(Photo courtesy of Sally Harrison)
I’ll begin with a kind of health warning. I’ve only seen a snapshot of desert people; a tiny fragment of time, sanitised for western tastes, and separated to some degree from real-life concerns. I am fully aware that some truly dreadful things happen in these parts of the world. And the same is true the world over; good and bad have always lain side by side.
I’m not sure where my fascination with the desert came from, perhaps the film Lawrence of Arabia, watched whilst sprawling on the rug in front of the t.v. as a teenager, or maybe nature documentaries or wild-west desert canyons in western movies. In my more romantic moments, I imagine I have an affinity with the desert. I am fascinated by how plants, animals and humans survive in such conditions. And it’s more than a cognitive thing. It’s a heart thing, too.
My first contact with anything approaching the aridity of the desert was a holiday to Cyprus in my late teens, stunned by the hair-dryer heat as we got off the plane. I had never been anywhere so hot, or so different. I adored the exotic surroundings, prickly pears at the roadside, misshapen trees alone in the middle of a beige-baked landscape, and slow moving locals with impossible loads on the backs of donkeys. I felt like I had come home. I cried when I had to leave and, on my return to my physical home, I attempted to learn Greek from a tiny book, determined that I would go back and live there. It was a short-lived dream in the ‘real-world’ of exams, universities, jobs, careers.
Every holiday since that includes dry heat and rugged landscapes, invokes a wistful comment to my husband. “I should have been born somewhere like this; somewhere hot and wild.”
My first visit to a ‘real’ desert started out as a bit of a disappointment. In my mind were rolling, deep-red sand dunes, fluttering, dark nomadic tents, Omar Sharif in full tribal gear…you get the picture. What I got, in Sinai, was a landscape that looked like a quarry, stone and palm-frond huts, and a small man in jeans and t-shirt driving a huge 4×4. Not the kind of place you fall in love with, and yet I did.
The desert creeps up on you. It captures something deep inside.
I’ve just returned from a trip to a different desert, a different tribal people and yet the similarities are striking. This time the desert, in Saharan Morocco, was picture-postcard perfect; dunes, tents and mysterious men with dark eyes—you know the ones, swathed in deep blue turbans…ahem! Our guide greeted us at Marrakech airport wearing a bright yellow turban, striding through the crowds and turning heads from every direction. So easy to fall in love with the place. And I cried again when I left—my heart broken wide open by the desert.
From the perspective of this second visit, I can see what I missed first time around—well, I didn’t so much miss it, as I couldn’t define it. This time I felt it all, consciously. Last time I was asleep to what I was feeling. My body and heart knew but my mind had so many layers in the way.
The desert, to me, means freedom—some of which comes from, paradoxically, the restrictions that the desert imposes. So many of our social conventions imprison us but they’re so automatic that we don’t notice. In our desert camp, unsurprisingly, water was scarce, so the water was switched off between 6pm and 6am. The showers were basic and the water trickled. One day we had no water at all because the sand-storm cut the power. No water, no washing, no problem. Wet wipes cover the basic necessities, three minutes of a job. The desert heat and the local dress code meant that loose comfortable clothing, covering arms and legs freed me from social pressures of ‘attractive’ clothing, holiday swimwear, when you’re a, let’s say, robust, older woman, and the hassle of smothering sun cream everywhere. It’s a very small step, then, to let go of other conventions; make-up, mobile devices, running to a schedule. Even on holiday, schedules can dominate.
During my first trip to a desert, I was all wrapped up in doing. It took a while to drop into just being and even then my mind couldn’t recognise it for what it was. I could label this feeling ‘contentment’ but I couldn’t identify its source other than ‘the desert’. All the desert people I have met, admittedly a tiny proportion of the whole, live their life in the moment. There’s a general idea of what an activity, a day, or even a whole week might involve, but it is lightly held and can change at the drop of a head scarf. There was nothing in our Moroccan schedule about henna tattoos, but, out of our fascination with the decorated feet of two of the Berber women, came a slow, wonderful afternoon. The dining area, enclosed with hanging blankets from the previous day’s sandstorm, became an artist’s studio and a women’s retreat. The young woman henna artist, worked for hours as more and more of us were drawn to the ritual. The money she earned in an unexpected afternoon’s work would see her family secure for some time. This lightness of being leads to flexibility and joy.
In this space it is easy to feel the joy. From both desert trips, the images and sounds that tumble and jostle in my mind are joyous. There were two Bedu men who danced, every part of their bodies holding the rhythm, laughing and giggling together. A Berber man drumming, who, in a trance within seconds of his hands touching the skins, seemed to be listening to another dimension. Delight in the first wobbly steps of kittens out from behind their nest between the drums. Drinking tea in the shade in companionable silence—two Bedu men, two British women. Berber women dancing, joy in their bodies, in the shelter of the dance tent, or in a music shop off the Jemaa el-Fnaa, drawn in off the square by the sound of the drums. Silence on the Saharan sand dunes at sunrise. The taxi driver, who brought us to the camp—supposed to return to Marrakech but who stayed for the rest of the week—dancing beside the campfire. Walkers sitting in the shade of a tamarind tree in the near-to-midday heat. When one makes the space to be, the joy is very close to the surface.
The desert is ferocious too, a fearsome place, as can be its people. That walk on the desert margins in the late morning heat, showed me my physical limits, and how a little bit of adaptation and being in the moment turns an ordeal into something joyful. The sand, in shadow, was cool, the light dappled, the breeze a blessing, and the company gentle. My fears, the first time in the desert, were vague and projected out onto the unfamiliar all around. This time my fears were specific and owned by me. Take care in the sun. Be more physically fit next time. Respect local customs; old ladies do not like their photographs being taken, however accidentally, and will hurl a stone unless persuaded otherwise.
(Photo courtesy of Sally Harrison)
A deep ache, which I didn’t know that the desert people soothed, until I returned home this time, was my need for community. Take a look at the photo above. Do you see how their shoulders touch? How their heads are close together in sharing breakfast? When they’re drumming, or watching others perform, it’s the same. Sinai or the Sahara it’s the same. Conversations around a campfire, both joyful and sorrowful, they’re shared. This one is hard to describe in pictures and sounds. It’s a feeling, a homecoming.
Throughout it all runs a deep code of generosity and courtesy. Once you are a guest, desert people will do everything in their power to meet your needs. It distresses them to imagine that something you need is amiss. Of course, this is a two-way deal; respect is required in both directions.
The most joyous thing on my recent trip was that this time I got to meet desert women in a setting other than being sold jewellery. Both settings, though, challenged my stereotypes. In Sinai, the women had mini businesses in their own right, selling jewellery, scarves and embroidered goods. We saw them in twos and threes on the beaches and at the side of roads hitchhiking. The older women were treated with respect, listened to, escorted carefully down a stony slope. In Morocco the women on the staff were vibrant, confident women with strong voices and such a joy in life. They joined in the drumming with the men and, from what I could tell via body language and voice tone, demanded their share of the performance. They are direct, forthright and take no messing. They are not hidden away, nor meek and mild, despite their veils.
It is too easy, in a world dominated by a few huge corporate media organisations, to believe there is only one kind of people in the Middle East or North Africa—hardened terrorists and their downtrodden women. In truth, it is an intricate weaving, with the desert people and their land at the foundation.