x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Desert survival: the last of the great explorers

British travellers such as Wilfred Thesiger were fascinated by the Rub Al Khali - the Empty Quarter that occupies a vast area of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen and the UAE - and by Bedouin life.

Sir Wilfred Thesiger during the second crossing of the Empty Quarter in 1948. Thesiger was better known as Mubarak bin London, which means Mubarak son of London.
Sir Wilfred Thesiger during the second crossing of the Empty Quarter in 1948. Thesiger was better known as Mubarak bin London, which means Mubarak son of London.

DUBAI // Many explorers who ventured into Eastern Arabia returned with curious tales of mystifying lands, people and culture.

British travellers such as Wilfred Thesiger (1910-2003) were fascinated by the Rub Al Khali - the Empty Quarter that occupies a vast area of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen and the UAE - and by Bedouin life. Thesiger is often described as the last of the great explorers.

Another famous traveller, the Moroccan Islamic scholar Hajj Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta, took odd jobs to fund his adventures - when not rubbing shoulders with 14th-century royalty.

Hakim Nasir Khusraw, an 11th-century Iranian poet, writer and philosopher, is known for his detailed descriptions of the Muslim world. Today, according to the UAE University history professor Ahmed Assirri, his work remains widely studied.

"He gave a detailed description of Eastern Arabia from currency, trade, tribal fighting to people's habits and political instability," Mr Assirri said.

Khusraw made his way through Iraq, Qatar, the UAE and Oman, from where he may have taken a ship back to Iran. He also visited Jerusalem, Cairo and Mecca. His book Safarnama (Book of Travels) illustrates his seven-year journey.

However, it was Thesiger's more detailed description of Bedouins that shone the spotlight on local life and culture.

As he crossed the Empty Quarter, he described not just the desert but the Bedouin he travelled with, according to Warwick Cairns, the author of In Praise of Savagery - a book about the unlikely friendship he and Thesiger struck up, and their journey in Africa.

"Today it's no longer possible to explore the world in the way Wilfred Thesiger did, because there's little left that is unknown or unexplored," said Mr Cairns.

"When Thesiger was a young man, there were still maps with blank spaces, and places no outsiders had been, or from which none had returned alive. "And Wilfred Thesiger was of the last generation to live and travel in the world as it was."

Mr Cairns recalls how the explorer valued the Bedouin.

"The word he used over again to describe the people of the deserts of Arabia was 'nobility'. He talked constantly about their honour and dignity in the face of the most extraordinary hardships," he said.

"Many travellers before Thesiger saw Bedouin culture through western eyes. He saw the world as they saw it, and wrote about what he saw, to be read by the wider world."

Peter Hellyer, an adviser to the National Media Council and co-editor of The Emirates, A Natural History, travelled to the Empty Quarter, south of Liwa with Thesiger, who wrote Arabian Sands.

"Thesiger was a remarkable man, well-described as the last of the great explorers. He is rightly remembered with honour and affection in the UAE," he said.

"The most important of Thesiger's explorations, in a UAE context, was when he crossed the Empty Quarter, from southern Oman to the UAE, just south of Liwa, and from Oman through eastern Saudi Arabia then entering the UAE in the west of Abu Dhabi.

"He was the first European traveller known to have done this and the first European ever to visit the Liwa area, as far as is known."

And it would have been impossible for Thesiger to make the journeys without Bedouin tribesmen such as the Rawashid and the Manahil.

"Their role was essential. Their tribal leaders played an important role in also selecting the right camels, which Thesiger bought, and their support made it possible to pass through the territory of other tribes with whom they were in alliance.

"Without their approval, Thesiger would never have been able to persuade young tribesmen like Salim bin Kabina and Salim bin Ghubaisha to accompany him."

They knew where to find water, and the routes to take, which made his crossings possible.

"Thesiger won international renown for his crossings - but his Bedu companions were in many ways the real heroes."

Like Thesiger, Ibn Battuta,who was also known as Shams Al Din, was descriptive of his 30 years of travels, in his book known as Rihla (Journey).

"The book has many volumes and many editions," said Mr Assirri. "He often described spending years without money, helping others and travelling by ship or camel. He spoke of interesting aspects of Arabia and even mentions Qatar."

He was religiously knowledgeable and was always welcomed with food and shelter.

"People were eager to see what merchants brought. If one stood out, he was introduced to kings and rulers, and Ibn Battuta was a very curious man."

On his return to Morocco, an official in the rulers court suggested he make a record of his travels.

"The problem with some modern travellers is they are not as accurate," said Mr Assirri.

"Some just paint a picture to attract readers that is not always the reality of what they see."

melshoush@thenational.ae