Jan-Maat's Reviews > Arabian Sands

Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger
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Jul 25, 2011

bookshelves: 20th-century, travel, middle-east

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 British background (his father had been ambassador to Abyssinia, and one of Thesiger's early experiences was seeing the Abyssinian army jogging off to battle an insurgent,) as a young man he travelled ion the inhospitable Danakil depression, and after the Second World War travelled across the Empty Quarter of southern Arabia repeatedly, in between other adventures. he was an alien in the deserts of Arabia. His access to some areas was restricted, if I remember correctly the then Sultan of Oman was hostile to non-Muslims travelling on his territory.

Thesiger's focus was on exploration which meant spending time in the desert with a small number of guides rather than on ethnography and his views reflect his reading and his general attitudes about civilisation (he's more sympathetic to the hard lives lived in extreme circumstances). But it remains an entertaining book featuring Thesiger's wonder at the hardiness of his companions as they struggle over the dunes on a diet of rice and raisins utterly dependant on the health of their camels to survive.

Worth contrasting with his book The Marsh Arabs. Thesiger's autobiography The Life of my Choice puts his journey in the context of his life - it is worth remembering that between trips to the Empty Quarter he was also sending time in the Kurdish regions and in the marshes of southern Iraq.

It is geography as hardship and hardship as the purest form of adventure. Travel as penance maybe, certainly not about destinations. The charm and good humour of his companions a constant amazement to Thesiger as they stagger over sand dunes and dream of feasting on roast camel hump and they watch uneasy as their male camels are socially obliged to perform stud services to the point of their own exhaustion, in accordance with the strict etiquette of the Empty Quarter - a law of manners that aims to resist feuding to reasonable limits and ensure the survival of people, as far as possible, in an uninhabitable region.
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Comments (showing 1-14 of 14) (14 new)

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Shovelmonkey1 Thesiger is my all time top travel writer. I love all his books and his autobiography is also brilliant.


message 2: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat Do you mean The Life of my Choice?

I have mixed feelings. Arabian Sands is excellent, but for me I had the feeling it is about Thesiger's quest for a certain nomadic, pre-modern kind of life rather than about the places and the people. His needs, restlessness and discontent more than anything else. Maybe that's generally the way in travel writing?


Shovelmonkey1 Yes, i saw after further shelf perusal that you've already read that one and didn't love it as much as i did. If you ever get a chance you should have a look at his collection of photography. his pictures are amazing and really capture the landscapes and people which he eloquently describes in his travel writing.


message 4: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat Hmmm. I had to check what I wrote, I'll have to add to it.

Choice has some great moments and helps put the other books in context. But it didn't have the same effect on me as it clearly did on you, naturally begging your pardon and hoping you can forgive my lack of love ;)


Shovelmonkey1 no explanation or apology required for lack of love :)


message 6: by Lynne (last edited May 16, 2013 04:09AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lynne King I was so pleased to stumble across your review Jan-Maat. I used to live in Saudi Arabia and I was such an admirer of Thesiger and also Freya Stark. I've just searched for "The Southern Gates of Arabia" on the bookshelves at home and that was excellent.


message 7: by Caroline (new) - added it

Caroline Both his books - this one and the one about the Marsh Arabs, sound marvellous. Thanks for the introduction!


Lynne King They are indeed Caroline!


message 9: by Caroline (new) - added it

Caroline Lynne wrote: "They are indeed Caroline!" Oh, you're a fan too? *Teeters off to find Lynne's reviews....*


message 10: by Steve (new) - added it

Steve I liked this book, but I prefer The Marsh Arabs because it really is more ethnographical than Arabian Sands. The Life of my Choice seems quite tempting.


message 11: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat Steve wrote: "I liked this book, but I prefer The Marsh Arabs because it really is more ethnographical than Arabian Sands. The Life of my Choice seems quite tempting."

Life of my choice is a bit of a trade off book there is the wider context and chronological order, but without the depth, the childhood and resultant sense of cultural isolation from british colonial upper class while part of it is notable


message 12: by Lyn (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lyn Elliott I read Thesiger in the 1970s, was captivated then and remember particularly the Marsh Arabs, journeys across the Empty quarter and


message 13: by Lyn (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lyn Elliott Sorry - broken off there. The Danakil, was what I was going to add. He epitomises for me the complete assurance of the European adventurer of that age, heading wherever he would. He was clearly fascinated by lives of extreme hardship, beyond the edge of what seems possible. Bruce Chatwin, in a later generation, was influenced by him, wrote romantically of nomadism, but never took on the bitter hardships of Thesiger's journeys. It's good to see your review even four years after you wrote it.


message 14: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat Lyn wrote: "Sorry - broken off there. The Danakil, was what I was going to add. He epitomises for me the complete assurance of the European adventurer of that age, heading wherever he would. He was clearly fas..."

Yes, I suppose he was an extremophile, he liked those places on the edge and beyond the limits of the habitable,I don't think that Thesiger was interested in nomadism just hardship, Chatwin, though he liked extremes I don't think was interested in hardship as an end in itself, the Dankil and the empty quarter I imagine like going to the poles - the only point is that it is tough, the only possible thing you might discover is your own mortality?


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