I am getting a serious media migraine from hearing the same old news rehashed and served up day after day. What they do is start in the morning at 6 O’clock with three tried and tested topics, let us say, abuse, political squabbling and migration: this they stir up and serve out to listeners all day long every hour, on the hour. It is like having cold porridge served to you all day long, every day. I can understand why they do it. For instance the three topics I mentioned will always be there to discuss as long as man is alive on earth. There is no chance the news casters will run out of something to say. As a result I was becoming numb to news There is a limit to how many times you reach for the off button. I wanted something fresh to think about; anything other than abuse, political wrangling and the question of immigration.
So when I came across the town of Rutbah in H>V>Morton’s “Middle East” my curiosity was piqued. Mr. Morton traveled in the early part of the last century, when Britain ruled the world when all was calm and orderly and secure, like a table set with fresh napkins by the fireside.
The Rutbah Wells, when this book was published in 1941, was a small but strategic town located on the road between Damascus and Baghdad. It was also a convenient stop over for air planes traveling between the west and the far-east. It had an inn and a fort where travelers could refresh themselves. As Morton puts it: “An aeroplane comes down from the sky. Men in town clothes and women in fur coats and Paris shoes walk on the desert sand, perhaps have something to eat, and vanish again into the air”. People traveling by road from Damascus or Jordan would again stop over and sleep at the fort. There they enjoyed all the comforts of an English Inn, fresh hot water in jugs, neatly folded towels in the bathrooms and English soap everywhere. Mr. Morton is gleeful about the sheer Englishness of it all.
But that was then and this is now. With the American invasion of Iraq things changed drastically for this little town. Bases were established, aliens walked the land and explosions and gunfire were the order of the day. Rutbah was in chaos. The peace of 1941 was gone forever. When the Americans left as suddenly as they had come, more chaos followed. The Islamic State also chased away the few remaining Iraqi troops and absorbed Rutbah into their Caliphate. They are still in possession of the place as far as I know and heaven knows what heinous crimes are being committed there. Poor town; poor people.
But let me go back to the feeling of rich satisfaction and amusement I felt in reading Morton’s pages. He goes into raptures over the orderliness of the table setting. How very English of him!
Imagine, right in the desert there is a rest house run like a military establishment by a very crisp and very English former soldier. From the reception room where he met travelers from all over the world, Morton goes into the dining room to eat and encounters “tables set for dinner, all neat and clean and — English”. I shall let him tell you the rest in his own words:
“There is a wonderful English way of setting a table which we don’t notice at home because we see it so often. The cloth droops almost to the ground, decently covering the table’s legs, and it generally has ironed creases in it. The knives and forks are set with precision, not with Gallic inconsequence or Latin fire, and the cruet is given a place of honour beside a bottle of sauce. Tumblers, the right size for half a pint of ale stand to the right-hand, and inside each one is popped a little bishop’s mitre — a folded table napkin. No other nation sets a table like that, and when I saw all those tables looking so English, reminding me of country hotels in Hampshire and Yorkshire and Devonshire, of little restaurants run by tall grey-haired gentlewomen in select seaside places, a feeling of love for this dear country of ours filled my heart, and I determined to pour Lea and Perrin’s sauce over everything that night, out of sheer love for England”.
You must admit the man writes well. He might have a child-like glee about things English but I definitely notice that little note of irony that only the English can manage so well.
That, ladies and gentlemen, was Rutbah in 1941. How things change in a little over 50 years? I wonder if the ISIS know the glory that was Rutbah! The town’s tale is a morality tale as well as a lesson in history.