One Man’s Road to Salvation

Salvation by Antony Hornyold

Don’t be put off by the title of local author Antony Homyold’s first novel, Salvation (published by Anthony Eyre). It is not a religious tale, although it does have a strong Catholic thread running through it. The book tells the story of Ralph Sebright, who, as a 12-year-old boy in 1940, is traumatized when the ship on which he is being evacuated to Canada is torpedoed and he finds himself in a crowded lifeboat for seven days. He survived, but many hundreds did not, a fact that is to haunt him for the rest of his life.

The rest of the book follows Ralph’s life as he is first sent to Jerusalem on National Service as part of the British peace-keeping force caught between fanatical Jewish settlers, who had been promised their ancient land under the Balfour Declaration of 1917, and the native Palestinian Arab inhabitants. Ralph is wounded in one incident and invalided home before attending Cambridge University where he is drawn to fellow student Mary.

But in this short book of just over 100 pages there is no time to explore any characters in depth and Ralph soon has to choose between developing his relationship with Mary and accepting an exciting posting to Beirut. He decides to return to the Middle East where he renews his friendship with Major Mac, his company commander in Jerusalem. One day he receives a letter from Mary saying that she is going to marry a colleague they both knew at Cambridge. Ralph is devastated, remembering that at their last dinner before he left for Beirut he felt she had expected him to say something and he had missed the opportunity to commit himself.

As time passes, Ralph, now fluent in Arabic, receives several overseas postings and is promoted to Head of the Foreign Office’s Middle Eastern Section. But he feels that something is missing and, after talking to a Catholic priest and later to his old friend Major Mac, he decides to take early retirement and become a priest. Almost 60 when he is ordained, he becomes a parish priest in West London; at the same time he becomes a chaplain to a prison where he gets to know an imam, who also holds services at the prison and introduces him to the Quran, in particular the verses that forbid violence against civilians.

One afternoon he boards a bus for Victoria Station and happens to sit behind a young man speaking Arabic on his mobile. The man sounds agitated and Ralph notices he has a knapsack and is looking at a sheet of Arabic text. Instinct tells him it is a prayer sheet and the man is a jihadist. Acting intuitively, Ralph recites aloud in Arabic one of the verses the Iman has given him and hears the man gasp. Two stops before Victoria the man gets off the bus. It is almost a year after the 7/7 bus bombing. The book ends with Ralph, now over 80, drawn back to Palestine where he has an uncanny encounter with the granddaughter of the woman who treated his wounds in 1947.

Antony Hornyold has written a moving and at times poignant account of the conflicts in the life of his main protagonist and in the Middle East, succinctly outlining tensions that continue to this day.

Malcolm Fare

The Bride: book review by Hooky Walker from Asian Affairs

Young Shepherd in Paelstine

Roger Hardy, The Bride – An Illustrated History of Palestine 1850-1948.
Anthony Eyre, Mount Orleans Press, Cricklade, 2022. pp 320. Maps. Illust. Notes. Bibliog. Index. Hb. £25. ISBN 978-1-912945-33-7; Pb. £15. ISBN 978-1-912945-34-4

Books about the history of Palestine are not lacking: Roger Hardy’s “select” bibliography includes nearly 250 volumes. He successfully marks out his own work by splitting it into six chapters with apposite headings: Pilgrims and Predators, 1850-1917; Palestine Raj, 1917-1929; Days of Rage, 1929-1949; An Interlude of War, 1939-1945; Things Fall Apart, 1945-1948; and finally, Epilogue: the land and the people. This division, supplemented by Hardy’s limpid style, makes for as easy a read as one could ask for of a tangled period of history.
Hardy further distinguishes his version of the history by his use of contemporary texts and photographs – and the history of photography in Palestine. The texts can be telling. In July 1916 an Arab Jerusalemite in the Ottoman army, ordered to transfer to the front in Suez, writes in his diary: “I cannot imagine myself fighting in the desert front. And why should I go? To fight for my country? I am Ottoman in name only …” In the early 1930s, Thomas Hodgkin, private secretary to the High Commissioner, Sir Arthur Wauchope, writes of a visit to the cinema (to see the silent 1925 version of Ben Hur): “When the Roman officer Messala remarked to Ben Hur: ‘To be a Jew is to crawl in the dirt!’, all the Arabs shouted and stamped … But when Ben Hur with flashing eyes replies: ‘My afflicted nation has shaken off its other persecutors before now, and the day will come, be sure, when it will rise up and shake off the yoke of Rome,’ then all the Jews in the audience joined in a splendid seditious cheer”. One could have done with more such snippets, though as Hardy himself points out the quotations are necessarily drawn from the educated classes: what the peasant in the Palestinian field felt is less easy to bring to light.

The first photographic image of a Palestinian subject dates from 1839. From then on, use of the new medium grew rapidly, with photographs from the Holy Land much in demand in Europe and the United States. Hardy’s description of the growth of the industry almost amounts to a book in itself. In particular he tells the story of how in 1896 the family Larsson left Sweden to join the American Colony, a devout Protestant group founded by a lawyer from Chicago, Horatio Spafford, and his Norwegian-born wife. Lewis Larsson did not take to the religious millennialism of the American Colony, but within it he was able to develop a thriving photography business, producing and marketing a significant record of daily life in the villages as well as of more prestigious subjects.

The families engaged in the American Colony split up acrimoniously in the 1920s. In an adjudicated settlement Lewis Larsson was awarded a building that was later to become the Swedish consulate, while the Vester family (the Spaffords’ daughter had married a German, Frederick Vester) kept the building that was eventually to become the American Colony Hotel. Visitors to the hotel today may well not be aware of its early association with a strict religious group and with the development of photography.

The nearly 140 black and white photographs in the book are of widely ranging subjects – from politicians to peasants, from villages to the King David Hotel. They are of splendid clarity. This is due of course to the skill of the photographers, also to the high quality of the publisher’s paper and reproduction, but perhaps above all to the often remarked upon quality of light in Palestine. Jack Robertson, who founded the Near East Arab Broadcasting Station (Sharq al-Adna) in World War II, put it romantically as follows: “Jerusalem is white stone walls against a sky of deep, unquenchable blue … Jerusalem is sunlight against the pine-woods … Jerusalem is the heaped-up, dazzling, tawny glow of oranges on stalls outside the Damascus Gate”. However that may be, the photographs amply fulfil Hardy’s aim of bringing his story to life.

As for the politics of the story, the author, as befits a man who spent over twenty years with the BBC World Service, makes almost palpable efforts to be impartial in his judgments. What is striking with regard to the formal efforts of the British Government to devise a future for Palestine – from the White Paper of 1922 to the Bevin plan of 1947 – is that none of them accepted that the Arabs of Palestine were a nation with the same rights to sovereignty as other nations.


The Bride: book review from International Affairs by Simon Scott Plummer

The Bride

The Bride: an illustrated history of Palestine, 1850–1948. By Roger Hardy. Cricklade, UK: Mount Orleans Press. 2022. 320pp. Hardback: £25.00. ISBN 978 1 91294 533 7; paperback: £15.00. ISBN 9781912945344.

Roger Hardy’s bride is the land of Palestine, coveted by outside actors for religious and political motives, from the middle of the nineteenth century to the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. For the Arabs who formed the majority of its population under the Ottoman empire, its fate was dire. As Hardy puts it, the bride was ‘bought and sold’ and ‘abused by those who sold her and those who bought her’ (p. 248). The book traces the history of what was then a backwater under Ottoman rule, starting with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and Syria at the close of the eighteenth century. Napoleon’s expeditions into the Middle East led to the awakening of great power interest in the region. Then, Hardy moves to the Egyptian occupation of Greater Syria between 1831 and 1840. This in turn opened the door to western consuls, who saw themselves as protectors of the various Christian denominations in the Holy Land.

The attitude of those of religious persuasion was encapsulated at the inaugural meeting of the Palestine Exploration Fund in 1865. The chairman, William Thomson, Archbishop of York, told members: ‘This country of Palestine belongs to you and to me, it is essentially ours … It is a sacred duty which we now undertake, to endeavour, by a new crusade, to rescue from darkness and oblivion much of the history of that country’ (pp. 13–4, full record of the meeting made available to the author by the Fund). Hardy comments acidly that it was Palestine’s misfortune ‘to be coveted by others who were convinced they had a better right to it than its inhabitants’ (pp. 13–4).

The watershed of political transformation came in 1917 with the Balfour Declaration, announcing the support of Lloyd George’s government for a Jewish homeland. In the same year, Allied forces under General Allenby entered Jerusalem and the British Mandate that followed ended in humiliating failure. In the aftermath of the devastating attack on the King David Hotel in 1946, the occupying power came to terms with the new reality: Britain was unable to guarantee the safety of its citizens. Consequently, the British handed over responsibility for Palestine to the newly founded United Nations (UN). Soon after, the state of Israel was born and, in the brief war that ensued, the highly motivated and well-organized Zionist forces triumphed over their divided and incompetent Arab opponents. Their success was greatly helped by the two waves of Jewish settlement before the Balfour Declaration. Under the Mandate, the Zionists were given the right to settle and buy land and, during the Second World War, another wave of settlers arrived. In 1947, the UN General Assembly voted for the partition of Palestine and gave the Zionists the legitimacy they sought to set up their own state—swiftly recognized by the US and the Soviet Union. Hardy tells this tangled tale with even-handed eloquence, his text enlivened with first-hand accounts of participants.

The most original feature of the book is a collection of superb black and white photos, the first taken in 1862 and the last in 1956, which capture the country beautifully as light falls on limestone walls or scrubby hillsides. In the Ottoman days, Sultan Abdul Hamid II employed Armenian photographers, whereas in the 1930s Hungarian-born Zoltan Kluger, a refugee from Nazi Germany, created a heroic image of the men and women who tilled the land on collective farms, or kibbutzim. But pride of place goes to the photographs from the American Colony, a utopian American–Swedish community founded in 1881 whose most notable physical legacy is the hotel of the same name in Jerusalem. In the 1920s, shortly before the community broke up, the output of its photographic studio, which operated as a collective, had become its most profitable activity. Its collection is now largely housed in the Library of Congress.

Hardy has written an engaging book which rightly illustrates the prolonged injustices meted out to Arab Palestinians. In his epilogue the author asks pertinently why they should have had to pay for the suffering of Jews under the Nazis in Europe and why their demand for independence and sovereignty has been consistently denied. Hardy, who calls himself a journalist rather than a scholar, has written for a wider public than might be expected from the title. Overall, The Bride is an engaging book that will be of interest to anyone concerned about the origins of one of the most intractable problems in the Middle East.

Simon Scott Plummer