Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2011/4 posted by hidden europe on

Travel and myth-making naturally go hand in hand. Arabia is a product of the European imagination. Romanticised views of the desert and rumours of ancient cities lost in great seas of sand conspire to create picture-book images of an Arabia that hardly match reality.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

hidden europe co-editor Nicky Gardner has been travelling in the Middle East and, unusually for our e-brief, pens a few thoughts that take us well beyond Europe.

Travel and myth-making naturally go hand in hand. Arabia is a product of the European imagination. Romanticised views of the desert and rumours of ancient cities lost in great seas of sand conspire to create picture-book images of an Arabia that hardly match reality. Early travel writers submitted accounts of forbidden cities like Mecca and Medina without ever actually going to either place. And travellers who really did venture into the interior of the Arabian Peninsula were so consumed by the desert and its ways that their European identity was compromised. Think of St John Philby who crossed the Rub al Khali (the formidable sand sea often dubbed the Empty Quarter or sometimes just referred to as The Sands). In Arabia, they still refer to the late Philby as Sheikh Abdullah.

Among the Bedu

Wilfred Thesiger, perhaps the greatest of the twentieth-century explorers of Arabia, was far more at home among the Bedu than ever he was in English society. His passionate affection for Arabia, crossing the Empty Quarter by camel and travelling in disguise through the interior of Oman, fed images of Arabia as a territory where, if one did not die of thirst, one might all too easily come to an unhappy end in some ill-tempered tribal feud.

In November 1946, Thesiger and his Bedu took nine days to travel from Shisr to Muqshin - both remote oases in the barren country between the mountains of Dhofar and the Empty Quarter. Today, it is an easy four hour drive, most of it on the modern paved highway that links Salalah with Muscat. Omanis certainly know how to build great roads.

When Thesiger arrived in Abu Dhabi in March 1949, at the end of his second crossing of the Empty Quarter, he forded a salt creek to find "a small dilapidated town that stretched out along the shore". The fort, home to Shakhbut who ruled Abu Dhabi, was shut and barred. Thesiger and his exhausted Bedu unloaded their camels and slept amid the rubbish in the shadow of the fortress walls. Nowadays, Abu Dhabi is the bustling capital of the United Arab Emirates, one of the richest cities in the world with a population nudging one million.

Sands of time

I thought there would be nothing of Arabia in the new Abu Dhabi that has sprung up on that little island in the Persian Gulf. The gazelles have long since fled. But nature has her ways and my short stay in Abu Dhabi coincided with a fabulous sandstorm. A diffuse yellow light turned quickly to dense fog and the harsh sand blew hard against my face. I saw nothing of the skyscrapers. Amid the blowing sand, modernity was eclipsed by the Arabia of the imagination. I was back with the Bedu, back in the Arabia that has so fascinated European travel writers and explorers for many centuries.

Nicky Gardner
(editor, hidden europe magazine)

You can see a small selection of Nicky's pictures of Oman on our website.

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.