He Had the Eyes of a Poet

Wilfred Thesiger (author of the book self is currently reading, Arabian Sands) has a magnificent eye for the vivid and telling detail. He undertook his journey of an area known as “the Empty Quarter” — “four hundred waterless miles” — in 1946 or 1947; self is very struck by the fact that not once during his extensive travels does anyone he encounters make so much as a mention of the war just ended. Here is his description of the scene around “the well at Manwakh” (in the area of modern-day Yemen) :

They said we could use their gear for watering. The man rode a camel loaded with great coils of rope, with pulleys, well-buckets, rolled-up water-skins, and a large watering-trough fashioned from skins stretched over a framework of wooden hoops. His son rode bareback on one of seven camels, and a woman and two small children drove a herd of goats. Others, too, were going down to the water. It was six miles away and we took two hours to get there. When we arrived there was already a crowd round the well mouth. Men and women drew on the ropes together, singing as they pulled, hand over hand. On each rope, as one bucket jerked up from the dark depths, slopping water down the glistening walls, another descended empty. Each clammy, dripping leather bucket was seized as it reached the scaffolding, and hastily tipped into a trough, round which moaning camels jostled in haste to quench their thirst. Rows of bulging black skins lay upon the sand, guarded from the trampling feet of men and beasts by shrill-voiced children. Camels were watered, couched, and later driven away; others arrived, breaking into a shuffling trot as they approached; colts frisked, stiff-legged, around their dams; men shouted with harsh voices to watchful, darting herdsboys; goats bleated, camels roared, the singing at the well-head rose and fell, the sun climbed higher, and the dark stain of spilt water spread farther across the ground.

– Wilfred Thesiger, Arabian Sands, pp. 218- 219

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