17 September 2012

What's in a Name challenge review: The Marsh Arabs by Wilfred Thesiger

This is the third What's in a Name challenge book I finish, the topographical feature, that of course being a marsh. This means I am halfway there, and one more TBR book down.

The Marsh Arabs is a travelogue that, along with another travelogue by the same author, Arabian Sands, often appears on lists of best travel books and classics of the genre. It's easy to see why. The style is straightforward and no-nonsense, yet never dry or boring and it was refreshing for a change to read a travelogue by someone who knew exactly who he was and what he was doing, rather than the more common "searching for meaning and/or identity" travelogue so common today.

In 1951 to 58 Wilfred Thesiger spent several months of each year in the marshes of southern Iraq, getting to know the inhabitants, their way of life and customs. He seems to have travelled to this particular area in search of people who were not yet too modernised to have lost all connection with their past and the land, and like most of the best travel writers he seems to have made his expeditions there solely for his own enjoyment.

He describes his life with and travels among the Maʻdān people, the Marsh Arabs of the title, and intersperses his account with information about their day-to-day lives, what they ate, how they built their houses and made their boats, their social structure, marriage traditions and burial customs and last, but not least, blood feuds that would have made the Vikings proud. He shows he had respect for the marsh-dwellers but expresses regret and disdain for the educated among them who he thought had been made discontented with their lot by teachers who couldn't understand why anyone would want to live in the marshes. In this, he shows an attitude reminiscent of the ideal of the 'noble savage', whereby the observer desires to keep the idealised people frozen in time whether they want to nor not. In his case, he knew he was observing a disappearing way of life which he deplored but could do nothing about. The best he was able to do was to record what he saw for posterity.
Despite the obviously Victorian attitudes of the author, I am still giving it 4 stars.

This is one of those books that, when they end, has one wondering what happened next. I do know that Saddam Hussein later came along and drained the marshes, reducing them to a tenth of their original size and scattering most of the Maʻdān, with all the evils that the sudden uprooting of a traditional culture can have. At least the people Thesiger observed leaving the marshes in the fifties were doing it of their own free will.

Now I think I'll need to get my hands on Gavin Young's Return to the Marshes (1977) and then Rory Stewart's Prince of the Marshes (2006), to see what has changed.

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