An epic journey through the Arabian desert

Michael Dirda in Salon:

Arabian_sands_stewart_coverFor years I meant to read “Arabian Sands,” Wilfred Thesiger’s account of two punishing camel journeys during the late 1940s across Southern Arabia’s Empty Quarter. Now that I have, I can sheepishly join the chorus of those who revere the book as one of the half dozen greatest works of modern English travel writing. Thesiger’s other masterpiece, “The Marsh Arabs” (1964), is almost as good. There he describes the seven years during the 1950s that he spent living in the wetlands of Iraq’s Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

“The Marsh Arabs” is enthralling, yet “Arabian Sands” remains the austere masterpiece, worthy of comparison with the classics of polar endurance, like Apsley Cherry-Gerrard’s “The Worst Journey in the World,” and with those roomy mansions of desert literature, C. M. Doughty’s “Travels in Arabia Deserta” and T. E. Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” While most travel writing today is essentially journalism, Arabian Sands is an epic poem:

A cloud gathers, the rain falls, men live; the cloud disperses without rain, and men and animals die. In the deserts of southern Arabia there is no rhythm to the seasons, no rise and fall of sap, but empty wastes where only the changing temperature marks the passage of the years. It is a bitter, desiccated land which knows nothing of gentleness or ease…. Men live there because it is the world into which they were born; the life they lead is the life their forefathers led before them; they accept hardships and privations; they know no other way. Lawrence wrote in “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” “Bedouin ways were hard, even for those brought up in them and for strangers terrible: a death in life.” 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.

This is the stirring prologue to “Arabian Sands,” yet it already sounds a faintly elegiac tone, a recognition that an ages-old way of life is vanishing. As Thesiger writes, “I went to Southern Arabia only just in time.”

More here.