Arabian Sands


ByWilfred Thesiger
Reviewed by Kenny Brechner

    Of the three shores upon which the romancer may disembark, the shoals of the present are too rough and the future too smooth. It is the past that the romanticizing impulse has tended to adjudge most akin to Goldilocks=medium size bowl of porridge.

    There are many commonplace romanticizations of the past. The prior generation was always more moral, more devout, its teenagers less unruly, its leaders more virtuous. The fact that every generation=s moralizers have made the same observations, from Pliny the elder, to Saxo Grammaticus, to our own William Bennet, disturbs these reflections not at all.

    It is ironic that the integrity of the past, a primary concern of professional historians, is a less widely held value today than it was prior to textual history.

    Snorri Sturlason, whose early 13th century history of the Norse Kings was based on the oral accounts of wise men and scalds (Norse bards), could assert that though "it is the way of scalds, of course, to give most praise to him whom for whom they composed, but no one would dare tell the king himself such deeds of his as all listeners and the king himself knew to be lies and loose talk; that would be mockery, but not praise." And time has born Snorri out, for his account has proven to be remarkably accurate.

    One area upon which the romantic impulse has dwelt particularly is that of the return to nature and the natural life of traditional cultures. The dubious ideal of the noble savage and the morbid sentimentality to be found in such works as Bernadin St. Piere's romantic classic Paul and Virginia, now mercifully out of print, owed their florid perspectives rather to the lack of knowledge than to its possession.

    It is the general prevalence of romanticizing of the past which makes of Wilfred Thesiger's classic book, Arabian Sands, so startling and so unexampled. Thesiger explored the fabled 'empty quarter' of Arabia between 1945 and 1950. His account captured a way of life and a landscape which, though millenia old, were altered forever by the discovery of oil in that region shortly thereafter.

    Thesiger writes that "I craved for the past, resented the present, and dreaded the future." Yet Thesiger's attachment to both the Bedu, the nomadic camel breeding tribes of the Arabian desert, and the desert itself, stemmed not from romanticization but from knowledge, from a powerful conviction in the potency and immediacy of the Bedu way of life, and a deep personal satisfaction in the harshness and emptiness of the desert itself.

    His account shimmers with authenticity and power. It has all the depth that romanticization vainly covets. Arabian Sands, with its stark earnestness, its magnificent description of scenery, and its genuine passion for person and landscape, has made a lasting monument amidst the most unforgiving of terrains, time, that worthy analogue of wind and sand.