SAUDI ARABIA - CAUGHT IN TIME 1861-1939 by Badr el-Hage. Garnett Publishing, Reading, UK, 1997. pp: 144. Hbk: £19.95.
Let us first get a simple point out of the way: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was declared in 1932. The Al-e Saud’s rise to power did not begin until their alliance with the British in the first world war. Until then, they were just another band of desert brigands, albeit a large and powerful one. Any suggestion, therefore, that the region’s identity as ‘Saudi’ Arabia can be projected back to the middle of the last century, as the title of this book seems to do, is wholly unacceptable. The correct names for this region are those which have been used for centuries: ‘the Arabian peninsula,’ or jazirat al-arab.
There is a temptation to black-list this book on the grounds of its title alone. However, that would be a mistake. Among the Saudis’ numerous excesses and abuses is the gross vulgarization of the Arabian peninsula by the destruction of traditional landscapes and buildings, and their replacement by totally inappropriate and unnecessary western styles and structures. Even the holiest places of the Haramain have not been exempt from this abuse. This book, a collection of photographs taken in the region during the period 1861-1939, does the immeasurable service of showing the area’s traditional face, before the Saudis embarked upon its destruction. The country revealed in these early, black and white photographs seems to bear little resemblance to the Haramain as we know them today. The town buildings of such cities as Makkah, Madinah and Jeddah, modern and up to date at the time, blend naturally with the desert landscape, no doubt the natural product of local materials and social needs of the time. The central marketplaces are populated with tents and camels. The domes and minarets of such buildings as the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah rise above the low, modest skylines of the towns as focal points of culture and civilization. Yet the very fact of the photographs being taken reflects a change which was beginning to come to the region. The technology of photography was itself new and alien arrival, brought in from the west. The earliest photographs in this book are taken by men such as Mohammed Sadek Bey and General Ibrahim Rifat, both western-trained Egyptian military commanders who came to the Hijaz escorting the Ka’ba’s mahmal (cloth cover), and made photographic records of their journeys. Other early photographs were taken by local amateurs, Muslim doctors, writers and others, either resident in the area or coming for Hajj or umrah.
But personal photography remained a rare hobby rather than a mass medium as it is today. It is no surprise to find that many of those who came and photographed Islam’s heartlands and holiest places had ulterior motives. El-Hage’s second chapter focuses on ‘The First Non-Arab Photographers of the Hijaz’. This chapter, although including the works of sincere Muslims such as the Indian Dr Abdul Ghaffar of Makkah, is built around the pictures taken in the 1880s by the Dutch orientalist Dr Christian Snouk Hurgronje and published in 1931 under the title Mekka in the Latter Part of the Nineteenth Century. Many of the photographs are excellent; but it is sobering to note that they are taken by a man who, for all his claim to have converted to Islam, was an avowed agent of the west in its plans to conquer and take over the Muslim world. (This is particularly obvious looking at his performance as an adviser on Islam to the Dutch government of the East Indies.) It was at about this time that the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) was founded by the British government in London, with its motto ‘Knowledge is Power.’ It is difficult to escape the feeling, looking at Hurgronje’s pictures of the Hijaz and the Holy Places, that they were taken in the same spiri - to know Islam in order to have power over it. This feeling is confirmed in the cases of other, later photographers who openly admitted the deception by which they entered the Hijaz to photograph the holy cities and the Haramain. The Frenchman Jules Gervais-Courtellement visited the Hijaz in 1894-95, disguised as an Algerian doctor called Abdullah and ordered by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs to gather information on the socio-economic and political affairs of the region. The British Captain Gerard Leachman visited Arabia several times after 1910. Officially, he was a geographer/botanist for the Royal Geographical Society; in fact he was an agent of the British government, one of whose missions was to negotiate with Abdul Aziz ibn Saud at Riyadh.
From this time, most of the photographs published reflect the close relations which developed between the British and Ibn Saud. Numerous British agents were sent to the region to deal with him and virtually all carried cameras. They included captain William Shakespear, who was killed in the battle of Jarab between the Ibn-Sauds and al-Rashids in 1915, and the eccentric Gertrude Bell. Major-general Stephen Butler and captain Leycester Aylmer boasted of having posed as Kurds to explain their blonde beards. They too were blatant about their duplicity, Butler recording in his diary that ‘we were looked on with great suspicion by the Turkish authorities who believed we were intelligence agents - which in fact we were!’ Most of the later photos in the book were taken by Harold St John Philby, a leading British agent in dealing with the Saud for nearly 40 years. Philby also took photos of the Haramain, permitted access by the Saudis after converting to Islam in 1930. Again, while it is not for us to question the sincerity of any man who claims to be Muslim, Philby’s record as a British agent is well-established. El-Hage reports the circumstances in which many of the photographs were taken, and the exploits of the photographers, coolly and apparently without seeing anything remarkable in them. However, the political and historical circumstances in which the photographs were taken should not be allowed to distract from the photographs themselves. They present a fascinating record of the Arabian peninsula in the last days before its ‘modernization’ under the Aal-e Saud. The buildings, in their traditional forms, seem far more in keeping with Islam’s humble and non-ostentatious ethos. The panoramic landscapes - originally taken for strategic purposes - show the towns and settlements fitting far more naturally into the desert landscapes than modern sky- scapers do. And the people seen appear far to be living far simpler and cleaner lives - again, more in keeping with Islam’s ethos - than are found in Arabia today. There is a notable contrast even in the pictures of the Aal-e Saud; it seems unlikely that the lean and hungry warriors shown riding into battle then would have much time for the fat, soft, decadent Saudis who rule the peninsula today.
This is precisely the sort of book that the Saudis like to patronize, in order to project their self-image as great and traditional Arab rulers (although this may not actually be so in this particular case). Whatever El- Hage’s intentions, however, many Muslim readers, however, are likely to read his book with mixed feelings.
Muslimedia: July 1-15, 199