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Arabian Days

The Marsh Arabs

by Wilfred Thesiger
Dutton, 242 pp., $6.50

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?

As Pritchett says, “All great travelers have been masochists…,” and not only graduates of Eton and Oxford like Thesiger, whose English schooling dwindles somewhat in the light of an Abyssinian childhood, eighteen years in “remote parts of Africa and the Middle East…always on foot or with animal transport,” five years with the Bedu of the desert. Still, the pattern is familiar, even at the verge of passing over into science. Like Gavin Maxwell (Thesiger gave Maxwell his first otter during a long trip together in the marshes), he masquerades as a writer so cool and well-versed in the mistakes of his flamboyant predecessors, so stoically ordinary as not to need any justification at all. “I am not an anthropologist nor indeed a specialist of any kind. I spent these years in the marshes because I enjoyed being there.” Unflappable. He had money enough not to need sponsors; Arab hospitality and his gun kept him fed and housed after a fashion; he had to buy only clothes, guns, ammunition, gifts, and a large box of medicines. Having won the Lawrence of Arabia Medal from the Royal Central Asia Society and the Livingston Medal, his apprenticeship was over. Kurdistan had been boring, Persia and Turkey closed for lack of a visa. So, using his medicines and his amateur surgery as a passport, he slipped as inevitably into the huge—six thousand square miles—and mostly unknown marshes of southern Iraq as Caesar into Gaul, carrying an active conscience as well as the agreeably fanatical privacy of the nativizing Englishman (wearing Arab dress for comfort on his expeditions but mufti on formal occasions or trips to Basra), rounding the circle of nonconformity by amiably conforming to every reasonable demand of his hosts. He has enjoyed equally the Venetian tranquility and the sudden violence as a hunter of the ravaging pig (he shot over 250), as a popular itinerant circumciser (native circumcisers used a dry powder of old foreskins as a disinfectant), as an arbitrator in the complicated blood feuds of his friends, and finally as the first and least intimidating representative of a world about to swallow them up in the closing of the Iraqi border in 1958 and a plan for draining the marshes.

A great scoop, then. Everything near its vanishing point but having the special visibility of the doomed. Thesiger surrenders with impassive, democratic Agusto to his opportunities. “All Arabs are snobs,” he writes, making the most of it. A tribe that takes fish with spear for poison despises the tribe that uses nets. The Madan of the interior, his favorites, are despised by the wealthier rice-growers of the borders. Townsmen are impartially disliked, cheated, and robbed. Fifty women is the blood-price for killing one of a sheik’s family, six for anyone else.

Fasl [blood money] was assessed on a varying scale for any injury; an eye at the equivalent for half a life; a tooth at one woman; and so on. It was paid for all fingers, except, for some reason, the middle one. It would be paid for a face slapped in public. Sadam even told me that if someone killed another’s dog on purpose, he would be involved in a blood feud which could only be settled by three women.

A man could divorce his wife by just saying ‘I divorce you,’ but if so, he did not normally get back the bride price.” After the wedding of a young tribesman, while Thesiger and his friends were sleeping in the long guesthouse, a shot was fired near midnight by the bridegroom, who emerged grinning from behind his screen. Everyone woke up and cheered. The marriage had been consummated.

In one way or another, dramatically, comically, or discursively, the book is, in fact, excellent anthropology. Thesiger answers all the questions he raises; none of Lawrence’s obsessive hinting. Yes, the young men had to be homosexual before marriage—to touch an unmarried woman was a mortal offense. Yes, he found some of the boys “disturbingly beautiful,” the privileged, effeminate dancing boys amusing and his own canoe boys worth a great deal of difficult loyalty. He saw them married before he left. But the scale of social life was so small in its intensity and the scope of action so large among villages, lagoons, lakes, rivers, reedbeds, hunting fowl and pig (the latter always at terrifyingly close quarters) that the book’s general effect is rather like that of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education on a small scale; a very dry but occasionally splendid panoramic action which you either “get” or you don’t, depending on your tolerance for so much unemphatic detail and the lack of rhetorical instructions on how to take it. I came, I saw, I conquered—is the gist of his message.

One hundred and ten photographs and maps add a great deal. The homely pathos of these lost, cheerful folk; their tacky little private houses built of reeds on foundations of reeds and hand-scooped mud; their submerged, ubiquitous buffalo; the astonishing nobility of the larger, more prosperous, barrel-vaulted guesthouses built entirely of reeds (some of which grow to twenty-five feet)—everything is fully documented.

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