- Saddle Time
However unconscious of their predecessors they may be, today's Western tourists to the Middle East are inevitably participating in some form of historical reenactment. Long before the Crusades, Europeans made Eastern journeys; since the sixteenth century at least, a profusion of published and unpublished accounts bears witness to the dialectic of novelty and repetition that continues to compel Westerners. In narratives by English writers from the time of Margery Kempe, the litany of discomfort, hazard, and mortal peril echoes almost unchangingly down the centuries, muting fainter sounds of pleasure.
Yet during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, geopolitical relations between the Eastern and Western empires underwent massive realignment, and Orientalism emerged as an imperial administrative tool, as well as a scholarly discipline and source of popular fantasy. An imperialist assumption of cultural superiority, underwritten in equal parts by guilt and fascination, largely replaced the humbled admiration, even envy, expressed by earlier Western travelers when faced with Ottoman splendor or the exquisite luxuries obtainable only in the souks of Aleppo, Damascus, or Baghdad. During the past thirty years scholars have begun to subject what is prejudicial in this legacy to rigorous intellectual critique. There is now no intellectually innocent way in which Westerners can travel East.
A Great Anatolian Ride, Anyone?
In what spirit, then, might one undertake a reenactment of pre–twentieth-century, premechanized travel in order to understand what characterized that experience and motivated others, century after century and decade after decade, to imitate it? Is there a way of reinhabiting history responsibly without merely repeating it in an unmindful, reactionary way? Historical reenactment in the saddle: recipe for extreme history, or outdated imperial Orientalist program? This is the burden of the Great Anatolian Ride that some friends and I are contemplating. To ride a thousand miles across Anatolia on horseback, and thus become eligible [End Page 441] for the equestrian exploration group called the Long Riders' Guild, has a definite appeal both forward and backward looking. By reenacting some of the material practices of travel in previous centuries, while taking account of today's inevitable differences, might we not be bound to illuminate and complicate the evidence of the written accounts that will serve as our guides?
The recent Disney film Hidalgo, starring Viggo Mortensen, still riding the wake of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, may serve as a cautionary tale. Hidalgo is based on the memoirs of Frank Hopkins, American con man extraordinaire, who claimed, among other achievements, to have won in 1890 a thousand-year-old race of three thousand miles across the Arabian desert, known as the Ocean of Fire. The topical resonances of this film, billed as a "true story," are not difficult to fathom—an American riding an American mustang, vanquishing "with the sort of ease and bravado the U.S. military now hunkered in Iraq can surely only fantasize about," as Andrew Gumbel puts it, Bedouins and upper-class Europeans riding the purest-blooded horses in the world.1 Gumbel reports that the film has aroused a backlash from historians, Native Americans, Arab and Muslim interest groups, and the Long Riders' Guild, who have exposed the fraudulence of Hopkins's story. Many of Hopkins's claims appear ludicrous, beginning with a three-thousand-mile race run between Aden and Syria, crossing Saudi Arabia's Empty Quarter. Quoting the Arab News, Gumbel observes that "a race of that length starting in Aden would finish up 'somewhere in Romania,'" or, "following the most circuitous route," somewhere "north of Armenia."2 Gumbel concludes, "A tale of the Orient, based on entirely false pretences . . . Now where have we heard that one before?"3
To attempt to roll back this history of triumphalist conquest and occupation, to unlearn or unride it, rather than enacting yet another fantasy about the West repossessing the East, is our collective project. A Scottish Ottoman historian had the original idea, an English botanist and ecological preservationist with Turkish field experience offered the Long Riders' Guild as an objective, and two literary and cultural studies practitioners, one Canadian and one American, who made a short equestrian expedition in Turkey a few years ago, have quickly signed up. We...