In 1894, it was not simply the allure of the East which drew the young and impressionable Marmaduke Pickthall to Arabia. Rather, Pickthall had botched his attempt to join the administrative classes of the British Empire by failing the examinations for the “Consular Service for Turkey, Persia and the Levant”.1 Aged only eighteen, it must have seemed his life was already rather in tatters. He had left an inglorious impression at Harrow School and now, poised as he was between youth and adulthood, Pickthall surely wondered quite what he should do. Matters must have seemed rather desperate. He had a choice: either return to Harrow (which he had already endured rather than enjoyed during his time there), or take up the invitation to join a family friend, Thomas Dowling, who was due to leave for Palestine to become chaplain to the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem.2
Marmaduke Pickthall took the chance to travel and to get “away from the drab monotone of London fog”.3 He left England in 1894 still with a vague sense that his real destination lay in the civil administration of Britain’s colonial interests; believing, or perhaps seeking to convince himself, that by heading to the East he would find some back route into the Foreign Office, and so finally please those elders of the family whom he had let down both in his schooling
Before we plunge back into those adventurous late nineteenth-century travels into Palestine and Syria with the youth Marmaduke Pickthall it is first vital to understand the contexts of the time and place. In 1894, Egypt was no longer an independent country but one governed and controlled by Britain. While Cairo may have remained a vast sprawling city of Arabia, it was run by British colonial administrators. Only some twelve years before Pickthall’s arrival, Britain had seized Egypt by launching a sustained naval attack on 11 July 1882 which bombarded Alexandria into submission, before destroying what remained of the Egyptian military, taking Cairo by force and turning the city into a centre for British imperial administration. Britain would assume control over Egyptian affairs for the next seventy-four years until the Suez Crisis in 1956. That act of imperial aggression by British forces in 1882 had hugely important ramifications. Britain now had a base on the north-eastern edge of Africa from which it could gaze out over Arabia and from which it could now run its imperial interest across the region. Of most significance, Britain now had control of the Suez Canal which had only been completed in 1869 and which allowed British merchant and naval shipping to journey east to the key imperial interest of India without having to take the far longer and more perilous voyage around Africa. By seizing Egypt in 1882, Britain now had control of this vital passageway of the seas; a central factor for the future prosperity of the British Empire based as it was on control of the world’s seas and waterways.5 Within the historical context of Britain’s military seizure of Egypt in 1882, the comment by Pickthall in the opening pages of his Introduction to Oriental Encounters that “the European […] [seemed] somehow inappropriate and false” in Cairo might be read as an anti-colonial statement, though Pickthall’s political ideas at this time were undeveloped and hardly unconventional.
So Pickthall came as a young man to Egypt very much typical of his type – public-school educated, Christian, seeking to serve the British Empire. Yet if he came as a quite unexceptional figure among so many who were following British forces into Egypt, Pickthall’s travel experiences in Arabia were to be so unlike those of the vast majority of his fellow compatriots. After initially staying “some weeks” in Cairo “with English people”, Pickthall ventured to Jaffa under the guidance of another European “mentor”.7 There, in Jaffa, after a couple of weeks of wandering the streets alone, he met the Reverend J.E. Hanauer, “an English clergyman who had been born in Jerusalem”.8 That pattern of personal introductions through a network of Christian missionary and clergy figures
In Hanauer, Pickthall found a fellow after his own heart. Hanauer was fascinated with the people and culture of Arabia beyond his position as “English chaplain”. He “took pity on [Pickthall’s] solitary state” so took to walking about Jaffa with the young Pickthall, teaching him his first “words of Arabic”. Hanauer was unlike his ex-pat compatriots who frowned on any interaction with the natives; he supported Pickthall’s “sneaking wish to fraternise with Orientals”. Now Pickthall had a sympathetic English friend. Soon he had a local friend, too, in the figure of Suleyman, a Syrian dragoman who was staying in the same hotel in Jaffa and who “helped [Pickthall] to throw off the European and plunge into the native way of living”10
about the plain of Sharon, sojourning among the fellahin, and sitting in the coffee-shops of Ramleh, Lydda, Gaza … [We] went on pilgrimage to Nebi Rubin, the mosque upon the edge of marshes by the sea, half-way to Gaza … [We] rode up northward to the foot of Carmel; explored the gorges of the mountains of Judea; frequented Turkish baths; ate native meals and slept in native houses – following the customs of the people of the land in all respects.12
English and Arabian societies seem dichotomous to the young Pickthall (it is worth remembering that he was only nineteen years old when he first wandered off on these travels into Palestine). His reflections on English society serve to illustrate what he sees as all that English people do not have – happiness, contentment, fraternity. These qualities were just what Pickthall had been crying out for. We can feel and imagine the emotional release Pickthall must have felt; that “immense relief I found in such a life”, after the stressful years of public schooling and his failure in securing meaningful employment serving Britain’s empire. Out there in Palestine, in the villages of Arabia and in the wild open spaces of the deserts, none of that mattered – not to the people he shared his days and nights with and certainly not to him either.
And I was amazed at the immense relief I found in such a life. In all my previous years I had not seen happy people. These were happy. Poor they might be, but they had no dream of wealth; the very thought of competition was unknown to them […] Wages and rent were troubles they had never heard of. Class distinctions, as we understood them, were not. Everybody talked to everybody. With inequality they had a true fraternity.13
Marmaduke Pickthall was indeed very young. He was perhaps just twenty years old at the time. His approach to the inhabitants of the countryside he was so busy exploring sat utterly incongruous to that of his elders, those echelons of British society who were responsible for carrying out the administration of British colonial policy for Egypt – the latest jewel in Queen Victoria’s imperial collection. For Pickthall, those “mature advisors” of the British imperial community acted as a “disapproving shadow in the background’” to his years of travel in Arabia. These “respectable English residents in Syria” gave “frequent warnings […] to distrust the people of [Syria]” and were so “censorious and hostile” in their attitudes that they became “moral precepts” to be disobeyed by the increasingly self-confident and self-content Marmaduke Pickthall.17
in semi-native garb and with a love for Arabs which, I was made to understand, was hardly decent. My native friends were objects of suspicion. I was told that they were undesirable, and, when I stood up for them, was soon put down by the retort that I was very young.16
In Oriental Encounters, Pickthall offers us an insight into his Arabian travels. While the sub-title of the book “Palestine and Syria (1894-5-6)” suggests a travelogue of his time there, in the introduction Pickthall states that the work
The scene is perfectly painted to recognise the incongruity in the two English figures who have wandered across each other’s paths there in the Syrian desert. The dramatic contrast in the appearance of the two Englishmen is drawn in that initial vision of the one dressed all in white, with pith helmet on his head, sat astride a horse while his sad servants traipse behind. He does not even recognise Pickthall as a fellow countryman thanks to his “semi-native garb”. He is the evangelical Victorian traveller of the nineteenth century heading out into distant lands for the sake of God and country, with the Bible in one hand and a gun in the other. He is an archetype who receives recognition merely as “the Frank”. Pickthall accounts him no more personal respect than
“A marvel!” [Suleymân] exclaimed after a moment spent in gazing. “Never, I suppose, since first this village was created, have two Franks approached it in a single day before. Thou art as one of us in outward seeming”, he remarked to me; “but yonder comes a perfect Frank with two attendants”.
We looked in the direction which his finger pointed, and beheld a man on horseback clad in white from head to foot, with a pith helmet and a puggaree [turban used as sun-shade], followed by two native servants leading sumpter-mules [packhorses].
“Our horses are in need of water”, growled Rashîd, uninterested in the sight. “It is a sin for those low people to refuse it to us”.
“Let us first wait and see how this newcomer fares, what method he adopts”, replied Suleymân, reclining once more at his ease.
The Frank and his attendants reached the outskirts of the village, and headed naturally for the spring. The fellâhîn, already put upon their guard by Rashîd’s venture, opposed them in a solid mass. The Frank expostulated. We could hear his voice of high command.
“Aha, he knows some Arabic. He is a missionary, not a traveller”, said Suleymân, who now sat up and showed keen interest. “I might have known it, for the touring season is long past”.
He rose with dignified deliberation and remounted. We followed him as he rode slowly down towards the scene of strife. When we arrived, the Frank, after laying about him vainly with his riding-whip, had drawn out a revolver. He was being stoned. His muleteers had fled to a safe distance. In another minute, as it seemed, he would have shot some person, when nothing under Allah could have saved his life.
Suleymân cried out in English:
“Don’t you be a fool, sir! Don’t you fire!”22
It is perhaps worthwhile here to pause in our analysis of Pickthall’s work and turn to a comment made by Edward Said in Orientalism concerning the depiction of Arabs presented to British and European readers. Referring to Marmaduke Pickthall as a “minor writer”, Said described Pickthall’s work as “exotic fiction” which is composed of “picturesque characters”.23 In some respects the words tie rather well with Pickthall’s own description of Oriental Encounters as “a comic sketch-book of experience”. Yet they don’t quite seem to give justice to the complexity of the power relations drawn in scenes such as the one detailed above where it is Suleyman who is the more fully composed figure compared to the stereotypical Victorian missionary whose cultural blindness and pomposity nearly leads him to a violence conflict from which he will undoubtedly not leave unharmed. Suleyman is the character with the wherewithal to rationalise the situation, to recognise the variance between the stances of the villagers and the missionary; it is Sulayman who is then brave enough to step into the conflict to find a resolution. Edward Said’s analysis maintains that in Pickthall’s work (as in so many other European writers on Arabia), the non-European is “either a figure of fun, or an atom in a vast collectivity designated in ordinary or cultivated discourse as an undifferentiated type called Oriental, African, yellow, brown, or Muslim”.24 Yet of the two characters – Suleyman and the missionary – it is the latter whom Pickthall draws as a figure of fun and one wholly undifferentiated from the mass of other English missionaries who also wander the deserts of Arabia with a few words of Arabic, so strikingly dressed in their all-white garb. In Oriental Encounters, it is the Englishman – he is not even given a name by Pickthall, merely the appellation of “the Frank” – who is drawn as an abstraction of his type rather than the non-European, native friends of Pickthall.
In Reading Arabia: British Orientalism in the Age of Mass Publication, 1880–1930, Andrew C. Long has noted how Oriental Encounters acts as “a clear expression and articulation of Pickthall’s intellectual and creative persona […] a
That scene in “My Countryman” then develops as “the Frank” even refuses to pay the meagre five piastres which Suleyman has negotiated with the elder of the village for taking water from the well. The missionary maintains the water is “the gift of God” and so should be free. When Pickthall steps in to explain that water in the desert is a precious commodity and so one deserving of a price, his nationality is recognised: “What! Are you English?” (94) exclaims the missionary as he stares at that “semi-native garb” which constitutes the young Englishman’s clothes. It is a moment of delightful tension: two Englishman meet in the Syria desert far from any other European presence. Queen Victoria reigns. Yet this is no Stanley-Livingstone moment. Even if it is another extraordinary encounter between Englishmen on the edges of the British Empire, these two Englishmen share little common ground. There is not even anything of the serene reservation embodied in those famous first words, “Dr Livingstone, I presume”. Instead, Pickthall’s Englishmen hardly see the commonality of their nationhood. “Are you English?” are their first words together. Pickthall agrees to join the Frank for supper, for the ties of English identity are hard to break. Suleyman and Rashid are both annoyed at the decision, “jealous of the Frank, whom they regarded as an enemy, and feared lest he should turn my mind
Pickthall’s attempt to unite the two Englishmen by a light-hearted prod at the locals falls on stony ground. The comedy of the scene is born from the distinct division between the ways in which these two Englishmen approach Arabia and the local population. Even Pickthall’s attempt to step into the shared cultural territory of English customs with the missionary fails. The missionary murmurs his discontent, his incredulity that Pickthall can even entertain the company of Arabs. “How can you, an Englishman, and apparently a man of education, bear their intimacy?”29
Rashîd had spoken of the virtues of a certain shrub; but Suleymân declared the best specific was a new-born baby. This, if laid within a room for a short while, attracted every insect. The babe should then be carried out and dusted. The missionary did not even smile.28
The missionary leaves Pickthall with some startling final words of advice: “Go back to England”.30
He had [Suleyman and Rashid] summed up at sight. They were two cunning rogues, whose only object was to fleece me. He told me stories about Englishmen who had been ruined in that very way through making
friends with natives whom they thought devoted to them. One story ended in a horrid murder. He wanted me to have no more to do with them, and when he saw I was attached to them, begged me earnestly to treat them always as inferiors, to “keep them in their place”
Pickthall remains silent. Suleyman speaks on:
Things will never be the same […] the missionary has spoilt everything. He told you not to trust us, not to be so friendly with persons who are natives of this land, and therefore born inferior.31
Pickthall recognises the words as true but knows too that he is torn – the advice of the missionary still ringing in his head to “give up this aimless wandering” and return to England.
A man who journeys in the desert finds a guide among the desert people, and he who journeys on the sea trusts seamen … An Englishman such as that missionary treats good and bad alike as enemies if they are not of his nation. He gives bare justice; which, in human life, is cruelty. He keeps a strict account with every man. We, when we love a man, keep no account.32
It is a wonderfully tense scene. As the first glow of dawn breaks, Pickthall is held in a crisis of identity. In the Introduction to Oriental Encounters, Pickthall writes of the feelings he had had those twenty years or so before, when travelling Arabia as a young man and living what he calls “a double life”.34 Here then is the moment when Pickthall can no longer continue to live the double life. He has to choose one life or the other: to recant his gentle, wandering ways travelling Arabia and befriending the locals he comes across, learning their language and customs with a loving interest; or to turn back to the imperial mindset and the ways of his English cultural upbringing, to the approach and attitude to the local Arab inhabitants of these lands so perfectly embodied in that of the Frank, the missionary. In that mystical still as the sun rises over the Arabian desert, Pickthall makes his decision:
It was the hour immediately before dawn, and the life seemed hopeless. The missionary’s voice seemed then to me the call of duty, yet every instinct in my blood was fierce against it.33
Framed against the naturally dramatic lighting of the sunrise, Pickthall bravely forges his future. He will follow the path dictated by his heart. He will walk the line which distinguishes him from the thoughts and prejudices of the missionary. The two may share their nationhood, but nothing more. Both are Englishmen travelling Arabia, yet the missionary seeks no friendship in the faces of the local Arabs he meets along the way. We have already seen the contemptuous manner in which the missionary treats those hosts whose land he walks. For Pickthall, that common tie of England is not strong enough to unite the two men. As Pickthall states, he cannot hold himself as “superior to eastern folk”. And such a stance truly distinguishes him from the mould of
A streak of light grew on the far horizon, enabling us to see the outlines of the rugged landscape. A half-awakened wild-bird cried among the rocks below us. And suddenly my mind grew clear. I cared no longer for the missionary’s warning. I was content to face the dangers which those warnings threatened; to be contaminated, even ruined as an Englishman. The mischief, as I thought it, was already done. I knew that I could never truly think as did that missionary, nor hold myself superior to eastern folk again. If that was to be reprobate, then I was finished.35
So here then is the very moment when Marmaduke Pickthall declares his cultural identity. Or at least, here is a fictionalised remembrance of that dawn revelation which befell his younger self. Whether the scene actually took place as portrayed in Oriental Encounters is impossible to determine without archival materials. Yet re-reading the chapter, the emblematic resonances and significances are hard to ignore. The timing of the moment when Pickthall must decide to heed the missionary’s words is so fitting: the dawning of a new day. With the cry of that “half-awakened wild-bird” Pickthall’s “mind grew clear” such that he could suddenly now see beyond the missionary’s words of warning. Both Rashid and Suleyman call out “Praise be to Allah!” as their young English friend declares himself freed from the cultural chains of figures such as the missionary. Together, the three friends ride off “towards the dawn” that is “beginning to grow red behind the heights of Moab”.36
It was not until 1917 that Marmaduke Pickthall published many of the stories of his travels in Arabia which were to eventually form Oriental Encounters; the same year which would see his conversion to Islam. The two actions should certainly be seen as connected. The year was a momentous one for Pickthall. In February 1917, the tale “Rashid the Fair” was published in New Age, a “radical, even socialist” weekly journal financially propped up by George Bernard Shaw and whose regular writers included Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy and Katherine Mansfield.37 Pickthall had written for New Age since 1912 but in February 1917 the appearance of “Rashid the Fair” (which would become the first chapter of Oriental Encounters in 1918) demonstrates how significant those years of Arabian travel were to Pickthall even more than twenty years later. From February 1917, Pickthall had eighteen tales of Oriental Encounters published in New Age.38 The book of the same name was published by William Collins in June of 1918. In between had come “Pickthall’s declaration of his [Muslim] faith in November 1917 [which] was the turning point of his life”.39 Significant in this context is the fact that the two chapters “My Countryman”