Innlegg merkte med ‘Arabian Sands’

Arabian Sands

Posta: Tysdag, 13 november, 2007 under Books
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Last month I came across a book by Wilfred Thesiger called Arabian Sands. It is Thesiger’s first of many books. The book is a well-written, highly exciting and not least a great travel book about a journey into what is now a vanished world. Between 1945 and 1950 Wilfred Thesiger travelled several times in and around the «Empty Quarter« in southern Arabia. At the time the area was still very much the same as it had been for hundreds of years. Thesiger travelled on camel through an area only a handful of Europeans had ever visited and saw things no European had seen before. Before Thesiger only Bertram Thomas and St. John Philby had crossed the Empty Quarter, Thomas in 1931 and Philby in 1932.When the book was published in 1959 much of the world in which Thesiger travelled had disappeared. The onset of modernity and oil had changed the area profoundly. Thesiger returned to Oman and Abu Dhabi in 1977 and encountered a very different world from the one he had left 27 years earlier. In the preface to the 1991 reprint of Arabian Sands he discribed his feelings:

I was disillusioned and resentful at the changes brought by the discovery and the production of oil throught the region – the traditional Bedu way of life, which I had shared with the Rashid [a Bedu tribe] for five memorable years, had been irrevocably destroyed by the introduction of motor transport, helicopters and aeroplanes. … Abu Dhabi … symbolized all that I hated and rejected: at the time it represented the final disillusionment of my return to Arabia.  

Thesiger visited Abu Dhabi once more in 1990 and found him more reconciled to the changes and described it «as an impressive modern city, made plesant in this barren land by avenues of trees and green lawns.»I will recommend Arabian Sands to anyone who is interested in travelling, adventures and the Middle East. Finally, to show what kind of imprint Arabia and its deserts left in Thesiger I will use his own words:

Since leaving Arabia I have travelled among the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush, the mountains of Kurdistan and the marshlands of Iraq, drawn always to remote places where cars cannot penetrate and where something of the old ways survive. I have seen some of the most magnificant scenery in the world and I have lived among tribes who are interesting and little known. None of these places has moved me as did the deserts of Arabia.
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 climate can match.  

Sir Wilfred Patrick Thesiger died in 2003, 93 years old. Photos from some of his journeys can be found here.

Wilfred Thesiger’s thoughts on travelling and what he sees as the challenges of modernity in his highly recommendable book, Arabian Sands:

«I was sailing on this dhow [to Bahrain] because I wanted to have some experience of the Arab as a sailor. … But there was a deeper reason that had prompted me to make this journey. I had done it to escape a little longer from the machines which dominated our world. The experience would last longer than the few days I spent on the journey. All my life I had hated machines. I could remember how bitterly at school I had resented reading the news that someone had flown across the Atlantic or travelled through the Sahara in a car. I had realized even then that the speed and ease of mechanical transport must rob the world of all diversity.

For me, exploration was a personal venture. I did not go to the Arabian desert to collect plants nor to make a map; such things were incidental. At heart I knew that to write or even to talk of my travels was to tarnish the achievement. I went there to find peace in the hardship of desert travel an the company of desert peoples. I set myself a goal on these journeys, and, although the goal itself was unimportant, its attainment had to be worthy every effort and sacrifice. Scott had gone to the South Pole in order to stand for a few minutes on one particular and almost inaccessible spot on the earth’s surface. He and his companions died on their way back, but even as they were dying he never doubted that the journey had been worth while. Everyone knew that there was nothing to be found on the top of Everest, but even in this materialistic age few people asked, «What point is there in climbing Everest? What good will it do anyone when they get there?» They recognized that even today there are experiences that do not need to be justified in terms of material profit.

No, it is not the goal but the way there that matters, and the harder the way the more worth while is the journey. Who, after all, would dispute that it is more satisfying to climb to the top of a mountain than to go there in a funicular railway? Perhaps this was the reason why I resented modern inventions; they make the road too easy. I felt instinctively that is was better to fail on Everest without oxygen than to attain the summit with its use. If climbers used oxygen, why should they not have their supplies dropped to them from aeroplanes, or landed by a helicopter? Yet to refuse mechanical aids as unsporting reduced exploration to the level of a sport, like big-game shooting in Kenya when the hunter is allowed to drive up to within sight of the animal but must get out of the car to shoot it. I would not myself have wished to cross the Empty Quarter [in Southern Arabia] in a car. Luckily this was impossible when I did my journeys [1945-1950], for to have done the journey on a camel when I could have done it in a car would have turned the venture into a stunt.»