For years I meant to read Arabian Sands, Wilfred Thesiger’s account of two punishing camel journeys during the late 1940s across Southern Arabia’s Empty Quarter. Now that I have, I can sheepishly join the chorus of those who revere the book as one of the half dozen greatest works of modern English travel writing. Thesiger’s other masterpiece, The Marsh Arabs (1964), is almost as good. There, he describes the seven years during the 1950s that he spent living in the wetlands of Iraq’s Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
The Marsh Arabs is enthralling, yet Arabian Sands remains the austere masterpiece, worthy of comparison with the classics of polar endurance, like Apsley Cherry-Gerrard’s The Worst Journey in the World, and with those roomy mansions of desert literature, C. M. Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta and T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. While most travel writing today is essentially journalism, Arabian Sands is an epic poem:
A cloud gathers, the rain falls, men live; the cloud disperses without rain, and men and animals die. In the deserts of southern Arabia there is no rhythm to the seasons, no rise and fall of sap, but empty wastes where only the changing temperature marks the passage of the years. It is a bitter, desiccated land which knows nothing of gentleness or ease…. Men live there because it is the world into which they were born; the life they lead is the life their forefathers led before them; they accept hardships and privations; they know no other way. Lawrence wrote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, “Bedouin ways were hard, even for those brought up in them and for strangers terrible: a death in life.” No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have within him the yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match.
This is the stirring prologue to Arabian Sands, yet it already sounds a faintly elegiac tone, a recognition that an ages-old way of life is vanishing. As Thesiger writes, “I went to Southern Arabia only just in time.”
Born in 1910, Wilfrid Thesiger spent his childhood in Ethiopia, or Abyssinia, as it was then called, where his father was an important and much-admired British official. How important? In a memoir of his youth, A Life of My Own (1987), Thesiger opened with this dramatic sentence: “In the summer of 1924, during my first year at Eton, Ras Tafari, later to be Emperor Haile Selassie but at that time Regent, paid a State Visit to England and invited my mother and me to call on him in London.” It was from Abyssinia that Thesiger acquired his passion for harsh landscapes and people untouched by the softness and conveniences of modern life.
Something within this tough young man — he was a champion boxer at Oxford — impelled him to test his limits. Thesiger ultimately gravitated to the Empty Quarter in the spirit of a mountaineer confronting Everest: because it was there, a desert within a desert, and one that was virtually unexplored by Europeans. Today, some might regard his “going native” as subtly condescending, an ultra-refined form of Orientalism. After all, he could always go home to London (and regularly did). Yet Thesiger’s passion for the exhilarating freedom of the desert — or the Marshes of Iraq or the mountains of Afghanistan — seems quite genuine:
For me, exploration was a personal venture. I did not go to the Arabian desert to collect plants nor to make a map; such things were incidental. At heart I knew that to write or even talk of my travels was to tarnish the achievement. I went there to find peace in the hardship of desert travel and the company of desert peoples.
Again and again, Thesiger stresses the simplicity of the Bedu way of life — and his envy of it: “Everything that was not a necessity was an encumbrance.” He is well aware that he can be part of this Arab world only in a small, incomplete way — but for that part he is grateful. In general, he regards his companions as altogether superior to himself, models of generosity, courage and stoic cheerfulness.
From childhood, Thesiger writes, “I wanted colour and savagery, hardship and adventure.” On a visit to Addis Ababa in the 1930s, the craggy-faced young man — whose long-nosed features resemble those of the Shadow in the old pulp magazine — asked a famous explorer what remained to be discovered in Abyssinia. He was told that “the one problem left unsolved was what happened to the Awash river, which, rising to the mountains west of Addis Ababa, flowed down into the Danakil desert and never reached the sea.”
This conversation, Thesiger writes, naturally “turned my thoughts to the Danakil country where the people were headhunters who collected testicles instead of heads.” The Oxford undergraduate had only a few weeks’ vacation, but off he went into that distinctly dangerous region. It was “the most decisive month in my life.” He was “often tired and thirsty, sometimes frightened and lonely, but I tasted freedom and a way of life from which there could be no recall.”
He eventually discovered that the Awash fed into the salt lake of Abhebad. “The river,” he reflects, “had come a long way from the Akaki plains to end here in this dead world, and it was this that I myself had come so far to see — three hundred square miles of bitter water, on which red algae floated like stale blood. Sluggish waves slapped over the glutinous black mud which bordered the lake, and hot water seeped down into it from among the basaltic rocks. It was a place of shadows but not one of shade…”
As this early passage from Arabian Sands indicates, Thesiger can write vividly when he wants, but in general his prose is terse, declarative, coolly observational. By contrast, the many black-and-white pictures that enrich his books are suffused with barely repressed emotion. His stark landscapes of the Empty Quarter, of camel trains crossing the desert or of barren dunes undulating into the distant horizon make clear his love for this bleak, unforgiving terrain. His portraits are even more outstanding. When he first meets Salim bin Ghabaisha, one of the two dedicatees of Arabian Sands, he sees “a face of classic beauty, pensive and rather sad in repose, but which lit up when he smiled, like a pool touched by the sun. Antinous must have looked like this, I thought, when Hadrian first saw him in the Phrygian woods.” And indeed, in his photograph the young man — a future brigand — displays the sensuous good looks and tormented air of a scraggly James Dean. When Thesiger died in 2003, he left more than 23,000 photographs to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. A large volume, The Last Nomad, features just a fraction of his superb camera work from over 40 years of travel and exploration.
Since Arabian Sands was Thesiger’s first book, he presents a lot of autobiography in his opening chapters. (There is now an official life by Alexander Maitland, published in Britain 2006 but only available this fall in an American edition.) Thesiger passes quickly over his distinguished war service — largely in North Africa and the Middle East — and then slows down in 1945 when he decides to trek, Bedu-style, through the Empty Quarter, a desert that had been hitherto crossed only by two other Englishmen. His ostensible mission — on behalf of the Middle East Anti-Locust Unit — is to locate any locust swarm centers, with the ultimate hope of curtailing the almost biblical depredations of these ravenous insects.
Thesiger makes two journeys through this “wilderness of sand.” In the first, he and his Bedu companions live for weeks on a few dates and brick-hard pieces of bread, force themselves and their camels to scale mountainous sand dunes, and nearly run out of water. They worry constantly about their animals. “Twenty waterless days was the very limit that camels would stand, traveling for long hours across heavy sands; and they would only do this if they found grazing. Should we find grazing? It is the continuing problem which faces the Bedu. If we did not find it, the camels would collapse and that would be the end of us all. It is not hunger nor is it thirst that frightens the Bedu; they maintain that riding they can survive in cold weather for seven days without food or water. It is the possible collapse of their camels which haunts them. If this happens, death is certain.” Thesiger and his four companions make it across, but it is a very near thing.
On his second journey, he follows a different route, and this time the main threats to life are raiders and warring tribes. Thesiger finds himself constantly negotiating with tribal leaders, camping far from wells to avoid ambush, and generally doing his best to prevent anyone becoming aware that a “Christian” is among them. Each crossing is astonishingly suspenseful, the first for its portrayal of stoic endurance and determination, the second as a kind of John Buchan-like desert thriller. In both instances, though, Thesiger and his Bedu are nearly always hungry, always thirsty. It is to be expected, the way of life in this pitiless climate.
Yet wherever he finds himself, Thesiger looks hard at his surroundings. More and more, he detects signs of “the spoiling hand of progress” and he frequently reviles motorized vehicles, the wireless, and hideous new buildings. He disapproves of virtually every aspect of modern civilization, except its medicines and firearms. It certainly never crosses his mind to travel any way but on foot — like a native, without shoes — or on camelback:
I had no desire to travel faster. In this way, there was time to notice things — a grasshopper under a bush, a dead swallow on the ground, the tracks of a hare, a bird’s nest, the shape and colour of ripples on the sand, the bloom of tiny seedlings pushing through the soil. There was time to collect a plant or to look at a rock. The very slowness of our march diminished its monotony. I thought how terribly boring it would be to rush about this country in a car.
Thesiger’s chief Bedu companions are Rashid — longtime denizens of the desert — and none of them ever doubts his superiority to urban Arabs or to the foreigner traveling with them. All of them, writes their chronicler with admiration, would have scorned the “easier life of lesser men.” Nonetheless, an occasional springtime of rain was “all the Bedu ever know of the gentleness of life. A few years’ relief from the anxiety of want was the most they ever hoped for. It seemed to me pathetically little and yet I knew that it was magnificently enough.” Thesiger then adds, with conviction:
All that is best in the Arabs has come to them from the desert: their deep religious instinct, which has found expression in Islam; their sense of fellowship, which binds them as members of one faith; their pride of race; their generosity and sense of hospitality; their dignity and the regard which they have for the dignity of others as fellow human beings; their humour, their courage and patience, the language which they speak and their passionate love of poetry.
In their world, he stresses, “life moved in time with the past. These people still valued leisure and courtesy and conversation. They did not live their lives at second hand, dependent on cinemas and wireless.” Each time Thesiger and his companions encounter others, they stop, invite them to share their food, and look forward to exchanging the latest news. The Bedu love to talk and gossip:
There is no reticence in the desert. If a man distinguishes himself he knows that his fame will be widespread; if he disgraces himself he knows that the story of his shame will inevitably be heard in every encampment. It is this fear of public opinion which enforces at all times the rigid conventions of the desert.
Nonetheless, the Bedu know little of the world beyond their borders. When Thesiger reaches Abu Dhabi on his second trip through the Empty Quarter, he and his companions overhear talk of Palestine and the Jews. A puzzled Salim bin Kabina, the Bedu to whom Thesiger is closest, immediately asks him: “Who are the Jews? Are they Arabs?” From Abu Dhabi Thesiger then sails down the coast in a dhow to Bahrain, later treks through Oman to the quicksands of Umm al Samim, and eventually spends a month with a friendly sheik who likes to hunt with trained hawks. When Thesiger finally leaves Arabia in 1950, the oil companies have arrived, the money is starting to pour in — and the rest we know.
At least, we are lucky enough to possess this paean to a vanished way of life and this glimpse of a people now often misunderstood or vilified by the West. As Thesiger writes, “I shall always remember how often I was humbled by those illiterate herdsmen who possessed, in so much greater measure than I, generosity and courage, endurance, patience, and light-hearted gallantry. Among no other people have I ever felt the same sense of personal inferiority.”
Wilfred Thesiger, perhaps the greatest traveler in the twentieth century, went on to have many other adventures, in Iraq, the Hindu Kush, and Africa, always eager to explore places hitherto unvisited by Europeans and untouched by European civilization. But already in Arabian Sands he knew that “the harder the way the more worth while the journey.” If that’s not a philosophy of life, I don’t know what is.