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Wadi-Bashing In Arabia Deserta

ISSUE:  Spring 1987

For successful wadi-bashing, you need four-wheel drive and a good head of steam. Land Rovers and Cherokee jeeps are preferred. Pulling out the throttle, you race along the wadis, making a run at the dunes. Some dunes, enormous, dwarf a three-story house. Lying between them are the wadis, old water courses dry most of the year. In the rainy time they flood, and men and animals parched for water have drowned in the desert. The bashing isn’t when you hit the wadis but when you top the dunes, a bone-jarring experience. I learned this in Dubai on the coast of Arabia.

A wink of prosperity under the desert sun, Dubai is squeezed between water, sand, and a high place. The water is the Persian Gulf or Arabian Gulf, depending on who makes the map. Below the Strait of Hormuz, thirty miles wide, a spiny headland, the Ru’us al-Jibal, cuts this body of water in two. The Emirates, all but one, huddle together on the Ru’us al-Jibal. Besides Dubai, they are Ajman, Sharjah, Umm al-Qaiwain, Ras al-Khaimah, and Fujairah. Abu Dhabi, the capital, lies along the mainland coast. Behind the coast are lumpy mountains, like tufts of carded wool, says the Sura, a verse from the Koran. The Tropic of Cancer bisects the lower reaches of this Trucial Coast. South and west of the imaginary line is the desert. Occupying a quarter of a million square miles, it peters out in salt plains this side of Mecca, not far from the Red Sea. Between the foothills of Oman and the Yemeni border, nine hundred miles away, the land is empty. Here is a dead land, said Doughty, an English traveler in the Arabian desert. He said men returning from it brought home nothing but weariness in their bones.

On the other side of the Strait of Hormuz, the Gulf of Oman runs south and east into the Arabian Sea. Across the water is Iran, a medieval country, where the mullahs, Islamic priests, are fighting a Holy War against the present. Soldiers in this war don’t give or expect quarter, death on the battlefield counting for them as a blessing. One of their hadiths, a collection of sayings ascribed to the Prophet, tells them that Paradise lies beneath the shadow of swords. Oil, vital to the present, supplies the sinews of the war, and is brought from the ground by modern technology. Each day, nine million barrels pass through the Strait of Hormuz.

My host, reciting this statistic, had oil on the brain. He was USIS, a fidgety Californian with a turn for metaphor. Oil was “our vital lifeline,” and he said how the enemy wanted to cut it. He divided the world into enemies and friends. Russia, an enemy, was “the bear that walks like a man.” Down the road he saw a shootout between them and us, but banked on the presence, close by in Oman, of our Rapid Deployment Force. Like a Roman centurion on Hadrian’s Wall, the RDF kept on the lookout, alert for signs of trouble. Surveillance planes, the AWACS, were its eyes and ears. Airborne every day, they used the fields at Seeb and Thumrait, thanks to the Sultan of Oman. He tipped his hat to the Sultan, a friendly.

Stuck over with art deco, Arabian style, the hall he put me into was a pocket version of Radio City Music Hall where I used to see the Rockettes. A chrome-scuppered pool, Olympic-size but strictly for show, separates this ornate building from the new mosque, austere as the desert. The pool is lined with jacaranda trees, and four minarets rise at the corners of the mosque. In the distance are refineries, black against a cloudless sky. Before I went on stage, I got my briefing, a list of no-no’s. It included Khomeini, Israel, and OPEC. This wasn’t the Chautauqua circuit, and if America had shortcomings I needn’t feel obliged to tell the world. A careful young man, my host took me back to old days in the Navy. Over coffee in the ward room, officers’ country, they let you talk baseball, but politics and women were out.

The American flag and the colors of the Emirates stood in sockets behind the lectern. For props I had a slide projector, a pitcher of water, and a mike that didn’t work. It didn’t work in Jerusalem either when I gave my lecture there, but I stayed mum on this coincidence. Seeing no evil, Arabs pretend that Israel doesn’t exist. They like you to go along with their fiction. An American banker I know, having been to Israel, neglected to tell them in Tel Aviv not to stamp his visa. When he came to Dubai, they looked at this visa and put him on the next plane back to London.

Fiddling with the microphone, I counted the house, 30 bodies, all male and all but one of them Arab. Splendid in their dishdashas, loose fitting robes, they looked like Semitic patriarchs from the Old Testament. Semitic is what they are, Arabs and Jews sharing the same inheritance. Both include Abraham in their family tree. Jewish Aaron is Arab Harun, as in Harun al-Rashid, and the standard bearer of the Prophet was Eyup or Job. Courteous but impassive, the men in the audience lept their illusionless eyes on my face. What went on in their heads they kept under their hats.

My subject was the arts, American and modern, with attention to poetry. I told them how the artist sharpened our awareness but didn’t take sides, having no ax to grind. Richard Wilbur, for instance. A modern poet, he has this poem, “The Giaour and the Pasha,” based on the Delacroix painting. At a signal from me, my assistant, an Arab boy, popped a colored slide in the projector. A Giaour is an infidel or “uncircumcised dog,” but Arabs don’t have to be told. At the rear of the stage, USIS, fidgeting uneasily on his leather campstool, wondered where I was going to take this.

“As for the infidels,” God says to Mohammed, “strike off their heads, maim their fingers.” This infidel, however, has got the upper hand. He sits on horseback where the Pasha, at his mercy, is down. Looking at the painting, you feel how death is imminent. But the poem has a happy ending and the Pasha gets off scot-free. People who believe that poetry is amiable lies will say this ending defines it. If the Pasha is lucky, though, the Giaour is blessed. Poised to kill, he holds his hand. Doing this, he gets beyond himself, becoming a work of art. Frozen in air, he stares without purpose and lets the pistol fall beside his knee.

The head of a victim, said the Prophet, an angry man, was better than the choicest camel in Arabia. He said this after his first battle, when they gave him a head. Their eyes crinkling skeptically, these Arabs, his descendants, considered a resolution where nothing gets resolved. Not men for half measures, they think a job worth doing is worth doing well. Falconry is a favorite diversion of theirs. The falcon, having the prey in sight, doesn’t balance pros and cons but falls like a plummet. However, I was ahl al-kitab, “People of the Book.” Oddly, this works out to unknowing. Secure in what they knew, they applauded me politely. They were ahl al-bait, “People of the House of the Prophet.”

Shouldering his way up to the platform, Nate Yelverton stuck out a hand. He has a shrewd idea that poetry is for the birds, and sitting through my lecture must have cost him. Unlike Arabs, Yelverton is willing to say what he thinks. “More truth than poetry” is one of his expressions. Journeying around the world to tell the wogs about poetry seems labor lost to him. He doesn’t like wogs, “shiftless fellaheen,” and lumps them all together. Also he doesn’t like Jews. Islam and Judaism, brothers under the skin, are both secret conspiracies, he tells me. Where Arabs have their Jihad or Holy War, though, Jews let money do the talking. Have I read the protocols of the Elders of Zion?

In Dubai on loan from Bechtel Co., Yelverton has taken up the white man’s burden. Constructing a new desalinization plant, he is helping the Arabs augment their supply of potable water. He calls this working for “IBM,” Inshallah Bukra Mumkin. I will hear these words often in the Emirates, he says. They mean God Willing Tomorrow Maybe. A good engineer, Yelverton marches with the army of progress. Bechtel Co. , his employer, is building an industrial city in the desert, on the shores of the Persian Gulf. The railroad, coming up from Dammam, will link it to the capital, once served by camel caravans. Jubail, the new city, is almost in place. When it is finished, Yelverton says, a third of a million people will live there.

The first time we met, he was bellied up to the bar at the Mena House in Cairo. Calling for Wild Turkey, he didn’t bat an eye when he got what he called for. Yelverton expects this. Getting things done is his business, a fight against odds. Ranged against him are bureaucrats, do-gooders, and bumbiers who come in all colors and shapes. Battling the odds, he weaves and lurches when he walks. Mohammed, said Arab chroniclers, had this strange lurching walk, “as if he were ascending a steep invisible hill.” In his cups, Yelverton is apt to turn maudlin, sometimes breaking into song. Surprising in a big man, he has a melodious tenor, reminiscent of John McCormack. He exercises this on sentimental ballads that call the Irish home to Erin and old tunes from the Hymnal where they wrestle and fight and pray. The business card he gave me, fished from a plastic sleeve in his wallet, had cabalistic signs like Greek sigmas and gammas, all Greek to me. Bold horizontal lines connected open loops and little corkscrews like pigs’ tails. Above and under the lines, clusters of dots inflected this mysterious writing. The other face of the card, more forthcoming, gave his name in English, N.B.F. Yelverton, beneath this the name of his firm. The initials, he said, stood for Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general who got there fastest with the mostest. Putting down his drink, he penciled in a phone number with a Dubai exchange. “If you’re ever in the U.A.E.”


Coming all at once, day dawns in the U. A. E. like noontide. The air is thin, and the mountains, looming, stick up like erector sets. Detail, qualifying what you see, gets swallowed in immensity. Sun beats on the dead land, conferring the gift of clarity, a privilege of moribund things. Not blurred by half-lights and shadows, contours are sharp, and good and evil look like themselves. This makes life simpler. Humbled in the dust, Arabs say how Allah, an abstract divinity, inherits the earth, letting nothing escape. Ibn Khaldun, the Arab historian, has a hundred litanies like this one. A Berber from North Africa, he lived on the fringes of the Sahara. This waste of scorching sands, mountains, and stony uplands, is bigger than the continental United States. Men are minerals, he makes Mohammed say, i.e. some, Muslims, are precious like gold, others drossy and debased. Possibly banal, this saying takes on a harder meaning in the desert. Uncounted like grains of sand, undifferentiated too, men have their brief incandescence, then lapse back in matter.

Mohammed, like Yelverton a man for sharp distinctions, began his new cult of Islam in the desert. He did this when he fled from Mecca to Medina, a ten days’ journey across the empty sands. In his native place, enemies waited to kill him. There was the wife of Abu Lahab who strewed thorns in the sand where he walked. He cursed this man and wife in one of his Suras. “Cursed be the hands of Abu Lahab: he shall perish! . . ./ Faggots shall be heaped on his wife.” The Hejira showed Mohammed how this wish might father the deed. Coming out of the desert, he said the sword was the key of heaven and hell. Heaven, the reward of the just, was for Muslims. His soldiers sent the others to hell. “The Lord destroy the Jews and Christians,” said the Prophet, all of them in Arabia who didn’t worship the God of Islam. Arab soldiers weren’t troubled by doubts and hesitations, and except for Cromwell’s Ironsides and the Scotch Covenanters, no better fighting men ever lived. Each day of Ramadan, the month of fasting for Arabs, begins when they can distinguish a white thread from a black one. You can do this any day in the unfiltered light of the desert. Arabs call it Rub al Khali or Empty Quarter.

Modern hotels stand tall in the desert, and businessmen around the world have made them a home away from home. Some wear Norman Hilton suits and shoes by Ferragamo, but the briefcases they carry are plastic. Air conditioning whirs faintly inside the hotels, where the climate, neither hot nor cold, never varies. Outside, the Arabs meet the climate halfway. Square wind tunnels sit on top of their houses. The burning air, passing through these tunnels, is cooled by water or dampened cloths. This gives some relief to the people in the houses. However, they still know where they are.

Muzak, soft but perky, fills the lobby of the Holiday Inn. This is in Sharjah, just up the road from Dubai. It being early December, the music suits the season, and they are playing “Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer.” My Avis rent-a-car, picked up at the airport, has air conditioning, a radio, and tape deck. Upholstered in velour, the interior is red with black stripes. Arabs, reticent in last things, like their surfaces bedizened. One of their caliphs, traveling, slept beneath a black satin tent. The poles were silver, the rings were gold, and the ropes made of wool or shot silk. But their first caliph left only a camel, a single slave, and a mantle. Before he died, he spurned this mantle with his foot. “I have given back all that,” he said, “and I am well and happy.” When I start the car, the radio, left on, plays Kris Kristofferson and “Bobby McGee.”

Money, a great leveler, has homogenized the Emirates. Like tourist islands in the Caribbean, emptied of culture, thay have nothing personal to show. Everything you need comes in from the outside, oil being the single exception. In the souk or market, not far from the brackish creek that links Dubai to the sea, you can purchase Del Monte pineapples imported from Hawaii, Earl Grey breakfast tea, artichoke hearts, plastic yo-yos, throwaway pens, and many of Heinz’s 57 varieties. The vegetable man, Bagghal, offers apples that might be McIntosh apples. Sometimes he sings, “Apples, apples, rosy as a young girl’s cheek.” This market doesn’t stun your senses like the Bab el Louk in Cairo, where the heads of butchered animals are mounted over the doors of the shops. They have live chickens in wicker arks, though, and if you want a chicken for dinner they will slaughter it for you on the spot.

Men, idle and magnificent, kill time in the souk, fingering the merchandise and kibitzing with friends. They wear the familiar headdress, “a napkin with a fan belt,” Yelverton says. The women wear the black veil or burqca, and some of these veils are trimmed with gold thread. The nose and lips of the women are covered, but their hooded eyes are visible, like a fencer’s behind his mask. An Arab merchant, peripatetic and an everyday presence in the bazaar, hawks a cluster of gorgeous tropical snakes. That is what they look like until he holds them up for inspection. Steering wheel covers, they shimmer in the sun. Ibn Khaldun compared the world to a market like this one. Set out for display, the wares were sects and customs, institutions, forgotten lore. Mutable, not constant, they didn’t persist in the same form, however, but changed with the passing of days. This was a sore affliction, the historian said.

Leading to the world outside, the creek, an arm of the sea, brings the world to Dubai. Some Arabs, strong for the old ways, say that this is how the rot gets in. The truth they honor is absolute, not compromised by the world. Platonists in their bones, they despise the world and the flesh. This goes with their notorious carnality, the principle being that what’s up front doesn’t count. In his Book of Laws, Plato put the good state far inland. Merchants and such never came there, and this provincial place kept its virtue intact. Provincialism, said Ibn Khaldun, was the key to Arab greatness. He thought that Arabs in the desert, savage, not sociable, were more disposed to courage than sedentary people, also closer to being good. They didn’t obey the law, being ignorant of laws, and didn’t go to school, but stood to the rest of men like beasts of prey to dumb animals. Jealous of the stranger, Arabs cocked an ear for every faint barking and noise. This xenophobic thing preserved their casabiyah. Rosenthal, translating Ibn Khaldun, renders the Arabic word as group-feeling.

But the tale, baffling the teller, has an unexpected ending. Leaving the desert, Arabs bent on conquest took to the sea. This sullied their lineage. They meddled with strangers, and the closely-knit group was a thing of the past. After the conquest, said Ibn Khaldun, Arabs acquired “the stigma of meekness.” Our English language still remembers their sea terms. “What is our “admiral” but the Al-mir-al-bahr of the Arabian Sea,” Holdich asks in his Gates of India, “or our “barge” but a barija or warship?” Careened in the mud by the bankside, trading vessels, caulked and painted, await the next voyage. The thrusting stems of these dhows are like giant toggle switches for opening or closing an electric circuit.

Bouncing off the water, the sun explodes in fragments, hard on the eyes. In the street outside the souk, this same sun, unrefracted, creates a movie set, life imitating art. The movie is a Western, High Noon or Duel in the Sun, and the hero and villain, outlined against the sky, are stalking each other. The people in the street stand up like gnomons, uncompromisingly themselves. Poor or pretentious, the buildings can’t evade what they are. Nuance, Arabs think, is for effeminate people, and their art, like their politics, is mostly innocent of chiaroscuro.

My American banker friend, he who never got out of the airport, spent two weeks in Palestine before coming to Dubai. Forewarned is forearmed, and he should have known better. Palestinian Jews, sun-spattered like Arabs, share their yen for broad strokes and primary colors. Hallucinating in the sun, I go back in mind to Palestine. In Tel Aviv, the capital, an old movie is playing, white settlers vs. Redskins. The hero of the piece, clean shaven, rides a white horse. You can tell the villain by the pricking of your thumbs. Always on the alert, Israelis keep the villain in their gun sights. Out in the country, still Biblical country where shepherds tend their flocks, military checkpoints, bisecting the roads, are manned by soldiers toting automatic rifles. Dressed in combat fatigues, the soldiers, men and women, are sexless. In Israel, everybody goes to war.

Barbed wire, running with the roads, separates the beleaguered state from the Jordan River. The wire, a secondary line of defense, also functions as metaphor, dividing sheep from goats. Stockades topped with wire surround the kibbutzim, lonely outposts in the desert. Outside are the hostiles. Arab merchants in the city, paying out treasure, keep these guerrilla fighters in pocket. Self-appointed vigilantes keep tabs on the merchants. “Buy Blue and White, Not Arab,” read wall placards in Jerusalem, posted by the Jewish Defense League. Blue and white are the colors of the Israeli flag.

A free port on the gulf, Dubai has its own dry dock, a modern harbor nearby at Port Rashid, also a trade center, austerely modern. Along the curving drive that sweeps up to the entrance, fan palms, pomegranates, and dusty pink oleanders do what they can to mollify the hard scene. Little flame-colored blossoms surround the fruit of the pomegranate. Wood and wire screens protect these growing things, otherwise the desert, always on the prowl, would destroy them. Arabs understand this, a hard lesson learned, - Centuries ago, when they conquered North Africa, they found an enormous thicket covering the wide littoral between Tangier and Tripoli. Under the shade were hamlets where men and women fostered life in society. They cultivated the land, sunk wells, and had their arts and crafts. Artificial, not natural, these little enclaves on the edge of the desert needed tending. Today the land is treeless and nine-tenths of the people who lived there are gone. The ruins of Roman oil mills break the surface of the plain.

Admonished by the desert, Arabs in Dubai don’t take their land for granted. Outside the Hilton, my home away from home, Rose of Sharon in concrete tubs splashes bright color against the facade, new as tomorrow. Water from the local desalinization plant, courtesy of Yelverton, cascades in a rococo fountain. More precious than oil in these parts, it isn’t hoarded on the Trucial Coast, Arabs having found money to burn. Getting rid of indigenous things, the Emirates have got rid of poverty too. Before the gushers came in, Arab poor lived on crumbs from the tables of the rich. For the Feast of Sacrifice, Eid Al Adha, well-to-do Arabs, honoring their prophet Ibrahim, sacrificed a sheep and gave the meat to the poor. Now the dole, a state subsidy, feeds both rich and poor. In Dubai, unlike the Caribbean, nobody goes hungry.

Nobody frets about paying the doctor. If you get sick, the up-to-date hospital, free to all, is good for what ails you. Dark-skinned nurses in this Rashid Hospital are all starch and no nonsense, and their voices, peremptory, sound like Mary Poppins. Most of the doctors are Indian or Pakistani, but some have degrees from London or Trinity College, Dublin. When they come on the phone, their accents are Harley Street, plummy or clipped. Even on the hottest days, the chief resident wears a business suit, his pouter-pigeon belly covered by a decent waistcoat. A gold fob with a seal, attached to a pocket watch, hangs over his belly. Like a Harley Street doctor, he doesn’t answer to “Doctor” but “Mister.”

The colonial governor has long departed from Dubai, but their Arab ruler is still dreaming a form on the world. He is H.H. the Sheikh, a compulsive builder, and his unreal creation is substantially there. “As in Shake ‘n Bake,” Yelverton says, correcting my pronunciation. His voice, high-pitched and feminine, almost a giggle, tells of the Delta country south of Memphis, Tennessee. A homogenous country, this is where Yelverton lives in his mind. When he was a boy growing up in the Delta, people still honored the old ways and truths. They knew who they were and where they were going. Living was easy. The fat soil, well watered, produced bumper crops. Rice and cotton were the staples, but if you put a dry stick in the ground it put out suckers.

Living in the East for a long time, this expatriate wants to go home. To my surprise, he has a patriotic poem, committed to memory, that says this. “So it’s home again, and home again, America for me! My heart is turning home again, and there I long to be.” But he won’t go home and knows it. The home his heart is turning to no longer exists, and all I have to do is read the papers.


Arabs in Riyadh, the capital city of the Saudis, have Yelverton and friends to thank for their new international airport. Named for King Khaled, this sprawl of glass and concrete is anchored to the plateau on the edge of the city. Where Riyadh in the old days was a sleepy oasis on the pilgrim road to Mecca, the march of progress, says Yelverton, has changed this. Modern office buildings are replacing the mud-brick houses, and they have an oil refinery, a cement-making plant, also a university, the first in Arabia. The fortress wall that surrounded the city is gone, and Riyadh, no longer itself, is a hodgepodge where East jostles West. Foreign workers, crowding in, give trouble to the Najdi population. These Nadjers, says Yelverton, would like to keep themselves to themselves but can’t do this.

A traveled man who knows Arabia like his own backyard, Yelverton had to see it before he knew it. I knew it before I saw it, thanks to C.M. Doughty and his Travels in Arabia Deserta. The unabridged edition of 1888, it shared the bookcase in our living room with Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, Creasy’s Fifteen Decisive Battles, and a broken set of Charles Dickens, bound in green cloth and lettered in gold on the spine. TV was for the future, and movies, expensive, were rationed to one a week. Grateful, I read these volumes cover to cover. In those Depression years, we made our own entertainment. Doughty has his longueurs, and maybe Garnett’s one-volume abridgment does a service. But this writer is most himself when taken in large doses. An uncommon Victorian, he harks back to stately writers of an earlier time. The sleep of the desert refreshes his prose, or you could put this the other way round. Like Aaron with his rod, redeeming the dead land, he drew life from wasted sandrock, spires, needles, and battled mountains. It took me years to get over this gorgeous prose that reads like poetry.

“How couldst thou take such journeys into the fanatic Arabia?” they asked him. But the desert is where you find it, and Doughty knew the heart’s desert better than most. More than wild beasts, he dreaded “unknown mankind.” Turks in Constantinople, barbarians who couldn’t be taught, would murder you, he said, but let a hound live. Abyssinian blacks, settled in the desert, saw an enemy behind every bush. Arabs, unused to the sight of a stranger, hated what they didn’t know. Irately they asked each other, “Dost thou take me for a Nasrâny! that I should do such iniquitous things.” A Nasrany is a Nazarene or Christian.

But the Bedouin bade the stranger sit and eat. Doughty said he was “full of the godly humanity of the wilderness.” Though he never said where the godly thing came from, you feel that it wasn’t handed to this Bedu on a platter. Versed in “the desert comity,” he offered a lesson in the school of mere humanity. This courtesy to the stranger set him apart. “Were the enemies upon you, would you foresake me who am your wayfellow?” Doughty asks him. “I would,” he said, “take thee up back-rider on my thelûl (riding camel), and we will run one fortune together.”

A cable from Washington, handed in at the Hilton, gives me new marching orders. They have scratched Beirut, where Druse, Maronites, and Shiites are killing each other, and my next speech, three days from now, is set for Chulalongkorn. This modern university, situated in Bangkok, is halfway across the world but only an overnight hop on KLM. I have time on my hands, and Yelverton proposes that we make the most of this. Next door in Sharjah, the Tourist Centre runs safaris into the Empty Quarter. “Wadi-bashing, the Brits call it.” Domesticating the desert, he makes this sound like Sunday at the beach.

At first light, when the Land Rover collects us at the hotel, the sky, still empty of sun, is only a smudge, and the desert along the highway rolls like pale water. But there isn’t sky or desert, and the highway is a fiction spun by civil engineers. Contours, blurring, melt into each other. In Arabia and elsewhere this is unsettling, and until the sun comes up we don’t know where we are. Sufi mystics in Arabia, making little of distinctions, lived in this half-light. “I am become the wine-drinker, the wine and the cup-bearer,” one of them said. He was Bayazid, who lived a thousand years ago.

But the sun is only biding its time. Particles of mica, embedded in the highway, gather the fierce light and hurl it back at our windshield. We sit in front with the driver, a local tribesman from Ra’s al Khaymah up the coast. The Queen of Sheba had her palace there, Yelverton says. The driver wears the dishdasha complete with burnoose, but rubbing elbows with Westerners has sloughed the old ways. A new kind of man, only just veneered with modernity and a smattering of English, this Abeyd-al-Malik is eager to please. “Welcome!” he says. “You American? Is good. I like Americans. No like Russians.”

The door of the Land Rover, painted red, has yellow letters in English: Sharjah Safari Co. Behind the enclosed cab, the flat bed, open to the air, is fenced with wooden slats. When Abeyd-al-Malik goes on safari into the hidden villages of the Hajer Mountains, he carries pots and pans lashed to the chassis, also cheap cotton goods, the rough cloaks they call jubbah, canvas tents and tent poles, and panniers of charcoal. In exchange he brings back goat’s hair dyed red with kirmiz, ropes made of palm-fiber, oil of citron, fresh dates, and date-baskets. The baskets are zanabīl, on sale in the market. Arab men, fastidious, use the oil of citron, a lemony perfume. Mohammed, not all sturm and drang, says in one of his Suras how he had loved three things in the world, perfumes, women, and refreshment in prayer. At any rate, says Yelverton, he had his heart’s desire of the first two.

Billboards streak past us, one advertising “Pepsi” in Arabic and English. On either side of the road, the desert is littered with the offscouring of modern life, polystyrene packing blocks, rusted hubcaps, exploded tires, plastic junk that lives forever. Fifty yards further in, though, the desert is empty. Materializing out of the sands, a market complex, spanking new, rises like a mirage. Mixing different styles, Moorish, Turkish, and Beverly Hills, it isn’t accommodating, only eclectic, a different kettle of fish. Some buildings, Turkish, look like nomad tents in stone, others like Brighton Pavilion. Lapping this market, the desert, impatient, waits to take it back again.

Outside Dubai, the road turns east, then south, following the old Buraimi Trail. Camel caravans, crossing into Abu Dhabi, took this trail through the Empty Quarter to the Kingdom of Arabia. They carried their provisions with them, skins of water and messes of barley and rice. Nothing lives in the desert, only yellow lizards and hyenas that feed on decay. Pinnacled rocks and broken kellas, old redoubts, define the horizon. The kellas guarded cisterns, dry ages ago. Camel droppings in the sand are a welcome sign of life.


The oasis at Al Buraimi, a locus amoenus on the edge of the sands, blossoms behind its mud walls. This pleasant place, carved out by men, is the product of thought and painstaking. Ghosb is their Arab word, meaning created “by effort.” The walls, layers of earth stiffened with bricks laid in athwartships, make a palisade against the sand. Taller than the walls, the castor-oil trees have large star-shaped leaves and fuzzy red flowers, and their skinny boles, reddish-brown, are girdled like shoots of bamboo. From the branches of the frywood trees, yellow pods hang like tongues depressed for inspection. Woman’s tongue, Arabs call the frywood. Date gardens, lush green, glorify the oasis. A gala in the desert, the gardens are flecked with colored lights. The orange lights are mangoes, also bougainvillea. Like charity, it covers the walls of the houses, bleached out or scabrous. Chinese shoe flowers, rosy-red, grow in plots before the houses. The ovate green leaves, edged with teeth, are sharp enough to draw blood. Yellow flowers like puffballs hide the dark brown bark of the gum trees, our common acacia. Camels, not choosy, eat the leaves of this tree, prickly with spines, and their drovers use the wood for cooking fires.

But the desert, a state of mind, has left its mark on Al Buraimi. It comes up to the walls like Moors coming up from Spain, hellbent for Tours. Then, without warning, it stops. This is where Charles Martel, a great hero, has raised his baton. In 732, Moors got their comeuppance at Tours, Creasy said. So far and no farther. Startled, I can see where a line has been drawn, first the white sand, drained of color by the sun, then the alfalfa, a lushness of dark flowers. Forage for goats and camels, it unrolls beneath the date palms as if Arabs had rolled out a carpet. This is a mystery, the stuff melodrama is made of.

Black and white, in my experience never quite themselves, shade into each other, and nothing I know is black or white altogether. Day, gaining on night, and night, becoming itself, do this little by little. Some fictions, melodramatic, argue to the contrary, old Scrooge in the Christmas Carol, for instance. First we have the monster and a monster is all he is, then presto, the nice old man. The oasis at Al Buraimi resembles this improbable fiction. A green thought, it confronts the desert like the difference between either/or.

Cursing fluently in Arabic, Abeyd-al-Malik brakes to a stop. A drove of camels, in no hurry, lurches across the road. Their hairy feet, unshod, are squishy blobs like jelly fish, and as they move they envelop the ground. The lead camel, evil looking, has a mind of its own, narrow but determined. Coming to a halt, it collapses slowly like a jack knife being folded. The front legs go down first, then the hind quarters. When a camel sits, unless you are used to this it is hard to avoid pitching over its withers. Indignant but perfunctory, the drover jabs at the camel with his pointed crop, a piece of almond wood. He does this until it struggles back to its feet. British on the Trucial Coast complain that Arabs, hard hearted, mistreat their beasts of burden. The plight of dumb animals distresses these British, and letters to the London Times reflect their concern. A hundred years ago, they founded the SPCA. But camels, like the old Adam, aren’t tractable by nature. If you want them to obey you, whipping doesn’t come amiss.

Getting down to stretch our legs, we head for lunch and a cup of coffee. Abeyd-al-Malik, fearing for the Land Rover, chooses to stay where he is. He says that Al Buraimi people will steal the coins from a dead man’s eyes. From the shurfa’ of the mosque comes the summons to prayer, violating the desert silence, sympathizing with it too. Both blessing and malediction, this is the Sura of Praise. Arabs, says Yelverton, recite it five times a day. “Guide us in the right path, not in the path of those Thou art angered with.”

An uninflected crying, the muezzin’s chant is tuneless, and Yelverton, grimacing, puts his fingers in his ears. “The old-time hymns had a tune you could carry.” Surprising the locals, he illustrates from Charles Wesley’s “Soldiers of Christ, Arise.” What would the world have been, he asks me, if Mohammed, “that fatal Ishmaelite,” had never wagged his tongue.

Blocking our path, mangy yellow dogs sun themselves in the street in front of the restaurant. Not bred or nurtured, these dogs are all dog. Growling, they want to bite us but haven’t spirit to do this. Above the door, the signboard, scalloped with neon tubing, is lettered in Arabic. Yelverton, cackling, makes this out as “Al Hambra’s Place.” A common room like a living room with the kitchen in back, the restaurant has a divan, taking one wall, also a TV set. The divan, says Yelverton, is for their nightly gatherings, diwaniyas. Late into the night, Arab men sit on this divan, drinking bitter coffee and canvassing the state of the world. The women, having their chores, stay home with the children.

Seated at deal tables veneered with Formica, old men pick at their food. Some, like Yassir Arafat, wear the red-checked ghetra wound with agal, a length of black rope. Wrinkling his nose, Yelverton advises the mutton, home grown. The fish, oily mackerel, is trucked in, he says, from Umm al-Qaiwain on the Gulf. A sharp tang on the air, oil of citron cuts the smell. Their eyes glued to a soap opera, the old men ignore us. On the flickering screen, the black and white figures are tearing a passion to tatters. They speak their unfamiliar tongue, but their antics are familiar and subtitles aren’t needed to tell the good guys from the bad. According to Yelverton, this Arab version of “As the World Turns” is beamed to Dubai from Kuwait.

Beyond Al Buraimi, a rickrack of metal girders signals the end of the highway. Where there was concrete, now there is sand. The map, dispensing with lines, is all stipples and bears the legend, “No defined boundary.” Stopping the Land Rover, Abeyd-al-Malik unscrews the caps from the tires, letting out air, then turns the car into the desert. Shy of the intruder, a flock of camels retreats before us, but the black goats, cropping the tribulus plants, stand their ground. “Bedu country,” our driver says. Rimming the desert, eroded humps that used to stand taller are crumpled like sodden asbestos. “Hajer Mountains.” From the crest of a dune, a solitary camel watches our approach. Evidently what he sees from his distance alarms him, and turning tail he heads down the other side.

White from a distance, the sand, seen close up, is grainy brown, textured with pebbles. Later this changes, and the sand turns golden amber, the color of sterility. Doughty had a keen eye. Even the waste soil of the desert is full of variety, he tells us. Old rainfall, a damp memory in pockets underground, still supports a little life. The fissured bark of the Ghaf tree, evergreen, is covered with gray hairs and needle-sharp twiglets. A Scots poet, Hugh MacDiarmid, says his songs are like this, tenacious shrubs that grow in the wasteland. Fending off erosion, they put “a withy round sand.” Like heads of cabbage, pale green fruit hugs the branches of the Ghaf tree. “Food-for-camel,” says Abeyd-al-Malik.

A little noise in a vacuum, the Land Rover moves through silence, pervasive except for the soughing of wind. Teasing the sand, the wind plays tricks. It makes ridges and artistic patterns, as if some cunning artificer had happened this way, In a history of the Dervishes, I find this about an Arab nomad who wandered in the Empty Quarter. He said he knew there was a God “by the same by which I know from the traces in the sand that a man or an animal has crossed it.” In midwinter and early summer, Yelverton says, the shamāl, blowing from the north, drives the sand before it. Then the desert turns into a dust bowl.

Color of amber, massifs of sand float in the afternoon haze. “Qaid, the Bedu call them.” Scoured by wind and water, the gravel flats between the dunes are dotted with outcrops of ashy white gypsum. Salt bushes, vivid green or gray-green, grow on the perimeter. Piling on speed, Abeyd-al-Malik hurls the car at the dunes, downshifting when he hits them. The front wheels, chewing sand, want to go through, not up. However, our momentum, gained on the wadis, brings us up and over. Force, accumulating, has to go somewhere. Running the obstacle course in the Navy, you hit the wall full tilt, grabbing for the top with your fingers. If you did this in one motion, without breaking stride, simple physics did the rest. Only it wasn’t much fun.

A boat in rough water, we labor up the dunes to the crest. For a moment we hang suspended, then, holding our breath, go down. On the other side, the sand, scooped out by wind, is a trough in the wave. Treacherous, it gives no hint of this until we meet it head on. The Land Rover, shuddering, threatens to capsize. It rights itself, however, and the up and down begins again.

Abeyd-al-Malik means to keep going as long as there are wadis and dunes. We want him to stop but “this bugger,” says Yelverton, doesn’t understand English. Understanding well enough, Abeyd-al-Malik has a mind of his own. Sound and fury is the element he lives in. Under the hood, however, the radiator begins to bubble, a kettle on the hob. The temperature needle swings over to the right where the gauge is colored red. It stays there. Climbing out of the car, Abeydal-Malik wads up a corner of his dishdasha, making a pot holder. Gingerly, he unscrews the radiator cap. The last of the water, vaporized, jets into the air like breath on a frosty morning. Yelverton, furious, yanks down the water can, attaching a length of flex cable to the spout. He upends the can, taking care not to splash any water on the block. In the heat we drive slowly, and the needle on the gauge turns back to the left. Yelverton, making the worst of a bad business, clicks his tongue against the roof of his mouth, cursing Abeyd-al-Malik. This driver, deaf and dumb, doesn’t understand English.

Deep in the desert, the massifs make a ring like old dolmens at Stonehenge. Inside the ring, Bedu shacks, protected from the shamāl, hunker down on the sand. The shacks, a single building, are stitched together with burlap, scraps of weathered wood, and corrugated metal like the rusting doors of old box cars. A stove pipe pokes up from the roof, and the entrance, a dark pit, is partly hidden by a swag of canvas, looped to one side of the frame. “Water!” says Abeyd-al-Malik, wanting to make amends. He gives the wheel of the car a half-turn, and we head for the Bedu encampment.

In front of the building, a racing camel grazes the salt bush. Do I know why the camel is called the ship of the desert, Yelverton asks me. “Because it’s full of Arab semen.” The camel, wary, lifts its head, assessing the stranger. Moist and swollen, a wad of bubble gum balloons from its mouth. Cooling itself, the camel holds this pink sac to the air, then sucks it back again. The bubble, collapsing, makes a noise like bath water rushing down the drain.

A man, a woman, and a boy emerge from the tumbledown building. Impudent, not abashed, this nomad boy has his hand out. He is dressed in rags like Robinson Crusoe on his desert island, and his avid eyes, exploring us, glitter with opportunity perceived. What he sees is Baksheesh, dollar bills and pounds sterling mounted on three pairs of legs. Spread the wealth, he is saying, and won’t take no for an answer. Malesh! says our driver. “Thanks just the same!” The boy persisting, Abeyd-al-Malik gives an edge to his tongue. Malesh! he says again. This time he means, “Forget it!”

Most Arabs, dark-skinned, are burned by the sun, but the Bedu is dark in the grain. He has kinky hair, wall-eyes like a pike’s, and isn’t bidding the stranger sit and eat, “One of the children of Ham.” Arabs will tell you, Yelverton says, that Noah cursed this errant child with blackness. Unlovely to them, black is the color of evil. Ibn Khaldun says this. He thought the damned were black, like the devil in old Christian paintings. Kinky hair, a badge of servitude, goes with being black. “Great God!” Doughty has them saying, “Can those wooly polls be of the children of Adam?”

The Bedu wears the long robe, but hurrying out to defend the wagon train has left off his burnoose. His hair, mostly gray, is patchy with yellow like an adolescent girl’s bleached with hydrogen peroxide. Around his waist, the rough cincture, knotted palm fibers, holds a dirk and a seamless girby. This homemade canteen, goat skin or sheep skin, glistens with droplets of water. Bedu men, says Yelverton, pulling a face, wash their hair in camel urine.

City Arabs don’t like Bedu, and Abeyd-al-Malik, citified, keeps downwind of this one. Bedu flaunt their apartness, a reproach to men in cities. Indifferent to creature comforts, they live on camel milk and dates from the oases. Some tint the whites of their eyes with blue dye. Bedu don’t make good neighbors. The tribe gets their allegiance, but their hand is raised against the outsider. Skirmishing like kites and crows, they have their blood feuds, passed on from father to son. Inured to shedding blood, they don’t wear the stigma of meekness.

“Hey you! Ali-ben-Shifty!” Yelverton says, seeing a dark face and a bedsheet. Cupping his hands, he holds them up to his mouth.

Reluctant, the Bedu, one man to our three, hands over the girby. Tilting it, Yelverton squeezes out water. As he drinks, he takes stock of the woman. She wears the black bukhnag, a calico scarf edged with bright thread, also a loose-fitting gown. Her skin, unlike the man’s, isn’t swarthy but pale. Splotches of henna paste, rosy-red like an apple, keep the sun from her forehead. The black hair, parted severely, makes a widow’s peak in the middle of her forehead and falls in loose braids to her shoulders. Work and child-bearing take their toll of Arab women, most being shapeless at thirty. This Bedu wife still has her young woman’s body, apparent to Yelverton beneath the cheap cotton kandura. Deliberately, he strips off this gown with his eyes.

The Bedu doesn’t need telling to understand that a line has been drawn in the sand. Not getting outside himself, Yelverton misses the anger. Arabs are Arabs, and how this nomad Arab might differ from others is a question that doesn’t detain him. Eyes rolling, the Bedu thinks about crossing the line. His fingers feel for the dirk at his belt. Chattel, like goats and camels, this woman belongs to him. Pushing the boy before her, she unhooks the canvas flap and disappears into the hovel. Abeyd-al-Malik, smelling a fracas, heads back for the car.

Two cocks on a dunghill, Yelverton and the Bedu circle each other. I am their witness, impartial, and getting it down. To close the circle, all that lacks is the violence there is no going back from. A little late in the day, Yelverton thinks twice. Sweat, beading his forehead, makes dark blotches under his arms. Irresolute, he holds up his hands, a placatory gesture. The Bedu ignores this. One of the people of King Ibn-Saud, a cattle lifter and cutthroat, he likes a resolution where something gets resolved.

But the duel in the sun, a true-life scenario, breaks off unfinished. At the sticking point, the Bedu backs down. His heart, crowded with blood, is empty only of pity, and compunction is the last thing on his mind. But even in the desert, witnesses tell tales. Knowing this, he has his second thoughts, not the same as Yelverton’s. Having raised his arm in anger, the Bedu lets it fall and turns away.

Fictions, in this respect, have it all over the truth. “More truth than poetry,” Yelverton likes to say but misses the point. True-to-life shows a muddle, the poet showing the truth as it might be. This is what all honest writing comes down to, not imagination but the estimating eye. The writer, privileged, fills in the blanks, seeing how the ending is only the tip of the iceberg. His privilege doesn’t extend to sleight-of-hand, though, where they want you to think that what ought to be might be.

Yelverton thinks that all fictions are like this. Hard-hearted, they take the wish for the deed. Not born yesterday, he knows that under the warm skin of the world is great cold, “more truth than poetry.” I agree he has a point. This duel in the sun, sound and fury, still needs its conclusion.

Being a writer, I undertake to supply it. First, though, I have to deal with things past. I need a beginning, also a middle where important things get done. Where my scenario begins, the Bedu, not made up yet, is like the nomad boy he has sired, but different. An unwilling scholar, he needs time for study. This Bedu is lucky, and time is what they have given him. From early days they let him see how the world he lives in, various like the waste soil of the desert, isn’t made in his image and likeness. On Eid days, celebrations that mark the end of Ramadan, the abstinent time, or the sacrifice of Ibrahim the Prophet, they dressed him in the black bisht edged with gold braid. They marched him off, complaining, from house to house in his neighborhood, where he bid “Eid Mubarak” to the neighbors. “Blessed be your celebration.” Later in his sitting room—never mind that this majlis is the floor of a hovel—he practiced fuming the incense. He polished the mabkhar, fragrant with perfume, until the brass nails were gleaming and he could see his face in the mirrors. From the marashsh chased with arabesques, he spilled the rosewater over the cupped hands of his guest. Entertaining this guest, a stranger, he was all ears. His tongue, impertinent, he kept in his heart.

Doing this for a long time, the Bedu, schooled, becomes the hero, “full of the godly humanity of the wilderness.” He has acquired the stigma of meekness. Something given, it falls like a bolt from the blue. But he doesn’t take to it naturally, the way a duck takes to water. This stigma that makes the difference, separating sheep from goats, is also something he has earned.

Where my scenario ends, the Bedu gets beyond himself. Astride his victim, he swings an arm, preparing to kill. But the blow is intermitted, a broken parabola. Letting his arm fall, he doesn’t do this from fear or prudence, and his gesture, not spastic, is a meditated thing.

When we regain the highway, Abeyd-al-Malik lays on the whip. He wants us home again before the desert settles down for the night. Yelverton, dejected, hugs himself against the door of the cab. Gnawed by the worm of conscience, this ill-tempered Giaour doesn’t like the sorry figure he has cut. But that is only what I think, taking the wish for the deed. Earnestly, he says, “I’d rather sleep with her naked than him with all his clothes on.”

Coming up on Al Buraimi, we slacken speed but don’t stop. The sun, a glowing clinker, is low in the sky, and the yellow dogs that look like jackals have disappeared from the street in front of “Al Hambra’s Place.” But a group of Arab men, rehearsing their diwaniya, are chewing the fat as they wait for the restaurant to open. As we drive by them, the neon lights, winking on, illuminate the signboard. Visible for a long time in the rear-view mirror, these lights jig into the gathering dusk.


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