Thesiger continues to leave his mark in the Arabian sands

Alasdair Soussi pays tribute to one westerner who knew the Middle East better than some Arabs.

The great English explorer, Sir Wilfred Thesiger, wasn’t taken with modern Arabia and the incredible changes that had transformed an area of vast desert into an economic powerhouse.

Having explored the sun-beaten lands in and around the so-called Empty Quarter from 1945-50, Thesiger was alarmed to see how the wide-open spaces of this once arid wasteland had been filled by skyscrapers and four-wheel-drives on his return visits to the Gulf before his death in 2003.

Yet, this unique man – whose key books on the Middle East – Arabian Sands (1959) and The Marsh Arabs (1964) – celebrate their 55th and 50th anniversaries respectively this year, was a giant of our times.

Today, it is incumbent on us all to recall and extol him as a pioneer par excellence, a man who taught much of the world about an age that now seems ancient history in our modern Middle East.

Thesiger, who was born in Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia) in 1910, wasn’t the first westerner to encounter this now “vanished past” that gave birth to Arabian Sands – but, in documenting it in the manner that he did, he gave us a crucial insight into a world that we would be foolish to think irrelevant.

In his 1959 work, Thesiger recounts how he pushed himself to the limit of human endurance – crossing and then recrossing the Empty Quarter over a five-year period.

Looking around the UAE today, it is sometimes difficult to picture the world that Thesiger so masterfully portrayed in his literary classic.

Yet, Thesiger’s wish to test his physical and mental strength to breaking point during his journey across what are now the modern-day territories of Yemen, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Oman is one of the many reasons why, compared to its contemporaries, Arabian Sands remains a literary icon among many of today’s explorers and travellers. Another is his writing style, which, clear and precise, successfully conveys a continuous and intriguing narrative within the book’s pages.

Indeed, Thesiger succinctly relays the daily struggles of desert life, which came in the form of a relentless sun, under which “I felt empty, sick and dizzy… my heart thumped wildly and my thirst grew worse” and the bitter cold, in which “my eyes watered… [and] the jagged salt-crusts cut and stung my feet”.

Through Arabian Sands, Thesiger brought to life a piece of Arab history that may have now all but disappeared, but which was lived up until just a few generations ago. But, it is not solely his writing, which has forever put the ways of the Bedouin in the public domain, but his photographs too – which are now easily accessible to all with an internet connection, thanks to Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum.

Yet, as Arabian Sands stands out in Thesiger’s anthology, so, too, does The Marsh Arabs – his 1964 account of his living among the Marsh Arabs of Iraq for many months between 1951 and 1958.

In the marshes, he paddled from village to village, hunting wild boar and attending weddings and funerals.

He also took on the guise of medicine man, treating illness and injury; the latter including some procedures that would cause even the hardiest of travellers to wince.

And, just as he caught his travels in Arabia on film, so he did roving among the marshes of Iraq, which were drained by Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, but which have since been partly re-flooded in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion of the country.

While Thesiger was somewhat perturbed by the bright lights of Arabia – and the discovery of oil that had compelled the region to embrace the trappings of modernity – there is little doubt that he would be both appalled and distressed at what has now befallen Iraq.

And, it is especially because of what has transpired there and what has become of Syria, too, that we should not forget the impact that Thesiger made in telling the world about another Middle East, a mysterious and beautiful Middle East, that, for a great many of us, only became apparent because he dared to be different.

Alasdair Soussi is a freelance journalist, covering the Middle East and Scottish politics

On Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi