Two decades ago in Dubai, at a weekend, a friend phoned me at home and asked me to see his house guest. I was not on call but instantly agreed when he told me that his house guest was none other than the celebrated explorer Wilfred Thesiger.
My friend was Dubai’s biggest publisher; he had already published a string of Thesiger’s books and Thesiger was in Dubai promoting his latest. I was a physician working in, at that time, Dubai’s only British clinic.
As I drove to the clinic I recalled how faintly jealous I had been when a colleague told me that he had once spotted Thesiger at Heathrow – and here I was, about to actually meet him.
There was no mistaking the great man; he was in his eighties, radiating a palpably patrician aura. Over six feet tall; ramrod straight, a fine head of grey hair, a prominent Roman nose and eyes that twinkled unlike any I had ever seen. He wore a three-piece, Harris-Tweed Victorian suit, a white shirt with a stiff collar, regulation one-inch cuffs with gold links and a club tie; unusual in hot and humid Dubai.
After a brief chat we got down to business and I took his medical history. His spartan life had served him well. He had lived a simple life among the Bedouin for years, near starvation at times, but never puffing on a hookah and scorning alcohol. He had been taken aback when, a few years before we met, he was diagnosed as having cancer of the large bowel. In his own words: ‘I was surprised when the surgeon told me I had a tumour and he would have to cut out a length of my colon. “Please go ahead,” I said to him; “I’d rather be a semi-colon than a full stop, any day.” ’
We met several times socially, usually when I was invited to book-promotions. I quizzed him about his medical experiences because on expeditions he was the only one with a smattering of medical knowledge. Evidently he relied on aspirin tablets, administered with a great deal of medical propaganda. He was also an amateur dentist and always carried a pair of pliers so that if, in a remote area, somebody developed a severe toothache he could take out the tooth. His technique was to sit with his legs splayed; the patient would lie between his legs with his head resting on Thesiger’s lap, open his mouth, and the tooth would be seized with the pliers and then, with a rocking movement, extracted. There was no anaesthesia, but the patient, surrounded by his gawking pals, would not make so much as a murmur.
Once when we were on a boat cruising down Dubai Creek towards the Gulf he banged on, as was his wont, about how the discovery of oil had spoiled the Arabs, made them soft and slaves to all the decadent West had on offer. He recalled times when he sailed from Dubai to Karachi on a dhow, slept on the hard deck beneath the stars and took delight in surviving the fierce storms of the Arabian Sea. He hated cars, aeroplanes, refrigerators and all the other trappings we can’t live without these days.
Our last meeting was, again, in my consulting room. He had a painful foot. He took off his shoe and sock and lay on the couch. It did not test my clinical acumen to make a diagnosis; he had an exquisitely tender corn. I took a sterile scalpel and carefully pared away thin layers of the corn until the skin was supple and the corn pain-free. He put on his sock and shoe, stamped on the floor, smiled broadly, and declared, ‘Marvellous! Now I’ll be able to go for that walk in the Abu Dhabi desert tomorrow with Charles.’ Yes, that Charles.