Abel the Nomad

Bruce Chatwin

Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands and The Marsh Arabs are classics in line with Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta. Yet his new autobiographical sketch, Desert, Marsh and Mountain, though it borrows large chunks of the two earlier books, is more absorbing than either. The subtitle, ‘The World of a Nomad’, gives a clue about what he is up to. The nomad in question is Mr Thesiger himself, as he travels, by camel or on foot, in Africa or in Asia, among tribesmen who are – or were – for the most part nomadic. At first sight, the book appears to be a collection of short travel-pieces, illustrated with photographs by someone with an unerring sense of composition. A closer look reveals a declaration of faith that goes a long way towards explaining the ‘strange compulsion’ which drives men like Wilfred Thesiger to seek, and find, the consolation of the desert.

He was born to travel. His father was British Minister in Addis Ababa. His first memories were ‘of camels and of tents, of a river and men with spears’. His book was Jock of the Bushveld, that child’s bible of the British Empire. His friends were the orderlies and grooms who took him out hunting or held his pony. He was always a stranger among his own – as remote from his schoolfellows as he was from the few of his countrymen, such as the late Gavin Maxwell, who had the stamina to follow him on his journeys. A photograph taken at Eton shows a face already set in the mould of the horizon-struck dreamer.

He went back to Ethiopia in 1930 for the coronation of Haile Selassie. Afterwards, he made a journey across the country of the Danakils, first cousins of Kipling’s ‘fuzzy-wuzzies’ and incredibly fierce. He found ‘even more than I had dreamed of as a boy poring over Jock of the Bushveld’, and, incidentally, crossed the tracks of Arthur Rimbaud, who had trekked up and down those ‘routes horribles’ forty years before. The Danakil journey set the pattern for a life that turned into a perpetual tramp through the wilderness: as officer in the Sudan Political Service; in the Empty Quarter; in the Marshes of Southern Iraq; on the spring migration of the Bakhtiari; with the Kurds of the Zagros or the Kaffirs of the Hindu Kush; watching Nasser’s planes bomb the Yemini Royalists; or living, as he now does, in a tent, shooting the odd buck for food, among the Samburu cattle-herdsmen of Northern Kenya.

Mr Thesiger makes no secret of his conviction that the heroic world of pastoral nomads is finer – morally and physically – than the life of settled civilisations: ‘All that is best in the Arabs came from the desert.’ (Indeed, the word arab means a ‘dweller in tents’, as opposed to hazar ‘a man who lives in a house’ – with the original implication that the latter was rather less than human.) It is, therefore, nothing short of catastrophic for him to find his old Bedu friends driving about in cars and seduced by the ‘tawdriest and most trivial aspects of Western civilisation’. Of the Rashid tribe, his companions in the Empty Quarter, he writes: ‘They wore their clothes with distinction, even if they were in rags. They were small deft men, alert and watchful, tempered in the furnace of the desert and trained to unbelievable endurance … They were fine-drawn and highly-strung as thoroughbreds.’

These are not the reveries of an armchair anthropologist: Mr Thesiger knows what he is talking about. Time and again, he gives examples of Bedu courage, loyalty, generosity, openmindedness; and he contrasts these qualities with the narrow, close-fisted fanaticism of the oases-dwellers. It is the test of his stature as a writer that he can describe without a trace of embarrassment or sentimentality the rewards of winning the friendship of his two young guides, bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha. He is not the confessional type. Yet when another friend, Falih bin Majid, gets killed in a shooting accident in the Marshes, he manages to inject, into a few terse lines, a pain made even more harrowing by his own inability to cry. The description of Falih’s mourning father is equally fine: ‘Majid, grey and unshaven, his great stomach bulging out in front of him, looked very tired, an old broken man filled with bitterness. “Why did it have to be Falih? Why Falih?” he burst out. “God, now I have no one left.” ’

Mr Thesiger has so absorbed the temper of the heroic world that his descriptions of raids, blood-feuds and reconciliations give his prose the character of an ancient epic or saga. Even plodding passages, full of what E.M. Forster called ‘those dreadful Oriental names’, will suddenly break into images of great beauty that suggest far more than they state: ‘The sun was on the desert rim, a red ball without heat,’ ‘The wind blew cold off dark water and I heard waves lapping on an unseen shore.’ For its internal rhythms and the cadence of its repetitions, this description of an Eden in the Western Hejaz should perhaps be read aloud:

We climbed steep passes where baboons barked at us from the cliffs and lammergeyer sailed over the misty depths, and we rested beside cold streams in forests of juniper and wild olive. There were wild flowers here, jasmine and honeysuckle, roses, pinks and primulas. Sometimes we spent the night in a castle with an amir, sometimes in a mud cabin with a slave, and everywhere we were well received. We fed well and slept in comfort, but I could not forget the desert and the challenge of the Sands.

An ‘ache’ to return to the desert is the constant theme of the book. It is easy to mock Mr Thesiger, as some have done, as an old-fashioned English eccentric who has wilfully romanticised the desert creed, or to complain that nomads have added nothing to art, to architecture, or the general glories of civilisation. But the origins of civilisation are not all that respectable. Pharoah built the pyramid with slave-labour, Moses took his people back into the clean air of the desert and lived in a black tent, and when he died, he walked out of the camp and the vultures got him in a valley in Beth-Peor – ‘and no man knoweth his tomb.’ Mr Thesiger’s beliefs are not eccentric. They are consistent with principles laid down, at one time or other since the beginning of civilisation, by historians, philosophers, poets, teachers and mystics. One strain of the Old Testament, particularly strong among the later prophets, harps on the theme that, by settling the Land instead of migrating through it, the Children of Israel have ‘waxed fat and gone a-whoring’ and will find favour with their God only when they go back to the black tents: ‘And again I will make you live in tents as in the days of old’ (Hosea, 12). Desert, Marsh and Mountain can, in fact, be read as a sustained lament for Abel the nomad, murdered by Cain, the planter and builder of the First City, whose sacrifice was unacceptable to the Lord, yet who would have dominion over his brother.

The most concise statement ever made on the nomad question comes from no less a historian than Ibn Khaldun: ‘Nomads are closer to the created world of God and removed from the blameworthy customs that have infected the hearts of settlers.’ Only they would avoid the cycles of decadence that have ruined every known civilisation – and, indeed, the nomad world has not changed since Abraham the Bedu sheikh went on journeys ‘from the south even unto Bethel, unto the place where his tent had been at the beginning’.

There is a case for supposing that all the transcendental religions are stratagems for peoples whose lives were wrecked by settlement. But it is the paradox of Islam that, though the Hadj or Sacred Pilgrimage to Mecca reproduces for townspeople the automatic asceticism of desert life, and though the Fast of Ramadan was originally ‘the month of burning’, the real Bedu often have only the vaguest notions of religion and are shamelessly materialistic. As a Bedu told Palgrave in the last century, ‘we will go up to God and salute him, and if he proves hospitable, we will stay with him: if otherwise, we will mount our horses and ride off.’

Nomads may be closer to the created world of God, but they are not a part of it. A nomad proper is a herdsman who moves his property through a sequence of pastures. He is tied to a most rigorous time-table and committed to the increase of his herds and his sons. It is no accident that such words as ‘stock’, ‘capital’, ‘pecuniary’ and even ‘sterling’ come from the pastoral world. And it is the nomad’s fatal yearning for increase that causes the endless round of raid and feud, and finally tempts him to succumb to settlement.

By these standards, Mr Thesiger is not a nomad but a traveller, in whom the old sense of travel as ‘travail’ has been revived: at one point he writes that the cartilages in his knee wore out and he had to have them removed. There are no metaphysical overtones in his book: he is always the English gentleman explorer. Yet the form of asceticism he has practised over fifty years puts him in the class of other travellers – the Desert Fathers, the Irish Pilgrims, the fakirs, the Holy Wanderers of India, or marvellous intellects like the poet Li Po who travelled to discover the ‘great calm’ that is perhaps the same as the Peace of God.

It was said of the Buddha that he ‘found the Ancient Way and followed it,’ and that his last words to his disciples were: ‘Walk on!’ It is not unreasonable to suppose that the first men walked long journeys through the wilderness of thorns and cutting grasses south of the Sahara: Mr Thesiger, it seems, has returned to the centre.