Exploring 19th Century Arabia with the Mind of an Accountant
Taken out of context, many of the statements seem unusual, and a few of them quite unbelievable: "I often amused myself with a Negro woman named Bálwah who, like me, usually sat in the courtyard while her husband worked all day in the salt mines."
This crude mixture of postcard prose and old-fashioned ethnography – two forms of writing bound by a predominantly unreflective distance toward and indifference to the subject being described – can be found in the pages of Julius Euting's two-part "Diary of a Journey to Inner Arabia," which has now been reprinted as a single volume.
Exploring the Arabian Peninsula of the 19th century
Euting, the kind of scholar who can only have been a product of the 19th century, had already made plans to travel to Arabia as a student. But he was forced to wait several decades before finally getting a chance to explore the Arabian Peninsula in 1883 and 1884 – thanks in large part to the generosity and the "mercy of His Majesty King Charles of Württemberg," who supplied him with "numerous weapons for the expedition."
The purpose of the journey "was mainly of an archaeological and epigraphical nature." In particular, Euting investigated the "traces of pre-Islamic history in the form of inscriptions and monuments" on his travels, which he in turn discussed as the subject of a scientific paper. With his travel diary, on the other hand, he intended to "present a readable description of my personal experiences, impressions and observations to a larger audience."
Euting's fear of emptiness
The author comes up short in terms of readability, however. He adheres strictly to the chronological format of the diary genre, in a voice that lacks drama or motivation and in some cases seems utterly disinterested. Every day, no matter how boring, is included. Odd and ends are noted without the reader ever getting a sense of why they are significant. By constantly changing the subject, Euting creates a report that is not at all entertaining, but merely wordy, moving clumsily from triviality to triviality.
Euting is not a storyteller. He is an enumerator. His text seems ragged throughout and not once does he manage to truly capture the reader's attention. The author unsuccessfully attempts to compensate for his lack of storytelling talent by including a huge amount of information. The result is a potpourri of personal reflection, didactic lecturing and an amazing fascination with details caused exclusively by the traveler's own horror vacui – his fear of emptiness.
Euting's awkward, petty-minded travel prose is equally as trivial as most of the drawings and sketches scattered throughout his text.
Of course, anyone who shoots as wildly in all directions as Euting is bound to hit the mark every once in a while. The two volumes may well serve as a treasure trove for historians interested in the everyday life and social history of the Arabian Peninsula.
Singular and curious observations
And though Euting's tendency to record details like a bookkeeper does try the reader's patience, the results are occasionally successful, as seen in his description of the perambulatory performance of his camel.
His mount had "a stride 1.95 meters in length, and at a rate of 5500 half-strides per hour in navigating a pass, it covered somewhat more than 5 kilometers an hour and about 80 kilometers over the course of a 15-18 hour day," he reported in the style of a modern-day auto tester.
The traveler compiles a great deal of curiosities, as for example the various sounds employed by the natives to call their animals ("camels that have gone widely astray are called several times with Hirrrtsbô!") or the observation that the women of Maan were prone to applying nicotine juice from pipes to their lips and teeth.
Euting's language and style are as confoundingly various as his content is desperate. The spectrum ranges from exclamations anticipating comic books ("Brrrh!") to lyrical elements and adventure novel prose ("an abrupt sidestep by my frightened stallion very nearly cast me into the rocky depths below") and finally, precocious lecturing.
"Records such as Euting’s," writes Enno Littmann in his foreword to the second volume of the travel diary, which he published in 1914, "will always remain valuable, even when published 30 years after the original volume." A century later, despite the banalities of Euting's volume, the statement is fundamentally no less valid.
© Qantara.de 2005
Julius Euting, "Tagebuch einer Reise in Inner-Arabien" ("Diary of a Journey to Inner Arabia"); Part I, Leiden 1896; Part II, published by Enno Littmann, Leiden 1914. (Reprinted as a single volume: Hildesheim 2004).
Translation from German by Mark Rossman