My first view of the Arabian Desert emerged through the window of our plane as we approached the Riyadh airport. It was mid-February 2000, and my husband, Bishara, and I were travelling from Washington, DC with several small American firms exploring joint venture possibilities with Saudi companies. My heart and mind were open to a life enriching adventure, the gleaming beige panorama holding the promise of a new, intriguing, chapter in our lives, away from what had become a chaotic, impersonal, and routine existence in Washington, DC. The stretch of luminous sand transmuted, assimilating a smattering of cream colored concrete homes with flat roofs, and eventually looming glass-draped skyscrapers as we advanced to the landing strip.
Having secured employment as the Management & Financial Reporting Supervisor at esteemed King Faisal Specialist Hospital, a 1,500 bed, 8,000 employee medical complex in the Kingdom’s capital, subsequent to months of missteps and travails, my first days in Riyadh were preoccupied with the tedious tasks of completing interminable paperwork and trotting back and forth to Family Medicine for requisite shots and medical tests. My zeal for living in this unconventional locale waning under the weight of the bureaucratic challenge and palpable disinterest of my new boss, I oscillated between questioning if we had made the right move while finalizing hefty drifts of administrative forms, and reflections of a simpler, more definitive time in the U.S. among family and friends.
Wrestling with guilt surrounding my insistence the previous year over pursuing a life in the Arabian Peninsula, my mind wandered to recollections of Bishara drumming on his tablah and teaching our DC friends my nouveau form of belly dancing on weekends; “map-less” prolonged drives into the scenic countryside of West Virginia, pups cradled in my arms, heads popping out the car window; and tender Thanksgiving visits to family, aroma trails of baking turkey and stuffing floating through the house. Reaching further back, my thoughts rested on childhood trips on California coastal highways and cross-country drives inaugurated with the stark deserts and canyon lands of the southwest.
Adolescent memories of the Grand Canyon, Painted Desert, and Four Corners, while daubed with a sense of novelty, were somewhat muted due to the austerity and stillness of the landscape. Years later, as a young adult, the harshness and desolation of America’s desert buttes and mesas acquired an ethereal quality; an appreciation for these exceptional formations, spawned over millions, and billions, of years, by nature’s slow yet relentless forces of rivers, wind, rain, sedimentation, and ice. When visiting Bryce Canyon, Zion Park, and the Grand Canyon, joined together by the effects of weather, tectonic activity, and water to form the “Grand Staircase,” I connected to the earliest times of earth’s creation through the Vishnu Basement rocks of the Grand Canyon and the Claron Formation rock layer that shapes the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon.
Halfway around the globe, the Arab Peninsula is girdled by its own geological design, the Arabian Desert, dominated largely by Rub’al-Khali (“Empty Quarter” located in southeast Saudi Arabia), the largest uninterrupted sand field in the world. Although fortified by tectonic plates and sedimentation in its evolution, the desert and dunes of the Arab states are often aligned with a cultural sentiment, roaming sheepherders and tents, and, unfortunately, recently a more sinister perspective, rather than as a topographical curiosity. Before arriving in the Arab Gulf in late 2000, I, along with many of my western family and friends, envisioned an abundance of camels, goats, sand, and Bedouins, not the glittering high-rise towers that litter downtown Riyadh and Doha, and other urban centers of the region.
Following intense workweeks fixated on financial reports at King Faisal Hospital, Wednesday afternoons were filled with anticipatory gratification at the prospect of piling into our green jeep the next morning, the weekend, our boom box loaded with popular Arabic music (Nancy Ajram and Said Murad), mixed mezzah contribution in the backseat, and pups positioned on my lap. Heeding the instructions of a fellow expatriate, excursion director for the day, we and a convoy of several other cars met at the appointed location, conveyed our cursory greetings, and drove, single file, to an awaiting exploit in the quiescent desert.
One of our first destinations, “Edge of the World,” required a roughly two hour drive outside Riyadh, and was so named due to the precipitous drop following a continuous stony plateau etched with tread markings, Salt Bush, and Bedouins tending to goats and sheep. Hiking on the escarpments of the crimson cliffs was followed by a picnic; quilted blankets, barbecue grills filled with sizzling shish kabob and complemented with tabouli, hommous, and brownies atop portable tables forming a convivial patchwork under the shade of a sweeping acacia tree. An exquisite sunset rounded out the evening. Skewed expectations and the singularity of the experience shared with other nascent residents buttressed the enchantment of the event.
Expeditions to nearby “Red Sands,” a broad expanse of rose desert rippled with dunes, provided an ample sand-surfing playground for children, pups, and adults alike, and “Hidden Valley,” bearing an uncanny resemblance to Monument Valley, site of several U.S. western movies, allowed for cave exploration, fossil finds, and belly dancing led by Bishara’s tablah playing under wide-fanned trees. Bedouin hospitality, fortuitously, crept into one of our more auspicious trips to Hidden Valley. After traversing craggy rock contours, and indulging in Kentucky Fried chicken and an amiable exchange between chummy expatriates, a haggard figure in a worn tunic and ghuttra approached – arms waving and incoherent words spilling. Bishara, a Lebanese native, recognized the Bedouin dialect. The man needed help with moving his pickup truck, which had stalled out some distance away in the desert. Bishara and one of our friends followed the man to the disabled truck, aided in moving the truck to the man’s Bedouin tent village where the two interlopers incited a certain level of interest, and as a gesture of his gratitude, the man invited us all to a camel feast, which would require sacrificing prized and valuable livestock. Although we had to forgo this magnanimous offering due to an early workday the following morning, the essence of Bedouin generosity had left its trace.
Sometimes daytime jaunts transformed into overnight camping trips. A bagpipe sunset serenade by a fellow expat accompanied by simmering kafta, steak, and baked potatoes; late night debates around a fire pit; sleeping under the stars – pups at our feet; and early morning conversation over tea, coffee, and scrambled eggs à la Bishara. A powerful fusion of amity, creature comforts, and tranquility.
Our most memorable Qatar desert escapade was through invitation by a Qatari family who graciously arranged for a day in the desert at their family farm. A caravan of four cars, ours and three family cars with two drivers and four housemaids, ferried us the nearly two hours outside of Doha in a southerly direction. An hour on the highway, and the balance of the journey on a makeshift sandy, stony roadway, and we arrived at a remote span of desert suffused with penned goats and sheep, an open tent designated for the men with a grill prominently displayed out front and a closed four-flapped tent for the women. Additional family members arrived during a farm tour by my young friend, Sherifa; several brothers of the patriarch, as well as two sisters, and their families. Following introductions, the matriarch guided me by the arm to the women’s tent where the housemaids had placed swaths of plastic sheets along the floor overlaid with colorful carpets and platters and trays of rice and lamb, hommous, babaganoush, stuffed grape leaves, macaroni, salad with tomato and onion. As a guest, I was encouraged to eat first and well; I opted to dip into the communal dish of rice and lamb with my right hand, the traditional way. Our meal was chased by a wild ride through the desert to the outdoor toilet, tunes streaming on a cell phone while women dangled out car windows singing and balanced precariously on running boards. Khaleeji music coupled with reassuring dance lessons, and proffers of roasted chestnuts and corn concluded the nighttime revelry.
Desert visits have become spiritual undertakings for me: the canyons and mesas of the southwest U.S. filling me with wonder at the immense prospect of time, regeneration, and Earth’s beginnings; and the vast sand masses of the Gulf region providing replenishment through moments of fellowship, community, and self-discovery.