book-reviews

Arabian Sands

by Wilfred Thesiger

Rating: ★★★★

Born in Somalia during the Empire, Wilfred Thesiger was a six-foot tall Oxford boxing champion, a war hero, and a secret agent. He has a real biography which makes fictional James Bond types raise their eyebrows. None of that is in this book.

No, this book is Thesiger's account of the roughly five years after World War II which he spent as 'The Last Explorer', attempting to fill in one of the dwindling number of locations on the world map which contain a suggestive amount of blank space. It's notable that one of the few people he acknowledges as influential who weren't in some way involved in the exploration of Arabia was Robert Scott, of the doomed Antarctic expedition. Thesiger is tackling a different desert, but one just as deadly. Days without food are slight concern next to those spent without water.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the book is that Thesiger wrote it. He appears to have had no ambition of writing a book, he took few notes, and he always professed an interest in travel mostly for travel itself. While he made the whole journey on camel-back, and dove into depths of the terrain where even the Arabs would never tread, he was averse to the idea of 'stunts', and would have used a car if it were possible, despite his personal animosity towards the vehicles. He wasn't doing this for acclaim. He fought tooth and nail - and defied many dangerous locals - purely to get the chance to see this harsh, unfriendly land himself. That he let others know of it was at best a byproduct.

The second most surprising thing about the book is how well written it is. Thesiger was no great scholar, and had not written before. Perhaps because rather than in spite of Thesiger's lack of literary ambitions, the unvarnished travel story and its rather prosaic sequences of events burn with a fierce poetry. Thesiger tells us that in his time away from the desert he feels most keenly its absence, but he also shows us this feeling, in the many small, plain and beautiful segments where he describes the landscape, or the bustle of the camp, or the rambling arguments of his companions. You can discern the love he had for this place. It was a nostalgic love even then, as he writes of the changes that the discovery of oil have wrought since his journeys, with the influence of the West creeping in to alter that culture which he was one of the first and last Europeans to properly see and understand.

A vivid and moving portrayal of a culture on the brink of its eclipse, from an outsider caught between two worlds equally alien to him.