I foresee that man will resign himself each day to more atrocious undertakings; soon there will be no one but soldiers and bandits.
Jorge Luis Borges, 'The Garden of Forking Paths'
John Bagot Glubb, a young lieutenant bearing wounds from the war in France, arrived in Mesopotamia in 1920. His assignment was to command armed patrols through the desert of what would become, under its first Western occupier, Iraq. The British bureaucracy, he observed, had yet to decide what to do about bedouin raiding. The desert tribes derived a part of their revenue from brigandage against other tribes, pilgrims and travellers. While there was general agreement that the tribes ought to be discouraged from attacking non-bedouin innocents in the desert, Glubb noted, a few officials 'adopted a more sporting standpoint. Raiding, they said, was the bedouin national sport, like league football or county cricket.' (Donald Rumsfeld appears to have taken a similarly sporting attitude to recent looting in Baghdad, although his tolerance would presumably not encompass looting by the poor of presidential palaces and museums in, say, Washington DC.) The British as occupying power duly published Rules for Raiders, a booklet with regulations for 'every foreseeable situation'. A section in which the bedouin were to record the dates of raids, number of raiders and goods seized, rather like a weekend shooting log, was to be returned to British police posts for inspection. Glubb, who later commanded Jordan's Arab Legion and earned the title pasha, wrote in Arabian Adventures: Ten Years of Joyful Service that 'large numbers of the booklet were printed in Arabic and the RAF was asked to fly all over the desert and drop bundles of the leaflets on every nomad camp . . . Alas! The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley. The Ministry had overlooked one point, namely, that no bedouin could read.'
LRB 8 May 2003 | PDF Download