Wilfred Thesiger, who died in 2003, was the last of the old land explorers, whose likes included Burton, Speke, Younghusband, Lawrence, Connolly, Hedin, Amundsen, and stretched as far back as Marco Polo. Fluent in Arabic and French Thesiger was the first European to cross and extensively map the dreaded Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, and wrote acclaimed travelogues of now-vanished times in the middle east, and the Marsh Arabs of Iraq. An unashamed Arabist, he loved the great empty silences of the desert, and the nomadic culture of the Bedu; he much preferred to travel and live the way they did, and he despised the modern era of travel where all hardship was erased, and man could not longer test himself against the land he sought to describe and explain.
“Arabian Sands” which Thesiger published in 1959, is one of the great works of travel literature. It stands alongside “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” and the works of Sir Richard Burton (not the actor), Marco Polo or Ibn Battuttah, and the old victorian travellers of their day who shared the characteristic of describing not only the journey, but everything they saw on and experienced on it: peoples, customs, flora and fauna, geographical details…a sort of holistic experience that today is rarely found outside of fictional accounts (though I should single out Colin Thurbon’s work, or that of Thor Heyerdahl, and those others who go into the the Third World to attempt to achieve something singular and individual). If I were to name a modern equivalent – which has both greater and lesser value – it would be the Lonely Planet series, though this is not strictly comparable since these travelogues serve a different purpose.
“Arabian Sands” is, like “Seven Pillars”, part autobiography, part travelogue, part adventure story and part an account of various explorations Thesiger did in Abyssinia, and his years of being a civil servant in the Sudan Political Service. Thesiger did not appreciate the civilized norms of the service, and ensured his own postings to more remote areas. After the war, having been inspired by the exploits of Bertram Thomas and St. John Philby who had both crossed Arabia in the north, he resolved to try exploring and mapping the area of the Rub al Khali himself, not least because no European had ever done it. The heart of this book describes his adventures in the Empty Quarter, the vast sands which covered the Southern part of Saudia Arabia, the place where even today the maps read, “Border Undefined.” The first crossing was 1946-47. Wilfred Thesiger persuaded Doctor Uvarov of the Locust Research Center in London to allow him to return to Oman and the Empty Quarter in order to map the area.
The book describes in detail Thesiger’s experiences with the Bedu, his opinions of them, their habits and lives and customs, and how he longed to be part of their culture. And how, as he travelled with them, he was eventually accepted: there’s more than a whiff of “Avatar” or “Dances With Wolves” in this narration. But over and above the autobiographical details, what we really get is the description of a whole way of life that no longer exists. The existence of the desert Bedu, even then under threat from rapid modernization based on oil, is evoked in prose that is both Kiplingesque and nostalgic. Certainly Thesiger had a hankering for male camaraderie and, like many Orientalists, a rather odd attitude towards sexuality for the time; he did not find the wells of his soul filled with water from his own civilization, and found it elsewhere. It is this blend of honesty, clarity of prose and evocation od worlds gone, which give Thesiger’s books their power.
I’ve read Sven Hedin’s accounts of his trips in Central Asia, as well as some of Younghusband’s work, and that of Burton, Livingstone and Aurel Stein: these explorers all shared a blend of craziness and chutzpah that got them past many hurdles in strange places; however for the most part, they went with expeditions and equipment, all the trappings of their culture. Thesiger, like Lawrence, is more of an individualist, sometimes adhering to a code more closely seen as fascist or hero-worshipping, someone who wanted to sink himself into a different culture that did live and survive in the places he wanted to explore. Now to some extent, Thesiger’s vision of man the explorer against the unknown is a classicist and romantic one, more redolent of Rousseau than Hobbes: but the kind of life of manly hardship he extols was even then a vanishing one, and is best appreciated by those who have an option to turn their backs temporarily on a more luxurious lifestyle. These days, in an interconnected, always-on microculture where gender roles are blurred and the “old ways” are seen in a misty, traditionalist haze of nostalgia, some readers might look back at a man like Thesiger and sigh enviously.
“Arabian Sands” reminds us that civilization has its price. The world can support over six billion people but the tag on that is a perhaps more elemental way of life being given up for creature comforts and delicate parsings of justice and law; of fantastical, even obscene aspects of culture, style, fashion, media and privacy. Many people will read Thesiger’s work and either long for a simpler time when matters stood more clear, or despise it for its simplicity and extolling of manly virtues from a different era: I am not one of either of these camps, but I have lived in many parts of the world and travelled to many more remote corners of it, and, aside from my appreciation for the beauty of Thesiger’s writing, I also fully understand the siren power of its call.