This week we’re going to go on about Wilfred Thesiger’s the Marsh Arabs. His full title, we joke you not, was Sir Wilfred Patrick Thesiger, CBE, DSO, FRAS, FRGS, and Mubarak bin London (“the blessed one from London”) – that’s about as grand as it gets! Although distinctly British and a man of his era, his global travels also have to be noted for his ability to immerse into other cultures seamlessly.
First published in 1964, it’s since gone on to become a classic piece of travel writing. It’s written with such an insightful verve and brings to light a way of life that had been in operation for centuries. The Marsh Arabs is a celebration of a culture, but it also highlights how far life has moved on; why progress can be important, but also destructive.
The Marsh Arabs
Sir Thesiger (1910-2003) was a traveller and writer. He spent many years living with the Marsh Arabs in southern Iraq, which in the mid-20th Century was a way of life that had gone unchanged for countless generations. Being British, he stood out a vast amount (as you would expect), but thanks to his charm and wide skill set the locals welcomed him into their society and grew to view him as a friend (as well as something of a medical expert, due to his basic knowledge of medicine).
In the marshes, Thesiger got about by canoe and would travel from across the various villages. He won over the locals every time by treating sick villagers and providing medical equipment. Whilst assisting with public health, he began to understand the waterways, reed houses, and how the locals interacted with the wildlife.
The Marsh Arabs is a reflection on the passage of time. Thesiger recounts, for instance, how the local’s disastrous circumcision practice often left many young boys with appalling infections – they were unaware of sterilising. As such, Thesiger came to be viewed (bizarrely) as something of an expert at this, but he helped to save many lives with his understanding of such a basic principle (the new world meeting the old here).
What also sticks out is his recollection of the intense heat. We’re fresh out of a global heatwave in 2018, but this was something else. He describes sitting in the humid conditions, sweat pouring off him. There was no escaping such moments and, as a Brit used to dealing with the cold and rain, it must have been stifling.
The Marsh Arabs is travel writing at its finest. The account has moments of tragedy and comedy, but above everything it’s a remarkable insight into a way of life which occupied thousands of humans for aeons. This makes it an important historical document for a way of life which quickly disappeared with the arrival of big business, technological advancements, and Saddam Hussein.
Sir Wilfred Thesiger died in 2003 at the ripe old age of 93. He donated his 23,000 travel photographs to an museum in Oxford. You can have a listen to his excellent British accent in the clip above (an excerpt taken from his 1959 book Arabian Sands).
Since his time in the marshes, there have been attempts to revive the way of life (see the video clip further up this review). With Hussein removed from power, there has been some success – clearly, in Iraq, it’s a way of life some of its people wish to pursue. So, best of luck to them!