The silence of the sands

A photography exhibition in Abu Dhabi draws Sholto Byrnes into the life of a great British explorer

In 1947, Wilfred Thesiger was making his second crossing of the Rub’ al-Khali, the desolate Empty Quarter of Arabia that he described as “a desert within a desert”. When he reached the area of Jilida, in the south-west corner of Saudi Arabia, not far from the borders of Yemen, from where raiding parties of Dahm tribesmen regularly ventured east, tribesmen who would certainly have killed “the Christian” if they had come across him, he stopped and sat alone on a ridge. “It was very still,” he noted, “with the silence which we have driven from our world.”

As I reread those words, now mounted on the walls of the new permanent exhibition of the great explorer’s photographs at Jahili Fort in

Al Ain, Abu Dhabi, they struck me as the very essence of what Thesiger found there and what drew him back again and again. No one who has spent time in the desert can fail to recognise them or acknowledge their power. They drew me back to 1980, to the country outside Riyadh, north of Thesiger’s ridge, and to the moment I first stepped out of my family’s jeep and into the desert. “The silence which we have driven from our world” was absolute. It flattened the senses, this overpowering void that rendered any previous experience of “silence” false and noisy.

Nearly 30 years later, Thesiger’s words echo as truthfully and audibly as when he set them down in Arabian Sands, the book whose unadorned prose made this tall, beaky, misfit Old Etonian the master to whom all later travel writers can only aspire. Born in 1910, the son of the British minister in Addis Ababa, Thesiger comes across as an archetypal Englishman, tweed-jacketed and camply clipped of vowel, in the documentary film made in his later years and shown as part of the Jahili Fort exhibition. But while he may have been at ease in the clubs of St James’s, and was to be laden with honours and knighted, Thesiger was always apart. “Until I went to school I had hardly seen a European child apart from my brothers,” he recalled. “I found myself in a hostile and incomprehensible world.”

It was with first the peoples and the landscapes of his youth, and then with those further east, in Arabia, Iraq and the Hindu Kush, that Thesiger found contentment. “I have seen some of the most magnificent scenery in the world and lived among tribes who are interesting and little known,” he wrote. But “none of these places has moved me as did the deserts of Arabia”.

So, it is fitting that this exhibition should be mounted in Abu Dhabi, and in particular in the eastern border town of Al Ain. Thesiger’s travels frequently took him through the emirate, through the southern oasis of Liwa, through the capital city, and to Al Ain itself, where he formed an enduring friendship with Sheikh Zayed, the future ruler of Abu Dhabi and the “father” and first president of the United Arab Emirates.

Thesiger spent a month with Zayed, hunting with him on the nearby Jebel Hafeet, the highest mountain in Abu Dhabi, on whose summit the Mercure Grand hotel now perches and provides a panorama over the oases of Al Ain and the surrounding desert. Zayed was no soft townsman: he was a proper “Bedu”, a hunter and fighter who knew about camels, the ships of the desert still farmed and bred in the emirate, admired and traded at the camel market in Al Ain today. It was Zayed as ruler who oversaw the development of Abu Dhabi that Thesiger described on his return in 1977 as “an Arabian nightmare, the final disillusionment”. But it was also under the influence of Zayed and his family that the old ways were preserved as much as possible.

Scooping lamb and rice from a communal platter with my right hand (something of a challenge for a left-hander) at a camel farm outside Liwa last month, I thought that Thesiger would have recognised this ritual, as well he would the endless cups of cardamom-scented coffee and dates, and the comfortable quietness of a group contemplating the night while sitting round a brushwood fire in the desert.

Mubarak bin London, those close to Thesiger called him – “the blessed one from London”. “If [people had] known he was English,” explain his two most faithful followers, Salim bin Kabina and Salim bin Ghabaisha, in the film at Jahili Fort, “they’d have killed him. So we called him Sheikh Mubarak and said he was a sheikh from the north.” That was in the empty sands. In Abu Dhabi, Thesiger was safe. Not further afield, though, for these countries were not then as we know them now. Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, may have stamped his authority on much of the region, but Oman was divided between the Sultan of Muscat and the fanatical Iman, who ruled most of the interior. The United Arab Emirates were then squabbling Trucial States – Abu Dhabi and “Dibai”, in Thesiger’s designation, were in confrontation during his travels – while the tribes raided each other and roamed the sands over the whole of the south.

Thesiger’s journeys were frequently dangerous. In Oman, even though he had a letter of

introduction from Zayed, he learned that one of his guides had been declaring that “it was

as meritorious to kill a Christian as to go on pilgrimage to Mecca, and in this case much less trouble”. One can hardly credit how isolated from the rest of the world many of these tribes were in the days before oil transformed them. At dinner with Zayed’s brother, the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi, their host “discussed the war in Palestine and ended with a diatribe against the Jews”. Bin Kabina professed his puzzlement, whispering to Thesiger, “Who are the Jews? Are they Arabs?”

It would be easy to cast Thesiger as an orien­talist, a westerner “discovering” a country well known to its inhabitants for millennia. To the chairman of the emirate’s culture and heritage authority, Sultan bin Tahnoon al-Nahyan, however, the exhibition is “a celebration of the life and legacy of an explorer who, more than any other, had the spirit of a true Bedu”.

Thesiger may have lamented what he saw as the corrupting influence of modernity. “All the best in the Arabs has come to them from the desert,” he wrote. That, of course, remains. And there one still finds the silence he cherished, a

silence that the desert will never give up.