Friday, 22 April 2011

British explorer finds his humanity in the Bedouin Arabs


The pioneering British explorer Wilfred Thesiger (1910-2003) spent five years with the Bedouin (Bedu) in the deserts of the Arabian Gulf in the years 1945-1950. He spared no effort in adopting the lifestyle of his tribal companions, and twice crossed the Empty Quarter, known to the Bedouin as the Sands. He later penned his incredible adventures in his book Arabian Sands. Yet it was no adventure for Thesiger, his somewhat mystical account reveals an incredibly passionate respect for the Arabs; their freedom from modernity and their strict code of honour inspired him. Once, he lay starving in the Sands for three days waiting for his Bedouin companions to return with food. Beset by hallucinations of cars, planes and modern technology that could rescue him, he records his reaction;

"No, I would rather be here starving as I was than sitting in a chair, replete with food, listening to the wireless and dependent on cars to take me through Arabia" 

 Thesiger found solace in adopting the Bedu lifestyle, and escaping the “abomination” and emptiness of modern western civilization and its lust for material innovations as he saw it. He doesn’t project a disdain for his English culture and heritage, but his experiences recounted in Arabian Sands impressed upon him an identity that challenged his understanding of his own humanity. He discovered that among the Bedu, he was one of them. No doubt these feelings were compounded by the hostility of the desert, and the absolute dependence of each Bedouin on his tribe for his very existence. 

Amongst the Bedu he attained the solace of humanity that he craved, writing:

“The Empty Quarter offered me the chance to win distinction as a traveller; but I believed that it could give me more than this, that in those empty wastes I could find the peace that comes with solitude, and, among the Bedu, comradeship in a hostile world. Many who venture into dangerous places have found this comradeship among members of their own race; a few found it more easily among people from other lands, the very differences which separate them binding them ever more closely. I found it among the Bedu. Without it these journeys would have been a meaningless penance"

At times his account takes on a poetic, almost mystical tone;

“The valleys when I woke at dawn were filled with eddying mist, above which the silhouettes of the dunes ran eastwards. Like fantastic mountains towards the rising sun. The sky glowed softly with the colours of the opal. The world was very still, held in a fragile bowl of silence. Standing at last on this far threshold of the Sands I looked back, almost regretfully, the way we had come”

Spending time in the silence of the desert is almost a holy experience. Walking on the cool sands of Wadi Rum in the darkness of night was one of the most haunting yet exhilarating experiences for me. But that wasn’t the real thing; it was a tourist attraction in southern Jordan. Thesiger paints the desert in the most vivid colours;

“A cloud gathers, the rain falls, men live; the cloud disperses without rain, and men and animals die. In the deserts of southern Arabia there is no rhythm of the seasons, no rise and fall of sap, but empty wastes where only the changing temperature marks the passage of the year. It is a bitter, desiccated land which knows nothing of gentleness or ease. Yet men have lived there since earliest times. Passing generations have left fire-blackened stones at camping sites, a few faint tracks polished on the gravel plains. Elsewhere the winds wipe out their footprints. Men live there because it is the world into which they were born; the life they lead is the life their forefathers led before them; they accept hardships and privations; they know no other way. Lawrence wrote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom "Bedouin ways were hard, even for those brought up in them and for strangers terrible: a death in life." No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have within him the yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match”


Despite his exquisite depictions of an increasingly dying way of life, Thesiger was also a realist. He knew that should he be found out as a Christian by other clans, his life would be in grave danger. He mastered the Bedu dialect of Arabic but would pretend to be Syrian to avert attention to his soft Caucasian features, and his lack of observance to Islamic practice. Apparently, Syrians were viewed as being lax in their religious observance, although Thesiger recounts how most of the Bedu only know the opening verse of the Quran.



Although he found solace and freedom in the Bedu lifestyle that had remained unchanged for centuries, he was also aware of their own inability to escape the precarious harshness of their own ways, and that even they themselves couldn’t attain the freedom he searched for.

A concluding remark on Thesiger’s regard of the Arabs;

"Others 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."

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