Friday, May 07, 2004

Lee Smith on Wilfred Thesiger

Spring 2004

Muslim Brotherhood

Wilfred Thesiger hated cars, so it's somehow fitting that the adventure and travel writer's masterpiece was set in the one part of the world more instrumental than even Detroit in advancing the career of the motor engine. In his 1959 classic Arabian Sands, Thesiger recalls one night in the desert where he heard the dreaded sound of an "engine racing and realized that it was stuck in the sand. Resenting all cars, especially in Arabia, I was rather pleased that it was in trouble!"

The automobile, as Thesiger later discovers, belonged to a fellow Englishman as well-traveled in the Arabian desert as he was, Harry St. John Philby, who'd come to help the author out of a jam. A recent Muslim convert and former British agent (and father of the spy Kim Philby), Philby was a friend not only of Thesiger's but also of the man Thesiger had dangerously annoyed, Ibn Saud, the Saudi king whom Philby had successfully courted on behalf of Standard Oil.

It seems that Thesiger was one of the few men, Western or Arab, on the Arabian peninsula who intentionally avoided any dealings in the oil business. He was somewhat sanctimonious in his disdain for the march of progress, as even his bedouin friends had no problems with rapid transport. "Why would I not go in an aeroplane?" one of his young traveling companions asks. And yet if Philby had earned his bona fides with the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, Thesiger's journeys through the Empty Quarter, or what the Arabs called "The Sands," had won him the right to feel threatened on behalf of Arab culture. He believed himself the last to record a dying world. "Others," Thesiger writes, "will bring back results far more interesting than mine, but they will never know the spirit of the land nor the greatness of the Arabs."

Who are the Arabs? is a timely question that too often lends itself to investigations of the "other." The subject touched Thesiger closely. He found that, among other things, the Arabs were him—or rather, at his best he was one of them. As an Englishman at the end of his country's great imperial enterprise, Thesiger, who died in August at age ninety-three, traveled to challenge the identity his own culture had designed for him.

Thesiger was raised in Addis Ababa, where his father was a British minister. After going to Eton and then Oxford, he returned to Abyssinia; there, during World War II, he fought with British forces to help liberate the country from the Italians. He also served with the British in Syria against a Vichy Legion, and in his mid-fifties enlisted with the royalist side in the Yemeni civil war. Author of seven books, he traveled extensively through Central Asia and Africa, including Iraq, which was the subject of The Marsh Arabs (1964). He'd tried living in Iraqi Kurdistan for a while, but, as he explained, "being fond of Arabs, it was probable that I could never really like Kurds."

Thesiger's essentialisms, as above, and his racial characterizations will make many post-Orientalism readers uncomfortable, though I recall the late Edward Said writing somewhere that he'd admired Thesiger's work. At any rate, it's pointless to jettison Thesiger, as his prejudices largely issue from the people he spent most of his time with—Arabs. "All Arabs are snobs," he writes in The Marsh Arabs. "The greater the pretensions of any tribe to pure Arab descent, the more its members despised the Marshmen for their dubious lineage, and the readier they were to impute to them every form of treachery and evil."

"Arab" usually refers to those whose primary language is Arabic. In Arabian Sands, however, Thesiger typically uses the word in its original meaning as a synonym for nomad, bedouin, or, as they call themselves, bedu. And thus Arabian Sands is one of the few popular English-language accounts touching on the age-old and still lively intra-Arab cultural conflict between the Bedu and the town Arabs, those who at one time or another moved to sedentary life as farmers or merchants. Town Arabs admire the Bedu but also think them uncouth bumpkins with no understanding of the cultural refinement that great Arab cities like Damascus, Baghdad, and Cairo have embodied for over a thousand years. The Bedu for their part see themselves as guardians of Arab virtues (muruwa, or manliness), like loyalty, physical courage, and, above all, generosity. Thesiger recalls the story of a Bedu sheikh 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." To Thesiger, who believed that people were more important than places, this kind of personal refinement is infinitely more exquisite than the great mosques of Egypt and the Levant.

In casting off Western civilization, Thesiger gained admittance to one of the most elite and self-consciously literary tribes in modern English writing—the British Arabists. They include Wilfrid and Anne Blunt, granddaughter of Lord Byron; Sir Richard Burton; Charles Doughty; Bertram Thomas; Gertrude Bell; Philby; and, of course, T.E. Lawrence. Thesiger regretted he'd never had the chance to meet the hero of the Arab revolt, but Seven Pillars of Wisdom was one of his favorite books. As Borges noted, Seven Pillars of Wisdom is one of the few real epics of the twentieth century, and Lawrence's prose seldom lets the reader forget that this soldier and translator of Homer saw himself as part of that ancient tradition. Thesiger's, however, is the plain style, simple, direct, and his great subject is neither heroism as such nor even endurance, but attention. His companions set an impossibly high standard, but in the desert, as they teach him, to be surprised often means death. "Bedu are always observant," Thesiger writes; "even when they are engrossed in an argument their dark, restless eyes notice everything, and their minds record it. They never daydream." Unlike Homer, the Bedu never nod.

Thesiger wrote Arabian Sands some seven years after his trip when a publisher encouraged him to compose a narrative to accompany the photographs he'd taken. (Thesiger's black-and-white portraits and desert landscapes are among the finest documents we have of a culture that, as he knew, was about to look very different, for the first time in perhaps thousands of years.) Though the lapse in time makes some of the book's direct quotes questionable, the recollection in tranquillity partly accounts for his plain style. Here's one of the most moving passages, in which he recalls the time his friend bin Kabina became ill the night before they were to travel; Thesiger's art brings a stock phrase to life: "The others crowded round and discussed the chances of his dying, until I could scarcely bear it; and then someone asked where we were going tomorrow and I said that there would be no tomorrow if bin Kabina died."

Arabian Sands is dedicated to bin Kabina and his tribesman bin Ghabaisha, whose later vocation as a famous brigand seems to have made Thesiger proud. Given his obvious affection and admiration for the two, and the fact that in subsequent journeys Thesiger spent most of his time among handsome young men, critics frequently wondered if there was any connection between his travels and his sexual passion. He denied it. Still, he once told a Washington Post reporter that he held to the "ancient Greek ideal that the young male is the symbol of human beauty." There's another, practical reason for Thesiger's interest in younger men. Generally, they are the only access a middle-aged man has to a traditional society. With few exceptions, women are virtually off-limits, and older men are too busy with family and the politics of community life. Younger men not only have more time but—and this probably holds true for every culture—are also naturally more curious than their elders, as they are still learning the skills that will allow them to become who they want to become. The ancient Greek ideal isn't just about Eros but the beauty always inherent in potential and possibility.

Thesiger claimed that sex wasn't important to him, but it's perhaps fairer to say that other things mattered much more. He prized the freedom of the Bedu and the strength it took to live as they chose. And yet, as Thesiger knew as well as any outsider, the material existence of the Bedu is almost entirely contingent on factors outside their control, especially sun, water, and grazing land for their animals. "A cloud gathers, the rain falls, men live," he writes, "the cloud disperses without rain, and men and animals die." That is, the Bedu may be free from modernity, but they are not free. Further, their social relations are circumscribed by countless obligations. For instance, at one point in Arabian Sands, Thesiger accidentally injures bin Ghabaisha and asks bin Kabina what he would have done had he killed his tribesman. "I should have killed you," bin Kabina answers. Thesiger writes: "When I protested that it would have been an accident, he said grimly, 'That would have made no difference.' He was joking, and yet I knew that Bedu demand a life for a life whether the killing was intentional or accidental."

In other words, it's not clear that bin Kabina was joking. As Thesiger had himself experienced, without allies willing to submit themselves to extremes for another man's benefit, no one can survive in the desert by himself for long. Thesiger's heroism consists almost entirely in the fact that, unlike his companions, he had no kin, no family whose support he could take for granted. All of the alliances through which he had won respect and love had been forged through friendship and mutual affection. Thesiger admired the muruwa of the Arabs, and in his actions demanded they love him as well, outside convention, not as an Englishman or tribesman, but as a man.

A few months after Thesiger's death, I was visiting the United Arab Emirates, and my hostess, a member of one of the country's ruling families, showed me some photographs of a young falconer in bedouin clothing. It was Sheikh Zayed, the future leader of the UAE, long before oil made him one of the richest men in the world. "These are Thesiger's photographs," she said proudly. The Arabs, whose greatness Thesiger knew, had taken the measure of his as well.

Lee Smith is a writer based in Brooklyn and Cairo.