Sun 17 Aug 2008
In 1924 Major F. A. C. Forbes-Leith decided to drive a “motor-car” from London to India, a journey that took almost half a year to traverse ten countries. Overall, a total of 8,527 miles were covered, with 3,000 of them devoid of road or track and 1,500 over desert, not to mention detouring around 150 broken bridges. This was three years before Lindy flew from Mitchell Field (next to the university I currently teach at) to France. The rationale for a ridiculously long auto adventure? That was simple: no one had done it before. As Major Forbes-Leith puts it, “Airplanes had already flown to India on several occasions, airships for a regular mail service were in the course of construction, even one of the submarines of the Royal Navy was on its way, but as yet no effort had been made to bridge the distance by mechanical transport.”
Attempting such an adventure at the time no doubt took a sense of humor. In this case the auto was labeled “Felix” after the cartoon character Felix the Cat. Security was not quite the same as the “take-you-shoes-off” variety, as Felix worked wonders for the crew. “Many times when we found a cordon of stern-faced customs officers awaiting us at a frontier, the sight of Felix, sitting grinning on our space wheel, made them smile and softened their hearts to us,” noted the intrepid explorer. Such a unique sight, for some their first glimpse of an automobile, attracted both rich and poor. The crew was received by King Boris III of Bulgaria, who we are told was an expert driver on his own and pro-American (he used an American-made tractor on his country estate).
In Orientalist mode, the crossing from West to East was noted the way an Upper West Side snot might disparage Harlem. “The trim, white-washed villages of Bulgaria were now replaced by the shabby, gabled buildings of the Turk,” observes the major. But the clear proof of having crossed the civilization divide was symbolic: “We came upon an object which convinced us that we had passed the great divide between East and West. It was a dead horse, surrounded by hungry, gorging dogs.” Perhaps at that time, to be fair to the author, European horses did not die and the dogs of Europe were completely civilized. Imagine the author’s surprise at being “regarded with suspicion” by Turkish officials simple because he was an officer in the British Army. Tsk. Tsk. Was it not just a pleasure ride? But all was not negative. In jolly-o, unstiffened upper lip fashion the major admits that “If the Turk officially is sometimes an obstructionist, as an individual he is one of the most charming of men.” And the “peasant of Anatolia” is called “one of Nature’s gentlemen.” There is also grudging admiration for the whirling dervishes in Konya, noting that “the old gentlemen we met could endure the tremendous nervous and physical strain involved in spinning around like tops for 20 minutes without halting.” And while spending the night on the roof a local police station in a Syrian town, our major lamented, “This necessitated our keeping a much more careful watch than if we had remained in the open, for of all the thieves in Syria, the native policeman is often the greatest.” Still more unveiled prejudice litters the National Geographic article. Having crossed the Syrian desert and finding a small Bedouin tribe along the Euphrates, the British officer describes the shaykh met as “a most unromantic figure, some of whose clothing appeared to have been worn since birth.”
Along the way Felix entered Baghdad, which at the time was under British control. Let our major describe his entry:
Until Bagdad came into prominence during the World War, it existed in the minds of most people only as a mythical city, for in childhood they had read the fascinating Arabian Nights’ Entertainment. In 1917, when the British forces entered the city, they were sadly disillusioned. I came to earth with a bump when a prominent Armenian citizen greeted me and said, ‘Welcome, sir, to the City of the Seven Great Smells!”
This described it accurately; in fact, he might well have added, ‘and to the dust-heap of the world.’
Although Bagdad contained a population of nearly 300,000 inhabitants at that time, hardly a single thoroughfare was wide enough for two of the crudest and smallest carriages to pass. It was possible to shake hands across most of the streets from the upper windows.
Organized sanitation was nonexistent; cholera and smallpox continually swept through the city and took a heavy toll. The streets were crowded with thousands of half-starved pariah dogs which acted as scavengers, and hunted at nights in packs, to the danger of anyone who moved about unarmed.
But then the British stayed. “With the advent of the British a miraculous change has been wrought. Bagdad to-day is almost unrecognizable by those who knew it ten years ago.” Progress indeed. “There is now a taxi-cab service of luxurious cars that cannot be equaled anywhere else in the world.” I only wonder who was hailing those fancy cabs. And two miles outside the city the Europeans had built their own new city full of bungalows with “the least word in scientific, heat-resisting architecture, and fitted throughout with electric fans.” And, to top it all, sport had arrived with the Alwiyeh Club offering polo, tennis and golf. Even a “bathing parade” (no pictures of this in the article) was said to rival those of Trouville on the Normandy coast.
But, alas, despite all the wonderful British-induced and civilizing features, “Bagdad is still the real East.” “At the bazaar gates, where Indian, Arab, Persian, Kurd, and Turk rub shoulders, civilization has halted.”
Then it was on to Persia, noted by the pure British scion to be “or pure Aryan stock, fairly similar to Europeans in appearance, but in temperament a race apart.” Persia is described as a place where corruption and bribery are rife, although surely that was about to change since American advisors had been brought in to clean up the tax system.
But the trip was surely worth it for the explorers. The total bill for spare parts was less than $14 and only two sets of tires were used, experiencing only two punctures.
[Note: The quotes in this post are from Major F. A. C. Forbes-Leith, “From England to India by Automobile: an 8,527-mile Trip through Ten Countries, from Lond to Quetta, Requires Five and a Half Months,” The National Geographic Magazine XLVIII:2:191-223, 1925.]
Daniel Martin Varisco
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