‘Desert’ Imagined/Reimagined: Reading Camels In The Sky

Desert travel writing tends to evoke feelings of excitement, enthusiasm and surprises. In an article in The Times Literary Supplement, Caroline Eden wrote that deserts “offer a cultural and geographical otherness that suits travel writing.” Calling Ethiopian-born British military officer Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands “a classic of travel literature,” Eden quotes his words on desert adventuring: “Your morale improves…the hypocritical politeness and the slavery of civilisation are left behind you in the city …. Where do we hear of a traveller being disappointed by it?”

Travel writers, philosophers and cultural theorists have imagined and reimagined deserts in innumerable ways. It was Jean Baudrillard, French philosopher and cultural theorist, who wrote that the “desert is a natural extension of the inner silence of the body.” He says that “if humanity’s language, technology, and buildings are an extension of its constructive faculties, the desert alone is an extension of its capacity for absence, the ideal schema of humanity’s disappearance.” Baudrillard would remind us: “When you emerge from the desert, your eyes go on trying to create emptiness all around; in every inhabited area, every landscape they see desert beneath, like a watermark. It takes a long time to get back to a normal vision of things and you never succeed completely.”

To Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari,  a desert is nothing but a sign of ‘deterritorialization’ insofar as it is one of the ‘smooth spaces’ where “one no longer goes from one point to another, but rather holds space beginning from any point.” They say, “the nomads inhabit these places; they remain in them, and they themselves make them grow, for it has been established that the nomads make the desert no less than they are made by it.” Deleuze and Guattari say, “they are vectors of deterritorialization. They add desert to desert, steppe to steppe, by a series of local operations whose orientation and direction endlessly vary. The sand desert has not only oases, which are like fixed points, but also rhizomatic vegetation that is temporary and shifts location according to local rains, bringing changes in the direction of the crossings.” Intellectual descriptions and literary imaginations vary, but each engagement of deserts provides compelling reasons to revisit these mysterious stretches of landscape.

Camels in the Sky

camels in the skyOne of the absorbing titles at the 40th edition of the Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF)—commenced at the Expo Centre Sharjah (UAE) on 3 November with the slogan ‘There is always a right book’—is Camels in the Sky: Travels in Arabia translated from Malayalam, the language of the largest segment of expatriates in the GCC country. Long served as a journalist in Saudi Arabia, Kerala-born V. Muzafer Ahamed’s desert travelogue, serialised in Mathrubhumi Weekly a decade and a half ago, had already captured the Malayali readers. The Oxford University Press published volume is a compelling repertoire of 23 literary exposés written over a period of six years (2006-2012). They were originally part of two Malayalam books Marubhoomiyude Athmakadha (Autobiography of the Desert), and Marumarangal (Desert Trees), and the former had won Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award in 2010.

Muzafer reached Al-Nafūd desert way back in 1999 as part of rural affairs reporting. He says: “The desert singed me with bitter and bruising experiences.” He used to return to his city office with “scars on…his body and soul, almost certain that the desert was not (his) cup of tea.” But what changed everything was his meeting of Abd’ Rehman, an illiterate Bedouin, in a restaurant. It was Abd’ Rehman who hinted that “there was a flipside to the severity of the desert” that he should experience it as “a paradise-like euphoria.” Muzafer “took the bait.” He owes the “invaluable tip that there was no better metaphor than the desert for instilling the lessons of life and death, love and hatred, thirst and moisture…” And it was during the desert journeys that he witnessed “the inexorable transformation of a ‘scorched’ landscape into a life-scape!”

Muzafer undertook the desert travel several times during the long years he lived in Saudi Arabia and captured the life-world of Bedouins who settled themselves in the desert. He learnt that “the desert is a complete biosphere in which life’s minute sparks, nature’s dark secrets, and artless openness cohabit.” And each journey filled his life “that had been resigned to emptiness with various kinds of experiences. Landscapes and mindscapes streamed one after another.”

Muzafer begins with ‘Water War’ that forms part of the desert life-world, part of Arabia’s history. It also encapsulates the kind of troubled times that many countries and communities across the world are faced with. For a person coming from Kerala—a tropical rain-rich land with more than three dozen rivers and innumerable streams—the disputes over the ownership of wells are not mere isolated episodes. Muzafer himself experienced assaults and litigation for taking a photograph of a well owned by his Saudi friend.

To Muzafer, Gaaf tree is “an appropriate metaphor for the Bedouin’s life.” It can survive for years without rains and Bedouins say that Gaaf tree is “the mysterious poetry of the desert.”

‘Burn Marks of Death’ depicts the dreadful episode of a migrant Nepali labourer, employed in a masara (farm), being found dead in the belly of a python, after three days of his missing. Earlier, everyone thought that he had escaped from the masara, “unable to bear the hardship and loneliness associated with the work on desert farms.” The description of the conditions of immigrants in such remote parts of the country almost coincided with the slave narrative in Benyamin’s Aatujeevitham (Goat Days), appeared during the same year.

Muzafer writes: “The farms are usually very isolated and located in desolate places. Isolation and a lonely existence, irregular receipt of wages and denial of home leave for years together are common and are among the reasons for desperate attempts to run away.” The portrayal of the conditions of labourers by both Muzafer and Benyamin goes the same way. Muzafer says: “Some rice, a sackful of onions, and some khuboos (the flat Arab bread) form the ration these labourers are given by the farm owners. Instances of overseas labourers engaged in tending goats and camels, forgetting their language due to prolonged isolation form human contact, have been reported. Some have even gone insane, conversing with only goats and camels. There are also, of course, instances of desertion, for better pay, and working conditions with another employer (even though it is illegal).” Muzafer “was convinced that urban dwellers were oblivious to the hardship of those trying to build their lives in the desert.”

‘Cactuses Drink Moonlight’ is a marvellous poetic exposé. Muzafer depicts how Cactus “got intoxicated with the moonlight” and the romantic silhouette of desert sun set and shape-swinging sand dunes. He has a deep and reflective ability to portray the desert profile. An instance of this is seen in his portrayal:

“A sand dune transformed into a ferocious, snarling dinosaur in the distance. At the end of a new sand dune carved up by the wind, flying sand looked like a wedding procession of charming chambermaids coyly escorting the bride to the honeymoon hut that was taking shape on another sand hill.”

Elsewhere, Muzafer writes: “The wind was building sand castles with wet sand on the eastern slopes of the Dahna desert. It kicked up sand dunes. Some of it flew up, visited the sky, and came down in a sprang.” “One moment it is fury incarnate; at next, it could be as calm as the character in the Adonis poem, playing quietly with the little toy car.”

In ‘Quivering Fossils’ Muzafer portrays the skeletons of dead animals as well as human beings found in the desert village. Carcasses of humans were found in the middle of the desert who probably died of thirst and dehydration. Most often, the victims were illegal migrants who got trapped in the desert without any sense of direction and communication. The lesson the desert taught was that it “is not a place for taking risks.” A Bedouin reminded: “If you befriend the desert, you can travel on its ways. Otherwise, caught on its horns, you can court death.”

The subject of ‘death’ is further exemplified in ‘Necropolis’ which shows the inns and outs of the Dilmun civilisation and its burial mounds (in Bahrain). Muzafer writes: “The burial mounds are the Dilmun civilisation’s covenant that everyone should be remembered forever” and “the persons close to the dead decide to not let the memories of the dead disappear with him.” “The Dilmun civilisation promised rebirth, even if youthful immortality was beyond the reach of some.” Muzafer says Victor Hugo had understood this, quoting him: “In life we dream of Utopia, in death we actualise this ideal world.”

‘Mirage, Mirage’ offers a poetic representation of the changing shadows that develop odd forms under the scorching sun. Muzafer writes: “Mirages must be the outpouring of the desert’s longing for water.” “Imagination is boundless in chasing a mirage”, he adds saying that mirages “deliver a big lesson of life while travelling and living in the desert.”

In “Heroines of the Desert”, Muzafer says that the women deep inside the country, “in the depth of the desert, are very hardworking.” Though women were forbidden to drive in the country, “deep in the interiors of rural Arabia, women do take the wheel, not only of light cars but even heavy trucks, similar to the huge petrol tankers. In such places, women even manage the workshops” (this article was written in 2010, but the Saudi government lifted the ban in 2018).

Women in the desert villages take up all kinds of heavy jobs to run the house. Muzafer writes: “The desert abounds with such tales of bravery; stories of brave and hardworking Arabian womanhood.” Though Bedouin women lag behind their men in literacy and education, “they have several poetesses among them who compose poems in the oral tradition.” Muzafer says that Moneera Al-Ghadeer’s Desert Voices: Bedouin Women’s Poetry in Saudi Arabia unveils the “power of imagination and the depth of women’s dreams in the desert.” “They have a communicative power that can put any accomplished travel writer to shame,” says Muzafer. For example, a poem in Al-Ghadeer’s collection “compares the speed of a young mother rushing home to breastfeed her baby to the leap of an antelope. That sums up the Bedouin woman’s life—the leap of the antelope.”

Muzafer also unearths the plight of Chadian women who were engaged in handling scrap and recyclable waste. While the media depict them as ‘mafia’, Muzafer says that they never “cared to explain why Africa, which was the staging post of humanity’s many momentous events, had turned a waif; why the illegal immigrants from Africa turned robber, thief, bootlegger, or document forger. The media never cared to unravel the historical processes that impelled them.” He also puts some questions across: “Who plundered Africa, and who prompted the civil wars that bleed the continent remain unanswered questions.”

Muzafer also brings in Ibn Batutta’s narratives which include an episode of a spring during his travel, wherein one of it “had water that wiped out memories of one’s past as soon as you drink.” But the hot water in Ain Ul Haaar—one of the largest six hot springs in Saudi Arabia—keeps memories alive. And a fascinating part of the spring is that people get attracted by Ain Ul Haaar’s ‘therapeutic properties.’ Muzafer says: “As for myself, dipping my head in the pool for sometime seemed to have dissipated the tobacco smoke that clouded my brain. Suddenly, things I had forgotten for a long while came back with all their vividness. Memories came flooding in as though a light shore in the recesses of the brain and body.”

In “Life’s Laboratory,” Muzafer regretted saying that they “did not come across a wise and wizened Bedouin anywhere,” but it was accompanied by an unrecognised voice in the vehicle, “aren’t they all beyond fence?” This unrecognised voice has a bearing on the culture and civilisation that India and Pakistan also share, but got divided, if not shattered, by history, borders and fences. Muzafer refers to the “India-Pakistan camaraderie built between Salim and Faizullah.” The latter, a Pakistani expatriate, became philosophical saying, “this is life’s laboratory, brother.” “Borders and nationalities became irrelevant here. Those who have come here come to make a living, and they are all insaan!.” Muzafer reminds that “the mind of memories is bright. It is in memories, not in the desert, that time stands still.” Camels in the Sky has several such philosophical reflections, poetic representations, and sociological expositions. The translator of the volume, P.J Mathew, says that having kept the narratives of Freya Stark and Muhammed Asad in the backdrop, Muzafer “explored the desert in the modern communication era and interpreted the sights in his eastern Third-World perspective.”

Camels in the Sky is lyrical, rich in insights, and encapsulates all that enthrals in a desert foray. P.J. Mathew has done a tremendous job by literally transforming the text into a ‘con-textual’ desert experience, making it an indispensable addition to any ‘diaspora cultural collective’ anywhere in the world.

First published in Eurasia Review       

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