Top 10 (+2) Books About Deserts

[UPDATE (January 2014): Added numbers 11 and 12 to this list – the posts at Seraillon are so good I thought it important to link to them from this list. Incidentally, the Comments to this post also revealed some first-rate further reading.]

Wilfred Thesiger, (1910 – 2003)

Wilfred Thesiger, (1910 – 2003)

About 37,000 years ago the last of the Neanderthals were becoming extinct in Europe. The world’s largest sand desert, the Rub’ al Khali, was failing to live up to its modern sobriquet, the empty quarter (known to the Bedouin as ‘the sands’). Hippos, grazing deer and water buffalo drank from lakes and ponds. Even today the Rub’ al Khali is home to more than thirty different plant species and twenty different birds. The word desert is borrowed from Old French desert, from Late Latin desertum, literally, thing abandoned.

San Gorgonio Pass - Richard Misrach: Desert Cantos

San Gorgonio Pass – Richard Misrach: Desert Cantos

Travellers and writers have long been attracted to deserts, places of wonder that offer that combination of disturbance and delight that make up enchantment, a suspension of chronological time, a ‘moment of pure presence.’ The list below comprises a personal top 10 of books about deserts (with 2 further additions). Please feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments section.

  1. Arabian Sands, by Wilfred Thesiger – This is the Urtext. Apart from the Badu that live there, Thesiger was the first traveller that crossed the Rub’ al Khali twice, and the only one to write so extensively of the time before oil was discovered. The way of life he depicted has long disappeared.
  2. Desert Divers by Sven Lindqvist – For a slight book, Lindqvist combines autobiography, history and diverse biographies. Named after the well diggers that descend 50-60 metres to build and clean wells in unstable desert sand.
  3. Daisy Bates in the Desert by Julia Blackburn – Daisy Bates’s memorial in Ooldea in the deserts of Southern Australia, reads ‘Daisy Bates devoted her life here and elsewhere to the welfare of the Australian Aboriginals.’ Julia Blackburn’s book tells the story of the woman that, at the age of 54, wandered into the outback and lived there for nearly 30 years. (thanks to flowerville)
  4. The Lives of the Desert Fathers: The Historia Monachorum in Aegypto – Biographies of twenty-six ascetics as they travel through the Egyptian desert. Whatever belief system you subscribe to, these are extraordinary tales of monks and hermits living enchanted lives.  (There were also desert mothers – Marilyn Dunn’s The Emergence of Monasticism: From the Desert Fathers to the Early Middle Ages devotes a chapter to Women in Early Monasticism, thank you DZ).
  5. Desert Cantos by Richard Misrach – spectacular photographs of the American desert. Misrach’s landscapes offer an apocalyptic, post-human interpretation of these primordial places.
  6. Desert Tracings: Six Classic Arabian Odes by ‘Alqama, Shánfara, Labíd, ‘Antara, Al-A’sha, and Dhu al-Rúmma (translated by Michael A. Sells) – Winners of poetry competitions held during annuals fair at ‘Ukaz, near Mecca, these six odes offer a matchless encounter with an ancient, sophisticated culture.
  7. The Nomad: Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt (translated by Nina de Voogd) – Partial diaries of an utterly  remarkable woman who converted to Islam and devoted her life to travelling the Sahara.
  8. The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe – also a breathtaking film, Abe’s book is a bit of a stretch in this list. Are the dunes in a desert? I don’t know but I could not resist listing Abe’s crisply written and compelling tale of an entomologist who becomes trapped in the sand dunes.
  9. Desert by JMG Le Clézio – An atmospheric, beautifully written novel about the lives of the Blue Men, notorious warriors who live in the desert. Sense of place and wonder win over a light plot, but what remains is the sense of the desert’s beauty.
  10. The Crab with the Golden Claws by Hergé – Unapologetically included is this magnificently illustrated tale of Tintin and Captain Haddock’s crossing of the Sahara.
  11. The Desert – John C. Van Dyke – I haven’t read this yet but urge you to read Seraillon’s linked post: “…his book stands as a brilliant, engulfing piece of prose, as fervent an appreciation of landscape as one is likely to find.”
  12. The Desert – Pierre Loti – Another addition from Seraillon to my list for future reading (if I can track a copy down), of a writer that is cited as an influence by Sven Lindqvist. “If one seeks to grasp the palpable danger and grit of desert travel and the fundamental courage of the peoples who manage to live there, it’s doubtful one could do better.”

Hourglass Sand of Rub’ al Khali

Rub' al Khali (March 2013)

Rub’ al Khali (March 2013)

There is but one word in Arabic for sand رمل (raml). The sand in the Rub’ al Khali or Empty Quarter could be defined with greater precision as raml as-sa’ah ramliyyah or hourglass sand. I have spent the last week photographing sand.

There is a secret in every grain of sand. This sand is not an inert substance. It is so rich in nutrients and calcium that anything could grow, despite the high salt content, but growth is limited by the density of the sand and, of course, the availability of water. A metre or so below the surface of this sand-sea is another sea, a thin mantle of salt-water, hence the frequent olive-green blazes of nasi (or desert grass) and calligonum shrub. Fresh water is deeper, making another sea, perhaps ten metres below the sand-sea I walked over.

How many colours does sand wear? I counted fourteen, most commonly the dusky camel-tan of blazing midday, to the glorious reddish-orange colour that indicates the presence of feldspar, but also, less commonly flights of blues, purples, and greens.

Each night I climbed the highest dune to await sunset. As the day ended, the sun’s nebulous glow faded to become a golden glowing wafer that dropped quickly behind the highest dune on the horizon. You appreciate why the sun was one of the main deities in most polytheistic cultures.

Rub' al Khali (March 2013)

Rub’ al Khali (March 2013)

In camp I read Martin Ling’s Muhammad, an account of his life based on the earliest sources. Lings’ magnificent book holds and hides memories of the desert throughout its pages. He writes of the custom of all great families of Arab towns to send their sons into the desert to be suckled and weaned among the Bedouin tribes: so the bond with the desert had to be renewed in every generation-fresh air for the breast, pure Arabic for the tongue, freedom for the soul.

It is impossible not to be humble when standing, sleeping, walking on a surface that, in Pleistocene times, was an ancient sea-bed. It is also impossible not to be drawn into the realm of the ineffable. There is a longing in the desert, for enchantment, for a beginning. Longing as defined by Mahmoud Darwish: longing is not memory, but rather what is selected from memory’s museum. Longing is selective, like an adept gardener. It is the replaying of a memory after its blemishes have been removed.

Rub' al Khali (March 2013)

Rub’ al Khali (March 2013)

Why do I come to Rub’ al Khali? This is my second crossing and I am planning a third, longer trek. Of course I question my reasons for coming here, obsessing that it is misplaced Orientalism, a pursuit of what is exotic and inscrutable. The desert speaks to that longing inside my heart. Rub’ al Khali is contagious, an invitation to what was before. Final word to Wilfred Thesiger: No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will carry within him the yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match.

In Praise of Savagery by Warwick Cairns

Wilfred Thesiger

One lecture and two brief meetings with explorer Wilfred Thesiger provided Warwick Cairns with the inspiration to write In Praise of SavageryComparison with Geoff Dyer and Bill Bryson is nugatory, as Cairns lacks the darkness of Dyer or the drollery of Bryson. Clichés that would strain a conversation are present on most pages: Thesiger is “a mountain of a man” with a “bear-sized hand”; worlds are lost and tribes are vanished.

Clunky writing aside, the book’s structure drives the narrative; Cairns interweaves the tale of his modest journey to spend a single day in Thesiger’s company, with his account of Thesiger’s Danakil expedition, extracted from the explorer’s diaries, autobiography and biography. Discursive passages find the author musing about the pleasure of retribution, duty and the boredom of much of contemporary existence.

The pleasure of the book came from Cairn’s retelling of Thesiger’s expedition. Though the three hours spent in the company of In Praise of Savagery were not distressing, I’d prefer to read Thesiger’s own account.

The World is a Book

A few days ago I asked, “What are your favourite literary travel books?” Thank you for your suggestions, added to mine below to compile a quintessential shelf of travel literature:

  1. Flaubert in Egypt: A Sensibility on Tour – Gustave Flaubert
  2. Rings of Saturn – W. G. Sebald
  3. Travels with Herodotus – Ryszard Kapuściński
  4. The Air-Conditioned NightmareHenry Miller
  5. Songlines – Bruce Chatwin
  6. The Motorcycle Diaries – Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara
  7. On the RoadJack Kerouac
  8. In Patagonia – Bruce Chatwin
  9. Pictures from Italy Charles Dickens
  10. Collected Travel Writings: The Continent and Great Britain and America – Henry James
  11. The Roads to Sata – Alan Booth
  12. The Way of the WorldNicolas Bouvier
  13. Into the Heart of BorneoRedmond O’Hanlon
  14. A Time of GiftsPatrick Leigh Fermor
  15. Hokkaido Highway Blues – Will Ferguson
  16. Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It – Geoff Dyer
  17. Falling off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World – Pico Iyer
  18. Riding the Iron Rooster – Paul Theroux
  19. To Noto: Or London to Sicily in a Ford – Duncan Fallowell
  20. Angry White Pyjamas – Robert Twigger
  21. Arabian SandsWilfred Thesiger
  22. This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland – Gretel Ehrlich
I’ve added the new suggestions to my wish list and anticipate reading them with genuine pleasure.

Literature of Travel

Yesterday I wrote of Sartre the traveller, whom BHL esteemed above all for his literature of travel:

And I am convinced, be it said in passing, that the day when the ideology of tourism is finally brought to a discourse and a practice which, on the pretext of the right to exoticism and difference, offer a paltry folklore which diminishes at one and the same time the traveller and his or her host, and offers, in place of those original situations which were the passion of real travellers, landscapes whose picture-postcard aspect has a novelty value of zero – I am convinced that Sartre, the homing pigeon, will on that day be recognised as a master. People will speculate about his Queen Albermarle which Simone de Beauvoir said was to be, if he ever finished it, the Nausea of his maturity, and which he himself thought would draw a line under the modern literature of travel . . .

These days, increasingly, we travel to places that resemble an exotic version of home: the same Starbucks, Body Shop etc., as Robert Dessaix wrote:

But I’d seen it all before. At a certain point in life, like Stendhal and Chateaubriand, one has. Everything feels repackaged. The crêpe and ice-cream wagons, the miniature train, the hoopla stall, the Africans selling belts and fake Louis Vuitton handbags – even the gangs of teenagers in T-shirts emblazoned with jaunty slogans in English (I Love Beer, Fuck Work and so on) – I’d seen and heard and smelled it all before hundreds of times. It felt like the umpteenth performance of a circus act I’d thrilled to when I was five. Would nothing transformingly beautiful ever happen again?

Seeing the world through another’s eyes can invigorate our experience of travel. BHL writes of Sartre:

Sartre, a man reputedly incapable of seeing a thing, an absolutely cerebral presence who claimed coquettishly, that he had to wait until Simone de Beauvoir had described things for him before he could see them for himself.

Though I love to read great travel literature, I suspect that those worth reading would not fill a small shelf. A top ten of literary travel books, for me, would look something like this:

  1. Into the Heart of BorneoRedmond O’Hanlon
  2. A Time of GiftsPatrick Leigh Fermor
  3. Hokkaido Highway Blues – Will Ferguson
  4. Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It – Geoff Dyer
  5. Falling off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World – Pico Iyer
  6. Riding the Iron Rooster – Paul Theroux
  7. To Noto: Or London to Sicily in a Ford – Duncan Fallowell
  8. Angry White Pyjamas – Robert Twigger
  9. Arabian SandsWilfred Thesiger
  10. This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland – Gretel Ehrlich
Several other Paul Theroux books could have made the cut, but Iron Rooster is the one that stands foremost in my memory. Missing from my list, because I haven’t read them, are renowned travel essays or books by Voltaire and Stendhal. I also chose not to include Kafka’s travel writing as it forms part of his diaries.
Now over to you, what are your favourite literary travel books?