Thesiger as Accurate and “Participant Observer” in Southern Arabia

(photo by M. A. Al Awaid)


Wilfred Thesiger wrote Arabian Sands (1959) about his travels in Southern Oman, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates between 1945-1950. The book was immediately hailed as a classic travel writing book, remaining continuously in print. His descriptions of long journeys through the mountains and deserts (Rub Al Khali, known in English as the Empty Quarter, and Wahabi Sands) are riveting and realistic. I would like to make two additional claims about the book. First, I consider it not simply a piece of travel writing, but a work of cultural anthropology. Secondly, his careful and detailed documentation of the relationships between him and his travel companions point show aspects of culture of men in the mountains and deserts of Oman which are still evident today, even after fast and radical changes to Omani society.

Before discussing Thesiger in detail, I would like to quickly review the similarities and differences between the genres of travel writing and anthropology. Both genres are based on non-fiction, first-person texts about a narrator who travels to a culture new to him or her. This unfamiliar landscape could be within the hometown or half the world away. Both genres easily incorporate scholarly apparatus, Derrida’s “parergon,” such as indices, maps, charts, lists, photographs, appendices, and bibliographies. Both include autobiographical elements although that is not the primary focus.

Both genres encompass a vast scope. Travel writing includes autobiography, fiction, historical records, geography, political science, sociology, and anthropology. Anthropology covers the history of every kind of human in every kind of social situation from Australopithecus to Homo sapiens. Anthropology stands, according to James Peacock, at the intersection of “exploring, excavating, history, folklore, literature, journalism, spying, psychoanalysis, social work, missionary work, administration and childhood/ friendship/ parenting” (59).

Both genres have a specific purpose, although that purpose has changed over time. Travel writing has shifted from a primary function of informing to entertaining. Early travel books were vehicles for collecting and codifying material, either presenting fresh discoveries to the book’s intended readers, or adding to and/or updating their knowledge. When the world became more known, travel books could no longer tell about new geographic wonders and thus have started, in the last few decades, to concentrate on the author’s reaction to what is seen on the journey.

To review briefly the history of anthropology, one can turn to Nanda and Warms’s standard Cultural Anthropology which starts with Jean Babtiste Lamarck, Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer who worked with the theory of evolution. Sir Edmund Taylor, a Victorian and “the founder of social anthropology,” regarded culture “as a thing, a static object. Culture was a collection of customs, embodied in physical objects brought home and exhibited in museums” (Peacock 3, 75).

This was supplanted by Karl Marx’s influential ideas, “turn-of-the-century sociology” with Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss and “American historical particularism” with Franz Boas and A.L. Kroeber. These theories were followed by functionalism (Bronislaw Malimowski) and “Culture and Personality” (Ruth Benedict and the widely read Margaret Mead). In the 1900s, the important theories have been structuralism, cognitive anthropology, sociobiology, gender anthropology, symbolic anthropology (and postmodernism (Michel Foucault and Jacques (Nanda and Warms 74, 412-418).

In practical terms, anthropologists have moved from being colonial administrators or advisors to a wide range of jobs in organizations including law firms, “the Peace Corps; the Bureau of Indian Affairs; [and] the United Nations Educations, Scientific, Cultural Organization”  (Peacock 104). They are employed “in the private sector, and in a variety of nonresearch capacities (such as… evaluator or policy analyst… consumer marketing, hightech industry, and refugee policy)” (Podolefsky and Brown 1).

Yet, while travel writing and anthropology both are recognized genres, concerned with the human experience and encompassing a range of texts which can be viewed historically and synchronically there are several differences to articulate. The first is that, as Mark Cocker wrote in Loneliness and Time: The Story of British Travel Writing, “Unlike drama, poetry or the novel, it [travel writing] is almost never if ever studied in a formal context” (5). Travel writing has no “policing” organization. The vox populi rules. If Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything across Italy, India and Indonesia (2007) sells thousands of copies, then it is a “good” travel book. There are a few prizes for travel writing (for example, the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize and various Lonely Planet/ Travelers Tales “Best of” compilations) but achievement is largely based on the reputation of the author; Bill Bryson could, at this point, write a best-seller about a trip to a toxic land-fill. The MLA Bibliography has a “travel literature” section with examples from 600 C.E. to this year but almost all of the secondary literature is concerned with minutia, one particular place at one particular time, one kind of traveler or in supporting or refuting an -ism, colonialism, post-modernism, etc.

Anthology, however, has gate-keepers. Unlike travel writing, there are professors of anthropology who write thousands of primary texts, which are then interpreted, classified, and evaluated in thousands of secondary texts. The primary texts are now and have been for hundreds of years scrutinized and systematically compared to other primary texts in formal settings including classrooms, conferences and competitions.

The second difference between travel writing and anthropology is the issue of telling the truth. Both genres are, on the surface assumed to present the “reality.” With regard to anthropology, “truth” does not necessarily mean “reproducible” given the understanding that each participant observer/ researcher will approach a culture in a slightly difference manner, asking different questions, but “truthful” in the person is recording accurately what s/he sees with thick description (Michrina and Richards 5-7).

Travel writing had some issues with the “truthful” aspect at the beginning of the genre with such books as The Marvellous Adventures of Sir John Maundevile, c. 1371. This purported journal of an English knight’s journey to the Holy Land, Africa and the Orient was in fact an unknown French author’s compilation of various travel books. But this thicket of deception is relatively small, with fevered protests of accuracy. Marco Polo, who then and now has been accused of fabricating his entire journey, begins the Prologue to Book One, “for this book will be a truthful one” (9).

Problems arise, in travel writing and anthropology, from unintentional errors. In “Sex, Lies and European Hegemony” Bailey-Goldschmidt and Kalfatovic point out that some travel books contain distortions because an author’s simple ignorance led to over generalization. For travelers to India before 1761:

[o]ne common hazard of veracity in documentation was geographic uncertainty; there was often no distinction between northern and southern India. Social characteristics noted in one village were identified as a universal custom in the India sub-continent. (145)

The famous Victorian explorers Speke and Burton each returned to England from Africa, each certain that he had “seen” the correct source of the Nile and each had a plausible reason to believe he was right. James Bruce who traveled in Abyssinia, now Ethiopia, between 1768 and 1773 was accused by no less esteemed persons than Dr. Johnson and Horace Walpole for his description of the Abyssinians’ eating meat cut from a still living cow. Later travelers confirmed this tradition. Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine in Last Chance to See (1990) write of the pilot who crash-landed on the small island of Komodo and first encountered Komodo dragons. “He stayed alive for three months, and then he was rescued. But when he went home, everyone thought he was mad and nobody believed a word of it” (12).

The final difference is that travel writers need no other credentials then the fact they went someplace and wrote about it. No prior experience, in either traveling or writing, needs to be presented before one submits a travel writing text. As the emphasis is on one’s own experiences, being a moving, sennite, literate person is enough. Travel writing claims “truthfulness” but with the traveler is a character whose likes, dislikes and prejudices on view, the reader triangulates between the place, the traveler and the reader’s opinion.

Anthropologists, however, are trained through class work under supervision of experienced practitioners and the obligatory fieldwork.  Cultural anthropologists less interested in presenting their personal reactions and more focused on describing factually how members of a society negotiates through everyday life, and what “tools” are in the society’s “toolkit,” to use Philip Salzman’s metaphor, to cope with new situations. Anthropology’s insistence on the researcher fading into the background means a more accurate, unsullied portrait of the culture. I would like to discuss this difference in genres with regard Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands.

There was a shift in travelers and travel writing after World War II; in Women into the Unknown: A Sourcebook on Women Explorers and Travelers (1989) Marion Tinling uses a gender-based argument: “The old male reasons for exploration–conquest, acquisition of wealth, and imperialism–are out of favor, and today different reasons are given for travel” (xxiii). Thesiger, however, slipped into the Empty Quarter under the wire, the last of the Victorian travelers.

To understand him, one must look to the opening, autobiographical chapter, which moves swiftly from his childhood in Addis Ababa, where his father was the British Minister, through Eton, to a return visit to Addis Ababa when twenty wanting to know if there was anyplace left in Abyssinia “to explore” (21). After serving at Kutum in northern Darfur with the Sudan Political Service, he writes of the Danakil “I valued the qualities which they possessed and was jealous for the preservation of their way of life… I craved for the past, resented the present, and dreaded the future” (34). He joins the Sudan Defense Force in 1940 and spends World War Two in Abyssinia, Syria, and Egypt. After the war a chance meeting with a Desert Locust Specialist of the Food and Agriculture Organization gives him the impetus and backing to travel through the southern Arabian peninsula. But his journey includes a personal motivation; “It was one of the very few places where I could satisfy an urge to go where others have not been… The Empty Quarter offered me the chance to win distinction as a traveler” (18). The Europeans – Theodore and Mabel Bent, Charles Doughty, Bertram Thomas, and St. John Philby – who were there “first,” are always a concern for Thesiger and are always duly noted (39, 46, 296).

By the time he reached Salalah in 1945, he had a firmly established love of non-European or Europeanized life, and a strong desire to make his mark on the world.

 [f]or me, exploration was a personal venture. I did not go to the Arabian desert to collect plants nor make a map: such things were incidental. At heart I knew that to write or even talk of my travels was to tarnish the achievement. I went there to find peace in the hardship of desert travel and the company of desert people…the harder the way the more worth the journey… Perhaps this was the reason I resented modern inventions: they made the road too easy. I felt instinctively that it was better to fail on Everest without oxygen than attain the summit with its use. If climbers used oxygen, why should they not have their supplies dropped to them from aeroplanes, or landed by helicopter? (278)

The Prologue to the 1959 edition is a half-page, poetic summing up of the Bedu life, beginning with “A cloud gathers, the rain falls, men live; the cloud disperses without rain, and men and animals die” and ending with “this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match” (15). The Introduction presents the reader with Thesiger’s basic premise:

I went to Southern Arabia only just in time. Others will go there to study geology and archaeology, the birds and the plants and animals, even to study the Arabs themselves, but they will move about in cars and will keep in touch with the outside world by wireless. (11)

The noble, worthy Bedu are being ruined by modern life: “Now it is not death but degradation which faces them” (12). Later in the book he muses, “Arabs are a race which produces its best only under conditions of extreme hardship and deteriorates progressively as living conditions become easier” (97).

Within twenty-five years, all he had feared has come to pass; the 1984 Preface states:

Even before I left Arabia in 1950, the Iraq Petroleum Company had started to search for oil in the territories of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. They discovered it in enormous quantities, and as a result the life I have described in this book disappeared forever. Here, as elsewhere in Arabia, the changes which occurred in the space of a decade or two were as great as those which occurred in Britain between the early Middle Ages and the present day… For me this book remains a memorial to a vanished past, a tribute to a once magnificent people (7, 9).

In the one-page Preface to the 1991 Reprint, written in 1990, Thesiger’s tone changes dramatically:

When I went back to Oman and Abu Dhabi in 1977, for the first time since I had left there in 1950, I was disillusioned and resentful at the changes brought about by the discovery and production of oil throughout the region–the traditional Bedu way of life, which I had shared with the Rashid [a tribe of Bedu] for five memorial years, had been irrevocably destroyed by the introduction of motor transport, helicopters, and aeroplanes. When I arrived at Adu Dhabi and saw the high-rise buildings and the oil refineries, spread over what had previously been empty desert, the town symbolized all that I hated and rejected: at the time it represented the final disillusionment of my return to Arabia…

I visited Abu Dhabi once more in February 1990 for an exhibition of my photographs… On this occasion I found myself reconciled to the inevitable changes which occurred in the Arabia of today and are typified by the United Arab Emirates. Abu Dhabi is now an impressive modern city. (10)

From his stated intentions and the prologue and prefaces, Thesiger is clearly within the realm of travel writers, traveling for personal interest and arranging for guides in a similar manner to arranging for camels. But once he begins traveling, the focus shifts almost wholly away from Thesiger to his Bedu guides and companions, a group he praises extravagantly for their courage, strength and kindness; “Listening to their talk and watching their little acts of courtesy which they instinctively performed, I knew by comparison how sadly I must fail, how selfish I must prove” (135). The respect is mutual. When the guides for his second crossing of the Empty Quarter back out, he asks the Rashid men with him whether they should continue on. Their reply echoes Ruth: “Muhammad answered, ‘We are your men. We will go where you go. It is for you to decide’” (219).

Michrina and Richards write that an anthropologist “gathers data,” “attributes some meaning” and “constructs an understanding of the whole group from interpreted pieces of data”; further, the work must past the tests of validation, replication, and coherence (7, 19). Although no one has undertaken a similar journey at a similar time, thus negating replication, Arabian Sands has never been questioned as to whether Thesiger actually took the journeys described or his depictions are inaccurate. Further the book does not contradict itself, meeting the test of coherence.