A few weeks ago, we had a sand storm that lasted for days. The situation made me claustrophobic. The sand was closing in — making it hard to see, drive and breathe.
I felt panicky enough to take a tiny dose of Xanax, a medication I no longer seem to need on airplanes. (Though that may change back.) The thought of going into the desert at some point during our time here was no longer appealing.
Still, I couldn’t stop thinking about Wilfred Thesiger — the lesser known T.E. Lawrence. My Syrian pal Khadijah Kudsi gave me a book about him shortly after we arrived in Abu Dhabi.
Sir Thesiger was the first western person to cross the eastern sands of The Empty Quarter by camel. The Empty Quarter is the second largest desert in the world and as its name implies — there is NOTHING OUT THERE. Thesiger rode in the company of Bedouin companions and actually made the four-month journey TWICE. First in 1946, and again in 1947.
If you know me at all, then you know that I am compelled to do what scares me most. (Like becoming a parent, which is terrifying, and then dragging that child around the terrifying world.) Although I wasn’t about to imitate Sir Thesiger, I could at least go to the edges of the Empty Quarter and look in. The lyrics of Sting’s song “Desert Rose,” in the back of my mind, and this line in particular:
I dream of love as time runs through my hand.
As I near two very daunting anniversaries — one marking the loss of my sweet step-brother and the other of my beloved father — Sting’s lyric resonates and ricochets around my brain. A brain that may very well be running out of time, too.
Online, I discovered a desert-oasis resort called the Qasr Al Sarab, located in the Lewa Desert, which marks the beginning of the Empty Quarter. I booked it for this weekend, and then told my family. David perked up when I told him that the upcoming Star Wars’ movie was filmed in the Lewa Desert.
We left at noon yesterday for the 2.5 hour drive in the direction of Saudi Arabia. As the city gave way to sand, I began to see what enthralled Lawrence and Thesiger. The dunes change colors, like the sea, with the sunlight. More peaceful than the water, yet no less dangerous. I imagine a sand storm out here would rival the sheer terror of a hurricane at sea.
I had to laugh when we passed a cardboard sign advertising FISH 4 SALE, especially since I’m considering turning my middle-aged life in the Middle East into a book called “Fish Out of Water.”
We arrived at Qasr Al Sarab to a Bedouin welcome of camel milk and dates. The setting, smack dab in the middle of nowhere, was too stunning to comprehend. So we settled in at the swimming pool for a few hours before dinner.
As the sun set, we headed out to experience perhaps one of the most unique dining experience in the world. A meal in the desert, on Bedu carpets, under the stars. We lounged for hours as our courses were delivered. At one point I was prone on the Bedu bedding, enjoying the fire and the wind sweeping across the dunes. Normally I don’t enjoy long languid meals, but if you can nap between courses then I’m game! (By the way, we ate game.)
Perhaps the best part was that David, Allan and I sat together for three hours. Sometimes talking; sometimes silent. No tv. No electricity. No emails. We took a few pictures, but the darkness didn’t translate.
I went back the next morning to get a photo of the site in daylight. Beautifully sparse. An Empty Quarter unto itself, but full of meaning and memories for us. Maybe that’s the secret to the desert and the Bedouin — emptiness is fulfilling.
As we drove home today, I was surprised to find myself reluctant to leave what I had once feared. I have come to love the desert as much as the sea. And, just as we left the Lewa Desert, the memory of Thesiger paid us a visit in the form of dozens upon dozens of camels walking along the highway — into the Empty Quarter.
We also happened upon the Emirates National Auto Museum, also in the Middle of Nowhere. The place is odder than just about any place I’ve ever seen. A giant Land Rover on stilts. A colossal three-story tank-style mobile home. A Mercedes on gigundus jeep wheels. And a huge colorful globe on truck-size tires in the parking lot.
I imagined pulling the world behind our car as we explored the larger one. A meta-metaphor for Thesiger, and me.