Wilfred Thesiger 1948
Here, to be alone was to feel at once the weight of fear, for the nakedness of this land was more terrifying than the darkest forest at dead of night. In the pitiless light of day we were as insignificant as the beetles I watched labouring across the sand. Only in the kindly darkness could we borrow a few square feet of desert and find homeliness within the radius of the firelight, while overhead the familiar pattern of the stars screened the awful mystery of space.
All the time I lived in the Middle East, I resisted explorer Wilfred Thesiger’s books. One reason for this was that generally, although I am an avid reader, I am not a big fan of autobiography. I prefer to have Experiences of my own, instead of reading about other peoples’.
Despite the photo below, I was never about to jump into a head-dress and wander across the Empty Quarter fighting off camel raiders with a second world war rifle; but the OTHER reason I didn’t read Thesiger’s account of his travels is because I feared it would be a bit ex-colonial pip pip jolly good tally ho old cock, what?
Eid 2003: Intrepid explorer. That thing you see in my hand? A mug of sea breeze. The insistent knocking sound you hear? Wilfred Thesiger turning in his grave.
Two weeks ago, I came across a copy of ‘Arabian Sands’ at the Blenheim Friday Market for $1 and felt it would be churlish bordering on ill-mannered to leave it on the stand.
This would normally be one of those books that would sit worthily on my bedside table for a while before being relegated to the top of my Stack Of Worthy Books, gradually making its way down as the pile collects additional Worthy Books, but never quite reaching the bottom which is reserved for ‘Heart of Darkness’ and anything by Paulo Coelho.
Instead, I started reading Arabian Sands, and was surprised to find it – ‘gripping’ is not entirely accurate, but I wouldn’t balk at – ‘unputdownable’.
The book is an account of Thesiger’s expeditions from 1945-1950 in the Empty Quarter of Arabia, one of the largest sand deserts in the world covering around 650,000 square kilometres.
Slightly more recent satellite image of The Empty Quarter
At the time, obtaining permission to travel the area was problematic even for an upstanding member of the Middle East Anti-Locust Unit. Thesiger and his Bedu guides faced constant threats: being massacred by warring tribes, plotting a course through the barren terrain, locating the sparse wells, leaking water skins, gnawing hunger, grinding thirst, starving camels, and testicle-hunters:-
The Danakil country, where the people were head-hunters who collected testicles instead of heads. Among them a man’s standing depended to a very large extent on his reputation as a warrior, which was judged by the number of men he had killed and mutilated. There was no need to kill another man in fair fight; all that was required to establish a reputation was to collect the necessary number of severed genitals. I found it disconcerting to be stared at by a Danakil, feeling that he was probably assessing my value as a trophy.
Thesiger spends little time on analysis or introspection, but his factual, astringent prose beautifully describes the desert environment. The book also features some gorgeous black and white plates.
The Empty Quarter 1948, Wilfred Thesiger.
Dubai Creek, undated.
Arabian Sands is a little sparse on plot, and any suspense is tempered by the author’s evidently surviving to write several books. But there is no shortage of baddies, trial, tribulation; and it is a startling snapshot of the Arab people and a vanished way of life.
The Qarra, a tribe that lived near Salala, had a unique technique for milking cows:
Before a man milked a cow – women were forbidden even to touch the udders – he would sometimes put his lips to the cow’s vagina and blow into it to induce the cow to lower her milk.
And a remedy for your camel refusing to give milk:
. . . an ugly grey, which we had bought in the Raidat because she was in milk. At first she refused to give us any, although her calf had already been weaned, but Amai sewed up her anus, saying he would not undo it until she let down her milk. After that she gave us about a quart a day.
Arab place name conventions are evidently more – let’s call it – imaginative than New Zealand:
Two days later we were camped near a well with the uninviting name of Faswat at Ajuz, or ‘the Hag’s C*ough!*’.
And let me tell you, the Tihama know how to really rock a circumcision.