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The Orientalists – Part 1
May 1, 2020

Author’s note: Many of the books and authors mentioned here are well-known. There are dozens more from writers of various nationalities, and only a lack of space precludes complete inclusion. It is my hope, however, that any bookish reader with an interest in Orientalism may find something to enhance their interest with some works still to be discovered. The prevalence of British authors here does not indicate prejudice, but does reflect the books that are actually on my shelves.

There has been much debate about the authenticity, or otherwise, of Orientalism and its influence on socio-political thought. The books and authors figuring in this essay had, with the exception of Kipling, Lawrence and Gertrude Bell, no political axe to grind. Most of them were travelers who found the East, indeed, "other" than what they experienced at home. Their quest was a personal enthusiasm for the Orient. I would contend that their writings and translations had no relevance to a debate about socio-political attitudes based on worldly devices. The world of the spirit is likely to be more enduring and, as for this world, socio-evolutionary investigation would be more apt.                                                          

The British may currently be retreating to their island home, but in earlier times they were inclined to leave their homes at the drop of a hat. Those with the wherewithal journeyed away to sometimes sunnier and definitely more exotic regions. One of the noticeably inherent vanities of the British, however, was founded upon the notion that they were never actually foreigners in whatever region they found themselves beyond their own coastline.

Sir Richard F. Burton must have had a horror of doing a proper job because he went to extraordinary lengths to avoid a nine-to-five existence. Even when being extremely erudite, he was also eloquently funny in a sardonic sort of way and his dealings with the Oriental mind were tempered by a perfect understanding of the conditio humana, which means the state we are all perpetually in. For his two-volume Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah, Sir Richard elected to travel by choosing a travel box to contain his necessities that was sturdy enough to withstand falling off a camel’s back twice each day. With a command of Farsi, Hindi, and Arabic, together with the dialects thereof, which he learned among tons of other languages and picked them up the way lesser mortals collect butterflies, he disguised himself as a wandering Dervish. He explored bazaars, frankly searching out the bizarre (which must surely be a derivative), and drinking countless cups of chai in his attempt to find rare manuscripts about Al-Islam.

The point of Sir Richard’s drop-out endeavor is that he certainly spent more hours daily than he would be required to submit to in a mundane job. There must have been the endless waits, the errant camel or donkey that refused to be moved, the aggravation of monetary negotiation. In 1856, Burton made clear his reasons for exotic travel. Notwithstanding his erudition, he was heard to maintain: “The gladdest moments in human life, methinks, is the departure upon a distant shore into unknown lands. Shaking off with one mighty effort the fetters of Habit, the leaden weight of Routine, the cloak of many Cares and the slavery of Home, man feels once more happy. The blood flows with the fast circulation of childhood…the glorious face of nature gladdens the soul”.

Many Orientalists went, quite obviously, in search of something ethereal, the atmospheric interludes in life that may offer a hint of the divine. If any reader has heard the hypnotic call to prayer from a muezzin, floating at dawn over palms at the edge of a jungle, they will know what I mean. The point is that although there may be a sudden crashing rise of birds, the voice itself does not shatter the silence. It really does float hauntingly as an isolated sound. The call to prayer heard in a city is often more strident but no less enchanting. One is struck by something stealthily all-encompassing, something impossible to ignore. Something that lingers in a suddenly pervasive brittle silence.

It was the likes of Wilfred Thesiger, whose Arabian Sands and The Marsh Arabs became must reads for devotees of the Arab experience. His memoir The Life of My Choice would seem to echo the sentiments of Burton. The intrepid Freya Stark gave us, among many other works, The Southern Gates of Arabia and Valleys of the Assassins. Her book Ionia is about the history of Asia Minor, Turkey today. She was heard to maintain,I do like people who have not yet made up their minds about everything, who in fact are still receiving.” These resolute travelers fashioned the romantic notion of eccentric Brits plodding resolutely across an impossible desert on an understandably belligerent camel. Despite the political implications – which your correspondent suspects were sometimes a handy excuse – Gertrude Bell, who also translated Hafiz, and, of course, T. E. Lawrence, both seemed to be seeking the sort of satisfaction that only the delights of foreignness could offer.

Looming as one of those literary mountains that remains to overshadow all others is Charles William Doughty’s Arabia Deserta. Setting off from Damascus in 1876, the author endured the deserts of what were regions previously unexplored by travelers from the West. He found a way to become attached to the Hajj of his day and his account was couched in a somewhat archaic English. Initial publication was denied due to his inaccessible language but – and this is a personal view – if the first step in meditation is concentration then Arabia Deserta deserves to be approached with the sort of perseverance that can flower into the magic of immersion that great literature can offer. In this case one will feel the sand in one’s shoes and savor the odor of a camel train in all of its pungency. T. E. Lawrence defended and fostered further publication of Doughty’s recordings and also wrote a forward to an edition of the book. Charles Doughty, who was born in 1843, wrote his monumental work in 1888. Arabia Deserta eventually came to be known among discerning readers as being the finest travel book in the English language.

E. Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which became his magnum opus, was published in 1926. Lawrence was at first an archeologist who became enchanted with the Arab mind while passing through the Holy Land on foot. He felt a great affinity for the peoples he met in his travels, which can be sensed pervasively in his great work. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom tells of the political side to his nature but also relates of his unswerving affection for his Arab friends and his appreciation of Islam. By all accounts Lawrence was a man of some complexity. One senses a somewhat philosophical passion in his thinking. He adhered to what he would have likely maintained was “the rightness” of things – although capable of indulging in war. Well, many will have read the book, many more will have seen the movie. Whatever the outcome, we will be aware that this was Lawrence’s Arabia, a place in which he probably felt most at home.

We come, quite unavoidably, to Arthur John Arberry, a British orientalist who was born on May 12, 1905. His work was rooted in a profoundly scholarly endeavor and he cannot be counted among those who were simply fascinated by the exotic East as a travel destination. In his slim volume of biographies, British Orientalists, Arberry relates of the sustained passion for the Islamic world pursued by British academics, translators, travelers, and linguists of all stripes. This passion was inflamed at an early date and we read of a 12th century philosopher, one Adelard of Bath, who preceded, according to Arberry, nigh on 100 others sharing similar enthusiasms. There were even more, of course, but Arberry names only the most prominent who made a solid contribution to Islamic studies. With more than 70 works to his own name, which includes his own translation of the Qur’an in which he attempted to retain the poetics of the Arabic original, Arberry was probably the most seriously academic of all Orientalists. One of Arberry’s most useful books is The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam – and other Persian Poets. Together with the Rubaiyat, in Fitzgerald’s first edition of 1859, and the fourth edition of 1879, the book offers samples of the works of twenty-five Persian poets – including Rumi, Saadi, Hafiz, and all of the others your correspondent has still to fully discover. Arberry’s The Islamic Art of Persia, is a wonderfully edited volume containing the writings of many Orientalists, which includes an essay by Vita Sackville-West who writes charmingly about Persia gardens.

R. A. Nicholson was a colleague of Arberry but his works are largely unknown to myself. In his Mystics of Islam Nicholson brings to light an expert appraisal of Sufism. Without demeaning his subject, the book is fashioned in a concise and easily understood way. A fascinating passage begins, “…seventy thousand veils separate Allah, the One Reality, from the world of matter and sense. And every soul passes before birth through these seventy thousand.” At the time of submission I can only offer Nicholson’s translation, from a different source, of a succinct burst of beauty by Hafiz of Shiraz, a poet Goethe proclaimed to be unsurpassed:


The calm circumference of life
When I would fain have kept,
Time caught me in the tide of strife
And to the centre swept.

Of this fierce glow which Love and You
Within my breast inspire,
The Sun is but a spark that flew
And set the heavens afire!

Edward William Lane’s Arabic-English Lexicon, a 3,064-page work from the 19th century, would appear to be something that could be a starting point for budding   Arabists. Lane is also credited with an acclaimed translation of A Thousand and One Nights. His most accessible work, however, and one often quoted by Burton, is his Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, which was first published in 1836 and was to have several editions. The work is an astounding coverage of life in Muslim Egypt. Despite the obvious conclusion that what was modern in the 1800s is no longer pertinent today, Lane’s book covers what is indeed the very life of Egypt. His essays, chapter for chapter, are on characteristics and dress, infancy and early education, religion and laws, language and literature, ad infinitum. Lane addresses just about every conceivable aspect in his subjective social research. The work is further enhanced by the author’s own magnificently detailed engravings.

Rudyard Kipling’s works can be difficult to find in India today. His was an imperialist stance and he was a stout defender of the British army. Nevertheless, he came to write the famous… OH, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,  Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!

The last line mitigates much that Kipling was accused of. Whether or not the British had good cause to be India will be debated until doomsday, and when Kipling published his poem, The White Man’s Burden, in 1899, he was accused of promoting the cause of imperialism. But Kipling did spread before us the magnificent panoply of the Indian subcontinent, and he was also recorded to have said, Asia is not going to be civilized after the methods of the West. There is too much Asia and she is too old.” The Kipling Society in London maintains that he believed in British rule over India, but he did not hesitate to criticize the government savagely. It may be well to consider that Kipling was a man of his time and place. He was born in Bombay in 1865 of Anglo-Indian parents and he obviously knew and understood, and was largely sympathetic, to the colorful life around him. Only such experience could have made possible the publication of Kim, in 1901. Kipling produced an astonishingly varied wealth of works. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907.

It has long been my personal love of good writing, despite having no special interest in the subjects at hand, which led me to R. H. Blyth’s inestimable Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, which was first published by the Hokuseido Press in Tokyo in 1942. Here is a survey to the finest detail of literature displaying the quality of the words transcending the confines of conventional literary usage. In this sense Blyth did not merely travel to the East but also sought echoes of the East in works of the West. Zen may be described variously as a fragrance, hint, nudge, or breeze that cannot be clutched though its effect can be observed, but with no sly wink seeking collusion, for therein is to be found the headache we call “mind.” Blyth’s works also include his investigations into Haiku poetry and Japanese culture. The writer’s approach to that indefinable essence of life that makes life itself agreeable, perhaps even acceptable, in its endless display of what could be called, to borrow and amend a phrase, the good, the bad, and the sometimes lovely.

Francis Edward Younghusband’s The Heart of a Continent is a book in which the author elaborates on the difficulties of travel in regions comprising almost inaccessible terrain. He took himself off from India to China, the hard way, and then found an even more difficult way to come back via the Gobi Desert, Turkestan, the Himalayas, with a great deal in between, then the Pamirs, Kashgar and eventually back home (but hardly in time for tea). Younghusband was indeed a nice man, a stalwart Christian but one who allowed much scope in his thinking for other religions. Younghusband apparently suffered greatly from mosquitoes on the way out. I would suggest that there could be an interesting discourse about why God created mosquitoes. I was put straight by a restaurant waiter in Kerala who maintained that, “God chose the mosquito to be India’s heraldic beast.”

The Canadian Colin McPhee is possibly less known, but should be wider read. His A House in Bali was first published in 1944. It is a transcendent book, one that makes reading a deeply satisfying experience. The author was a highly talented composer and ethnomusicologist who studied with Edgar Varèse and became a jazz critic of note. There were collaborations with Benjamin Britten to make their recording of Balinese Ceremonial Music for Two Pianos. He was also a friend of Margaret Meade’s family and figures often in Meade’s memoir of her life and work. It is McPhee’s obvious sensitivity that charms the reader. These were the days before Bali became a tourist destination, and the author captures the lingering, slow-motion lapse of time, and the throb of the gamelan gongs which reverberate with an insistency across the hills of that lush island that he knew so well and so lovingly described.

H. V. Morton was a British writer of note. In 1934 he published In the Steps of the Master which ran to four editions. Although the book related his efforts to trace the passages of Jesus through the Holy Land, Morton was a man of fine sensibility and he records much of the life in Palestine with inclusion of his encounters with the Arab fellahin, the common folk within the population. What was Morton’s greatest talent, which he showed in all of his works, was his equal degree of quality of content and refinement of literary style. The author opens with the following passage as he approaches the Holy Land from Egypt. “As the sun goes down, a stillness falls over Egypt. Water channels that cross the fields turn to the color of blood, then to bright yellow that fades into silver. The palm trees could be cut from black paper and pasted against the incandescence of the sky. Brown hawks that hang all day above the sugar-cane and the growing wheat are seen no more and, one by one, the stars burn over the sandhills and lie caught in the stiff fronds of the date palms”. The book also contains nearly forty of the author’s own fine photographs, mostly black and white, but beautiful and exemplary images of the Holy Land.