Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands: Finding Meaning in The Desert

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IN LOVE WITH ARABIA...Sir Wilfred Thesiger
IN LOVE WITH ARABIA…Sir Wilfred Thesiger

As the plane climbed over the town and swung out above the sea I knew how it felt to go into exile.

Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands is an arresting travel narrative of the Empty Quarter, the world’s most challenging desert. Without reading this book, it is hard to imagine that a desert (which is called empty even by the natives!) may be pictured in such fascinating fashion. Thesiger, one of the  first Englishmen to cross the Empty Quarter, keeps the reader engrossed with his vivid account of the nomadic way of life which, until recently, had continued for thousand of years. 
TAZEEN HASAN | Special to Caravan Daily
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Since leaving Arabia, I have traveled among the Karakoram and the Hindukush, 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 magnificent scenery in the world and I have lived among tribes who are interesting and little known. None of these places have moved me as the deserts of Arabia.” – Wilfred Thesiger
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hile hiking in the mountains of  Malakand Agency in northwestern Pakistan, cruising down the Nile, rambling around the rock art sites in the Arabian deserts, and chasing the wildlife in Albertan Rockies, I have always found myself overwhelmed by the spirit of European explorers.
Similarly, having spent five years wandering Arabia, no other place haunts me like the Peninsula loosely sandwiched between the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf.  The lives and sojourns of Burckhardt, Doughty, Lady Blunt, Bell, Arabian SandsLawrence, Shakespeare, and Philby unfailingly stir a nostalgic fascination inside me.
So when a like-minded friend suggested, “Arabian Sands”, a mid 20th-century classic travel narrative of the Empty Quarter, I couldn’t help myself requesting it from the  local library despite my busy schedule. Unfortunately, the book was a reference there so I had to make an inter-library loan request to get it from the University of Alberta.
I, a midlife career changer and a mother of three struggling with the graduation curriculum, strive to read as much as possible whenever time allows. Yet, I am least interested in traditional bulky books.
Let me confess, initially, I considered it another mediocre narrative by an Oxford-educated British aristocrat who progressed luxuriously with the help of state machinery to take the credit of the so-called exploration.
But it was when I began reading  the account that I realized the eccentricity of this travelogue. Thesiger, a nephew of the viceroy of India, traversed the largest and harshest sand desert in the world, spread in modern day Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.
Thesiger, went too far to taste the real essence of the wilderness of the Empty-quarter. He not only made long excursions with some of the most dangerous outlaws in the deserts but experienced the hunger, thirst, insecurity, frustrations, hopes and ecstasies of the desert journeys.
Standing half length portrait of Wilfred Thesiger and Musallim bin Al Kamam on a rooftop terrace.
Standing half-length portrait of Wilfred Thesiger and Musallim bin Al Kamam on a rooftop terrace.
One can sense the despair of long rides without water, the threat from the warring tribes, the pleasure of finding a grazing land, the heartfelt agony conceived by the ulcers on the camel’s back and irksome quarrels of the Bedouin.  He skillfully turns this potentially monotonous journey into an engrossing tale without over-dramatizing or embroidering the anecdotes.
He made every attempt to experience this journey like a Bedu, wearing their dress to adopting their mundane habits and naive manners during these exhausting journeys. In fact, what distinguishes this Ethiopian-born adventurer from others is  his admiration for qualities of his fellow Bedouins and the poverty-stricken, nomadic culture.
Without reading this book, it is hard to imagine that a desert (which is called empty even by the natives) may be pictured in such a fascinating fashion.
He engrosses the reader with the ordinary descriptions of dawn and the dusk, formation of the clouds, the shapes of the sand dunes, gravel, desert wells, usual conversations of Beduin who accompanied him and nomadic culture.
He shrewdly sheds light on why deserts have been unchanged comparing the transformation of towns and villages by successive conquests in history and the intact untouched nomadic life of the desert.

But in Syria, the patina of human history was thick along the edges of the desert.” 

His analysis of the Beduin life is quite remarkable when he declares them as the purest race existing in the world and heir to ancient people of Sabeans, Mineans and Haymirates.
What impressed me most is his idiosyncratic fondness for the challenges;  a critical asset for an explorer.
“I had learnt the satisfaction that comes from the hardships and the pleasure that springs from abstinence”
He further emphasizes:
“I have found satisfaction in the stimulating harshness of this empty land, pleasure in the nomadic life which I had led.”
And although my travels in the desert were way different from his, Arabia is such a magnet that I can absolutely associate his journey of self-exploration, follow his longing to revisit the region again and again and can acknowledge his melancholic sentiments while leaving Arabia.
“As the plane climbed over the town and swung out above the sea I knew how it felt to go into exile.”

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