Re-reading “The Sheikh”: In His Majesty’s Service

British Army in North Africa WWII

I’m rereading a Thai novel, “The Sheikh”, originally published in 1987. The story follows the life of Dawid ibn Sharbaz, the only son of a murdered sheikh, through the changing times in the fictional North Africa country of Byderhabad from 1941-1970. Things to note is that while it’s international in scope, it’s written through the lens of a Thai novelist. Also, there is a lot of political commentary and observation in the novel which is the author’s forte but I choose to focus on the drama side of it. Because, well, that’s why I’ve been rereading this book since 1992!

Where we left off: Dawid got voluntold to join the British army.

Part II: Kingdom Of Byderhabad, 1945

Chapter 18

It’s been about 8 months since the last chapter. In the English countryside at the castle of Earl of Saxon, Prince Faisal is in full riding regalia, waiting to begin the rabbit hunt with Lady Anne, the Earl’s daughter.

And I’m going to interrupt the story here with a note. RABBIT hunt??? Thanks to you guys, after 30 years of re-reading this damn book it never sank in that the hunt they’re going on is a FOX hunt and not a rabbit hunt because who the fuck get in their full riding regalia and send out a party with dogs for rabbits. I guess to Thais reading this, hunting rabbit sounds both exotic and practical. You eat rabbits as a fancy meal, but you don’t eat foxes, so why are they hunting foxes? And then if we talk about a fox hunt then he’d have to explain more about the traditions. Rabbit is kind of understandable.

Oh, and there is no such thing as Earl of Saxon either. Carry on. Anyway, back to the story.

Now, Lady Anne is a beautiful young English woman with blond hair, green eyes, and delicate features. The author keeps calling her “young lady” but no idea how young, not until pretty much the end of the novel when we find out she’s about the same age as Dawid, which at this point about 19. But anyway, she talks about her childhood, playing in the ruins of a chapel with her brothers who died in the war. She takes Faisal to visit said ruins which she calls Merlin’s cottage. Beautiful, delicate sad tears roll down her face and Faisal, reaching for her hands, falls for this helpless, beautiful exotic creature.

A heavily armed patrol of SAS members after a three-month patrol in North Africa during World War II. The crews of the jeeps are all wearing "Arab-style" headdress, as copied from the Long Range Desert Group. British army/Imperial War Museum
This is the closet I could find to represent the fictional Byderhabad British-trained army, okay? Grabbed from British army/Imperial War Museum by way of Wikipedia. A heavily armed patrol of SAS members after a three-month patrol in North Africa during World War II. The crews of the jeeps are all wearing “Arab-style” headdress, as copied from the Long Range Desert Group. 

Chapter 19

Meanwhile, back in Byderhabad, Lt. Colonel Clifford puts Dawid on the shortlist to promote to Sergeant, but to earn that promotion, he must complete a mission. Clifford offers Dawid a post back at his old tribe. He respectfully declines as he has sworn to not return until he can lead his people. Plus, they already have a sheikh now, so this is definitely not the time.

“I’m ordering you, ibn Shahbaz!”
“I must decline, sir.”
“There are consequences to your insubordination!”
“I will accept any punishment because I’m not breaking my vow, sir.”
“MPs! Throw him in the brig for a week!”
“I just have one request, sir.”
“What is it, private?” Thinking Dawid is coming around.
“I would just ask for some water so I can wash up before prayers.”
“Um, what? *ahem* I mean, FINE!”

Clifford’s plan to start the Byderhabad version of the Indian Army and taking control of the desert and its people is already falling apart before it even gets going, starting with Dawid defying his order. He seeks counsel from Father Bernard. You know, since Dawid is in his charge. Father points out that he needs to solve the problem at the core, implying that his colonization plan sucks. But Clifford doesn’t take a hint and instead get something completely different from that piece of advice.

Sometime later, Bedouin children point to the sky and chase after a plane flying overhead toward the edge of their village oasis.

Chapter 20

In the tent of Abbas Yemir, the new sheikh of Dawid’s tribe/village, Lt. Colonel Clifford presents a gift of an ornate gold-plated rifle, and then offers to buy the land where the tribe is now to turn into a “military training ground.” (Not entirely a lie, I guess, if they’re buying this area up to train Dawid.)

Now, a note on this “golden rifle.” The author it “gun” which is a catch-all word in Thai for firearms. As the story goes on, this “gun” was doing all the things a revolver cannot. There was only one instance when the author called it a “revolver”. But for the sake of realism and the fact that I have some basic knowledge of firearms, but I’m just going to stick to calling it a rifle. You’ll see.

“What about my people?”
“Oh, they don’t have to move out. Just you and your family. And here’s extra money for you to be WAY out of harm’s way. Farwah is quite modern these days and you should be happy there.”
“Eh. I guess that’s better than refusing to work with you Christians and get murdered like Sheikh Shahbaz.”

On their way back to Farwah, Captain Rogers asks Clifford if Dawid is really worth all this trouble and the money they’re paying Abbas Yemir. Clifford says this is a bargain compared to the Bedouin cooperation the UK will soon have with Dawid in charge.

Also, note on Captain Rogers: Thai people go by our first name, but in this novel, the author flip-flops whenever it suits him. Here, the book said “Captain Roger” which he could be Captain Roger Somebody or a wrong transliteration of someone last name Rogers. But Captain Rogers is so much more fun nerd reference here so we’ll just go with that, okay?

Clifford brings Dawid out to inform him that he now has no choice but to take the post at his village. Not only his people now need a leader, but it is also his duty as an officer of the British army to manage the military property. Clifford gives him 3 weeks to prove himself worthy of becoming a sergeant and sends him off with a small unit of soldiers plus the Sudanese training officer and Rogers to observe.

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