The Marsh Arabs

by Wilfred Thesiger

Rating: ★★★

I was initially quite impressed with this. It has been a while since I read Arabian Sands, and I had forgotten how powerful Thesiger's imagery can be. The first chapter in particular is very poetic, and scattered throughout the rest of the book you can find occasional scenes of startling beauty, as Thesiger describes the life of the Madan, pieces of touching drama, or the otherworldly scenery of the marshes. For its communication of a 'sense of place', this is very worthwhile.

However, there is a major flaw to the book. Where Arabian Sands could sometimes be unclear, The Marsh Arabs is just hopelessly confused as a narrative. The story features a vast array of sheiks and Sayids whom Thesiger is constantly meeting and describing, very few of which are distinctive characters. There are quite a few different tribes, which all have different relationships with each other and live in different regions, some of which are in the marshes and some of which are not, and the geographical relationship of which is extremely hard to follow. Thesiger proceeds vaguely chronologically, but in a very loose sense, often darting his story off into the future or the past as and when some connection arises -- another story about a character just mentioned, for example, or a different pig-hunt to the one the narrative just broke off from. This doesn't negate the positives of Thesiger's writing, but it does limit my enjoyment of them.

The book is strange in that it manages to communicate Thesiger's enjoyment of the Madan lifestyle whilst simultaneously making clear how abjectly terrible I would find the whole experience. The dirty, dank living space. The constant lack of privacy. The demanding, ungrateful locals. The long, tedious ceremonies full of insincere insistences. The complete lack of respect for stated preferences. The wasteful exhibitions. Somehow Thesiger enjoyed or tolerated all of this far more easily than he tolerated life in the West, and actively sought out what I would consider a trial of patience and endurance.

A decent enough read for anyone with a subject interest, but a decidedly uneven composition. Light nonfiction with plenty of interesting tidbits (like the Madan acceptance of transexuality), and occasional bits of stirring poetry.