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  Book review

A Modern Pilgrim in Mecca and a Siege in Sanaa 

by Arthur J. B. Wavell

First published in 1912 by Constable and Co. Reprinted by Garnet Publishing Ltd, Reading, 2005. Pp.viii + 349. Appendix. Index. Hb.Ł25. ISBN 1-85964-182-2.

The publishers are to be warmly commended for their initiative in reprinting this little known classic of Arabian travel literature, first published in 1912 but out of print for many decades.

The author, Arthur John Byng Wavell (hereafter AJW), was born in 1882. He was a cousin of Field Marshal Earl Wavell (1883–1950) and a fellow Wykehamist. They had several attributes in common: strength of character, tenacity of purpose, a wry sense of humour, and physical courage, qualities often belied by their apparent shyness and reserve in public. Both men graduated from Sandhurst in time to serve as subalterns in the Boer War; and they both won the Military Cross for bravery in action during the First World War.

AJW may have inherited his zest for adventure from their grandfather, General Arthur G. Wavell, who had served as a soldier of fortune in various parts of the world. In any event, he had too independent a nature to tolerate barrack-square routine, and after completing a military survey of unexplored areas of British South Africa in 1904/5, AJW resigned his commission in the Welsh Regiment and bought a sisal plantation near Mombasa. It was his contact with Arab and Muslim society in East Africa which aroused his interest in Islam and in the possibility of undertaking the pilgrimage to Mecca in the guise of a Zanzibari Arab claiming to have studied medicine in England.

To this end, having acquired a working knowledge of Arabic and Swahili, he recruited Masaudi, a Swahili Muslim from Mombasa, and Abdul Wahid, a Shi’a Arab ostensibly from Aleppo, to accompany him on pilgrimage. In his book AJW describes Abdul Wahid not only as being from Aleppo but as ‘established in Berlin’. This was presumably to protect the latter’s identity since he was actually resident in London, working as a translator and teacher, his real name was Abdul Majid, and he came from Baghdad!

In late 1908 AJW and his two companions spent a few weeks in Damascus before embarking on their onward 1000 mile journey by rail to Medina (for which a third class ticket then cost Ł3.10s.). This was to enable AJW to acclimatise himself to living as an ‘Oriental’ and to polish up his knowledge of Islamic custom and ritual. Despite all his careful planning, AJW knew that the success of his enterprise ultimately depended on the discretion and presence of mind of Masaudi and Abdul Wahid, as well as on his own agility in modifying his ‘cover story’ as circumstances dictated. Although his Muslim confederates did not fail him, AJW remained dogged by the worry that sooner or later either he or Masaudi would run into a pilgrim from Mombasa or Zanzibar who would recognise them and give the game away. And he was under no illusion as to the likely fate of a European exposed to ‘the wild fury of the pilgrim mob’, grimly concluding that ‘a quick passage to a better world by a sword-thrust or bullet would probably be the best that could befall him’.

AJW was not the first Englishman to undertake the pilgrimage in disguise. Richard Burton (1853), Herman Bicknell (1862) and John Keane (1878) had all preceded him; but he was the first European to travel on the recently completed Hejaz railway link to Medina. Local Bedu, accustomed to servicing overland pilgrims to Medina with camels and guides, viewed the new railway as a threat to their livelihood. The Turkish garrison at Medina was thus the target of intensive sniping during AJW’s three week sojourn there.

AJW’s lively and informative account includes some evocative scenes such as Friday prayers in the Haram at Mecca:

‘Scarcely a square yard of the great space remained unoccupied. The uniform movements of this vast concourse during the prayer, and the strange stillness that pervades, appeal strongly to the imagination. During… that phase of prayer when the forehead is placed on the earth, not a sound but the cooing of the pigeons breaks the brooding silence; then, as the hundred thousand or more worshippers rise to their feet, the rustle of garments and clink of weapons sweeps over the space like a sudden gust. The moment the prayer is over there is a rush to perform the towaf, and a few minutes later the roar of that human whirlpool may be heard at a considerable distance from the Haram’

The second half of the book recounts AJW’s travels and travails in Yemen in 1910/11. On his return to London from the Hejaz in 1909, he had toyed with the idea of leading an expedition to the Tibesti highlands via the Sudan or Libya, but later abandoned it in favour of a project to explore the hinterland of Arabia to the north or east of Sana’a. With the blessing of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), which he had joined in 1905, and with their conditional offer of some financial support, he arrived in Hodeida towards the end of 1910. On this trip he decided to travel in the character of an English convert, Hajji Ali Wavell, using the title which his pilgrimage in 1908/9 had earned him.

He was accompanied to Hodeida by Abdul Wahid: ‘I was anxious to have him with me – at the outset, at any rate. For one thing he is a Sheie [Shi’i], and comes of a well-known family. As such he would be sure of a welcome from the fanatical Zaidi citizens of Sana’a. He has a long tongue, a talent for introducing himself and for making friends with all and sundry, and is, beside, a most fluent liar. Since our last expedition these great qualities had been running to waste, for I had failed to induce him to adopt British nationality and stand for Parliament’.

However, the Turkish authorities in Hodeida were unimpressed, suspected AJW of being a spy and refused to allow him to proceed to Sana‘a. AJW therefore sent Abdul Wahid home and made a hurried visit to Aden to recruit a servant. He happened upon a young tribesman from the Aden Protectorate. The latter, by name of Ahmad, proved to be a youth of character and resource whose loyalty to AJW, despite, or perhaps because of, their shared vicissitudes, never wavered.

AJW and Ahmad managed to slip secretly out of Hodeida and to reach Sana’a before the Turks could intercept them. A few days later a large force of Yemeni tribesmen, partisans of the Imam equipped with field guns, started to besiege the capital. Noteworthy is the fact that AJW was one of only two Europeans in Sana’a during the four month siege which followed, the other being an Italian trader, Signor Giuseppe Caprotti, whose help to AJW, at some risk to himself, was unstinting. The Turks soon convinced themselves that AJW was a British officer in disguise who had been sent to Yemen to assume command of the insurgents’ artillery. They therefore kept him and Ahmad under constant surveillance and, later on, under virtual house arrest, with the intention, as soon as the siege was lifted, of sending them back to Hodeida and of expelling AJW from the country. Anticipating this, AJW and Ahmad one evening managed to evade the attention of their minders and to escape. They planned to head for Marib and thence make their way to Hadhramaut and the southern coast of Arabia. But they were betrayed by a hired accomplice and recaptured by the Turks. Having suffered physical mistreatment and other indignities, including a spell of imprisonment, they were released into the custody of the British Vice-Consul at Hodeida. The British Foreign Office declined to support AJW’s claims to compensation from the Ottoman Government. AJW publishes the relevant correspondence in an appendix; the hauteur and obfuscation of British officials in the heyday of empire still have a familiar ring!

AJW did not originally intend to publish an account of his journey to Mecca, in the belief that it had broken no new ground. But his experiences in Yemen must have acted as a catalyst, for his narrative of both episodes was published in 1912. In 1918 a cheap edition of his book, shorn of its chapters on Yemen, appeared with an introduction by Leonard Darwin, son of the celebrated naturalist. Darwin was President of the RGS when AJW had called on him to discuss his plans to explore Arabia, and has left us with this impression of AJW:

‘There entered my room a young man, rather below the middle height, evidently very light in weight, with dark hair and a much-tanned complexion; and he began discussing the matter in hand – the loan by the Society of some instruments... with no assurance of manner and with apparent diffidence…’

Darwin was beginning to wonder how his visitor could possibly muster the nerve to undertake an expedition into the wilds of Arabia when, as if to allay his doubts, AJW quietly remarked that he had visited Mecca and Medina in disguise. Ever after their interview Darwin felt that he had been in contact with ‘an exceptional personality’. His feeling was amply borne out by AJW’s initiative, following the outbreak of the First World War, in raising a force of Arab irregulars, many of them local water-carriers equipped with rusting and obsolete rifles, to repel German attacks on Mombasa. This force, known initially as Wavell’s Arabs, was, at AJW’s request, later renamed the Arab Rifles. In January 1916, AJW, now a Major, was killed defending a position guarding the Uganda Railway.

The reprint omits the seven illustrations, including a photograph of AJW in Arab dress taken in Damascus in 1908, as well as the detailed map of Arabia which appeared in the original (1912) edition. No explanation for this is offered. Moreover, an all too brief introductory note on the author is only to be found on the dust cover. Such sins of omission are regrettable but do not greatly diminish the thanks due to Garnet Publishing for reviving the memory of this intrepid and engaging young traveller, and for making his enthralling narrative available to a wider readership. 

John Shipman

An abridged version of this review will appear in the November 2006 issue of ‘Asian Affairs’.