2011/08/13

Across the Empty Quarter by Wilfred Thesiger

Across the Empty Quarter
Wilfred Thesiger, 1959/2007, 96p
This very thin volume is actually an excerpt from Thesiger's Arabian Sands1 (I believe), and it starts and ends in the middle of a much longer narrative. While this means that the first section directly refers to text and events not available, and the last section ends on a notable cliffhanger, I enjoyed the selection. Removed from the larger context, it was easy to submerge into the writing and the experience, even if the overall journey was unclear. It had the feel of reading a diary, with the daily conflicts, rations and mood audited serially.

I have read very little colonial explorer non-fiction, and this work is a fairly late example of this genre2. Thesiger is relatively free of condescension and while he is enamoured with his surroundings, he doesn't wash them in a romantic light. When he sees brutality or foolishness, he is cautious to put it in contrast with the range of his experience in the area (the Arabian desert).

An interesting journey into culture and region now highly transformed3, and also into a type of tourism now long gone.

Notes:

  1. Arabian Sands is still in print from Penguin. The Penguin Great Journey series was a selection of short works generally culled from other materials that represented interesting historical travel writing, including contributions from Mark Twain, Herodotus and Anton Chekhov among others. The series book design is lovely. Oddly, despite only being published in 2007, they all appear to be out of print now.
  2. The travels discussed here were from 1945-1949, with the writing first published a decade later, though obviously heavily based on notes written in the field.
  3. I have briefly visited nearby Dubai and Abu Dhabi, (which of course are coastal emirates and I would be a fool to confuse these with the desert nomads he writes about,) and the transformational pressures of the last half-century are obvious and at most times surreal.

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