Seven Pillars of Wisdom – Day 111 of 240

As we worked at the organization of the raid, our appetites rose. Mudowwara station sounded vulnerable. Three hundred men might rush it suddenly. That would be an achievement, for its deep well was the only one in the dry sector below Maan. Without its water, the train service across the gap would become uneconomic in load.

Chapter LXI

Lewis, the Australian, at such an ambitious moment, said that he and Stokes would like to be of my party. A new, attractive idea. With them we should feel sure of our technical detachments, whilst attacking a garrisoned place. Also, the sergeants wanted to go very much, and their good work deserved reward. They were warned that their experiences might not at the moment seem altogether joyful. There were no rules; and there could be no mitigation of the marching, feeding, and fighting, inland. If they went they would lose their British Army comfort and privilege, to share and share with the Arabs (except in booty!) and suffer exactly their hap in food and discipline. If anything went wrong with me, they, not speaking Arabic, would be in a tender position.

Lewis replied that he was looking for just this strangeness of life. Stokes supposed that if we did it, he could. So they were lent two of my best camels (their saddle-bags tight with bully-beef and biscuits) and on September the seventh we went together up Wadi Itm, to collect our Howeitat from Auda in Guweira.

For the sergeants’ sake, to harden them gently, things were made better than my word. We marched very easily for to-day, while we were our own masters. Neither had been on a camel before, and there was risk that the fearful heat of the naked granite walls of Itm might knock them out before the trip had properly begun. September was a bad month. A few days before, in the shade of the palm-gardens of Akaba beach, the thermometer had shown a hundred and twenty degrees. So we halted for midday under a cliff, and in the evening rode only ten miles to camp for the night.

We were comfortable with cans of hot tea, and rice and meat; and it was covertly enjoyable to watch the percussion of their surroundings on the two men. Each reacted to the type expected.

The Australian from the first seemed at home, and behaved freely towards the Arabs. When they fell into his spirit, and returned the fellowship, he was astonished: almost resentful: having never imagined that they would be misled by his kindness to forget the difference between a white man and a brown.

It added humour to the situation that he was browner by far than my new followers, of whom the youngest interested me most. He, Rahail, was quite a lad: a free-built, sturdy fellow, too fleshy for the life we were to lead, but for that the more tolerant of pains. His face was high-coloured; his cheeks a little full and low-pouched, almost pendent. The mouth was budded and small, the chin very pointed. This, added to the high, strong brows and antimony-enlarged eyes, gave him a mixed air of artifice and petulance, with weary patience self-imposed upon a base of pride. He was blowsy-spoken (mouthing his Arabic); vulgar in dialect; forward and impudent in speech; always thrusting, flaunting, restless and nervous. His spirit was not as strong as his body, but mercurial. When exhausted or cross he broke into miserable tears easily chased away by any interference; and after, was fit for more endurance. My followers, Mohammed and Ahmed, with Rashid and Assaf, the probationers, gave Rahail much licence of behaviour; partly because of his animal attractiveness, and of his tendency to advertise his person. He had to be checked once or twice for taking liberties with the sergeants.

Stokes, the Englishman, was driven by the Arab strangeness to become more himself; more insular. His shy correctness reminded my men in every movement that he was unlike them, and English. Such consideration elicited a return of respect. To them he was ‘the sergeant’, while Lewis was ‘the long one’.

These were points of character, which all showed in their degree. It was humiliating to find that our book-experience of all countries and ages still left us prejudiced like washerwomen, but without their verbal ability to get on terms with strangers. The Englishmen in the Middle East divided into two classes. Class one, subtle and insinuating, caught the characteristics of the people about him, their speech, their conventions of thought, almost their manner. He directed men secretly, guiding them as he would. In such frictionless habit of influence his own nature lay hid, unnoticed.

Class two, the John Bull of the books, became the more rampantly English the longer he was away from England. He invented an Old Country for himself, a home of all remembered virtues, so splendid in the distance that, on return, he often found reality a sad falling off and withdrew his muddle-headed self into fractious advocacy of the good old times. Abroad, through his armoured certainty, he was a rounded sample of our traits. He showed the complete Englishman. There was friction in his track, and his direction was less smooth than that of the intellectual type: yet his stout example cut wider swathe.

Both sorts took the same direction in example, one vociferously, the other by implication. Each assumed the Englishman a chosen being, inimitable, and the copying him blasphemous or impertinent. In this conceit they urged on people the next best thing. God had not given it them to be English; a duty remained to be good of their type. Consequently we admired native custom; studied the language; wrote books about its architecture, folklore, and dying industries. Then one day, we woke up to find this chthonic spirit turned political, and shook our heads with sorrow over its ungrateful nationalism–truly the fine flower of our innocent efforts.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. (To tell the truth I don't even really care if you give me your email or not.)