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)