5 min read

Highlights from Arabian Sands (Wilfred Thesiger)

I didn't finish this book, not for lack of interest, but due to other events in my life intervening. Eventually I hope to get back to it, but I'm not sure when that will be. In the mean time here are some of my highlights from the book. The author was a type of person who no longer exists, a European explorer. This book describes his travels in Arabia and living among the Bedu.

This first quote is from the introduction by Rory Stewart

When I first met him, however, he was wearing a three-piece tweed suit and lecturing to students in an old-fashioned, upper-class growl. Many in the audience who had apparently come expecting to meet a deeply sensitive mystic, a second Lawrence of Arabia, were shocked by his apparent pomposity. One whispered to me disapprovingly that he ‘was a product of his age and class’, as though an English gentleman born in 1910 was predestined to be an aristocratic fop or a colonial nabob. In fact, of course, the modernist revolutions in art, science and politics were underway before his birth. Picasso, Proust, Einstein, James Joyce and Mao were all old enough to be his father. While Thesiger was lion-hunting in the Sudan, his fellow Etonian George Orwell was fighting in the Spanish Civil War. When Thesiger was living with the Marsh Arabs, another fellow Etonian, Aldous Huxley, was experimenting with gurus and LSD in California.

The Arabia he encountered doesn't exist anymore

I went to Southern Arabia only just in time. Others will go there to study geology and archeology, the birds and plants and animals, even to study the Arabs themselves, but they will move about in cars and will keep in touch with the outside world by wireless. They will bring back results far more interesting than mine, but they will never know the spirit of the land nor the greatness of the Arabs. If anyone goes there now looking for the life I led they will not find it, for technicians have been there since, prospecting for oil. Today the desert where I travelled is scarred with the tracks of lorries and littered with discarded junk imported from Europe and America. But this material desecration is unimportant compared with the demoralization which has resulted among the Bedu themselves. While I was with them they had no thought of a world other than their own. They were not ignorant savages; on the contrary, they were the lineal heirs of a very ancient civilization, who found within the framework of their society the personal freedom and self-discipline for which they craved. Now they are being driven out of the desert into towns where the qualities which once gave them mastery are no longer sufficient. Forces as uncontrollable as the droughts which so often killed them in the past have destroyed the economy of their lives. Now it is not death but degradation which faces them.

This is an incredible interaction

Just as I was ready to start, Sir Sydney Barton, the British Minister, said that he was unhappy about my traveling by myself in this completely unadministered and dangerous area, and suggested that, instead, I should join a shooting trip which he was arranging. I was grateful to him for the offer, but I knew that acceptance meant turning my back forever on the realization of my boyhood dreams, and that then I should have failed even before I had started. I tried fumblingly to explain what was at stake; how I must go down there alone and get the experience which I required. He understood at once and wished me well, and added as I left the room, ‘Take care of yourself. It would be awkward if you got yourself cut up by the Danakil immediately after the coronation. It would rather spoil the effect of it all.’

The Danakil

The Danakil are a nomadic people akin to the Somalis. They own camels, sheep, goats, and cattle, and the richer tribes have some horses which they keep for raiding. They are nominally Muslims. Among them a man’s standing depended to a very large extent on his reputation as a warrior, which was judged by the number of men he had killed and mutilated. There was no need to kill another man in a fair fight; all that was required to establish a reputation was to collect the necessary number of severed genitals. Each kill entitled the warrior to wear some distinctive ornament, an ostrich feather or comb in his hair, an earring, bracelet, or coloured loin-cloth. It was possible to tell at a glance how many men anyone had killed. These people buried their dead in tumuli, and erected memorials, resembling small stone pens, to the most famous, placing a line of upright stones in front of each memorial, one stone to commemorate each victim. The country was full of these sinister memorials, some of them with as many as twenty stones. I found it disconcerting to be stared at by a Danakil, feeling that he was probably assessing my values as a trophy, rather as I should study a herd of oryx in order to pick out the animal with the longest horns.

I'm sure anyone who has accomplished a major goal has experienced similar aimlessness and ennui

For three years I had been planning this journey, and now it was over and the future seemed empty. I dreaded a return to civilization, where life promised to be very dreary after the excitements of the last eight months. At Jibuti I played with the idea of buying de Monfried’s dhow. I had read his Adventures de Mer and Secrets de la Mer Rouge and had talked to the Danakil who had sailed with him. I was fascinated by his accounts of a free and lawless life.

Giving up his career

On my way through Khartoum on leave I persuaded the Civil Secretary to let me resign from the permanent Political Service and rejoin as a contract D.C. on the understanding that I should not be asked to serve except in the wilds. This meant that I should no longer be eligible for a pension, but I doubted that I really wished to spend the rest of my active life in the Sudan. I had been happy in Darfur. I had found satisfaction in the stimulating harshness of this empty land, pleasure in the nomadic life which I had led. I had loved the hunting. It had been exciting to stalk barbary sheep among the craters of Maidob, or kudu in the Tagabo hills, or addaxx or oryx on the edge of the Libyan desert. It had been wildly exciting to charge with a mob of mounted tribesmen through thick bush after a gallloping lion, to ride close behind it when it tired, while the Arabs waved their spears and shouted defiance, to circle round the patch of jungle in which it had come to bay, trying to make out its shape among the shadows, while the air quivered with its growls. I had grown fond of the people among whom I lived. I valued the qualities which they possessed and was jealous for the preservation of their way of life. But I knew that I was not really suited to be a D.C. as I had no faith in the changes which we were bringing about. I craved for the past, resented the present, and dreaded the future.

Hunting lions

There were buffalo and white rhinocerous, hippopotamus, giraffe, and many kinds of antelope, and there were leopards, and a great number of lions. I shot seventy lions during the five years I was in Sudan.

Sebastian Junger talks about this sort of freedom in his book

In the desert I had found a freedom unattainable in civilization; a life unhampered by possessions, since everything that was not a necessity was an encumbrance. I had found too, a comradeship inherent in the circumstances, and the belief that tranquility was to be found there. I had learnt the satisfaction which comes from hardship and the pleasure which springs from abstinence: the contentment of a full belly; the richness of meat; the taste of clean water; the ecstasy of surrender when the craving for sleep becomes a torment; the warmth of a fire in the chill of dawn.