We drove an hour by road to the frontier town of al-Uman, and just before reaching the customs booths turned onto the flat desert, following tire tracks running parallel with the border. This excursion was especially fascinating because it took us into an entirely new sub-region devoid of the usual basalt rock landscapes.
A plateau system of chalk white cliffs, known by the local Bedouin as ad-Thahek (meaning “the one who laughs” because the pale rock is said to resemble teeth), was the first landmark we encountered.
We scaled the plateau with our truck, then drove back down a wadi on the other side, heading westward into a hazy, dreamlike landscape punctuated by the odd palm tree and flat-topped monoliths. The unmarked Saudi border loomed a few kilometres to our right.
“We are in an area called al-Hazem,” Abu’l Shalaan said, with a mild sense of trepidation. “You’ll find here many border patrols because lots of smugglers come this way at night.”
“What are these smugglers carrying?” I asked.
“The usual,” he replied. “Hashish from Lebanon, cigarettes—anything you want. They make a lot of money because the demand for many things in Saudi is high. But if they’re caught, especially on the other side of that border, God help them!”