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Peter Hobday, Wilfred Thesiger - Slightly Foxed Issue 26

In the Empty Quarter

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As a young reporter in the 1970s I travelled in what the Romans called Arabia Felix – through the Gulf sheikhdoms and emirates, into Muscat and down to the southern tip of the peninsula. I saw Dubai when it was still largely a fishing port where the pearl divers set sail in their dhows: in Kuwait, I spent an afternoon with Mrs Dickson, the widow of the last British political officer in the Gulf, in her traditional Arab house down in the old harbour. In Saudi Arabia I camped under the stars with some Bedouin on the edge of the Rub’ al Khali or Empty Quarter, that stretch of a million square miles of desert which fills the bottom half of Arabia. Needless to say I was soon addicted and more trips followed. With the arrogance of the young journalist I imagined myself an Arabist and began to read all the available books. It did not take me long to realize that as only an occasional visitor I could never make the grade.

One of those books remains not only in my memory but also on my bookshelves, and, after a surprise visit to the Gulf last year, I reread it. Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands is, I think, one of the greatest travel books ever written. In 1945, when he was 35, Thesiger managed to persuade the anti-locust research centre in London to finance a trip to the Empty Quarter. For the next five years, dressed as a Bedu, he travelled with a few companions and made two crossings of the Empty Quarter. In doing so he ran the very real risk of starving to death, dying of thirst, or being killed by some fanatical Muslim because as a Christian he was defiling their world.

Horace, the Roman poet, divided all travellers into two groups, those who travel for a change of climate and those who travel to change their minds. Thesiger was a man who not only changed his mind, he also changed everything else about himself. Many today would see him as one of the last of Britain’s imperial officer class – haughty, sure of himself, a leader of men, someo

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As a young reporter in the 1970s I travelled in what the Romans called Arabia Felix – through the Gulf sheikhdoms and emirates, into Muscat and down to the southern tip of the peninsula. I saw Dubai when it was still largely a fishing port where the pearl divers set sail in their dhows: in Kuwait, I spent an afternoon with Mrs Dickson, the widow of the last British political officer in the Gulf, in her traditional Arab house down in the old harbour. In Saudi Arabia I camped under the stars with some Bedouin on the edge of the Rub’ al Khali or Empty Quarter, that stretch of a million square miles of desert which fills the bottom half of Arabia. Needless to say I was soon addicted and more trips followed. With the arrogance of the young journalist I imagined myself an Arabist and began to read all the available books. It did not take me long to realize that as only an occasional visitor I could never make the grade.

One of those books remains not only in my memory but also on my bookshelves, and, after a surprise visit to the Gulf last year, I reread it. Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands is, I think, one of the greatest travel books ever written. In 1945, when he was 35, Thesiger managed to persuade the anti-locust research centre in London to finance a trip to the Empty Quarter. For the next five years, dressed as a Bedu, he travelled with a few companions and made two crossings of the Empty Quarter. In doing so he ran the very real risk of starving to death, dying of thirst, or being killed by some fanatical Muslim because as a Christian he was defiling their world. Horace, the Roman poet, divided all travellers into two groups, those who travel for a change of climate and those who travel to change their minds. Thesiger was a man who not only changed his mind, he also changed everything else about himself. Many today would see him as one of the last of Britain’s imperial officer class – haughty, sure of himself, a leader of men, someone who might have expected to govern one or more of Britain’s colonies. Yet he gave up his career in the Sudan Political Service and for a few years actively shunned the comforts that his rank or position might have given him. He wanted to experience the deserts of southern Arabia where, he writes, ‘there is no rhythm of the seasons, no rise and fall of the 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.’ He wanted to see what no other man, apart from the native Bedu, had seen. And he wanted to see it before modern motor vehicles and small planes let people travel in relative comfort, to see it before the Bedu themselves were corrupted by the oil money that was beginning to flow. ‘I had no faith in the changes we were bringing, I craved for the past, resented the present and dreaded for the future.’ I met him only once, when he was already in his late eighties. Though stooped by age, he was still tall and wiry, with a deeply lined face. We met not in the desert, but in his flat in Chelsea. It was full of mementos of his travels, not just in Arabia but among the Marsh Arabs of Iraq (another classic book of his), and of his time in Ethiopia where he first began his own special way of travelling into unknown regions, dressed as a local tribesman, and with other tribesmen as his guides and companions. I still have a tape of that interview where he talks nostalgically of such a life, of knowing he was the first European to see and experience such things, of the toughness of that life, yet the dignity and courage of the people who had to live it, of their endurance and – which explains so much about Islam, a religion that came out of the desert – of their fatalism. Life and death, starving or eating, finding water before you die of thirst – all is in God’s hands, and we must accept His will. As we talked a formidable old lady appeared and scolded the great traveller. ‘Master Wilfred, have you offered your guest any tea and cake yet?’ At this reproach, the great traveller apologized profusely that he had so neglected me. The irony of that small incident is that in his book Arabian Sands, Thesiger writes at some length about the rules of hospitality in the desert. On one journey, he and his companions had survived for days on only a few dates and some camel’s milk. They were starving. Then Bin Khabina, his most constant companion in his Arabian travels, managed to shoot a desert rabbit, and they were looking forward to eating meat. Out of the sands came three Bedu. Bin Khabina welcomed them and said, ‘You were sent here by Allah to be our guests, you must eat with us.’ Much to Thesiger’s barely suppressed annoyance he gave them the meat, the rest of the dates and the remaining camel’s milk. Thesiger and his companions looked on in silence while the meal was demolished. Time and again the inflexible rules of the desert were something to be endured rather than savoured. It is Thesiger’s prose that captivates. Spare and direct like the man I met, it does not waste time or words. Take his description of the men of the Rashid tribe who accompany him on his journeys. ‘They were dressed in long Arab shirts and head-cloths which had been dyed a soft russet-brown with the juice of a desert shrub. They wore their clothes with distinction, even when they were in rags. They were small deft men, alert and watchful. Their bodies lean and hard, trained to incredible endurance . . . they had been bred from the purest race in the world, and lived under conditions where only the hardiest and the best could . . . survive.’ Living as they did was hard enough, but there was an added danger. Thesiger was a Christian and some tribes in the desert swore that they would kill him if they caught him. Some, though, were just curious, like the old man in the mountains overlooking the southern coast where Thesiger camped just before his epic journey began. ‘He mumbled a salutation and we replied. He stood and stared at me, wrinkling his eyes. He wore a dirty loin-cloth and carried a stick – he was evidently too poor to own a dagger. “I came to see the Christian . . .”’ Thesiger’s companions thought him mad, but the Englishman ‘wondered fancifully if he had seen more clearly than they did what my presence implied – the approaching disintegration and the destruction of his beliefs’. In Muscat last year I decided to take the bus tour to Nazwa, where Thesiger was almost imprisoned and was under real threat of being killed. The journey through the mountains took two hours on a modern four-lane highway. Once there, and finding that the old fort was now restored to within an inch of its life, I left the group and found a coffee shop off the beaten track. I sat down to drink some cardamom-scented coffee and talked to some of the men seated in the shade. I asked if they had heard of a man called Thesiger. ‘He was our enemy, in league with Muscat,’ said the oldest man, ‘but it is all a long time ago. If he came back he would be my friend.’ Memories are long in Arabia. Thesiger was refused entry to Nazwa but given grudging permission to move on to another town. ‘As we passed under the enormous dome of light coloured rock which formed the buttress to Jabal Kaur we were passed by three men on camels. One of them was a small indignant man, smothered under a large white turban. He was Riqaishi, governor of the Ibri.’ One of Thesiger’s companions asked this powerful man if there was anything he could do for him. ‘The Riqaishi gave his camel an angry blow and answered “You would not have brought the Christian here if you wished to please me.”’ Thesiger kept meticulous notes during his time in the desert. The sands of Arabia have various names because the desert moves and changes, and sand can be many colours and be blown into many shapes. He notes too how the men who live there, just about surviving, often care more for their camels than for their fellows, because in the end their lives will depend on these dumb companions. The book is also full of a sense of foreboding. Thesiger was convinced that soon this world that had existed since before Biblical times would disappear. The Bedu, ‘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 the materialistic world . . . this I do not believe. I shall always remember how often I was humbled by those illiterate herdsmen who possessed, in so much greater measure that I, generosity and courage, endurance, patience and light-hearted gallantry. Among no other people have I felt the same sense of personal inferiority.’ Many still debate whether oil has brought unalloyed benefits to the sheikhdoms and emirates of Arabia, whether they have gained wealth at the expense of their souls. Others would argue that no one should begrudge a people the right to develop as they see fit. When you visit their national museums which laud their past as proud Bedouin, you realize that they have few artefacts to display. What they do have are the memories of a man they now praise and venerate – a tall gaunt Christian who could write so beautifully about the culture and traditions of the desert which, without his care and attention, would long ago have been swallowed up in the ever-changing sandscape of the Empty Quarter.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 26 © Peter Hobday 2010


About the contributor

After a career with the BBC talking for a living and ending up as one of the presenters of the Today programme, peter hobday decided it was time to put words on paper. His latest book is The Girl in Rose, the story of the composer Haydn’s love affair with a Scottish heiress in London in the 1790s.

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