“Arabian Sands”, by Wilfred Thesiger, Penguin Books.

Italo Calvino once wrote that a ‘classic’ is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say. If this is the approved meter of judgement for the category, then I’ve no doubts that Arabian Sands belongs to the genre. Want some proof? Read on. Want some proof, but you’re quite short on time? Well, I finished the Sands two weeks ago, but I’m still spending time thinking about it, re-evaluating its meaning and its messages.
The habit of saying-not-saying, when choosing a title, is undoubtedly a curse of our modern times. Had he lived today, Copernicus would have ditched On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres and would’ve gone for something a bit more eye-catching… don’t know, something like After Ptolemy: the End of the Geocentric Model. In this sense, Thesiger is as anti-modern as it gets, for Arabian Sands does, indeed, gravitate around the Arabic peninsula and its deserts. It is the chronicle of a number of voyages, done by Thesiger, through those vast swathes of emptiness that lie between Oman and the Trucial coast, done on camelback in that crucial period between the end of the War and the oil boom.
Thesiger’s matter-of-factness is, perhaps, this book’s only fault. I feel a bit like Brutus, hailing him whilst stabbing him at the back, but hear me out. The stories in this book are extraordinary, and so must have been his life. Born in Ethiopia (or Abyssinia, as it was called back then), he lived in Sudan and then Syria. He joined the war effort, ending up in the SAS, operating in North Africa, becoming then an advisor for the King of Ethiopia, before leaving Africa for the Arabic peninsula. He embarked in expeditions that were nothing short of extraordinary, mapping places where no other European had previously gone. Yet, all this is conveyed in such a no-fuss prose that one sort of becomes accustomed to it, and that’s a damn shame, for it’d been great – for once – to read extensively about the exploits of someone who actually had done something in his life.
But self-glorification, I guess, wasn’t in Wilfred’s chords. I imagine him as the quintessential old boy, schooled at Eton and Oxford, recipient of a Distinguished Service Order for bravery in war, stiff upper lip and all that. But there’s a difference from the cliché, a difference that makes Arabian Sands a classic.
The year, let me stress it, were 1945-1950. Nazism’s horrors might’ve been well known by them, but ethnocentrism was as dominant as the faith in progress, and those who wrote about “savages” or “natives” were still in business or on the cusp of retirement. Yet, these are just but a few quote from the Sands.
«For this was the real desert where differences of race and colour, of wealth and social standing, are almost meaningless»
«I went there with a belief in my own racial superiority, but in their tents I felt like an uncouth, inarticulate barbarian, an intruder from a shoddy and materialistic world»
«I though how desperately hard were the lives of the Bedu in this weary land, and how gallant and how enduring was their spirit. Now, listening to their talk and watching the little act of courtesy which they instinctively performed, I knew by comparison how sadly I must fail, how selfish I must prove»
This is, to me, what makes the Sands a great book, a great classic; it’s not just the chronicle of a great journey, the descriptions of inaccessible lands, but also and more importantly it’s the honest report of the journey of the mind undertaken by Thesiger, from a vague yearning for something to the full realisation that where he wanted to be was the desert, and who he wanted to be was one of its inhabitants. Lucidly, however, Thesiger also acknowledges that, try as he might, he’ll never be one of the Bedu, the Sands dwellers and, perhaps even more tragically, he is acutely aware that it’s his society – and even his own work – that will lead to the demise of the Bedu’s way of life.
I reflected upon this the other day, whilst going through Regent’s Park in London. I walked past the ponds where many wealthy Arabs, living in the nearby mansions of St. John’s Wood, relaxed in the twilight. I watched their carefully chosen clothes, plump build, expensive gizmos and features enhanced by the expert hand of some Swiss plastic surgeon, and compared them with Bin Kabina, Bin Ghabaisha and all the other companions of Thesiger: men that had one shirt, ate once a day and envied a man whose generosity ruined him. Haven’t we, and our thirst for oil, ruined them?
I was certain of that, as Thesiger was. But then, today, I read this blog entry about Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia. A place which I always read described as a hell-hole, a sell-out to the demons of capitalism and yadda yadda yadda. But, is it? Isn’t it that, perhaps, locals want it to be like it is? Isn’t it a bit patronising to expect Bedu to be nomads, living on one lump of flour cooked in ashes forever and ever, just because this is what they always did?
Truth is, I don’t know. I’ll pick up Arabian Sands again in the future, and perhaps one time more, and maybe it’ll give me an answer. Or maybe it’ll tell me something different; but, after all, that’s the power of classics.
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8 Responses to “Arabian Sands”, by Wilfred Thesiger, Penguin Books.

  1. LaVagabonde says:

    Brilliant review, Fabrizio. It’s been so long since I’ve read a book that kept me thinking long after I finished and made me ask myself hard questions. If I ever come across this, I’ll definitely give it a read.

    I think On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres is a wonderfully poetic title for a work. In fact, I named my blog post about Torun, Poland (birthplace of Copernicus) exactly that. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Thanks for your comment, Julie. Thesiger is surely worth a read, he must’ve been a very interesting person to speak to. Too bad he passed away in 2003, I read he was based in Croydon; I’d have loved to meet him.
      I don’t know much about poetry, in fact it’s one of the things that really escapes my understanding (as well as spotting when ladies had had their hair done), but “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres” is as unambiguous, as a title, as it can be and I can only admire Copernicus for that. How was Torun? It looked quite nice from my quick Google search, and its name is not that different from Turin, which shines a positive light in my mind! 😉


  2. lexklein says:

    If I were not already in deep thought about your post as I read through it, I certainly was at the end when an allusion to my thoughts on Ulaanbaatar appeared! As a linguist, I have slowly moved away from a prescriptivist toward a more descriptivist view of language and grammar; we want things to stay the same, but we ultimately have to acknowledge that “the only constant is change” so we might as well describe it. And language just mirrors changes in society overall. As I said in my post comments, I do lament some of the changes taking place around the world, but who are we outsiders to say what is good and what is bad? I think of Cuba; we all want to go “before it changes,” but what if they can’t wait for it to change?! Anyway, thanks for the mention and the review. I think this is the second book you’ve added to my growing pile to be read!

    Liked by 2 people

    • awtytravels says:

      Argh, my apologies! The hyperlink to your post got lost in the journey between Word and WordPress via the e-mail browser. But now it’d be working just fine.
      I really like your parallelism between language and change; there’s no constant but change, no matter how it makes me chagrin when I read “thru”, “your” instead of “you’re” or, in Italian, people ignoring the existence of subjunctive or using Ks in lieu of “CH”.
      I can agree to an extent about ‘going somewhere before it changes’. Sure enough, I bet Cubans will be happy to trade their 1950s Cadillacs for more modern rides, but sometimes is the change, and tourism, good? I think for instance at Venice, or Florence. They are largely theme parks, not places where people actually live.


  3. lexklein says:

    Oh, that’s OK about the link! You are nice to add it.

    I am right with you on so many changes: I have taught grammar in various languages and I love grammar rules, so it pains me terribly to see certain neologisms and stupid grammar and punctuation errors. I have fallen deeply in love with places that are now undergoing changes that I deplore. I harangue my kids about how life was different (better, I mean, of course!) before. And I travel to see unique and different places on this earth, but I’ve begun to recognize that in doing so, I am one small part of the change that I will later decry! My dollars help and they hurt. There is no good answer or stance, so I just try to enjoy things as they are and not get too worked up about how I think they should be. (I promise I’ll stop filling up your comment section!) 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      I like the comments section to be filled, especially if it’s with meaningful ones, such as this one, so spam away! (well it isn’t spam). Anyway, Lexi, with your reference to the dollars, you’ve basically paraphrased Thesiger, because he said exactly the same in the book. Ever ridden a camel through Arabia by any chance?

      Liked by 1 person

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