the infidels in Jerusalem." The varied tone of Twain's book -- animadversions alternating with apologies, the baldest irreverence salved by grave decency -- captures the American ambivalence toward the Muslim world that persists to this day: we cannot but think there is something strange and even horrible about it, but deep down it cannot be considered unreachably alien. Democratic compassion overcomes an equally natural antipathy for poverty, ignorance, superstition, and the sheer staggering repulsiveness of despots with 800 wives.
Sir Richard Francis Burton, the nonpareil linguist, irrepressible venturer into the world's least hospitable corners, inspired translator of The Arabian Nights, and author of Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah (1855), enjoys a reputation as one of the travelers most sympathetic to the Muslim world. As an "amateur barbarian," and someone "thoroughly tired of 'progress' and 'civilisation,'" he posed as an Indian Muslim doctor and made the hajj to Mecca and Medina, cities forbidden to any Christian. He also said many flattering things about the Islamic world: the Muslims did better by their slaves than the Christians did by their poor freemen; critics of Muslim learning ought to consider how constricted and enervating a reasonable Muslim would find Trinity College or Christ Church; women were "a marketable commodity" in Western civilization as in Oriental barbarism; the harem is not a pit of evil, or even as nasty as some European family arrangements; the "origin of 'love' [could be attributed] to the influence of the Arabs' poetry and chivalry upon European ideas rather than to medieval Christianity"; and the "Moslem may be more tolerant, more enlightened, more charitable, than many societies of self-styled Christians." Surely so generous an appraiser of Oriental virtues would not fit Said's stereotype of the Orientalist; yet Said assaults Burton as an imperialist agent beneath all the kind words.
He is not entirely wrong to do so. For it is also true that Burton's regard for the Orient extended only so far. He ultimately held European civilization not only superior, but fit to rule the East for its own good. He does not hesitate to call the outlandish aspects of the Muslim faith what they are, and the Islam he depicts is a civilization short on real wisdom. At Cairo's Islamic university, the renowned Al-Azhar, science is slighted and nonsense proliferates: "The natural sciences find but scant favour on the banks of the Nile. Astronomy is still astrology, geography a heap of names, and natural history a mass of fables. Alchemy, geomancy, and summoning of fiends are pet pursuits...." Hatred of the infidel, "the bad leaven of bigotry," is an indelible feature of Muslim teaching, especially in Egypt: "The same tongue which is employed in blessing Allah is, it is conceived, doing its work equally well in cursing Allah's enemies. Wherefore the Kafir is denounced by every sex, age, class, and condition, by the man of the world, as by the boy at school; and out of, as well as in, the Mosque." Burton, who finds so much to praise in Muslim civilization, finds just as much to detest in Muslim barbarism; and the lower is an inseparable part of the higher in this case.
The most famous, and the most notorious, description of the higher and lower Muslim natures conjoined comes in Charles M. Doughty's 1,200-page classic, Travels in Arabia Deserta (1888). Like Burton, Doughty was a prodigious linguist and a man of great daring; unlike Burton, he made his way into the depths of the Arabian desert without attempting to hide the fact that he was a Nasrany -- a Nazarene, a Christian -- whose very presence most Arabs regarded as "a calamity in their land." Doughty is quick to point out the calamities the Arabs bring upon themselves. He observes the deadly toll that the hajj exacts each year in the name of Muslim piety. (It still does.) "Infinite are the miseries of the Haj; religion is a promise of good things to come, to poor folk, and many among them are half destitute persons. This pain, the words of that fatal Arabian, professing himself to be the messenger of Ullah [Allah], have imposed upon ten thousands every year of afflicted mankind!" Muslim law also afflicts womankind, in his view, with the unavoidable injustice of the marriage arrangements: polygamy and divorce laws make women virtually disposable. Slavery, too, draws his particular reprobation; informing a righteous Muslim that there is no slavery in England, Doughty provokes his companion's embarrassment at "some flaws in their manners, some heathenish shadows in his religion where there was no spot in ours...."
Doughty pays the price for his boldness: he is beaten, robbed,
imprisoned, and threatened with death, all for what one tormentor
calls his "misreligion." "In what land, I thought, am I now arrived!
and who are these that take me (because of Christ's sweet name!) for
an enemy of mankind?" The true enemy, he cries, is the religion that
is a "Chimaera of human self-love, malice, and fear!" When a friendly
Arab advises him to avoid this tribulation by nominally converting to
Islam, Doughty's Christian fatalism is as obdurate as the Muslim's
usually is: "If it please God I will pass, whether they will or no."
Doughty's pious nerve is a match for the viciousness of the Arabs:
"'Dreadest thou not to die!' -- 'I have not so lived, Moslem, that I
must fear to die!' The wretch regarded me! and I beheld again his
hardly human visage: the cheeks were scotched with three gashes upon a
side!" Doughty's encounter with the faith of "that fatal Arabian," and
other near-fatal Arabians who swear by their Prophet's teaching, shows
the clash of civilizations as a mortal danger, which must be met with
high courage if one is to preserve his integrity, and his life.
T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, whom Winston Churchill extolled as the most chivalrous figure of the First World War, entertained the boldest hopes that the defeat of the Ottoman Empire would produce free Arab nations. In Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph (1926), Lawrence calls the struggle, in which he was the chief hero, an "Arab war waged and led by Arabs for an Arab aim in Arabia." But the war would not have taken place without his leadership. The book shows him instructing his Arab charges in the practice of civilized warfare, which requires a cool-headedness to overcome instinctive native heat. When one Arab, a Moroccan, kills another, an Ageyl, over nothing -- "Hamed confessed that, he and Salem having had words, he had seen red and shot him suddenly" -- Lawrence is faced with an uncontrollable blood feud if he lets the Ageyl retaliate.
There were other Moroccans in our army; and to let the Ageyl kill one in feud meant reprisals by which our unity would have been endangered. It must be a formal execution, and at last, desperately, I told Hamed that he must die for punishment, and laid the burden of his killing on myself. Perhaps they would count me not qualified for feud. At least no revenge could lie against my followers; for I was a stranger and kinless.
Cold rational justice must be enforced on a people who come all too readily to a boil, and Lawrence overcomes his own revulsion at the task of executioner in order to preserve the integrity of the fighting force. His description of the execution is terrible: Hamed crying and shrieking, Lawrence needing three shots to kill him, and trembling so violently that one of the bullets only breaks the victim's wrist. When it was over he had the men break camp in the middle of the night. "They had to lift me into the saddle," he confesses, suggesting that the civilizing mission weighs most heavily on the man doing the civilizing.
If he teaches his men justice, he also teaches them restraint. On their way to Aqaba, to strike a key strategic blow, the Arab army spies a Turkish column that would be easy pickings, at the cost of five or six men lost. Lawrence considers the loss unacceptable -- they will need every man for the Aqaba assault -- and calls the men off:
I told Zael, who was not content; while the furious Howeitat threatened to run off downhill at the Turks, willy-nilly. They wanted a booty of mules; and I, particularly, did not, for it would have diverted us. Commonly, tribes went to war to gain honour and wealth. The three noble spoils were arms, riding animals, and clothes. If we took these two hundred mules, the proud men would throw up Akaba and drive them home by way of Azrak to their tents, to triumph before the women.
One of Lawrence's lieutenants must bludgeon into submission a young tribesman eager for spoil, but the lesson is learned: in civilized warfare, which rationally calculates means and ends, instant gratification must be foregone for a higher purpose. Lawrence teaches the men whom he leads, and whom he professes to serve, how to unite their disparate forces and conduct war not for blood-anger or trifling prizes, but for their freedom.
Yet freedom from the Turks was followed by submission to the British and French; guilt for his failure to secure Arab freedom nearly breaks Lawrence. For in the middle of his mission Lawrence learns that the imperial powers will not grant the Arabs nations of their own, and the front of "reeking fraudulence" he must maintain with his men festers in his soul. His double life all but does him in:
In my case, the effort for these years to live in the dress of Arabs, and to imitate their mental foundation, quitted me of my English self, and let me look at the West and its conventions with new eyes: they destroyed it all for me. At the same time I could not sincerely take on the Arab skin: it was an affectation only.... Sometimes these selves would converse in the void; and then madness was very near, as I believe it would be near the man who could see things through the veils at once of two customs, two educations, two environments.
In The Valleys of the Assassins (1934), Freya Stark, whose Times (of London) obituary called her "the last of the Romantic Travellers," goes in quest of the heirs to the medieval Persian sect known as the Assassins, an offshoot of the Ismaili, a Shia branch famed for its learning. Not unexpectedly, she finds no worthy successors. What she does find is the imbecile inertia that seems standard in those parts. A friend refuses a doctor's help for his seriously ill daughter, who would be violated if a man were to see her; the girl of course dies. An opium-smoking doctor shrugs when she observes that his habit will kill him, showing the "melancholy fatalism which is all that the East promises to retain in the absence of religion." Asking for potatoes in a remote mountain village, she is told to go to the next village over, less than a mile off. "'They grow them there,' he added, 'but our village has never grown them. It is not our custom.'" In the mountains, where snow falls heavy in the winter, they have never "invented some means of locomotion like skis or snowshoes to break their prison." Necessity is the mother of resignation. The Ismaili enlightenment, snuffed out so long ago, shows no hope of revival in the land where they have no potatoes.
Like Stark, Robert Byron, author of The Road to Oxiana (1937), searches for a bygone Muslim epoch of light. In Afghanistan of all places, in the city of Herat, now "but a name and a ghost," there occurred the superb efflorescence of a Muslim civilization that truly knew how to live: the Timurid Renascence of the 15th century. "Strolling up the road towards the minarets, I feel as one might feel who has lighted on the lost books of Livy or an unknown Botticelli." There is nobility in Byron's Herat to make one weep. Of course, the flower of Islamic humanism is long wilted. An Afghan consul in Persia tells Byron that Balkh is "a historical city, the Home of the Aryan Race." This fevered claim to what is supposedly the most illustrious heritage -- an infection caught, Byron is sure, from Nazi Germany -- relieves the ignominy of what these people actually are now. Byron caustically notes that until the prior year the Afghans professed themselves Jews, the lost tribes of Israel. "But nothing is too fantastic for Asiatic nationalism."
Wilfred Thesiger, the daring Englishman whose journeys through the preternaturally barren Empty Quarter of Arabia in 1945-1950 are recounted in Arabian Sands (1959), mourns the demise of the Bedouin way of life even as he honors its putative glory. The "Arabian Nightmare," the new world introduced by the oil prospectors of the Iraq Petroleum Company in 1950, essentially renders Bedouin life extinct. To lose their hard, nomadic, camel-breeding existence Thesiger considers a tragedy. "They were not ignorant savages; on the contrary, they were the lineal heirs of a very ancient civilization, who found within the framework of their society the personal freedom and self-discipline for which they craved." He idealizes the fierce manliness of the Bedu: "Among no other people have I felt the same sense of personal inferiority." In place of their noble freedom, Thesiger foresees their future as "a parasitic proletariat squatting among oil-fields in the fly-blown squalor of shanty towns in some of the most sterile country in the world." Said never mentions him.
Like T.E. Lawrence, Thesiger is a soul in need of exemplary privations and purifying dangers; unlike Lawrence, who tries to bring justice and restraint to the wild tribesmen, Thesiger goggles rapturously at their most flagrant barbarities. He tells an awful tale in which a Saar herdsman fired at a gang of camel rustlers and killed a teenaged boy; the next day the dead boy's father and his men come upon a 14-year-old Saar boy and stab him to death: "I pictured the scene with horrible distinctness. The small, long-haired figure, in white loin-cloth, crumpled on the ground, the spreading pool of blood, the avid clustering flies, the frantic wailing of the dark-clad women, the terrified children, the shrill insistent screaming of a small baby." Yet for all his imaginative insight, Thesiger readily excuses the revenge-murder: "Vindictive as this age-old law of a life for a life and a tooth for a tooth might be, I realized none the less that it alone prevented wholesale murder among a people who were subject to no outside authority, and who had little regard for human life; for no man lightly involves his whole family or tribe in a blood-feud." No legal authority to which to appeal, small regard for human life: these define not "a very ancient civilization" but the cruelest savagery. Thesiger's need to prove himself a man among men in this barbaric company is pathetic and deeply uncivilized. He is the Bedouins' inferior: they are merely brutes, he a cultivated man -- an old Etonian and an Oxford graduate -- playing at brutishness and failing to realize the seriousness of the game.
When Ryszard Kapuscinski, the late Polish author of Shah of Shahs (1982), goes among the brutes, he knows where he is and what he is doing: in Iran, the brutes are whoever happens to be in power at the time. Iran had intense 20th-century longings for civilization, and even suffered the birth-pangs more than once, but no decent regime ever came out alive. Shah Reza Khan, the strongman installed by the British in 1925, was so bent on Westernizing his country that he forbade the photographing of camels as "symbolically backward" beasts. But the shah's support for Hitler rubbed the Allies the wrong way, and in 1941 the British solicited his abdication in favor of his 22-year-old son, Mohamed Reza Pahlavi.
The new shah had a beautiful young wife who bathed in milk, and he wore elevator shoes, which his loyal subjects reverently kissed for the photographic record. Five times assassins tried to enforce instant regime change; determined to keep the throne, the shah instituted a terror regime under the Savak, the secret police. He justified his terror as necessary protection for his project of building a "Great Civilization" in Iran. In 1973, flush with oil money, he promised that in ten years Iranian living standards would equal Western Europe's. For some they soon did: a "petro-bourgeoisie," established by the shah's patronage, would have lunch flown in from Maxim's of Paris. For most the glorious future never arrived: in 1979, with the shah gone, Kapuscinski would watch a peasant woman mold cow dung into cakes of heating fuel for her home. Instead, the shah's fecklessness and viciousness made the mullahs look like the preferable choice. But no Great Civilization was to come from an Islamic revolution. Kapuscinski shuddered at the spectacle of a million people praying en masse in Tehran's great square. We know how right he was to shudder.
With V.S. Naipaul, the Orientalist wheel comes full circle, and antipathy for the Muslim past and present is as vivid as in Chateaubriand. Naipaul, the Trinidad-born novelist, travel writer, and Nobel laureate for literature, writes of post-revolutionary Iran in Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981). He is unsparing in his loathing for the new regime. The revolutionary order is founded by men "without political doctrine, only with resentments." What he sees wherever he goes in Iran is rage, directed principally against all things Western and modern. A student informs him that "Islam was the only thing that made humans human" -- in effect denying humanity to non-Muslims. Individuality is to be eradicated in the name of mass holiness: "Unity, union, the backs bowed in prayers that were like drills, the faith of one the faith of all, the faith of all flowing into the faith of one and becoming divine, personality and helplessness abolished: union, surrender, facelessness, heaven." The inclination to take humanity as it comes that makes Naipaul a novelist also makes him a relentless critic of true belief befogged by abstraction. "You want men to be perfect. That's the difference between us," he tells a fervent young Islamist in Malaysia, another of the countries he visits on his Islamic journey. The dream of earthly perfection based on Islamic principles is the mass delusion of foundering men in foundering societies. "If you know the Koran you know everything," a Malaysian commune dweller confidently tells Naipaul, and this wretched fundamentalism dooms any hope of genuine spiritual and material advancement.
The only hope Naipaul sees is in the adoption of modern ways. In
Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples (1998),
he allows just the glimmer of a possibility that religious barbarism
might have proven so self-destructive that for some the despised
universal civilization seems the only wise alternative. A member of
the Malaysian Muslim youth movement whom he met in 1979 has by the
late 1990s become the manager of a holding company and works in a
skyscraper suite. "What they had been looking for religion to do for
them in 1979," he observes, "simple power, simple authority, had done
for them later." A highbrow philistine -- to use that word without the
usual pejorative intent -- after the manner of James Mill and
Macaulay, Naipaul permits himself a moment to celebrate Western
commercial civilization as it transforms precincts of the Islamic
world. If only the Islamic world were more willing to let itself be
Someone who reads only Edward Said -- and he is a sainted authority among leftist academics today -- may come away convinced that his argument is true. But to read in the travel literature he disparages is to see how wrong he is. The travelers' tales do not originate in malevolent prejudice or issue in gross distortion; rather they are drawn from carefully observed reality. A great variety of writers see many different things; but more importantly, they see some of the same things over and over again, not because of the Orientalists' engrained turn of mind, but because those things are striking and significant and true. The travel literature overwhelmingly shows Islam recoiling from the Western touch, perhaps in part out of legitimate fear that it might be transformed into an alien shape with all the West's deformities, and to a great degree out of blind hatred inculcated over centuries of prejudice and ignorance. In any case, the Orientalists' writings testify to the deep roots of the modern Islamist fighting creed, in which Islamic purity must be preserved from Western, liberal, modernizing pollution.
Said writes with what he supposes is withering irony of the Orientalists' configuring Islam as the Other; but one cannot read these works without concluding that Islam, especially in its militant form, is the Other, not as the West's fantasy nemesis but in its own deeply graven traditions and chosen historical course. That does not mean accommodations cannot be reached by men of good will and moderate heart. Of the travelers, Chateaubriand is really alone in the depth of his loathing for Islam. Among the others, even those who are justly horrified by the barbarities they witness, a moderate and sensible spirit prevails, while some of the 20th-century travelers feel as much at home in Arabia or Afghanistan as in England. Such decent and thoughtful souls as Tocqueville, Twain, Lawrence, and even the querulous Naipaul, show how the breach between cultures might begin to be healed. But they and their fellow writers also show that the clash of civilizations is real, that certain aspects of it may be irreducible, and that the conflict will not be over any time soon.
Algis Valiunas is a literary journalist and the author of
Churchill's Military Histories (Rowman & Littlefield).
This essay first appeared May 7, 2007 in the Spring 2007 issue of
the Claremont Review of Books.
Algis Valiunas is a literary journalist and the author of Churchill's Military Histories (Rowman & Littlefield).
This essay first appeared May 7, 2007 in the Spring 2007 issue of
the Claremont Review of Books.
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