Charles Doughty’s imposing 1,400 page tome is one of those strange books many people hail as a masterpiece of travel literature but which few of those people have read. Famous among scholars of Arab history and culture, it’s more often been described as “an achievement” than a gripping read. But thanks to this well chosen selection from Dover Publications, the casual reader can now enjoy some of the author’s best passages without bogging down in rambling Victorian-age digressions.
Charles Doughty traveled the Arabian peninsula in the 1870’s, when Wahabi fanaticism was at its height. Other explorers had made similar journeys before him, but usually in disguise. Doughty traveled openly as a Christian and an Englishman, among ragged Bedouin tribesmen and devious Arabian townsmen, through desolate wasteland where his life was worth less than the coins in his pocket. He was repeatedly robbed, sometimes beaten, and often taken advantage of, but he also found kindness, honesty, and companionship on his journey. Once you get past the old-fashioned style of his prose, the story of his famine-level existence and his endurance of climactic and cultural extremes makes for a gripping read.
Doughty’s remarkable firsthand observations of Arab life and culture provide modern readers with a window into our now vanished past, as well as a glimpse of what it was like to travel before there were hostels, tour packages, or the Lonely Planet. Travels in Arabia Deserta can be a challenging read, but the insights you’ll come away with are worth the effort.
(For those like me who are interested in old explorer’s journals, Dover publishes many of these in inexpensive reprint editions. Some of this stuff can be very hard to come by, so I’m grateful for a company like Dover that continues to put it out there.)