In the Wild East
An American Author Visits an Orient in Tumult
John Dos Passos set off on his journey to the Middle East in a year of astonishing and historic upheaval. He was yielding to a long-cherished desire – not uncommon among Western literary figures – to see the Orient, having in 1912 already travelled down the Nile with his mother as far as the Sudanese border and spent four days in Istanbul on his way back to Europe. When he set off for Istanbul from Paris for the second time, in 1921 – alone this time – the twenty-five-year-old Dos Passos was already the author of two novels (One Man’s Initiation: 1917 and Three Soldiers) inspired by his wartime experiences. Born out of wedlock on 14th January 1896 in Chicago, he came into a small inheritance on the death of his father, a respected New York lawyer, in 1917. With this he was able to finance his unsettled lifestyle, at least initially.
Formative wartime experiences
After his father’s death, news of which reached him during an extended stay in Spain, the young intellectual volunteered to go to the front – not as a soldier, but as an ambulance driver with a medical unit funded by a charitable organisation. Nonetheless, he could hardly have experienced the war at closer quarters. ‘It is remarkable how many shells can explode round you without hitting you,’ he wrote to his friend Rumsey Marvin on 23rd August 1917. In his first book, One Man’s Initiation, which at around a hundred pages is so short as to be almost a fragment, the mutilation, death agonies, and inescapable brutality of the war are presented with relentless realism. This is no ordinary novel; it is a kind of live literary war reportage, complete with snapshots and a soundtrack, clearly influenced by film editing techniques. Similar techniques of the literary avant-garde are also present in the travelogues; and the author uses them masterfully in the great novels that established his reputation, Manhattan Transfer (1925) and the trilogy U.S.A. (1930–1936).
Dos Passos loathed war, and in the first half of his life was a staunch opponent of capitalism, the societal order that appeared to instigate it. At the same time, though, he was able to write to Rumsey Marvin on 29th August 1917 from the front: ‘I’m much happier here, really in it, than I’ve been for an age.’ At first sight, this appears to be a blatant contradiction. War is debunked as the usual machinations (‘The war is utter damn nonsense, a vast cancer fed by lies and self-seeking malignity on the part of those who don't do the fighting,’ he says in the letter of 23rd August) – and yet the man experiencing it at first hand claims to be happier than ever? A little calculation is required to locate the common denominator inherent in these two positions, but it is there: a sense of discomfort with the modern age, a weariness of civilisation. This is brought home to us very powerfully in the travelogues, written almost a century ago. Somewhere along the caravan train from Baghdad to Damascus (‘Day Seventeen’), he writes: ‘I’ve never been so happy,’ using almost exactly the same expression as in the letter from 1917. Written in the thick of war, the sentence surprises us; spoken in the desert, we believe him straight away.
Travelling was part of John Dos Passos’ life from childhood, which he once later described as a ‘hotel childhood’. The hotels of this childhood were in Brussels, London, Wiesbaden, Paris; his first language, the one he grew up speaking, was French. This life was financed by his father, John Randolph Dos Passos, who kept the author’s mother like a second wife and visited mainly when he was in Europe on business. In 1916, after gaining a passable but not outstanding degree in European languages and literatures at Harvard (where he became a friend of E. E. Cummings, among others), the young Dos Passos travelled around Spain for four months. The essays and travel reports he wrote during this period, initially for American newspapers, eventually became, in 1922, his first travelogue, Rosinante to the Road Again. (1922).
However, the account of his journey to the Orient is infinitely superior to his book on Spain. In addition to its literary value, it is a unique testimonial to the radical changes occasioned in every aspect of life in the Caucasus and the eastern Mediterranean by the First World War and Bolshevism. Back then, the ‘Orient’ – as it still sometimes called on the news today – had only just evolved. Just a few years earlier, Dos Passos’ trip (it was in fact two trips – to the Middle East in 1921 and Morocco in 1926) would have been utterly different, scarcely comparable to the one he describes. It would have been filled with different conversations, different scenes, different emotions and moods.
In the Middle East of 1921, the First World War was not yet fully over. The victorious European powers – the Entente of Britain and France in particular – were preparing to re-divide the Middle East. The Ottoman Empire, which had, after some hesitation, entered the war in late October 1914 on the side of Germany, collapsed in 1918. From its position in British-controlled Egypt, Britain supported the Arab independence movements against Ottoman rule, which at the time covered an area roughly corresponding to modern-day Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Israel/Palestine, Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence, the legendary ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, had promised King Hussain (1854–1931), the ruler of the Hejaz and thus also of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, a country of his own (the borders of which were, admittedly, still to be negotiated) as a reward for joining the fight against the Ottomans. Until then Hussain had ruled the Hejaz as Ottoman governor. Meanwhile, in the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which was initially kept secret, the English and French planned to divide the Middle East into two equal spheres of interest without taking the Arabs’ wishes into consideration. Woodrow Wilson, the American president, also stuck his oar in with his ‘Fourteen Points at Baries’ (as it was originally called, in a persiflage of the Arab pronunciation of ‘Paris’), promising the people of the Middle East self-determination once the war was over – or at least the ‘unmolested opportunity of autonomous development’, whatever that might mean.
The West’s political influence
In addition to these equivocations, the British supported not only King Hussain, for whom Lawrence was the liaison officer, but also his bitterest rival on the Arabian peninsula, Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud (1880–1953), whose liaison officer was a Captain William Shakespear (sic!). The news of Ibn Saud’s victory in the region, which was soon to be designated a new country and named Saudi Arabia in his honour, reached Dos Passos on the sixteenth day of the caravan journey to Damascus (‘It seems that the war in the Nejd is over.’) Meanwhile, the sons of Lawrence’s Emir Hussain had, with the blessing of the Mandate powers, been declared the Kings of Syria (Faisal, b. 1885 – there is much talk of him on the caravan journey) and Transjordan (Abdallah, 1882–1951). However, although himself a foreigner in Syria, Faisal rebelled against French rule in the country (cf. the entry on the thirty-seventh day of the caravan journey: ‘People in mysterious courtyards who were adherents of Faisul’s and plotting against the French’) and was ousted. As ‘compensation’, Britain made him King of Iraq (from 1921 until his death in 1933) – where the British occupying powers also had to battle numerous uprisings.
It must be made clear that, while these countries had existed in name, they had never done so as states with clearly-defined borders, or even definitive administrative districts. The borders drawn back then by Britain and France, which for the most part are still the same today, were artificial, and are still felt to be artificial by the majority of people in the region. They arbitrarily carved up territories that had been connected for centuries and had deep historical bonds; they separated extended families and broke up trade relations, and they flagrantly contravened the nomadic lifestyle of many people in the region. The attentive reader will have observed that Dos Passos travels from Tehran to Damascus without encountering any passport or border controls whatsoever. Had he so wished, he could have travelled on to Gaza and still not done so. It is utterly inconceivable nowadays that someone could sleepwalk like this right the way across the Middle East!
The situation in Iran was similar to that in the Arab countries, although its history was a different one. Britain, Russia and the Ottoman Empire had fought for influence in Iran in the nineteenth century, and although the country remained neutral during the First World War, the Great Powers fought their battles on Iranian soil. After the October Revolution the Russians withdrew; the Ottomans were conquered the following year, and in 1921 the pro-British Cossack colonel Reza Khan, who favoured radical reforms modelled on those of Atatürk, seized power on his own behalf. In 1925 he had himself crowned Shah: his son, Mohammed Reza, was toppled by Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian Revolution. Against this historical background, it should come as no surprise that the Sayyids have certain reservations about the British. What is surprising, however, is how closely the political positions in East and West at that time still resemble to their political positions today.
Turkey After the War
However, Dos Passos’ chronicle is far more vivid in its description of the first half of the journey than on the road from Tehran to Damascus. What extraordinary characters populate Istanbul in the summer of 1921 when the twenty-five-year old author arrives! Allied soldiers, Russian prisoners of war, Italian gendarmes, Greeks in the shape of officers or haughty old ladies, Azerbaijani diplomats and Armenian spies – the Turks seem almost to be in the minority, and they clearly have no say in what goes on. The British had imposed martial law on Istanbul in 1920, and with various players in the Middle East it was by no means clear into whose lap the golden apple would fall. The rump Turkish state in Anatolia that Mustapha Kemal (‘Atatürk’) and other Ottoman officers had managed to keep independent, with Ankara as the new home of the ‘Great National Assembly’, was the least promising candidate. But where the Europeans were initially successful in the Arab Middle East, they failed dismally in Turkey. Its current borders were established in the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923: Turkey became independent.
In the other capitals Dos Passos visited on his journey, the situation was no less turbulent. First he travelled by boat to Batumi on the eastern shore of the Black Sea. The journey overland through Anatolia would scarcely have been possible because of the war the Turkish troops were waging against the Allies: it would certainly have been extremely dangerous. In Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan the war was already over, but its devastating consequences were all the more apparent as a result.
After the First World War the food situation all over the Middle East was very insecure, but it was drastically worsened in the Caucasian republics by the ongoing famine in the rest of the Soviet Union, into which they had recently been assimilated. Between 1918 and 1922 in excess of five million people starved to death in the regions under Bolshevik rule. Dos Passos records this devastation, the destruction of the traditional way of life, the misery, and the deaths from starvation. But he does not judge. The insight he gains from what has happened, his conclusion, is not of a moral or political nature but rather philosophical and anthropological (Dos Passos was in fact briefly registered as a student of anthrolopogy at the Sorbonne in 1922). In Batumi he ponders ‘The Twilight of Things’. He comes across devalued, now meaningless objects in a corner shop near the port belonging to an old man – ‘the objects’ final custodian’. These objects, which previously sustained their owners’ whole existence (one is involuntarily reminded of Heidegger’s ‘equipment’), are presented as a vanitas painting that also reflects the desolation of a person confronted with the new era. One might conclude that, by indulging in these philosophical reflections, Dos Passos is insulating himself from the horror of what he sees; yet by making of him an almost icily cold observer they in fact enable him to observe without flinching.
The traveller as medium
This impersonal regard contains the seed of two fundamentally different worldviews. Dos Passos and his contemporaries were forced to ask themselves: Are we the witnesses and victims of a quantum leap in terms of civilisation, of progress – whatever form that progress might take – or are we being senselessly pulverised by the endless cycle of history? It is one of the strengths of his travelogue that this question is never answered but remains open for modern readers, too, to puzzle over.
As we have already indicated, this travel reporting is also groundbreaking in its literary style: it would still be groundbreaking even for a contemporary author. When Dos Passos writes about the murder of the Azerbaijani ambassador in Istanbul we also learn, as if incidentally, how after the conquest of the Caucasus by the Soviets, nationalists in those countries were persecuted, even after they had fled abroad. The motives for the ambassador’s murder are elucidated in a letter published by his widow in the Tribune Libre and apparently reproduced here word for word. The voice we hear is that of the people affected: the traveller is just a medium.
Nonetheless, the narrator as subject never completely disappears from this travelogue, and as the narrative progresses we are increasingly informed about the traveller’s moods and emotions. We are never as close to the narrator – or he to himself! – as we are during the thirty-seven-day caravan train from Baghdad to Damascus. ‘It’s the finest thing in the world to have no watch and no money and to feel no responsibility for events’ (Sixth Day). ‘I have never been so happy’ (Seventeenth Day). However, the traveller’s idyll that Dos Passos experiences over the course of these days is already tinged with melancholy: he senses that the world he is passing through is on the brink of oblivion.
Today, little remains of the Orient Dos Passos describes. He saw its end approaching, and was a witness to the beginning of that end. A few small islands are all that is left. You will still find the hashish-smokers he mentions, but even they are not as relaxed as before. Camel trains still cross the desert, but only for tourists. As we know, the Sayyids’ understandable loathing of Western policies, expressed in their speeches, has not lessened; but neither has penetration of the Orient by the West, lamented even in the 1920s. The Baghdad Railway – the longest section of which never, incidentally, reached Baghdad but only stretched as far as Medina – has long since been abandoned: it has become a sort of open-air museum for travellers in the desert.
This lucid and dispassionate travelogue by one of America’s greatest twentieth-century writers is an excellent illustration of why, nonetheless, we should not be too nostalgic for the ‘good old days’.
The travelogue Orient Express by John Dos Passos is collected in Travel Books and Other Writings 1916–1941, a selection of the author’s works published by Library of America (New York, 2003). The German translation was published in 2012 by Nagel & Kimche Verlag.
is the editor-in-chief of Fikrun wa Fann / Art & Thought.
Translated by Charlotte Collins
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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