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Richard Burton's ARABIAN NIGHTS by Stephen Jared


Richard Francis Burton lived a life that told many stories. He should have died a thousand times. At sixty-nine, old age and poor health brought his adventuring to an end. Mystifying those who prepared him for burial, his corpse was covered with countless scars.

Much has been written about his work as an undercover agent in what Kipling called "The Great Game." However, as with any good spy, we never learn what histories shifted as a result of his efforts. What we do know is that throughout his life he repeatedly explored the unknown and wrote about it.

In the late 1850s, Burton was the first European to lead an expedition into central Africa searching for the source of the Nile. His books on this include First Footsteps in East Africa and The Lake Regions of Central Africa. Mountains of the Moon, the 1990 Bob Rafelson movie, also chronicled this journey, and wisely humanized Burton a great deal by focusing on the complicated relationship with fellow explorer John Hanning Speke. Rafelson could have made ten films out of Burton's life.

Indian Empire
Indian Empire

"I didn't know anything about the English culture," Rafelson said in an interview with Peter Tonguette. "I had, however, already walked nearly eight hundred miles in Africa. And that was largely because of Burton, because of the books that I had read about Burton's explorations in Africa. I was wildly impassioned about this project, about the relationship of Burton to Speke, about the relationship of adventure to colonialism - after all, these people were the most popular heroes of their time. They sent back episodes that the world thrilled to in newspapers."

Edward Lord Weeks in India
Edward Lord Weeks in India

A number of years before the African adventures, the East India Company financed Burton's travels as part of British efforts to strengthen control of India. It wasn't an uprising that concerned them, though Burton warned of such eventual fate; it was the Russians, venturing into Afghanistan, stirring fears of an invasion across the Indus Valley, the occupation of India having been a long-cherished Russian dream.

As a young officer in the Company's army, Burton immersed himself in other cultures. He learned to speak Persian, Arabic, Hindustani, Gujarati, among other languages. He created a false identity, calling himself Mirza Abdullah, while exploring what is now the modern state of Pakistan. He became a wandering holy man, a dervish.

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Jean-Leon Gerome in Cairo

Adapting far beyond the normal officer, Burton found himself ostracized, referred to as the "white nigger." He was an obsessive escapist, a concentrated seeker of worlds unfamiliar, and all the while a highly skilled anthropologist detailing customs, geographies, languages, cults, and a myriad of sects within a multitude of belief systems. He became a Nagar Brahmin, or Snake Priest, relatively quickly, and then years of training and discipline prepared Burton's initiation into Sufism. He eventually moved on, as with so many obsessions, nevertheless, he remained a supporter of Islam for the rest of his life.

Upon returning to England after seven years, Burton met the woman who would eventually become his wife, Isabel Arundell. It was the Victorian era, and Isabel's family was hardly exceptional to the stringent customs of the time. She came from affluent surroundings, a devotion to Catholicism, but she wasn't without curiosity; like Burton, she often cast her gaze far away to the unknown. Though forbidden to her, she befriended gypsies. Strangely, the name Burton was surname to a nearby gypsy family, and one of the ladies Isabel befriended was named Hagar Burton. While Isabel was still quite young, Hagar Burton cast Isabel's horoscope. It read, "Your life will be like one swimming against big waves; but you will always win. You will bear the name of our tribe (Burton), and be right proud of it. Your life is all wandering, change, adventure." The horoscope went on to say she would wait many years for the one to whom she was destined.

Jean-Leon Gerome in Cairo

Though Isabel knew immediately Richard Burton was the man she had been waiting for, the love affair developed slowly. They met, and then years passed with Isabel nervously awaiting newspapers articles to confirm he was still alive.

Jean-Leon Gerome in Cairo

Not without difficulty, Burton convinced The Royal Geographical Society to fund his next adventure, a pilgrimage to Mecca. His stated aim was to study and map unexplored Eastern and Central Arabia. The year was 1853, and the journey began in Cairo.

Again disguised, Burton set off to the Suez with a pack of rough nomads. Boarding a ship to the Arabian port of Yambu, he was one of ninety-seven on a vessel built for sixty. Nearly two weeks passed at sea. Once in the harbor, Burton purchased camels. His small party quickly found trouble. A blood feud existed between Bedouin robbers and the Sherif of Mecca. Acting in revenge over a slain nephew, the Bedouins vowed to cut the throats of all travelers to the Holy City. Sure enough, Burton and his men came under heavy gunfire. Returned to Yambu, other travelers joined, swelling Burton's pilgrimage to two hundred. Gaining confidence in numbers, Burton and his men made another attempt. Near Medina, where the Prophet Muhammad's tomb lies, they again came under attack. Men were killed, as were animals. From Medina, Burton joined a caravan passing down from Damascus, a haj many thousands strong marching to Mecca.

Jean-Leon Gerome in the Desert

Jean-Leon Gerome in the Desert

Five arduous months after leaving England, Burton set sights upon the sacred center of Islam. He joined in the circumambulation around the Ka'aba. In four hundred years, only a couple dozen westerners traveled to Mecca and returned.* Of them, Burton became the most famous.

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Alphonse Etienne Dinet in Mecca

With his celebrity status growing, Burton, from Egypt, worked on his Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Medina and Mecca while contemplating his next move. He spoke to a few about searching for the source of the Nile.

... continued in Part 2 of 3 »»

* To be clear, converts could make the pilgrimage but, as Burton himself said, "The convert is always watched. They suspect his conversion to be feigned or forced, look upon him as a spy, and let him see as little of life as possible."

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"... memorable characters and dialogue, reminiscent of the best of Hollywood's Golden Age."