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Wilfred Thesiger in conversation with Sajid Rizvi

 

The former British soldier, explorer and photographer talks about an era long gone with the first gush of oil but still retained in his memory as an important part of human experience. [Thesiger died in 2003, this interview took place in 1996] . This article, originally titled Wilfred Thesiger–Talking of Times Past and of a Present Imperfect is reproduced from Eastern Art Report Volume IV Number 3

© 1996-2014. All rights reserved

Introducing Visions of a Nomad[1], which celebrated his photographs, Wilfred Thesiger wrote that he had “never taken any photographs with the intention of publishing them, any more than … ever made a journey in order to write about it.” Yet he is acknowledged as one of most valued and entertaining chroniclers of an age long past in the Middle East and in his native Africa.[2] The Marsh Arabs is virtually all that remains of the life and society in southern Iraq, vengefully destroyed by President Saddam Hussein in the aftermath of the Gulf War 1990-91.[3] Of the many places photographed by Thesiger few have remained unchanged.

His disclaimers notwithstanding, Thesiger’s texts and photographs have been published extensively to great public acclaim. The photographs were exhibited for the first time in 1990 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Their presence alongside the texts set Thesiger apart from other writers and adventurers familiar to the English-speaking world–T E Lawrence, Doughty and Burton–or mythicised (like Lawrence) for the benefit of a wider audience.[4]. Now ensconced in a London flat amidst the orderly litter of a lifetime, Thesiger has much to mull over and reconsider, not only from the past but also from the present that surrounds him. He spoke to Sajid Rizvi, managing editor of Eastern Art Report. Excerpts:

SR. What are your earliest memories?

WT. I was born in 1910 in Ethiopia, which was known then as Abyssinia. My father was British minister in charge of the legation in Addis Ababa. To get there my parents had to travel by sea to Djibouti and then ride mules for nearly a month. I remained there until I was nine, so when I came back to England I had vivid memories of Africa, its colourful people and places. I lost my father in 1920 but he had helped Haile Selassie [5] in his formative years after the 1916 revolution, the emperor invited me to his coronation in 1930. I was only 20, and the visit proved decisive.

SR. How did you end up in Arabia?

WT. I was posted there and fought there during the (Second World) War. Thereonward, from 1945 to 1950, I went to the Empty Quarter (in Saudi Arabia), drawn by the mysteries of that great desert, then moved on to the marshes of Iraq, originally to shoot duck for a fortnight. I stayed there for seven years, from 1951 to 1958. During winters I remained in the south but went north to live among the Kurds during the summer.

SR. How did your photographic career begin?

WT. I started taking photographs at Haile Selassie’s coronation and then during hunting trips. But these were just snaps. I didn’t begin taking photographs seriously, worrying about the composition of each, until I was in Arabia. My first camera was a Kodak, the second a Leica II, which I used right up to 1959, when I changed that for a Leicaflex.

SR. But you’ve never taken a colour photograph?

WT. Never wanted to, though now of course colour photography is more accurate and lends itself well to taking pictures of wildlife or of pageants, such as the coronation of Haile Selassie, or of Arabia and the Gulf.

SR. What is it that you remember the most about your early exploration of Arabia and the Gulf?

WT. Mostly what has been lost. I revisited the area years after my first visits and was disillusioned by what I saw. The desert is not the same, the camels are there, but almost no one rides them. It’s an Arabian nightmare, with cars and high-rise buildings everywhere. I don’t resent their discovery of oil but I do crave for the past. I longed for the past, resented the present and prayed for and dreaded the future–that’s more or less what I have written somewhere. And that’s more or less what I’ve always felt about things. When I first visited them in the 1940s, Abu Dhabi and Dubai were very attractive, with handsome houses along the Creek and quite a lot of dhows. Dubai was much more of a town than Abu Dhabi. Later I went to Sharjah but didn’t think much of it at that time. I went back several times, until the exhibition of my photographs in 1990.

SR. Was it a spiritual experience, a homecoming?

WT. No, none of that, but I yearned for those past years and somehow wanted to get back into that era.

SR. Did you not feel that once you had explored these areas and written about them neither you nor those people could ever go back in time?

WT. I have written somewhere how I wished that nothing in their lives would ever be altered by my coming. I knew that others would rather more materialistically aim to use the maps which I was making, or to ridicule, alter and in a sense corrupt the people.

SR. In retrospect they haven’t done badly, have they? Even though–and perhaps because–it has been comprehensively exposed to the outside world, the region has thrived since it embraced modern civilisation as we know it.

WT. Yes, except that, if you are talking about Dubai, it has acquired an enormous number of foreigners. It is true that its growth is because of the oil wealth, but what of its lifestyle? That has completely changed. It was possible once to meet the people on equal terms, travel with them on camels and live their life. Soon after I left, oil was discovered, a lot of cars and lorries arrived, and it all changed the whole structure of Bedouin lives overnight. When your whole life is based on camels, the distances you travel and the hardship you go through together help develop relationships that last forever.

SR. Would you have preferred things to happen differently?

WT. I would have liked the Bedouin to have never seen a car.

SR. But I am almost sure they don’t regret that. I think the people are very happy in a sense that they have come to the modern age.

WT. The older people regret that it happened. Their children have never known anything else and they like driving about in their cars and watching television. That sums up the destruction of what once was a very unique culture.

SR. Is there something that can be done to restore it?

WT. Nothing.

SR. What are your own earliest memories?

WT. When I was born there were no cars or aeroplanes, the radio had more or less just been invented.

SR. Now we have all that. Are we more–or less–contented?

WT. Just look at the disturbances all over the world.

SR. There were wars before.

WT. Yes, there were, but they were isolated wars. Then we didn’t have so many cars! The cars alone are diminishing the world. The cars alone are going to rob the world of its diversity–local cultures, traditions and so on–and produce a uniform lifestyle.

SR. So art and culture are doomed?

WT. I don’t know enough about either to say that. I wish I had been involved with art and culture.

SR. But you’ve been a photographer and a travel writer and your work is considered art.

WT. I’ve managed to produce some very good photographs, yes. But I resent all the modern material manifestations of civilisation–cars, aeroplanes, radios, television. The only one I’ve benefited from, perhaps, is the camera.

SR. Would you have preferred things to happen differently?

WT. I would have liked the Bedouin to have never seen a car.

SR. But I am almost sure they don’t regret that. I think the people are very happy in a sense that they have come to the modern age.

WT. The older people regret that it happened. Their children have never known anything else and they like driving about in their cars and watching television. That sums up the destruction of what once was a very unique culture.

SR. Is there something that can be done to restore it?

WT. Nothing.

SR. What are your own earliest memories?

WT. When I was born there were no cars or aeroplanes, the radio had more or less just been invented.

SR. Now we have all that. Are we more–or less–contented?

WT. Just look at the disturbances all over the world.

SR. There were wars before.

WT. Yes, there were, but they were isolated wars. Then we didn’t have so many cars! The cars alone are diminishing the world. The cars alone are going to rob the world of its diversity–local cultures, traditions and so on–and produce a uniform lifestyle.

SR. So art and culture are doomed?

WT. I don’t know enough about either to say that. I wish I had been involved with art and culture.

SR. But you’ve been a photographer and a travel writer and your work is considered art.

WT. I’ve managed to produce some very good photographs, yes. But I resent all the modern material manifestations of civilisation–cars, aeroplanes, radios, television. The only one I’ve benefited from, perhaps, is the camera.

SR. So the kettles and warm boots don’t do anything for you, not quite what Donatello does?[7]

WT. Certainly not. Of all the possessions, I’d love to have Donatello’s David in this room. It’s one of the things that I would like to have here. I’d get more pleasure out of it than any of those objects at the Tate, or any of the paintings.

SR. So, has art has gone astray?

WT. To me it has become almost meaningless. Art is something I’d like to look at and understand. I was at the Tate again, where they had a sort of biggish blue canvas and someone had taken a bicycle and ridden about all over it. That is art! The whole thing is incomprehensible and disastrous.

SR. So you think that art has lost its purpose?

WT. I don’t know about its purpose. To me modern art has lost its meaning.

SR. But one of its functions, as you said, is to bring you pleasure. The David for instance? Does that mean art is valid when it brings pleasure?

WT. Yes. But if you can get pleasure by looking at a couple of dirty boots or a kettle and a few other things lying on the floor, then we are talking on different levels.

SR. Is there some way art can be brought back to a level where you understand it and it gives you pleasure?

WT. I can’t see how we can begin to do it.

SR. There are cycles in history; people may just go back to doing that sort of thing.

WT. But it’s inconsistent with materialism and all that is happening now.

SR. So it’s a lost cause? Just as exploring new cultures and peoples, of which you did a lot, is no longer possible?

WT. Of course it is gone; it’s dead gone. The cultures of different peoples, the fascinating and interesting lifestyles of people, have been completely and utterly destroyed by the introduction of materialism and by tourism. It may give pleasure to the people who go off to see these places, but it’s destructive to the people who live there.

SR. But many travellers may have been encouraged to go after reading your books. That was not your original purpose in exploring, taking pictures and writing about it, or was it?

WT. No. I’ve written that “I hope that nothing will be altered by my coming.” Those are my very words.

SR. So how do you see your contribution, what have you done for the people of the Middle East?

WT. I haven’t done anything for them. They have done quite a lot for me.

SR. You may have given them a lot of pleasure–through your books.

WT. Ordinary people, the very illiterate men whom I knew, would never have read my books. I am not saying that I have contributed anything. I’ve gained from being in that circle, being with the Bedu or the marsh people of Iraq. Those were the happiest years of my life. The friends that I had in Kenya are also gone, so there’s nothing left for me there either.

SR. And are there any specific memories of the periods that recur, moments that abide?

WT. Yes, if you’ve read Arabian Sands you’d see that memories abide. I wrote that book eight years after I had left Arabia. I never meant to write it. But then everybody, including my mother, kept hammering away at me. So I went off to Denmark, locked myself up in my bedsitting room and relived the whole experience. I’m very glad I did write it. It brought the whole thing back so vividly to life.

SR. Do you believe in posterity?

WT. In what way do you mean posterity?

SR. In the sense of how you would like to be remembered?

WT. I would be glad if people read my books and learned to appreciate the life I led. I meet young people who say they wish they could lead my life. But the possibility of that ever being possible has been destroyed. By reading my books they could experience it again.


Notes

  1. Visions of a Nomad, by W Thesiger, Motivate Publishing, Dubai/London 1994, represented photographs exhibited in 1993 at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, where the collection is now based, and at Dubai the same year.
  2. Thesiger was born in 1910 at the British Legation, Addis Ababa, and stayed in Ethiopia until the age of nine. He was educated at Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford, and served in later years as a diplomat and as a member of the British undercover security force, SAS.
  3. The Marsh Arabs, Longmans London 1964.
  4. Thomas Edward Lawrence, ‘The Lawrence of Arabia’, (1888-1935), author, among other works, of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Revolt in the Desert; Charles Montagu Doughty (1843-1926), author of Travels in Arabia Deserta, Sir Richard Francis Burton (1829-90), translator, among other texts, of a monumental 16-volume Arabian Nights.
  5. Haile Selassie (1891-1975) led a revolt against Lij Yasu in 1916, becoming regent and heir to the throne, before being crowned emperor in 1930. He escaped to Britain during the Italian conquest (1935-36) but was restored to the throne by British forces in 1941. His ouster in 1974 led to the establishment of a totalitarian regime in Ethiopia, which survives.
  6. Thesiger referred to French government nuclear tests in the Pacific and its heavy handed treatment of the Greenpeace campaign against the explosions.
  7. This refers to an earlier part of the conversation, in which Thesiger praised the early Tuscan sculptor (c 1386-1466) and his bronze statue of David, now in the Bargello Museum, Florence. Ironically, Donatello is regarded as the founder of modern sculpture–the first artist to produce complete sculptures rather than adjuncts of architectural settings or attachments to buildings.

Author: Editor

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