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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 age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood