After the Second World War, Thesiger spent five years criss-crossing the deserts of Arabia in particular the ‘Empty Quarter’. He had an unconventional life; born in Addis Ababa in Abyssinia, he spent the war in the region ending up in the SAS, before falling in love with the place and deciding to spend more time exploring it. He travelled with the Bedouin people, or as he calls them Bedu, experiencing their daily challenges of extreme heat, ice cold nights, long treks with camels under the relentless sun and the daily challenge of hunger and thirst. In most places he visited, he was the first European ever to set eyes on the dunes and wadis of those deserts. He immersed himself into their life, sharing food and water, hardship and company.
The Bedu were a people he had a deep respect for; he never ceased to be amazed by the way they could look at footprints in the sand and tell him who was riding the camels as well as picking up the subtle differences in the sands. The account of his travels across these lands show a harsh way of life that was about to vanish forever with the discovery of huge oilfields below the Arabian peninsular. It was dangerous too; whilst some welcomed him warmly, others considered him an infidel even going as far to threaten his life at times.
Thesiger has written a fascinating account of a landscape and culture of a people that is long gone. The writing has little emotion, instead the author conveys events as they happened, even when he was in the most danger, in an almost clinical way. The way that he immersed himself in the desert way of life gives us an insight that very few other authors have been able to gain since. The region has undergone massive changes since that time and this vanished way of life may never return. A traveller in the modern Arabia would not be able to have access to the deserts in the way that Thesiger did, and this fine book is a worthy tribute to a traditional society. Now I want to read The Marsh Arabs by him.