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Arabian Sands

4.17  ·  Rating details ·  4,760 ratings  ·  289 reviews
"Arabian Sands" is Wilfred Thesiger's record of his extraordinary journey through the parched "Empty Quarter" of Arabia. Educated at Eton and Oxford, Thesiger was repulsed by the softness and rigidity of Western life-"the machines, the calling cards, the meticulously aligned streets." In the spirit of T. E. Lawrence, he set out to explore the deserts of Arabia, traveling a ...more
Paperback, 347 pages
Published March 5th 1984 by Penguin (first published 1959)
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Average rating 4.17  · 
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 ·  4,760 ratings  ·  289 reviews


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Jan-Maat
It was at school that we were given an excerpt of Arabian Sands to read, a passage detailing the peoples who had lurked on the fringes of Arabia Felix without actually controlling it, coming across the book at the town library I borrowed it and read on.

Wilfred Thesiger travelled backwards and forwards across the Empty Quarter of southern Arabia in the late 1940s and early 50s. With the subsequent discovery and extraction of oil this is now a record of a vanished world.

Coming from a privileged Br
...more
Maru Kun
“…There was a very lovely girl working with the others on the well. Her hair was braided, except where it was cut in a fringe across her forehead, and fell in a curtain of small plaits round her neck. She wore various silver ornaments and several necklaces, some of large cornelians, others of small white beads. Round her waist she had half a dozen silver chains, and above them her sleeveless blue tunic gaped open to show small firm breasts. She was very fair. When she saw I was trying to take
...more
Lynne King
Dec 30, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: arabia
I like to browse through my books on a Sunday morning for some strange reason and came across this book that I read when I was working in Saudi Arabia and, as I had also met the bedouin and taken tea with them, I was interested to hear about Thesiger's travels in that country.

It's such an interesting study of the Saudi culture by a travel writer, and also an explorer, such as Thesiger, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the Middle East.

It's also good to see that this book is stil
...more
Daren
Before I start, I have to declare I was pretty apprehensive about this book, and it sat on my shelves for a long time. I am a big Thesiger fan, and his books are excellent, and I find myself limiting my reading of them to one a year. I was concerned I wouldn't like this one, for a couple of reasons - I read a Penguin Great Journeys excerpt book with parts carved from Arabian Sands (Across the Empty Quarter) and didn't like it much - I found it an awkward selection of excerpts without much explan ...more
Algernon (Darth Anyan)
Jun 27, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2014

Wilfred Thesiger was born a few centuries too late, given his enterprising spirit and his thirst for the pristine lands, untouched by human development. His is the temperament and the dogged determination that had led men to reject the comfort of home and the perks of civilized society and prefer to sweat and toil in the harshest climates for no other reason that the maps showed a blank space in that region. Empires were built by men like Thesiger, driven by the need to claim to be the first to
...more
Terri
When I first came across this book in the library I was unsuspecting of the journey it would take me on, but I find, now that I have been on that journey, I am all the richer for it.
Wilfred Thesiger was wonderful company as I rolled along on a camel beside him, not literally of course, taking in the sights of a desert that has long since been tarnished by the west.
If you want to learn about the Bedu, and more indirectly the Arabs, then there is no greater book for that than Arabian Sands.
You wi
...more
Joe
Dec 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
The Arabist Tradition of Wildred Thesiger

“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.”

"The tragedy was the choice would not be theirs. Economic forces beyond their control would eventually drive them into the towns to hang about street corners as unskilled street labour.

"I realised that the Bedu [...] were doomed. Some people maintain that they will be better off when they have
...more
Daniel Clausen
Nov 01, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Thesiger’s book is about a time, right after many people thought most of the great adventures had already been had and right before the frontiers of the desert sands were truly closed off. The book was one man’s love affair with the hardship of desert sand and the people who had called it their home -- the Bedu.

I came to this book at a strange time. At a time when one journey was ending and another beginning. Strangely, I didn’t know what to make of the journey that had just ended. I doubted si
...more
Bob Newman
Jan 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: travel, arab-world
The Last of the Barefoot Explorers

When I was a kid I dreamt of being an explorer. Never mind that I had never been out of New England and had no possibility of doing so. Discovering new lands and peoples seemed such a great job. What I couldn't figure out was how you got BE an explorer ? What, did you take a course someplace ? Once, in talking of other things, my father happened to remark that there must have been parts of the Maine woods where nobody had ever set foot (I don't think he was cons
...more
Kavita
I love travelogues, but this one took a while for me to get into. Obviously, I am not that interested in the arid sandy deserts or in the lives of the people who live there. But Thesiger draws me into his story gradually. His respect for the people who guided him around the Sands at the height of colonialism, his acceptance of cultural differences, and his ability in adapting comfortably, all endeared him to me, despite his crotchety attitude at times.

Wilfred Thesiger was given an assignment to
...more
Chrissie
This book was very difficult to read as an audiobook. I advise against choosing the audiobook format. I have no complaints with the narration by Laurence Kennedy; he speaks clearly and at a perfect speed. The printed book contains maps, but they are NOT included in the PDF file that accompanied the audiobook. The PDF contains one short introductory paragraph followed by a list of the book's chapter titles and the first few words of each audiobook chapter. The PDF file has little value.

I had hug
...more
Trish
Jan 01, 2010 rated it it was amazing
In Arabian Sands Thesiger documents a time, a place, and a people on the cusp of change. Largely responsible for mapping the 250,000 square miles of the largest sand desert in the world, The Empty Quarter, in the area of modern Yemen, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Oman, Thesiger realized that his work hastened the demise of the way of life he loved.
"Regretfully, however, I realize that the maps I made helped others, with more material aims, to visit and corrupt a people whose spirit once lit the d
...more
Marvin Goodman
Nov 03, 2010 rated it it was ok
Hmmm, well, I guess I can't honestly recommend this. Undoubtedly the journeys were fascinating and worthy of a certain amount of awe, but I didn't enjoy the writing. For starters, Thesiger devoted little energy to visually describing things. There was the occasional remark about the color of the dunes, and a some attempts at describing camels, the all-important ships of the desert. But when I read a book about a trip I'll probably never take, I want to feel like I'm there, and Thesiger either di ...more
Matthew
Jan 31, 2011 rated it 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 ...more
ALLEN
Feb 21, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Even T.E. Lawrence never had it so rough. In the Fifties intrepid Wilfrid Thesiger and a small band set out to cross Arabia's "Empty Quarter," mostly for mapping purposes (his work is still referred to). The prose is lean and tough, but without brag: reminds me of the late Paul Fussell's term "British phlegm" to describe the attitude.

All in all ARABIAN SANDS is a wonderful travel book, especially when sitting comfortably at home with lemonade, iced tea or shandy. A fine companion volume, also b
...more
Shira Baharin
Jan 17, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Thesiger effectively captures the reader's imagination with his evocative descriptions of the desert, and his admiration and respect of the Bedu's way of life comes across. I got the sense that they were basically babysitting him, but he seemed self-aware of this and was evidently keen to immerse himself as much as possible in their way of life while he was travelling with them. I enjoyed this more than I thought I would, it's really well written. ...more
Richard S
Dec 08, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: travel-writing
Reading Arabian Sands was an incredible experience for me, not only because as a standalone work it's the best piece of travel writing I've come across, but also its insight into a people, the Arabs, and religion, Islam, that I had been searching for. It has my strongest recommendation.

I've always loved travel writing, it began with Colin Thubron's "Beyond the Wall" about China, he was a fabulous writer, and he put into words what I had felt during a visit in 1988. However, Thesiger travels at a
...more
Paul
Sep 02, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
After the Second World War, Thesiger spent five years criss-crossing the deserts of Arabia in particular the 'Empty Quarter'. He had an unconventional life; born in Addis Ababa in Abyssinia, he spent the war in the region ending up in the SAS, before falling in love with the place and deciding to spend more time exploring it. He travelled with the Bedouin people, or as he calls them Bedu, experiencing their daily challenges of extreme heat, ice cold nights, long treks with camels under the relen ...more
Bill Hammack
Jan 21, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Nearly every listing of the best best travel books mentions this book. And it is no surprise: There is nothing quite like it. Most travel book contains vivid descriptions of the landscape. While Thesiger's occasionally describes the deserts physical details, the book is really a study of its the psychological landscape it creates. "I realized that for me the fascination of this journey lay not in seeing the seeing the country but in seeing it under these conditions." Over the course of three or ...more
Fraser
Apr 27, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Superb read. Was initially unsure of Rory Stewart's intro but after reading to the end I understood his views on Thesiger as a writer much more clearly. This is travel for travel's sake and very much akin to a purist view which almost overshadows the sheer achievement and incredible adversity, the latter Thesiger takes in his stride. A wonderful opening into an Arabia already changing and changed by the west and the advent of oil.

A book for those truly interested in the deserts, but expect Thesi
...more
Radiah
Feb 06, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
There are several things I look for in a travel book experience: adventure, a smooth narrative, excitement and for the writer to get down to observing and understanding the people and place he/she is in without the eyes of a westerner. Strangely enough, I found it in Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands. Much has been said about Thesiger the man, the explorer, the throwback to the Victorian era, and before I opened the book, I cast everything I had heard about the man aside and read it with an open ...more
Lisa
Jan 11, 2013 rated it really liked it
It is easy to dismiss a book that presents a world no longer in existence, the Middle East of the late 1940s. The sands were governed by the ways of Bedouins and tribes and sheiks and sultans and the various alliances and enmities that existed. But this region that is mostly Oman today has only existed as it is now for so short a period of time that the reality portrayed by Wilfred Thesiger, a British civil servant who used his day job to allow him to explore areas of the world mostly unknown to ...more
Mukikamu
Dec 09, 2008 rated it it was amazing
If you care to read about the wisdom and meekness of the Desert and its Bedu people, Arabian Sands is your Bible. This enchanted and spiritual volume completely satisfied my hunger for the romanticism and mysticism of travel and brought the dreamlike and psyhedelic part of the Arab world directly to my heart. Thesiger is an extraordinary bloke, stubborn in his pursuit of adventure and uncompromising in his extreme rules of assimilation. Living with the nomadic Arab tribes of the Empty Quarter be ...more
Amy
Mar 26, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: bookclub
Thesiger isn't a wordsmith, but he sure can wax lyrical about sand and camels. Usually I'm skeptical of the "white dude realizes his culture is superficial/grossly consumeristic and seeks enlightenment in Savage Territories" topos -- although I empathize with his feeling of displacement -- but the author's understated, matter-of-fact prose and authentic love of the desert and its people keep him from falling into the Exotic Other trap. The real selling part for me was the friendship he built wit ...more
Scott
Mar 15, 2014 rated it it was ok
I enjoyed the old-fashioned, straightforward (i.e. unironic and "meta"less), almost Hemingway-esque narrative of the tough old Victorian Luddite accompanied by loyal, noble Bedu... Even felt ashamed of my own unadventurousness... Then began to wonder what was going on behind the narrative: Was Thesiger gay? Was he a kind of very dedicated sexual tourist (the kind you often see in Southeast Asia nowadays)? Why'd he insist on all the dangerous trips? If he loved Arabia so much, why couldn't he fol ...more
Wendy
Jan 01, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Who would have believed a book about travels in the stark desert of the Saudi Empty Quarter could be so interesting? Goodreads suggests this book for lovers of adventure travel and they're advice is good. Wilfred Thesiger follows the tradition of the intrepid British geographer explorers of the Pacific, the Arctic, Antarctica and Africa who seek to travel where no (white) man has gone before and challenge themselves where danger lurks. He travelled the sands from 1945- 1950 with Bedu guides whos ...more
Chuck
This book has me conflicted. How could I give a book five stars and yet not be able to think of one person that I would recommend it to. Do not read this book to be entertained, read it if you have a curiosity about the place, the time or the culture. I have recently read a number of books that either focused on or worked on the fringes of the tribal arab cultures. It was with this curiosity that I chose this book. The book and adventure takes place in the "empty quarter" of Saudi Arabia just af ...more
Kate
Feb 28, 2014 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed reading about the near past of this region I live in. The book covers Thesiger's explorations of Yemen, The Empty Quarter, Oman, and parts of the then Trucial States from about 1945 to 1950. He was the first Westerner to explore some of the areas and did it as a traveller with Beduin companions. Even though he was born to British parents (stationed in Africa at the time of his birth), and educated in the UK, he said that he was most at home in the Arabian Desert. He was friends with Sh ...more
Daniel Simmons
Jan 17, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Travel books like this make me realize what a wuss I am. "Arabian Sands" is 330 plainspoken and inspiring pages about "find[ing] peace in the hardship of desert travel and the company of desert peoples." In the midst of criss-crossing the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Peninsula, under constant threat of starvation, dehydration, or enemy raiders (or all of the above), Thesiger finds time to muse on Arab hospitality, hawking, and the occasional merits of sewing up a camel's anus. He scorns the adva ...more
Raghu
May 06, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Wilfred Thesiger is one of the really great travellers ever. This book details his adventures and explorations in hitherto untraveled reaches of the Saudi Arabian deserts in the 1940's.
He writes beautifully about the culture and nomadic existence of the Bedu people who populate this region. It is a superb account of the way of life of the now extinct Bedu way. Thesiger laments the demise of the life of the Bedu due to the riches brought about by the discovery of oil in the 40's and 50s.
A must re
...more
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Sir Wilfred Patrick Thesiger, KBE, DSO, MA, DLitt, FRAS, FRSL, FRGS, FBA, was a British explorer and travel writer born in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.

Thesiger was educated at Eton College and Magdalen College, Oxford University where he took a third in history. Between 1930 and 1933, Thesiger represented Oxford at boxing and later (1933) became captain of the Oxford boxing team.

In 1930,
...more

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“I had learnt the satisfaction which comes from hardship and the pleasure which derives from abstinence; the contentment of a full belly; the richness of meat; the taste of clean water; the ecstasy of surrender when the craving of sleep becomes a torment; the warmth of a fire in the chill of dawn.” 39 likes
“Yet I wondered fancifully if he had seen more clearly than they did, had sensed the threat which my presence implied – the approaching disintegration of his society and the destruction of ‘his beliefs. Here especially it seemed that the evil that comes with sudden change would far outweigh the good. While I was with the Arabs I wished only to live as they lived and, now that I have left them, I would gladly think that nothing in their lives was altered by my coming. Regretfully, however, I realize that the maps I made helped others, with more material aims, to visit and corrupt a people whose spirit once lit the desert like a flame.” 7 likes
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