Wilfred Thesiger's tales from Iraq among the classics

The explorer died 15 years ago this month. His books on crossing the Empty Quarter and living by the customs of marsh-dwellers remain masterpieces

DNH0P0 J&K collection. Image shot 1947. Exact date unknown. jan & katie robinson / Alamy Stock Photo
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In March 1956, Scottish author Gavin Maxwell, friend of the great English explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger, traversed a section of wet terrain in the marshlands of southern Iraq as he prepared to fire on some ducks.

Suddenly, Maxwell was charged by a boar, and Thesiger, watching far off in a canoe, feared the worst.

“The pig got to within about four yards of him and then sheered off,” wrote Thesiger in a letter to his mother, Kathleen. “There was a small wet ditch between them and I think this turned it.”

In the aftermath of the incident, which is recounted by Alexander Maitland in his biography, Wilfred Thesiger – The Life of the Great Explorer, the British adventurer looked to calm Maxwell's anxieties, by jesting: "Do you know I couldn't help wishing in a way that he'd got you? Nothing personal, I mean, but I've never seen that happen before, and I wanted to see what he'd do to you."

MEADOW HILL - FEBRUARY 07: Sir Wilfred Thesiger Explorer and Travel Writer poses during a photoshoot in Meadow Hill Surrey on the 7th of February 2003.(Photo by Cambridge Jones/Getty Images)
Sir Wilfred Thesiger in 2003 Getty Images

Known in these parts for his great Arabian explorations, Thesiger, who died 15 years ago this month, had written of his wish to live a life of “savagery and colour”, explaining, no doubt, his dry humour at Maxwell’s expense. Indeed, by 1956, Thesiger was a man who had already lived a thousand lives. Not only had he fought bravely behind enemy lines in North Africa in the elite British commando unit of the SAS during the Second World War, but he had also been charged by a lion while hunting in the Sudan between 1935 and 1939, one of which had knocked him to the ground. 

KJDW64 Thesiger 1934. Historic Collection / Alamy Stock Photo
Wilfred Thesiger 1934. Alamy Stock Photo

Just three years before Maxwell’s near-death experience with a Mesopotamian wild pig, the Eton and Oxford University-educated Thesiger had himself been attacked by a boar, which he shot through the heart at close range as it charged him. Such were the encounters that faced this physically hard-as-nails explorer during his time with the Marsh Arabs in southern Iraq where he spent six to seven months every year from 1951 to 1958.

Marsh Arab Village 1974 The Marshes, near Nasiriya, Iraq. Getty Images
A Marsh Arab village near Nasiriyah, Iraq, photographed in 1974 Getty Images

In the decade before, Thesiger had explored the sun-beaten lands in and around the Empty Quarter of Arabia from 1945-1950 from which his 1959 literary masterpiece, Arabian Sands, came into being. But in 1957, when he decamped to Denmark to work on Arabian Sands, which documented his gruelling crossing and re-crossing of the Empty Quarter, taking in today's UAE, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Oman, Thesiger immersed himself in the ways of the Marsh Arabs – a people he grew both to admire and eventually fear for.

"Thesiger's achievement with the Marsh Arabs, as elsewhere, especially in the Arabian Peninsula, was to have made written observations of little-known groups of peoples who were still living according to ancient ways of life," said writer Jon Lee Anderson. The American author penned the introduction to Thesiger's 2007 edition of The Marsh Arabs, which was originally published in 1964 and was based on the explorer's years living among the Shiite marsh-dwellers.

For Thesiger, the chance to spend time with other Arab peoples, after his years with the Bedouin of Arabia, proved too great an opportunity to resist. And after his first visit to the Iraqi marshes with a young British vice-consul in October 1950, Thesiger, a fluent Arabic speaker, knew he had found his next paradise.

Maitland is Thesiger’s authorised biographer and was his close friend for decades until the trailblazer’s death in August 2003. He said the wild fowl, the geese and the wild boar roaming among the reed beds offered a colour and majesty that spoke directly to Thesiger’s unquenchable thirst for a life less ordinary.

“But it was also the Marsh Arabs themselves,” Maitland asserted. “They were very independent and they were living a traditional life that had been established 6,000 years before, and it hadn’t changed an awful lot. They were surviving just as they had – with their buffalo, which they took to the reefs to feed, and lived on rice and fish.”

Thesiger, born in Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia) in 1910, was only too aware of the historical relevance of the marshlands – offered up by many historians as the original Garden of Eden and lying in the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

These marsh dwellers, descendants of the ancient Sumerians, lived among bamboo-like reeds teeming with wildlife that included boar, geese, duck, wolf, otter and carp. Their shady reputation among non-marsh inhabitants – they were treated as social outcasts by the Arabs and by the British during their colonial days in Iraq – only added to their allure for Thesiger.

“The important thing, from his point of view – and he used to say this himself and repeat it endlessly in conversations – was that the marshlands had the stillness and quiet of a place that had never heard an engine,” Maitland said.

Thesiger's impressive frame – standing more than 1.8 metres tall, broad-shouldered and with large hands – and life before as Oxford University's boxing champion, SAS commando and Arabian explorer par excellence, prepared him well for his arduous years among the marshes. Here, he hunted the razor-tusked wild boar, which proved a continual menace to the people of the marshlands, and his skill with a rifle earned him high praise among the locals. He also became skilled at circumcision, performing more than 6,000 such procedures with little fuss, and was paddled by boys on canoes almost daily along the meandering waterways that were the life-blood of the Marsh Arabs' existence. Tor Eigeland is a Norwegian photo-journalist. He spent October and November 1967 with the Marsh Arabs on a work assignment. He said his weeks there were a privilege and were like "entering a world that was different to anything I had ever known".

"I visited some villages where the people talked about Thesiger," recalled the 87-year-old, who produced When all the Lands were Sea – a photographic collection of the Marsh Arabs of Iraq from 1967. "And when they talked about him they were always smiling ... I got the impression that he was very generous with certain people, which enabled him to enter into their society."

The Marsh Arabs was published in between Gavin Maxwell's literary work on the Mesopotamian marsh dwellers, A Reed Shaken by the Wind (1957), and the 1977-published Return to the Marshes, written by another of Thesiger's close friends, Gavin Young.

The Marsh Arabs by Wilfred Thesiger. Courtesy Penguin UK
The Marsh Arabs by Wilfred Thesiger. Courtesy Penguin UK

Maitland extols all three works – but, as testimony to a vanished world, and for its "depth, clarity and poetry", considers Thesiger's offering the most accomplished. "Thesiger was not a graceful writer, and The Marsh Arabs is not a work of literature throughout, but it has passages that are – and along with Arabian Sands, I do think it merits inclusion among the classic works of travel and exploration," Anderson said. "Within a few years, most 'travel literature' would be more entertainment than anything else – and indeed, such writing had already begun – but Thesiger's crustier sojourns are written with an explorer's eye, not a traveller's, so to speak."

Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger. Courtesy Penguin UK
Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger. Courtesy Penguin UK

Thesiger feared for the future of the Marsh Arabs as Iraq, and the rest of the Middle East, embraced change. It was not just modernity, but violence and upheaval that finally did away with the ancient ways of Iraq’s marsh people. In 1992, the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, no friend to the Shiite inhabitants of the marshes, ordered the area drained, and as the marshlands were effectively erased, so too were the ancient peoples, who were either killed or forced to flee to Iraq’s urban centres. 

To date, some of the marshland, which was named a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 2016, has been reclaimed. But Thesiger would no longer recognise today’s marshes that, during the 1950s, had a population of about 400,000 people and had so arrested his senses.

Yet, Anderson said, Thesiger's book continues to inspire and inform. "In the early 2000s, following the US-led invasion of Iraq, The Marsh Arabs remained de rigueur reading for journalists or any other outsiders seeking an understanding of southern Iraq, of the marshes, and of Iraq's recent past," he said.

And what of Thesiger himself? As he lay dying in an English hospital, miles from the marshlands of Iraq, the deserts of Arabia and the dusty bushlands of Kenya, where he spent much of his later days, his passions remained undimmed, urgently asking someone at his bedside: “What is your tribe?”

As death struggled to extinguish a flame that had burnt so brightly for 93 years, Thesiger met his end as uniquely as he had lived.


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