The Marsh Arabs
Do we need another poetic appreciation of the Arabs by an eccentric Englishman when the French Canadians are crying for justice, when Rhodesia and South Africa are what they are? The answer, I think, is that we do. Wilfred Thesiger’s extreme eccentricity more or less prevents him from writing a great book. Even V. S. Pritchett, in his admiring review in the New Statesman, admits that “the final virtue of this book is its feeling for landscape.” But Thesiger’s moral vision is at least as strong as his esthetic vision, his sympathies are warm and precise, and his energy impressive. This is still another of those absorbing records of panoramic action whose centers must be reconstructed by imagination and their relevance by analogy. But it has considerably more than more charm for anyone who can forgo the brilliancies of the Lawrences, T. E. and D. H., in return for qualities closer to those of a first-rate anthropologist, lesser than Lévi-Strauss, but better than most.
The films are making travel writing obsolete; it is entering the last phase of its Byzantine era, resorting to subtleties of simplicity so acute as to persuade even Mr. Pritchett, no simpleminded traveler himself, that Thesiger, in contrast to Doughty, Burton, T. E. Lawrence, and Philby, is “simple, humane, wishes to be outside the machine age, and likes to be with the people because they have found contentment.” Thesiger’s very strenuous, hard-won simplicity is a way of seeing, no longer a claim to superiority. As an Englishman among Arabs in the age of Suez, he feels the burden of proof to be on himself. The contentment of his marsh-dwelling Iraqui Madan, plagued by fire, flood, and drought, by savage wild boars, water and bug-borne diseases, arrogant and extortionate sheiks, by government hostility, and the unsettling lure of city education and easy city money—such “contentment” has to be one of those utopian visions that come to life only in minds as thoroughly trained to hardship, observation, and introspection as Mr. Thesiger’s.
To describe a book as variously committed as this one as mere travel writing does it an injustice. We think we know too much about Arabophilia, we lean too much on the callow hindsight of a Terence Rattigan in his play about Lawrence. A book like Thesiger’s earlier Arabian Sands is greeted by the trumpet-bray of Lowell Thomas—“one of the most fabulous books ever to come out of the most fabulous part of our planet”—and we wait with cynical amusement for the inevitable exposé. Homosexuality of some kind, of course—we are sure of that; but what other twists of fate or temperament, frustrations, inhibitions, regressions, or resentments could have sent so gifted a man to the marshes of the Tigris and Euphrates to spend no less than seven years alone among the rag-tag remnants of Arab tribes whose natural dignity and skill in constructing handsome basketwork houses do not hide the fact that they were never much more than fugitives and bandits at any time?
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.