Sand Gets in Your Eyes
By DAVID L. COHN
Travels in Arabia Desert a is perhaps the greatest travel book in the English language, but it is not from Doughty that we derive our notions of the Middle East. They come from The Arabian Nights, from superheated novels in which handsome Englishmen (preferably of noble birth) risk their lives to rescue wealthy young heiresses who, lost in the desert, seem remarkably unaware of the awful fate that awaits them in the silken tents, and Hollywood. We still people the region with Aladdin, the Merchant of Baghdad, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. It is a world filled with magic carpets, jewels, silks, heroes of the Foreign Legion, camel bells, mosques, “as God wills,” and all manner of Oriental opulence, set to the music of Rimsky-Korsakov. It is a world without a dime store, and consequently girls having no other future become dancing girls, wear nothing but veils, and answer to the name of Fatima.
I have been reading books about the Middle East since my return some months ago from that region. The literature pertaining to it is, in English alone, immense and various. It began with the Crusades. The English of the period — rude, poor, bone-gnawing, and flea-bitten — saw for the first time how the other half lived, when they went to the East. There they discovered rugs, silks, porcelains, damascened bronzes, glass. They came upon oranges, figs, dates, melons, the balm of Gilead, and —dancing girls. The boys from the English shires and the Scottish highlands, liking what they saw’, took to Persian wines, grew beards, wore flowing robes and turbans. They brought back tales of an Araby flowing with milk and honey, and their pictures of the region have since persisted. “To the minds of most Elizabethan poets, the country was associated with images of wealth and luxury in contrast with the actual barren desolation of the most of the great peninsula. From the time of Herodotus the notion has been prevalent that the winds of Araby passed out to sea laden with balmy odors.” (S. C. Chew, The Crescent and the Rose.)
The English admired the Moslems’ falcons, horses, and dogs, and were deeply impressed by the chivalric tradition of the princes. Here, if anywhere, fighting was a pleasure, for “they [the English] found Muslim warriors to be brave and skillful and when the noblemen took Christians captive they were treated with enormous graciousness, even to the point of enjoying the love of Muslim princesses. . . .”(Dana C. Munro, The Kingdom of the Crusaders.) Thus was inaugurated the age of chivalry in Europe: pel tings with midnight roses of fair ladies incarcerated against their will; perishings for love in dark tarns; and a boom in steel clothing which made Nuremberg the busiest, city on the Continent, as everybody who was anybody in Europe ordered the new, light, flexible-fitting suit turned out through mass production methods by the tailors in iron of that town.
There was a blackout for two or three centuries as the Renaissance focused attention on the West, but literature about the Middle East has since continued by way of authorities as diverse as Hakluyt, Sir Doughty, F. E. Lawrence, Gertrude and E. M. Hull, novel of love, hate, (written by a lady) created the Rudolph Valentino boom of the twenties and brought about some notable changes in our intellectual and social life. It produced the silicosis school of novelists who showed that Arabian sand (the Indiana variety wouldn’t do) in your hair would do more for your eyes than mascara; more for your mind than a double martini. It caused IT. L. Mencken to nominate Valentino as the countrv*s most useful citizen; the one who bad done the most for the American Home. For, lie said, thousands of ladies wanting through the second showing of The Sheik: in darkened movie theaters for a second ride on the pommel of Valentino’s white horse were then quite content to go home and put the meat loaf in the oven just before Papa left the office for supper. Thus, in a sense not contemplated by the Founding Fathers, Valentino contributed to the more perfect union.
Nor is this all. The Sheik led to a new cultural synthesis which gives us the jump on the rest of the world. “See the movie — read the book”; or vice versa. Literature about the Middle East had an archaic charm for us, and an especial appeal for the hack-seat-driven American male, because it stemmed from a vanished period when men only traveled and ladies sweated it out on ihe castle side of the moat. “The people of Mecca,” says the chronicle, “are clad in green. The women of the place are courteous, jocund and lovely, faire, with alluring eyes, being hole and libidinous, and most of them naughty packes.”
All this would be later reversed. Men would stay home, travelers to the East would largely he ladies. Most of them, reading between their own lines, were more inflammable than incendiary, and this is perhaps why they used many a purple passage describing Aral) sheiks romantically lethal at five hundred yards whether to leeward or to windward. At the same time, however, by the use of severe discipline, they were able to restrain what might otherwise have been t heir untrammeled admiration for Arab women. This is how they appeared to Lady Anne Blunt (Bedouins of the Euphrates): —
A — has more wits than most Arab women have, and can carry on a conversation farther than is usual with them, for they generally come to a dead stop when they have asked how far my home is and how many children I have had.
Throughout the nineteenth century, travelers to Arabia were numerous. Many of them tried to penetrate Mecca in disguise. Costumers did a roaring business. Shoals of novels and melodramas cashed in on the prevailing demand for the romance of the disguise. Burton succeeded in reaching Mecca, and published his Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Mecca, but it was only with his translation of The Thousand Nights and a Night that Europe and America (the first American edition of the book was brought out in Baltimore in 1794) wallowed in flutes and pipes, dancing girls and mountebanks.
One of our soundest maxims, indicative of our democratic heritage, is: You pays your money and you takes your choice. One may, therefore, go to Doughty or to Carsten Niebuhr, the eighteenthcentury traveler, for an account of things as they are in the Middle East, or to such a novel as Joan Conquest’s Desert Love, for what is called “thrill-packed desert romance.” It is an axiom of the book trade that “ how” books always sell well: How to Stop Stammering, How to Speak French, How to Be the Life of the Party, and so forth. Our passion for self-improvement makes us suckers for books that point the way. So, too, the self-improved ladies of this country, condemned to associating with tamed and self-improved men in a civilization typified by frozen French-frieds, are avid for desert books in which a beautiful girl conquers by her charm wild and untamed chieftains who in their savage caprice are as likely to cut your lovely throat (“a slender column of marble”) as to place around it a priceless st ring of emeralds.
The following is the conversation, in Desert Love, of a sheik with an English heiress whom he addresses as “Woman of the West.” It is evident that he is what plantation Negroes call a “smooth-mouthed man”: —
“Would Madame be taken at night to see the oasis, the horses and the stars?”
The sheik does not wait for answer. No sheik ever does wait for an answer in desert novels. It is not for a woman to reason why in the presence of these masterful men. He continues: —
“Make known your choice, for although we travelers through the desert of life lie down to sleep and rise again to live, to fight, to hate and above all to love, in obedience to the will which counteth and heapeth the particles of sand upon this spot, yet we are allowed to voice our desires, being mouthpieces of Fate. Nay! wait one moment until I make clear the way, that you may not put down your beautiful feet upon a trackless waste of doubt and mistrust. If you come with me tonight, you come alone. I have no woman in my desert home, excepting one old hunchback slave, a withered bough but faithful. No woman has set foot within the belt of palms surrounding my house, and without, the sand stretches! Mile upon mile of pathless sand.
“You will come into the desert alone with me, and the sand will close in upon you and keep you in the desert alone with me!”
This nonstop dialogue, full of sand and fury, laid out the Woman of the West, or, as the novelists say, “swept her off her feet.”
The soul of the desert glinted for one moment in the English girl’s eyes. . . . “There may be no woman there, but there will be a man — a man indeed.”
It is an occasion for something less than surprise that most of us should prefer Miss Conquest’s version of desert love to Carsten Niebuhr’s. In his Travels in Arabia, he writes: —
The woman’s lot is here unequal concubinage and in this necessitous life a weary servitude. . . . And his heart is not hers alone; but if not divided already she must look to divide her marriage in time to come with another and certainly as she withers, which is not long to come, or having no fair adventure to hear male children, she will be a thing unprofitable to be cast off. . . .
There are strong men in the desert but they are not silent. There are passionate men but their self-control is superb. I found another eloquent eloquent talker in Arab, a patisserie by Lewis Cox, an English writer of the “Allah wills” school. Arab heroes have one advantage over ours, which they fully exploit. In Arabia one can always ask a girl to look at the irresistible desert.
Anne asked one young officer with whom she danced many times if the Caid of the Kasbah at Asni was there, and presently he pointed out to her a dignified figure, with a divided, silky beard which his jewelled hands continuously stroked, framing a pale brown face and hazel eyes. . . . She was talking to a Caid from the Atlas, a man who ruled Moors. . . . Berber huts, nomad camps, splashes of orange flame from the camp fires flashed across her vision. She heard strange tongues and the monotonous tapping of drums and melodic reed music.
Then the Caid asks the inevitable question: —
“Madame has seen the desert?” he asked.
“Never,” she answered.
“It is the garden of oblivion,” he said, still in a low voice and speaking with a delicate refinement. “In the desert one forgets everything, even the little heart one loves, and the desires of one’s own soul.”
“How can that be?” she asked.
“Shal-lah. It is the will of God. One remembers nothing any more.”
I was about to be depressed by all this, finding that, as opposed to the English, who know how to use a desert when they see one, we, on the other hand, when we stumble upon a desert, are simply hell-bent to irrigate it and grow cantaloupes. Similarly, when we meet Arabs we want to douse them with DDT and sell them chewing gum. But we are slowly learning and I felt considerably cheered as I read the blurb to Desert Night by Kathryn Hulme: —
The spell of the Orient — meet it in the pages of this enchanting book, a tale as fragrant with mystery and love as the stories that fell from the intoxicating lips of Scheherazade, yet as modern as a grand hotel. With Philip Andrews, an American painter looking for exotic subjects for his canvas, you go from the stuffy European section of Kairouan to the gorgeous Arab quarters. He seeks an American girl who has become an Arab princess. What he finds becomes a picture painted on his heart in the eternal colors of love. He finds her only to lose her — then follows a mad ride into the sands, a wild pursuit, death, and a bridal night of mortal fear and immortal ecstasy under the Heavens of the Sahara. It is impossible to hint the fascination of this story. It is romance you can believe. The mystery of the Orient and the realities of the Occident are fused into a story of glamorous power.
The latest newcomers to the long line of writers about the Middle East are our War and Navy Departments. They issued a series of booklets during the war designed to give servicemen bits of thumbnail information about the area. The general tone of the service guides to the Eastern lands is disillusioning — so at variance with what our men had come to believe beforehand as to make them neurotics. For instance, the smells. In the novels a staple property is the “jasmine-scented night air”; the night being the only time, one supposes, when the jasmine scent can compete on terms approaching equality with the more vigorous and assertive smells of daytime. A Short Guide to Iraq delivers our illusions a body blow.
Or maybe the first thing you notice will be the smells. You have heard and read a lot about the “mysterious East.” You have seen moving pictures about the colorful life of the desert and the bazaars. When you actually get there you will look in vain for some of the things you have been led to expect. You will smell and feel a lot of things the movies didn’t warn you about.
It is unlikely, however, that any of this will affect our notions of the Middle East. For us, bulbuls will continue to break their little hearts singing for sheer joy in the jasmine-scented night air, handsome sheiks will lure wealthy heiresses into their silken tents to be rescued (alas) by handsome Englishmen of noble birth. Girls will grow up to be dancing girls, and everybody will sprinkle a few “God wills” through his .everyday talk. We have already had a test case of the strength of our illusions. When the Arab delegates to the San Francisco Conference marched through the lobby of the Palace Hotel, they had to make their way through solid masses of Helen Hokinson ladies oh-ing and ah-ing. The last man in the parade, aware of the sheik tradition among us, turned his head slightly and said loudly: “You ought to see us on our horses! ”
Shall I tell the ladies that sheiks now cross the desert in jeeps, mailorder suits under their flowing robes? Shall I let them know that, because of American cars, the best pure-bred Arab horses in the world are now bred at the Kellogg Farm in California and by Lady Wentworth in England? These questions disturb my sleep.