A Modern Pilgrim in Mecca and a Siege in Sanaa

John Byng Wavell, Reading, UK: Garnet Publishing, 2005. 349 pages.

It should be noted that the trespassing English pilgrim Arthur Wavell is definitely not postmodern; his “modern” account of a trip in disguise to Makkah and Madinah was originally published in 1912. The author revels in explaining how he pulled off the role of a Zanzibar Muslim on hajj, as though he is presenting a how-to guide for fellow swashbucklers. Previously, he had carried out intelligence work for the British Army in South Africa and, in 1906, settled on a farm near Mombasa, where he learned Arabic and met Muslims. He died at the young age of thirty-four while fighting in East Africa.

Wavell presents a riveting tale with a self-serving hubris that could easily be dismissed as a remake of Sir Richard Burton’s earlier and more celebrated penetration of Makkah. But there is good reason to read this dated book, if only for the historical view of travel to Makkah near the end of the Ottoman caliphate. Wavell traveled from Damascus on the Hijaz railway the very year (1908) that it reached Makkah. His trip was made partly out of curiosity, no doubt fueled by the fact non-Muslims are forbidden to enter Makkah, and as a test for future travel in Arabia’s interior (p. 28). However, he does give a detailed personal description (chapter 9) of the hajj in that year. After his escapades in Arabia, replete with Bedouin robbers and pilgrimage con artists, he ventured on to Yemen and became embroiled in a 1911 local war in the capital Sanaa. Half of his narrative is given over to his problems in dealing with the Turkish bureaucracy in Yemen. This is interesting for the political details, but says virtually nothing of value about Zaydi Islam in Yemen.

Although he reflects an at-times-nauseating love of British self, the author is surprisingly sympathetic when talking about Muhammad (“a man of sound common-sense, personal bravery, and gentle disposition” [p. 11]). Indeed, he is as harsh on Christianity as he is on Islam: “The history of Islam is a record of bloodshed and debauchery, but not more so than that of Christendom. Fanatical religious sentiment has been the cause of much suffering and strife in the case of the former, but it is doubtful if a parallel for the treachery of St. Bartholomew’s Eve or the cruelties of the Inquisition can be found in Moslem annals” (p. 21). He has harsher things to say about the local Bedouin, who “though brave, generous, and hospitable, they are treacherous and consider things allowable in war that are decidedly not ‘cricket’” (p. 59). This is surely no primer on Islam, but the grudging respect of a non-religious European who spent time with many kinds of Muslims is worth noting.

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