Wilfred Thesiger (1910 – 2003) was a British military officer who, after leaving the service, sought to explore the Rub’ al Khali, the so-called “Empty Quarter” of desert in the Arabian Peninsula in the late 1940s. While technically not the first European to do so, he took pride in that he was the first to take the more difficult route than those Bertram Thomas and John Philby took a decade earlier. Thesiger wrote about his journey in his now-classic travel book Arabian Sands, originally published in 1959 and brought Thesiger renown as an explorer and writer.
Nominally employed by the British Middle East Anti-Locust Unit to collect data on locusts and their movements, Thesiger set out into “the sands” with his Bedu companions. But he was less interested in the job than the means to place him where he wanted to be; not trapped in a London office living a life “unhampered by possessions,” but in the extreme and inhospitable desert among people he respected. Take, for example, his disliking of the relatively posh quality of Khartoum with its “trim villas,” “tarmac roads,” and “public conveniences.” Rather, he sought freedom, exploration, and adventure in the Empty Quarter with the people he most closely identified: the Bedu.
The drive for Thesiger to venture through the Sands is one that harkens back to the colonial-era preoccupation of being the first to visit X, climb the summit of Y, or fill in the map of Z. He wanted “to go where others had not been.” By mid-century, few peaks were left unconquered; what remained was the desert. He even refers to the Empty Quarter as a kind of unexplored mountain peak and likens his own mission to those of the explores to the South Pole and Everest. “Everyone knew that there was nothing to be found on the top of Everest,” Thesiger said. “But even in this materialistic age few people asked, ‘What point is there in climbing Everest? What good will it do anyone when they get there?’ They recognized that even today there are experiences that do not need to be justified in terms of material profit.”
In terms of story and plot, well… I’m not sure there is one. During his final quest through the desert and on his way to Dubai, Thesiger wrote, “In the desert there had been little to plot except our course.” Fitting, as the book often reads like a plotless travelogue. But to say there is no plot might undermine the beautiful writing and the appeal of the book. One might be most comfortable characterizing the book as a well-written travelogue with rich descriptions of his companions and the landscapes through which he passes.
One must remember that when we remove the Arab garb Thesiger says he wears throughout his journey, we uncover the naked truth that he was born into a privileged family, one with strong colonial roots. Wilfred Thesiger’s father was an official in Addis Ababa when he was born and his uncle became Viceroy of India. He went to school at Eton and joined the military. To be sure, there are colonial undertones and an unspoken power dynamic throughout the book.
Take, for example, his observations of Bedu life. While they may make his book interesting for the historian and anthropologist, they are not without some problems. Thesiger litters Arabian Sands with descriptions of various Bedu “races,” their superstitions, their temperament, their customs and rituals, their general appearance and morphology, “their dark gipsy eyes.” Thesiger also offers confusing generalizations and idealizations of the Bedu that haven’t aged well and are, frankly, contradictory: the Bedu are as impatient, improvident, and greedy as they are patient, intelligent, and generous. What’s thankfully missing in Arabian Sands are the calipers to record detailed, taxonomical measurements of the people he encounters.
And, of course, there is the fact that Thesiger often skirted regional laws and customs to slip into and across the desert because he would have been denied had he sought formal permission. But we somehow feel less uneasy about his journey than we do about those of Richard Burton, who infiltrated the forbidden city of Mecca pretending to be a Muslim pilgrim.
Thesiger is, after all, a privileged white man of a certain generation, but he is one that we don’t love to hate in this book. Amid his generalizations and descriptions are moments of self-reflection. His open portrayal of his own frustrations and misunderstandings, and his coming to terms with them, are unexpected, especially coming from a man born into an imperial legacy. And there is something to be said about the fact that he didn’t parachute into the desert, write up a story about the Arab “races,” and leave. He didn’t (it seems) seek to harm, exploit, or intend to mischaracterize the Bedu either. He learned their language, cared for them, and tried to understand their world. We then get to know more about Thesiger in Arabian Sands than we do from his autobiography The Life of My Choice, says Tim Hannigan in a recent conversation about his book.
So, while there are some problems with the book and the approach, we also get the sense that Thesiger is an honest man. Keeping him honest (or contributing to his documentation of the Bedu “races,” depending on how you see it) was his camera, which he took with him into the desert. Archives now keep his photographs, but many are freely visible online (including photos of his companions like bin Kabina). He published some of his photographs in his books, including his wonderful photography book A Vanished World.
Written during a time of growing international interest in Middle Eastern oil, Arabian Sands is as much an interesting glimpse into a bygone era from the perspective of a privileged individual as it is an interesting reflection of a privileged individual who lived through it.