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Wilfred Thesiger spent years travelling with Bedouins across the vast, harsh Arabian deserts. His journeys ...
2018-10-10 00:00:00

The Aristocracy of Crumbling Sands
Wilfred Thesiger’s Journeys Through Arabia

Photo by Wilfred Patrick Thesiger, Copyright Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford
The Aristocracy of Crumbling Sands
The Aristocracy of Crumbling Sands

He criticized and rejected globalization long before it gained momentum. He practised and promoted ecotourism and sustainable development long before those names were coined. Wilfred Thesiger crossed the Arabian deserts together with Bedouins. They saved his life. He gave them his heart.

Read in 22 minutes

Heavily-burdened camels trembled with effort, but also with fear. The sand under their hooves slid down in cascades. The animals were afraid to walk on the crumbly surface, angled dangerously on steep slopes over 100 metres high. Camels would stop, hinder progress or lie down in protest. The Bedouins would unload their water bags, then bags of flour, dates, coffee, onions, butter and sugar, and carry them uphill on their own backs. Each man was allowed no more than three glasses of water a day, and yet they poured the precious liquid down the camels’ nostrils, in hopes of convincing the animals to follow them once again, despite their exhaustion and hunger.

Wherever they came across a patch of green, they would let the camels roam freely to graze. The British explorer Wilfred Thesiger reminisced about his travel companions in his later-published book Arabian Sands, the most important and most beautiful book ever written on the subject. He commented that those callous men, so unforgiving of weakness, were always infinitely patient and kind to their animals.

A less empty quarter

“It is the possible collapse of their camels which haunts them. If this happens, death is certain,” wrote Thesiger. The animals shivered terribly. How much further would they manage to go, he wondered ahead of every sand dune, after which another was waiting, and another, even higher after that, and so on, all the way to the horizon. “In that infinity of space I could see no living thing, not even a withered plant to give me hope. ‘There is nowhere to go’, I thought.”

Photo by Wilfred Patrick Thesiger, Copyright Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford
Photo by Wilfred Patrick Thesiger, Copyright Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

This is how the Empty Quarter looked in 1945. It was a dead, frightening piece of land, spiked with sharp sand dunes raised by the wind. Back then, it was the last piece of the Arabian Peninsula desert that remained unexplored and unmarred by external influence.

Its exploration meant, above all, the ultimate experience of an infinitely vast nothingness. It was a test for the spirit. Thesiger would have never survived it if not for his innate serenity and the boundless courage of the Bedouins with whom he travelled. And it was them, not the sea of sand, that became the subject of his deep fascination. Thesiger saw their nobility, humility, and elegance, shaped in extreme conditions. His books and photographs are the only available documentation of the past everyday life in the Arabian Desert. They are more than just archives; they are a testimony to the courage and hospitality of those desert tribes. These documents are also an exceptional and unique record of an intimate relationship between a Christian European and Muslim Bedouins, who even today – in an era of routine business flights to Dubai, Doha and Muscat – remain mysterious and elusive. There is no other Westerner of whom the descendants of Bedouins would speak with such esteem.

After years of sharing everyday hardships with the desert nomads – after “finding his life in death,” as described by Thomas Edward Lawrence – Wilfred Thesiger wrote: “My greatest achievement was winning their confidence.”

He never carried out any useful or precise research, nor analyses. What he did leave behind was a record of a genuine friendship, crossing the barriers of distrust and strangeness. He did this at the last possible moment, right before the world he had explored and grew to love was irreversibly changed. Thesiger’s legacy is so unusual because of its elusiveness. It is impossible to follow in his footsteps. The top of Mount Everest and the North Pole are now crowded with professionals and amateurs alike. But that emptiness, those sands singing in the desert winds – they are gone forever.

Since the 1950s, the Arabian Peninsula has gone through an era of fantastic development and was rapidly urbanized. Its cities, skyscrapers, airports and harbours are among the most modern constructions in the world. Bedouins have swapped their huts for sprawling villas, and traded their camels for luxurious off-road vehicles. In a blink of an eye, they were transformed. From the poorest, perpetually starved and suffering herdsmen, they turned into financial emperors. The desert, divided between several countries, is owned by autocratic leaders, about whom Thesiger said astutely: “Arabs rule but do not administer. Their government is intensely individualistic.”

His Arabia – then-forgotten, lethargic, medieval – is now setting up the pace of the global rush.

A staff in his hand and certainty in his heart

In October 1945, they took off from the seaside region of Dhofar in Oman. Its largest settlement, known as Salalah, did not even have its own harbour. The souq, consisting of a dozen sellers’ booths, was the only market within almost 1300 kilometres. Thesiger gave each of the Bedouins a rifle with some bullets, and a promise of payment as soon as they reached their destination. In order to get there, they would have to survive weeks of strenuous journey punctuated with freezing cold nights, sweltering days, constant hunger, thirst and effort. Even the most resilient Bedouins rarely went where they were going. Part of the team (the men from the Bait Kathir tribe) quit soon after departure. Only a small group ploughed forward, funded by Thesiger, who decided to conquer the largest sand desert in the world, hiding his real purpose behind a veneer of research on a Middle Eastern species of locust, with no permission to travel this land. Over a decade before him, in 1930, an easier route lined with wells was covered by two European travellers, namely Bertram Thomas and St. John Philby.

Thesiger’s expedition was the first and only Alpine style expedition, with no porters, no protection, and no large reserves of food and water. Its members walked lightly, usually next to camels. The only technological advancement they had access to were their rifles. Thesiger packed a compass and camera. He became so close to the Bedouins that he could freely photograph them. The collection of his photos – passed on to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford before his death – remains a document of life that was already lost in the past a few years later.

Photo by Wilfred Patrick Thesiger, Copyright Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford
Photo by Wilfred Patrick Thesiger, Copyright Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

“I arrived at Southern Arabia just in time,” he said in one of his last interviews. Thesiger passed away in 2003. He received a number of prestigious travel medals and awards, titles of nobility and the Order of the British Empire.

In 1945, his guide in the lifeless desert was Al Auf, a Bedouin well along in years from one of the Southern tribes. He was quiet and kept to himself. Thesiger wrote about his calmness, determination and intuition. After a few hours of rest, Al Auf would suddenly rise, which meant it was time to pack the camp. He walked with a long staff in his hand, and always chose steep paths and shadowy passes between long ranges of tall sand dunes.

He had already walked across the Sands twice. The Sands – that’s what the Bedouins called this land. In the early 20th century, the British called it the Empty Quarter. Now it’s known as the Rub' al Khali desert. It covers an area of 650,000 square kilometres. Dune chains are often 300 metres tall and carved with deep, long dried-out riverbeds. The desert covers the lands of Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen. It’s largely uninhabited, but today it can be crossed by car. Many tourists come here for dune rides and picnics, to enjoy the views and sleep under the stars.

Wind-whipped dunes

When the British explorer decided to cross the desert, it was, in his words, “a bitter, desiccated land which knows nothing of gentleness or ease. Yet men have lived there since earliest times.” The desert of Southern Arabia was a world that belonged to various groups, all of which were painfully poor and in conflict with one another, and yet connected by common customs and traditions. “Each valley was owned by a different section of the tribe, and all of them were jealous of each other and much divided,” wrote Thesiger.

Travel through this vast sprawl of emptiness meant crushing loneliness, but it also brought the likelihood of meetings that could be either risky or lucky. Among those wind-whipped dunes, any man could be bringing them death or salvation. In the desert, they were ultimately dependent on other people’s intentions. The Bedouins travelling with Thesiger would bend over camel footprints in the sand, recognizing them with absolute certainty. They could tell which animal it was, to whom it belonged, when it walked this way, and what it was carrying. They knew if friends or enemies were near. “Bedu notice everything and forget nothing.” The great desert was, in fact, a village covered with a thick net of relationships and messages carried by travellers from camp to camp. Those men loved talking. “‘What is the news?’ It is the question which follows every encounter in the desert even between strangers. Given a chance the Bedu will gossip for hours, as they had done last night, and nothing is too trivial for them to recount. There is no reticence in the desert. If a man distinguishes himself he knows that his fame will be widespread; if he disgraces himself he knows that the story of his shame will inevitably be heard in every encampment.”

Photo by Wilfred Patrick Thesiger, Copyright Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford
Photo by Wilfred Patrick Thesiger, Copyright Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

The tradition of information-passing was crucial for survival, but for a white Christian – crossing the desert with no official permits and no invitation from the hermetic clans – meant a deadly threat. Attentive Bedouins astutely told him to change his identity every now and again, pretending to be a Syrian, an Adenese merchant, or a mentally-handicapped passenger.

Tribal alliances and animosities changed quickly. To assemble a perfect team, Thesiger had to take with him men of rare talents – skilled guides and hunters – but he also needed to make sure they belonged to various tribes. Each man was a kind of insurance policy. They could choose the right one to send to the well or to an oasis for talks, and ensure they would be kindly received.

Bedu shout, Bedu share

The most important law of the desert was the law of hospitality. Every traveller who was given a cup of coffee (always poured standing, but drank squatting) would automatically be granted protection and safety until they went on their way. Sometimes Thesiger and his starved companions had to give their rabbit stew – the first meat they managed to catch in weeks – to unexpected guests. But it also happened that friendly strangers would kill their own camel to feed their group, exhausted and semi-conscious. Then they would eat and drink to their heart’s content, saved by the kindness of strangers.

Camels were bought or obtained in fights, during brutal attacks between tribes. Bedouins shared their loot in accordance with the same rules they followed in everyday life: openly and even-handedly. They had no secrets from each other. “Bedu always shout,” wrote Thesiger, pointing out that it was against their nature to plot in secret. They were strangers to silence and to greed. Bedu always divided the loot into even portions (as many as there were raiders) and then drew straws. This procedure decided the order in which men chose their portions of newly acquired goods. The rifle and bullets of a killed man always belonged to the one who took his life.

Female camels were most valued, not the young ones – Bedouins had a lot of respect for their experience. They only ever slaughtered those that were the most exhausted, and the ones whose hooves were worn out raw, not allowing them to walk any further. “Desert people can be as callous about their own sufferings as they are about the sufferings of others and of animals. […] But if Arabs are callous they are never deliberately cruel. It would have been inconceivable to my companions that anyone could derive pleasure from inflicting pain,” wrote Thesiger. An animal could be stolen from a camp, but never while grazing. Vengeance, just like the truth, would find everyone. Female camels, grazing freely, could be milked by anyone passing by. Thesiger and his men would sometimes come across women with children, looking after their herds. Even before they got close, Bedu women dressed in dark blue robes would prepare bowls of fresh milk for them, and little boys would run naked towards them, carrying milk in their hands. The men would drink, then look at the milk-bearing camel and say: “God bless her!”

Evenings spent in the camp were rare glimpses of respite from daily struggle. Rings of fire were surrounded by tight gatherings of people. Camels slept nearby. “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,” reminisced Thesiger.

Despite icy nights, Bedouins would always sleep on the sand, uncovered. They owned nothing apart from their worn-out garb and head-cloth, their knife and their rifle. They ate modestly. Apart from bitter coffee and milk, their diet consisted of dates and flatbread baked in sand-covered fire embers. Oatmeal was a luxury; it needed a lot of water. And water found in wells was murky and disgusting, so they had to mix it with milk. When watering camels, they had to close their nostrils or the animals would refuse to drink.

“We haven’t had meat for a month. […] I was always hungry and usually thirsty,” Thesiger wrote. And yet, whenever he went to sleep with a saddle under his head, bone-weary and famished, he would ask himself whether he would like to be anywhere else right now. The answer was always no. It was there, in the rawest landscape on Earth, surrounded by the poorest and the proudest of men, that he found freedom and contentment.

The nights in camps were filled with laughter and buzzing from disputes about events that happened a long time ago, far away, and had nothing to do with anyone present. But this never stopped Bedu from reliving those stories anew and enjoying the conversation until the small hours of the morning. The agony of daily travel evaporated the moment darkness enveloped the desert. “We always camped crowded together. All around us was endless space, and yet in our camps there was scarcely room to move. […] I have never been lonely among Arabs.”

Since the beginning of their journey, Thesiger ate, slept and lived like his companions. He wore Arab clothes, learned to ride squatting on the saddle, he walked barefoot. At first, he burnt the soles of his feet terribly. Soon, they hardened; became callused and indifferent to heat and cold. On some mornings, walking on frosty sand was like treading on snow. Thesiger had spent five years on the Sands. He crossed the south side first, and then again, walking from Yemen through the western part of the desert all the way to Abu Dhabi. He wanted no special treatment, no concessions. It was his goal to conquer the desert, to confront it on equal terms. “In those empty wastes I could find the peace that comes with solitude, and, among the Bedu, comradeship in a hostile world. Without it these journeys would have been a meaningless penance.”

Pushing limits in foreign lands

Wilfred Thesiger was born in Abyssinia in 1910. His father was a British minister and a friend of the future emperor Haile Selassie I. Wilfred came into this world too late for one century and too soon for another. He criticized and rejected globalization long before it gained momentum. He practised and promoted ecotourism and sustainable development long before those names were coined. His expeditions and travel journals are an example for today’s authors and explorers looking for the last paths towards respecting and celebrating traditional lifestyles in a radically transformed world.

Thesiger inherited his curiosity and restlessness from his mother, unable to sit through diplomatic tea parties. She eagerly travelled across today’s Ethiopia, often taking little Billy with her. When he was seven years old, Thesiger witnessed an unusual spectacle in Addis Ababa: he saw a triumphant march of African soldiers; the Abyssinian Emperor’s army was coming back from a victorious battle. The boy watched men clad in animal skins, carrying weapons, drunk on the fight and on their enemies’ blood. “I believe that day implanted in me a life-long craving for barbaric splendour, for savagery and colour and the throb of drums,” he wrote later.

In Africa, he found happiness. He suffered through boarding schools in Sussex, Eaton and Oxford, where he was sent just like every young man from his distinguished family of Chelmsford barons. Strict routine, rivalry and snobbery could not be more foreign to his sensitivity and to his intrinsic love for wide spaces and unhindered freedom. On his first vacation, he boarded a steam-ship to Istanbul. He paid his fare by working on the ship, and he came back by train, travelling third class. Next year, he spent his summer break on a trawler off the shores of Iceland. There he learned how to survive many nights without sleep. As a 20-year-old, he knew that much about himself: “I craved for the past, resented the present, and dreaded the future.”

He considered Western civilization and its machines an abomination. He couldn’t possibly think of anything duller than driving a car, going to a movie theatre or listening to the radio. He considered local cultures decidedly superior. He admired their authenticity and independence; their symbiotic connection with nature.

He was 24 when Haile Selassie sent him a personal invitation to his coronation. Thesiger flew to Ethiopia without looking back – he had no intention of returning to England. He found employment in Sudan’s diplomatic service; during World War II he fought in northern Africa against Italians and the French from Vichy. He witnessed the brutal destruction and forceful enforcement of the new order. As a son of British aristocrats, he stood against everything he represented. At the first available occasion, he went on to explore the grim desert lands of the Danakil tribe, known for cutting off intruders’ genitals. He travelled and hunted. He shot over 70 lions and even fostered two cubs himself.

He traced the previously unexplored course of the Awash River in Ethiopia. He would happily pounce at every blank spot on every map, seizing any chance to explore unknown lands, to push his own limits, take up a virgin challenge.

There, at Sahara, he fell in love with the desert. “I was exhilarated by the sense of space, the silence, and the crisp cleanness of the sand. I felt in harmony with the past, travelling as men had travelled for untold generations across the deserts, dependent for their survival on the endurance of their camels and their own inherited skills,” he wrote later.

He liked the taste of freedom and camaraderie. “I slept in the open on the ground beside them and learnt to treat them as companions and not as servants.” The desert had found a way into his soul, even though he didn’t know that yet.

The greater the toil, the nobler the people

In March 1945, Thesiger resigned from his position as an advisor to the Emperor of Abyssinia. He planned his return to England. While waiting for his plane, he was invited for dinner. There he met O. B. Lean, who was the head of the Middle East Anti-Locust Unit. Mr. Lean was looking for a researcher willing to travel in order to find out the reasons behind the spreading of a certain type of insect responsible for famine around the Arabian Desert. Thesiger accepted the offer before dessert.

The five years he had spent in the sandy desert were a time of increasing political conflicts, both on colonial and tribal levels. However, most Bedouins with whom he travelled across the merciless void of the desert were completely indifferent to the outside world and largely unaware of it. Thesiger himself was a member of a dying species; a romantic traveller entangled in a tragic conflict. He couldn’t find his place in the modern world, but his presence among the Arabs was, after all, heralding the arrival of a new world order. He was the agent of looming disaster. Thesiger tried very hard to travel back in time with Bedouins and to permeate their ancient lifestyle, which the nomads abandoned soon after oil drilling began, choosing comfort and new inventions.

Photo by Wilfred Patrick Thesiger, Copyright Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford
Photo by Wilfred Patrick Thesiger, Copyright Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

Thesiger openly admired Bedouins. Their ascetic lifestyle, commitment to honour, and discipline were in his opinion very similar to the aristocratic ethos. “Their life is at all times desperately hard, and they are merciless critics of those who fall short in patience, good humour, generosity, loyalty, or courage,” he observed. The greater the toil, the nobler the people. This was the lesson he had learned in the desert.

Desert wolves

Thesiger felt that between him and those ‘desert wolves’ would always be an Empty Quarter he would never be able to cross. “While they were prepared to tolerate me as a source of very welcome revenue, they never doubted my inferiority. They were Muslims and Bedu and I was neither,” he observed, adding that “I shall always remember how often I was humbled by those illiterate herdsmen who possessed, in so much greater measure than I, generosity and courage, endurance, patience, and lighthearted gallantry. Among no other people have I ever felt the same sense of personal inferiority.” He wrote those words with gratitude, not with sorrow.

Wilfred Thesiger never married and never fathered any children. The closest relationship in his life was the one with two Bedouins he met when they were 17. Bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha accompanied him in his travels across Rub' al Khali. “The two of us will go with you wherever you want. We will always be your men,” promised the young bin Kabina. Thesiger wrote that they were like sons to him. He photographed them the same way one takes pictures of their friends: casually and during everyday activities. He felt guilty for risking their lives during their second trip when they were crossing the beautiful golden-red dunes of the western Sands. They walked without a guide – Thesiger was following Philby’s map and his compass, while the sands around them swarmed with hostile tribes.

They travelled across the lands of the Wahabi people who, when hearing of a Christian in their group, spat on the ground and refused to sell them food. Only a miracle prevented them from meeting other tribes that had left the Sands a week earlier; tribes who would have killed them on sight.

“The hatred which I encountered was a disturbing experience. It was ugly, as is all hatred, and to me, accustomed to religious tolerance, it seemed senseless; but I wondered if it were not preferable to the new hatred based on distinctions of colour, nationality, and class which our civilization has engendered,” wrote Thesiger.

He never idealized any of the desert tribes and openly described the Bedouins’ disposition to extreme attitudes. He understood the reasons for conflicts haunting us to this day, albeit on a different scale. “To [them] I was an intruder from an alien civilization, which they identified with Christianity. They knew that the Christian had subjugated most of the Muslim world, and that contact with their civilization had everywhere destroyed or profoundly modified the beliefs, institutions, and culture they cherished.” He came across tribes in the midst of an ideological revolution, aggressive and hostile towards any representatives of the West – not unlike today’s extremist groups.

Photo by Wilfred Patrick Thesiger, Copyright Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford
Photo by Wilfred Patrick Thesiger, Copyright Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

Luckily, Thesiger’s expedition reached the Liwa Oasis and the hospitable home of His Highness Sheikh Zayed, known for his love of Land Rovers and falconry. It was Sheikh Zayed who would create the United Arab Emirates 20 years later.

Later on, however, Thesiger was arrested by the Saudi authorities, and the Sultan of Muscat cancelled his visa. By the end of the 1940s, Thesiger’s selfless travels were a thorn in the side of local governors and oil companies. In this new world, there was no place for melancholic wanderers who travelled on foot. Still, his admiration for the desert nomads and herders never faltered, nor did his trust for them: “They could at any times have murdered me, dumped my body in a sand-drift, and gone off with my possessions. Yet so absolute was my faith in them that the thought that they might betray me never crossed my mind,” he claimed.

He dismissed bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha, ordering them to return at once to their family tribes in the south of the desert. The world he loved was crumbling before his eyes.

Thesiger spent the rest of his life travelling to the last remaining patches of unclaimed, unexplained space. He visited the settlements of Arabs living in the marshes of Iraq, crossing Afghanistan and Pakistan, until he reached Central Asia. He lived in the north of Kenya with the Turkana and Samburu tribes. He planned to die there; he wanted his body to be left for the wild animals to eat.

But his closest companions had passed away, and he struggled with Parkinson’s disease. Despite his dream, he was forced to spend his final years in a nursing home in Surrey. Bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha visited him once on his birthday – they were already grown men, fathers and husbands. Their visit stirred his memories of former happiness.

“Now I had crossed it [the Empty Quarter]. To others my journey would have little importance. It would produce nothing except a rather inaccurate map which no one was ever likely to use. It was a personal experience, and the reward had been a drink of clean, nearly tasteless water.”

I came across Wilfred Thesiger’s photographs and writings in Al Ain, a city in the United Arab Emirates. The Arabs have set up a gallery dedicated to his memory in the historical Al Jahili Fort. They greet all visitors with strong bitter coffee and friendly conversation. Their hospitality and subtle chivalry remain unchanged.

 

All quotations are part of Wilfred Thesiger’s book Arabian Sands, first published in the UK in 1959.

 

Translated by Aga Zano

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