Wilfred of Arabia

The Life of My Choice

by Wilfred Thesiger
Norton, 459 pp., $25.00

Visions of a Nomad

by Wilfred Thesiger
Collins (London), 224 pp., £20.00

Wilfred Thesiger
Wilfred Thesiger; drawing by David Levine

When people or their ideas become the object of cults, it is time to watch out. For cults by their very nature are beyond criticism. The beauty of cult worship lies in its irrationality. Cultists substitute exultation for thought.

Wilfred Thesiger, adventurer, writer, and photographer, has lately become a British cult figure. His autobiography has come in for the highest praise in Britain and is a best seller to boot. I once expressed some doubts about Thesiger to a British admirer of his and got slapped on the wrist: Thesiger is a Great Man, a real traveler, unlike those smart-alecky young writers today who parachute in and out of places; Thesiger really knew the people he wrote about; he lived with them; he loved them. Not for him the effete banter of literary London. He prefers the company of real people, noble people, pure people, like Marsh Arabs, tribal warriors in Kenya, or stern nomads of the Arabian desert.

To be sure, there is much to admire about Wilfred Thesiger. His book on the Marsh Arabs in southern Iraq, with whom he lived for about five years during the 1950s, is a unique document of a vanished way of life. What was left before the slaughter of the Iran–Iraq war surely now is lost forever. Thesiger’s prose survives, however, as well as his excellent black-and-white photographs, which have been beautifully reproduced in Visions of a Nomad, an album that spans much of Thesiger’s traveling life. It is divided into three parts: Africa, meaning Ethiopia, Sudan, and Kenya; the Arab world, consisting of Arabia, Yemen, Morocco, Lebanon, and Iraq; and Asia, mainly Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.

In between the pictures of noble gray-beards in Persia, armed Arab youths in Oman, and naked warriors in northern Kenya, we are offered snippets of Thesiger’s likes and dislikes. He hates tourists, cars, airplanes: “Airports represent to me the ultimate abomination, everything that I most detest in our civilization.” He does not care much for Europe, “either its people, its towns or its landscape, and I certainly have no wish to visit America, Australia or New Zealand.”

On the other hand, Thesiger loves “relaxed and graceful tribesmen,” with whom he can share “comradeship”; he has had a “life-long craving for barbaric splendour, for savagery and colour and the throb of drums,…for long-established custom and ritual, from which I would derive later a deep-seated resentment of Western innovations in other lands”; and he loves shooting large numbers of animals.

Apart from the shooting, which he admits is no longer fashionable now that wildlife has been largely depleted, there seems to be nothing especially objectionable about Thesiger’s views. Most of us can sympathize with his distaste for, as he puts it in The Marsh Arabs, “that drab modernity which, in the uniform of second-hand European clothes, was spreading like a blight across the rest of Iraq.” For…

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