“Here at last I was plunging into the untraversed and the unknown. What lay ahead? It was not the possible dangers of the journey which made my nerves tingle and caused my spirits to mount with exhilaration — dangers are merely a part of the day’s work in the desert. It was the realization that I was to explore hidden places; that I should go through a region hitherto untrodden by one of my own kind, and make, perhaps, some contribution, small though it might be, to the sum of human knowledge.” – Crossing the untraversed Libyan desert, by A.M. Hassanein, for the National Geographic.
Reading Ahmed Mohamed Hassanein’s article, I grew sad, then a particular brand of anger I know too well started to build up – just like a sand storm in the desert, twisting the sands and rising from the feet up until it’s as high as your head, as Hassanein rightly described – and reaching my head, the mind started to boil with ideas.
In my mind’s eye, I saw myself researching and retracing the Egyptian explorer’s steps on a paper map (Google Earth is beautiful to look at, but confuses me. I find paper, in all its forms, romantic. Books, journals, folded maps, nothing can beat this for me). I drew my own route in my head, and wondered who to sell the story to if I ever do an encore. Would the Nat Geo be interested? the Voice that lived in my head asked.
Then nothing. Silence. All the lights were turned off in my head. The mountains disappeared. A starless, moonless night suddenly loomed. And the anger that had almost morphed into a driving passion faded. And suddenly, my little dreams turned from oases to mirage, illusions. Depression trickled in.
It could easily be my mood; it changes you know. And this phase is dark (I’m learning to live with it). Suddenly, the left side of my brain started awakening from its slumber, bombarding me with considerations, resources being the first of them. The “company” question was next in line. Money and people are always tricky, the right side of my brain agreed almost reluctantly. But in an afterthought added, “you just need to decide, start planning, and the universe will take care of the rest.” The left-side let out a snort. The voice in my head interfered, and the argument was three-sided now.
I personally disengaged. It was too much to take in, and if I get truly depressed, I’ll just leave all and go to sleep.
So I took off to that lonely cave in my brain, and started to think. I’ll blog while I’ll do it. My blog is part of that cave, where I go to when I’m lonely, when friends and even the most special of people seem at a distance, on the other bank of a river which has no boats, and whose water is dark and treacherous.
And here I am. And right now, finishing an article written in 1920s with no glossing of how cruel the desert is but also not hiding how beautiful it is, I have a profound hatred for the modern traps of social life. My distaste for Twitter and Facebook alike are increasing, and my boredom with those who inhabit only those spheres is scaring even myself (then again, Tweetville was where I ran to when I felt lonely, inspired, happy or betrayed).
But now I feel it’s part of this monster, the city. It’s another illusion, a trap on three levels a la Inception dreams, full of faceless people who are just as lost as I am, or perhaps as lonely, people who can’t enjoy the moment without tweeting about it. Don’t get me wrong, some of those people are the most inspiring and successful I’ve met. But some have equated virtual presence with presence, or have decided to add to the “noise”. But this is not a blog about Twitter, its curses or virtues. And it’s not fair to bash one of the few places where I can truly share — as sad as this may be.
The road to Al-Kufrah.
I’ve been considering it, even before knowing A.M. Hassanein had been there. And now that I have read his accounts, it seems all the more magical. I wondered what the place looks like now, almost 90 years later, and whether tribes still hold fast to their traditions, alliances and secrets. Or whether like the era when that article was written, it all faded away, and now you have Bedouins with Nokia cell phones. Ugh, damn those too! (The phones, not the Bedouins)
It was sad to read about the Senussi brotherhood, knowing that most of them were destroyed by the Italians. In the early 1900s, they were still inhabiting part of the Western desert in Egypt, mainly in the oases (wahat) of al-Bahariya, Dakhla, Farafara and Siwa. They led campaigns against the British military, and at a point were defeated and had to withdraw into Libya. In the Libyan desert, they took sanctuary but similarly resisted the Italian forces until the early 40s, and like Libyans, they endured much damage. Their lodges and Sufi orders were closed, their sheikhs killed or arrested and their lands confiscated. The order still stands, according to records, but it’s now a pale shadow of its past prestige and glory.
It’s a bit of history of the Bedu that we don’t know. City people often call them “Arabs” or “‘Orban” – an alienating term and a reminder that they hailed from the Arabian peninsula. Not “pharoahs” like us, but Arabs. Different. “Colored” perhaps. Not “fair” (and lovely) like us.
But again, the people who live there are only part of the magic. The main charm lies in the stretch of desert itself, with all the kind of “silences” that Saint-Exupery had once described in his Letter to a Hostage, which alluded to his trips in the Sahara.
It’s the desert pulling you into its arms, with heart-warming scenery, in one moment, and pushing you away into a depth of a menacing storm, or your own hallucinations when the water supply is low and the sun is high, in the next. For you see, the desert is a woman, one you couldn’t love but would have died to. It’s Earth. It’s life. It’s that slightly moody, intensely charming man you were once in love with. It’s your soul, and mine, with all their fluctuations, mystic and elusiveness.
Hassanein wrote at some point: “One day we had to advance in the teeth of the storm, and I saw how it could keep moving slowly. To stop means to be drowned by the sand. The camels instinctively know this and continue to advance in site of the tormenting blast. On the other hand, the moment the rain comes they stop and even kneel down. During my previous travels I had collected many of the rules of sandstorms and their behavior, according to Bedouin information, but to my great regret, they were all broken in those days of trial. Sometimes, however, toward sunset, when we had been battling for hours against the seemingly interminable bombardment, the wind would stop dead, as if a master hand had given a signal. For an hour or more the fine sand and dust would settle slowly, like a falling mist. A short while afterward the moon would rise, and under the pale magic of its flooding light the desert would assume a new aspect. Had there been a sandstorm? Who could remember? Could this peaceful expanse of loveliness ever be cruel? Who would believe it?”
What strikes me about Hassanein’s writing is the ease by which he recounts his stories and records his findings. No (imaginary) frantic arm-waving or loudness in the story-telling, or magnification of dangers. He describes life and death matters – including being too short on water, losing camels which are like caravan members to them, losing the way, being caught in a storm or trekking for too long that death becomes a welcome thought- with such simplicity that the reader cannot be but awed.
Courage and resilience, it seems, cannot be spoken of but in small words. Big words are saved for the pretentious, and those who have nothing to say. Those who begin their stories with gasps of “Oh my God!” or “You would never believe what just happened.” Danger, adventure and accomplishment are not dramatic when they’re real. They’re only so when they’re mimicked and staged in big Hollywood flicks, or jotted down in resumes and boasted about in Twitter and Facebook bios.
Towards the end of his journey, after discovering two Oases, whose locations were not previously verified and so had become “half-mythical” in reputation, Hassanein’s caravan faces more difficulty on the return. Water supplies were little and the trek as well as the terrain were more difficult. “There was more than one night when I thought the desert would reclaim its secret of the hidden oases by blotting out our little party and swallowing us in the sands.”
However, the desert spared them, and “the heart of him who wandered into far places” was gladdened upon the return.
Indeed, that must be how “happiness” feels, that elusive notion, happiness, that only those who have been stripped of all (sleep, security, basic needs like food and water, a comfortable bed or a warm night without the fear of distant tribes or nearing storms) can only feel in the reunion with those simple pleasures.
Listening to: the humming of the air-conditioner in my room
Mood: indescribable, but a little calmer post-venting
Wants from the universe: Travel, Write, Publish. Love, Live, Be Loved. Repeat.