Not long ago, the owner of a Majorcan palace found 13th-century graffiti on his basement wall. It was scrawled there by a knight en route to the Crusades. Translated, it read: "Sod the Arabs."
I owe this sublime quotation to last Saturday's Financial Times property section – the only FT worth reading during the week, only to be perused, of course, after purchasing Saturday's Independent – but it coincided with a whole series of bons mots on the Arab world which I've been hoovering up from a collection of letters and books of the 1920s and 1930s.
Many turn up in letters to Lawrence of Arabia after the 1914-18 war – although my favourite is a remark by Charles Doughty (of Arabia Deserta fame) to Lawrence himself. According to Robert Graves (Goodbye to All That), Lawrence told him that he had once asked Doughty why he had undertaken his Arabian adventure. "His answer," Lawrence told Graves, "was that he had gone there 'to redeem the English language from the slough into which it had fallen since the time of Spencer'."
Poor old Arabs, it's as well that Gertrude Bell had some sympathy with them, albeit heavy with cynicism. Here she is, writing to Lawrence in 1920, advocating the creation of Arab governments before signing a peace with the Turks. "I took the example of Syria; Palestine is even better but we hadn't appointed a King of the Jews when I first began the campaign here. We've paid for our failure to make good our promises. We had a terrific Ramadhan [sic] with big religio-political meetings in the mosques 3 or 4 times a week, Sunnis and Shiahs [sic] falling into one another's arms & swearing eternal alliance (against us of course) & finally a serious outbreak in Diwaniyah ..."
And here's the governor of Bombay, Sir George Lloyd, writing to Lawrence of the same region and in the same year. "Was there ever so fatal and disastrous a muddle over Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia ... If we had taken and kept the Basra-Kurna bit, & taken & kept Alexandretta and told the Franks that it was not Syria & stuck to that and let the rest rip we should have had the peoples inside all on our side against everyone outside – Now what?" The same cynicism again. Tell the French to get stuffed (Syria came under the post-Great War French mandate, which then included the Turkish – once Armenian – port of Alexandretta) and sod the Arabs.
Ten years later, Frederic Manning – who wrote the wonderful First World War novel of the Somme, Her Privates We – was writing a note of praise for Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom and at least tried to enter the Arab mind (as Lawrence himself had done). Manning described the wartime Arab revolt, led by Lawrence, as "so ambiguous, a racial movement striving to assume a national character, the nomad entering into possessions, arresting his own movement by prescribing a boundary to it. You took me right back to Genesis and Job ... Job, of course, was an Arab, and his present day progeny stand in the same relation to Allah as he stood in relation to Jahveh, so passionately asserting his own individuality against that engulphing [sic] one-ness..." The problem, of course, as Bell had noticed long before, was that the boundary the Arabs had in mind included all of a land called Palestine.
Many of these quotations come from the long out-of-print Letters to T. E. Lawrence, which also includes a wonderful 1922 description by Doughty of King Abdullah (father of the future King Hussain), who was "not much pleased with anything he saw here in England. He could not approve of the endless movement & rush of human life in these parts. He esteemed himself a great personage..." Then suddenly we come across a letter of infinite politeness from an Arab, to Lawrence from King Feisal I of Iraq. "I cannot but send to you my cordial thanks for the interest you have had of our affairs despite your being at far distant [sic] from us ... I wish you pleasant long life ... I close by reiterating my wishes for your everlasting prosperity and happy days. Your friend Feisal." This is the same Feisal earlier described by Cunninghame Graham as "a charming man and the only Oriental I ever saw, who looks really well in European clothes..."
Some references to the Arabs are an attempt at humour. Ezra Pound addressed Lawrence as "My Dear Hadji ben Abt el Bakshish, Prince de Mecque," and Winston Churchill, whose early work on the Sudanese campaign contains plenty of anti-Arab racism, would address Lawrence as "My dear 'Lurens'," because that's how Arabs pronounced Lawrence's name.
No one, I hastily add, could ever beat Noel Coward's wonderful opening to a letter to Lawrence when our hero was posing as an anonymous aircraftsman with a mere service number for a name. "Dear 338171," Coward begins. "May I call you 338?"
That's almost as good as the Second World War cartoon by Pont of an English gentleman lifting the phone in 1940 and telling the operator: "Get me Messerschmitt 109."
But what was it that bestowed upon our recent ancestors such marked ill-humour towards the Arabs? Even Caroline Doughty (Charles' wife) would write of the painter Eric Kennington that "he is so imbued with the strange strongly marked features of the Arabs that it will be sometime before he can return to European colouring and softness of touch."
At least this doesn't match David Garnett's remark that he was afraid Lawrence had joined the RAF "as returned Crusaders used to go into monasteries ... Holy Men are anathema to me; I hate Fakirs ..."
Siegfried Sassoon, who served in Palestine as well as the Western Front in the Great War, wrote of Seven Pillars that "I have savoured your Hejaz hardships. Have, in fact, enjoyed all the fun without so much as a grain of sand in my cup or the least touch of dysentery!"
George Bernard Shaw shrugged off Lawrence's assumed anonymity in the RAF with the exclamation that "the people have their rights too ... They want to you to appear always in glory, crying, 'This is I, Lawrence, Prince of Mecca!' To live under a cloud is to defame God."
Perhaps that is the problem. We like the Arabs if we pose at being an Arab. Otherwise, the undertow of all these remarks echoes the crusading knight who wrote so imperishably on the wall of that Majorcan palace.Reuse content