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Wilfred Thesiger was a hard man! I first read an encounter with him by Eric Newby in A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. Thesiger was determined to explore more of the Rub Al Khali (the Empty Quarter) between modern day Oman, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and UAE, than had previously been explored by Europeans. He secured a job with a locust commission to travel across the Sands searching for breeding grounds for locust plagues. Personally he wasn’t interested in the job but wanted to explore in an area that he considered authentic, including tribes that are mentioned in the Old Testament.
When moved, Arabs break easily into poetry. I have heard a lad spontaneously describe in verse some grazing which he had just found (in gratitude for the food it provided to his camels).
I’ve read many books written by Arab, Persian, Turkish and Central Asian writers, fiction and non-fiction, and books written about those regions by foreigners who have spent a lot of time there. Recently I’ve read two great books by Gertrude Bell about her travels in the early 20th century, about Palgrave’s and Guarmani’s journies through Saudi Arabia, and a political history book by Marwan Muasher. Thesiger’s account of the Bedu tribes came next.
Thesiger arrived in the Empty Quarter in 1945. He regarded the semi-nomadic Bedouin herdsmen of the Sands as noble people as yet uncontaminated by progress, innovation, consumerism and waste.
Shut off from the outside world by the desert and the sea, the inhabitants of Arabia have kept their racial purity… No race in the world prizes lineage so highly as the Arabs and none has kept its blood so pure. There is, of course, mixed blood in the towns, especially in the seaports, but this is only the dirty froth upon the desert edge.
I have written elsewhere about the legendary hospitality of Arab people, both in my own experiences in Saudi Arabia, and in the writings of others.
We sat round in a hungry circle watching bin Kabina cooking the hare, and offering advice. Anticipation mounted, for it was more than a month since we had eaten meat… Coming across the sands towards us were three Arabs… We greeted them… dished up the hare and the bread and set it before them, saying with every appearance of sincerity that they were our guests, that God had brought them, that today was a blessed day, and a number of similar remarks. They asked us to join them but we refused, repeating that they were our guests. I hoped that I did not look as murderous as I felt while I joined the others in assuring them that God had brought them on this auspicious occasion.
I enjoyed reading this description of watering at Manwakh well
Men and women drew on the ropes together, singing as they pulled, hand over hand. On each rope, as one bucket jerked up from the dark depths, slopping water down the glistening walls, another descended empty. Each clammy, dripping leather bucket was seized as it reached the scaffolding, and hastily tipped into a trough, round which moaning camels jostled in haste to quench their thirst. Rows of bulging black skins lay upon the sand, guarded from the trampling feet of men and beasts by shrill-voiced children. Camels were watered, couched, and later driven away; others arrived, breaking into a shuffling trot as they approached; colts frisked, stiff-legged, around their dams; men shouted with harsh voices to watchful, darting herdsboys; goats bleated, camels roared, the singing at the well-head rose and fell, the sun climbed higher, and the dark stain of spilt water spread farther across the ground.
Thesiger was rather selfish in convincing tribesmen to take him into territory where he was strictly forbidden by the King, Sultan or Imam (depending on the case in Saudi Arabia, parts of the Empty Quarter, and Oman). His good reputation for paying well, travelling peacefully and adopting Bedouin habits meant that he made powerful alliances and tribesmen disobeyed their fellow tribesmen to take him into restricted territories. This sounds clever and daring on the surface but on reflection I consider it to be selfish because the tribesmen were desperately trying to protect their territories and people from invasion by oil men and influence of non-Muslims. Conversely I admire the resolve of those determined Arabs to attempt to resist change. Thesiger recorded and published his travels and painstakingly made maps in territory where he was forbidden to enter, as the first European. If he as he claimed was travelling simply for personal pleasure then why did he make it easier for everybody that came after him by creating these resources?
Although I had no political or economic interest in the country few people accepted the fact that I travelled there for my own pleasure, certainly not the American oil companies nor the Saudi Government. I knew that I had made my last journey in the Empty Quarter and that a phase in my life was ended. Here in the desert I had found all that I asked; I knew that I should never find it again. But it was not only this personal sorrow that distressed me. I realised that the Bedu with whom I had lived and travelled, and in whose company I had found contentment, were doomed. Some people maintain that they will be better off when they have exchanged the hardship and poverty of the desert for the security of a materialistic world. This I do not believe. 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 lighthearted gallantry. Among no other people have I ever felt the same sense of personal inferiority.
Thesiger rejected technology like vehicles but not guns and he gave rifles to several of the Bedu that worked for him. I really enjoyed the book. His writing focuses on human interactions. He is self reflective and capable of criticising himself. He is honest about the difficulties of understanding and speaking Arabic and about the extreme hardships of travelling in a vast desert with insufficient water and scraps of dry unleavened bread to eat once a day. He is honest about always being on the outside in his interactions with the Bedouin.
He lovingly describes the beauty of some of the young Arab men that he employs but by his own admission he was asexual. Interestingly, he talks once about the allure of a girl at a well. I was confused by that because he was asexual but camp. I wondered if he included that description of the girl to hide his attraction to the boys.
It’s a great book. What did you think?