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The Last Bedu
Michael Asher

The Last Bedu
Michael Asher
London 1996

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The Last of the Bedu is the story of a journey made by the Arabist and explorer Michael Asher, through some of the wilder reaches of the Middle East and North Africa. The journey is both an evocation of nomadic Bedouin life, in that Asher travels partly by camel, and an attempt to describe and define the Bedu before their unique way of life disappears.

As the journey progresses, Asher poses the question (to people who are generally in a fairly advanced state of hostility and suspicion), "what are the Bedu?" This is rather like travelling through Spain and asking, "what are the gypsies?" Some people would define gypsies in terms of their ethnicity, some would say that a gypsy by definition has an itinerant lifestyle. So it is with the Bedu: some described their people in terms of tribe, while others said that those who had become farmers could no longer be called Bedu. One answer elegantly conjured the romantic image of the noble nomad, and the fine tradition of hospitality which many purists feel is being eroded by the onslaught of modern culture and technology:

The Bedu is generous and hospitable…He is also brave, but then bravery and generosity are the same thing, because when you are poor you have to be very brave to give away even what little you have.
The question, "what are the Bedu" is apparently innocuous: the responses to it are complex and interesting. But wherever Asher poses his question, fights ensue, Kalashnikovs bristle; he is accused of being a government spy or an arrogant, insensitive Westerner. His curiosity provokes a furious Islamic fundamentalist tirade from a driver, who then apologises and courteously explains that when faced with someone from a confident culture, one’s own cultural attitudes tend to harden. As Asher travels through spectacularly varied and remote country, his journey punctuated by visits to impossibly ancient sights like the wonderful rock city of Petra and the splendid ruins of the ancient Ma’rib Dam, he seems mystified by the irritation he provokes. It is perhaps fatuous to comment that if an Arab walked through Glasgow, stopping passers-by and asking, "what is a Glaswegian?", he might not be greeted with open arms. But the outright anger Asher’s presence provokes creates an unease in the reader, if not in the author himself, about the very nature and worth of the undertaking itself.

This unease is reflected in the author’s lack of facility with format of the book. Asher seems happiest when describing the workings of a two thousand-year-old Nabataean irrigation system, or outlining the complex genealogy of ancient Bedouin clan. But a good travel book requires a deftness of description and ability to weave a narrative out of observation that is sorely lacking here. The writing has no lightness about it; the descriptions of the changing landscape are turgid and repetitive. I came across three instances where a ruined building was likened to "a crushed molar", and one of these crushed molars even contrives to be, "dark and brooding"; sunset in Damascus is, "the sun like a wan eye blinking through the last shreds of flaccid cloud." This is flaccid writing, and needed a sterner editorial eye cast over it. The narrative hops around in time in a disconcerting manner, and though there are beautifully produced colour photographs in the book, there are no maps. There is no sense of the continuity in the journey, either in time or place.

Asher’s conclusions about the Bedu are in fact the conclusions of an intelligent and sensitive person. He does not mourn the romantic myth of the Bedu, and recognises that modern technology, education and medicine have brought the people a better and more stable standard of living. Asher identifies the Bedu’s adoption of the car as the survival strategy of a pragmatic people, who adopted the camel as the best available means of transport thousands of years ago. Modern technology in the form of complex irrigation systems has also transformed lives: one of the best passages in the book describes an old man’s excitement at seeing an antelope in a lush area which has been transformed by irrigation.

As the book seeks to de-romanticise notions about a people who have always been depicted as noble savages – most famously in Lawrence of Arabia – the fanciful and vaguely romantic subtitle, ‘In Search of a Myth’, seems an odd choice. Just as Asher seems unhappily caught between the roles of serious scholar and nomadic adventurer, the book itself at times falls victim to the very stereotypes it is trying to dispel. But as he sensibly concludes, Asher has not been searching for a myth, so much as hunting the snark. There are no ‘last Bedu’; there are just people, involved in the dynamic of change that characterises human existence:

Individuals die, cultures change, life evolves…as entities we wither, but as a process we continue.

Reviewed by Helena Mary Smith


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