A Biography of Wilfred Thesiger
by Michael Asher
Thesiger was still alive when Asher visited him during the writing of this biography. He did not meet the (then) 82-year-old in a Nursing Home or comfortable British bungalow, but in a cabin in Kenya's bush land, living without electricity or running water.
The book tells the story of a remarkable life. Thesiger was born in Abyssinia (today's Ethiopia) and at ten month's old was already travelling - on a sling slung together between two mules. He grew up in the Abyssinian imperial court, before moving to England. However, he returned to Abyssinia after receiving the personal invitation of the Emporer Haile Selassie to attend his coronation. This was to prove the start of his real travels, and he went on explore the Awash River and the Aussa Sultanate.
During the war he fought in Abyssinia, winning the DSO for capturing 2,500 Italian prisoners and it was not till years later he found he had been injured during this period, when a surgeon dug a piece of shrapnel out of his leg. After fighting in Abyssinia, he joined the newly formed SAS, fighting behind enemy lines, driving into German camps at night and machine gunning their tents.
After the war his journeys started again. He is perhaps most famous for his journeys crossing the Empty Quarter (just touching the edges of Qatar), and for his time with the Marsh Arabs. However, his traveling was far wider this, and included Europe, Afghanistan and Africa.
But this book is much more than a description of Thesiger's experiences and adventures. It's also an exploration of a person a misogynist who preferred photographing handsome young men to women, and who attacked the softness of Western life and civilization, arguing "the harder the life the finer the man."
Thesiger bitterly resented the intrusion of modern life and technology that was ending the harsh life of the desert but, as Asher pointed out, he was always happy to step back into London life and society and enjoy lunch at his club.
At one point Thesiger asked interviewer Timothy Green: "What right do we have to destroy these civilizations which have flourished for generations?" (p.376). Asher turns the question round, asking what right the affluent West has to tell poverty stricken men and women they are better off poor.
Asher is perhaps the perfect person to write this book. He read Thesiger's book the Arabian Sands in his youth, and it was this that inspired him to become a desert traveller. Like Thesiger, he was a member of the elite SAS brigade, and after leaving the army he spent three years living with a Bedouin tribe in Sudan, learning their customs and language. Subsequently, he and his wife became the first people to cross the Sahara desert from west to east on foot and by camel.
It took him four years to write this book, and during the process he traveled thousand of miles. This included desert trekking with his 6 month pregnant wife, and later on traveling by camel in the empty quarter with his two year old son. He interviewed all of Thesiger's surviving Bedouin companions, including his original Bedu partners, and photographed many of the places Thesiger had been to years before. The result is a fascinating book, a book by an explorer about an explorer, honest and critical yet simultaneously sympathetic, and rich in detail about the life of the man who claimed he was the last real explorer on Earth.Email this Review