Arabia by Jonathan Raban

Arabia by Jonathan Raban is still in the canon of good travel writing though it tells us more about ourselves than the Arabs

When does a travelogue cease to be a work of journalism and become instead a historical record? Jonathan Raban wrote Arabia in 1979 when the first rich Arabs were coming to the West and tales of their wild spending sprees and cultural quirks were whispered everywhere in London, even as their guttural tongue and conservative habits kept their true identity a mystery. Raban seized on the opportunity to make a grand tour of Arabia for 3 months and investigate the Arabs at source, unveiling the culture and people that puzzled and troubled a curious public back home.

But that was 1979. Now Arabs from all over North Africa and the Middle East are everywhere in Europe and, thanks to the blinding propaganda of the post 9/11 world, anyone with the word Allah on his lips is seen more as a figure of danger and dread than an exotic curiosity.

Still, Raban’s Arabia is considered with good reason to be a canonical travel book and is well worth the read as he jumps into Arabia full of the stories of Richard Burton and Wilfred Thesiger.

He soon concludes though that the works of the latter that so idolized the Arabs were a symptom of a romantic love affair with all the stoic independence and personal dignity that the authors felt was missing in contemporary England:

In his [the Englishman’s] desert they found a perfect theatre for the enactment of a heroic drama of their own – a drama whose secret subject was not really the desert at all but the decadent life of the London drawing-room.

This kind of eloquent conclusion is typical of Raban though it has to be said he barely spends about 5 minutes in the desert in his whole 3 month tour so he couldn’t be expected to know. And here you have the essence of Arabia – it’s a work of journalism. That is, it’s far more about the cleverness and perception of the writer in all that he experiences, than the subject itself. What can you really know about a continent in 3 months without speaking the language anyway?

Still, Raban is a droll companion as he explores Arabia in his own intellectual way. He gets himself driven around the place by government officials eager to maintain the tradition of hospitality and paints a suitably bleak picture of a society in a state of forced evolution. Apprehensive that they might be losing their culture under the wave of oil wealth and enormous immigrant labour, the Gulf countries pour cash into ministries of culture where novelists and playwrights are given offices and told to create works of art.

Scared of third world Yemen and too shy to go and talk to the Baluchi labourers, Raban is at his best describing the British expats hoping to make it big in the Middle East and put dubious pasts behind them. He spends an afternoon talking about the delights of river fishing in England with one fellow who flinches in disgust at a fish with bulging eyes and liver spots that’s hauled out in front of them:

‘One thing you can say for the Trent,’ said Dave, looking at these horrors and thinking of his pink-tinged roach, ‘is that you’d never find anything like that in it.

Still, though you get the feeling that Raban was a bit scared to get his feet wet and remained in cosy intellectual circles in his jaunt to Arabia, he’s undeniably witty and insightful. He looks at the Pyramids and concludes that they were the work of monumental power, not genius. He reasons that Al Capone or Ronnie Cray would have felt at home with such a view and concludes about the Great Pyramid:

It exists beyond the level of reason. It’s contempt for money, labour, time, materials, it’s blind disregard of limitations or compromise, could be matched by any psychopath in a locked ward for the severely subnormal.

Almost as damning as Henry de Monfreid’s view in 1900 that ‘the only thing that could be admired was the ‘ingenuity it took to build them and that would requite the mentality of a German tourist’.

Arabia is still a good read and an example of fine travel writing but the journalistic edge betrays the limitations of the author’s experience and gives the book a slightly anachronistic touch.