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“Sahib, you are no longer a guest . . . You are one of the family”: Wilfred Thesiger and the ‘Problem’ of Participant Observation


Northampton University

Hussein bin Talal University


This article examines Wilfred Thesiger’s second text The Marsh Arabs (1964) through the prism of participant observation. More specifically, we explore the, at times, complex self-depiction of Thesiger’s relationship with the Madan tribes’ people. Thesiger’s rapport with the Madan, we argue, offers a decidedly more nuanced engagement than might at first appear. Indeed, while it is possible to read Thesiger’s account of his time in the southern area of Iraq in The Marsh Arabs as adhering to many of the established and entrenched critical ideas concerning the behaviour of Western explorers in the Middle East (imperialist nostalgia, the trope of self-discovery, romanticism), the text also allows for less ‘conventional’ readings. Though Thesiger, like his predecessors, intended both to reify and narrativize the Arabs, thereby documenting their lives for an occidental audience, his first hand engagement with the Madan gives rise to a host of paradoxes that create a more balanced account of this vanishing people’s way of life.

Keywords: Participant observation, Wilfred Thesiger, Arabia, the Marsh Arabs, Orientalism



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