A date with the desert

FrontLine - - ART - BY A.J. THOMAS

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

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