on May 12, 2004
An extraordinary book, by an extraordinary man, about an extraordinary people - the desert arabs (Bedu) - before the outside world encroached on their way of life. Thesiger travelled through that inhospitable desert between the Yemen, Oman and the south of Saudi Arabia ('The Empty Quarter') in the 1940s, most of it then unmapped.
He account of exploring this unknown hostile territory, against a background of tribal raids and blood feuds and tensions where many tribes would have considered it an act of merit to kill the foreigner 'infidel', gives these travels an additional level of drama beyond the excitement of new exploration.
The harshness of the Bedu life amid the driven sands with its intense cold, heat, and blinding glare in a land without shade or cloud is the everpresent backdrop to these travels and adventures between scant and bitter wells. Sometimes travelling for up to 16 days between wells, death was often a palpable presence at the very edge of the camel's endurance.
The book is also a valuable anthropological log of these tribes, and their differing customs. The men is his party come alive in the sparse prose and a narrative pace as steady as the unfolding days. Thesiger's companions live in the anecdotes and black and white photographs. Listening to their talk the reader comes to love and admire those 'ships of the desert' (camels) for their patience and endurance and individuality, and to marvel at the simplicity and standards of honour of the Bedu tribes.
This is one of the truly great books of exploration. It is even more significant however as a journal of human encounter, and a unique and tenderly perceptive record of a people whose way of life, which had endured unchanged for 4000 years, was to become irrevocable changed by roads and the impact of oil exploration.
A book that educated Arabs give to Westeners to help them understand the Arabs. (That's where my copy came from). Contains a comprehensive index.
on March 5, 2004
If you like true adventure (not fiction), have a spot in your heart for nature, different cultures and personal hardships and challenges with a goal of self improvement and introspection, then this book should be in your personal library. If you don't have the above, you will probably find the text slow and boring, and put the book down before the half way mark.
The author goes into some detail that is minutia, irrelevant, and tedious, and then all of a sudden, you find yourself re-reading the same few sentences several times in order to fully grasp the magnitude of what he just said. Amongst all the sand that he describes in the book, he'll also provide golden nuggets of insight into the human soul and spirit, and done so very elequently, just like an Oasis in the midst of a bleak desert. That is to say, it's worth the effort to get there.
This is not a book with a "plot". It's a personal account of an individuals travels with the Bedu. You can read into it Protagonists and Antagonists, but again, this is not a fictional work. Nonethless, you find yourself rooting for "Umbarak", as the author is called, and worrying about other Arabs who would kill him given the chance, and there are many chances and near misses.
Surprisingly, there are also bits and pieces of insight into the Arab world that help put into perspective some of the tensions we see today in the Middle East. While that is certainly not his intentions, he does touch on some things that are relevant today in respect to the Muslim attitudes towards Christians and Jews.
This is not a book that can be glossed over and read during TV commercials, on the bus, or while the kids are screaming up and down the hallways... you need to focus and concentrate, and if your heart yearns for nature and adventure, you'll find it well worth the effort.
on November 14, 2003
When I was a kid I dreamt of being an explorer. Never mind that I had never been out of New England and had no possibility of doing so. Discovering new lands and peoples seemed such a great job. What I couldn't figure out was how you got BE an explorer ? What, did you take a course someplace ? Once, in talking of other things, my father happened to remark that there must have been parts of the Maine woods where nobody had ever set foot (I don't think he was considering the Indians). Yes, I thought, first I would explore Maine and then, maybe some other, more distant lands. As I grew older, I realized the awful truth. Unless you wanted to freeze in Antarctica, dangle from icy rocks on a few mountains, or chop your way through insect-ridden, steamy jungles, there were no places left to explore. I was a slide rule in a computer age. Ah, well.....
Wilfred Thesiger was born in more fortunate circumstances for an exploring life. His father was not a small businessman in New England, but the British ambassador to Ethiopia in the days when all parts of that country had not been visited by Westerners. The first part of ARABIAN SANDS describes the author's adventures travelling in wilder parts of Ethiopia. After Middle Eastern service in Sudan and elsewhere during WW II, Thesiger signed on as a locust hunter in the Arabian Peninsula, trying to locate the then unknown breeding grounds for the dreaded insect. He did it purely to be able to travel through the most unknown parts of the region, the Rub al-Khali or "the Sands"; Oman, the Hadhramaut, and the southern reaches of Saudi Arabia. He travelled with small groups of Bedu (Bedouin) on camelback, always barefoot and dressed in Arab clothing. He faced thirst, hunger, cold, the risk of serious accident, arrest by Saudi and Omani authorities, and death at the hands of raiding tribesmen. With no available maps, Thesiger relied completely on the guiding skills of various Bedu whom he hired. He had no radio, no global positioning whatevers, and no chance of a helicopter rescue.
ARABIAN SANDS tells the story of Thesiger's travels in the Arabian deserts in the years 1945-1950, before Big Oil changed the lives of everybody there. An interesting pair of books to read to get an idea of the old world and how it changed would be this one plus Abdelrahman Munif's novel "Cities of Salt". Thesiger hated modernization and cities and would have preferred that the Bedu remain in their poverty, but in a state of desert purity. I feel that he romanticized the Bedu and the desert environment to an extreme because of his own character. Nevertheless his descriptions of Bedu life, their culture, and behavior are fascinating, as are many of the events that took place over the course of his long travels. If you are at all interested in that part of the world or in adventurous travels before the world became entrapped in visas and metal detectors, you must read this one !
on January 12, 2003
Having traversed the Antarctic with Shackleton, Scott, and Mawson, the Himalayas with Maurice Herzog and others, and the high seas on the doomed whaling ship, Essex, I can say that for non-fiction adventure, nothing beats Thesiger in the deserts of Arabia, before they were tamed by oil money.
Each page is gripping, whether Thesiger describes the desert environment itself, his own adventures, or the Bedu camel herders with whom he lives and travels. This last theme is the most important in the book, and Thesiger's 1940s travels uncover the ways and even the mind of these most Arab of Arabs as well as anyone can. Thesiger understands and praises the Bedu's better aspects, but is not blinded to their faults. He points out the differences among the ways, thought and even religious practices and tolerance of the desert tribes, and their even greater differences with Arab townsfolk.
Read it to understand the places we are sending our troops, or read it to be taken away completely from whatever troubles your urban or susburban psyche, but read Arabian Sands.
on November 17, 2001
Thesiger stands in a long tradition of English who found the deserts of the Middle East hospitable. Wilberforce Clarke, Burton, Doughty, Lawrence, Glubb, Philby (Senior) - the list sometimes seems endless.
One is tempted to speculate that the Arab world brings out certain facets of the English character, and perhaps it is true. "Arabian Sands" is one of the best travel books ever written. The purported idea behind the book was a chronicle of crossing Al Rub' al Khali - The "Empty Quarter" of the Eastern Arabian peninsula, one of the most barren areas on earth. This central focus of the expedition, and the story, gradually pales as one reads on and the reader becomes caught up in Thesiger's relationship with his Bedouin companions.
The Bedouin are admittedly a fringe society in the Middle East. However, the values that their way of life represent have always been seen as having a central place in the Arab view of life, and Thesiger's obvious sympathy for his companions allows us to understand them as humans as few other western books can do. In this sense he resembles T.E. Lawrence, although he manages to tell his story in a lot less words than Lawrence did.
This book will stand the test of time as one of the best books in the English language on the Arabs, and it is a rewarding read.
on August 30, 2001
The deserts of Arabia cover more than a million square miles. The southern desert occupies nearly half of the total area. It stretches nine hundred miles from the frontier of the Yemen to the foothills of Oman and five hundred miles from the southern coast of Arabia to the Persian Gulf. It is a wilderness of sand, a desert within a desert, an area so enormous and so desolate that even Arabs call it the "Empty Quarter."
Wilfred Thesiger was born in Addis Ababa in 1910 and educated at Eton and Oxford. Though British, he was repulsed by the softness and rigidity of Western life, "the machines, the calling cards, the meticulously aligned streets, etc." In the spirit of T.E. Lawrence, Thesiger spent five years exploring and wandering the deserts of Arabia. With vivid descriptions and colorful anecdotes he narrates his stories, including two crossings of the Empty Quarter, among peoples who had never seen a European and considered it their duty to kill Christian infidels.
Thesiger greatly illuminates our understanding of the nomadic bedouins of Arabia. He loved, admired, respected and was humbled by a people who lived desparately hard lives in the harshest conditions with only a few possessions that might include saddles, ropes, bowls, goatskins, rifles and daggers and traveled days without food and water. Yet these people were unflappably cheerful, welcoming, generous, self-reliant, loyal and dignified. Thesiger explains why the Bedu with whom he traveled refused to forecast the weather (blasphemy against God)or could discern where to find a hare in the sand (only one set of tracks into the buried hole). As a reader I could almost sense I was traveling with Thesiger, could not help but mourn the passing of the way of life he described, and, as he, pondered the meaning of the word "civilized" as we Westerners conceive the term.
on June 7, 2001
A book about "the spirit of the land and the greatness of the Arabs."
This is a must read for anyone interested in the tribal Arabs of the desert (southern Arabia). I had this book for many months until I got around to reading it and then I absolutely couldn't put it down. The excursions of Wilfred Thesiger (Umbarak) take place during the 1940s. Thesiger loved the Bedu tribes (Rashid)and he writes from the heart, which is why I think the text is so readable. You relive this phenominal experience with him. Thesiger never fit in with his own people of England. He couldn't bare to live amongst the materialistic culture he found in the western world and felt more akin with his Arab friends yet as a "Christian" he could never be one of them. His relationships with two of the Rashid in particular, bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha and the love, admiration and loyalty he had for these two young men was very moving. Amazingly Thesiger survives many dangerous encounters while traveling in the desert with his Arab companions. How he ever survived some of these excursions is astonishing; between the lack of food, water, heat and cold exposure but mostly other hostile Arab tribes. His companions and he escape being killed by mere hours. By our western standards many people would think Thesiger's companions to ultimately be murderous and barbaric yet I have met very few westerners that held the same unbreakable code of honor that many of Thesiger's Arab companions lived by. Their generosity, faith in god, honor, dignity, strength and endurance is nothing short of amazing. They would give a stranger who stumbles upon their camp the last scrap of food and final cup of water even when starving in the desert for days. As a "westerner" reading this book I realized the immense differences in what we as a culture think is barbaric and immoral compared to these tribes of Arabia. Of course the ease at which they would kill between tribes to settle blood feuds and their "habit" of stealing camels was truly mind boggling when contrasted with their overwhelming personal ethics. As a female reader I didn't miss the lack of discussions about Arab women although I would have been very interested in the various tribal Arab woman's role as mother, wife and sister. What little I did find in the book about women sent chills up my spine. I do feel that female readers would enjoy this book none the less. Many readers will empathize with the author's sentiment as he writes about his dismay and disgust in the way the Western world has invaded the lands of these nomadic people with new mechanical inventions and infiltrated and ruined the unique beauty of this desert tribe (as well as many other indigenous tribes) which are now completely lost and irreplaceable.
on February 1, 2000
Besides being a wonderful book, as other reviewers have remarked, 'Arabian Sands' is important reading for anyone who wants to understand the culture and history of the Arab countries of the Middle East and North Africa.
The Bedu are, and always have been, a small fraction of the Arabs; historically, they have been disliked, mistrusted and often hated by the settled Arabs of the Middle East. In North Africa, the Berbers (a completely different people, with non-Arabic languages) have sometimes been confused with the Bedu. The Bedu way of life is now nearly extinct; Thesiger's book, which describes his travels with the Yamani Bedu of Southern Arabia, is the only careful account of Bedu culture and Bedu peoples I have ever come across. I know of no similarly illuminating study of the Qaysi Bedu of Northern Arabia, not even the works of T. E. Lawrence.
The historical importance of the Bedu in the Arab world is that on several occasions from the 8th century to the 20th century, Bedu tribesmen formed the core of armies that swept across the Middle East and/or North Africa. Invading Bedu armies overthrew decadent regimes in North Africa in the 13th century, and effectively destroyed Berber power on the North African coast. Bedu formed the core of the Arab armies that defeated the Turks in the First World War, and were the core of the army which Ibn Saud created that turned him from being a refugee into being the founder of Saudi Arabia as it is today. How did the small number of people who comprised the various Bedu tribes exercise such military power throughout the Arab World? Read "Arabian Sands" to understand this.
on January 20, 1998
I had the opportunity to meet Sir Wilfred Thesiger while I was working in the United Arab Emirates. He had come to the city of Al-Ain to promote his book "My Kenya Days". He was about 85 years old at the time and his hearing was impaired. Yet when someone mentioned something about an incident he had written his eyes lit up and his voice got louder, and it was as if he had been taken back to the Empty Quarter amidst the camels and the bedus. I read Arabian Sands and The Marsh Arabs, (which was, in my opinion, better than Arabian Sands), after I met Thesiger, and I was moved to see a country that had changed so rapidly in such a short time. Thesiger is definitely anti-west, anti-development, anti-modern; he has lived a life that far few of us could ever imagine. I think he became anti-modern because of what wealth was doing to the Arabs and how it was eradicating vestiges of a culture that would be hard put to replace (I believe that there are currently one half of one percent of people who would classify themselves as Bedouins on the Arabian Peninsula) It is a kind of life that far few of us would want to live; going for days without water in the middle of nowhere; not bathing, not having any of the 'comforts' of life, it is hard to imagine doing what he did. Yet as I read Arabian Sands, and walked in parts of the desert around the U.A.E, I could hear, almost smell, the life Thesiger came to admire and the life that really he became for him one with the Bedu.
on April 25, 1997
slender book Thesiger recounts several of his journeys though the Peninsula including the two crossings of the vast deserts of
the Rub-al-Kahli. A fascinating tale, this book not only manages to skillfully capture our attention about a bleak and desolate
region of the world, but it also brings our attention to the people who live in these lands. Inhabited by fierce, fanatical, and aggressive
war-like tribes, the feat that Thesiger managed to achieve -- that of cris-crossing this bleak region -- is further accented by the fact the he
was Christian traveling through a fundamentally lawless region ruled by a series of very suspicious and ruthless sheiks. Add to this that
Thesiger was a Christian, and you can appreciate the great efforts he took to disguise himself and use elaborate cover stories.
Thesiger spent many months travelling with the Bedu and over time became accepted as one of them among the tribes. Along with
Marsh Arabs and the first part of his autobiography, My Life, My Choice, he paints what is best described as a human but often
sterotypical picture of the Arab world. While he is quick to dismiss many of the myths associated with the Arabs, he still uses the
harshness of the desert to keep impressing upon you the hardships and the bleakness of the terrain and how he still manages to survive
it all despite terrible and grating thrist.