'When the days of rejoicing are over,
When the flags are stowed safely away,
They will dream of another wild "War to End Wars"
And another wild Armistice day.
But the boys who were killed in the trenches,
Who fought with no rage and no rant,
We left them stretched out on their pallets of mud
Low down with the worm and the ant.'
- Excerpt from 'Armistice Day' (1918) by Robert Graves
As part of school tradition we used to walk for fifty miles (80 km) in the English countryside - which would have taken a staggering 24 hours of almost non-stop walking to complete. It may be a hard walk, but it was hard to imagine if I was born eighty years earlier, I would have gone straight to war having completed that. The walk, originally created as a test of endurance for students about to enlist in WWI is today the rite of passage before we all leave school.
‘My subject is war, and the pity of war.
The poetry is in the pity.’
- Wilfred Owen, WWI soldier and poet (1893-1918)
Although even Lawrence himself would later admit that the Middle Eastern war theatre was a 'sideshow of a sideshow', there was something in which Graves and Lawrence would share in common in their own respective wars: the war in the Arabian desert was going to be equally brutal - and no less violent.
Modern Middle East was largely created by the British and her allies: the creation of Israel, and even the upheavals in Iraq and Syria today can all trace back their roots to the post-WWI agreements written by the Entente powers. Seeking to understand more about the making of modern Arabia from a historical perspective, earlier this year I travelled for two months in Jordan to look at some of the places related to Great War. Although my researches had yielded a map earlier which marked out some of the sites where Lawrence had fought, with no place names or coordinates it was an almost impossible task to try to locate them.
Then I had an extraordinary stroke of luck: after a couple of days of trying to scanning through the topography of the WWI map and sections of Google satellite images I had managed to match up the two. Right on my computer screen were some of the best preserved WWI battlefields: snaking around the edges of a former train station were the trenches young Ottoman conscripts had once dug in. Further south, much of the railway bed of what was once the supply line that allows the Ottomans to control the vast Arabian desert also came to life. I almost shouted in excitement.
But my walk in Jordan had come to a very bad start. In a previous attempt to camp and hike at the desert north of Wadi Rum (where Lawrence also fought) I had encountered a huge khamsin (sandstorm). Almost buried in my own tent during the night as it was a one man tent built for the elements of rainy British weather (and nothing for the fine sand which kept blowing in from the sides). In the middle of night I was forced to pack up and seek shelter from the wind.
The only choice at the time was to get to the nearest large sandstone stumps in the wadi (valley in Arabic) which, as the gale was passing through echoes beautifully. The echo was my guide in the dark ,and around there I found my saviour for the night, a local al-Huweitat sheikh whose valley was his. He had allowed me to stay in his tent, pegged into the sand with a huge steel and concrete pole in the middle.
As I fell asleep, the whole tent also started to be shaking. We (including the sheikh and his young Palestinian helper) found ourselves braving the wind outside shifting concrete blocks to try to stabilise the side of the tent. One thing I wasn't prepared for - which I would frequently encountered later again - was how windy the desert can become when gales travel through hundreds of miles of flat desert unopposed. If you are facing the wind there is simply not much you can do: you would sand in your nose and even your ears. You can barely open your eyes or even breath. It is then that you really appreciate Lawrence’s endurance, living under these kinds of conditions for years on end.
That had seriously put off any further attempts to try to camp and walk in 'wild' desert Jordan (not the Petra or Wadi Rum touristy part). Or at least I thought. But in Amman I met the young but equally adventurous German who was my roommate in a small hostel. Upon hearing my plan to visit the WWI era fortifications along the Hejaz railway, Niklas, the Arabist in the making, was equally keen to come long.
With little funding, we will first have to hitchhike to the southern border between Jordan and Saudi Arabia (there is no bus). The motorway sits on what was once a centuries old caravan route, where since time immemorial Muslim pilgrims had followed this Arabian 'Silk Road' and travel south to Mecca from greater Syria. Once there we will have to walk the old railway and look at the fortifications along until we finally reach the southern town of Ma'an again.
Since there was no tent for two (and since staying in a tent on my own could only seemed inappropriate), I have decided I was going to stay in the open with Niklas. The stars will be our blankets and the sand will be our beds. Our only guide will be the railway trackbed. I told him there was nothing I could offer - but I promise it was definitely going to be a little adventure.
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I like to travel, and I like to find out about things so I have created this blog to share what I saw on my journeys.
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