Monday, February 1, 1988

Wilfred Thesiger: Visions of a Nomad

I met Wilfred Thesiger (1910 - 2003) on one of his rare visits to London. The 1987 meeting was arranged by Ralph Izzard, a friend from Bahrain. We met at Thesiger's bachelor flat on Tite Street. The profile was written for Conde-Nast Traveler for March 1988. I remember the date clearly because I first saw the magazine in a grocery store the week my mother died (February 1, 1988). Who'd have guessed that one of the century's greatest explorers was also one of its greatest prose stylists? In appearance he reminded me of Sherlock Holmes. When he died, one of his Arabian traveling companions from the desert remembered him thus: "He was loyal, and generous, and afraid of nothing."

At seventy-seven, Wilfred Thesiger wasn’t going to be in London for very long. Having just published an autobiography, The Life of My Choice, that covers his early years in Abyssinia, he was on his way back to northern Kenya, where he lives with the Samburu tribe. Elusive as ever, he spends as little time as possible in London; he has never felt the great cities of Europe had much to offer him. Very tall, in whipcord condition, with a creased craggy face like a greyhound, he looks indestructible, yet his journeys have left the mark of great gentleness and peace on him: this is the man who wandered the Empty Quarter of Arabia with the bedu for five years (as no other outsider before or since) and lived with the reed-dwellers of the Iraqi marshes for nine. He has the penetrating gaze of a man who always found people “more important to me than places,” journeying perpetually in search of “stillness, the stillness of a world that never heard an engine.”

Thesiger has enjoyed and endured one of the most extraordinary, original lives of our century, largely spent travelling through difficult, beautiful terrain among little-known and often dangerous tribes. He is a standard against which all travellers and explorers must measure themselves. No man has dared more, seen more, or so completely opened himself to experiences outside his culture. What Thesiger saw was mostly unknown before him and vanished afterward, sometimes from war, usually from the intrusion of the modern world upon that stillness. His few books, written only after great pressure from publishers who knew of his journeys, stand well outside and above the body of “travel literature.” For along with their profound knowledge of alien peoples and lands, they must be read as great creative journeys of the soul. No other man could have made them.

Thesiger's childhood uniquely prepared him for such a life. He was born in 1910 in Addis Ababa, Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) where his father was the chief representative of the British government. His family was political and military; his uncle was Viceroy of India at the time. At the age of six he witnessed the rebellion culminating in the victory of Ras Tafari, later to become Haile Selassie, and saw a blood-drenched army pour in on horse and on foot after battle, resplendent in lion-mane headdresses and cloaks and shirts of velvet and silk, carrying spears, shields, swords, rifles, and waving banners of red, gold and green in a triumphant procession.

“Few other Europeans have seen the like,” he wrote in The Life of My Choice. “I believe that day implanted in me a life-long craving for barbaric splendor, for savagery and colour and the throb of drums, and that it gave me a lasting veneration for long-established custom and ritual, from which would derive later a deep-seated resentment of Western innovations in other lands, and a distaste for the drab uniformity of the modern world.”

When he was nine, Thesiger’s family returned to England. He was sent to a boarding school in Sussex; inevitably he had little in common with his schoolmates. He fared better at Eton, and at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he read history and excelled at boxing. His childhood of hunting and treks had bred an innate toughness. He dreamed incessantly of returning to Abyssinia.

He had gone back only once since his father’s death, at the invitation of Haile Selassie for the 1930 Coronation. Having finished Oxford, Thesiger in 1933 planned an expedition into Danakil country to find the end of the Awash River. All previous expeditions had failed or been wiped out by the Danakil. “All that mattered to these people,” Thesiger recalls, “was to kill; how they did so had little significance. Among the Danakil a man’s standing in his tribe depended to a very large extent on the number of men or boys, however young, that he had killed and castrated. In time I learnt to tell at a glance, from the decorations he wore, how often a man had killed.”

Thesiger’s expedition did not lose a man. He secured tribesmen from village to village who could ensure safe passage. His meeting with the ruthless Sultan in a moonlit forest glade, surrounded by 400 loin-clothed warriors, was another epiphany that would make a “normal” life impossible. Thesiger was just learning, however, the comradeship that would prove so important on his later Arabian journeys, “the very differences between us binding me more closely to them.” On this expedition, “I still had a sense of racial superiority, acquired in my childhood, which set me apart from the men who followed me.”

The six years before the war Thesiger spent with the Political Service in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, where he served in a remote province under an exceptional District Commissioner, Guy Moore. In the Sudan he grew proficient in Arabic, learned to love riding camels and the hardships of desert travel, and became an expert shot. On leave he journeyed extensively in Syria, Egypt, Palestine, Morocco, Libya, and the nearly unknown Tibesti region of French Equatorial Africa; he got to know tribes like the Nuba, the Tibbu, the Nuer, the Bani Hussain, the Dinka, the Zaghawa, the Bedayi. Moore, recalls Thesiger, “taught me to travel light and to regard not as servants but as companions the men who accompanied me.”

In the war Thesiger fought with special British forces in North Africa and the Middle East. He was longing for his old way of life: “I was in the desert but insulated from it by the jeep in which I travelled.” When the war ended he was offered a job with the Desert Locust Unit; they were looking for someone to collect information about the possibility of an outbreak along the Empty Quarter of Arabia. They needed a desert traveller more than an entomologist. Thesiger saw this as a great opportunity, his chance at “the ultimate challenge of Arabian exploration.” It would occupy his next five years.

The Empty Quarter, the Rub al’ Khali, is a half million square miles of desert within the greater Arabian desert. At that time it was probably the most unknown territory on earth. Lying partially within Saudi Arabia and mainly within Oman (then ruled by a xenophobic sultan) it was known only to the bedu who chose to wander its unmappable dunes. No plane had ever flown over it; not even its fringes were approachable by jeep. It could be traversed only by camel. Only two Europeans had ever crossed it, Bertram Thomas and St. John Philby in the early 1930s.

It couldn’t possibly be done alone. “Many tribes lived around the Empty Quarter. Only the Rashid and the Awamir... were at home in the Sands.” Thesiger’s companions, the Rashid, “were small deft men, alert and watchful. Their bodies were lean and hard, tempered in the furnace of the desert and trained to unbelievable endurance.” Among them were two young men, bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha, who stayed with Thesiger for all his journeys.

Each year between 1945 and 1950 Thesiger wandered with the Rashid in the Empty Quarter; twice they crossed it completely. On these journeys of extraordinary hardship—coaxing unwilling camels up steep ranges of streaming dunes, trying to find the way through an undulating landscape—water was severely rationed. “It was continuous thirst,” remembers Thesiger. “Sometimes it was twelve days from one well to the next. Sometimes there was no food for several days. You had a little coffee before you started in the morning, then all day you got thirstier and thirstier in the heat, a continuous nagging craving that burned. In the evening you were given your pint of water, that was all.”

Thesiger was determined to measure up to the life these Rashid led. In his classic record of those years, Arabian Sands (1959), he wrote, “Anxious to prove their equal, I wanted no concessions and was irritated when pressed to ride while they still walked, or when they suggested I was thirsty and needed a drink. Because I was their companion on the road they would fight even against their own tribesman in my defence, and would expect me to do the same.”

In Arabian Sands Thesiger describes unforgettably his years in that harsh land: the unbroken chains of dunes, the starvation, the thirst, the gossip of the bedu, their skill at reading the sparsest of tracks or shifting landmarks, the continuous threat of other tribes that would take offence at Thesiger’s infidel presence. It is a book of overwhelming beauty, and deep love for his comrades. “I shall always remember how often I was humbled by my illiterate companions, who possessed in so much greater measure generosity, courage, endurance, patience, good temper and light-hearted gallantry. Among no other people have I felt the same sense of personal inferiority.”

The friendships with bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha, whom he watched grow from boys into men, were among the very closest of his life. When pressure from different tribes and governments (including the British) prevented further journeys, that era of his life was over. “I knew how it felt to go into exile.” The traditional life he had seen, disrupted by oil and oil money, was soon to disappear forever into what he has since called “The Arabian Nightmare.”

He says today, “The bedu had such self-respect and nobility because of the hardness and the harshness of their lives. No one would describe the British as a ‘noble race’—you’ve only got to read the papers. The same is true of Americans. But among the bedu the standard was extemely high, because of the pressure of public opinion. If a Rashid, for example, did something that was deplorable, a year later you’d hear about it on the Omani border. The desert was a sounding-board.”

Seeking somewhere else to travel, almost by chance Thesiger visited the marshes of southern Iraq. They were to be his home for much of the next eight years. “A delightful and unexpected world,” he wrote in The Marsh Arabs (1964):  “narrow waterways winding through the tufted reeds, duck circling above still lagoons, the crying of geese, a village of reed houses clustered on the water, a hum of voices, and the incessant passage of canoes; dark dripping buffaloes, the sun crimson through the smoke of burning reed-beds, a boy’s voice singing in the dark....” It was a stillness, a world of water rather than sand, that could follow the Empty Quarter.

Living in the Marshes, Thesiger was on the move almost constantly, poled along in a canoe by a team of young men. Throughout the marsh villages Thesiger acted as an impromptu doctor, bringing the latest antibiotics each year from London, for the Madan tribesmen were riddled with innumerable diseases that were the easy result of living on water.

His life in the Marshes ended abruptly with the Civil War of 1959. (The present war with Iran has devastated the Marshes irrevocably.) Then he began to visit Kenya. “I’d have gone on in the desert,” he says today, in the Chelsea flat that has been London headquarters since 1942. “I’d have liked to go on living in the Marshes. But these places closed off and I went looking for somewhere else.” One by one, the places Thesiger knew so well—Arabia, the Marshes, Persia, the Sudan, Afghanistan—have been closed off or ruined by “the chaos of the world.” For him, the greatest tragedy has been the Marxist state of Ethiopia.

In the Iraq years, to avoid the oppressive summer heat, Thesiger travelled extensively in Persia, in Morocco’s High Atlas, in Iraqi Kurdistan; he explored little-known Nuristan, Hazarajat, Swat, Chitral, and Hunza regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan; later he travelled by donkey through Masai country and fought with Royalist forces in the Yemen.

To Thesiger, travel by car is like taking a plane. “All the journeys of importance to me have been done in the local manner: on camels, on foot with porters, or mules, or horses, whatever, to have close contact with the people. Today if you wanted to explore the Sahara, it would be idiotic to go on a camel. A camel journey today is a stunt—you can perfectly well go in a Land Rover. I can foresee a time when you won’t require porters on Everest because there’ll be helicopters to lower you to the tents and tea shops. There’s nowhere I really want to go now, at my age. If I were a young man I’d feel very frustrated. The life I’ve described in my books absolutely no longer exists. I think I realized back when I was fourteen that the car and the aeroplane were going to wreck my world, make it smaller and destroy its diversity. You can hardly find a village in Kenya today without tourists carrying cameras.”

Thesiger owns nothing in Kenya. Earlier he lived among the Turkhana; now he lives alternately with several Samburu families whose houses he helped build, and with a young Samburu whom Thesiger regards as his son. But there will be no Kenya book. “Plenty’s been written about Kenya,” he says. Instead there will be a large book of his photographs, Visions of a Nomad. (In 1979 he published Desert, Marsh and Mountain which contained many photographs, excerpts from the two books on Arabia, and accounts of his mountain travels. This was entitled in the States, against Thesiger’s wishes, The Last Nomad.)

“I never anticipated being a writer,” he says. “I never kept a journal with the view to writing anything but papers for the Geographical Society. To write Arabian Sands I went to Denmark. I didn’t know anyone there, that was the whole point. I took a bedsitter for a winter and wrote it, ten years after the journeys.”

He denies the legends that have sprung up around him—eating dirt to prepare for difficult journeys, etc. “Sheer rubbish. I’ve always simply eaten what the locals eat. I’ve never dropped sterilized tablets in water, if the water that came to hand was filthy I drank it through a straw. I was fortunate never to get ill.”

He still travels light. “I used to find a great satisfaction when I was with the bedu in the desert or on trek in the Sudan to own nothing that wouldn’t go in my saddlebags. It gave me a freedom which otherwise I wouldn’t have possessed. Inevitably as you acquire more and more possessions you lose your freedom. There’s very little in this flat I’ve collected while I’ve been abroad. I’ve got a fairly valuable library, I suppose. This is the other side of my nature. I’ve lived easily in two worlds. In London I could put on my dark suit and go off to the Travellers’ Club and I was leading the life here. In Mukalla, in Oman, staying with the District Commissioner, I could put on Arab robes in the morning and go off with the bedu. I don’t think the lives really conflicted with each other. I tried to keep them apart. At first when I came back here from Arabia I used to feel a shadowy figure at my side, it could’ve been bin Kabina or bin Ghabaisha, watching all that was going on with a good deal of disapproval. I have no feeling that the two worlds relate. The lessons learnt in one aren’t translatable to the other. After all, how much relationship, living in London, does one have with one’s neighbors, with the people in the street? None. In Arabia or Kenya you’d have close contact with all of them. They’re just different worlds with different skills.”

No brief essay can do justice to Thesiger’s life, nor excerpts to the stark beauty of his prose. He counts as his achievements to have won his companions’ confidence, “and, in so many of my travels, to have been there just in time.” His flat could belong to a well-to-do bachelor lawyer with a reading interest in the East. The only mementos a visitor spies hang hidden by a hall bookcase: the silver khanjah dagger that is the mark of manhood in Oman, the leather back support worn when riding a camel.

The rest is visible in his open gaze, which never wavers: the look of a man who has constantly challenged himself, friendly because there is no hint of disguise. As he once wrote of Arabia’s Empty Quarter, “No man can live there 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, weak or insistent according to his nature, the yearning to return. For that cruel land can cast a spell no temperate clime can match.”

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