A date with the desert
A lyrical and compelling travelogue on various aspects of life in the Arabian desert.
HE journalist V. Muzafer Ahamed began his writing career as a poet and writer of fiction in Malayalam. After a long hiatus, he resumed his literary endeavours during his 13 years in Saudi Arabia on a journalistic assignment. He made regular forays into the Arabian desert, first as part of his job, and then for the sheer joy of exploration and the discovery of many life forms in the desert and the numerous strands of indigenous Bedouin culture. Spurred on by the desert’s magic, Ahamed wrote two travelogues in Malayalam, Marubhoomiyude Atmakatha (The Autobiography of the Desert) and Marumarangal (Desert Trees). Camels in the Sky is a collection of his essays culled from these books and translated into English by the veteran journalist and translator P.J. Mathew. Naturally, Ahamed’s language is informed by impulses of the poet and fiction-writer in him, and the essays are both impassioned and evocative.
Both the author and the translator, in their “Author’s Note” and “Translator’s Note” respectively, the efforts of the editor Mini Krishnan, without whose insight the book would not have materialised. And we do have a most unusual book.
Mathew has also written an erudite introduction contextualising Ahamed’s work. This informative piece, which throws light on the early explorers and adventurers in the Arabian desert and the literature left behind by them, adds to the book’s charm.
Comprising 23 essays on various aspects of the desert, Ahamed’s collection is crisp, lyrical and compelling. The first essay, “Water War”, is poignant and prophetic of the times we are about to face, even in a water-rich State like Kerala. The Ramon Magsaysay Award-winner Rajendra Singh, known as “The Waterman of India”, predicted in an interview to Quartz India on May 24, 2016, that the Third World War would be fought over water. What we encounter in this essay is a similar war on a micro-scale. Ahamed’s Saudi friend Abdurahiman Akheel takes him to his five-acre date palm estate at Sakakka on the fringes of the desert, close to the Saudi Arabia-jordan border. As Ahamed takes photographs of the well at one end of the estate, a party of 20-odd people assaults him, hitting him in the face, and as he collapses on the ground, tramples on his back with heavy boots. They are hoodlums sent by Akheel’s neighbour who has had a long-standing dispute with him on the ownership of the well and who thinks that Ahamed is a Sudanese whom Akheel has hired to take photographs of the well to concoct evidence in his favour. The police arrive, and a criminal case is registered; Ahamed’s innocence is eventually established.
Later, when the assaulter, having become aware of his folly and the deep trouble he has landed himself in, pleads for a compromise, Akheel does not pay heed, exulting instead over the advantage he now enjoys over his foe! Ahamed is reminded about the “water wars” between Tamil Nadu and Kerala, which have featured prominently in the media and politics of south India for many decades now.
“The Bedouin and the Gaaf Tree” is a deeply ecological piece. It is about the rarest of the rare “singledrop rain” that cools a single cell of the dead and withered gaaf tree in the desert, which has not seen rain in a decade. Only the Bedouin can detect this rain and they believe that this single drop will restore to life a single leaf on the dead tree. They call it “the mysterious poetry of the desert.” With moderate rain, the tree will resurrect and live through the next rainless decade. The Bedouin assert that the gaaf tree will survive for three decades, with just two showers in between. Ahamed calls the gaaf tree “an appropriate metaphor for the Bedouin’s lifelaud
….What they say about the tree is, in fact, true about themselves.” Further in the essay, Ahamed meditates on the many forms of life in the desert and their endurance. Once, he sees a bit of an Arabic newspaper stuck to the branch of a gaaf, as if the tree were hugging the letters. “Words (the imperishable) hugging the icon of survival,” Ahamed exclaims in his reflection. The word “the imperishable” given in parenthesis above, is the literal meaning of “Aksharam” in Sanskrit and Malayalam. “A+ksharam (that which cannot be destroyed), indeed! This is a sample that brings out the tonal quality of Ahamed’s meditative writing.
“Burn Marks of Death” is about a Nepali worker on an Arab’s farm in a lonely part of the desert, who was swallowed whole by a python and remained in its belly for three days, and his horrible death thereafter. The prophet Jonah of the Old Testament, who was swallowed by a whale which vomited him out on the shore alive after three days and three nights, fared better! The essay highlights the hazards posed by wild creatures roaming the desert, especially to the hapless migrant workers who toil in an alien land to eke out a living.
“Cactuses Drink Moonlight” is an incomparably poetic essay. A full moon lavishes its love on cactus plants in bloom in the night, a romantic night when a pair of camels share a kiss. The author witnesses cactuses rising up in the chilly night, their limp pods standing up as if anticipating his embrace. He says that plants in the desert respond to environmental changes more sensitively than the other living beings. The chapter also describes the sunsets in the desert, which turn everything around into classical oil paintings. It also describes the shapeshifting sand dunes when desert storms rage, obliterating everything in their wake. Countless oases, wells, rivers and even the arms of the sea abutting the desert have thus been covered by shifting sand dunes. This is how the chapter ends: “Khazmul Hisan (horse-snout river) and Khuweira Al Saida (white river with lukewarm water) are two rivers that vanished from the Ragba village in the desert, not far from Riyadh. The village had 17 poets who composed poems describing the rivers’ moods. But there is neither river nor poet left in Ragba.”
In “Quivering Fossils”, Ahamed describes the carcasses of dead animals and even human beings that are found in the village, dried-up skin sticking to the bones, much like fossils left from far-off millennia but, of course, of fairly recent origin. Humans get trapped in the middle of the desert and die of hunger and thirst, unable to move out either because their vehicles are stuck in the sands and they cannot move, and/or because they lost their orientation in the desert and had no means of communication to summon help. The author describes a near-disastrous experience he and his friends had when they ventured ill-equipped into the desert to see the Mushaikhira rock art dating back to the period between 3000 and 1000 BCE, and were caught in an ugly desert storm that had wreaked havoc not only in their part of the desert but in the whole of Saudi Arabia and in the adjoining seas, capsizing ships and causing scores of deaths and general devastation.
As they were stuck in the mud with their light car, having lost direction and awaiting certain death, a Saudi named Mohamed Qahtani and his five-year-old son emerge from the sandy haze of the storm; the father and son get into the car to help them out. The father starts the car in a miraculous move and the son drives the car sitting in his father’s lap, pulling them out of the sand mire. Qahtani’s dexterity with the car, acquired like his son’s in his boyhood, and other survival skills that he developed are to be emulated if anyone wishes to survive in the desert in the 21st century! Like the Bedouin say: “If you befriend the desert, you can travel on its wings. Otherwise, caught in its horns, you can court death.”
“Mirage, Mirage” is highly poetic in its descriptions of the shifting shadows that form strange shapes under a blazing sun. The author describes a journey he and his friends made through the desert during the daytime, chasing the mirages, which are so lifelike that you feel sad to learn that they are delusions, though real enough to be imprinted on exposed film frames. In this rather eventful, longish chapter, one comes across this passage: “The eyes that mistake the vision for water offer comfort to the parched throat, albeit temporarily. Onward, onward is the message mirages give people in the desert. ‘What you are seeking is there up ahead, chase it with patience and perseverance.’ …Chasing something that I know did not exist seems to make a better person of me. The yes-no maya seemed to exemplify the ups and downs of life.” There is also the curious mention of women in the oases of the inner regions of the desert who drove tractors and other vehicles when it was strictly prohibited by law in Saudi Arabia at the time when the essay was written (2010), although in June 2018, this law was repealed.
Each of the 23 chapters deals with an aspect of life in the desert, its environment and topography, its ancient archaeological and paleontological sites; its natural beauty and the grace found in extreme physical conditions. Ahamed’s internalising of these and his putting them down on paper has been with the passionate intention of sharing his experience with his readers at the deepest level. He succeeded resoundingly in his Malayalam essays. The translation carries the strength and beauty of the original, bespeaking its intrinsic quality and testifying to the skills of the translator, bringing out a text that both the author and the translator can be proud of. I am sure Mini Krishnan’s unseen hand has healed and polished the sentences, giving them a finished gleam.
Camels in the Sky Travels in Arabia By V. Muzafer Ahamed Translated from Malayalam by P.J. Mathew Oxford University Press, 2019Pages: 118Price: Rs.595