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am 1. August 2008
In Arabian Sands Wilfred Thesiger describes his crossing of the Empty Quater (1946-48), the largest sand desert in the world, located in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Oman. He travelled their by foot, with a small band of Bedouins. They were exposed not only to extrem physical hardship, but also to several warring tribes who declared to kill the "infidel" in their country. It is difficult to understand how someone can find pleasure in such a journey.
Wilfred Thesiger himself recounted his motives as followed, "For me, exploration was a personal venture. I did not go to the Arabian desert to collect plants nor to make a map; such things were incidental. At heart I knew that to write or even to talk of my travels was to tarnish the achievement. I went there to find peace in the hardship of desert travel and the company of desert people. I set myself a goal on these journeys, and, although the goal itself was unimportant, its attainment had to be worth every effort and sacrifice[...] Everyone knew that there was nothing to be found on the top of Everest, but even in this materialistic age few people asked, "What point is there in climbing Everest? What good will it do anyone when they get there" They recognized that even today there are experiences that do not need to be justified in terms of material profit. No, it is not the goal but the way there that matters, and the harder the way the more worth while the journey. Who, after all, would dispute that it is more satisfying to climb to the top of a mountain than to go there in a funicular railway? Perhaps this was one reason why I resented modern inventions; they made the road too easy."
And during the whole journey he praises the desert and the Bedouins, for example, "In the desert I had found a freedom unattainable in civilization; a life unhampered by posessions, since everything that was not a necessity was an encumbrance. I had found, too, a comradeship inherent in the circumstances, and the belief that tranquillity was to be found there. I had learnt the satisfaction which comes from hardship and the pleasure which springs from abstinence: the contentement of a full belly; the richness of meat; the taste of clean water; the ecstasy of surrender when the craving for sleep becomes a torment; the warmth of a fire in the chill of dawn."
And not to forget Thesiger got to know the famous hospitality of the Arabs saying, "I went their with a belief in my own racial superiority, but in their tents I felt like an uncouth, inarticulate barbarian, an intruder from a shoddy and materialistic world. Yet from them I learnt how welcoming are the Arabs and how generous is their hospitality."
Wilfred Thesiger clearly understood that the traditional way of life of the Arabs was close to its end when he noted, "Here in the desert I had found all that I asked; I knew that I should never find it again. But it was not only this personal sorrow that distressed me. I realized that the Bedu with whom I had lived and travelled, and in whose company I had found contentment, were doomed. Some people maintain that they will be better off when they have exchanged the hardship and poverty of the desert for the security of a materialistic world. This I do not believe. I shall always remember how often I was humbled by those illiterate herdsmen who possessed, in so much greater measure than I, generosity and courage, endurance, patience, and lighthearted gallantry. Among no other people have I ever felt the same sense of personal inferiority."
The whole book is a declaration of love for the desert and its inhabitants. When he wanders there I get the impression he searches for the lost paradies; and the Bedounis will take him there.