Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger

The recent death of the author inspired me to read Thesiger's Arabian Sands, a book which has long been on my reading list. I am happy to note that it completely lives up to its reputation as a masterpiece of travel/adventure literature. Thesiger traveled the Arabian Empty Quarter by camel in the late 1940's, and was among the first Europeans to get an in-depth view of this remote and inhospitable area. The journeys were difficult, with thirst, near starvation, and risk of attack from rival tribes as constant themes, but Thesiger's enthusiasm carries him through, and it rings true when he writes that he would rather die of thirst in the sands than live a pampered and uneventful existence in England. His resentment of the modern world is a constant theme in this book. He prophetically deplores the advance of the oil companies into the Arabian peninsula, knowing that it will mean the certain end of a way of life that has endured for centuries. The Bedu (aka Bedouin) with whom he traveled are shown in the starkness and material simplicity of their lives, but also as a people wholly integrated into the landscapes in which they live. They may not be lovable, but they are certainly admirable in the way that they have physically and culturally adapted to a most inhospitable region. Thesiger himself is not particularly lovable either: he is prone to annoyance and misanthropy (except for, how should I say, the certain interest with which he describes some of the younger Bedu men). Published in 1959, this memoir is an enduring testament to a lost way of life and to the man who sought to preserve it, at least in words.

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