Friday, May 10, 2013

Wilfred Thesiger

"I was exhilarated by the sense of space, the silence, and the crisp cleanness of the sand. I felt in harmony with the past, travelling as men had travelled for untold generations across the deserts, dependent for their survival on the endurance of their camels and their own inherited skills."

It's hard to imagine, now that we can "visit" virtually any corner of the globe without leaving a computer screen, due to the various Internet services that offer maps and satellite photos of most of the planet, that during our lifetime the world still held places of mystery that repelled all but the most intrepid of explorers and retained long-hidden temples, cities, and even peoples.

The 20th century would be the last in human history where Earth-bound adventurers would push into the unknown using little more than book-based research, remarkable fortitude, and invincible curiosity.  A great number of those explorers have become household names, synonymous both with the art of exploration and the wistful realization that such days are all but done.  However, there are a few who remain almost unknown, and that probably suited them just fine.

One such explorer/adventurer/character was Wilfred Thesiger, pictured above not in some hothouse in Trilling or Tring but in his everyday garb as an honorary Bedu of the so-called Empty Quarter.  How he got to that place is obvious from the title of his autobiography, A Life of My Choice

[I'm not sure why those heroes of my youth are so much on my mind these days, perhaps it is the inevitable slide from upper middle-age to the lower elder years, my still novel status as a grandparent, or my realization that a world that made much sense to me, a world guided by now out-of-date values and under-girded by a hearty sense of self, is quickly surrendering to a strange pseudo-paradise where a 26-year-old is considered by the government to be a child in need of care, where a remote political class lives in its own luxurious bubble, occasionally venturing forth to instruct the rest of us on how to be morally evolved, or because I find myself increasingly expected to live by specious social constraints that are becoming more and more onerous.  But, I digress....]

Like others whom we have appreciated on Fridays, Thesiger grew up privileged and British, a dangerous combination in the 20th century it would seem.  After being born in Addis Ababa, where his father was British envoy and a frequent visitor to the lush imperial court of the Ethiopian emperor, followed by a miserable time at Eton and Oxford, Thesiger spiced his summer vacations with jobs on merchant ships that took him to places like Istanbul and Iceland.  While not the most exotic of ports, these journeys did prove useful for his developing personality as an explorer.

After becoming an acquaintance of Halie Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia, who had invited Thesiger to his coronation, the neophyte explorer was able to include himself on an expedition to Abyssinia's Awash River and lived for a time with the notoriously unstable and murderous Danakil nomads.  This challenge he met free from fear and with the aplomb for which the British of his generation have become either famous or infamous, depending on which side of the river of history one stands.

A memorable profile, along with a nose that must have made the camels jealous

After graduation from Oxford, and earning a rather spectacular sporting profile due to his nose being broken while serving as the captain of the university's boxing team, Thesiger took a post in the foreign service in the Sudan, specifically the perennially troubled Darfur region, where he admits he spent most of his time shooting the lions that were decimating both livestock and laborers.  It was during this time that he learned how to ride a camel, live, dress, and eat as a native; and to love the Sahara desert, learning to live off the land with nothing other than a compass and stout British rifle.

This ability proved useful during the Second World War, as Thesiger served as an officer in the Sudan Defense Force, the Druze regiment of the Syrian Legion, and eventually with the earliest incarnation of the British Army's redoubtable commandos, the Special Air Service [better known these days as the terrorist-hunting SAS].  In between missions that liberated Abyssinia, routed the Vichy French in Syria, and captured 2,500 Italian soldiers [earning him the Distinguished Service Order, a significant British medal], Thesiger explored the more remote regions and even made a trek to fabled Petra.  After the war, and now a member of the United Nations' anti-locust unit [I could not make this stuff up], Thesiger explored Arabia's Empty Quarter, a place that held a fascination for a number of British explorers, including the previously mentioned Richard Burton

The native dress certainly looks more comfortable than the scratchy British wool; but I realize how important it was to wear a tie into battle.

As related in an article about him on the occasion of his death, The Guardian notes: "...between 1945 and 1949. Arabia's legendary Empty Quarter had been the goal of all Arabian explorers from Richard Burton onward, and although Thesiger was not the first to cross it, he was the first to explore it thoroughly, mapping the oasis of Liwa and the quicksands of Umm As-Sammim. He crossed the desert twice with Bedu companions, and his trek across the western sands from the Hadhramaut to Abu Dhabi was the last and greatest expedition of Arabian travel.

During his journeys he was caught up in inter-tribal raids, pursued by hostile raiders, and arrested by the Saudi authorities. He travelled alone in the Hejaz, the Assir and Najran, and explored the Trucial Coast and Dhofar in southern Arabia. He lived with the canoe-borne marshmen of Iraq for several periods over the seven years up to the Iraqi revolution of 1958...."

A scene in the film Lawrence of Arabia comes to mind, when Prince Faisal, as played by Alec Guinness, cannot fathom Lawrence's interest in the desert.  I quote from that portion of the film's script, as written by the playwright Robert Bolt: 

"I think you are another of these desert-loving English: Doughty, Stanhope, Gordon of Khartoum. No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees, there is nothing in the desert. No man needs nothing."

Thesiger, too, seems to have found something in the nothingness.  What that was would be addressed in his well-received and still-in-print travelogues including, but not limited to, Arabian Sands, The Marsh Arabs, both current Penguin Classics; Across the Empty Quarter, one of the Penguin Great Journeys series, and his autobiography, the aforementioned A Life of My Choice.  Each is well-written and each a ripping yarn.

Wilfred Thesiger would carry a number of awards and honours and would die peacefully shortly after his 93rd birthday, just a decade ago.