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Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger
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Jan 31, 11

really liked it

Wilfred Thesiger, the author of Arabian Sands, is without question the Real Deal. After being trained as a British secret agent and fighting behind enemy lines in the SAS during World War II, he set out to explore the Empty Quarter of the Arabian peninsula, the largest sand desert in the world. Travelling by foot and on camels with nomadic Bedouin tribes, he crossed and recrossed about 250,000 miles of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet. He was a man of deeds, not words; it took months of cajoling on the part of his friends to persuade him to write this book in which he recounts some of his adventures.

Seen from a distance, Thesiger seems like a caricature of the old-fashioned stiff-upper-lip British adventurer. His own hardships are noted with almost clinical disinterest. For example, almost as an afterthought, he mentions that in order to fit in with his native travelling companions he decided to walk across the desert barefoot and that this was "uncomfortable." Similarly, describing an episode in which he travelled 2,000 miles across the desolate dunes on starvation rations, drinking a few mouthfuls of water once a day and pursued by raiding parties intent on killing him, he restrains himself to noting that "it was hot."

Despite this terseness, Thesiger’s clear, concise prose is enormously readable and all the more evocative for its lack of ornamentation, much like the stark landscape he depicts. Through his eyes, we glimpse a world of almost unimaginable hardship and startling beauty. After travelling for miles through the desert with his companions, he writes:

…we saw a small boy, dressed in the remnants of a loin-cloth…. He led us back to the [camp] where three men sat round the embers of a fire…. They had no tent; their only possessions were saddles, ropes, bowls, empty goatskins, and their rifles and daggers…. These men would sleep naked on the freezing sand, covered only with their flimsy loin-cloths… After milking [their camels] our hosts brought us milk. We blew the froth aside and drank deep; they urged us to drink more, saying “You will find no milk in the sands ahead of you. Drink – drink. You are our guests. God has brought you here – drink.” I drank again, knowing even as I did so that they would go hungry and thirsty that night, for they had nothing else, no other food and no water.

Along with his bravery, reserve and occasional dry humor, Thesiger fits the mold of the classic T.E.-Lawrence-style British adventurer in another respect as well: his absolute admiration for the traditional Bedouin way of life, and a commensurate distain for all things "modern." Toward the end of this book, he writes: "I realized that the Bedu with whom I had lived and travelled, and in whose company I had found contentment, were doomed. Some people maintain that they will be better off when they have exchanged the hardship and poverty of the desert for the security of a materialistic world. This I do not believe."

Thesiger is a worshipper at the altar of Character, and for him Character is expressed through heroic endurance of hardship. In this sense, he is fundamentally a pessimist; change and progress are for the worse. In these sentiments, it is hard not to detect a whiff of "noble savage" ideology and its accompanying veiled racism. Certainly he is not hesitant to describe men as belonging to a “finer breed” (or an inferior one). It is an unforgiving view of the world, and one that lacks nuance. Given these things, there is perhaps a kind of poetic justice in the fact that, sixty years later, Thesiger himself seems quaint and old-fashioned, a fantastic remnant of a time when the world seemed at once larger and less complex.
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