Derek Sivers
Arabian Sands - by Wilfred Thesiger

Arabian Sands - by Wilfred Thesiger

ISBN: 0141442077
Date read: 2024-01-03
How strongly I recommend it: 4/10
(See my list of 360+ books, for more.)

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

Travel journal from 1946-1948, a bit tedious at its journaling parts, just saying where they went and what they did. But I read on for the occasional cultural insights into Arab culture, and I’m glad I did. My jaw dropped when he casually mentioned spending months staying with the great Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan in Abu Dhabi, who later became founder of United Arab Emirates.

my notes

Between 1946 and 1948, Wilfred Thesiger crossed and recrossed the 250,000 square miles of the Empty Quarter, the largest sand desert in the world, in the area of modern Yemen, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Oman.
He walked barefoot so that every step in the desert burned or cut his soles.
He continued to travel on foot and by camel, long after cars were introduced, to sleep on rocks, long after the introduction of mattresses.

Fifty years ago the word Arab, generally speaking, meant an inhabitant of Arabia, and was often regarded as synonymous with the Bedu. Tribesmen who had migrated from Arabia to Egypt and elsewhere, and still lived as nomads, were spoken of as Arabs, whereas others who had become cultivators or townsmen were not. It is in this older sense that I use the word Arab, and not in the sense that the word has acquired recently with the growth of Arab Nationalism, when anyone who speaks Arabic as his mother-tongue is referred to, regardless of his origin, as an Arab. The Bedu are the nomadic camel-breeding tribes of the Arabian desert. In English they are usually called Beduin, a double plural which they themselves seldom use.

I had found a freedom unattainable in civilization; a life unhampered by possessions, since everything that was not a necessity was an encumbrance.

Satisfaction comes from hardship.
Pleasure springs from abstinence.

Bedu 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.

Arab rulers raise slaves to positions of great power, often trusting them more than they do their own relations.

Bedu for miles around would come to feed at our expense.
It would be impossible to refuse them food.
In the desert one may never turn a guest away, however unwanted he may be.

He sensed the threat which my presence implied – the approaching disintegration of his society and the destruction of his beliefs.
Here especially it seemed that the evil that comes with sudden change would far outweigh the good.
While I was with the Arabs I wished only to live as they lived and, now that I have left them, I would gladly think that nothing in their lives was altered by my coming.
But the maps I made helped others, with more material aims, to visit and corrupt a people whose spirit once lit the desert like a flame.

There is always trouble if meat is not divided by lot.
Someone immediately says that he has been given more than his share, and tries to hand a piece to someone else.
Then there is much arguing and swearing by God, with everyone insisting that he has been given too much, and finally a deadlock ensues which can only be settled by casting lots for the meat – as should have been done in the first place.
I have never heard a man grumble that he has received less than his share.
Such behaviour would be inconceivable to the Bedu, for they are careful never to appear greedy, and quick to notice anyone who is.

No race in the world prizes lineage so highly as the Arabs and none has kept its blood so pure.
Nowhere in the world was there such continuity as in the Arabian desert.
The Bedu themselves never doubted their superiority.
Even today such tribes as the Mutair and the Ajman would not regard it as an honour to give a girl from their tents in marriage even to the king of Arabia.
‘We called him Abd al Aziz, how else would we call him except by his name?’
And when I said, ‘I thought you might call him Your Majesty’, they answered, ‘We are Bedu. We have no king but God.’

The nomad tribes lived on, the pattern of their lives but little changed over this enormous span of time.
Then, in forty years, all was changed; their life disintegrated.

Meeting a stranger, they can tell which tribe he belongs to by numerous signs perceptible at once to their discerning eyes:
whether he wears his cartridge-belt buckled tightly or sagging low in front,
whether he wears his head-cloth loosely or more closely wound round his head; the stitchings on his shirt,
the folds of his loin-cloth,
the leather cover in which he carries his rifle,
the pattern on his saddle-bags,
the way he has folded his rug above them,
even the way he walks,
all these reveal his identity.
But above all they can tell from a man’s speech to which tribe he belongs.

Craving for privacy is something which Bedu will never understand; something which they will always instinctively mistrust.
I have often been asked by Englishmen if I was never lonely in the desert, and I have wondered how many minutes I have spent by myself in the years that I have lived there.
The worst loneliness is to be lonely in a crowd. I have been lonely at school, and in European towns where I knew nobody, but I have never been lonely among Arabs.
I have arrived in their towns where I was unknown, and I have walked into the bazaar and greeted a shopkeeper.
He has invited me to sit beside him in his shop and has sent for tea.
Other people have come along and joined us.
They have asked me who I was, where I came from, and innumerable questions which we should never ask a stranger.
Then one of them has said, ‘Come and lunch’, and at lunch I have met other Arabs, and someone else has asked me to dinner.
I have wondered sadly what Arabs brought up in this tradition have thought when they visited England.
I have hoped that they realized that we are as unfriendly to each other as we must appear to be to them.

I once threw a date-stone into the fire and old Tamtaim leant forward and picked it out.

I felt affection for them personally, and sympathy with their way of life. But I did not delude myself that I could be one of them. They were Bedu and I was not; they were Muslims and I was a Christian.
Nevertheless, I was their companion and an inviolable bond united us, as sacred as the bond between host and guest, transcending tribal and family loyalties.
Because I was their companion on the road, they would fight in my defence even against their brothers and they would expect me to do the same.
But I knew that for me the hardest test would be to live with them in harmony and not to let my impatience master me; neither to withdraw into myself, nor to become critical of standards and ways of life different from my own.
The conditions under which we lived would slowly wear me down, mentally if not physically, and that I should be often provoked and irritated.
When this happened the fault would be mine, not theirs.

al Auf had used no figure of speech when he said that God was his companion.
To these Bedu, God is a reality, and the conviction of his presence gives them the courage to endure.
For them to doubt his existence would be as inconceivable as for them to blaspheme.

Arabs never distinguished between what is eatable and what is not, but always between food which is lawful and food which is forbidden.
No Muslim may eat pork, blood, or the flesh of an animal which has not had its throat cut while it was still alive.
Most of them will not eat meat slaughtered by anyone other than a Muslim.
I asked if a fox was lawful food, and Hamad explained to me that sand foxes were, but mountain foxes were not.
They agreed that eagles were lawful, but ravens were forbidden, unless they were eaten as medicine to cure stomachache.

Among these people arguments frequently become impassioned, but usually the excitement dies away as quickly as it arises.
Men who were screaming at each other, ready apparently to resort to violence, will sit happily together a short while later drinking coffee.

We squatted down to drink, for no Arab drinks standing.

Feeling thoroughly ill-tempered I lay down to sleep, but this was impossible.
I tried the old spell of asking myself, ‘Would I really wish to be anywhere else?’ and having decided that I would not, I felt better.

The medieval conception of chivalry came to Europe from the Arabs at the time of the Crusades.
Bedu set great score by human dignity, and most of them would prefer to watch a man die rather than see him humiliated.

We greeted him and he said, ‘Why do you pass by my tent? Come, I will give you fat and meat.’
I protested instinctively, but he silenced me by saying, ‘If you do not come to my tent I shall divorce my wife.’
This was the divorce oath, which he was bound to obey if we refused.

‘What is “the news”?’
That question follows every encounter in the desert even between strangers.

The consciousness that they are always before an audience makes many of their actions theatrical.
Glubb once told me of a Bedu sheikh who was known as ‘The Host of the Wolves’, because whenever he heard a wolf howl round his tent he ordered his son to take a goat out in the desert, saying he would have no one call on him for dinner in vain.

Some of the richer and more ostentatious had built themselves houses which were as hideous as they were incongruous.
Soon this new style would oust the local architecture, which, although harmonious and beautiful, was suddenly no longer fashionable, simply because it had lasted unchanged for centuries.

No Bedu would ever express an opinion about the weather, since to do so would be to claim knowledge that belongs to God.
I told him that in England wise men could foretell the weather, but this was almost blasphemy.

In Arab households servants count as part of the family.
There is no social distinction between them and their masters.

For me, exploration was a personal venture.
To find peace in the hardship of desert travel and the company of desert peoples.