Bulletin 2 - June 1977: The Empty Quarter

The Empty Quarter

by Tony Harris

On 31st March 1977 at a public meeting held in the Community Hall, (which the ENHG largely organized) Mr. Wilfred Thesiger introduced a showing of the BP film “The Empty Quarter” which he helped to produce.

Mr. Thesiger was on a visit to Oman and Abu Dhabi at the invitation of the Sultan and the President of the United Arab Emirates. He had visited neither country since his historic journeys in the desert in the winters of 1946-47 and 1947-48.

A life such as Mr. Thesiger has led would in the modern age be unrepeatable. He was born in a mud hut in Ethiopia in 1910, grew up in the Abyssinian Highlands, and began travelling and exploring when he was 20. Students of his life may find out more about his ambitions and achievements, his love of the desert and it inhabitants, from his background and upbringing in Ethiopia, than from meeting him and having him describe his travels. (The first chapter of his justly renowned book “Arabian Sands” gives a glimpse of this.) Nevertheless, both from the film itself and from his comments afterwards, he came across clearly as a shy austere man with the values of an earlier age.

Mr. Thesiger said that in Oman he had met his former companions bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisah, with whom he had made his celebrated crossings of the Empty Quarter (see “Arabian Sands”). In company with them he called on several others he had known from his travels. Mr. Thesiger was struck by the changes which he saw everywhere, not the least in his erstwhile companions who had to some extent lost the ways of the desert. However, he managed to persuade them to accompany him on a walk up to a village on the Jebel Akhdar which he had known from his earlier travels.

In Abu Dhabi, Mr. Thesiger spent most of his time in Al Ain. There he met Sh. Zayed, whom he had met first on his visit to the Buraimi region early in 1948. He professed himself impressed by the rapid development which he had seen on all sides, but predictably implied that he preferred the older ways and values of the desert. While in Abu Dhabi town, he stayed with Mr. Edward Henderson, thus reliving his visit to the Trucial Coast in 1947 when he stayed with Mr. Henderson after his first crossing of the sands.

Although Mr. Thesiger had had a hand in the making of the film, he pointed out that it had its shortcoming. It was not meant to be an accurate account of the desert journeys; it was shot mainly in Abu Dhabi, and not in Oman or the Empty Quarter, and the Arabs seen in it were from the Bani Yas or Manasir, not the Bani Rashid with whom he had traveled. Their dress and habits were therefore different.

The film does give some idea of the difficulties of desert travel in the age of dependence on the camel, in particular the monotony and the hunger and thirst, but it tends to over dramatize the subject and at the same time to deal with it in a superficial way. Nevertheless, it contains some excellent material, particularly when Mr. Thesiger speaks personally of his experiences, often quoting directly from “Arabian Sands”.

The large audience showed by their questions after the film, the great interest in which Mr. Thesiger and his desert travels are held. They clearly recognized that they were listening to a man who through his courage and determination has earned himself a permanent place in the history of exploration.


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