on 23 October 1998
This book features in my top ten favourites of all time. Thesiger, a quintiessential eccentric English explorer describes in this book five years spent with the Bedu of the southern Arabian Peninsula. Thesiger lived as a Bedu, he adopted their dress, walked barefoot and learned to settle into their rigid, almost ritualistic patterns. Thesiger developed a very deep respect for the Bedu as he believes that the harder the life led the purer the man, and there are not many lives that come harder than those of the Bedu. After all T.E. Lawrence described their daily struggle as 'a death in life'. During his time with the Bedu Thesiger twice crossed the Empty Quarter (Rub 'al Khali) with camels by a longer and more dangerous route than that taken by Philby and Thomas previously. Thesiger and his companions were lucky to have survived as they found themselves without food and water and a long way from a well that none of the Bedu had been to before and that only appeared on Thesiger's notoriously inaccurate map of the region. Equally fortunate was Thesiger managing to avoid the search parties of Omani tribesmen intent on driving him out of their territory, perhaps even to kill him, because he was a Christian. This is an incredible book, describing unimaginable hardships as if they were mere inconveniences, and giving a fascinating insight to a way of life that has all but disappeared as the Bedu trade in their camels for 4 wheel drives. Read this book, it is brilliant.
on 7 December 2004
This is a difficult book to read if one is looking for excitement, but an absolute gem for anyone who wants to get inside the world of the Bedouin of over half a century ago. Thesiger's prose is spare and discerning and flows through the book like sand through an hourglass. He describes a world that no longer exists; indeed, was on the cusp of change as he made his travels in Arabia. The people he travels with are continuing a way of life that has remained unchanged for millenia but would not survive the following decades.
The life Thesiger describes is hard, unforgiving existence tempered by the bond he forms with his Bedu hosts. His descriptions of his Bedu friends are sympathetic without being effusive and his admiration of and love for them shines from every page.
Forget Lawrence and his silly posturing, if you only ever read one book about Arabia of old, this should be it. It left me inspired but, I must confess, somewhat ashamed that the god of oil and mammon should have destroyed a beautiful and unspoilt way of life.
on 12 June 2012
I have called this review, 'recognisable history' as many aspects of what was once a far-off, highly alien civilisation have reached well into the day-to-day of Western societies since the collapse of empires and WW2. The prospective reader should have no doubt that this is a unique, powerful, readable account which will illuminate, startle and grip from start to finish. Indeed I was saddened when the tale finally ended with the author's being expelled from Arabia.
But what I would want to think on is the nature of Islam and Muslims as depicted by this Christian author (albeit Christian in what is a lost societal definition rather than today's use in Western society to denote a minority sect) as he wandered across the huge sands of Arabia where non-Muslims entered at a danger of death. Indeed, if there are a few words which leap out of the text these would include 'death' as one near the top of the list. Others would include sand, cold, water, thirst, hunger, camels, guns, limestone, sand, sand and sand. Oddly Thesiger never really talks about the heat of the day.
But, these to one side. This is a highly dramatic account that places the reader right in the middle of a land torn between the stone age culture of the Bedu and the medieval of the settled Arabs; plus guns - lots of guns. Thesiger is highly supportive of the passing culture of the Bedu. He eats, talks, sleeps, argues and risks all with those men who risked their all with him. He sees in them a heroic life, manly, supportive of their society, risky, facing death at every turn, enjoying laughter, enduring immense suffering without complaint, dying at all ages and from all causes. And he contrasts this with the settled culture of the Wahhabi Muslims settled in Saudi Arabia and the smaller Arabian Gulf states.
He evidences two totally different Islams, but both strong. The Bedu are almost celibate, never practice homosexuality, tolerate illegitimacy, tolerate Christians, elevate the position of women and practice their faith in daily life. The Wahhabists regularly practice homosexuality, murder women who commit adultery or who sleep with a man not married to her, are 100% intolerant and abusive of anyone not Wahhabist (including the Bedu as well as Christians), hide their women and faith for them is the ritual of prayer.
Now, swing from the 1940's up to the 2010's and enter much of formerly Christian Europe. There are now tens of millions of Muslims spread across the EU. They are dominated by Wahhabists, not by the gentler, more tolerant and inclusive Bedu Islam. The Islam that has so recently embedded in Western society is one that is totally intolerant to anyone not Wahhabist Muslim: other Muslims, Christians, Pagans, Atheists, Buddhists, Hindus and Agnostics. There is no route out of Wahhabism, for to do so is to become an apostate, and Wahhabism designates the death penalty for apostates.
If someone not a Wahhabist in Western society wishes to understand how and why this intolerant, dominant sect of Islam does affect those caught in it, and those who have to live around it, then this book by Thesiger does so admirably. The first half is all about the Bedu, so the reader gets a clear understanding of their Islamic lives. When the Wahhabists appear the shock of difference is startling. You can see why Thesiger was so attracted to the Bedu lifestyle - and you can see how the Bedu and Thesiger are appalled and repulsed by Wahhabism.
Wester writers on Islam in the West are often modernist, guardianista, tolerant, inclusive - indeed as was Thesiger and even in ways the Bedu. But to understand Wahhabism it needs to be seen as Thesiger saw it: as a force against tolerant, inclusivist, modernism. The challenge for Western readers, sitting consuming such a book as this, is that in a city near them Wahhabism is alive and, the word would definitely be, kicking.
on 17 February 2015
The copy that I've read is actually the 2005 Folio Society version, (2 vols with The Marsh Arabs, Introduction by Tim Mackintosh-Smith). I found it incredibly absorbing. Read it slowly and follow the journeys on the maps; otherwise it will just become a jumble of names. Thesiger with his prescient loathing of motor vehicles preferred to operate in the last shrinking corners of the world where cars hadn't yet penetrated. He wasn't really an explorer in the old geographical sense; more a searcher for peoples and values that weren't homogenized. But this isn't methodical anthropology either; Thesiger wasn't an intellectual and didn't want to be. He understood that life is something lived, not something that can be contained in a book. And he knew that the best way to evoke the desert was not to describe it but to tell what happened to him there. There are no flowery descriptions in this prose - (after all, there are no flowers!) - nevertheless his experience of the desert becomes magnificently present to us.
Thesiger recalled every day in detail and all his transactions with the Bedu fellow-travellers whom he loved but supposed he would never meet again. He used the Empty Quarter itself as a vast memory station that he brooded over for years - no doubt he had his notebooks too, though he had never planned a book. What he produced is fascinating as a first-hand account of Bedu culture; these petty tribes who were continuously at war with each other, and for whom a European was, primarily, someone who could get them a gun. Their lives were almost possessionless. Camel, gun, loincloth, waterskins. Offence and vengeance were implacable yet matter-of-fact; you could sometimes pay but you could never plead. Hospitality was a compulsion, to the point of self-starvation.
Things have changed massively, at least on the surface. Remarkably, visitors to modern Dubai will still be able to recognize the creek from Thesiger's description.