Thursday, February 28, 2008

Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger

Written by Wilfred Thesiger, Arabian Sands describes the journeys this explorer and writer made between 1945-1950 in and around the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Peninsula.

Desert Dwellers
This book was written about the post-World War II era when airplanes, helicopters and motor vehicles were becoming commonplace and it was increasingly obvious that the faster modes of transport would soon put an end to the travel and traditional transportation by camels and their drivers. Thesiger was aware of the discovery and production of oil throughout this region and this book becomes a lament concerning the way that such industries would dismantle the Bedouin way of life that had existed for centuries.

From the vantage point of the twenty-first century readers will discover the immense value of this book that describes in great detail a way of life that no longer exists in this unique environment .

As Wilfred Thesiger criss-crosses the desert he is accompanied by ‘Bedu’ from different tribes. The daily life of these hardy travelers is recorded from rousing in the morning with the call to prayer, cooking, casting lots for food, coffee rituals, carrying supplies and reading tracks. The everyday tasks in a harsh environment are challenging but these are accentuated by the regular episodes of fending off raiders, pleading for permission to cross regions and coping with malaria and scorpion bites.

For Thesiger (‘Umbarak’ as he is called), these five years in the university of the desert teach him much about the Bedu. He finds them to be welcoming, generous, good-humored, garrulous, blind to natural beauty, appreciative of poetry, lovers of money and people with great dignity. But despite these descriptors Thesiger concludes:

“Probably no other people, either as a race or as individuals, combine so many conflicting qualities in such an extreme degree.” (p.149)

The author has a frank and matter-of fact way of writing about the Bedu and their attitudes towards sensitive matters as sex and homosexuality.

Arabian Sands is about the desert and specifically the Arabian Desert. While Thesiger grew up in Ethiopia and later in the Sudan he wrote, “None of these places has moved me as did the deserts of Arabia.” (p.14)

Thesiger writes of villages and wadis that are passed on the way and UAE readers will be interested to read his descriptions of Abu Dhabi, ‘Dibai’ and ‘Sharja’ in the late 1940s. There is an extensive treatment of the features of the desert of which he says, “There is no rhythm of the season, no rise and fall of sap, but empty wastes where only the changing temperature marks the passage of the year.” (p.17)

‘Empty wastes’ is not the best description of the inaccurately named ‘Empty Quarter’ for this travel journal records a fullness of flora and fauna that are encountered along the way and observed clearly from the height of a camel’s hump.

In a wonderful poetic style Thesiger writes about the way this ‘bitter and desiccated land’ has shaped its inhabitants down through the years:

“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…. No man can live this life and emerge unchanged… For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match.” (p.17)

Wilfred Thesiger (1910-2003)
The spirit of the land makes a lasting impact upon the author, so much so that when at last it is time to leave, he feels an exile and he departs with an ache and a homesickness from which he never recovers.

Thesiger’s journey was on the surface the undertaking of a survey and study of locusts. He did not go to study geology, archaeology, birds, plants, animals or Arabs. He admits that this travel was partially ego-driven—to satisfy an urge to go where others had not been and to do something which might offer him the chance to win distinction as a traveler and explorer. But at the outset he said he was also searching for “the peace that comes with solitude, and among the Bedu, comradeship in a hostile world.” (p.20)

In his introductory chapter this English author records details of his birth in Addis Ababa, his schooling and university at Eton and Oxford and his expeditions in Abyssinia and Somalia but all this he understands to be the ‘prelude’ to the period covered in this book—what he calls, “the five happiest years of my life.” (p.15)

In a confessional style Thesiger testifies that he went to the Empty Quarter with feelings of condescension toward the desert dwellers but he quickly changed his mind when he saw their skill. His comrades saw him as the inferior one and his accolades, his education and his experience of the world were irrelevant in the ‘Sands’.

He reflects on that way that the desert cut him down to size and made him feel insignificant but it also gave to him a wonderful sense of freedom.

Arabian Sands has a host of interesting anecdotes and touches of humor abound, especially when the author describes the sex life of camels, the money washing rituals by Arab shopkeepers who are taking money from ‘infidels’ and the popular (I almost wrote ploppular!) game of desert draughts in which the Bedu use camel droppings for counters.

Thesiger was not only a good writer but a skilful photographer and this book is furnished with wonderful black and white portraits and landscape shots of the Arabian Desert. Sketch maps are used to follow the expeditions. Some helpful back pages list the travel companions and include a comprehensive index.

William Thesiger and his companions cross the Empty Quarter on two occasions despite being close at times to exhaustion and running out of supplies. Unlike the experience of many explorers who see standing on the pinnacle or reaching the finishing line as being the ultimate feat, Thesiger has a different view and motivation:

“No, it is not the goal but the way there that matters, and the harder the way the more worthwhile the journey.” (p.243)

Wilfred Thesiger, Arabian Sands (First published London: Longmans, Green and Co Ltd., 1959. This edition published Dubai: Motivate Publishing, 1994, 2006)

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 42.75.

A superb web gallery of photographs taken by Wilfred Thesiger can be found at:
Thesiger Galleries

Dr. Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Arabian Sands; Wilfred Thesiger in the Empty Quarter, 1948.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

‘The Fall of Troy’ by Peter Ackroyd

Peter Ackroyd’s novel concerns the marriage of German archaeologist, Heinrich Obermann, to Greek bride, Sophia Chrysanthis, whose knowledge of the works of Homer is an attractive asset in the quest to excavate the city of Hissarlik, which he thinks is Ancient Troy.

Their union makes for a robust relationship. She is young and beautiful. He is initially endearing as he waxes eloquently about his passion for the art (‘not the science’) of archaeology. His performance on the wedding reception floor leaves his new bride thinking, “How can I love a man who dances so badly?” (p14)

Analyzing the glue that binds a couple together is one of the themes of this novel. Sophia reconciles herself to him on her wedding day by thinking, “At least I shall not be bored with you.” (p12). She comes to understand him as one who is mysterious, restless, impatient, emphatic, overbearing and aggressive. Despite this, their relationship is nurtured through their common love of Homer and forged in the excavation trenches. As Sophia later sifts through the layers of their relationship, she discovers he has flaws, skeletons that he has been burying and ethical issues concerning what this celebrated archaeologist does with the treasures. She concludes that she does not love her husband but she admires him.

“Welcome to Troy,” was the form of Heinrich’s greeting to his bride when they arrived together in Hissarlik, and so begins their manner of thinking as if they are immortals, living not in the nineteenth century but the Bronze Age of Troy.

Ackroyd provides a compelling and suspense-filled storyline. Through the course of their digging with scores of local excavators, they call up the dead and invoke Zeus and a lineup of Greek deities who appear to respond with thunderclaps and weird happenings. Herr Obermann and Sophia are joined by different characters such as a Harvard professor of antiquities and a British paleographer, all of whom are enchanted with Sophia but they find her husband, rich in conviction but questionable in his historic conclusions.

With his visitors Obermann likes to parade his knowledge and hypotheses, recalling what Odysseus did in the same situation, pointing out the actual spot where the Wooden Horse was placed and even staging a running race on the same circuit that Hector and Achilles competed against one other.

In classical Greek style the visitors join the drama and contribute to the representation of contrasting and at times clashing values. The book focuses on the relationship between art and science, reason and revelation, hunch and history and the love of person versus the passion forged through work.

In contrast to some of his visitors who carefully draw their conclusions from the evidence, Obermann is inventive, given to flights of fantasy and full of wishful thinking. He does not let the truth get in the way of a good story and he goes to all lengths to let his theories stand.

This book is a comedy with amusing insights and cameos. Obermann’s colour and bravado is amusingly displayed when he exorcises a house by chanting with great solemnity a poem by Virgil. But this book is ultimately a sad and tragic story, as implied in Ackroyd’s title.

Peter Ackroyd, The Fall of Troy (London: Vintage Books, 2007). This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 56.00.

Dr. Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of The Fall of Troy.