Show Hide image

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?

PAUL POPPER/POPPERFOTO
Show Hide image

No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain