FROM Baghdad it is a 12-day journey by fast camel caravan across the Arabian and Syrian desert to Damascus lying six hundred miles to the west-ward. This caravan route has been traversed by camels only for century upon century. Today two plow-furrows mark the route for the airmen piloting their camels of the air from Baghdad to Jerusalem, while venturesome travelers are guided by these furrows and the camel paths that crease the desert; the latter, trails that have been carved into the hard, sterile soil by the ceaseless tread of myriads of camels.
At 3:30 P.M. we crossed Maude’s pontoon bridge that spans the Tigris and exactly twenty-five hours later we drove up to the hotel in Damascus, six hundred miles away. Although the road was rather poor, our car soon crossed the narrow strip lying between the Tigris and Euphrates, the latter river spanned by a rickety pontoon bridge at Felluja. A short distance beyond, at Ramadie where is located an English air service, we stopped for a few minutes and had tea with the English officers in charge of this desolate air station located in the desert waste.
One is impressed by the spirit that dominates these English soldiers, or, at least, the question arises in one’s mind what it is that prompts young Englishmen to leave the beauty and culture of the British Isles and exile themselves, so to speak, in the utter desolateness of some remote, barbaric waste, doing their duty and rendering a service to mankind as they understand it.
It was now sundown, and the sun does not linger here in the desert in her evening farewell and benediction. A brief afterglow, daylight gone and the twinkling stars are hung as lanterns in the clear purple vault above. It is from this air station at Ramadie that we picked up the two plow fur-rows that designate the line of flight to Jerusalem. By 10:00 P.M. we had traveled 125 miles. Suddenly ahead of us we saw lights which we soon discovered were those of a squadron of armored cars camped for the night. We stopped, visited with the Tommies and their officers and ate a late dinner in the heart of the desert under a star-flung night, surrounded by a group of armored cars whose job it was to patrol the desert waste and insure a reasonably safe journey to venturesome travelers. The barrels of machine guns peered from the steel-jacketed turrets, a wholesome suggestion of the business end within that could administer a severe drubbing to any recalcitrant tribes. Of course, the word recalcitrant in this instance might be interpreted to mean a tribe that is not willing to have another man’s civilization imposed upon it whether willing or not, and that is about the same excuse the early settlers actually had for their attitude and acts toward the American Indian.
The hot, stun-scorched desert has been the nomadic Arab’s chief defense against the white man of northern clime, but the airplane and likewise the armored motor car has invaded the parched, waterless shadeless fastness of these desert dwellers and has effectively created respect (or hatred) for the powers they represent.
On again we went westward, into the darkness of the night across the great waste, the moon finally disappearing below the horizon at 1:30 in the morning. The steady hum of the motor finally lulled me to sleep as I sat half reclining on the front seat. At early dawn the convoy stopped, our cars drew up alongside one another, and the chauffeur in the next car asked what was the peculiar noise. It was the dear doctor on the rear seat snoring, fast asleep. We went on, stopping a little later to breakfast in the great outdoors, cooking our hot tea over an open fire.
For hundreds of miles the trail leads across a forbidding country, and we would continually cross and recross the plowed furrow that marks the air flight from Ramadie to Jerusalem. It is a sun-baked plain, a land of solitude and silence, and nearly void of vegetation. Even the so-called camel pastures of northern Arabia appeared bare of any vegetation, yet these animals, of which we saw several herds, were seen nibbling their existence from the sparse grass that tufts the desert.
It is surprising in this barren land, where not a living animal might be expected, to occasionally see a small herd of gazelle that would swiftly retreat before our fast-moving cars, moving with a swiftness and grace that commanded our admiration. The character of the desert can best be appreciated when one realizes that it is possible to follow these gazelle at full speed with a motor car in any direction they may pursue, as great areas of the surface is of a gravelly character and nearly as hard as asphalt. Our chauffeur stated that on several occasions he had pursued them with a car until they dropped from sheer exhaustion, and suggested I do the same, for I was then at the wheel and we were bowling along at 50 to 55 miles an hour, but the suggestion did not impress me as either humane or sportsman-like.
We were also quite surprised to see suddenly topping a ridge about a mile to our left and come galloping toward us, two horsemen of the desert, signalling us to halt, their rifles slung to the shoulders. I was at the wheel at the time and asked our armed guide and guard if I should stop, and was promptly ordered by both the guide and our chauffeur to just press the accelerator a little harder, and we whirled forward at the rate of 55 miles an hour over the hard, parched soil of the desert, and soon the horsemen appeared as specks on the horizon. I have never been able to satisfy myself as to their intention, but I was not unmindful of the fact that just a week before a party of four had been waylaid, robbed and murdered. I am disposed to think that no harm was intended. The life of these wandering nomadic Arabs of the desert is monotonous; they have no contact with the outer world, their customary generosity toward their women is in supplying them with babies, and their tomorrows are like their today, so perhaps it was a token of friendship they desired from us as a gift to their spousesor, the monotony of the desert life broken by a lively engagement with the paleface intruder of their desert land.
However, no misadventures befell us and ours was a safe journey from Baghdad to the Holy Land.
There are two things in particular that interest me in every countryits religion and its politics. These shape its history. The former is the most potent force for every people and nation, and the latter often the most tragic. Add to these a glimpse of the landscape and mingle among the common folk, and you have obtained a fair idea of a land and its people. As regards religion, I have about concluded that with the majority, our accepted faith is very largely due to heredity and environment.
Had I been born a pagan I could list quite a string of gods that I might have comfortably and devotedly worshippedthe Sun, Prometheus, Buddha, Confucius, etc. You see the only reason I am a Christian by faith is doubtless be-cause my mother is a devout Christian. I am sure I had nothing to do with the selection of my parents, my religion, my nationality, and I might almost add, my politics, for I was at first a republican because my father was, but later, of course, I came to believe that in national politics I could not be allied to any other party. “Yes, the dead command.” For it is thus that present generations are chained to the past and move along in the grooves that have been prepared by those who have long since passed into the Great Beyond.
When I think of forming an opinion on the political situation in the Near East, I am reminded of a visit in Scotland, along with a friend. While there we called on his cousin, who was connected with a large distillery located at Balmoral. The cousin presented him with a case of whiskey. Later when we arrived in Edinburgh my friend was entertaining a guest, and during the evening reference was made to his present, whereupon he asked his guest, a Scot, to sample a bottle, and as a connoisseur, give his opinion of the whiskey. A bottle was procured and set before the Highlander. During the evening he consumed the entire contents of the bottle, whereupon my friend asked for his opinion, to which the wily Scot replied: “I would na want to give an opinion on one bottle.”
I feel somewhat the same way as regards any opinion that I might offer regarding the political situation in Persia and Mesopotamia. During my sojourn of a month in the valley of the Euphrates and Tigris, and an equal length of time journeying to the capital of Persia, I did not absorb sufficient information about the complex political situation in these lands to warrant venturing an opinion.
Some facts, however, stand forth unmistakably. For example, a large following of the Moslem faith are opposed to the present King Feisal of Iraq, looking upon him as merely a tool in the hands of the British, by whom he was forced upon them as their ruler. A ruler who is friendly towards Great Britain, however, is highly desirable. Oil across the desert waste by pipe line from the oil fields of eastern Mesopotamia and western Persia to the littoral of Palestine on the Mediterranean Sea anyone can appreciate the importance of such an achievement to the British navy.
One is also impressed with the fact that unqualified support must be lent to the decision on the part of our statesmen in refusing to accept or undertake any mandatory responsibility as benefactors or liberators in the Near East, even though importuned to do so by Persia, Syria and Armenia. Any mandatory undertaking following the war was sure to involve trouble and create unrest and dissatisfaction among the very people that the mandatory power desired to serve, for the world in general was in a state of spiritual and political unrest following the Great War, and it has been wisely remarked, “Most people prefer to be self governed rather than well governed.”
To have accepted a mandate would surely have been creating trouble, in our becoming involved in the dangerous intrigues of Near East politics, and eventually ending in being looked upon as intruders and losing the good will that we now en-joy among these struggling minor nations desiring “self determination “a clever idealistic phrase that awakened fond hopes, premature national de-sires, and has caused no end of unrest. It must not be construed, however, that I am departing from the idea of a council or league of nations or a high international court or tribunal (or whatever name may be given) to which the United States can be a supporting power along lines con-forming to our ideals and constitution.
In closing this article I wish to add that while I approve the lending of assistance and the aiding of a people to rise to their opportunities and solve their national and spiritual problems, nevertheless, it has been well said by Kipling, “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” It is better so, for contempt often grows from intimacy.
Lo! dust-humbled thus I’m praying: “Let me see again, Just God, On my home the green vines swaying, And the dear familiar sod! “-HAFIZ.