Black Tents of Arabia

[Little, Brown, $4.00]
THESE are many Arabias. There is the Yemen, the land of the Himyarites and Sabæaun, with its coffee and terraces; there is the mysterious and barren Hadhramaut, peopled by wavy-locked, blue-painted men; there is Oman of the dhows and date trees; there is the Hejaz with its white cities and its sophisticated caterers to pilgrims; and there is the northern plain, with its black tents and stout-necked horses, its racing camels and long-robed men. It is of the last that Raswan writes, and, although the most familiar to us, it is the Arabia that has perhaps the greatest appeal to Americans.
Carl Raswan is a German who lives in California, where he breeds pure Arab horses on a richly endowed stud farm. The Arab horse has been Raswan’s lifelong passion, and to obtain the best examples of this breed he has spent twenty-two years, off and on, traveling with his Bedawin companions in what are now parts of Syria, Transjordania, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. The book is not, however, a treatise on horses; it is a collection of narrative reminiscences about the author’s sojourns in northern Arabia. Although there is no unity of time, there is a unity of feeling and of persons; hence the book is a melodious whole despite gaps in chronology.
The Ruwala Bedawin form the chief actors in Raswan’s narrative, which is not, like Musil’s ethnographic masterpiece, a scientific study, but a living, personal picture which makes extraordinarily good reading. And the beauty and rarity of it is that it combines popular interest with authenticity. Raswan first went to Arabia before the war. At that time he swore, through a fortunate accident, blood brotherhood with an eightyear-old child, who was later to become the Amir Fuaz, leader of the great tribe of the Ruwala. After the war Raswan came to America, where he obtained support in his ambition to import and breed Arabian horses, and for this purpose he returned many times to the deserts and grasslands which had become home to him. Here he participated fully in the life of his adopted people, even to the extent of fighting with them in their warlike raids.
Perhaps the most touching episode in the book is the love story of Raswan’s friend Faris, the Shammar nobleman, and his bride Tuëma. Here we have a picture of desert love in its most romantic sense; and it is a tribute to the author that he has been able to deal with this hackneyed subject in a befitting manner. The reading public is tired of the amours of imaginary, swashbuckling sheikhs, but it will not soon tire of Faris and Tuëma. The rhapsodies of Faris over his betrothed; the display of Tuëma, bare-breasted, on the sacred Ark of the Bedawin, to inspire the Ruwala to war; the wounding of Faris, and his nuptial deathbed, are scenes worthy of the greatest of romancers.
In creating his picture of Bedawin life Raswan does not omit the influences which the modern world has brought into it. Most of the important chieftains now own motor cars, and during the later years of Raswan’s wanderings he spent as much time behind the wheel as in the saddle. Carloads of armed men roar down on the enemy, to blast out rapid volleys and drive quickly away, leaving their foemen collapsed beneath running boards and fenders. Modern civilization has not softened Arabian feuds; it has given them new and deadlier weapons.
The book is illustrated with no less than sixty-eight pages of remarkable photographs, excellently reproduced. In them we see revealing studies of Bedawin faces — and, seeing them, do not wonder at the strength of character of the men and women they portray. We see camels and horses and gazelles and falcons, and we see actual battle scenes with the prostrate bodies of the newly slain acting as sandbags for the. living. Let us hope that those who thumb through these pictures in the stalls will take the book home to read, for the text is even better than the illustrations. In it one catches the spirit of the Bedawin in full swing, not in the austere and epic cadence of Doughty, who is inimitable, but in the gayer and more lyric tempo of the preIslamic poets.