Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger

Travels in the 1940’s with the Bedouin. Your starting point for books about Arabia.

Wilfred Thesiger never imagined he would write about his experiences out in the sands of Arabia. When he was later asked to do so by his friends he initially refused as “I did not wish to settle down in Europe for a few years when I could be travelling in countries that interested me.”

Thesiger arrived in Arabia “..only just in time.” He was absorbed with the traditional way of life of the Bedouin and in his five years there travelled some ten thousand miles by camel. The oil prospecting and the road construction appalled him and he was the last witness to a world that has all but vanished. The changing economy meant that oil wells became more common that oases and the Bedouin were forced out of their mastery of the desert to a humdrum existence in the towns.

“Forces as uncontrollable as the droughts that so often killed them in the past have destroyed the economy of their lives. Now it is not death but degradation that awaits them.”

Thesiger sought to be accepted by the Bedouin and so dressed as they did and adapted his classical Arabic as best he could. At first he could not stand the physical strain of camping shoulder to shoulder with so many men who never talked when they could shout. There was no privacy and if he should attempt to have a quiet word with someone on the side everyone came rushing over to find out what was so secret.

The bread was baked in the sand and so forever covered in it, the water (when there was some) was so brackish that at times even the camels refused to eat it, and everyone for miles around saw Thesiger as a gold mine.

“I had yet to learn that no Bedouin thinks it shameful to beg and that often he will look at the gift he has received and say ‘Is this all you are going to give me?’… In my more bitter moments I thought that Bedouin life was one long round of cadging and being cadged from.”

Thesiger eventually overcame his prejudices though and came to esteem the Bedouin above all other men. Their patience, generosity and loyalty frequently overwhelmed him. On one occasion they run out of water in the desert and pass 24 hours before they reach a well. When they do his companions all refrain from drinking for another five hours because a few of their party were still attending to the camels.

Thesiger came to understand the value of the camel in the desert. He observed how the Bedouin took better care of the camels than they did of themselves. The camel was one’s lifeline in the desert and they could live purely from its milk when hard pressed. If a camel refused to give milk then they might sew up its anus until it complied.

Yet they would caress and kiss their camels as they led them to grazing and each Bedouin knew the identities and life history of any camel within 500 miles. Theisger was amazed when just from reading the tracks in the sand, the Bedouin could tell not only from what tribe the camel came and whether it was in calf, but 9 times out of ten they knew which particular camel it was. And if they found any camel shit nearby then they would know where the camel had last grazed and when it has last drank water.

Traveling by camel gave Thesiger the time to appreciate the desert.

“I had no desire to travel faster. In this way there was time to notice things – a grasshopper under a bush, a dead swallow, the tracks of a hare… The very slowness of our march diminished its monotony. I thought how terribly boring it would be to rush about this country in a car.”

As nothing was private in the world of the Bedouin, everything Thesiger did and said would soon be discussed up to 1000 miles away. The Bedouin lived on gossip and therefore led their lives as though every single act was performed for everyone to see. There was a sheikh who liked to send out a dead goat every time he heard a desert wolf howl. He would not have any guest who came to his tents go away hungry.

Shame carried the same weight as veneration and in argument one Bedouin might embarrass the other by declaring: ‘Well, at least my grandfather never farted in public.” And the other would turn crimson red.

Generosity was the other feature among the Bedouin that was hard for Thesiger to understand. No Bedouin could refuse another something he asked for, even if it should be his only loin cloth. When a decrepit old man turned up in camp one day, Thesiger couldn’t comprehend why everyone made such a fuss of him. He later learnt that he had once been very rich but had gone broke. His friend explained why:

“‘His generosity ruined him. No one ever came to his tents but he killed a camel to feed them. By God, he is generous!’ I could hear the envy in his voice.”

This generosity even prevailed when after a week of crossing the vast dunes of the Arabian Sands, Thesiger and his small group haven’t eaten for days and manage to catch a hare. They are preparing their tiny meal with great excitement when suddenly three guests turn out of the desert.

“I hope I did not look as murderous as I felt when I joined the others in assuring them that God had brought them on this auspicious occasion.”

Not that the Bedouin all got along with one another. Far from it. The tribes were forever warring and raiding one another’s camels. Their justice was brutal and blood feuds waged for centuries between rival tribes. If one member of their tribe had been killed the week before, they would find someone of the guilty tribe and drive a dagger through his ribs, even if he be just a boy of ten.

Thesiger crossed the Empty Quarter twice and also explored parts of Oman off limits to infidels such as him. For the Bedouin there only existed their desert and the Christian world – where they had heard of some distant war among the Christians (world war two). They were forever asking Thesiger how was his tribe (the English) and whether they also rode camels.

Yet change was destined to come with the arrival of the oil prospectors and the local sheiks began to canvas for the lucrative contracts. Theisger by no mark believed that the money would benefit the Bedouin who had always considered themselves superior to the town folk. From masters of the desert they would now be driven”… into the towns to hang about on a corner as ‘unskilled labour.'”

Thesiger concludes his foreword by saying:

“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 clime can hope to match.”