Arabian Sands

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 described 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 himself 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 on 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.

A letter from Mr. Balfour

Wilfred Thesiger on travel and its challenges by modernity