“Arabian Sands” is a remarkable memoir of British explorer Wilfred Thesiger documenting the author’s travel experience in the desert of Arabia between 1945 and 1950. The Centenary Edition of Arabian Sands was published in 2010 to mark the 50th anniversary of the book’s launch and the 100th anniversary of Mr. Thesiger’s birth in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (then known as Abyssinia).
The book recounts the changing life of the Bedu whom he described as nomadic camel-breeding tribes of the Arabian desert.
In his masterpiece, the author wrote that he arrived in Southern Arabia “just in time” before oil prospectors began digging for petroleum in the desert to satisfy the industrial world’s increasing thirst for oil.
He twice crossed the Empty Quarter—arguably the world’s largest desert sand and one of the most inhospitable places in the planet—and explored parts of the Sultanate of Oman.
Mr. Thesiger wrote that his journey in the Arabian desert was driven by “the lure of the unknown ... the constant test of resolution and endurance.” Yet without his Bedouin companions, his journey in the Empty Quarter would have been, according to him, “a meaningless penance.”
His book is arguably a revolutionary one in its epoch in that it transcends various mainstream stereotypical images of Arab Bedouins to paint an entirely different picture of them based on ethnographic-like experience.
At first, Thesiger felt displeasure with the frequent shouts of his companions, the lack of individual privacy, and cadging. He wrote, “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?’”
But as his knowledge of the Bedu life deepens he came to appreciate and esteem their patience, generosity, loyalty and courage in the midst of a harsh and merciless natural environment, which nonetheless conjures romantic visions of a timeless, peaceful, and unspoiled world.
Yet damage was destined to touch the life of the Bedu and their desert environment, as “economic forces beyond their control would eventually drive them into the towns to hang about street-corners as ‘unskilled labor’.”
But despite this change, the Bedu remain faithful to the legacy of their parents’ desert life; Thesiger put this forward from the very opening of the book when wrote: “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 match.”
(Mustapha Ajbaili, Night Editor of Al Arabiya English, can be reached at: Mustapha.firstname.lastname@example.org)