For a time in the second half of the 1970s I worked as a bicycle messenger in downtown San Francisco, pedaling up and down those steep hills carrying packages and letters between offices. I often spent my time off in the old San Francisco library, a beautiful old building with vaulted ceilings, wide staircases, and spacious reading rooms. The building is still there, but the library has been moved across the street, to quarters as inspiring as a warehouse. I discovered many treasures in the old place, but one of the works that made the deepest impression on me at that time was the two-volume Travels in Arabia Deserta by Charles M. Doughty.
Doughty was among the most eccentric of the eccentric English adventurers of the nineteenth century. A poet and scholar, a century before I read his book Doughty made his way to the Arabian Peninsula. Although he sought the help of his own government and that of the Ottoman Empire, the officials left him on his own in his journeys among the Bedouin tribesmen, who were traditionally xenophobic and then under the spreading spell of the Wahabi sect of Islam. Unlike the swashbuckling Captain Richard Francis Burton, Doughty openly presented himself as a Christian, which won the grudging admiration of some Bedouins but inspired others to threaten his life. Doughty was often beaten and mistreated. His patient endurance of this type of treatment later led Burton to denounce Doughty as a poor representative of English manhood. But some Bedouins treated Doughty, known among them as “Khalil” with friendship and kindness. His survival was probably due to concerns about how the Ottomans would respond to the killing of a Westerner, appreciation for Doughty’s simple medical skills, awe at his sheer audacity, adherence to Bedouin customs of hospitality, and reluctance to murder someone whom some of the Bedouins viewed as a lunatic.
The adventure story is only one side of the work, though. Doughty believed that the English language was in a state of decadence and required renewal by going back to its ancient qualities. He wrote Travels in Arabia Deserta in a archaizing dialect of his own devising, drawing primarily on the style of the King James Bible, but also on Spenser and even Chaucer. The effect is of the heritage of English literary language confronting the Arab world, a marvelous model for this deeply traditional English meditative soul confronting the harshness of an alien culture.
Doughty’s mannered style crept into my own writing for a while, probably with unfortunate results. Although it draws on so many influences, his language was so uniquely his own that it only fits the world that is his book. I think Travels also contributed to my own wanderings around distant parts of the planet in the years after I read it, although I was fortunate to face none of Doughty’s hardships.
Selecting the ten best books you’ve ever read is a popular game. My own list changes from time to time, but Travels in Arabia Deserta is always on it. Without question, I would rank it as the finest travel book ever written.