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.