Sir Wilfred Patrick Thesiger, Unedited

by Geoffrey Clarfield (March 2011)

A Chance Meeting

I had come in from the desert, tired, filled with dust and hungry. It was the dry season in northern Kenya, that period between the long and short rains, when you can see the ribs of the nomads’ cattle bulging from their sides, when milk is short, the warriors far away from the camps of the elders and, when pleas for rain from the Rendille elders are answered by their invisible God with dust, wind and sky without clouds.

I had not taken a shower for a week and as I walked into the restaurant in the northern frontier town of Maralal in Samburu country, the scent of sweet tea and roasted meat was the first sign that told me that I had left the desert behind, with all its demands for self control, independence of mind and spirit and the continuing search for ethnographic data. Like many other anthropologists, I was convinced that preindustrial life was fast disappearing and that it was the task of me and my colleagues to record as much of these disappearing worlds as was humanly possible, giving the growing under funding of the humanities and social sciences within the Western World.

I greeted the restaurant owner in Arabic, what little of the language I still  remembered, from my days wandering among the Sinai Bedu, some years ago, and inquired after the health of him and all of his family. They were from the Yemen, and had somehow made their way up from the Swahili coast to this dry savannah trading post and frontier town with the Nilotic name of Maralal.

An elderly British gentleman was seated at the table beside me. He was wearing a tweed jacket, a long sleeve shirt and a pair of slacks with shoes that you would wear in a proper European city. He was slowly munching away at a chapati (round Indian bread) absent mindedly dipping it into the stew on his plate while looking over the headlines of copies of Kenya’s most popular newspaper, The Nation, and which I discovered later that evening, during the last few weeks it had been serving up the usual Kenyan fare.

One headline announced that forty cattle rustlers had attacked a Samburu manyatta (nomadic cattle camp) and had made off with two hundred head. I later concluded that  they must have been Turkana raiders-the enemies of the Samburu and Rendille tribes whose district capital is Maralal. A high-ranking government official had been accused of misappropriating (that is stealing) twenty million shillings of government funds (Kenyan bureaucrats stealing from Western donors, once again) and my favourite headline, which recurred every few months-Five Wizards Burned to Death by Villagers. Yes, witchcraft and sorcery were and are still quite common in the small scale, illiterate and preindustrial farming societies of Africa where misfortune never goes unexplained. It is usually understood as coming from the malevolence of neighbours that you don’t fancy and you must take action.

As I sipped my warm and milky cup of tea celebrating the fact that I had come out of the Kaisut desert, without a breakdown and without me and my Rendille research assistants having been set upon by Turkana raiders (who I had been told by my adopted Rendille lineage elders were once again trying their luck in Rendille land after an absence of a few months) I studied the gentleman more closely.

He was elderly, probably in his late seventies, blue/grey eyed, with that peculiar greasy hair style that I have only seen among the graduates of England’s pre WWI public school system and which makes you wonder whether its use stems from the British dislike of showers or, from some sort of hair oil which was given to all graduates along with their school tie. He sat comfortably reading his newspaper, yet his back was as erect as a lamppost, and his calm disinterest in the people and surroundings suggested that he had a long familiarity with the town, and had no doubt spent much of his life outside of England.

I met a few of these types during more than a decade of travel and work in East Africa and the Middle East. They are usually, but not always, Oxbridge graduates who came out to the colonies of the British Empire long before WWII. After serving as district officers in the field, and having learnt at least one local language and a set of customs of the local people that they lived among (often as judges in nomadic courts),  at the same time they had managed to somehow maintain their proper, upper class British world view and social distance that marked them as different.

Soon after the independence of the newly independent African and Middle Eastern states in the sixties, there was no psychological possibility for many of these men to return to England and to the quaint rituals and customs of English rural life. So, while not having “gone native” as the English matrons were wont to say, they had made a home for themselves among their adopted tribes as eccentric, usually bachelor Englishmen.

I had spent a fair amount of time living near one of them. Dennis Doyle is an elderly Englishman nicknamed Sanchir after the Rendille lineage that adopted him. He had come out from India where he was born, to Kenya’s northern deserts, decades ago, and spent the flower of his manhood among the Rendille, Samburu, Boran, Gabra, Somali and Dorrobo tribes of the mountains and plains beside the frontiers of Ethiopia, the Sudan and Somalia keeping the peace and “going on Safari” (inspection tour).

During the pre independence British administration, Dennis had worked among a small but notable group of adventurous, cantankerous and ever so class conscious administrators, in what came to be known as Kenya’s Northern Frontier District (NFD). These men have been glorified by numerous writers, one who called them the “men with sand in their hair” in contradistinction to the more sedentary and genteel administrators of Kenya’s lush, green and European colonized southern highlands.

I had come to know Dennis through the fact that I was adopted by a related lineage of Rendille and although I had lived among them primarily as an anthropologist and researcher, I had begun to share Dennis’ apprehension for the future of these nomadic peoples. As a result I had slowly began to take a serious interest in their development problems and prospects.

Dennis had shared with me many an anecdote about how things used to be in northern Kenya in the “old days”-that is from 1924-1964. I concluded that perhaps the old days were a lot better than these new days where so many nomads now carry a klashnikov alongside their herding stick and who do not mind using it whenever the mood overtakes them. Chenevix Trench’s book, The Desert’s Dusty Face gives any reader a good picture of what life was like in this closed off area of Kenya during that time when the field officers were remarkably more effective than contemporary UN peacekeepers are at keeping the peace.

If  the south of Kenya was described and immortalized by the Danish Countess Blixen (of Out of Africa fame) as a return to a more medieval and unharried existence than that of turn of the century Europe, a place where colonial settlers and plantation owners could carry out their love affairs amidst the green grass and coffee of Mount Kenya then, the men with sand in their hair, the officers of the northern administration, were the exact opposite – solitary, disciplined, willing to be alone for long periods of time and constantly on the move among a variety of nomadic groups. Instead of ploughing other men’s European wives, they often travelled in the discreet company of a Somali mistress – a nation where it is hard to find an ugly woman. I wondered whether the man sitting beside might be one of these men.

As I sat in my chair chewing at the grisly but well cooked meat I realized that I had seen pictures of this elderly gentlemen when he was a tad younger and dressed in Bedu clothes. In those pictures he always appeared to be as dusty as I was at that moment,  worn out, yet invigorated by weeks alone with camel nomads who had accompanied him across harsh and hot Arabian desert sands.  I rose from my seat and said to him, “I believe you are Wilfred Thesiger. I am Geoffrey Clarfield, an anthropologist – would you mind if I join you ?”

The fact that I hadn't had a shower for week, obviously endeared me to him. The fact that I said something in the Rendille language to my assistant as I sat down beside this somewhat legendary writer and photographer, who had spent most of his life getting away from it all, triggered a friendly and welcoming smile.

Remembrance of Things Past

He asked what I was doing in Maralal. I briefly told him that I had spent the last year and a half among the Rendille, a group of archaic Somali speaking camel herders who had never converted to Islam. And, that I was trying to record and understand their expressive culture, that is their language and categories of thought, ritual, myth, music and dance.

He looked at me quizzically, like some headmaster at a public school. and said, “It would appear that you have a facility with foreign languages.” I answered as modestly as I could, not quite knowing where he was leading the conversation, “I believe I do have some facility,” I said deferentially.

“Well,” he said, ”I don’t.”  He then continued, almost as if an afterthought, “I never quite really mastered the Arabic language, that is to say the written one.”

Mr. Thesiger appeared to be in an amiable mood. He was in  no hurry to get up and leave,  and gave me the impression that he had decided that this afternoon he would not mind spending a leisurely few hours eating lunch and reminiscing at the Samburu Restaurant, reading his papers and dealing with the numerous requests that came from a growing number of handsome and somewhat effeminate African youths in their twenties, who joined us at the table for a while and then left just as mysteriously,  having  said nothing or, after having made a request for some assistance on his part.  Our conversation was regularly interrupted and fragmented by this undisciplined Greek chorus for the next couple of hours, as we sat and chatted away the afternoon.

One of the first requests was for money, to pay off the Kenyan police who had impounded a pick-up truck with what they said were too many young Samburu and Turkana murrani (warriors) sitting in the back and who were returning to their semi-urban homesteads in Maralal after having served as extras in the film “Sheena of the Jungle” a part of which had been shot in Samburu district.

Thesiger smiled again and turned to me “Can you believe it?” he exclaimed in an exasperated tone of voice, “They took donkeys and painted zebra stripes on them so that Sheena of the Jungle could ride a zebra!”  I shrugged and said that you can’t fight Hollywood, and he nodded his head in agreement.

While chatting about the likelihood of the next drought hitting Northern Kenya I told him that although I was an academic field anthropologist I had read his books when I was younger and had some questions about his work. He smiled and  invited me to ask away.

Knowing that anthropologists were puzzled over the common origins of the Semitic speaking Arab camel nomads of the Near East and Arabia and their recently investigated distantly related linguistic cousins, the Cushitic speaking camel nomads of the Horn of Africa, peoples like the Rendille Somali and Gabra of the northern frontier, both groups among whom Thesiger had travelled widely, I asked him if having lived among these peoples had he noticed any deep cultural similarities.

“Not really,” he answered. “They are just too far apart to make any really meaningful comparison.” I then asked him about Beduin social organization and he answered. “I didn’t see much of family life you know. We were on the move most of the time. What the Beduin did have was nobility of character. But that was then. Things have changed in Arabia.”

We could hear the owner of the restaurant talking to his wife in the back of the restaurant, an exile from Yemen, who had so hospitably served up our greasy but satisfying meal. Hearing the Arabic language in the background seemed to trigger something that he wanted to say.

He put down his knife and fork, looked past me, and said in a distracted voice. “The Yemen was destroyed by the remittances of the oil workers in Saudi. As a sign of brotherly concern, can you imagine, the Saudis  offered to tear down all the mud brick mosques of the Yemen and put up modern, concrete buildings. Then some consultant in the gulf persuaded Sheik Zayad that he needed a forest – it wasted most of his water…no there is no place to travel in anymore, except perhaps parts of Kenya and Tanzania…the wars have destroyed Abyssinia, Persia and Afghanistan… I don’t think the human race will last another hundred years, what with the energy crisis and Gaddafi.” He gazed off into space and didn’t move for a few moments, as if he had been momentarily transported back, sixty years into the preferable past.

Thesiger had spent many years in the marshes of southern Iraq and had described his experiences in his book The Marsh Arabs. I wondered whether, if in addition to his writings and photographs, had he taken the opportunity to make any recordings of their poetry and music. I then asked if during his time among the Marsh Arabs of Iraq had he had the opportunity to make recordings of their traditional songs, as I was doing among the Rendille.

He paused for a moment, and then gave me a quizzical and impatient look. He said, emphatically, “One didn’t record in those days. As a matter of fact, I find the dances of the Samburu endlessly boring. They just seem to jump up and down and go round and round for hours. And, anyways the music that the youth listen to, Michael Jackson, isn't worth much either. Now the Turkana. There is a tribe for you. They have a song for the camel, a song for the cow, a song for the bee. They have a song for just about everything. Those are the things that you should go out and record.”

A year later, to my surprise and delight, I was doing just that. I had been hired by the National Museums of Kenya to create a baseline collection of music and expressive culture for a Desert Museum in Turkana district. When among the Turkana I often remembered Thesiger didactically pointing his finger at me and exhorting me to save a dying culture. The recordings are safely installed in the archives of the National Museums of Kenya  waiting for some intrepid graduate student to analyse them and share them with the general public.   

Studied Hesitance

Thesiger’s stop and start approach to our conversation, congenial as it may have seemed to him, was not something that I was used to. During my university years I had many British professors so to a degree it was not totally foreign to me. It was a style of communication that was pure, old, pre WWII Oxbridge, something that I have heard called “studied hesitance.”

It is a style of delivery of facts and opinions done in bits and pieces, where at the end of the disposition, although one gets the impression that the person was thinking out loud, those who know the code can be sure to understand that almost every word has been carefully chosen. Yet, the impression given to those who do not share the code is that of having heard a series of associated afterthoughts.                                      

The Patron of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Prince Charles, is the present guardian of the style. It is said that Winston Churchill himself was so conscious of this linguistic marker of England’s educated upper classes that, for his war time radio addresses, he planned the mistakes and false starts of his speeches given over the wireless so that the common people would feel that he was speaking unprepared and from the heart.

I felt that Thesiger was doing just that, letting out bits and pieces of his opinions as if they were afterthoughts. However, when I later looked over the notes I had kept of our conversation a clear worldview emerged from his apparently random responses to my questions.

Apocalypse Now

I had almost finished all the meat on my plate when Thesiger abruptly asked me,

“Mr. Clarfield, do you believe in a personal God?” I was a bit taken aback at this question. It was almost as if I had been thrown into the scene of a Somerset Maughan novel and that like the actor Jeremy Irons I was now expected to immediately confess that, no, I did not believe in a personal God. The reader or the audience is then supposed to make the Brothers Karamazov like conclusion that since I didn’t then “everything is permitted!”

I replied that it was difficult to believe  in a just, personal  God, who intervened in history after the experience of WWII and the Nazis. He said, “I don’t – but my parents did believe, in a personal God who ministered to their personal needs… Christianity is hardly monotheism you see… The father, the son, and the holy ghost… Yet I do believe in something. There is a force, there is some sort of intelligent force at work in the universe.”

I didn’t quite know what to make of this aside. It was almost as if he was saying that despite the fact that outsiders may see him as a relic of Empire and the muscular Christianity that gave it its ideology, he was never really a full believer in it, and had rebelled against the formal trappings of Empire and his class which were no doubt, part and parcel of his upbringing in his father’s house when he was the first British Ambassador in Abyssinia, just after the turn of the century.

He then smiled and changed the topic, “I suppose it doesn’t really matter. The human race is in peril. We probably won’t survive another generation, what with the likes of Colonel Gaddafi about. He wants to get nuclear weapons you know-and he will use them!”

I listened politely to his millenialist interpretation of Gaddafi and his motives. I had just come from a place where the only other Europeans were fundamentalist Protestant missionaries. They were all anxiously waiting for something terrible to happen around the year 2000. I thought things were bad enough as it is, what with AIDS, a growing hole in the ozone layer, poverty and a multipolar world where terrorism and ethnic violence seemed to be the order of the day. As far as I was concerned, the likelihood of Gaddafi starting WWIII was just as likely as any one of those UN Programs, like Health for All by the Year 2000, of actually getting off the ground. I suppose 9/11 proved both Thesiger and my missionary friends to be correct, but perhaps in ways they had not quite imagined.

Roundhead and Cavalier

We went back to our food and after having cleaned our plates started sipping our tea.

“You know” he said. “It’s funny. I regret that I never took pictures of Europeans in the old days. In truth, I never took out my camera until I was south of the Mediterranean… They say that there are no more lions to kill and no more wildlife to speak of really, but a lion killed three people near Maralal recently in broad daylight…but I did take pictures of colleagues in the field, Like Orde Wingate.”

Thesiger had spent much time fighting with the legendary Orde Wingate during their guerrilla operation against the Italians in Ethiopia during WWII and in support of the late Haile Selassie, who just a few years ago had been murdered by the exiled Ethiopian leader, the Marxist Leninist Haile Maryam Mengistu (who lives in Zimbabwe) and who Thesiger detested with a passion that distorted the features of his face every time he mentioned his name.

Wingate is a hero in a number of countries, in Ethiopia for having supported the fight against the Italian fascists, in Israel for having taught men like Moshe Dayan of the Palmach how to defend themselves against attacks by Arab raiding parties, and in Burma where he died fighting the Japanese during WWII.

Wingate, like Thesiger was unconventional. He was a religious non-conformist and felt most comfortable among foreigners. Zvi Azzan, an Israeli veteran of Wingate’s Palmach training days once told me that Wingate could bushwhack for fourteen hours non stop, set up camp in the dark and then quote the Bible chapter and verse, long after his trainees were asleep.

I knew that both men had admired the Ethiopians. However, Thesiger, came  from an upper class, aristocratic background. His uncle had been the Viceroy of India, his father the first British Ambassador in Ethiopia and he had been personally invited by Haile Selassie to attend his coronation. Wingate was from a modest Protestant background of dissenters and unlike Thesiger, all doors were not open to him. The two were as different in experience and worldviews as are chalk and cheese or the Roundheads and Cavaliers of the English civil war. I wondered how two such people could get along.

Thesiger paused once again and then added, almost as an afterthought, “The British saved Addis Ababa when they brought in gum trees and people like Wingate turned the war around in Gojjam when we fought in Ethiopia.” It was odd, but Thesiger’s faint praise of Wingate gave me the impression that he had much more to say on the subject. So I bluntly asked him, “What did you make out of Wingate?”

“Well, as I mentioned to you, he did turn around war in Gojjam. That is a fact and it can’t be taken away from him – quite a piece of soldiering. But Wingate was a cruel, filthy and malicious man. You see it comes from his childhood. He was a minority at the school he went to and he had to fight his way through it with his fists, as all hands were turned against him. So, he, being from a minority found a minority that everyone hates and made them his own. The world hates the Jews. So he adopted the Jews.”

There are many people today who share Thesiger’s sentiments. No doubt the skinheads and neo Nazis as groups, are perhaps more strident in their opinions than he was, about the continuation of Hitler’s project. Bin Laden and others like him are somewhat more focused and active in their hatred. But Thesiger seemed unusually agitated when speaking about Wingate so I took the opportunity to probe the topic that he had just raised in greater depth.

Blood Libel

 “How do you explain the Holocaust?” I asked.

Thesiger looked me in the eye and said, “Judaism is a nasty religion. It has a jealous God who is vengeful unto the fourth generation .. The chosen people… You know, the Israelis airlifted 100,000 Ethiopian Jews and they are all now committing suicide…the Israelis are monsters… There is no mercy and compassion among them. Look at the mercy and compassion of Islam and Christianity. In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate…. The Jews have been persecuted for 2000 years. I despise them all. If I were twenty years younger I would take up arms against them.”

He paused, sipped his tea, looked sheepishly at me as if he had just allowed himself to say something impolite, something that the debating club at Oxford might have ruled as “not pertinent to the debate at hand.” He smiled and then continued, “If  I said that in public in a place like England today, that would be the end of me. In fact, all the best Jews converted to Christianity Those who aren’t Jews are no different than you and me.. It’s not that I am an antisemite. The real Semites anyways are the Arabs.” It was then that I finally realized that Thesiger was speaking to me unedited.

The young Turkana and Samburu  boys were back. Another request for money was being made. “I suppose I will have to open the silver box,” he said reluctantly, and pulled out a large key for a silver coloured photographer’s mini suitcase filled with substantial wads of Kenyan shillings from which he pulled out two thousand and gave the bills to one of the boys. He then muttered that he wouldn’t have been bothered with all of this if Lawi had been here. Lawi was Thesiger’s informally adopted Samburu son, the latest in a series of virile young men that had accompanied Thesiger during a lifetime of travel in remote places, and Lawi was not available for comment. I later heard that he had drunk himself to death.

Thesiger’s mood had changed and he seemed irritated by the various demands for money. I got up from my seat and said that I that I regretted that I must drive to Nairobi by evening and so I had best be on my way.  He paused for a moment and then said to me as I stood up to leave, ”Everything is changing. Schooling is inevitable so the old ways cannot survive. But I suppose some change is good.” My Rendille colleagues had done visiting their friends and relatives in Maralal. We met outside the restaurant, climbed into the jeep and swung onto the  road south towards Lake Naivasha.

Thesiger’s words resonated in my mind for some time. It was clear to me that he had spoken off the cuff and uncensored. He himself had said as much. I later had the opportunity to reread his books and found that the darker, Jew hating, side of his character was not clearly evident in his writings.

No doubt he was right. His editors in England would have never allowed it, for Thesiger was a living fossil. He was a late nineteenth aristocrat who loved the wilderness but who was doomed to live well into the late twentieth century – the last of the Victorian explorers. He would have been at home at an exclusive men’s club with the likes of Carl Raswan, Doughty of Arabia, General Gordon or perhaps Speke and Livingstone.

Thesiger adhered to a specific set of pre WWI upper class, values and passions. He was a living example of the pride and prejudice of a typical late nineteenth century British aristocrat, despite his superficial rebellion. He was a member of a significant minority of men of his class and time who disliked the company of women and avoided their intimacies. General Gordon of Khartoum was one of them, and he too took an unusual interest in the lives of young men. During Thesiger’s years of travel he never travelled in the company of a woman companion and never expressed his desire to do so. An American woman resident of Kenya, and a great friend of the Samburu, told me that when they once met by chance in a remote part of the district, he was so uncomfortable that he could barely look her in the eye during a short two minute chat.

There is no doubt that Thesiger was been a great admirer of men like T.E. Lawrence and perhaps he tried to appear as one who followed in his footsteps. But Lawrence wanted peace and equality for the Jews and Arabs of the Middle East, not the destruction of the Jewish people. Thesiger was probably closer in some aspects of his character and spirit to another, darker and less celebrated  nineteenth century Arabist and explorer, Sir Richard Burton, translator of the Arabian nights and one of the first Europeans to illegally (according to Shariah) make the pilgrimage to Mecca and Al Madina – the forbidden holy cities of Islam, disguised as a Moslem.

At the beginning of the  moral decline of 19th century European civilization and its descent into the Holocaust, Sir Richard went on record explaining why he was an antisemite. The following is a quote from his infamous and only recently published essay, “The Jew, the Gypsy and El Islam.”

A.D. 1495. The Jews of Trent , by means of one of their number, a physician, decoyed to his house, while the Christians were at church, it being Maunday Thursday, a boy two years and a half  old, by name Simeon, the son of a tanner. The child, gagged with a kerchief, was extended in the form of a cross, and was held down by his murderers. The blood, pouring from heavy gashes, was collected in a basin, and when death drew near the victim was placed upon his legs by the two men, and the others pierced his body with sharp instruments, all vying in brutality and enjoying the torture. The corpse having been found in the Etsch river, which flows through the city, led to the detection of the crime; the murderers were put to death, the synagogue was razed to the ground, and a church was built over the place where the horrid deed was done. A sculpture was put on the Bridge Tower in Frankfort-on-the-Maine, and a picture of a Christian Infant murdered by the Jews was placed in one of the galleries in the Hotel de Ville.

Quite simply Burton endorsed the belief that since time immemorial Jews have sacrificed Christian children. Historians have called this fantasy, “The Blood Libel.” Such sentiments were no doubt popular and acceptable among the lords and ladies of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth, especially amongst royalty such as the entourage of the Czar. When the Czar and his family were put under house arrest by the Bolsheviks they took comfort by reading that fraudulent antisemitic text, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the hope that they could understand what was happening to them.

Thesiger’s character was formed at a time when Europe was still ruled by monarchs and their world view. As Europe entered the twentieth century these sentiments, plus a potent dash of Social Darwinism,  became more and more popular, coming to their logical end in places like Auschwitz. It is not surprising then that, Sir Wilfred Patrick Thesiger, a man involuntarily trapped in the post Holocaust world of the late twentieth century, and who being the last representative of a long line of essentially late nineteenth century eccentric, aristocratic explorers, would share such hatred.


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