The Empty Quarter The Empty Quarter. By H. St. J.
B. Philby, C.I.E., I.C.S. (Constable. 21s.)
Heitz is an epic narrative of Arabian exploration—Mr. II. St. J. B. Philby's story of his great camel journey through the southern desert last year. That journey will not, improbably, mark the closing of an epoch, for the explorer of the future will inevitably turn more and more to the ever improving scientific aids of wheels and wings. This
does not mean that the old, slow, traditional Arabian method of the camel's back—the method of Burton and Doughty—
stands in fear of being discredited. Indeed, it has been the only efficient method for the pioneer, for Arabian exploration represents peculiar problems; and the adventurer's objective has not been primarily—as in an aerial flight over Everest, for instance—the idea of " getting there" : it has, rather, in its processes at least, involved a long-drawn-out tussle with nature in her sternest mood for the purpose of unravelling secrets of various scientific character—geological, anthro- pological, zookigical and the rest.
Arabia yields such secrets reluctantly. She still remains the forbidden country for all but the occasional and the privileged enquirer. She has remained comparatively inviolate and mysterious down the centuries. Hers is the odd distinction that no modern European Power has attempted to invade her—it is necessary, indeed, to go back nearly two thousand years to the Roman General Aelius Gallus for the last considerable European intrusion into Arabia proper, and history knows of no more than twenty European explorers who have penetrated to her innermost heart, and written usefully of what they found. Not a few of these have perished there by violence. Her remoter inhabitants are insular, suspicious, militant, inflammable, and every man goes armed. European expeditions of discovery such as are designed on the complete scale for Polar work, that is to say, with surveyor, doctor, botanist and other experts for each department of activity, are unknown and deemed unworkable, and the tradition of Arabian exploration has been the individual European enthusiast, who has gone forth at his own personal risk and without prospect of material gain.
The native nomad is hostile to the foreign infidel spying out his land, and our author, like many European explorers —to wit, Richard Burton in the middle of the last century and Eldon Rutter in our own—travelled as a Muhammadan. To his companions Mr. Philby was Shaikh Abdullah. But if to his apostasy he owed something of his success, he modestly, ascribes his chief indebtedness to his friend and patron Ibn Sa'ud, the ruler of Central Arabia and the Hedjaz, the greatest and most influential Arab perhaps since the time of the Prophet. Yet if this Arabian Caesar, as. Mr. Philby calls him, authorized and financed our author's expedition, that is but a small part of the story. It is because of Mr. Philby7s own great qualities as an explorer that his. arduous journey of some one thousand, eight hundred miles was conceived and carried through by him—a very remarkable feat of courage and endurance for an Englishman nearer fifty than forty.
Enough has been said to :show that. Arabia is not the place where adventures can be lightly undertaken by the uninitiated, and, by contrast, Mr. Philby brought a unique experience- of Arabia and the Arabs to his task. He had; indeed, spent the previous eighteen years in the Middle East, had already, performed a historic camel journey across the peninsula, and published. in The Heart of Arabia a distinguished contribution to Arabian travel literature. Having gone to the East originally as a member of the Indian Civil Service; he came to occupy important political posts in Iraq and Trans-Jordan in immediate post-War years, and then some- what precipitately abandoned an official career for a commercial one in the Hedjaz. But we May be sure that it was Arabia herself that was luring him on, and he has devoted himself to her -with an undivided devotion. His obsession from the first was the conquest of the great Empty Quarter of .South Arabia, an obsession that grew and grew. Rub'al Khali 'was his dream, and the book before us describes the materialization of that dream, while his map---its eoncomitant—testifies that it was no empty dream. • Mr. Philby set out with 19 eompanion.s and 32 camels from Hufuf on January 7th of last year. Incidentally the camas were all, with one exception. she-camas, an interesting commentary on the Arab's preference for riding the female - this in contrast to the practic:. of Baluchistan met with by the reviewer when on an ibex shooting expedition there, the Baluchi invariably rides the bull camel, as I believe is the way in Egypt and elsewhere.
Coming fresh to the camel saddle after some years, the author's first day's journey witnessed his collapse in a dead faint at the end of ten miles, hut within five days he had overcome this and other inevitable inconveniences—a tribute to "sheer physical will power." His immediate objective at the outset was the exploration of the Jabrin oasis, and the first third of the book the narrative is divided into three parts—is devoted to this northern region which Major Cheesman had explored by a different route a decade before. Mr. Philby's speculations upon an ancient arm of the sea, and an estuary origin of Jabrin are extremely suggestive. The month of Ramadhan, the Fast month of Islam, had by now descended upon the party, and for the next thirty days Mr. Philby, like his companions, abstained from all food and drink between sunrise and sunset. Such religious rules may be suspended, and the fast postponed, while a journey is in progress, but the desert Arab does not as a rule, as I know from experience, avail himself of the theological privilege, but hopes for the virtue that comes from a super-piety, and for the same reason will disdain tobacco and sexual intercourse.
Part II of the book sees the party across the great interior waste of the desert, through which the reviewer himself had made n northward crossing the year before. The most
interesting discovery, -indeed Mr. Philby's most dramatic find throughout, was an enormous meteorite crater, one of the three or four largest in the world. His companions had led him to believe that they were taking him to the ruins maybe of a buried city which he had identified in his mind with the legendary Wabar. While one cannot reconcile Mr. Philhy'a theory with the historical Walmr, a passage from one of his lectures describing it is vividly interesting.
" In the vast dreary wilderness of low rolling bare sandbillows nothing seemed less likely than that we wore On the point of entering. the portals of a groat city of the past which, according to the legend, had been destroyed by tire from heaven owing to the riotous luxury of the court of the king of this country, named 'Ad ibn Kin'ad. Fourtean years before I had heard the story of the ruins in the sand and of a mysterious Muck of iron as largo as a camel. I looked down not on the ruins of a city but into the open mouth of what I took to be a volcano with twin craters side by side surrouiiilcst by low walls of what looked like outpoured slag and lava. And that was the Weber of which I had heard and dreamed no much all these many years. My companions were in no wise dint urinal by the sceptical views to which I gave expresSion, and were soon busy digging for treasure, for on the way down I had entertained them with a little embroidery of the original legend. The 'ninety ladies of King 'Ad, I hail told them, had, as a matter of fact, not perished in the conflagration, but had been stowed away in a cellar of the palace, where with any luck we should still find them alive' and as beautiful as ever. We were nineteen and they were ninety, so there would be nearly five apiece if only we could find the key to the cellar."
Part III of the hook is really thrilling, for it deals with that part of the great desert-- its most arid part and to Mr. Philby "The Empty Quarter" par excellence—that for 300 miles he was the first white man to traverse., The camels were played. out and the Arabs came near to mutinying rather than face what seemed to some of them certain death. One abortive attempt was followed by retreat on to a water hole with man and beast famished. Then, providentially, rains fell, and with a diminished party of selected men and camels the journey Was continued. Mr. Philby's pages convey to his readers a. sense of the utter desolation and lifelessness of the Great Desert, and the depression of men reduced to precarious rations of raw camel meat and water that is scarce different in taste and effect from Epsom salts, and the strain of eighteen of the twenty‘four hours of the day spent in the saddle. One- can understand the sense of relief, the exhilaration which lie experienced when after months of dangers braved, and hard- ships endured, he emerged victoriously at that little favoured copse beyond -Salaiyal, the familiar scene of his earliest exploration fourteen years before. The. deed was done ; a deed worthy of a proud place in the annals of exploration.
BERTRAM THOMAS. '