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In the Empty Quarter
by Ben Downing
The outlandish life of Wilfred Thesiger.
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The telltale knocking of opportunity sounds different to each of us, no doubt, but to Wilfred Thesiger it had an especially odd timbre. It was at a dinner party in Addis Ababa—not a place much known for affording opportunities—that he met a representative of the Desert Locust Research Organization. Would Thesiger by chance be interested in going alone to Rub’ al Khali, the notorious “Empty Quarter” of Arabia, to look for locust outbreak centers? Though hardly the sort of offer at which most men would leap, to Thesiger it seemed heaven-sent. He had spent much of his life among various tribes in several deserts, but the Bedouin of Rub’ al Khali were the ultimate desert tribe, wandering the ultimate infernal wasteland; he therefore took the job at once. Lingering long after his locust duties had been discharged, Thesiger ended up spending no less than five years, from 1945 to 1950, in and around the Quarter, and eventually wrote a book about it, Arabian Sands, that is now regarded as a classic.
Thesiger considered his Arabian sojourn to be “the most important experience of my life,” and if you’ve heard of him it is probably in that connection, or else as the author of The Marsh Arabs, which relates how he spent the better part of the 1950s with the unfortunately named Fartus tribe (among others) in the wetlands of southern Iraq. This much, at any rate, is about all I knew of him until recently, and I was somehow under the impression that the rest of his long life—born in 1910, Thesiger died only in 2003—had been relatively uninteresting. I couldn’t have been more wrong. While in terms of literary material and personal satisfaction his career may have peaked during his years in the Quarter and the marshes, the preceding decades were in some ways just as remarkable, and the following ones, if a bit tamer, were no less relentlessly peripatetic. Thesiger turns out to have been one of the most extraordinary creatures of his age, a nomad’s nomad who nevertheless was almost parodically English, who was comfortable wearing either a burnoose or a bowler but nothing in between. All of which makes Alexander Maitland’s fine biography a welcome and overdue document.
Thesiger’s singularity is evident from the very first sentence of his autobiography, The Life of My Choice, which reads, “In the summer of 1924, Ras Tafari, later to be Emperor Haile Selassie but at that time Regent, paid a State Visit to England and invited my mother and me to call on him in London.” This certainly tops the usual type of opening (“I was born in Des Moines …”), but then Thesiger’s was no standard childhood. Born in a mud and wattle hut in what was still known as Abyssinia, where his father was head of the British Legation, Thesiger spent his first nine years in that unique country and it marked him for life, leaving him with a deep-seated “distaste for drab uniformity” and a complementary enthusiasm for “barbaric splendour.”
Though briefly repatriated to attend Eton and Oxford, after graduation Thesiger made a beeline back to Abyssinia, intent on doing a spot of exploring—an ambition in which he’d been encouraged by no one less than John Buchan, then president of the Oxford Exploration Club. By that point in history there was, of course, little left to explore, even in Africa. But the Awash River had never been followed to its end, and in 1933 Thesiger resolved to do so, despite the fact that much of the route would pass through the territory of the highly belligerent Danakil tribe, known for their unpleasant custom of taking as trophies the testicles of any man they killed. (The prospect of castration didn’t deter Evelyn Waugh, who’d met Thesiger at Haile Selassie’s coronation several years earlier, from asking to join the expedition. “I refused,” noted Thesiger. “Had he come, I suspect only one of us would have returned.”)
There were, to be sure, tense moments along the way, but Thesiger proved adept at talking his way out of them, as when his party was suddenly confronted by two hundred armed Danakils: “They were inclined to force a quarrel, declaring that my Somalis were Essa, with whom they were, as always, at war. But references to a non-existent machine-gun helped us to reach an understanding.” The expedition was a complete success, and afterward Thesiger read a paper on it to the Royal Geographical Society; his credentials as a bona fide latter-day Stanley had been established well before he turned twenty-five.
Wanting to remain in the region, Thesiger next signed up with the Sudan Political Service and was “delighted” to be posted to Darfur, which seems to have been considerably less wretched at the time than it is today. Indeed, Thesiger positively gloried in the place, shrugging off his administrative duties to indulge what Maitland nicely terms his “gladiatorial obsession with hunting lion.” Nor did he allow himself to be saddled with onerous routine in swampy Nuer, to which he was transferred as Assistant District Commissioner in early 1938. Writes Maitland of Thesiger and his colleague, Henry Wedderburn-Maxwell, also new to the post: “The two men decided to do nothing but trek and shoot for a year, getting to know the vast district.”
These halcyon days of trudging across deserts and swamps and slaughtering enormous beasts were cut short by the war, but it was with relish that Thesiger turned his guns from hippopotami to Italians. For several years he’d had to sit by while Mussolini brutalized the nation of his birth, toward which he felt a permanent loyalty. “Many of my generation were to be passionately concerned with the Spanish Civil War,” he wrote. “I felt no such involvement… . But with the Abyssinian cause I identified myself completely.” Now came his chance to aid that cause, and he was in an outstanding position to do so. Aside from knowing the country well, Thesiger made the perfect irregular soldier—fearless, cunning, resourceful, a dead shot, and inured to pain and hardship from his years as a boxer (he’d captained the team at Oxford) and inveterate trekker in sundry howling wildernesses.
As luck would have it, he wound up serving under one of the great maverick commanders of the war, Orde Wingate. Famous chiefly for conceiving the Special Night Squads in Palestine and, four years later, the Chindits in Burma, Wingate brought forth between those two a third, lesser known military brainchild: Gideon Force, a small guerrilla outfit that proved instrumental in swiftly driving the Italians from Abyssinia. Wingate, despite belonging to the fundamentalist Plymouth Brethren, was less than demure in his bodily habits. A diehard nudist, he often held staff meetings in the buff, and Thesiger reports other forms of unorthodox behavior: “He never washed now [and] his only ablutions were to lower his trousers and cool his bottom in the occasional waterholes, from which, incidentally, others would have to drink.” As for Thesiger himself, he was responsible for one of the last triumphs of the short-lived Gideon Force when he obtained the surrender of Fort Agibar and its garrison; on Wingate’s recommendation he was awarded the DSO in 1941.
Under the auspices of SOE, Thesiger was next sent to help raise the Druze Legion against the Vichy French in Syria, where he based himself in a Saracen castle. In another SOE operation, he then made his way, virtually alone, to the Red Sea Hills in Egypt, where he planned the disruption of German communications in case Rommel should take Cairo and head up the Nile. After Rommel was halted, Thesiger was transferred to the Greek Sacred Squadron of the SAS, formed (as he put it) “in emulation of the Theban Band of Hellenic times,” with whom he fought proficiently enough to earn from SAS founder David Stirling a priceless compliment: “Wilfred had a real nostril for desert.” His was, in short, just the sort of war—colorful, wide-ranging, independent—that one would expect from a man of his parts.
The thirteen years after the war were, again, probably Thesiger’s most gratifying, yet both phases of that period came to an abrupt and involuntary end: the Arabian one when local rulers, suspicious of his activities, denied him further access to the Quarter, and the Iraqi one with the revolution of 1958, after which he was barred from the country. And so the remainder of his days, after these twin expulsions from his unconventional paradises, had about them a certain mild quality of exile.
But Thesiger wasn’t one to sulk in his camel-hair tent, and his declining decades were filled out with incessant trekking in obscure patches of western Asia such as Hazarajat, Nuristan, and the Zagros Mountains. (Dating from this time is the best-known of all Thesiger anecdotes, set down in Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. Newby and his friend, having crossed paths with Thesiger in Afghanistan, decided to share his camp for the night. “The ground,” writes Newby, “was like iron with sharp rocks sticking up out of it. We started to blow up our air-beds. ‘God, you must be a couple of pansies,’ said Thesiger.”) He also returned to Africa with a vengeance, undertaking long treks in Morocco, Kenya, Tanzania, and of course Abyssinia, all the while producing a steady stream of impeccably written books illustrated with magnificent photographs. The closest he ever came to falling into a rut was during the period 1978 to 1994, when he settled among the Samburu tribe in Kenya and built himself—anathema to nomads!—an actual house, albeit a humble one. At last failing eyesight forced his return to England, where he died nine years later. By then his face, always appropriately craggy, had turned into a leathery symbol of his own ruggedness; if W. H. Auden’s came to resemble, as he put it, “a wedding cake left out in the rain,” Thesiger’s was like a Roman bust intricately fissured by Saharan and Arabian sandstorms.
“Aremarkable throwback to the Victorian era,” Newby termed Thesiger, and he himself, though not given to boasting, allowed that he was “perhaps the last explorer in the tradition of the past.” For all I know he may have walked more than anyone in the last century, and many of those miles under, as he modestly phrased it, “conditions of some hardship.”
But none of this is what really sets him apart. His true distinction, minor yet in my opinion fascinating, has rather to do with the way he negotiated—in several senses of that word—his long series of tribal allegiances. Far more impressive than his ability to persuade the Danakils not to liberate his testicles (one can only assume that those of a white man exerted a certain novelty appeal) was his knack for getting himself adopted as an honorary member of numerous tight-knit clans, and those of such ethnic and cultural variety. Who but Thesiger could rub along equally well with Arabs, Asmara, and far-flung Nilotic tribes? In The Marsh Arabs he explains, casually but with a sort of Old Testament absolutism, his decision to live among the Fartus by saying he “felt inclined to settle down among a people of my choosing.” The surprising thing is that the chosen people let themselves be chosen.
How to explain this in turn? It wasn’t that Thesiger had some freakish chameleonic quality, and by his own account he was “a bad linguist.” He was, however, a very handy chap with a rifle, more than capable of helping to keep enemies at bay and the stew pot bubbling. Nor did he expect, or even want, any special treatment; his only wish was “to share this life, to be more than a mere spectator,” and it was a point of pride with him to endure every hardship of those he moved among—no air-beds for him. But most of all he seems to have had, quite literally, the soul of a nomad; the constant challenge and danger and deprivation, as well as the campfire bonhomie that relieved them, suited him down to the ground.
Yet Thesiger was far from undiscerning or blindly worshipful when it came to tribes. Though he convincingly asserted that “colour prejudice … is something I have never felt,” he could be cutting about particular groups. The Nuer, for example, were slighted as follows: “These pagans are too primitive, unsophisticated, and crude to be interesting.” He was, in fact, rather a snob or elitist on the subject. Needless to say, the Bedouin were awarded top honors. But even among them he drew fine discriminations, and the one clan that won his complete respect was the Rashid, with whom he spent most of his time in the Quarter; by comparison, their kinsmen the Bait Kathir lacked “the final polish of the inner desert.” So did Thesiger himself, of course. As he recollects in The Life of My Choice,
I knew I could not match them in physical endurance, but, with my family background, Eton, Oxford, the Sudan Political Service, I did perhaps think I could match them in civilized behaviour. When the test came, with near-starvation, thirst that clogged the throat, weariness and frustration, it was humiliating to fall short. All too often I would become withdrawn and irritable when they entertained chance-met strangers on our dwindling rations; highly resentful when we stood aside, pressing them to eat more, insisting that they were our guests, and that for us this was a ‘blessed day’.
To Thesiger’s chagrin, even his size—he stood over six feet—counted against him in the Quarter. One of my favorite moments in Arabian Sands is when he’s ordered to give up his favored habit of walking alongside the camels: “From now on you must ride all the time. Any Arab who came across your monstrous footprints would certainly follow them to find out who on earth you were.” (The concern was that a fight might ensue between the Rashid and whoever determined to track down this mysterious Bigfoot of the Dunes.)
A life spent wandering about with tribes such as the Rashid also meant a life spent mostly among men, and to Thesiger this was entirely congenial. “Marriage,” he concluded, “would certainly have been a crippling handicap.” Like many sons ardently devoted to their mothers, he had scant regard for most other women. (One who earned his particular contempt was Joy Adamson, the author of Born Free, whom he met in Kenya. “I like [George] Adamson very much,” he wrote in a letter, “but his wife is impossible. I wonder he has not taken her out into the bush and shot her long ago.”) Females, he felt, “bulge in all the wrong places.” Presumably he felt males to bulge in the right ones, and there can be little doubt that he was by inclination homosexual. But it seems no more likely that he ever acted on his feelings than that, say, Henry James ever did, despite what must have been better opportunities. (Unplagued by gossipy servants, oases are surely safer trysting spots than country houses.) Thesiger himself was candid yet dismissive on the topic: “Sex is of no great consequence to me, and the celibacy of the desert life has left me untroubled.” He did, however, permit himself an open display of what Maitland terms “his voyeuristic interest in handsome, long-haired youths,” which resulted in some exquisite photographs—one doesn’t have to be gay to appreciate the striking aesthetic merits of Bin Ghabaisha (a Rashid boy) and Thesiger’s other teenaged crushes.
Yet for all his tribal bonds, Thesiger never really went native; the nearest he came to defecting was when he disparaged horses as “silly creatures, inferior to camels.” His Englishness, while it might go into abeyance during his protracted immersions in nomadic life, always came surging back the moment he touched down in London, where he was never to be seen without the tightly furled umbrella of stereotype. Moreover, his asceticism would vanish as quickly as his keffiyeh, to be replaced by an upper-class querulousness. Maitland quotes his friend John Verney:
[Thesiger is] the sort of man who will happily walk barefoot for months across a waterless desert, subsisting on dates and the occasional sip of camel’s piss, but who, back in civilization, cannot endure the most trivial discomfort. He becomes frantic even if his egg isn’t boiled right for breakfast.
Unlike Sir Richard Burton, with whom he bears comparison in many respects, Thesiger didn’t so much as dally with the idea of converting to Islam, which he describes as “something I never could have done: not religious conviction but pride in my family background would have forbidden it.” Though his family included one scapegrace of note, namely Thesiger’s first cousin Stephen Ward, unfortunate ponce to Profumo, it also produced, in Thesiger’s uncle Frederic Chelmsford, a Viceroy of India. Thesiger himself was hardly a typical imperialist, but seen from certain angles he can look like one; that his literary tastes pretty much began and ended with Kipling, Conrad, Buchan, and T. E. Lawrence says a good deal about him. Maitland goes so far as to claim him as a source of inspiration for that last hero of vanishing empire, James Bond—a charming but improbable notion. (Fitzroy Maclean, Sidney Reilly, and Wilfred “Biffy” Dunderdale are the names commonly put forth as Fleming’s models for 007. Thesiger was not only of the wrong sexual persuasion but insufficiently hyperpriapic, though it must be admitted that the Danakils were a foe even more fearsome than Octopussy.)
Thesiger once referred to “this perverse necessity which drives me from my own land to the deserts of the East.” A similar impulse had driven many before him: Lawrence, Burton, St. John Philby and Bertram Thomas (the first Westerners to cross Rub’ al Khali), to name only a few. Yet compared to Burton or Lawrence, Thesiger was calm, straightforward, and psychologically uncomplicated; so far as I can tell he had no demons to speak of. I’m not even sure that it makes sense to call him restless. Though certainly on the hop for most of his life, he didn’t run from or avoid anything. To the contrary, the impression one takes away from Maitland’s biography—and from Thesiger’s own books—is of a man who was to a rare degree satisfied with his life. While that life was too outlandish to be directly inspirational and too harshly abstemious to be enviable, I find his example tonic. For it serves as a reminder that the extreme lengths to which people go in pursuit of their peculiar destinies are sometimes not for nought—that we sometimes do, in fact, achieve fullness in the Empty Quarter.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 November 2006, on page 24
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