No. 1: “Arabian Sands” by Wilfred Thesiger
Travel Blog • Frank Bures • 05.31.06 | 12:14 PM ET
To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
Territory covered: Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Arabian Penninsula (now Yemen, Oman, Saudia Arabia, United Arab Emirates)
Not long after Wilfred Thesiger finished his second crossing of the vast, lifeless swath of Arabian sand called the Empty Quarter, and not long after he narrowly escaped beheading by Ibn Saud for illegally entering his kingdom, the traveler and his thirsty companions stumbled across a small well in the desert. “We tasted the water,” Thesiger wrote, “but it was too brackish to drink; the thirsty camels, however, drank as if they could never have enough. While we watered them a gleam of sunlight flooded across the wet plain, like slow, sad music. Then it started to rain again.” It is a near perfect moment, and for a minute we are there, on the edge of the place Thesiger wrote about eloquently and timelessly in Arabian Sands.
Thesiger’s masterpiece spans his five years traveling throughout the region just before the age of oil, when the Middle East was still as it had been for ages, when his Bedouin friends still felt that, “Only in the desert could a man find freedom.” There are many things which elevate Thesiger’s account to the pinnacle of travel literature. There is the window he gives us to Bedouin warmth and generosity and fierceness. There is his beautiful writing about a time and place now gone. And there is his profound reverence for the desert itself. But what really sets “Arabian Sands” apart is Thesiger’s pure love of the journey, of the experience itself.
“Here, life moved in time with the past,” he wrote. “These people still valued leisure and courtesy and conversation. They did not live their lives at second hand, dependent on cinemas and wireless.” Ignoring the obvious romanticism, that notion of trying to live life first hand, of feeling the world for oneself, is at the heart of the urge to travel. At one point, unable to sleep due to some uninvited guests, and feeling “thoroughly ill-tempered,” Thesiger wrote, “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.” It’s the kind of thing one has to do while starving in the desert. But also, it is the kind of thing we all might hope to find ourselves doing, because that is what traveling is about. “It is not the goal, but the way there that matters,” Thesiger wrote, “and the harder the way, the more worthwhile the journey.” Arabian Sands is one of the most worthwhile journeys we can take vicariously, and reading it inspires us to find our own hard way. If we’re lucky, we might just find what Thesiger found in the sands. “I had come here looking for more than locusts,” he wrote, “and was finding the life for which I sought.”
Outtake from Arabian Sands:
It seemed crazy to try to cross the Empty Quarter without a guide. It was about four hundred waterless miles, which would take at least sixteen days, and bin Daisan had told me that the dunes were very high and difficult. I remembered how hard had been the journey which we had done the year before, and how little margin we had to spare, even when guided by al Auf. I asked the Rashid if they thought we could get across without a guide, and Muhammad said, “We live in the Sands. We can take you across without a guide. The danger will be from the Yam after we have got to the other side.” I told Ali that we would go, and asked him to fetch the two Saar, and he said he would bring them in the evening. Unlike my companions I was far more concerned with the physical difficulties of crossing the Empty Quarter, especially without a guide, than worried by what would happen to us if we ran into Arabs on the far side. I did not think they would take us for raiders, since we would be leading four laden camels. I knew that our clothes and saddling would show them that we came from the south and belonged to the hated Mishqas, but I hoped to be able to get speech with any Arabs we might meet before they opened fire; and if they belonged to Ibn Saud I thought they might hesitate to kill us once they discovered I was a European for fear of the King’s anger. I knew that if they were from the Yemen, we should be doomed. Looking back on the journey, I realize how hopelessly I underestimated the danger and how very slight were our chances of survival.