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Thesiger, Sir Wilfred (1910-2003)  
 
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Sir Wilfred Patrick Thesiger, travel writer, explorer, photographer, and cult figure, probably can not be labeled as homosexual or even , but his most powerful emotional bonds were with young men. Indeed, his closest ties were with the companions on his famous journeys, indigenous men through whose eyes he sought to interpret the world.

Thesiger was born on June 3, 1910, in Abbysinia, where his father was British minister, to a well-connected, aristocratic British family. He grew up in the medieval-like imperial court at Addis Ababa. He was educated at Eton (1923-28) and Magdalen College, Oxford (1929-33). At Oxford, he captained the boxing team and prepared himself for a career in the British foreign service.

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During his first summer vacation from Oxford, he set off on the first of his solitary travels: this one to Istanbul and back, recording his voyage both in prose and in black-and-white photographs.

After graduation from Oxford he accepted a position as an assistant district commissioner in the Sudan political service. He served in remote areas such as Darfur and the Sudd. Here he began his practice of "going native," traveling with indigenous people, dressing, eating, and seeing the world as they did.

During World War II, he earned the DSO for leadership in the battle against Italian forces in North Africa. He also served as adviser to Haile Selassie in Abyssinia.

After the war, Thesiger made his most famous journeys in the desert of Arabia. He was not the first to cross the legendary Rub' al Khali or Empty Quarter, but he was the first to explore it fully, mapping the oasis of Liwa and the quicksands of Umm as-Sammim. His later trek across the western sands from the Hadhramaut to Abu Dhabi has been described as "the last and greatest expedition of Arabian travel."

Thesiger's life was filled with adventure. He lived in places as diverse as Kenya, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan, always attempting to understand the perspectives of the natives in the colorful lands that he visited.

He achieved fame for his book Arabian Sands (1959), which defined him as the last of a particular kind of adventure traveller and established him as a travel writer of the first rank. It has been described as "probably the finest book ever written about Arabia and a tribute to a world now lost forever." Among his other books are The Marsh Arabs (1964) and Desert, Marsh and Mountain (1979). In 1987, he published both his autobiography, The Life of My Choice, and a portfolio of photographs, Visions of a Nomad.

With his craggy face and dour looks, Thesiger was a Luddite misfit, an eccentric curmudgeon who rejected modernity absolutely, preferring to live simply and frugally, notably among Bedouin tribesmen in the deserts of Arabia. What he gained from this self-imposed cultural isolation was a hard-won spiritual solitude, oddly filled with delightful companions.

Thesiger's Boys

Although Thesiger acknowledged that he preferred the male physique to the female, he also stated that "Sex has been of no consequence to me, and the celibacy of desert life left me untroubled." Questions nevertheless remain about the aesthetic and emotional nature of the relationships he enjoyed with his young companions and assistants, relationships that he claimed were the happiest of his life.

These companions and assistants were largely youths of exceptional good looks and hunting talent: Idris in Sudan; Faris in Syria; bin Ghabaisha, whom he compared to Hadrian's Antinous, and bin Kabina in Arabia, each of whom he lovingly photographed.

In the 1950s, a troupe of four teenaged Arabs, including the handsome Amara, lived with Thesiger in a floating reed hut where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet. They would massage him each evening, as was the tradition among the Marsh land Arabs of Iraq. Later, in Maralal, Kenya, he lived with Erope, Lawi, and Lopago, a bodyguard with whom he shared his bed.

Travel Writing

Both Arabian Sands and The Marsh Arabs are now regarded as classics of travel writing, praised for their economy of style and acuity of observation. They have had a lasting impact beyond the works of his contemporaries, including his arch-rival, Jan Morris, and even Thesiger's own later books.

While on the surface the writing in these books seems plodding and dry, it memorably conveys the sustained emotional need of each journey. The books therefore leave an indelible impression of Thesiger's heroic and dignified personal struggle to identify with pre-industrial societies.

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