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Friday, April 02, 2004
And suddenly a feverish rush of excellent reading! In moments like this--where after a long dry spell of not seeing much of interest, I read two or three things in a row, and the stack of would-like-to-reads jumps back up--I am always slightly mistrustful that the change has been more in my own receptivity and attention, rather than serendipity. I feel it strongly with magazines especially--after dutifully trudging through weeks of The New Yorker and finding things of marginal interest, I thought the most recent issue was chock-a-block with good stuff (great Laurence Fishburne profile; excellent Letter from China). I remember many moons ago reading The English Patient and then Possession--I thought a whole new world of reading had opened up--where I would always have books that called out to me through the day, that I was eager to get back to. For a while I attached this feeling to the judgement of the Booker Prize judges, but The Hungry Road diabused me of that quickly (it's a worthy book, but didn't grip me).

So: Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger (4 stars) This relates Thesiger's two trips across the Empty Quarter in Southern Saudi Arabia. He travels with Bedu tribesmen (he explains that "Bedouin" is a double plural and completely wrong) and is only the second European to cross them. The most compelling part of the book for me are his reflections on the life the Bedu lead and why. He explains that they have been living essentially the same life since Ishmael (from whom they are directly descended) and that it is important for us to understand that they have chosen their life--they do not feel trapped by it, or victimized by it, despite having threadbare clothing, sleeping out in the cold all the time, often hungry or thirsty or debilitated by sickness. They believe that this life is the best there is, because it shapes them into the best people in the world--strongest, most free, noblest. They ae still greedy (and yet fantastically generous), and petty, and yet they would not change their life for anything--not from fear or lack of imagination, but from considered choice--and Thesiger agrees with them in ways both thoughtful and honest. It is certainly provoking to think about your life in terms of the person that it shapes you into, rather than what you accomplish, or what it allows you to engage in. It is also provoking to think about the freedom they enjoy--they are bound by some strong customs, but no laws, and ungoverned. This lawlessness resolves itself through a combination of their faith and the conditions of their existence in the desert (Thesiger writes well about the implications of airplanes coming to Arabia--how the Bedu could previously melt into the open desert and be safe there, where now they were completely exposed and the desert shifted from a refuge to an obstacle).

Thesiger explains that they place a great deal of importance on human dignity and very little on human life (including their own). I was struck by this since I find our own (modern? American?) lives almost hysterical in the opposite direction--to preserve life regardless of its dignity, to privilege comfort or the absence of difficulty over all other considerations. This is an especially complex area to resolve as a parent--when deciding what is worth doing to protect my children, the answer to almost any question seems to be that it is worth it. Should they wear bicycle helmets? Of course. Even on tricycles that they can barely manage to move on their own? We spend so much time thinking about consequences that we insulate ourselves from the opportunity to experience life. Should we experience hunger to understand the value of its absence? Pain? Once you are aware of possible protections, how do you disregard them freely? And not end up in your RV with your 500 supersize cupholders looking at tame buffalo out the window?

There is more in the book of great interest--the tribal relationships, the actual experiences of crossing, Theisiger's own reflections on his difficulties and why he has chosen them, and the inexorable economic pressure that the discovery of oil brought to this region (effectively ending the Bedu way of life). This last set of ideas (about how the oil wealth unbalanced the economics of trade, and technologies ended the usefulness of the camels that the Bedu have to trade) is a terrifying one in many ways because of its inevitablity and the lack of potential for either judgement or control that our appetites inflict. It does not seem that there are many opportunities for moral choices within that framework, and that the most relevant set of choices are what lives we shape within these forces (or the lives we chose to shape us). These are questions worth some time to think about.

More to come: The 6th Lamentation, John Cheever's Journals (5 stars! 5 stars!)



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