From Cairo to Baghdad: British Travellers in Arabia, James Canton, London, I.B.Tauris, 2011, ISBN 978 1 84885 696 7
This is a provocative book to review. It extends its titular geographical remit – Arabia – to include not only the Arabian peninsula but also Egypt, Syria and Iraq – most of what nowadays is generally known as the Middle East. The time span is from 1882, when the British invaded Egypt on the pretext of solving Egyptian insolvency (reckoned to threaten that life-line to India, the Suez Canal), to 2003 and the US-British invasion of Iraq. In a crucial introduction the author, James Canton, explains the geographical span as held together by a common language and cultural coherence, although I would suggest that World War I initiated the demise of that coherent ‘Arab world’ (despite Gamal Abdul Nasser) and its replacement by the discrete identities of individual countries – Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Saudi etc.
The author outlines five central themes in his scheme: religion, the changing nature of Arabia, imperial wars, women travellers and finally the changing nature of travel writing after Britain’s imperial withdrawal. They are treated more or less chronologically. The last theme is by far the most interesting as including as an appendix long interviews with three protagonists – Colin Thubron, Tim Mackintosh-Smith and Jonathan Raban – whose comments on the whole business of travel writing, a publisher’s dream in the 1960s-1990s but now perhaps in abeyance, form a particularly relevant epitaph to the book.
Canton’s story relates only to the British and only to people on the move – i.e. travellers: hardly anybody is living or working there. This excludes virtually all well-travelled residents; his characters tend to be non-professional. It also excludes archaeologists. And there are of course no foreigners other than British. He divides the period into three: 1882-1917 (Baghdad and Jerusalem then under British control); 1917-1956 (Suez); 1956-2003. His travellers all write ‘travel texts’ rather than travelogues. Each chapter begins with a long excerpt from a relevant writer, some less well known than others which I rather like. Some chapters are more ‘Arabian’ than others: ‘Missionaries and Pilgrims’ for instance (though no mention of St Catherine’s despite Isabella Bird and the two sisters so well described by Janet Solstice), ‘the Empty Quarter’, ‘Southern Arabia’. Others in my opinion are decidedly not Arabian – ‘Baghdad and beyond’ (much of which is about the Marsh Arabs), ‘Modernising Arabia’ (car, train and plane but not in Arabia and not the Hijaz railway because not British); ‘After Empire’ includes William Dalrymple on his monastic travels, who never as far as I know went to ‘true’ Arabia. There’s a slight confusion over ‘empire’: with the exception of Aden (from 1937) none of Canton’s region was actually part of the British Empire. And there’s a certain prejudice against ‘upper class’ travellers, Etonians especially (i.e. Thesiger).
However, such idiosyncracies of time, place, and characters also make one usefully re-think the subconscious of Britain’s relationship with a region perhaps even more crucial today than in the 130 years described in this book.