Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving

Book Reflections – Syria, The Desert & The Sown by Gertrude Bell 


Book cover – Syria: the Desert & the Sown

After finding so much pleasure in reading Gertrude Bell’s book Amarath to Amarath I moved on to Syria – The Desert and the Sown with great expectations (downloaded for free from this site because it is outside of copyright). It lived up to my hopes and was also a great pleasure to read. Once again I loved travelling vicariously with perhaps the most adventurous British woman that I’ve heard of, though granted her wealth gave her comforts and staff that are inaccessible to most others, she chose not to marry and stay in a comfortable life in Britain but instead to travel far and wide across the Middle East, climb mountains, learn about historical architecture and archaeology, master Arabic, Farsi, German and French and shape modern Iraq.

This book was published 4 years earlier than Amarath to Amarath and Bell is more timid and less assured in this earlier book. She also has not learnt as much about archeology and architecture than what she decribes in the later book. An advantage of Syria – The Desert and the Sown is that it doesn’t have the long academic descriptions of archeological sites that even I skim read. All in all, I loved both books, everything I loved most about Amarath to Amarath was in Syria – The Desert and the Sown, and Bell is still my hero (despite the monumental mess of modern Iraq). I wish I had left a gap between reading the two books so that I didn’t spend the first part of Syria – The Desert and the Sown comparing it and her slightly altered writing style with Amarath to Amarath.

Here I have made a few observations from the book and copied some of my favourite quotes:

Bell describes her arrival in the village of Salt in Syria. She is greeted by an Arab Christian man who invites her to stay in his guest room. She joins him for coffee and describes the elegant ceremony:

We settled down to coffee, the bitter black coffee of the Arabs, which is better than any nectar. The cup is handed with a “Deign to accept,” you pass it back empty, murmuring “May you live!” As you sip someone ejaculates, “A double health,” and you reply, “Upon your heart!”

Bell is guided through the desert by a handsome young local Arab man named Gablan who:

Taught me also the names of the plants that dotted the ground, and I found that though the flora of the desert is scanty in quantity, it is of many varieties, and that almost every kind has been put to some useful end by the Arabs. With the kai of the utmfan they scent their butter, from the prickly kursa’aneh they make an excellent flalad, on the dry sticks of the billan the camels feed, and the sheep on those of the shih, the ashes of the gait are used in soap boiling.

Bell sits in the tent of a sheikh and observes:

The lee side of an Arab tent is always open to the air; if the wind shifts the women take down the tent wall and set it up against another quarter, and in a moment your house has changed its outlook and faces gaily to the most favourable prospect. It is so small and light and yet so strongly anchored that the storms can do little to it; the coarse meshes of the goat’s hair cloth swell and close together in the wet so that it needs continuous rain carried on a high wind before a cold steam leaks into the dwelling-place.

About the Seijari women Bell records:

The Seijari women were wonderfully beautiful. They wore dark blue Bedouin dress, but the blue cloths hanging from their heads were fastened with heavy gold ornaments, like the plaques of the Mycenean treasure, one behind each temple. Agreeable though their company proved to be I was obliged to cut short my visit by reason of the number of fleas that shared the captivity of the family.

This reflection on appetite is interesting when taking into account the modern day obesity rates that I have observed in Saudi Arabia:

The Arab eats astonishingly little, much less than a European woman with a good appetite, and when there is no guest in camp, bread and a bowl of camel’s milk is all they need. It is true they spend most of the day asleep or gossiping in the sun, yet I have seen the ‘Agel making a four months’ march on no more generous fare. Though they can go on such short commons, the Bedouin must seldom be without the sensation of hunger; they are always lean and thin, and any sickness that falls upon the tribe carries off a large proportion of its numbers.

This conversation between a Kurdish Agha and a Druze host is interesting in light of the increase in religiosity in the Arab world in recent decades:

You may find men in the Great Mosque at Damascus at the Friday prayers and a few perhaps at Jerusalem, but in Beyrout and in Smyrna the mosques are empty and the churches are empty. There is no religion any more.

“My friends,” said the Agha , “I will tell you the reason. In the country men are poor and they want much. Of whom should they ask it but of God? There is none other that is compassionate to the poor save He alone. But in the towns they are rich, they have got all they desire, and why should they pray to God if they want nothing?”

An Arab named ‘Awad joins Bell’s party as a guide:

We were all shivering as we set out in the chill dawn, but ‘Awad turned the matter into jest by calling out from his camel: “Lady, lady! Do you know why I am cold? It is because I have four wives in the house!” And the others laughed, for he had the reputation of being a bit of a Don Juan, and such funds as he possessed went to replenishing his harem rather than his wardrobe.

I have encountered this sort of talk among Arab men who trust me, complaining when they are away from their wives, not because they miss talking to them but because they consider it an injustice being without sex for even one day.

Bell was guided by an older Arab man named Yunis with ten children from two wives. He remarked about how much one of his wives cost him and when Bell enquired he responded:

I took her from her husband, and by God (may His name be praised and exalted!) I had to pay two thousand piastres to the husband and three thousand to the judge.

Anyone who has what I call an ‘epic’ like the time I was stranded in a village in Patagonia will relate to this:

The next day’s journey is branded on my mind by an incident which I can scarcely dignify with the name of an adventure – a misadventure let me call it. It was s tedious while it was happening as a real adventure  (and no one but he who has been through them knows how tiresome they frequently are), and it has not left behind it that remembered spice of possible danger that enlivens fireside recollections.

Bell had this to say about Damascus that I can’t imagine can still be true:

Whether you ride to Damascus by a short cut or by a high road, from the Hauran or from Palmyra, it is always further away than any known place. Perhaps it is because the traveller is so eager to reach it, the great and splendid Arab city set in a girdle of fruit trees and filled with the murmur of running water.

And her original sponsor said this:

“I am persuaded that in and about Damascus you may see the finest Arab population that can be found anywhere. They are the descendents of the original invaders who came up on the first great wave of the conquest, and they have kept their stock almost pure.”

It was nice to see her photos of the temples at Ba’albek and others that I don’t think I’ll ever get to see in person.

As Trump takes power in the USA, Britain departs from the EU, and Europe moves inexorably to the right this quote is pertinent:

I fell to wondering whether civilisation is indeed, as we think it in Europe, a resistless power sweeping forward and carrying upon its crest.

I copied this passage about the natural beauty in northern Syria for the gardeners out there:

Every ledge and hollow was a garden of wild flowers; tall blue irises unfurled their slender buds under sweet-smelling thickets of bay, and the air was scented with the purple daphne.

This statement from Bell resonates with my philosophy of striving to engage:

Opportunities of enlarging the circle of your acquaintance should always be grasped, especially in foreign parts.

In 1907 Gertrude Bell had this to say about Armenians in Turkey, eight years before the genocide:

The villages on the coast contain large colonies of Armenians; they are surrounded by military stations, to prevent the inhabitants from escaping either inland to other parts of the empire or by sea to Cyprus.

If you look at what’s happening in Syria and wonder how people could have so much animosity towards each other, read Gertrude Bell and the deep distrust and indeed hatred of all other groups and the number of different groups will help to explain (ignoring the foreign influences for now). For example this is what one Arab had to say about Circassians in Syria:

The father sells his children, and the children would kill their own father if he had gold in his belt. It happened once that I was riding from Tripoli to Homs, and near the khan I met a Circassian walking alone. I said ‘Peace be upon you! Why do you walk?’ for the Circassians never go afoot. He said ‘My horse has been stolen from me, and I walk in fear upon this road.’ I said ‘Come with me and you shall go in safety to Homs.’ But I made him walk before my horse, for he was armed with a sword, and who knows what a Circassian will do if you cannot watch him? And after a little we passed an old man working in the fields, and the Circassian ran out to him and spoke with him, and drew his sword as though to kill him. And I called out ‘What has this old man done to you?’ And he replied ‘By God I am hungry, and I asked him for food, and he said “I have none” wherefore I shall kill him’. Then I said ‘Let him be. I will give you food’ And I gave him half of all I had, bread and sweetmeats and oranges. So we journeyed until we came to a stream, and I was thirsty, and I got off my mare and stooped to drink. And I looked up to see the Circassian with his foot in my stirrup on the other side of the mare, for he designed to mount her and ride away. And by God I had been a father and a mother to him, therefore I struck him with my sword so that he fell to the ground. And I bound him and drove him to Homs and delivered him to the Government. This is the manner of the Circassians, may God curse them!

This passage reminded me of summer in Saudi Arabia in my black abaya and hijab:

In Yemen if a man stood in the shade and saw a purse of gold lying in the sun, by God he would not go out to pick it up, for the heat is like the fire of hell.

For more information about Gertrude Bell (and the film made about her life, starring Nicole Kidman), I recommend that you take a look here:


9 comments on “Book Reflections – Syria, The Desert & The Sown by Gertrude Bell 

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This entry was posted on January 11, 2017 by in travel writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , .
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