Wilfred Thesiger led a remarkable life, and through his books has bequeathed an important legacy- the documentation of ways of life that are gone forever. His book, "Arabian Sands," which describes his two crossings of the Rub al Khali (The Empty Quarter) in the late `40's is more famous, but this book, which documents his time with the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq, from 1951 to 1958 should command equal attention and respect. In terms of explorers, he is unique as the "Lone Ranger," traveling without Western colleagues, relying almost exclusively on the inhabitants of the remote and often desolate areas he chooses to explore. Whereas "Arabian Sands" details two epic journeys, in "The Marsh Arabs" Thesiger lives with the native inhabitants in their unique environment, and develops relationships which span the better part of a decade. While he is meticulous in describing the conditions of the natives, only occasionally does he reveal his true motives for such a life. An exception appears in "The Marsh Arabs": "My own tastes went, perhaps, too far to the other extreme. I loathed cars, aeroplanes, wireless and television, in fact most of our civilization's manifestations in the past fifty years, and was always happy, in Iraq or elsewhere, to share a smoke-filled hovel with a shepherd, his family and beasts. In such a household, everything was strange and different, their self-reliance put me at ease, and I was fascinated by the feeling of continuity with the past."
As Thesiger elsewhere states, he was probably the first (and sadly, the last) outsider with both the inclination and opportunity to live among the Madan (the natives of the Marshes), as one of them, before Saddam Hussein irrevocably ended their way of life by draining the marshes as a grand reprisal for an attempted revolt. Their way of life had been largely unchanged since the fifth millennium B.C. In another chapter on the historical background he states: "Other races too, had invaded Iraq during the same two thousand years." He did not live long enough to add to his list... "and the Americans and their so-called coalition.." One would think that the book would be more widely circulated today for that reason, and the fact that Thesiger "does nuance."
Thesiger states that he is not a specialist in any given area, and therefore can, in my opinion, convey the life of the people of the marshes in a more genuine way. He gained the initial trust of the inhabitants in the most unlikely way - although not a trained doctor, he safely performed circumcisions on the adolescent boys. He also carried a bag of medicines that he could properly administer, much to the gratitude of the natives. By sharing their hardships, way of life, and mastering the language, he further ingratiated himself with them. He documents an Islam that is anything but monolithic in its beliefs. He states that in Southern Iraq far more pilgrims had been to Meshed (in Iran, where the shrine of Imam Ali Ar Ridha, the eight Imam, is located, gaining the honorific "Zair." As a non-Muslim I was denied admission to the shrine, and I suppose the honorific, in 1971.) Furthermore, he makes the interesting point that the Hazaras of Central Afghanistan do not earn an honorific for the pilgrimage to Meshad, but do for going to Karbala in Iraq, and the reverse is true for the Shia of Iraq. As Thesiger states: "It appears to be a question of distance."
Thesiger describes family life, the tribal feuds, and the dependence of the agricultural economy on the annual floods, with the winners and losers, depending on the height of the floods. There are (dangerous) wild boar hunts. He describes the "mustarjil" who are born a woman, "...but she has the heart of a man, so she lives like a man."
The book contains numerous extraordinary black and white photos whose uniqueness and quality exceed the ones in "Arabian Sands." Of particular interest are the ones of the "mudhif," a large community structure build entirely of reeds, which can be disassembled and moved. The "Gail at Hama" (#41), and "In the Heart of the Marshes" (#27) are also brilliant.
Thesiger's perspective was partially formed at Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford, and his "fading days of the British Empire" attitude mars an otherwise excellent account. For example, he travels with a "young Kurdish servant" from Kurdistan, and is given to blanket assertions like "All Arabs are snobs" (p 52). He shows particular affection for his "canoe boys," which is reflected in numerous pictures.
Overall though, an extraordinary feat, and a solid book that should be read by all who now have an interest in Iraq.