THE study of Islamic history and the rise and fall of Muslims had been a lifelong passion of Iqbal. The poet philosopher fervently believed in the Islamic renaissance and argued that the rejuvenation of the civilization that ruled the world for nearly a thousand years would begin in its birthplace once again at the hands of desert Arabs. He did so at a time of great turmoil and utter chaos in Muslim lands in the wake of the fall of the Ottoman caliphate. I’ve often wondered what prompted the poetic genius to pitch for the Arabs at a time when they seemingly offered no hope for optimism.
Sir Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands, which I am enjoying all over again these days, seems to offer some explanation and clues to Iqbal’s rosy optimism about the Arabs and Middle East. Iqbal believed that the world would rediscover the glory of Islam when the Arabs rediscovered their roots and their original simplicity, honesty and the courage that once endeared them to the world.
Arab traders who took on high seas with their primitive boats and traversed the world on horseback promoted their new faith and worldview not at the sword point but with their actions. It was the way they did business or dealt with the world and, more important, their message of universal brotherhood and equality that opened the doors for Arabs wherever they went — from Spain to Sumatra and from Africa to the far corners of Asia.
Thesiger’s book, reissued recently to mark the centenary of the British traveler and explorer, is a powerful tribute to those Arabs and their way of life. Based on Sir Wilfred’s fantastic journeys across the Arabian Peninsula and the five incredible years he spent among the desert Arabs and the Beduin — he chooses to call them Bedu as they are known in Arabic — is easily the best on the subject. He spent another seven years later in Iraq, from 1951 to 1958 which led to another book, The Marsh Arabs.
Arabian Sands is one of the finest books I’ve read and enjoyed in years — absolutely riveting even for someone who often finds himself reading up to three to four books at the same time. Thesiger is no great writer. He is completely innocent of the little games that modern travel writers play to make their book a best seller. His language is matter-of-fact and tone dispassionate although there are some flashes of the self-deprecating British humor.
Yet it remains a pioneering, trend-setting project to understand the Arabs, especially Bedu, their lifestyle, culture and what makes them so different from the rest of us. What makes Thesiger so eminently readable and his work a reference point for generations of travelers and Middle East experts is his genuine empathy for his subject and passion for a region where time has stood still for thousands of years. Or at least, it did until the discovery of oil.
While Muslims around the world hide a soft corner for Arabs in their hearts because of their association with the Prophet, peace be upon him, the Arabs’ image across the globe, especially in the West, is nothing to write home about. This is not a new phenomenon and has nothing to do with the 9/11. The demonization of Arabs and Muslims in Western literature and culture is as old as the Crusades. This is why Thesiger’s love for Arabs comes as a whiff of fresh air.
For someone born and raised in the upper crest British society with the best of the best it offered including an Oxford education, Thesiger’s passion for the desert and nomadic lifestyle is fascinating. He gave up his career as the Queen’s pampered civil servant to fulfill his lifelong dream of exploring this ancient land. He is fascinated with the Bedu’s nomadic lifestyle shorn of all luxuries that are taken for granted elsewhere. Even the barren, hostile landscape, endlessly romanticized in his books, gives him a high.
Once, in 1946, Thesiger lay starving on a sand dune in the Empty Quarter for three days, waiting for his Bedu companions to bring back food and water and tortured by the hallucinations of cars and lorries that could carry him to safety. “No,” he wrote later, “I would rather be here starving as I was than sitting in a chair, replete with food, listening to the wireless and dependent on cars to take me through Arabia.”
He became the first Westerner to cross the Empty Quarter, easily the most dangerous place on earth, not once but twice. And several times during these crossings across the hundreds of miles of the waterless, lifeless landscape he and his companions had close encounters with death.
Yet he returned to the pitiless desert again and again. He was one of those rarities who believe in enjoying the journey, rather than pining for the destination. The mystic explorer, who died in 2003, established a lifelong rapport with many Arab leaders including the late Shaikh Zayed. He stayed with the UAE’s founding father when Zayed was very young and hadn’t taken over the reins of Abu Dhabi.
His black and white portrait of Zayed on his favorite camel is not just a magnificent photograph but opens the window on a world fading fast. He saw Abu Dhabi and Dubai when they had been little more than small fishing towns and had a population of 2,000 and 20,000 respectively.
Thesiger loved the pre-oil Arabia also because it sheltered him from senseless industrialization and mechanization of Western lifestyle. He reserved the word “abomination” for cars, aero planes and everything else that came after the steam engine.
He saw the Arabs as the guardians of tradition and culture passed down for centuries in the region described as the Cradle of Civilization: “All that is best in the Arabs came from the desert: Their deep religious instinct, their sense of fellowship; their generosity and hospitality; their dignity and the regard which they have for the dignity of others as fellow human beings; their humor, their courage and patience, their language and their passionate love of poetry. But the Arabs are a race which produces its best only under extreme hardship and deteriorates progressively as living conditions become easier.”
This, written before the blessing or the curse of Oil, perhaps explains the current state of the Arab world. Thesiger not just fell in love with Arabs — two of them, Bin Kabina and Bin Ghabaisha, constantly accompanying him and to whom the book is dedicated—but also developed an enduring fascination for the faith that united and transformed the nomadic race as they swept out of Arabia “under the banner of Islam and carried all before them” including the Roman and Persian empires.
Within a century after the advent of Islam, “their rule extended from the Pyrenees and the shores of the Atlantic to the Indus and the borders of China. They had established an empire greater in extent that the Roman Empire.”
It’s a miracle of history that the desert Arabs with the power of their new faith, created a new civilization, uniting into one society the incompatible cultures of the Mediterranean, Persia, India and Far East.
He says: “Wherever I went among Muslims, whether it was in Nigeria or in China, I found much that was familiar to me in the pattern of their lives. If the civilizations of today were to disappear as completely as those of Babylon and Assyria, a school history book two thousand years hence might devote a few pages to the Arabs and not even mention the United States of America.”
So would the Arabs ever rediscover the qualities and the glory that once conquered the world? I do not know about that but I wish this British love affair with Arabia would never end.
• Aijaz Zaka Syed is a commentator on Middle East and South Asia affairs.
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