Passionate Pilgrims

With world attention focused so often on the political turmoil of the Middle East, one picks up James C. Simmons’ PASSIONATE PILGRIMS hoping for a glimpse through English eyes of Arab life in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, wondering if the seeds of today’s concerns can be seen in the activities of a century ago. Simmons does offer an account of the dispute that led to the current civil war in Lebanon and discusses the building of the Suez canal as well as the 1956 Suez crisis, but, for the most part, he focuses on the English travelers of his title.

One perhaps should not expect more than the subtitle promises, but PASSIONATE PILGRIMS disappoints. Simmons follows the adventures among the Arabs of nine travelers, from Lady Hester Stanhope at the turn of the nineteenth century to T.E. Lawrence after the turn of the twentieth, but seldom is his narrative more than a chronicle of events. Lady Jane Digby, for example, scandalized London with an adulterous affair and took a series of lovers as she traveled through Europe; after eventually arriving in Syria, she married a Bedouin, Abdul Medjuel el Mesrab, and adopted the Bedouin way of life. After reading this account, one has yet only a vague conception of Lady Jane’s personality and still less understanding of the Arab culture that attracted her so. One sees only the surfaces of people and events.

Such diverse travelers as the self-confident and rather wicked Sir Richard Burton and the reclusive Charles Doughty are intrinsically interesting, but Simmons’ bland narrative barely whets the curiosity.