Wilfred Thesiger

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In the desert I had found a freedom unattainable in civilization; a life unhampered by possessions, since everything that was not a necessity was an encumbrance.
Wilfred Thesiger in Africa, 1934

Sir Wilfred Patrick Thesiger KBE, DSO, FRAS, FRSL, FRGS (3 June 1910 – 24 August 2003), also called Mubarak bin London (Arabic for "the blessed one of London") was an English explorer and travel writer.


  • God, you must be a couple of pansies.
    • Newby, Eric (1958). A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. Secker & Warburg.
    • The final sentence of the book as Thesiger watches Newby and Hugh Carless inflate their air beds
  • They [the Middle East Anti Locust Unit] were the golden key that unlocked Arabia for me. To somebody who was interested in desert exploration the Empty Quarter offered the, sort of, ultimate challenge.
  • I think the harder the life, the finer the type, yes, and I certainly felt this about the Bedu. When I went there, I felt that the difficulty was going to be living up physically to the hardships of their life. But, on the contrary, it was the difficulty of meeting their high standards: their generosity, their patience, their loyalty, their courage and all these things. And they had a quality of nobility.
    • Answer to “Do you think that hardship and, indeed, suffering bring nobility?”
    • Interview with Sir David Attenborough first broadcast on Channel 4 in August 1994.
    • Wilfred Thesiger in Africa, edited by Chris Morton and Philip Grover (2010), p. 82.
  • The biggest misfortune in human history is the invention of the combustion engine. Cars and airplanes diminish the world, rob it of all its diversity. Young men who meet me want to know how they could do what I've done. But all they can be is tourists now.
  • I might have been homosexual if I was born in a different age but as it was I remained asexual.
    • Stewart, Rory (2007). Arabian Sands (Introduction). London: Penguin Classics. p. xii. ISBN 9780141442075
  • The harder the life the finer the type and there’s no doubt about that; the easier you make life the lower goes your standards.

Arabian Sands (1959)[edit]

  • We parted before I went to Abu Dhabi, which I found an Arabian Nightmare, the final disillusionment.  For me this book remains a memorial to a vanished past, a tribute to a once magnificent people.
    • Preface to the 1984 edition
  • A cloud gathers, the rain falls, men live; the cloud disperses without rain, and men and animals die. In the deserts of southern Arabia there is no rhythm of the seasons, no rise and fall of sap, but empty wastes where only the changing temperature marks the passage of the years. It is a bitter, desiccated land which knows nothing of gentleness or ease…..No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have within him the yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match.
    • Prologue. p. 1.
  • The Empty Quarter offered me the chance to win distinction as a traveller; but I believed that it could give me more than this, that in those empty wastes I could find the peace that comes with solitude, and, among the Bedu, comradeship in a hostile world. Many who venture into dangerous places have found this comradeship among members of their own race; a few find it more easily among people from other lands, the very differences which separate them binding them ever more closely.  I found it among the Bedu.  Without it these journeys would have been a meaningless penance.
    • p. 4.
  • My first night in camp, as I sat eating sardines out of a tin and watching my Somalis driving the camels up from the river to couch them by the tent, I knew that I would not have been anywhere else for all the money in the world.  For a month I travelled in an arid, hostile land.  I was alone; there was no one whom I could consult; if I met with trouble from the tribes I could get no help; if I were sick there was no one to doctor me.  Men trusted me and obeyed my orders; I was responsible for their safety.  I was often tired and thirsty, sometimes frightened and lonely, but I tasted freedom and a way of life from which there could be no recall.
    • p. 8.
  • I craved for the past, resented the present, and dreaded the future.
    • p. 20.
  • For this was the real desert where differences of race and colour, of wealth and social standing, are almost meaningless; where coverings of pretence are stripped away and basic truths emerge.
    • p. 21.
  • In the desert I had found a freedom unattainable in civilization; a life unhampered by possessions, since everything that was not a necessity was an encumbrance.  I had found, too, a comradeship inherent in the circumstances, and the belief that tranquillity was to be found there.  I had learnt the satisfaction which comes from hardship and the pleasure which derives from abstinence: the contentment of a full belly; the richness of meat; the taste of clean water; the ecstasy of surrender when the craving for sleep becomes a torment; the warmth of a fire in the chill of dawn.
    • p. 22.
  • Arabs rule but they do not administer.  Their government is intensely individualistic, and is successful or unsuccessful according to the degree of fear and respect which the ruler commands, and his skill in dealing with individual men.  Founded on an individual life, their government is impermanent and liable to end in chaos at any moment.  To Arab tribesmen this system is comprehensible and acceptable, and its success of failure should not be measured in terms of efficiency and justice as judged by Western standards.  To these tribesmen security can be bought too dearly by the loss of individual freedom.
    • p. 32.
  • At first glance they [his Bedu companions] seemed to be little better than savages, as primitive as the Danakil, but I was soon disconcerted to discover that, while they were prepared to tolerate me as a source of very welcome revenue, they never doubted my inferiority. They were Muslims and Bedu and I was neither. They had never heard of the English, for all Europeans were known to them simply as Christians, or more probably infidels, and nationality had no meaning to them.  They had heard vaguely of the war as a war between the Christians, and of the Aden government as a Christian government.  Their world was the desert and they had little if any interest in events that happened outside it.
    • p. 36.
  • The rifles with which they fought were all that they accepted from the outside world, the only modern invention which interested them.
    • p. 38.
  • I had yet to learn that no Bedu thinks it shameful to beg, and that often he will look at the gift which he has received and say, ‘Is this all that you are going to give me?’  I was seeing the worst side of their character, and was disillusioned and resentful, and irritated by their assumption of superiority.  In consequence I was assertive and unreasonable.
    • p. 49.
  • Yet I wondered fancifully if he had seen more clearly than they did, had sensed the threat which my presence implied – the approaching disintegration of his society and the destruction of his beliefs. Here especially it seemed that the evil that comes with sudden change would far outweigh the good.  While I was with the Arabs I wished only to live as they lived and, now that I have left them, I would gladly think that nothing in their lives was altered by my coming.  Regretfully, however, I realize that the maps I made helped others, with more material aims, to visit and corrupt a people whose spirit once lit the desert like a flame.
    • p. 68.
  • There is always trouble if meat is not divided by lot.  Someone immediately says that he has been given more than his share, and tries to hand a piece to someone else.  Then there is much arguing and swearing by God, with everyone insisting that he has been given too much, and finally a deadlock ensues which can only be settled by casting lots for the meat – as should have been done in the first place.  I have never heard a man grumble that he has received less than his share.  Such behaviour would be inconceivable to the Bedu, for they are careful never to appear greedy, and quick to notice anyone who is.
    • p. 71.
  • All that is best in the Arabs has come to them from the desert: their deep religious instinct, which has found expression in Islam; their sense of fellowship, which binds them as members of one faith; their pride of race; their generosity and sense of hospitality; their dignity and the regard which they have for the dignity of others as fellow human beings; their humour, their courage and patience, the language which they speak and their passionate love of poetry.  But the Arabs are a race which produces its best only under conditions of extreme hardship and deteriorates progressively as living conditions become easier.
    • p. 82.
  • They were Bedu, and these empty spaces where there was neither shade nor shelter were their homelands.  Any of them could have worked in the gardens around Salala; all of them would have scorned this easier life of lesser men.  Among the Bedu only the broken are stranded among the cultivations on the desert’s shore.
    • p. 85.
  • After all, many people feel today that it is morally indefensible to hang a man, even if he has raped and killed a child, but I could not forget how easily we ourselves had taken to killing during the war. Some of the most civilized people I had known had been the most proficient.
    • p. 94.
  • It is not hunger nor thirst that frightens the Bedu; they maintain that riding they can survive in cold weather for seven days without food or water.  It is the possible collapse of their camels which haunts them. If this happens, death is certain.
    • p. 103.
  • But we seldom spoke of sex, for starving men dream of food, not women, and our bodies were generally too tired to lust.
    • p. 110.
  • What use will money be to him in the Sands.
    • p. 122.
  • Now I had crossed it [the Empty Quarter].  To others my journey would have little importance.  It would produce nothing except a rather inaccurate map which no one was ever likely to use.  It was a personal experience, and the reward had been a drink of clean, nearly tasteless water.  I was content with that.
    • p. 138.
  • Strike a Bedu and he will kill you either then or later.  It is easy for strangers to give offence without meaning to do so.  I once put my hand on the back of bin Kabina’s neck and he turned on me and asked furiously if I took him for a slave.  I had no idea that I had done anything wrong.
    • p. 148.
  • It is characteristic of Bedu to do things by extremes, to be either wildly generous or unbelievably mean, very patient or almost hysterically excitable, to be incredibly brave or to panic for no apparent reason.  Ascetic by nature, they derive satisfaction from the bare simplicity of their lives and scorn the amenities which others would judge essential.
    • p. 152.
  • These [RAF] airmen were my fellow countrymen, and I was proud to be of their race.  I knew the essential decency which was the bedrock of their character, their humour, stubbornness, and self-reliance.  I knew that if called upon they could adapt themselves to any kind of life, in the desert, in the jungle, in mountains or on the sea, and that in many respects no race in the world was their equal.  But the things that interested them bored me. They belonged to an age of machines; they were fascinated by cars and aeroplanes, and found their relaxation in the cinema and the wireless.  I knew that I stood apart from them and would never find contentment among them, whereas I could find it among the Bedu, although I should never be one of them.
    • p.168.
  • This incident impressed upon me the Bedu’s indifference to human life.  The man was sick and if God ordered it he would die.  He was a stranger who came from a tribe unrelated to theirs.  None of them felt an interest because he was a human being like themselves.  His death would in no way affect them.  Yet their code demanded that, however unwanted he might be, they should fight in his defence if he were attacked whilst with them.
    • p. 177.
  • They strolled with me through the streets hand in hand, as is usual with Arab friends, but I was lightly uncomfortable, having re-acquired my inhibitions with my trousers.
    • p. 185.
  • In the deserts, however arid, I have never felt homesick for green fields and woods in spring, but now that I was in England I longed with an ache that was almost physical to be back in Arabia.
    • p. 187.
  • As I listened I thought once again how precarious was the existence of the Bedu.  Their way of life naturally made them fatalists; so much was beyond their control.  It was impossible for them to provide for a morrow when everything depended on a chance fall of rain or when raiders, sickness, or any one of a hundred chance happenings might at any time leave them destitute, or end their lives. They did what they could, and no people were more self-reliant, but if things went wrong they accepted their fate without bitterness, and with dignity as the will of God.
    • pp. 209-210.
  • …I had learnt that the most effective way to spread a story was to tell it to one or two Arabs under a pledge of secrecy.
    • p. 255.
  • 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.  When I was among my own people, a shadowy figure was always at my side watching them with critical, intolerant eyes.
    • p. 257.
  • All my life I had hated machines.  I could remember how bitterly at school I had resented reading the news that someone had flown across the Atlantic or travelled through the Sahara in a car. I had realized even then that the speed and ease of mechanical transport must rob the world of all diversity.
    • p. 259.
  • I knew that I had made my last journey in the Empty Quarter and that a phase in my life was ended. Here in the desert I had found all that I asked; I knew that I should never find it again.  But it was not only this personal sorrow that distressed me. I realized that the Bedu with whom I had lived and travelled, and in whose company I had found contentment, were doomed.  Some people maintain that they will be better off when they have exchanged the hardship and poverty of the desert for the security of a materialistic world.  This I do not believe.  I shall always remember how often I was humbled by those illiterate herdsmen who possessed, in so much greater measure than I, generosity and courage, endurance, patience, and light-hearted gallantry.  Among no other people have I felt the same sense of personal inferiority.
    • p. 310.
  • As the plane climbed over the town and swung above the sea I knew how it felt to go into exile.
    • p. 310.

The Marsh Arabs (1964)[edit]

  • Memories of that first visit to the Marshes have never left me: firelight on a half-turned face, the crying of geese, duck flighting in to feed, a boy's voice singing somewhere in the dark, canoes moving in procession down a waterway, the setting sun seen crimson through the smoke of burning reedbeds, narrow waterways that wound still deeper into the Marshes. A naked man in a canoe with a trident in his hand, reed houses built upon water, black, dripping buffaloes that looked as if they had calved from the swamp with the first dry land. 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. Once again I experienced the longing to share this life, and to be more than a mere spectator.
    • p. 10.
  • My own tastes went, perhaps, too far to the other extreme. I loathed cars, aeroplanes, wireless and television, in fact most of our civilization'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. In such a household, everything was strange and different, their self-reliance put me at ease, and I was fascinated by the feeling of continuity with the past. I envied them a contentment rare in the world today and a mastery of skills, however simple, that I myself could never hope to attain.
    • pp. 50-51.
  • The desert Arabs had always been a people born to hardship. For them there was no ease or comfort, only the weariness of long marches and toil at well-heads. 'We are Bedu,' they boasted, and asked only the freedom that was theirs. Stoical in pain, and often very brave, they lived for the raid and the counter-raid, which were conducted according to set rules and usually with great chivalry. They took a fierce pride in danger and suffering, and never doubted their superiority over villager and townsman.
    • p. 93.

Desert, Marsh and Mountain (1979)[edit]

  • I have led a hard life; this was my choice.  It was also an inexpensive one: this was essential.  I would not have had it otherwise, nor asked for more.  Looking back, I would happily live these years again, in the context of the past.
    • p. 8.
  • For untold centuries the Bedu lived in the desert; they lived there from choice.... All of them would have scorned this easier life of lesser men. Valuing freedom above all else, they took a fierce pride in the very hardship of their lives, forcing unwilling recognition of their superiority on the townsmen and villagers who feared, hated and affected to despise them. Even today there is no Arab, however sophisticated, who would not proudly proclaim Bedu lineage.
    • p. 60.
  • To me it is always the people rather than the places that matter.
    • p. 122.
  • ..I was thankful that I had not gone there with members of my own race, as one of large, meticulously organised expedition.  I should have hated, in those surroundings, to listen to the wireless, the news, sports commentaries and European music; it would have seemed utterly incongruous.  All I ever want to bring with me from our civilisation are some books, and those that I had, though there had been little opportunity to read them.  In Arabia I had learnt to move from one world to another as easily as changing clothes, but always tried to keep the worlds apart.
    • p. 223.
  • The Nuristanis had retained their individuality as a race even after conversion to Islam.  Now they would be visited by an ever-increasing number of expeditions seeking adventure in wild places.  This would disrupt a society utterly unprepared.  Each expedition by its very presence would help destroy what it had come to find.
    • p. 232.
  • All that is best in the Arabs came from the desert....... From the desert too has come the Arabs' pride of race, their generosity and sense of hospitality; their dignity and the reagrd they have for the dignity of others; their humour; their courage and their patience; the language that they speak, and their passionate love of poetry.  But they are a race who produce their best only under conditions of extreme hardship.
    • p. 297.
  • The desert Arabs had no tradition of civilisation behind them; no architectural inheritance - they lived in black tents, or in rooms devoid of furnishings in their villages and towns.  They had no taste for refinements, demanded only the bare necessities of life.  It was a life that produced much that was noble, little that was gracious and nothing that was artistic.
    • p. 297.
  • Now that the Arabs are among the economic masters of the world I fear that many will find unendurable the boredome of their wealth.
    • p. 299.

The Life Of My Choice (1987)[edit]

  • I believe that day [Ras Tafari's victory parade, Addis Ababa, 3 Nov 1916] implanted in me a life-long craving for barbaric splendour, for savagery and colour and the throb of drums, and that 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.
    • p. 56.
  • No wonder that in this setting [Eton], during those impressionable years, I acquired lasting respect for tradition and veneration of the past. Here, too, from masters and boys alike, I learnt responsibility, the decencies of life, and standards of civilised behaviour.
    • p. 73.
  • Later he [Evelyn Waugh] asked, at second-hand, if he could accompany me into the Danakil country, where I planned to travel. I refused. Had he come, I suspect only one of us would have returned.
    • p. 92.
  • [re Danakil country] I was among a savage, good-looking people with a dangerous reputation. I was travelling with camels in hot, arid country under testing conditions where, if things went wrong, I could get no help and where men's lives depended on my judgement.
    • p. 94.
  • I had felt the lure of the unexplored, the compulsion to go where others had not been.
    • p. 95.
  • I believe that most men have an inborn desire to hunt and kill and that even today this primitive urge has only been eradicated in a small minority of the human race.
    • p.115.
  • As I looked round the clearing at the ranks of squatting warriors and the small isolated group of my own men, I knew that this moonlight meeting in unknown Africa with a savage potentate who hated Europeans was the realization of my boyhood dreams. I had come here in search of adventure: the mapping, the collecting of animals and birds were all incidental. The knowledge that somewhere in this neighbourhood 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.
    • p. 146.
  • Personally, I would forgo any other comfort to drink clean water.
    • p. 153.
  • I also questioned whether it was right to try to impose on the Sudanese the conventions and values of our utterly alien civilization, and sometimes expressed these doubts in letters to my mother. I could not help feeling that other races were entitled to their own customs and moral standards, however much these might differ from ours.
    • p. 202.
  • More important, something decisive in my life, he [Guy Moore] taught me to feel affection for tribesmen. Ever since then it has been people that have mattered to me, rather than places. I have never craved magnificent scenery or opportunities for sport in the way that I have longed to be with certain tribes and, above all, certain individuals among them.
    • p. 210.
  • I was exhilarated by the sense of space, the silence, and the crisp cleanness of the sand. I felt in harmony with the past, travelling as men had travelled for untold generations across deserts, dependent for their survival on the endurance of their camels and their own inherited skills.
    • p. 212.
  • I know that today it sounds unforgivable to have shot seventy lion in five years, but that was fifty years ago and circumstances of that time cannot be judged by those of today.
    • p. 273.
  • Looking back on my attitude to the commonly accepted pleasures of life, I can say that I have never set much store by them. I hardly care what I eat, provided it suffices, and I care not at all for wine or spirits. When I was fourteen someone gave me a glass of beer, and I thought it so unpleasant I have never touched beer again. As for cigarettes, I dislike even being in a room where people are smoking. Sex has been of no great consequence to me, and the celibacy of desert life left me untroubled. Marriage would certainly have been a crippling handicap. I have therefore been able to lead the life of my choice with no sense of deprivation. Existence in the desert had a simplicity that I found wholly satisfying; there, everything not a necessity was an encumbrance. It was those three months in the Sahara in 1938 that taught me to appreciate things that most Europeans are able to take for granted: clean water to drink; meat to eat; a warm fire on a cold night; shelter from the rain; above all, tired surrender to sleep.
    • p. 295.
  • It is difficult to analyse the motive that induced me to make those journeys, or the satisfaction I derived from such a life. There was of course the lure of the unknown; there was the constant test of resolution and endurance. Yet those travels in the Empty Quarter would have been for me a pointless penance but for the comradeship of my Bedu companions. All they possessed were their camels and saddlery, their rifles and daggers, some waterskins and cooking pots and bowls, and the very clothes they wore; few of them even owned a blanket. They possessed, however, a freedom which we, with all our craving for possessions, cannot experience. Any of them could have found a job in the towns and villages of the Hadhramaut; but all would have rejected that easier life of lesser men. They met every challenge, every hardship, with the proud boast: 'We are Bedu.'
    • p. 398.
  • In July 1969 I happened to be in Kenya, on the shore of Lake Rudolf, when I heard with incredulity from a naked Turkana fisherman that the 'Wazungu' - as he called Europeans, including Americans - had landed on the moon. He had heard the news at a distant mission station. To him this achievement, being incomprehensible, was without significance; it filled me, however, with a sense of desecration, and of despair at the deadly technical ingenuity of modern man. Even as a boy I recognized that motor transport and aeroplanes must increasingly shrink the world and irrevocably destroy its fascinating diversity. My forebodings have been amply fulfilled.
    • p. 443.

Quotes about Thesiger[edit]

  • Your picture of W.T. [Thesiger] is very accurate. He now realizes he is a misfit, but a misfit only in a Government and owing to excess of certain ancient virtues and not because of any vices - a brave, awkward, attractive creature.
    • Letter to Guy Moore written by Douglas Newbold (1939)
    • Reproduced in The Life of my Choice (1987), p. 302.
  • He was loyal, generous, and afraid of nothing.
    • Salim bin Ghabeisha
      • Thesiger’s obituary in the Guardian, 27 Aug 2003.
      • Stewart, Rory (2007). Arabian Sands (Introduction). London: Penguin Classics. p. xv. ISBN 9780141442075

External links[edit]

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