A 1947 journey from Beirut to Baghdad
From Beirut we went up and through the scenic Lebanese mountains and crossed over into Damascus, Syria, by an ordinary bus. There we were transferred into one of the vehicles, owned by the famed Nairn Transport Company, which were specially built for long passages across a roadless desert. These well-built coaches, even then in 1947, sixty three years ago, were large and comfortably air-conditioned coaches and pulled in tractor-trailer fashion by a mechanical horse as they were then known.
This much-needed shuttle service between Damascus and Baghdad had been started thirty years before by two Australian soldiers when they were demobilized at the end of the Great War in 1918. Three decades later it was still the only civilized and sure way to cross the desert. Because at that time there were no real roads, just an ever-changing wandering track through the wind-swept dunes. It was marked out by old empty oil drums every mile or so. Who shifted the oil drum markers to guide drivers onto the firmest ground from other parts getting covered under soft sand, I don’t know. Maybe it was partly through the efforts of passing travellers who wanted the best route for themselves on their return journey. Or more probably the Nairn company employed people at the never-ending task.
After two or three hours of travel across the desolate wastes a band of mounted soldiers of the Jordan Arab Legion appeared seemingly from nowhere, whooping and yelling and waving their weapons. Our bus came to a halt as they whirled around us on their galloping horses and camels, making a wild and awesome spectacle. Yet I remember nobody taking photographs or ciné-film footage—the tourist age had not then yet reached the wilder parts of the world, nobody on the bus was simply a tourist and video-cameras were still decades off in the future.
Who was on the bus among its varied passengers as it weaved its erratic course across the sandy wastes, sitting next to me, was an Iraqi army colonel. When he found out I had been flying Seafires, the Royal Navy’s version of Spitfires, only a little more than two years before, he became a one-man propaganda machine in trying to get me to volunteer for the Iraqi airforce. This because Iraq had acquired some Spitfires in preparation for the war that was obviously coming against Israel—which country had itself acquired some Spitfires. The Iraqi colonel made much of the pure gold coin daily bounty and sterling salary I would receive for such services. But I told him I was hardly likely to change jobs before even reporting in to the Port of Basra where I was due to take charge of a small Iraqi hydrographic survey vessel. He would fix everything up, he said, pilots were of the utmost importance to the kingdom. Superseding all other requirements.
I managed to evade his intense urging for another hour or two until the bus arrived at the midway point of our journey and we swept into the heart of downtown Rutba, the only semblance of habitation in the desert since we had left Damascus.
Stopped in front of the dozen huts and tents that composed not only Rutba’s town centre but all its suburbs and extremities as well, the two dozen passengers got out and walked about to stretch their legs and view from ground level the utter natural desolation that stretched away to the horizon on every side.
The handful of Arabs who composed not only the town council but also the entire metropolitan population had a very rudimentary refreshment counter set up in one hut where they tempted the travellers with a few pre-war oddments of candies and murky glasses of silt-laden coloured sugar water.
While walking outside I was taken by surprise, in the sudden manner I was to get used to later on, by a small band of Bedouins bristling with daggers appearing before me, as if by magic. They seemed to rise up from out of the very sand in front of me. Their leader, very tall and lithe under his flowing cloak fixed his penetrating hawk like steel-blue eyes upon mine. And I do mean hawk like. And I do mean penetrating. His eyes went straight through mine, through my skull bone, into the centre of my brain, and out the other side. If anyone had been standing behind me that gaze of his would have passed right through them, too. I blinked first without any show of moral resistance and quickly retreated to the safety of the bus interior. When the Saddam Hussain-look-alike Iraqi colonel got back on the bus I told him I had definitely made up my mind about his job offer. It was thanks but no, no, No thanks. Not for the biggest gold clock in Christendom or Muslimdom would I fly one of his air force spitfires. I was so emphatic about my refusal that the colonel asked what had made up my mind so unequivocally. I just pointed out the bus window to where stood old hawk eyes and his merry band of brigands. The colonel made a little facial gesture of understanding. He knew what I was thinking. I was envisaging a forced landing in those empty sandy wastes and seeing old neighbourly steel-blue-eyes and his intimates rising up from out of the sand to greet me in age-old desert fashion.
I expect that these days, now that it is situated on a jumble of busy paved highways, Rutba has grown considerably in size and probably sports its own nuclear-weapons factory, luxury hotels, fast-food take-out emporiums, a Mercedes limousine show room or two and several computer-electronics emporiums. I doubt whether they still need old Seafire pilots?