The cover of this fine, detailed and perhaps slightly overlong biography depicts a barefoot Bedouin and his sparsely laden camel standing alone in the middle of sandy nothingness. It is only by peering closely that one can make out the beaky nose and English features of Wilfred Thesiger (1910-2003), whose “Arabian Sands” (1959) is widely regarded as one of the greatest travel books of modern times. T.H. White — the revered author of “The Sword in the Stone” — once called it, with forgivable exaggeration, “the best book I have ever read.” Illustrated with Thesiger’s haunting black-and-white photographs and characterized by a terse lyricism, this desert classic records two grueling camel journeys, undertaken in the late 1940s, across the forbiddingly desolate Empty Quarter of Arabia.
Oddly enough, Thesiger waited a decade to write up his Arabian adventures, which included climbing and crossing sand dunes 700 feet high, murderous threats from warring Arab tribes, and near-constant hunger and thirst — and then did so while cozily ensconced in a hotel in Copenhagen. He composed his other famous book, “The Marsh Arabs” (1964), while residing in a pensione in Florence. As Alexander Maitland reminds us, this great wanderer through Arabia, Persia (as he called Iran), Central Asia and Africa was emphatically a man of contradictions.
When Thesiger was in the desert, he dressed as his Arab companions did, honoring the nomad’s principle that “everything that was not a necessity was an encumbrance.” But back in London, he would don a bowler hat, sport a dark three-piece suit and carry a rolled umbrella, the very picture of conservative English traditionalism. One friend said that he was “the sort of man who will happily walk barefoot for months across a waterless desert, subsisting on a handful of dates and occasional sip of camel’s piss, but who, back in civilization, cannot endure the most trivial discomfort. He becomes frantic even if his egg isn’t boiled right for breakfast.”
Born in what was then Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), Thesiger counted himself as much a citizen of that country as of England. The eldest of a colonial administrator’s four sons, he wrote that his childhood in Abyssinia, and especially the memory of its spear-carrying warriors, implanted in his soul “a lifelong craving for barbaric splendour, for savagery and colour and the throb of drums, and it gave me a lasting veneration for long-established custom and ritual, from which would derive later a deep-seated resentment of Western innovations in other lands, and a distaste for the drab uniformity of the modern world.”
As a scion of an upper-class family, Thesiger attended Eton and Oxford, but he spent his summer vacations roaming around northern Africa, hunting and exploring. He loved reading the adventure fiction of John Buchan, Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad, and regarded T.E. Lawrence as a role model. At Oxford, he squeaked through with a third-class degree in modern history but distinguished himself as a champion boxer.
Tall and exceptionally strong, Thesiger never drank alcohol but loved sweets (especially chocolate), was prickly and rather humorless, hated to feel cold, adored his mother, enjoyed rousing martial music and was apparently decisively celibate. While he openly admired the beauty of young Arab and African men, and always employed one or two as his companions or servants, Thesiger claimed to be revolted by the very idea of physical love-making. Still, anyone who looks at the expressive photographs he took of various young tribesmen will recognize that he gazed at their often androgynous beauty with the eyes of a lover. He once declared men to be more “graceful than women, ‘who bulge in all the wrong places.’ ”
From the beginning, Thesiger, who could speak fluent Arabic, nearly always “travelled on foot with tribal companions and baggage animals, almost never accompanied by another European.” Early on, he chose to live a “hard man’s life” and, quite literally, to go where no Europeans had gone before him. On one early journey, in which he determined that the Awash River in what is now Ethiopia ended in Lake Abhebad, 14 of his 18 camels died of starvation. During his 20s, he spent five years in the Sudan, where he “shot seventy lions, being charged no fewer than sixteen times.” Among the Nuer, Thesiger killed four elephants and once harpooned a hippo. But afterWorld War II, in which he served in North Africa and was awarded a Distinguished Service Order, he gradually gave up hunting for sport.
In the 1950s, Thesiger lived off and on for seven years in the marshes of southern Iraq, an area once thought to be the location of the Garden of Eden. (This water land was later drained and essentially destroyed by Saddam Hussein.) Here he once again adapted to the native lifestyle, living in a reed hut, traveling by canoe, helping to herd water buffalo and killing wild boar. (By the time Thesiger left the marshes in 1958, writes Maitland, he had shot “approximately a thousand wild boar.”) But Thesiger also functioned as the region’s doctor, treating “boils, dysentery, eczema, ulcers” and other ailments. Once he excised a diseased eye. He also performed, on boys and men, thousands of circumcisions.
At intervals, Thesiger would leave the marshes and visit England or travel in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some of these later adventures were recorded in “Desert, Marsh and Mountain” (1979). On one such journey, he famously encountered the travel writer Eric Newby, who had attempted to climb Mir Samir with his friend Hugh Carless. Thesiger, immaculately turned out in native gear, couldn’t help but mock the softness of Newby and Carless when the pair started to blow up air mattresses before sleeping on stony ground.
Knighted in 1995, Sir Wilfred spent his later years living in Kenya with several adopted African “sons.” By 2000, however, he had begun to suffer from both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, eventually dying in an English hospital in Croydon at the age of 93. Just before he breathed his last, Maitland tells us, Thesiger turned to someone by his bedside and demanded, “What is your tribe?”
Today, reading about Wilfred Thesiger’s exploits as a hunter and explorer can be slightly disconcerting. Did he represent the last gasp of British colonialism? Were his adventures mainly a closeted homosexual’s need for easygoing male companionship? With other people, of whatever nationality, he was obviously domineering, quick to take offense and unforgiving. Still, of his talent as a photographer and a writer, there is no question: “Arabian Sands” and “The Marsh Arabs” aren’t just classics of reportage, they are unforgettable works of art.
Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Post at wapo.st/reading-room. His latest book, “On Conan Doyle,” has just been published.
The Life of the Great Explorer
By Alexander Maitland
528 pp. $37.95