The White Desert was an alien-looking landscape studded with weird limestone formations that eroded at the slightest touch. After clambering around the spires and mushrooms we found ourselves covered in a fine white dust that got into every corner and coated every surface. The sun was beginning to set, casting everything in a liquid golden sheen. After taking a lot of pictures we began driving through the desert again.
It became obvious that we were doing a quick tour of every notable rock formation. We were getting pretty tired at this point, covered in limestone and sand. Jacob quipped after the third or fourth stop that if it was another rock he wasn't even going to bother getting out of the car. The Chicken was a pretty funny resemblance, though, and that was worth seeing.
Finally, we pulled up in front of a large, flattish rock and the drivers maneuvered the cars together to form a makeshift windbreak. While we watched the sun blaze down towards the horizon and the moon rise out of the purple sky, the guides began to set up our camp. The funny thing was that standing atop this rock we could see at least 6 or 7 other groups of cars doing the exact same thing, and yet we felt utterly alone out among the rocks and sand. The sky is amazing out there – it just seems infinitely bigger than any sky even on the top of a mountain – the desert sky is an element unto itself.
The guides set up carpets hung against the cars and on the ground and built a firepit in the ground. It was actually a roofless tent – what's the point of a roof when there's no rain? We sat around and ate yosteffendi(mandarins, I think), and discussed various points of racism and religion. It was an engaging although somewhat depressing conversation. Finally, dinner was ready.
It was easily one of the top five meals of my life – perhaps it was the onions and spices rub in the chicken, perhaps the setting, or perhaps the maxim that “Hunger is the best spice.” Whatever the reason, chicken, rice, and potato stew have never tasted so good. Everything was hot and savory, and only Jay was unable to eat – his stomach was upset and he retired early. I think I must have eaten a half-pound of rice and a whole chicken.
Afterwards came the inevitable – the guides inviting us to sit by the fire, sipping tea and smoking shisha. Saeed, the head guide, had actually disassembled his waterpipe and brought it out into the desert with him - I guess they can't live without it. Naguib brought out his tabla(basically a hand-drum), and they began to sing Arab desert songs and play away. It was really an incredible moment, just listening to the rhythms and the cigarette cured voices under the brilliant light of the full moon.
Saeed started a sort of question game where we would ask him questions about his life in Arabic, and he would respond in kind. It got going once we overcame our initial shyness, and had a bit of fun at his expense about his girlfriend back in Cairo. Then he passed the torch to me, and I had to endure an Arabic grilling from the guides and my fellows. It was tough, but I was proud of the moment where Naguib asked me “What do you love in life,” and I responded – in Arabic - “Strong coffee in the morning, good work during the day and my best friends in the evening.” It's satisfying to express real thoughts coherently in Arabic.
Naguib kept hollering these names out into the desert as he sang, and at first I thought he was just kidding around, saying “If only Ahmed so-and-so were here.” As it turned out, he was really yelling to some friends of his out in a (relatively) nearby campsite. So these 5 or 6 Arab men materialized out of the moonlight; from a long way off they appeared like shadowy raiders attacking our camp.
They sat around the fire and brought a big bass drum, and then they really launched into their celebration. A fat man began to bellydance in the middle of the circle of men, using his kaffiyeh as a prop. He brought us into the circle and we danced around the fire and tried to sing along.
At one point, they asked us to sing American songs. We found that between us, we could barely manage Yellow Submarine and I Will Survive, as well as a somewhat pathetic rendition of Wonderwall. In contrast, all the Arabs knew several folk songs and could at least sing the chorus of everything that they tried. Most of the songs were pretty simple, though, along the lines of “Habibi, habibi, habibi...hiya tuhib shai shaheeda.” Which is basically “ My love, my love, my love...she likes strong tea.”
Finally, after more dancing, singing, tea, shisha, games and conversation, we fell to sleep under the stars and the moon. It was almost like early morning in how bright the light was – the full moon seemed like a glowing hole in the blue-black dome of the sky. The whole thing was an incredible experience, seeing how the desert culture works. Without women around, the men dance and joke with each other in an incredibly free way, although they are drawn like magnets to the women with us. They all seem to have a real sense of cultural solidarity – knowing the same songs, the same jokes.
The feel of the desert has something to do with it as well. The emptiness, the sky, the wild sands and stones all contribute to the feeling of being very alone in a vast world. I can only imagine what it must have been like to live your entire life among these dunes and oases, and how that would affect your culture and religion. It's a harsh land, and we experienced only a tiny fraction of its power. Nevertheless, it has made a people who are hospitable in the extreme – never have I felt so welcomed into a group as that night out in the White Desert.
(Next time: The Journey Home; Thanks to Claire Marie-Hefner for the last picture!)