Wilfred Thesiger is one of those intriguing people who seem genuinely to have been born out of their time. The Arabian journeys described in his wonderful book could easily have taken place in the late 19th century or, at the very least, in the golden years of Edwardian exploration. They have a timeless quality: the hard slog across the sands; the knife-edge between life and death; the absence of any luxuries or comforts; and only the company of camels and a few trusted men. And yet these journeys, pressing into one of the last great wildernesses of the world, were undertaken between 1946 and 1950: within living memory. Thesiger only died in 2003, but although he is tantalisingly close in time, his spirit is very much that of another age.
Born into an official’s family in Ethiopia, Thesiger grew up in the kind of colonial atmosphere that was already growing outdated at the time. His earliest memories were of an ancient and vibrant tribal culture, full of ritual and ceremony, and it’s no wonder that when he finally went to school in England he found it hard to settle. After Eton, Oxford (Magdalen, no less!) and the Second World War, his steps led him back to colonial administration, first in Africa and then in Arabia. Here his official role involved making maps and researching locust breeding and migration patterns, but these things were simply a means to an end. His goal was the Arabian desert.
In the deserts of southern Arabia there is no rhythm of the seasons, no rise and fall of sap, but empty wastes where only the changing temperature marks the passage of the year. It is a bitter, desiccated land which knows nothing of gentleness or ease. … 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 … For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match.
Thesiger was deeply attracted by this place where he could finally ignore the machines and ugliness of the modern world and pretend for a moment that he was living in a purer, nobler age. ‘I craved for the past, resented the present and dreaded the future.’ The desert and the Bedu offered him the prospect of a culture which had remained unchanged for thousands of years; but it offered him something else as well. Although he never articulates it quite in these words, I sensed that his ultimate dream was to transcend himself, to be completely free of all identity and obligation. Travelling with the Bedu, he learned to do without material possessions and, living in the wide sweep of the sands, he savoured the feeling of being insignificant in the face of something vast and impersonal. He’d already experienced some of this in the Libyan desert:
The desert met the empty sky always the same distance ahead of us. Time and space were one. Round us was a silence in which only the winds played, and a cleanness which was infinitely remote from the world of men.
Thesiger’s prose is beautiful and you really sense the depth of his attachment to this world, which becomes more profound as he makes friends among the Bedu, particularly among the Rashid. They accompany him on each of his journeys as he strives to find new paths across the inhospitable, barren wastes of the Empty Quarter, under threat from raiders, war parties, blood feuds and the constant grind of an unimaginably harsh climate. Thesiger was not the first to cross the Empty Quarter, but he was the first to travel on these particularly challenging paths. His significance, however, isn’t in being the ‘first’ but in being the ‘last’ – and in knowing it. By the time he came to write his book, his maps had already ‘helped others, with more material aims, to visit and corrupt a people whose spirit once lit the desert like a flame.’ The book is shot through with regret.
However, this is no high-octane story of wars and drama. If anything, its theme is the great power of human endurance. Thesiger and his companions make their way from well to well, scramble up towering dunes and negotiate their way through tense tribal rivalries. Ultimately the book is very similar to one of his expeditions: it’s the journey, not the end, that matters. Drama is offered by the austere landscapes; and the human interest of the story is in Thesiger’s gradual acclimatisation to, and growing respect for, the culture of his Bedu companions. He paints a vivid word-picture of each of them, backed up by the splendid photographs he took on these journeys. Of the many names, three in particular stuck with me. One was al Auf, the taciturn but immensely capable tribesman who led Thesiger’s first foray into the Empty Quarter.
The other two were Thesiger’s favourite companions, bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha, who are a constant presence in the story. Thesiger was so fond of them that he actually chose to turn to modern technology on one occasion, when it looked as if bin Ghabaisha would miss an expedition because he was visiting family some distance away. Using his diplomatic connections, Thesiger arranged for the young Bedu to be fetched by car and put onto the next plane heading in the right direction, so that he could join them. It was a rather drastic move for a man who was so protective of the traditional Bedu way of life, and I imagine it must have been a rather striking experience for bin Ghabaisha as well. Thesiger clearly looked forward to their company and good humour just as much as he anticipated returning to the desert itself. Perhaps it’s also telling that, when describing the young bin Ghabaisha, he chooses to make a rare classical allusion:
He had 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 yet Thesiger is no Hadrian. He is sensitive to personal beauty in the same frank way that he is moved by the beauty of the sands or the austere grandeur of the desert; and, though he evidently has great affection for his two favourites, that’s all it is. He apparently stood aloof from interpersonal relationships of any form (Rory Stewart’s introduction touches on that briefly). Besides, Thesiger reminds us, appearances can be deceiving. Despite bin Ghabaisha’s ephebic looks, he would by the age of twenty be ‘one of the most daring outlaws on the Trucial Coast with half a dozen blood-feuds on his hands‘. (Thesiger makes no effort to hide his admiration.) And indeed, Thesiger’s European appreciation of beauty, in whichever form it comes, was a key cultural difference between himself and the Bedu, who had little time for beauty if it had no functionality. Thesiger remembers admiring a lush landscape, which his Bedu companion dismissed as merely poor grazing; and he contrasts this with his own loathing for the ugly modern buildings going up in the towns, which the Bedu admired as marvels of practicality.
I hadn’t expected to like Thesiger; not that it would have mattered much if I hadn’t liked him, because I was interested by his story rather than by the man himself. However, I’d scarcely started reading before I realised how inextricably linked they were: this is not really a story about a man crossing the desert, but a record of how the desert twined its way into Thesiger’s heart and his deep fondness and respect for the world he found there. More than anything else, this book is a passionate attempt to record a beautiful and noble culture that Thesiger knows is already doomed to vanish. He savours every aspect of Bedu life: their immense, instinctive generosity; their dignity and resilience; their fatalism, loyalty and hospitality.
And he cherishes this so much because, as an outsider, he knows that the first few pebbles have already started to shift on the slope which will become an avalanche and crush this world forever. Agents from oil firms are already scouting along the Arabian coast as Thesiger and his companions cross the wastes of the Empty Quarter. Indeed, by the time Thesiger came to write about his journeys just a few years later, the world he’d seen in Arabia had already begun to crumble.
When he returned to Arabia in 1977, as an honoured guest, he was horrified to see that life had already changed beyond recognition: bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha’s families used Land Rovers and jeeps to get around; camels were rarely ridden; this way of life which had endured for centuries had disappeared in the course of thirty years. His preface to Arabian Sands, written after this Arabian visit, throbs with almost physical pain at the loss. (The closest I’ve come to the desert was on my trip to Qatar, but that was enough to give me a flavour of the speed of change in the region.)
This edition includes some of Thesiger’s photographs of his companions and the landscapes they crossed, which add further life to an already vivid story. It’s especially interesting to put faces to names. However, if the few plates in the book whet your appetite for more – because Thesiger really was a very good photographer – you can find a wealth of images and other resources on the website of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, to which he bequeathed his negatives. The site also features biographies of his travelling companions, maps, a bibliography and a list of further archives and depositories. I’m sure there must be some books and exhibition catalogues too. I must investigate. And I have one more Thesiger on my to-read shelf: The Marsh Arabs, which promises to offer a picture of a very different, but equally fascinating way of life.