Dutch diplomat falls for Saudi Bedouin lifestyle
To Dutch diplomat Paul Marcel Kurpershoek, the desert is a land filled with poetry, beauty and literature
To many, the desert may seem to be a vast and barren land where nothing more than cacti and sand dunes dot the landscape. However, to Dutch diplomat and Orientalist Paul Marcel Kurpershoek, the desert is a land filled with poetry and literature, one that harbors the “most good-natured” and “poetic” people in the world – the Bedouins.
“I think it is very beautiful, very bright and there are no obstacles [blocking] the stars. You can go long distances and meet Bedouin people with their camels and tents,” Kurpershoek told Al Arabiya English.
“They are very hospitable and have beautiful language and poetry. They are good natured people – it’s just like a dream.”
Kurpershoek was born in The Hague in the Netherlands, graduating from Leiden University where he studied Arabic Philosophy. He then went on to work in diplomatic missions in Damascus and Cairo before becoming the ambassador for the Netherlands in Saudi Arabia between 1986 and 1990.
“I like the adventure and going out and discovering and I was the only one, no one was studying it. I thought this was something unique I discovered and I can really do a discovery and translate it and write books about it and then I will be the first,” the former Dutch diplomat said.
Kurpershoek’s first encounter with a desert-filled country was not as he had hoped and studied. When he arrived in Egypt, he was taken aback by the traffic and overly-crowded streets.
“When I came [to Cairo] it was very different from what I thought because I had gone through a 19th century book expecting as such – so it was a disappointment; a lot of people, very crowded and traffic…not so poetic,” he said.
“Then I came to Riyadh and at the time it was a small population, there was a lot of desert and a lot of tribes and different scenery and you just have to drive a little distance from Riyadh and you are in the desert.”
Kurpershoek, who joined New York University in Abu Dhabi in 2015 as a Senior Research Fellow in the Humanities Research Fellowship Program, found the Saudi capital to be more aligned with his expectations.
“All the people don’t feel isolated in the offices or in their homes, they sit outside in a group and discuss all kinds of things and speak poetry! At every meeting, poetry is normal, and they have very interesting poetry about history and nature.”
Kurpershoek, also known as “the messenger” due to his first name [Marcel] sounding like the Arabic word for messenger, has a documentary on Al Arabiya News channel called “The Last Traveler” in which he recalls his expeditions of various Saudi deserts.
“It’s my homeland... I sometimes regard myself a Bedouin,” he says in the documentary.
"When I'm in the Netherlands during winter season and it gets dark and people are in a hurry to go to their work, my thoughts take me back to the Al-Nefud desert and the Arabian Peninsula.”
Many Westerners would never consider living in the harsh atmosphere, under the heat of the sun, but Kurpershoek views the Bedouin lifestyle as a poetic and beautiful one.
“I think what I like about the Bedouin is that they – as I see it and I don’t think they are aware of it – live in harmony with nature and they live in a sustainable environment because everything in the desert is scarce. There is very little water and very little pasture, so you have very little trees or palm trees and so on,” he said.
“They like this environment in spite of its hostile [nature], they manage this very well and it was hard but also beautiful. Because of this combination of beauty and harshness, this makes you feel more alive, makes you appreciate life more.”