Travels in Arabia Deserta Essay - Critical Essays

Charles Montagu Doughty

Critical Evaluation

TRAVELS IN ARABIA DESERTA has been recognized, almost since its publication in 1888, as one of the greatest travel books in the English language. Doughty spent almost two years traveling, going on pilgrimages, and living with various nomad tribes in northwestern Arabia, then a land almost completely unknown to Europeans and Americans. His account is a thoroughly realized document, a comprehensive understanding and treatment of every aspect of the life of the nomadic Arabs. Written with grace, fullness, and enormous insight, TRAVELS IN ARABIA DESERTA has become a classic of travel literature and a necessary book of instructions for anyone interested in that part of the Moslem world. T. E. Lawrence, in his introduction to the 1921 edition of this work, acknowledged that Doughty was the first and greatest of all European writers on Arabia.

TRAVELS IN ARABIA DESERTA is also an objective treatment of life among the nomads. Doughty was content to observe, to understand, to record, without leveling judgments against a civilization so different from his own. This objectivity allowed him to see and report the Arabs as they lived, to understand fully their customs, their prejudices, and their attitudes.

In several ways, Doughty was extremely well equipped to be one of the first Europeans to visit the Arabian peninsula and explore it extensively. A geologist, he was able to draw geological maps of uncharted territory and determine the nature of the terrain. As a scientist he was also enormously interested in the climate of Arabia, and he filled his book with observations on climate and topography. Doughty drew, and included in his work, some of the first maps of the area he visited. He was also interested in and knowledgeable about architecture and archaeology. He captured a keen sense of Arabic design and often used one of the designs as a chapter heading. Because of his interest in many phases of scientific learning, he was able to use many of the skills of Western civilization, for the first time, on the Arabian peninsula. In addition, Doughty was an able medical practitioner. He attempted to use his medical knowledge to help the Arabs among whom he lived. Although, later, he did help enormously during epidemics of tropical diseases such as cholera and leprosy, the Arabs were often inclined to distrust him. Doughty points out that in their love for certainty and complete assurance they were likely to judge a medical practice by a single case and they were not appreciative of the tentative conclusions of honest medical science.

Although Doughty had great respect and affection for the nomad tribes among whom he traveled, he did not sentimentalize them or the conditions in which they lived. Long passages in TRAVELS IN ARABIA DESERTA describe their filth, poverty, and ignorance. Frequently they could get little food; often, even the chief of the tribe could not get enough water for his wife to make him a cup of coffee. They wore thin cotton robes, even though the desert nights frequently became very cold. The Arabs met with frequent rival tribes who might steal their camels and their meager possessions, and they were suspicious of any stranger. Their life, as depicted...

(The entire section is 1318 words.)