Wilfred Thesiger and the torments of travel

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Wilfred Thesiger and the torments of travel

Wilfred Thesiger (1910 - 2003), 1968. (Getty Images)

In April 1979 I met the formidable 69-year-old Wilfred Thesiger at his fashionable Tite Street flat, which overlooked the Thames in London and was decorated with swords and daggers. He was six feet, two inches tall, with large hands and a powerful grip. His deeply lined face and prominent broken nose reminded me of the crevices and peaks of the rugged terrain he had crossed. He’d been living since the 1960s with “my Samburu” in northern Kenya and seemed well suited to the austere life of these naked warriors. Formal, reserved and taciturn, he seemed unaccustomed to conversation with educated people. He’d answer my questions, lapse into silence and then revive when I came up with the next one. I finally roused him by asking about the gold medal the Royal Geographical Society had awarded him for crossing the Empty Quarter of Arabia and about his attitude toward TE Lawrence, whom he’d never met but greatly admired. Hunter, soldier and explorer, who became the greatest travel writer of our time, he impressed me with his power and sensitivity. Despite his arduous and self-punishing life, he lived to the age of 93.

I

Thesiger was privileged by birth in two senses. He came from a distinguished family and was the first British child born in Addis Ababa, where his father presided over the mud buildings of the British Legation. The romantically-minded boy saw the spectacular life of a traditional Christian people and witnessed the chivalry of Abyssinia going forth to war. These experiences implanted in him “a lifelong craving for barbaric splendour, for savagery and colour and the throb of drums, and gave him a lasting veneration for long-established custom and ritual, from which would derive later a deep-seated resentment of Western innovation in other lands, and a distaste for the drab uniformity of the modern world.” 

In 1916, when he was six years old, Thesiger witnessed the spectacular victory celebrations after Haile Selassie had led 60,000 men in Homeric hand-to-hand combat and conquered the old ruler, and the Abyssinian nobility passed by in lion-mane headdresses and embossed shields. He later became aware that “traditions, customs and rites, long cherished and revered, would soon be discarded, that the colour and variety that distinguished this scene would soon disappear from the land forever,” and was determined to preserve them in his books.

Thesiger was educated at Eton, where he remained an outsider, and at Oxford, where he won a Blue for boxing. His autobiography confirmed his complete lack of sympathy with the twentieth century. He not only traveled and observed to escape its ugliness, but also lived among remote people, shared their way of life for many years and found it superior to his own. His travel writing was not an occasional interlude from ordinary life, but a continuous record from the inside of lost and disappearing cultures. He believed other races were entitled to their own moral standards and disliked missionaries who disrupted ancestral customs. He was amused by an African chief who dealt with uncomfortable tight shorts by leaving his fly undone and letting everything hang outside. 

Wilfred Thesiger and his mother Mrs Reginald Astley 1967. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

His ideal was to work and travel as a friend and equal among attractive people in unexplored lands. He loved hardship and adventure, and found companions most easily among alien races. “It was,” he recalled, “the comradeship of the Bedu I travelled with that drew me back to that land year after year; two among them in particular [bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha] mattered to me as few other people have mattered.” The space, silence and cleanness of the desert taught him to appreciate the basic necessities that Europeans took for granted: “clean water to drink; meat to eat; a warm fire on a cold night; shelter from rain; above all, tired surrender to sleep.” He combined Richard Burton’s and Charles Doughty’s passion for the Arabs with an idealistic desire to serve and protect them.

For nearly fifty years Thesiger lived among tribal people in remote and hostile places, in the deserts of Africa and the swamps of the Sudan, in the mountains of Nuristan and the Hindu Kush. His life was dominated by a strange compulsion to go where others have never been, to know the empty sands — unknown and unchanged. He discovered these places just in time to find the spirit of the land and the traditional life of the people — which had sometimes remained the same for thousands of years — before oil-rich greybeards nodded approval as their culture was betrayed and the once-inviolate desert was overcome by shoddy materialism. He hunted bustard with falcons, flown from the fist; and put out from Dubai on Arab dhows, the last trading vessels to make long voyages entirely by sail.

Thesiger’s motives for enduring the torments of travel were complex and intriguing. He hated the materialism of the West and sought an alternative in the austerity of traditional Arab life. He wanted to experience freedom and comradeship, to test himself during hardship and danger in unexplored countries. He had a masochistic need to suffer and relished the power to inflict suffering. The Arabs’ murder and looting, blood feuds and sudden deaths, sublimated and satisfied his deep-rooted desire to kill men as well as animals, a physical release from his repressed sexuality. He killed some 70 lions in peacetime before killing many Italians and Germans in war.

II

Thesiger’s personal and intellectual lodestone was TE Lawrence, who had awakened his interest in the Arabs. There are some obvious differences between them: Lawrence was short, Thesiger was tall, but both were slender and very tough. Lawrence loved machines: motorcycles, speedboats and aeroplanes; Thesiger loathed anything mechanical and modern. Lawrence had no interest in hunting; Thesiger was passionate about slaughtering animals. Lawrence, unlike Thesiger, was an expert linguist and archeologist, and briefly a triumphant military commander.

Their similarities were more significant. Both had an aristocratic background. Lawrence’s father, Sir Thomas Chapman, was a baronet; Thesiger’s grandfather was a viscount, his uncle, Lord Chelmsford, was Viceroy of India. Lawrence had four brothers, Thesiger had three, and each lost a brother killed in war. They grew up in an all-male society at home and at school, in the army and the desert. Lawrence’s father died in April 1919, Thesiger’s father died less than a year later in January 1920. Both were extremely close to their mothers. Thesiger’s mother gave him the emotional support and encouragement of a wife. He preferred her to all other companions and traveled extensively with her in North Africa and the Middle East when he was on leave.

They had similar literary tastes, carried Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta with them in the desert, and admired Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling. Thesiger followed the bold example in Heart of Darkness of the young Marlow, who put his finger on the blank map of Africa and declared, “when I grow up I shall go there.” Like Kipling’s Kim, Thesiger lived in two different cultures and thanked God “Who gave me two / Separate sides of my head!” Like the heroes of Thesiger’s favorite books, Kim and Lord Jim, they both instinctively assumed the role — in camel caravans and fierce combat — of the white leader of a traditional race. They tested themselves against their impossible standards of endurance, defined and authenticated their experience by hardship and torment, and transfigured and deified their suffering into ecstatic pleasure.

Both men endured beatings: Lawrence when captured by the Turks and when serving in the postwar ranks, Thesiger at prep school and Eton. Lawrence endured his beatings as punishment for his illegitimate birth and homosexuality, for his enjoyment of being beaten and thrill of killing people. Thesiger’s motives for suffering in the deserts of fanatic Arabia were obscure, but seemed a substitute for sex. Both went to Oxford: Lawrence to Jesus College, Thesiger to Magdalen. They were expert map makers, superb photographers and great writers. They explored the deserts on foot and took many long-distance camel rides. Thesiger matched Lawrence’s endurance by spending 70 out of 96 hours in the saddle. Both were fluent in Arabic, and had an expert knowledge of the Arab tribes and terrain. Evoking Lawrence, a colleague described Thesiger as a “brave, awkward, attractive creature with more than a hint of fanaticism.”

T.E. Lawrence, as Lawrence Of Arabia. 1928.

Lawrence influenced Thesiger directly as well as indirectly through Orde Wingate. In World War Two Thesiger served in Abyssinia under Wingate, who was influenced by Lawrence’s theory of guerrilla warfare, and under David Stirling, who used Lawrence’s irregular tactics when raiding airfields behind enemy lines in the North African desert. In his autobiography The Life of My Choice, Thesiger compared Wingate to Lawrence by calling Wingate “an idealist and a fanatic. He needed a cause with which he could identify himself”, and by praising his “originality of thought, bold imagination and ruthless single-mindedness”. Both Lawrence and Thesiger passionately identified with their allies and were successful warriors in the desert. Lawrence helped to liberate Arabia from the Turks, Thesiger helped to free Abyssinia from the Italians.

Thesiger explored many remote places in Arabia that Lawrence had described in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Like Lawrence, he loved the masochistic challenge of overcoming tremendous obstacles, and had absolute confidence that he could achieve the impossible. He declared, “there was the constant test of resolution and endurance. . . . Journeying at walking pace under conditions of some hardship, I was perhaps the last explorer in the tradition of the past.”

Both admired primitive savagery and had a cadre of devoted followers. In Seven Pillars Lawrence described the suicidal but glorious death-charge of Tallal: “Instantly their rifles and machine-guns crashed out, and he and his mare, riddled through and through with bullets, fell dead among the lance points.” Thesiger’s autobiography echoes this passage: “shouting defiance, he hurled his spear at his distant enemies and collapsed, riddled with bullets, under the crumpled flag. . . . Instinctively I had sided with the Dervishes, magnificent in their savage heroism.”

Lawrence and Thesiger had close relations with their teenage Arab servants. Lawrence had Farraj and Daud, Thesiger matched him with bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha. Lawrence dedicated Seven Pillars to his dead friend Dahoum; Thesiger dedicated his book to his two illiterate Arab boys. In the first chapter of his book Lawrence glorified “friends quivering together in the yielding sand with intimate hot limbs in supreme embrace.” In a Vanity Fair interview with Christopher Dickey, Thesiger’s denial of Lawrence’s obvious homosexuality cast light on his own desires: “I suspect that the relationship was never consummated and that Lawrence had a craving for a homosexual relationship and the sort of thwarting of that has contributed to his, uh, oddity.” When Dickey mentioned Thesiger’s seductive photos of androgynous Arab boys and boldly asked if he had been in love with them, he replied that he did love them, “as long as you don’t mean physical love”. His attachment was “the sort of love you give to your brothers and your family.”

Celibacy was part of the penance of the desert. Thesiger’s friend and biographer Alexander Maitland explained that at Oxford “furtive embraces and voyeuristic encounters set the pattern for Thesiger’s sexual life from then on”. He said “sex has been of no great consequence to me, the celibacy of desert life left me untroubled”, and insisted that the thought of physical sex, with men or women, revolted him: “I should have liked to have children. It was what I needed to do to get children that put me off.” He also said that he disliked babies.

Thesiger’s frank rejection of homosexuality was convincing. He was clearly not interested in sex, and must have been horrified when his dear mother remarried and had sexual relations with a strange man. He had paternal feelings toward the Arab boys, took aesthetic pleasure when photographing them and idealised them as a man might exalt a virgin. His position as a Christian in Arabia was dangerous. He would not have ruined his precious expedition by starting a sex scandal that he could not hide from his companions. Most importantly, he associated homosexuality with the sadistic headmaster who — knowing his father had died and could not protect him — beat, scarred and traumatised him in prep school.

For Lawrence, as for Thesiger, the desert was a place of purification, and both emphasised the biblical theme of cleanness and uncleanness. I Samuel 22:21 states, “according to the cleanness of my hands had [the Lord] recompensed me.” By contrast, in Leviticus 13:45, “the leper in whom the plague is . . . shall cry unclean, unclean.” Lawrence had stamped on the cover of Seven Pillars, “The sword also means clean-ness and death,” and wrote of Arabs “slaking one another’s needs in their own clean bodies.” Describing the desert in Arabian Sands (1959), Thesiger emphasised the clean water and noted the windswept cleanness “which was infinitely remote from the world of men.” He also observed that both dogs and infidels like himself were unclean to Moslems.

III

Thesiger’s first travel book, Arabian Sands, describes his four crossings of the Empty Quarter from 1945 to 1950. In these expeditions he was willing, even eager, to risk his life and could declare with Walt Whitman: “I was the man, I suffered, I was there.” Echoing Malcolm Muggeridge’s description of George Orwell — “He loved the past, hated the present and dreaded the future” — Thesiger stated: “I craved the past, resented the present and dreaded the future.” He wanted to test himself to the limit in that hard and hostile world, and submit to the obscure “perverse necessity which drives me from my own land to the deserts of the East”. A powerful animal, like his camels, he once rode under severe conditions and with great back pain for 115 miles in 23 hours and later covered a distance of 450 miles in nine days. 

(Shutterstock)

He found freedom through hardship and torment that were unknown in the civilised world. He lived and suffered like the Bedu, and made himself useful as a source of income and as an effective doctor. When an old man fell off his camel and splintered his leg, Thesiger gave him morphine and set the break. But he reversed traditional attitudes of racial superiority and described himself, rather than the tribesmen, as an “uncouth, inarticulate barbarian”. Ignoring the contradiction between his crowd of followers and his craving for solitude, he learned “how hard it is to live crowded together with people of another faith, speech and culture in the solitude of the desert”.

Thesiger said: “I could now move without effort from one world to the other as easily as I could change my clothes, but I appreciated that I was in danger of belonging to neither.” In Arabia he grew a beard, wore a loincloth, long shirt and headdress, with a dagger and cartridge belt for his rifle. In a photo taken outside the Travellers Club in London, he wore a Savile Row suit and bowler hat, carried a tightly furled umbrella and looked like a prosperous aristocrat. But one critic noted his uneasiness in England. He was a man who “will happily walk barefoot for months across a waterless desert, subsisting on a handful of dates and an occasional sip of camel’s piss, but who, back in civilisation, cannot endure the most trivial discomfort. He becomes frantic even if his egg isn’t boiled right.”

Thesiger willingly submitted to the merciless desert life: fiery heat, cold nights and constant fatigue; thirst and starvation alleviated by disgusting food. The scarce water was often brackish, purgative and even unpotable. As he walked barefoot, his feet cracked from the cold and became agonising. He was frightened by hairy spiders and bitten by scorpions. Even the heavy rains, which ended the drought and promised good grazing for the camels, were torture. He had few pots to catch the downpour and, with no shelter, was drenched to the skin. He cowered on the ground during the thunder and feared he would be struck by lightning. The 700-foot dunes had sharp crests and rocky paths tore the camels’ feet. The threats were psychological as well as physical. There was the constant strain of speaking Arabic and listening to the endless quarrels. The precious silence of the desert was constantly shattered when men shouted, goats bleated and camels roared. He had no privacy and, despite the comradeship, was exploited by the greedy Arabs and felt an aching loneliness. 

Thesiger would agree with Yeats, who asked, “How but in custom and in ceremony / Are innocence and beauty born?” He praised the Bedu religion, fellowship, pride, humour, language, poetry, patience, generosity, hospitality, dignity, loyalty, gallantry, endurance, and courage. But his admiration was punctured by their grievous faults, which intensified his torments. He honestly admitted that they were uncouth and selfish, avaricious, rapacious and predatory. Like Calvinists who believe in predestination, they fatalistically submitted to God’s will. He exalted the Arabs’ great contributions to civilisation in the Middle Ages, but ignored the fact that the Bedu had no culture and practiced barbaric customs. Their circumcisions inflicted on seven-year-old children were excruciating. They also cut the hands off boys who “had been circumcised in a manner which the King had forbidden”. These lawless tribes were vindictive savages, indifferent to human life. They spent most of their time raiding enemy tribes, stealing the camels and killing each other in blood feuds that lasted for generations. Thesiger towered over his companions and stood out among them as a Christian. Fanatical tribes threatened to kill him, cursed his friends for bringing an infidel into their land and, rejecting traditional Arab hospitality, hoped Thesiger would die of thirst. But to him this life was like feasting with panthers: the danger was half the excitement.

Nevertheless, Thesiger’s recurrent and rather absurd theme is the superiority of Bedu life to Western civilisation. He was “drawn always to remote places where cars cannot penetrate and where something of the old ways survive”, where primitive people are kept in their pristine state so that only he—and certainly not intrusive tourists—could appreciate them. Paradoxically, he hated the cities of the Sudan yet longed for “the chaos, the smells, the untidiness and the haphazard life of the market-place in Addis Ababa,” which was completely different from the austere qualities he admired in the desert. In weird amoral judgments, he thought murder was justified as long as it didn’t involve torture, and Arab hatred was “preferable to the new hatreds based on the distinction of colour, nationality and class which our civilisation has engendered.” 

He particularly hated “the refuse of sedentary humanity” and machines that dominated the modern world. The wireless, cinema and cars were his great enemies and petrol fumes enraged him. He was pleased when a car broke down in the desert—until he discovered that it belonged to his friend and fellow-explorer St John Philby. He despised the oil companies that in his lifetime brought undreamed-of wealth and corrupted the Arabs. He mourned the inexorable destruction of desert life and their violent beliefs, which became even more fanatical when Arab terrorists began to attack the West. 

Thesiger included some fascinating material about wildlife and camels. He saw an Arab plunge his hand into the sand and catch a hare by noting that its tracks went into, but not out of, the hole where it was hiding. Another man captured a falcon by crouching in a shallow pit and luring it with a pigeon tied to a string. When the falcon approached, he pulled the pigeon toward him, the falcon followed it and he caught it by the leg. When not sharing a blanket with bin Kabina, Thesiger slept next to his camel. The beast’s droppings were used in games like checkers and its walk sounded like wavelets slapping on a beach. Some camels grew so fat that their humps split and they died. Traveling three to five miles an hour, camels could go for a week without water. Arabs drank camel’s urine to cure stomach pains, and when really thirsty they rammed a stick down its throat and drank the vomit. Never fastidious, Thesiger explained that after camels fed on salt-bushes their liquid green excrement poured down their hocks. When they suffered from diarrhea, he tied their tails sideways in a vain attempt to prevent them from flicking excrement all over him. To extract milk from a reluctant camel an Arab would blow into her vagina or, more drastically, sew up her anus until she let down her milk. Rutting bull camels were dangerous. Thesiger wrote, in a parody of human behaviour, “the bull was excited, threshing itself with its tail, grinding its teeth, or blowing a large pink air sac from its mouth and sucking it back with a slobbering sound. Clumsily it straddled the yellow camel, a comic figure of ill-directed lust.” 

Thesiger included touches of humour to lighten his Calvary. An Arab on his first plane trip refused to be tied up by a seat belt. One boy, claiming superior birth, remarked,“Anyway, my grandfather never farted in public.” Arabs disliked uncovering themselves in public. When a man’s loincloth indecently slipped down and revealed his parts, his friends shouted “Your nose!” Thesiger mocked the imported trappings of civilisation by defecating in a rare lavatory that was intended for display and not connected to anything. His biographer reports that when an elderly Englishwoman asked him about social life in the Sudan, he replied: “We had a marvellous party last month. All the guests arrived naked, and we ate one of them afterwards.”

He was surprisingly frank about sex. He took a photo of a pretty half-naked young girl with “small firm breasts” and admitted that he frequently thought about her. He was also instructed in the art of seduction: “Next time you see a girl that pleases you, sit down next to her in the dark, push your camel-stick through the sand until it is underneath her, and then turn it over until the crook presses against her. If she gets up, gives you an indignant look and marches off, you will know that you are wasting your time. If she stays where she is, you can meet her next day when she is herding the goats.”

The Arab boys in his photos, with floating hair and delicate features, look like girls. Among the Bedu “talk of sex is vivid and frank, but never obscene” — though that distinction is unclear. He observed that “homosexuality is common among most Arabs, especially in the towns, but it is very rare among the Bedu”. Living close to them, he never saw any sign of it. Pointing out a slave who was used at night by a sheikh, an Arab said he “thought the practice both ridiculous and obscene.” When a man was sentenced to death for raping a boy, they believed it was just and he deserved to die. Like Samuel Johnson, who complimented himself after completing his great Dictionary, Thesiger could also say, “I knew very well what I was undertaking—and very well how to do it—and have done it very well.” St John Philby, who crossed the Empty Quarter before Thesiger, generously called him “the greatest of all the explorers.” 

IV

In 1951 Thesiger moved from the dry desert in Arabian Sands to the wet delta of southern Iraq in The Marsh Arabs (1964) and lived mainly there — when not visiting London or climbing the mountains of Asia — for the next seven years. In contrast to the exhausting journeys and dangerous challenges in Arabia, he spent most of his time in the marsh floating around with his own canoe and crew. It was like having his own gondola and oarsman in Venice. He emphasised communal rather than nomadic life, stationary buffaloes rather than mobile camels. Instead of the vast open spaces of the desert, he was closely confined in the marsh. When seated in the low canoes and paddling among the high reeds he could not see the shore.

In The Marsh Arabs Thesiger repeated his diatribes against civilisation. He wanted to recapture the precious connection to his past and recover the traditional life of his childhood in Ethiopia. He expressed his views in an admittedly extreme passage: “I loathed cars, aeroplanes, wireless and television, in fact most of our civilisation’s manifestations in the past fifty years, and was always happy, in Iraq or elsewhere, to share a smoke-filled hovel with a shepherd, his family and beasts.” He associated Basra, the nearest big city, with garbage and sewage smells, and (a tribesman reported) with thousands of cars “each up the arse of the next.” Even so, he had to go there every two months to soak in a bath, collect his mail and buy more medicines.

He praised the English rulers who replaced the Turks after World War I and, unlike the sheikhs, did not lie, take bribes and oppress the poor. But he was adamantly opposed to educating the marsh Arabs, who might improve their lives and become more enlightened rulers. When a young man complained, “I hate it here where we live like animals,” Thesiger quoted one mother lamenting, “this education is a bad thing, Sahib, it steals our children,” and another woman who proudly declared, “My son is civilised. He eats with a spoon, and pees standing.” Educated men migrated to Basra and to Baghdad, where they failed to find work, lived in slums and were oppressed by the police. He believed “their education had taught them to judge civilisation entirely by material progress and they were, in consequence, ashamed of their background and anxious to forget it.”

By contrast, Thesiger was attracted to a way of life that seemed to continue 5000 years of history, and his photos of naked boys suggested a prelapsarian paradise. As Conrad wrote of the Congo, “going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth. . . . An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable [marsh].” In a fine lyrical passage Thesiger evoked “firelight on a half-turned face . . . canoes moving in procession down a waterway, the setting sun seen crimson through the smoke of burning reedbeds. . . . A naked man with a trident in his hand, reed houses built upon water . . . . Stars reflected in dark water, the croaking of frogs, canoes coming home at evening, peace and continuity, the stillness of a world that never knew an engine.” Like a medieval pilgrim, he sought knowledge in magical wild places. The more primitive and uncomfortable the conditions, the more content he was. Some deep-seated inhibition prevented him from weeping for a dead friend. But when he left the house of mourning the sky seemed to respond: it started to rain and it rained all day.

He admired the marsh Arab pride in danger and suffering, and shared their egoistic belief that they were superior to townsmen. He dubiously claimed that “a man’s status depended wholly on his character, virtues and lineage” and that the marsh Arabs’ society was democratic. But the hereditary sheikhs were extortionate and cruel rather than virtuous and noble, and treated their subjects like slaves and dogs. The sheikhs’ whole way of life — from servants and food to dress and dwellings — was infinitely superior, but Thesiger absurdly maintained that “the sheikh lived in the same manner as his tribesmen, only better” (my italics).

Thesiger described the Arabs’ sex life as both alluring and perverse. The young men casually exposed their nakedness and were disturbingly beautiful. Some men, who dressed and behaved like women and were accepted by them, asked to be castrated. Professional male dancers — with scented hair, padded breasts and cosmetic faces — acted with mincing female mannerisms and served as prostitutes. Young men found satisfaction with each other and spoke openly about masturbation. When one youth sighed for the love of a pretty boy, his friends suggested he relieve himself with a donkey. The mere rumour of a woman’s immorality was enough to convict her and “her family killed her mercilessly to redeem their honour.” Condoning as always traditional customs, Thesiger seemed to feel it was permissible to murder innocent children.

Though some Arabs considered Thesiger unclean and thought the infidel defiled their houses, he was drawn to their negative qualities and swampy setting. Townsmen said they lived like wild beasts, but he loved forcing his canoe through a mass of vegetation, often with restricted visibility, and paddling from village to village with no particular destination or goal. He traveled along barely discernible passages, felt what Yeats called “the wind among the reeds” and “paddled across a small lake encircled by high reeds, and then punted along a wide, shallow waterway.” 

In the marsh the heat reached 120 degrees fahrenheit  in summer and was icy cold with chill winds in winter. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which met in the marsh, alternated between extreme flood and drought. Houses half under water were filled with hosts of fleas, mosquitoes and biting flies. The men spent most of their time cutting the reeds for buffalo fodder. Even their games were boring. En route he recorded the repetitive formulaic speech, mentioned many confusing characters and place names (with maps hard to read), and offered sentences of turgid obscurity: “Kubaish was a Nahiya in the Qadha of Suq ash Shuyukh in the Muntifig Province, of which the capital was Nasiriya”—though no one could possibly be interested in this.

Euphrates an Tigris confluence, Iraq (Shutterstock)

Worst of all were the diseases: from malaria and polio to scabies and piles, kidney stones, intestinal worms, bilharzia-parasites, dysentery, trachoma and bajal — a form of yaws, stinking and highly contagious. Thesiger treated sick people wherever he went and specialised in circumcisions, which were infinitely superior to the slashes of the filthy and terrifying Arab “specialists,” whose appropriate fee was a cock. Like King David who ruthlessly slaughtered the Philistines, on one occasion Thesiger cut 115 foreskins. 

The marsh had all manner of edible wildfowl and pelicans whose pouches were used to make drums. There were plenty of snakes and beasts: badgers, jackals, hyenas and wolves — all doomed to extinction. Buffaloes were used for dung-fuel, milk, meat and hides, but not as in Asia for work. Thesiger wrote that the buffaloes, “black, sullen-looking brutes, heavy-bodied and shaggy coated, stood beside the river or rested in the water with only their noses, the tops of their heads and their thick, cured horns showing.”

No believer in the sanctity of human life, he found “you can usually get on terms with people by helping them to kill something.” He relished gory details and described a corpse hanging from a gibbet with its legs torn off by hyenas. The excitement of confronting fierce beasts provided a welcome contrast to the sluggish life in the swamp. His main victims were the wild boar that trampled and ate the crops, gored and killed the men. He shot hundreds of boar, as many as 36 in two days, though the Muslim Arabs wouldn’t eat their excellent pork or roast any for him. He recalled a few perilous encounters and heroic escapes, which echoed the adventures of the big-game hunters he’d read in boyhood, when the beast charged and fell dead at their feet.

“I peered over the top of the corn straight into the eyes of a big boar — I still remember the white glint of its tushes [pointed teeth]. Before I could aim I was on my back, yards from where I had been standing, the rifle going off as I went down. Then the pig was on me again. I felt its weight on my thighs, saw its long snout and small angry eyes above me, and felt its breath on my face. It drove at my chest with its tushes, and instinctively I blocked the swipe with the butt of my rifle. Then the pig was gone. I sat up and looked at my rifle; there was a great gouge in the stock, and one of my fingers, slashed to the bone as by a razor, was pouring blood. I reloaded and got to my feet. The boar, a big one, was walking away on the edge of the cornfield. I shouted, it swung round, and I aimed at its chest. It dropped where it stood.”

The marsh Arabs were doomed not only by the predatory oil companies, as Thesiger foresaw, but also by genocidal retribution. To punish the wetlands people for their 1991 uprising against him, Saddam Hussein bombed villages, burned houses, killed thousands of tribal leaders and mined the marsh. Most of the thousand square miles were reduced to desert and the population, migrating to the slums of the towns, fell from half a million to 20,000.

V

In The Life of My Choice (1988) Thesiger described the gorgeous pageantry of empire he saw in 1918 while visiting his uncle, the Viceroy of India. In 1930 he attended the coronation of his father’s old friend, Emperor Haile Selassie, to whom he was fiercely loyal. In Addis Ababa he met Evelyn Waugh, who later enraged him by mocking the Abyssinians in Black Mischief and praising the Italian invasion of their country. He condemned Waugh’s superficiality and foppish dress, and disliked him on sight: “He struck me as flaccid and petulant.” Waugh wanted to join Thesiger’s expedition to a fierce tribe, but he adamantly refused his request and menacingly remarked: “Had he come, I suspect only one of us would have returned.”

Thesiger dedicated his autobiography “To the memory of His late Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie” and his portrayal of Selassie was completely opposed to Waugh’s. He praised the Emperor’s “sensitive and finely moulded face,” his dignity and kindness, “his inflexible will, his intense patience, his courage, his horror of cruelty, his dedication to his country and his deep religious faith”. Waugh claimed that Selassie had “fled precipitately”; Thesiger showed that Selassie had commanded his army against the Italians at Qoram. He was forced to admit that as Selassie “acquired power he became increasingly autocratic”. But he insisted that “his foremost preoccupation was always his people’s welfare,” and that he “had an abiding horror of cruelty and executions. He himself never sentenced anyone to death.” In fact, he would make a Shakespearean comment like “Methinks I like him not” and let his servile ministers carry out the executions. Nevertheless, Thesiger continued to revere the despotic ruler.

Thesiger forcefully contradicted Waugh’s biased views of the hopelessly unequal war against the Italians, of General Rodolfo Graziani, of the barbaric methods of the invaders and — in defiance of the Geneva Convention — their horrific use of poison gas. He described the “bitter fighting, largely swords, spears and shields against rifles, bayonets and hand grenades, that lasted until nightfall.” In a striking sentence he noted, “to meet a modern army, the Abyssinians lacked everything but courage.” He indignantly observed that in the war of 1911 the genocidal Graziani, “who had already earned a butcher’s reputation while suppressing the Senussi in Libya, now adopted the same methods in Abyssinia. He is alleged to have said, ‘The Duce shall have Ethiopia with or without the Ethiopians, as he pleases.’ ” 

After 425 deacons and monks were shot in Debra Lebanos, which Evelyn Waugh had visited in 1930, the furious Thesiger quoted Waugh’s justification of the Italian terror and extermination. Waugh declared that the Italian “civilising mission” was “attended by a spread of order and decency, education and medicine, in a disgraceful place.” Thesiger was also outraged by Waugh’s attempt to cover up the use of mustard gas, a toxic chemical that burned exposed skin and lungs and formed large blisters oozing yellow pus. The soft tissue of the eyes were especially vulnerable. In his New Year Letter (1940), WH Auden wrote of “The Abyssinian, blistered, blind.” Thesiger vividly concluded that “anyone who was splashed with the fluid or who breathed its fumes writhed and screamed in agony.”

Thesiger’s autobiography described his early life more fully than his travel books.

In 1934 he explored northern Abyssinia and discovered the source of the Awash River. He observed, “meeting in unknown Africa with a savage potentate who hated Europeans was the realisation of my boyhood dreams.” The knowledge that “three previous expeditions had been exterminated, that we were far beyond any hope of assistance, that even our whereabouts were unknown, I found wholly satisfying.” He masterfully evoked the bitter and breathtaking landscapes and convincingly defined his ambiguous attraction to a savage tribe, the Danakil of Abyssinia, who killed without restraint: “Slender figures in short loin cloths, their mops of hair dressed with melted butter, they had open, attractive faces, but each of them wore across his stomach a large, curved dagger from which hung leather thongs, one for each man he had killed and castrated.” The testicles of their victims were more portable than their heads. From 1935 to 1940 he served in the Sudan Political Service. In the southern Nuer district, where he was one of two Englishmen administering 20,000 square miles from a riverboat on the Upper Nile, he dealt with the mail from superiors by throwing most of it overboard. 

After leaving the marsh Arabs, the restless nomad continued to wander in remote areas of Abyssinia, Kenya, Tanganyika, Persia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. In 1968 he finally settled among his Samburu, near Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, who called him “Old Stone Age”. Aware that he found solitude unbearable and desperately needed companions, his adopted African “family” ruthlessly exploited him. It was ironic that in the course of sixteen years, the people he admired extracted £500,000 from him and he was obliged to sell his most precious possession, the Subscribers’ edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926). Abandoning traditional life, they adopted the Western habits he loathed and used his money “to buy more cars and pay off their gambling debts in Nairobi.” Thesiger allowed the Samburu to swindle him because he had no wife or children and they were his only family; he didn’t care about money and had no one else to leave it to. He honestly confessed, “I was an utter fool, I suppose, but I don’t regret any of it.”

Thesiger, the only modern traveler who can be compared to the bold Arabian explorers — Sir Richard Burton, Charles Doughty and John Burckhardt — was portrayed with them on a Dubai postage stamp. He lived for many years among primitive people in order to understand their life and to show that he could endure hardship — going barefoot in the desert — as well as they could. In doing so he raised travel writing to a higher level of insight and art. When he was an infant in Addis Ababa his ayah declared, “He one handsome Rajah — why for he no do what he want?” As an adult he lived courageously and was worthy of Sheikh Hamoudi’s praise of Lawrence: “Of manhood the man, in freedom free; a mind without equal; I can see no flaw in him.”

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