Before the colonial powers carved divisive borders into a once territorially united Ottoman Empire, inventing the contemporary Middle East, they actually attempted to condense the geographic distance between the region’s key cities by initiating easier routes of travel between Haifa, Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad. As a result, two brothers from New Zealand, forgotten, for the most part today, introduced a pan-Arab path that seems impossible to even imagine in our tumultuous present.
There once was a time when the border between Palestine and Lebanon was not guarded by UN peacekeepers, when you could get to Haifa from Beirut by taxi. There once was a time when the road from Damascus to Baghdad wasn’t peppered with checkpoints, RPGs, and aerial bombardments.
There once was a time when a journey from Haifa to Beirut to Damascus to Baghdad was possible for anyone with the necessary means.
Much like the borders that would ultimately separate these four cities, the route between them sprung from the machinations of colonial powers. During the inter-war period the need emerged for a faster method of transporting people, goods and mail across the Syrian Desert.
The existing method – sending the mail and goods to Suez and going by sea to Paris and the United Kingdom – took far too long: shipments took up to six weeks to be delivered, and traveling the desert by caravan was far too dangerous because the camels moved slowly and were at risk of attack by raiders. So it was that the British consul in Damascus issued a call for a solution to the difficulty of crossing the Syrian Desert by car.
The British administration knew it was possible, since Lord Allenby had done just that with a cavalcade in 1919 during the war. The problem, however, was the risk involved in such a journey. Raiders, as well as geographic and climatic obstacles, made it extremely perilous.
The Nairn brothers of New Zealand, who had served in the British Army during World War I and subsequently settled in the Middle East, responded to the call. The two already ran a successful mail and taxi company in Haifa, specialising in trips to and from Beirut and Damascus.
They had already dealt with hardships: an eight-mile stretch of highway along the shore between Haifa and Beirut that was frequently inundated by the high tide, while local carriage drivers, frustrated by the Nairn brothers taking away their business, took to stacking rocks and boulders along the route, forcing the taxi drivers to stop and clear the road, decelerating their speed and increasing their travel time.
The Nairn brothers began with an exploratory trip: They caravanned across the Syrian Desert in a convoy made up of a Buick, an Oldsmobile and a Lancia. The 880-kilometre trip took about three days to complete.
After the journey, both the British and French authorities granted the contract to the Nairn brothers, with the French government providing a “bribe” fund for paying off the various tribes in the desert to prevent raids. On 18 October, 1923, the Nairn Transport Company officially opened for service.
The next three years saw prosperous business for the company, and a rapid increase in their number of journeys and mail convoys.
In 1925, however, Druze tribes in the south of Syria that were growing frustrated with French colonial rule made a push for independence in what is now known as the Great Syrian, or Great Druze, Revolt.
The tribes viewed the convoys as an extension of the colonisers and targeted several of those passing through. In August and September 1925, several drivers and one passenger were injured in raids and over £9,000 in gold was stolen (approximately 477,435 pounds sterling today).
The Nairn Transport Company had to change its route. For six months, it operated on a route that was 322 kilometres longer: Its drivers would bypass Damascus and instead travel to Baghdad through Jerusalem, Amman and Rutbeh.
Their path changed again, when in 1926 the French authorities provided armed cover for a new route running through Tripoli, Homs and Palmyra before tackling the Syrian Desert to Baghdad. It wasn’t until the revolt was crushed and its leaders executed, that the Haifa-Beirut-Damascus-Baghdad route was reinstated.
The Amman-Rutbeh route, however, proved fruitful: due to the extreme conditions encountered on the roads between Amman and Rutbeh, the Nairn brothers collaborated with the American Firestone Tire and Rubber Company to develop a longer-lasting tyre made with a synthetic alternative to cotton.
In spite of the problems faced in terms of regional instability, extreme road conditions and raiders, prospects for the company remained extremely bright.
On 13 December, 1927, Commercial Motor Magazine wrote that “the Nairn Co. has a good future before it, for there is a steady and considerable traffic of passengers and mails” with “present traffic [amounting] to about 1,800 passengers per year, calling for one journey weekly in each direction.”
In the following years, business continued as usual, with the company expanding and purchasing a sleeper coach to transport passengers. By 1936, the company began unofficially offering services to the Iraq Petroleum Company: The Nairn Company would transport hundreds of workers and technicians across the desert to oil pumping sites in the region and along the diverging pipelines to Tripoli and Haifa. This was to be the last prosperous period for the Nairn Transport Company.
In 1937, the company finally fashioned the vehicle that would come to represent it: the Pullman. Beyond the development of longer-lasting tyres, the Nairn brothers also experimented with different types of buses. At first, they used Cadillacs with large radiators they said could withstand “great punishment,” but as time went by they transitioned to Safeway buses, six-wheelers and then 18-wheelers with two passenger levels.
The Pullman bus was a luxury bus that could carry 18-passengers in an air-conditioned cabin with a refreshment facility. The Pullman was designed by the brothers themselves, and assembled at their workshop headquarters in Damascus. It was built using different components from various companies.
During World War II, many Pullmans were converted for military use. Today, many of Syria’s bus stations, from Hama to Damascus, still bear the name of this vehicle. World War II saw extremely lean times, though the company trudged forward.
In 1941, the Milwaukee Journal reported that the Nairns attempted to keep the Damascus-Baghdad route alive, and succeeded for three months into the war. After the war was over, there was hope that business would be restored. However, due to the creation of Israel, subsequent political upheavals and the advancement of air travel, the Nairns were forced to begin downsizing.
A version of the route existed between Beirut and Baghdad, stopping in Damascus, until 1956, when the Iraqi government imposed a customs tax so steep that the firm was forced to cancel the Damascus-Baghdad route. Eventually, the buses fell into disrepair and in the 1970s the last bus that operated under the name of the Nairn Transport Company and ran between Beirut and Damascus disappeared, thus closing this particular chapter in history.
The impact that the Nairn Transport Company had on the region is undeniable: they paved the way for motor transport across the Syrian Desert and the Jordan Valley. Though the mail they transported was mostly diplomatic and served the foreign legions stationed in the Middle East, their routes were used by copy-cat bus services and eventually aided in the creation of motorways across the desert.
Zvi Richter, a British Zionist with a vested interest in the colonial development of Palestine and the Middle East, remarked in a letter to his brother in 1943, that it was “a testament to the vision of the British imperial planners” that a journey that would originally take 30 days to complete had been reduced to approximately 20 hours. “‘You know,’ he said, ‘I thought this trip was going to be very boring, but it has actually been, well, romantic.’I stared at him in disbelief. Had he lost his senses? Was he teasing me? ‘I mean, look around,’ he said. ‘There’s a little six-year-old girl who crooned to a doll in the middle of the desert so it would go to sleep. There’s a teacher who thinks nothing of giving an English lesson at 40 miles an hour. There’s a driver who used to be a Bedouin. One man is trying to get some valuable clothes through customs and a complete stranger is trying to show him how. And a Frenchman, off alone in Iraq without knowing a word of Arabic; an Iranian professor on his way back from Europe; a young girl mourning a brother who is somewhere at sea on the greatest adventure of his life; and a mother looking for a daughter who may be somewhere in Baghdad right now wondering if she’ll ever see her again.’ He shook his head. ‘So many interesting people on one small bus.’”
Zouka Khanoum, an elderly resident of Beirut, echoed these words: “I never personally went… but my husband, may he rest in peace, had frequent trips to Baghdad. After every trip, he would come back with stories of those he’d met, and tell me about what wonderful and different people travelled by bus. He would say they were mostly ajaaneb – foreigners – though.” Beyond all this, the bus route stoked the imaginations of all: Omar, a middle-aged man who grew up in Damascus towards the end of the Nairn era, recalls seeing the buses at their depot in Damascus. “As a child, I would grow so excited to see the buses, because in my mind, they represented this out-dated vision of what our countries could have been… I would see the buses frequently, but one day they just weren’t on the streets anymore.”
Watching the dissolution of borders and the formation of new ones in a region increasingly identified by its tragedies instead of its literature, architecture and beauty, it is hard to imagine that such a world was once possible, a world where anyone could take a bus from Haifa to Beirut, from Damascus to Baghdad.
Remembering this, perhaps, can remind us that another world was within our reach not so very long ago.