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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.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Who polices our police?

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times