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Where is the Contrast?

In Love With Mediocrity

A commenter presented this link and asked my opinion on the matter. A fisking of R.V.C. Bodley's I Lived In The Garden Of Allah follows.

IN 1918, I turned my back on the world I had known and went to north-west Africa and lived with the Arabs in the Sahara, the Garden of Allah. I lived there seven years.


Those seven years which I spent with these wandering shepherds were the most peaceful and contented years of my life.

He took advice from T.E. Lawrence and went to live with the Arabs:

I am glad I did so. They taught me how to conquer worry. Like all faithful Moslems, they are fatalists.

Bodley thinks that this is a "good" thing.

They believe that every word Mohammed wrote in the Koran is the divine revelation of Allah. So when the Koran says: "God created you and all your actions," they accept it literally.

"It's not my fault that I'm a bum--Allah made me so!"

That is why they take life so calmly and never hurry or get into unnecessary tempers when things go wrong.

Well as long as one doesn't date one of "their" women...

However, that doesn't mean that in the face of disaster, they sit down and do nothing. To illustrate, let me tell you of a fierce, burning windstorm of the sirocco which I experienced when I was living in the Sahara. It howled and screamed for three days and nights. It was so strong, so fierce, that it blew sand from the Sahara hundreds of miles across the Mediterranean and sprinkled it over the Rhone Valley in France. The wind was so hot I felt as if the hair was being scorched off my head. My throat was parched. My eyes burned. My teeth were full of grit. I felt as if I were standing in front of a furnace in a glass factory. I was driven as near crazy as a man can be and retain his sanity. But the Arabs didn't complain. They shrugged their shoulders and said: "Mektoub!" ... "It is written."

One would think that they would have created some infrastructure to safeguard themselves from such natural misery. After two thousand years of living in such hell, they just meekly accept the crappy life instead of improving their lot. Somehow Bodley finds this mindset to be appealing.

But immediately after the storm was over, they sprang into action: they slaughtered all the lambs because they knew they would die anyway [...] The tribal chief said: "It is not too bad. We might have lost everything. But praise God, we have forty per cent of our sheep left to make a new start."

A 60% loss rate = Not too bad.

I remember another occasion, when we were motoring across the desert and a tyre blew out. [...] The blown-out tyre, they said, was the will of Allah and nothing could be done about it. So we started on, crawling along on the rim of a wheel. Presently the car spluttered and stopped. We were out of petrol. The chief merely remarked: "Mektoub!" and, there again, instead of shouting at the driver because he had not taken on enough petrol, everyone remained calm and we walked to our destination, singing as we went.

From all this, the obvious conclusion follows:

The seven years I spent with the Arabs convinced me that the neurotics, the insane, the drunks of America and Europe are the product of the hurried and harassed lives we live in our so-called civilisation.


1. It is only because you lived in the "so-called civilisation" that you were able to travel to Africa and live among the Arabs. How many Arabs, at that time, had even the choice of visiting the West?

These Bedouin have lived in the same place with the same conditions for centuries. What does the next generation look forward to? More lambs, perhaps. Horses, if they're really lucky. Only recently did the Arabs get the chance to come to the West. That is because of oil--which required no skill from these fatalism-worshipping clowns.

2. Think about the mode of transportation. The Arabs don't have the initiative to build a bicycle, let alone an airplane. How would you have travelled to these "enlightened" folk without the fruits of your "so-called civilisation"?

3. What about the true representation of the Arab mind? The vicious hatred for other tribes and religions; the treatment of women; the value put on education; the punishment for theft; the hell for those who're not heterosexual; the acceptance of physical beatings for kids and wives -- all these matters form a more complete (and devastating) picture of the Arab world.

And that is why they're not mentioned in any way.

4. You witnessed the horror of war in the 1910s. You lived in a world that had underwent a lot of conflict, tension and change. It is likely that the Arabs provided you respite from the terrible turmoil.

The spectacular dynamism of the West can be too much for a fragile psyche. Such people are often attracted to the serene and calm state of the Arabs. Unfortunately, the all-encompassing mediocrity of that world is often overlooked.

This mindset will forever be among us. Decades from now when Americans build cities in a neighboring galaxy, someone will be churning out masturbatory rhetoric over a lame bunch of goat herders in Africa.



Wow. Thank you seriously for the post. I was drawn to this corner of the internet through having seen Steven (can't remember his name)'s blog post about his year in Arabia. I wanted to comment on his blog and get his take on Bodley and Lawrence's writings, but his site requires registration. Kudos to you for not.

I do think that there is some long fascination that certain Brits have had with the Arab culture. I would recommend you to read the rest of the book (SANDS OF THE SAHARA) as well as Lawrence's book (SEVEN PILLARS). Not just to compare and contrast their view of the Arabs with your view, but also for the insights that it gives into the Brit officer's mind.

I was interested in your take, not just for the agreement/disagreement, but for whether you thought his comments rang true. I think that both he and you deserve some credibility based on direct experience of the (to me from the West) strange. Also for your observations and analysis of said. Even though you differ on the positive or negative implications, it seems that you are both noticing similar things in the subject. Does that make sense?

Isaac Schrödinger

TCO: "Even though you differ on the positive or negative implications, it seems that you are both noticing similar things in the subject. Does that make sense?"

Yes, it does. I was aghast while reading the article--and for the very reason that you mentioned. Bodley was good at making observations but I couldn't believe that he had a favorable view of fatalism.

The fact that he didn't make the connection between such an awful mindset and the arrested development of Arab society (both intellectually and materially) after seven years is even more shocking.


Thing is, Isaac, how much differently did western society view women in the 1920's? Do you think an Arab beating his wife would have made much of an impression on a man of that era? Same goes for homosexuality. Or for hate for neighboring tribes for that matter, since the British upper-class were notably stuck up at the time. Brodley could simply have seen this hostility as a well-earned dislike for an inferior clan.

In other words, if we consider western society at the time, it's not hard to imagine just why a western men would have failed to be shocked by some of the more extreme aspects of arab/muslim society. The difference is, western civilization has changed since then, whereas those Arabs have remained static.


You should read the whole book. He had a love affair with a lady of the desert and everything. No shit. She ended up not being willing to marry him as he was not of the tribe. (He was a Muslim.)

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