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‘Arabia Deserta’s’ fascinating substance and glorious, unconventional style renewed

Complete or abridged, Charles Doughty's written 'wanderings' on Arabia continue to intrigue and inspire

by Donald Richie

In 1876 the young Charles Doughty set out to cross the interior of the Arabian Peninsula. His goal was the “lost” city of Madain Saleh and several years were spent in what were later called his “wanderings”: explorations of a terrain little known to Europeans, the discovery of the remains of the sought-for city and detailed accounts of what he discovered there, with particular attention paid to the local geology.

WANDERINGS IN ARABIA: The Authorized Abridged Edition of Travels in Arabia Deserta, by Charles Doughty, abridged by Edward Garnett, foreword by Barnaby Rogerson. London: I.B. Tauris, 2009, 608 pp., £12.99 (paper)

Doughty’s other passion, besides exploration and geology, was the study of early poetry. Much dissatisfied with the state of Victorian English, he was determined to record his findings in a style proper to his subject. As Barnaby Rogerson says in his foreword, Doughty wanted somehow to “catch the beauty of the Arabic language and to record the humor, delight and poetry.”

Just as the author prepared himself for his journeys by allowing himself to eat only local foods and by testing his stamina through long trips intended to improve his camel handling, he also talked to every Arab he met in order to make himself entirely proficient in the tongue he proposed to import.

The result is “Travels in Arabia Deserta,” one of the greatest travel books in the literature. Over 600,000 words (1,100 pages) are devoted to adventure, romance, and a new language. Doughty’s literary style is compounded from the English Bible, from Chaucer and from Spencer (but not from John Milton who was too “new” for him), and the result has enthused, intrigued and infuriated readers for now well over a century.

Here is a sample, from page three of this 608-page reduction: “Already there come by the streets, passing daily forth, the akkams with the swaggering litters mounted high upon tall pilgrim camels.” To discover the subject of this sentence you must consult the glossary where an akkam turns out to be a pilgrimage camel driver. To appreciate the “Arabianised” style, however, you must respond to the archaisms of Middle-English, to the lilt of Chaucer, and to the deep seriousness, unacknowledged though it is, of Milton.

When the monumental first edition of the work appeared — two big volumes with maps and appendixes — in 1888, wonder and exasperation marked the event. Since that time, however, due largely to the appreciation of T. E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”), the fortunes of this strange and beautiful book have prospered. It is even said that it is to travel as James George Frazer’s “The Golden Bough” is to anthropology, though “like late Henry James (and certain varieties of tea) it must be sipped slowly.”

The first step in its popularization was the abridged edition by an early enthusiast, Edward Garnett, who skillfully cut the original in half and was of the opinion that “in small bites the work’s style is quite digestible.” The present publication is a facsimile of this Duckworth 1908 edition.

There have been many more versions of the work, some complete, some not. Earlier printings of the abridged version even include Penguin’s pocket edition (if you have pockets that big). The unabridged work is still to be found in the Manus Publications edition of 1996, a facsimile printing of the 1888 Cambridge University Press edition.

My own copy is the two-volume Random House edition that includes all the maps. It was given me by Meredith Weatherby, president of John Weatherhill Inc., the publishing house. He was my editor, and the man who taught me how to write. He knew that its meticulous construction of a personal style, its consistency and the close attention it demands, would show me much about my craft.

So it has. During the near 50 years I have owned the book it has provided instruction, inspiration and solace. For me it is more a companion than a book, and so I welcome this new facsimile printing of the edited edition and urge you to acquire it.