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Volume 6625

A Clash of Cultures
A Look at the Role of Arabs
in the Fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs
by Alan Hanson

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At the end of At the Earth’s Core, in one of his typical cliff-hanging, sequel-dictating closing scenes, Edgar Rice Burroughs put his hero David Innes in peril from a band of approaching Arabs. In a letter he was writing to Burroughs at the time, Innes closed with the following.

“Tomorrow I shall set out in quest of Pellucidar and Dian. That is if the Arabs don’t get me. They have been very nasty of late. I don’t know the cause, but on two occasions they have threatened my life. One, more friendly than the rest, told me today that they intended attacking me tonight … Here is the friendly Arab who is to take this letter north for me, so good-bye, and God bless you for your kindness to me. The Arab tells me to hurry, for he sees a cloud of sand to the south  — he thinks it is the party coming to murder me.”

The sequel, Pellucidar, begins with another Innes letter to Burroughs. In it, David explained that the fear he expressed in his previous letter was unfounded. The “bad” Arabs turned out to be “good” Arabs.

“The Arabs, of whom I wrote you at the end of my last letter, and whom I thought to be enemies intent only upon murdering me, proved to be exceedingly friendly … with their help I managed to get the unwieldy tons of its great bulk (the Prospector) into a vertical position … It was a mighty engineering job with only wild Arabs and their wilder mounts to do the work of an electric crane — but finally it was completed.”

In the post 9/11 world, Americans have soberly reexamined their attitudes and relationships with the world’s Arab peoples. It’s interesting, though, to examine how Edgar Rice Burroughs’ fiction portrayed Arabs in the first half of the 20th Century. Burroughs most often used Arab characters in his Tarzan stories, but they also appeared in a few other stories, most notably The Lad and the Lion.

An Arab is a person who speaks the Arabic language in daily conversation and practices the elements of Arab culture. Today the term “Arab” is generally applied to all native people living on the Arabian Peninsula and across Northern Africa. Much of Arab culture is dictated by geography. In the vast deserts of the Middle East, nomads, called Bedouins, for generations roamed in search of water and farmland. Organized into tribes under the leadership of a sheik, these sturdy and self-reliant people usually have rejected outside authority. Even today, in the face of modern technology and the oil trade, many Bedouins still roam the North Africa desert as independently as they did during Burroughs’ day. In the 21st century, however, most Arabs are not Bedouins, but live settled lives in cities and farming communities.

Good Arab, Bad Arab
As the aforementioned David Innes encounter with Arabs demonstrates, Burroughs painted his Arab characters in black and white, just as he did most of his other characters, regardless of race. The approaching Arab band was either intent of David’s murder or on helping him elevate his Prospector. There was no middle ground with ERB’s Arabs. They were either evil or benevolent, and the reader knew in a instant into which category each Arab character fit.

One way Burroughs quickly identified his “good” and “bad” Arabs was through an initial physical description. For instance, the appearance of Mohammed Beyd in Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar left no doubt about the Arab’s evil character. “The evil eyes narrowed, a vicious, thin-lipped smile tortured the villainous face, as Mohammed Beyd grinned knowingly into the face of the Belgian.” Then, in Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, the ape-man sized up three Arabs at first sight.

“Wrapped in his soiled calico thob, his head kerchief drawn across the lower part of his face, Ibn Jad exposed but two villainous eyes to the intense scrutiny of the ape-man which simultaneously included the pock-marked, shifty-eyed visage of Tollog, the sheik’s brother, and the not ill-favored countenance of the youthful Zeyd.”

(The “not ill-favored” Zeyd turned out to be a “good” Arab indeed. He later helped guide Tarzan’s Waziri; killed the evil Fahd, a member of his own tribe; and even asked to serve Lord Greystoke at his African estate.)

In the following passage from The Lad and the Lion, Burroughs contrasted the appearance of “good” and “bad” Arabs. 

“A second turn … brought (Nakhla) under the eyes of a half dozen vicious looking sons of the desert — ragged, unkempt looking villains, far different in appearance from the splendid warriors of her father’s tribe. They were the lawless, vicious marauders of the desert — outlawed murderers and criminals, at whose hands there awaited her a fate worse than death.”

In The Return of Tarzan, the ape-man spent a week living among another such tribe of “good” Arabs. The “stern and dignified warriors of Sheik Kadour ben Saden’s tribe impressed him. They roamed the Sahara Desert in French-occupied Algeria. Written in 1913, The Return of Tarzan was Burroughs’ fifth novel overall and the first to feature Arab characters. In it, shortly after Tarzan’s friend Paul D’Arnot helped him obtain a position with the French ministry of war, the ape-man found himself in Algeria. Over the course of five chapters, Tarzan spent nearly four months observing Arabs in both city and desert locales. His first impression of their culture was a positive one. Burroughs wrote, “It was market day at Sidi Aissa, and the numberless caravans of camels coming in from the desert, and the crowds of bickering Arabs in the market place filled Tarzan with a consuming desire to remain for a day that he might see more of these sons of the desert.”

After returning Ben Saden’s kidnapped daughter to him, Tarzan earned the sheik’s undying gratitude and an invitation to visit the desert abode of the Arab’s tribe. Tarzan welcomed the opportunity to learn more about the lives and customs of these nomadic Arabs. Burroughs made his ape-man uncharacteristically exuberant about his Arab hosts.

“Here were people after his own heart! Their wild, rough lives, filled with danger and hardship, appealed to him in the midst of the effeminate civilization of the great cities he had visited. Here was a life that excelled even that of the jungle, for here he might have the society of men — real men whom he could honor and respect, and yet be near to the wild nature that he loved. In his head revolved an idea that after he had completed his mission he would resign and return to spend the remainder of his life with the tribe of Kadour ben Saden.”

Good Arabs
Through Tarzan’s experiences with Ben Saden’s tribe, Burroughs revealed what he considered the most admirable qualities of Arabs. First, having grown to manhood depending solely on his own resources, Tarzan naturally admired the self-reliance inherent in the Bedouin lifestyle. Second, Tarzan learned the depth of Arab loyalty, as he was several times the beneficiary of that attribute in them. In Sidi Aissa, Tarzan’s guide was an Arab youth, who had been recommended to him as a “trustworthy servant and interpreter.” Abdul turned out to be exceedingly faithful to his employer. When Tarzan was attacked by an Arab mob in a café, “the young Arab remained loyal to his master, and with drawn knife, fought at his side.” On the road to Bou Saada the next day, Abdul again chose to stay and fight when a band of Arabs assailed Tarzan in the dark.

Later, when Tarzan restored Ben Saden’s kidnapped daughter, the sheik vowed, “All that is Kadour ben Saden’s is thine, my friend, even to his life.” Then, after Arabs paid by the villain Nikolas Rokoff captured the ape-man, the sheik’s daughter came alone by night to free Tarzan. “I am the daughter of Sheik Kadour ben Saden,” she responded when Tarzan marveled at the risk she had taken. “I should be no fit daughter of his if I would not risk my life to save that of the man who saved me.”

The Arab respect for courage, both in self and others, was another admirable character trait that Burroughs emphasized in “The Return of Tarzan.” Even ERB’s “bad” Arabs showed respect for bravery. After Rokoff paid an unnamed sheik to capture Tarzan, the Russian began kicking the bound and prone ape-man. The sheik, knowing that Tarzan alone had earlier killed a lion, put a stop to Rokoff’s actions. “Kill him if you will,” explained the sheik, “but I will see no brave man subjected to such indignities in my presence.”

Finally, taciturnity was another Arab quality that Burroughs respected. That Tarzan was a man of few words was one of the things that drew Sheik Ben Saden to him. According to Burroughs, “if there be one thing that an Arab despises it is a talkative man.”

Bad Arabs
Although Burroughs spent several chapters of The Return of Tarzan extolling the good qualities of Arabs, later in the same novel, he revealed the worst in the same race. It came in the form of a murderous, slave-raiding band that would be the blueprint for “bad” Arabs in many later Tarzan novels.

Returning to his West African homeland and joining the Waziri tribe, Tarzan and the other warriors were away on an elephant hunt when 50 Arabs and their native followers descended on the Waziri village. The heavily armed Arabs swept through the village, shooting men, women, and children. Then they shackled 50 women and children to a long slave chain for transport to the slave market in the north. When they left the village, they also took a fortune in ivory that the Waziri had harvested.

To create the conflict his stories needed, Burroughs often had these outlaw Arab bands penetrate for southward into Tarzan’s country. A byproduct of that conflict was always a decidedly negative view of Arabs in the Tarzan novels over the years. In The Eternal Lover, Burroughs listed some of the evil deeds of which these Arab invaders were capable.

“A native runner had come hurrying in from the north to beg Lord Greystoke’s help in pursuing and punishing a band of Arab slave and ivory raiders who were laying waste the villages, murdering the old men and the children and carrying the young men and women into slavery.”

Again, in The Son of Tarzan, Burroughs made it clear that these Arabs were evil to the core. This time it was American Morrison Baynes who found himself in peril. “He had heard of the nature of the Arabs who penetrate this far to the South, and what he had heard had convinced him that a snake or a panther would as quickly befriend him as one of these villainous renegades from the Northland.”

Arab Bases and Alliances
These renegade bands, never very large, had to establish a southern base for their depredations in Tarzan’s country. The best description of one of these Arab southern outposts is that of Sheik Amor ben Khatour in The Son of Tarzan.

“In the heart of the jungle, hidden away upon the banks of a small unexplored tributary of a large river that empties into the Atlantic not so far from the equator, lay a small, heavily palisaded village. Twenty palm-thatched beehive huts sheltered its black population, while a half-dozen goat skin tents in the center of the clearing housed the score of Arabs who found shelter here while, by trading and raiding, they collected the cargoes which their ships of the desert bore northward twice a year to the market at Timbuktu.”

As the above passages illustrate, Burroughs nearly always had his small Arab bands augment their numbers through unholy alliances with black natives. ERB painted these native followers of the Arabs as being equally, if not more, degraded than their masters. Take Achmet Zek’s band in Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar. Riding to ravage Tarzan’s home and steal his wife, Zek’s company was described thus by Burroughs: “With him came his horde of renegade Arabs, out-lawed marauders, these, and equally degraded blacks, garnered from the more debased and ignorant tribes of savage cannibals through who country the raider passed to and fro with perfect impunity.”

Not all of the Arabs’ blacks were natives impressed from the villages the Arabs had ravaged. Sometimes Arab bands brought their slaves with them from the desert country. Such was the case with Sheik Ibn Jad’s band in Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle. Coming south with an expedition in search of treasure, Jad’s Arabs were accompanied by vassals purchased years before in the desert slave markets. These blacks, trusted to carry rifles, marched at the front and the rear of the Arab column. Natives enslaved along the march into Tarzan’s country carried the heavy loads.

The Arabs were always greatly outnumbered by the blacks in their company. In the band that attacked the Waziri village in The Return of Tarzan,there were 50 Arabs and 250 native followers. There were only 12 Arabs in the band that kidnapped Victoria Custer in The Eternal Lover. Fifty blacks filled out that murderous group.

The minority of Arabs usually could control the larger number of natives in several ways. First, those natives who were long time slaves who had come down from the north with the Arabs had been, to a degree, integrated into the Arab tribe, and thus were loyal to the sheik. Second, the Arabs used torture and murder to coerce the compliance of their native cohorts.  In Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, Achmet Zek used such brutality to control his servants.

“[Albert Werper] knew Achmet Zek well enough by this time to know that no member of his band was ever voluntarily released from the service of Achmet Zek. Most of the few who deserted were recaptured. More than once had Werper listened to their agonized screams as they were tortured before being put to death.”

Finally, Arab leaders sometimes promised their black allies a share of the expedition’s spoils. Often this was the perfect motivator for the Arabs, since they never intended on following through with the promise, or what they gave the blacks was something the Arabs did not want themselves. For example, as Tarzan watched from a tree limb above the Waziri village in The Return of Tarzan, he saw the Arabs’ native followers, “preparing the gruesome feast which is the piece de résistance that follows a victory in which the bodies of their slain enemies fall into their horrid hands.”

These marauding Arabs in the Tarzan stories were evil enough in themselves. Burroughs compounded that evilness by having his Arabs encourage even more wicked ravages by their black retainers.

"Bad" Arab Character
As mentioned earlier, Burroughs’ “bad” Arabs were bad indeed. Their personal characters were infected with a litany of corrupt qualities. First, they were cruel in the extreme. Surely a righteous anger arose in the breast of everyone who has read Sheik Amor ben Khatour’s treatment of the child Meriem in The Son of Tarzan. “It is true that he was cruel and unjust to all with whom he came in contact,” Burroughs noted, “but for Meriem he reserved his greatest cruelties, his most studied injustices. He often scolded her for nothing, quite habitually terminating his tirades by cruelly beating her, until her little body was black and blue.”

Second, Burroughs’ “bad” Arabs were inveterate liars and deceivers. “Thou liest in thy beard, Moslem,” Tarzan told Ibn Jad when the ladder claimed, “We do not come for slaves. We do but trade in peace for ivory.” Again, in Tarzan and the Lion Man, Arabs conspired to deceive actress Naomi Madison when she asked to be returned to her friends. “Tell her we will do that if she leads us to the valley of diamonds,” Ab el-Ghrennem said. “Wellah! Yes; tell her that; but after we find the valley of diamonds we may forget what we have promised. But to not tell her that.”

Third, Burroughs’ “bad” Arabs were lazy when it came to manual labor. They only watched as the American film crew cut a trail through the dense undergrowth in Tarzan and the Lion Man. “They would not work;” Burroughs explained, “that was beneath their dignity.” (That is in contrast with the “good” Arabs mentioned earlier who stopped to help a stranger with the laborious task of getting his iron mole in position for the return trip to Pellucidar.)

Fourth, these “bad” Arabs were vengeful. As the villain Malbihn explained in The Son of Tarzan, “There are some things dearer to an Arab than money, revenge is one of them.” In The Eternal Lover, “an ugly grin” crossed the evil face of Sheik Ibn Aswad when he realized his captive Victoria Custer was a guest of Lord Greystoke. “The fellow had recalled what had befallen another Arab slave and ivory caravan at the hands of the Englishman and his Waziri warriors. Here was an opportunity for partial revenge.” And, of course, there was Sheik Ben Khator’s vow of revenge against Captain Armand Jacot when the Frenchman refused to free the Arab’s nephew and called the sheik a “black dog” to boot. “You will pay more than this for the life of my sister’s son,” vowed The Sheik, “and as much again for the name you have called me, and a hundred fold in sorrow into the bargain.” The Arab was true to his word. Jacot’s seven-year-old daughter soon disappeared, and he did not see her again for over 10 years.

Finally, the most abhorrent “bad” Arab quality was lust. Mohammed Beyd plotted to possess Jane Clayton in Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, and the eyes of Abu Batn “were fixed upon the slender figure of Zora Drinov” in Tarzan the Invincible. For lusting after these virtuous white women, Burroughs later killed them, as he also did Ibn Dammuk, who La stabbed when he tried to rape her.

Bad Character, Bad Conduct
Men of evil character are bound to commit evil acts, and so it was with Burroughs’ “bad” Arabs. Examples of Arabs impressing natives have already been noted, but Burroughs took the evil act of abduction to a higher level among them. Woe to the white woman who fell into the clutches of an Arab band in Tarzan’s country. Many did, and those who survived the lustful advances of their captors were destined to be sold into the harems of black sultans to the north. Burroughs kept his ape-man busy saving those maidens from the most hideous form of slavery.

Kidnapping was also dear to the heart of Burroughs’ “bad” Arabs. Khatour’s abduction of Jeanne Jacot (Meriem) was noted previously, but she was not his only victim. Burroughs explained that, “thoughts of ransom were always in the mind of The Sheik. More than once before had the glittering gold filtered through his fingers from a similar source.” Among other Burroughs characters abducted by Arabs were Jane Clayton, American financier Wilbur Stimbol, Zora Drinov, La, and actresses Rhonda Terry and Naomi Madison.

In addition to taking captives for ransom or slavery, the Arabs’ other main depredation in Tarzan’s country was ivory raiding. Tarzan confronted this activity when the Waziri village fell to Arab raiders in “The Return of Tarzan.” The ape-man challenged another Arab band on the subject in “Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle.” “Was I not present when your henchman fired a shot at el-fil?” asked Tarzan. “Is that peaceful trading for ivory? No! It is poaching, and that Tarzan of the Apes does not allow in his country. You are raiders and poachers.”

Finally, Burroughs portrayed his “bad” Arabs and being heartless murderers. In The Son of Tarzan, Captain Jacot captured Achmet ben Houdin, the leader of a band of Arab marauders who had committed “murders enough to have sent the whole unsavory band to the guillotine several times over.” Victoria Custer witnessed “brutal massacres” committed by Ibn Aswad’s men as they forced their way into village after village. Tarzan himself was the intended victim of an Arab murder plot in Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle. Tollog may well have slipped his knife between the ribs of the bound and helpless ape-man had not Tantor come to his friend’s rescue.

An Assessment
The time has come to assess the Arab image as it apears in the fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Early in his writing career, Burroughs was clearly fair and balanced in his portrayal of Arabs. The Return of Tarzan, written in 1913, and The Lad and the Lion, written the next year, both contain Arabs of both noble and evil character. It is the same treatment Burroughs gave to other ethnic groups, such as Europeans and African natives. Burroughs created villains and heroes from all these groups.

However, starting with The Son of Tarzan in 1915, “bad” Arabs became predominate in the Tarzan stories through the end of Burroughs writing career. “Good” Arabs seldom appeared in ERB’s fiction over the course of those three decades. Sheik after sheik was brought on stage by Burroughs and painted in the darkest of stereotypes. Certainly Burroughs was not acting out his own prejudices with this negative image of Arabs. His positive portrayals of Arabs and their culture in The Return of Tarzan clearly shows that he had no such prejudices, and that, to the contrary, he admired many Arab qualities. Unfortunately, his recurring need to conjure up villains and his tendency to use formula-designed plots in the latter half of his writing career allowed a negative stereotype of Arabs to overwhelm the brief positive picture he painted of them in a couple of his early works. Burroughs found it too convenient to play the Arab as the bad guy. But then, after all, he knew his audience, and it did not include many Bedouins.

Who may say the nature of Burroughs’ true feelings about Arabs? The following passage, hidden within the pages of The War Chief, written in 1926, may give an indication. We know Burroughs felt compassion for the plight of the Apache in the American West. Perhaps he had some similar feeling for the Arab he had been portraying so unfavorably in his Tarzan stories during the preceding decade.

“The hearts of the crusaders were upheld by the holiness of their cause; the soldiers of the Sultan Saladin died defending Allah and the right; Usen looked down upon the Be-don-ko-he and was pleased. Who may judge where the right lay.”

~ Continued in Part II: ERBzine 6626
From Our ERB Online Bibliography
A Collector's Hypertexted and Annotated Storehouse of Encyclopedic Resources
At the Earth’s Core
The Lad and the Lion
Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar
Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle
The Return of Tarzan
The Eternal Lover
The Son of Tarzan
Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle
Tarzan and the Lion Man
Tarzan the Invincible
The War Chief

Guide to the Alan Hanson Appearances in ERBzine

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