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Le Desert et la Gloire.

Who can imagine an army of 100,000 men marching in the early 1800s through the sand dunes of Syria, Iraq and Persia towards India. Probably only the French emperor Napoleon I could have been bold enough to entertain such a dream. His defeat in Russia forced him to give up his scheme to stab his old enemy -- England -- in its imperial backyard.

But the French emperor's wild project was the inspiration for what is surely one of the most original documents on the life and times of the Bedu who roamed the desert between Aleppo and Basra at the beginning of the 19th century.

Following his experience in Egypt, Napoleon realised he would need the cooperation of the Bedu to escort his army, to provide his soldiers with a huge number of camels, to teach them to ride them!

They would also need knowledge of routes and water supply sources "so that they could reach the gates of India without lacking anything". In order to achieve his aims Napoleon sent a French secret agent, the chevalier Lascaris de Vintimille, who disguised himself as a merchant and, accompanied by Fatallah Sayigh, his assistant, left Aleppo in February 1810 to contact tribal chiefs and explore the desert.

Fathallah Sayigh's account of this secret mission in the desert was translated into French and published in Travels to the East by the famous French romantic writer Lamartine in 1835 and was promptly forgotten. The new version by Jospeh Chelhod, who has written extensively about Yemeni civilisation and traditional Arab religious beliefs in a well-edited account of the endeavour.

Taking the form of a novel this document provides a rare glimpse into the daily life of the Bedu of Mesopotamia at a time when its largest tribes, which boasted encampments numbering anything between 1,000 and 5,000 tents, would migrate eastward in October towards the border with Persia, to begin the journey back in a westerly direction to reach the plain of Hama before the beginning of the summer.

An inspired writer, Fathallah describes the customs of the Bedu, the costumes of the women and other details of their daily lives. His account of a tribe of several hundred families folding their tents and preparing to move camp is a revelation in itself.

However, at no time does Fathallah foget that his mission is a political one and his descriptions delve deeply into the social and the political life of the tribes. He catalogues the chiefs of the tribes, their relationships with each other, the influence of the womenfolk on the men and the tribal feuding which takes place between them.

The 20 pages he devotes to an epic battle that took place near Hama between the Wahabites on one side and the Bedu and the Ottomans on the other, should figure in any anthology of the desert worth its salt.

Fathallah's travels took him as far as Diriya, then the capital of Ibn Saud. Although obviously sharing the Ottoman predjudice against the founder of the Saudi dynasty, his description of an audience at the court of Diriya provides an unusual insight into the early days of the Saudi kingdom. Fatallah, who risked his life several times during this odyssey, brings much colour and some humour into his accounts, particularly when describing some cowardly Bedu of his acquaintance and others that were dominated by their wives.

He also discusses at length the wedding rituals performed by the tribespeople and, less happily, the fate of unfaithful wives. Altogether, this evocation of life, death war and politics in the desert by an agent of Napoleon is something of an historic masterpiece which will captivate the attention of its readers.
COPYRIGHT 1993 IC Publications Ltd.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Kutschera, Chris
Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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