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Wilfred Thesiger

I love reading travel books, so I’m not sure why it took me so long to discover the books of Wilfred Thesiger, but I’m thankful that I finally did. I stumbled upon a copy of Thesiger’s The Marsh Arabs about two years ago, the book just sitting there on a shelf at my bookshop. Thumbing through it, I was struck by the photos that Thesiger had taken of the locals, as well as the descriptions of his travels in the marsh region of pre-oil Iraq in the 1950s. I’ve never been to that part of the world, and honestly don’t have much of a desire to go anywhere in the Middle East, but reading about travels in off-the-beaten-path destinations, particularly from bygone eras, always intrigues me.

Maybe one reason I hadn’t heard of Thesiger is that he isn’t really a typical travel writer, but a true adventurer, one who spent most of his adult life in remote regions of Africa and the Middle East, often venturing to lands where he was one of the first Western visitors. It was typical of Thesiger, that through his actions and behavior, he won the respect, admiration and confidence of the local people wherever he travelled, despite being a foreigner from an entirely different culture.

One book jacket proclaims:

Wilfred Thesiger was, in the words of David Attenborough, “one of the very few people who in our time could be put on the pedestal of the great explorers of the 18th and 19th centuries.” Throughout his life he journeyed through some of the remotest, most dangerous areas of Africa, witnessing and photographing fast-changing cultures to great acclaim.

Luckily, armchair travelers can read about Thesiger’s adventures thanks to the books that he wrote, and we gain an added appreciation of those travels and the people he encountered thanks to the many stunning Black & White photos that illustrate those books. Thesiger travelled by camel around the “empty quarter” of Arabia (the subject of the classic Arabian Sands) and by canoe through the marshes of Southern Iraq (the subject of The Marsh Arabs), as he methodically dispensed medicine to villagers, performed circumcisions (yes, even though he wasn’t a doctor, Thesiger was surprisingly prolific at this operation), or shooting crocodiles, wild boar, tigers, and other wild animals that posed a threat to him and his companions. Thesiger seemed unfazed by the dangers and discomforts surrounding him, including the death threats he received from “enemy” tribes in Arabia, simply because he was in “infidel” travelling through their land. In cases like that, he usually had to request written permission to enter those areas.

After finishing The Marsh Arabs, I was hooked on Thesiger’s style, and then found a copy of his acclaimed Arabian Sands. That book is an account of his travels in the 1940s through Southern Arabia, a trip that was particularly fraught with hardships and danger. No water for days at a time, minimal food supplies, hostile armed tribes, horrific diseases. Not exactly akin to a sea cruise or leisurely walkabout. Following that book, I tackled Among the Mountains: Journeys Through Asia, in which Thesiger travelled in colder climates and higher elevations. In the past month I’ve read both The Danakil Diary: Journeys Through Abyssinia, and My Kenya Days, books which cover dramatically different periods of Thesiger’s life on that continent. In between the Arabian and African books I also read a biography of Thesiger written by his friend Alexander Maitland. That book gives the reader a better feel for this enigmatic explorer, a man more comfortable riding camels on sand dunes than motoring down country lanes back home in his native England. In fact, Thesiger famously detested motor vehicles, big city life, and modern “progress,” although in his later years he succumbed to practicality and bought a jeep to get around the area where he lived in Kenya.

This past month I splurged on a copy of Wilfred Thesiger in Africa, a fabulous hardcover collection of his photos. This book also includes some essays about Thesiger and his travels from a variety of friends and fellow authors. There is also a more deluxe collection of Thesiger’s photos, A Vanished World, but that book is currently out of print, and the cheapest used copies I’ve seen from online dealers are going for around $130. I’d love to have it, but I think I’ll wait.

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