Friday, June 29, 2012

Maitland - Wilfred Thesiger; The Life of the Great Explorer

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 climate can match. (Maitland, 2006, p. 377)
Quoted from Wilfred Thesiger’s own prologue to Arabian Sands, this statement characterizes so much with which I identified in Alexander Maitland’s Wilfred Thesiger; The life of the great explorer (2006). This biography is essential, and wonderfully nostalgic, reading for anyone who has been deeply touched by the inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula or seeks to understand their character.

Thesiger was an eccentric Brit who traveled throughout Northern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and into near Asia. Many of the places he traveled are places I’ve had a chance to visit so his descriptions, references to familiar phrases, and habits of the peoples throughout this area are very familiar to me, evoking almost a sense of “home.” While there might be some aspects of Thesiger’s depictions that seem somewhat stereotypical, he deeply identified with the people throughout the Arab-influenced regions of Northern Africa and Asia and he did much to dignify their lives through reports he made to the British Royal Geographic Society, articles, books, and thirty-eight thousand negatives of photographs he took that capture the landscapes and people of the region. Many of his photographs are available on-line and they are well worth a browse. A couple of sites are the Pitt River Museum collection in Oxford, UK, and another is a BBC piece that includes Thesiger’s own commentary and several of his pictures.

Thesiger’s first successful book, Arabian Sands, captured the very powerful experience of crossing the “Empty Quarter” of the Arabian Peninsula, the most desolate, difficult, dry, and extreme portion of the desert lands in this area of the world. He always traveled with guides or porters from the local area and he frequently befriended them in ways that allowed them to maintain contact over many years. Thesiger established credibility by being respectful of the local customs, by frequently dressing in regional attire, and by bringing medical assistance that, even as an untrained novice, were revolutionary in helping the people along his paths of travel. He was an extremely hearty individual; European’s who knew or traveled with him on occasion and native peoples all revered his ability to endure harsh conditions, little food and water, and extremes of hot and cold temperatures. He was not privileged by birth, although his grandfather and father served in military and diplomatic roles in Northern Africa during a time when this was quite exotic. He tasted the intrigue of travel and discovery as a young boy and sought to replicate these experiences throughout a long and active life.

Extremely fond of the nomads and villagers he encountered throughout the southern portion of the Arabian Peninsula, he wrote in Arabian Sands, “There I lived among tribes who claimed descent from Ishmael, and listened to old men who spoke of events which had occurred a thousand years ago as if they had happened in their own youth. I went there with a belief in my own racial superiority, but in their tents I felt like an uncouth, inarticulate barbarian, an intruder from a shoddy and materialist world.” (p. 232) This kind of respect accorded to others resulted in natives throughout the lands he explored coining names reflecting high praise – the Bedu of Abu Dhabi who befriended Thesiger called themselves “Umbarak’s men” (umbarak meaning ‘Blessed of God’) and the Samburu youth of Kenya called themselves ‘mzee juu’s boys’ (mzee juu meaning ‘top elder’).

I will definitely include on future reading lists one or all of Thesiger’s own major books – Arabian Sands, The Marsh Arabs, or the Life of My Choice. He was extremely influential during the days of his active exploration and in his elder years leading up to his death in August of 2003 at the age of 93. His striving to know humanity reflected in many ways a 19th century explorer mentality yet some of his reflections about the impact of technology on various aspects of our lives today are very contemporary. He also advocated an understanding of the Arab world and sympathized with the plight of colonialism’s impact on their lifestyles and the eventual political strife that plagues the region even today. He was evidently like many British explorers in the early 20th century who sympathized with Arabs on Palestine, once writing, “with the virtual connivance of Britain and America, they were to be driven from their homeland or subjected to the intolerable rule of the Israelis, who claimed the right to a country from which they had been expelled two thousand years earlier. Seldom can a greater wrong have been inflicted on an innocent people with such general approbation, and the seeds of such catastrophic and widespread hatred been sown with so much complacency.” (p. 251)

Friday, June 22, 2012

Brokaw - The Time of Our Lives

I watched Tom Brokaw, long-time and respected news commentator, being interviewed by John Stewart a couple of months ago about his new book, The Time of Our Lives (2011). The interview was interesting enough that I chose to pick up the book on my last return trip from the U.S.A. to Qatar. It is a modest book, yet it still has some merit as a reflection of an elder statesman on what he sees as the promise of recapturing the “American Dream.” While clearly focused on America, some of the issues may be relevant in other national contexts where citizens are striving to achieve a higher quality and standard of living.

Brokaw covers everything from world politics (particularly the Arab Spring) to the breakdown of education in the U.S.A. to the exploitation of capitalism that startled us into reflecting on what we are doing. In essence, he suggests that America has lost its way from an earlier day of citizens striving to do their best while serving the greater good of a complex and multicultural society. The shared vision and patriotism that served America so well in the early 20th century has, in Brokaw’s estimation, eroded into a situation where, and quoting the champion of civic leadership John Gardner, “leaders in all segments of our society today… are rewarded for a single-minded pursuit of the interests of their group. They are rewarded for doing battle, not compromising” for the good of all (p. 24).

In addressing faltering educational achievement in the U.S.A., Brokaw noted that not only is there a disparity in earnings between college and high school-educated adults but that there is also a chasm of optimism – those with more education earn more and have greater confidence that they can achieve their dreams while those without education and consequential lower earnings potential exhibit despair over their status in life. The facts are that higher educated individuals (a minimum of a college degree) have half the divorce rate, half the obesity incidence, half the smoking rate, and they vote twice as often as others with lower education (p. 85). But it isn’t just that those with college educations do better, it is the type of education they receive that matters most. In comparing the style of college education in the U.S.A. to the rising interest in education in China, Brokaw quotes a study by Simon and Cao that concluded, “Chinese universities have become technique focused… Rote learning, in which students who can answer questions in classrooms may not be able to solve and manage real life problems” (p. 70). Engagement with real problems and taking responsibility for one’s learning is a distinctive quality of American education that perhaps China doesn’t even know it is missing.

Brokaw’s proposal for recapturing the American Dream is to invest more in education, reverse the rising debt young people take on to acquire their degrees, and then create ways for citizens to reinvest themselves in the welfare of others. He provides several examples of young wealthy Americans who have given portions of their wealth away in order to start not-for-profit organizations to serve others. He recommends that an expanded service core be created that requires all young people to sacrifice in service to their country, rather than only asking the poor among young adults to risk their lives in military service. Finally, he proposes that American business take a careful look at its purposes – is it only creating balance sheets that result in quick and ephemeral gain or should the role of business be to create sustainable performance dedicated to a wider purpose?

Brokaw spends the concluding pages of the book reflecting with nostalgia on the relationship he had with his parents and what he seeks to instill in the hearts of his grandchildren. He proposes that perhaps one of the most promising opportunities for the “Great Generation” and “Boomers” is to engage with their children and grandchildren, to encourage a return to the values that they’ve seen make a difference in America, and to return themselves to more modest and service-based living.