We reach our first camp several hours later. Mbarak, a Bedouin, is waiting with a smoke-blackened teapot simmering over a stick fire. He drives out in his Land Rover each afternoon to a prearranged place where he builds a fire, spreads the woven plastic groundsheet and prepares an end-of-day feast. I sip hot tea and scribble my notes while Jason treks off to shoot the sunset.
When darkness falls Mbarak grills large sections of chicken over the open fire, with whole tomatoes and onions crisped in their skins. We eat it with our hands off pita bread that had been laid directly onto the smoldering ashes to warm, interspersed with dips into the hummus bowl and sips of sweet tea, a Bedouin specialty.
I spread my sleeping bag on the barren ground and wrap the kouffieh around my mouth and nose as protection against sand and insects. I love the tranquility of the chill desert night, when my companions are asleep and the camels are still. I lie on my back as the others snore and stare at the dome of the sky, making elaborate wishes whose fruition depends upon spotting the steady slide of a satellite across the starscattered void. At times like this I feel as though I’m the sole consciousness in that vast and silent space.
The night brings strange dreams. I see the faces of people I hadn’t thought about or seen for 20 years. I continue deep conversations with a pretty girl I’d met earlier on the trip. I wake up and for a moment I can’t remember where I am; the camp is obscured by the ragged edges of the dreams still inside my head. It’s like that every night in the desert. The longer we’re out there, the more the dividing line between the night world and the day continues to unravel. The land causes mirages of thought as readily as it does visual hallucinations.
The next morning, after a light breakfast of pita bread, sweet halal, cheese and tea, we load the camels and set out. I like to walk for the first two hours of the day, when the sand is still cool and the morning light is like liquid, leading my camel and letting him pause to grab mouthfuls of clover or to rip shoots off a twiggy saltbush plant.
We have no agenda short of reaching that night’s camp. Our sole purpose is to experience the desert as the Bedouin had, to travel as they did and to soak it all up.
Midday is the time for riding, when the afternoon sun is like a hammer on the anvil of the parched desert floor and we the tinnitus of its blows. As we ride I begin to read the surface of the sand like a book. The comings and goings of red fox crisscross our trail. A flock of sheep leaves close-cropped grasses and a turmoil of footprints that churn up the darker sand just below the ochre surface. A snake has passed by on its winding way, and the land bears witness to the flight and final convulsions of a tiny mouse that has fallen victim to a hawk.
The traces of travellers are evident, too. Their Vibram soles contrast sharply with the simple sandals or bare feet of their Bedouin guides.
The desert teems with nocturnal life and each morning tells a new story. The wind rises in the afternoon and by lunchtime it’s whipping up a sandstorm that veils the nearby rock formations in flowing lace. I wrap my kouffieh tighter around my face as the gusts race towards us across the flats. The desert lashes us with sheets of stinging sand and grit, flaying our exposed hands and choking our lungs. We bow our heads and ride on as the storm’s solid hand shoves the camels and causes them to stumble. The wind continues to build until the land to the north is completely swallowed by an angry black void. I whip up Azaran and we gallop south through a brown-filtered land, racing ahead of the advancing darkness to make camp beside a tall rock formation cradled by leafy junipers.
Sheltered from the wind, the four of us gather around a large platter of m’gloubah—rice, chicken sections, potatoes and chunks of red pepper. We pour goat’s yogurt over our portion of the communal platter, work the rice into compact balls and then pop them into our mouths with thumb and middle finger. We peel the flesh from the succulent chickens and hurl the bones over our shoulders into the empty night. “The foxes will eat it when we leave here,” Mbarak says, licking rice from his hands. “It’s very satisfying, throwing the bones,” I say. “I wish I could do that at home.” “In the desert you are free. You can do what you want. It isn’t like that in the village. In the village everyone knows your business.” “Out here I am Bedouin” Raad says, standing up tall and echoing Mbarak’s sympathies. The wind dies out as the light fades from the sky, but the dust hangs in the air. I drift to sleep that night beneath a coffee-stain moon, with the camels belching and grunting nearby. Mbarak is right. I feel completely free.