Dunes, Dust, and Dreams

“Any landscape is a condition of the spirit.”

– Henri Frederic Amiel –

As far as my eyes can see, dunes ripple towards the horizon in a vast ocean of sand. A full moon hovers like an over-sized yellow light bulb at the edge. Around me, the voices of forty-nine women chatter like a flock of birds. At the start of the third, yearly Women’s Heritage Walk, covering 125 km over five days, the conversations that float into the morning chill, are fortified with eager anticipation.

It takes about three kilometres to find my walking rhythm, and for the night to flee from my limbs. By now, the burnt-orange sun has popped over the horizon behind me. Soon after, the dunes are tinged with a warm glow. A kiss of cool air lingers on my nose and cheeks, and I fill my lungs with air laced with dust particles, and layers and layers of history.

In my peripheral vision I can see a young woman walking with a confident stride. Her jalabiya ripples softly around her body. The thin ribbon of silver tali, decorating the long sleeves and neckline of her sky-blue dress, sparkle like her eyes in the first rays of the sun. Her dark, wavy hair is neatly tucked in under a translucent shayla, except for the stray strands stubbornly escaping confinement. She keeps her eyes focused on where the dunes meet the sky, and Abu Dhabi hovers four days away. With every step, the distance shrinks, filling her heart with joy. I turn my head to get a better look, but she disappears from view.

The desert is an archive of footprints and stories, and with each step, I leave an imprint of myself on the sandy terrain, despite the fact that, within hours, the wind will have wiped the slate clean, forever removing my brief presence. Yet, as I trudge into the lengthening day, I stockpile bits and pieces of the landscape I devour with all my senses, sliding them into my reservoir of memories and experiences.

It is impossible not to give free rein to my imagination in this vast landscape with its magnetic pull on my soul. And so, I allow the shifting veil of time to thin sufficiently for me to peer into the past. Searching for the elusive movement, in the periphery of my vision, of Dana and her family, slowly making their way from Al Ain, where they spent the summer in the shade of the oasis, back to Abu Dhabi, the small, sun-baked settlement, where they live the rest of the year. She follows in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother, who have made this journey for as long as they can remember, twice a year, while their husbands, fathers, grandfathers, uncles, brothers and sons spend the long, hot, humid summer months diving for pearls. During this time, the women, instead of allowing fear and worries to cloud their days, occupy themselves with the practicalities of life.

The children always look forward to the maqeedh, the seasonal trip, which reunites them with cousins and friends, who live year-round in the many inland oases. Dana likes helping out in the date garden her extended family cultivates. The simple acts of dipping her feet in the cool water of the falaj they use for irrigation and their daily needs, and staring at the way the sun slants through the thick canopy of leaves, creating a mesmerising interplay between light and shadow, can capture her attention for hours. It is so different from the flat, white, shade-less stretch of sand on Abu Dhabi Island, where life feels more exposed to, and at the mercy of the elements. Best of all, though, is the burst of flavour the freshly picked dates leave in her mouth. It is the taste she associates with summer and waiting. Despite her days being filled with a never-ending stream of chores, she feels comforted by the prattle of conversation, which, like the dalah pot full of freshly brewed coffee, is always within reach. The hands of the women, like their mouths, are never still, as they flit through the well-worn paths of spinning, chopping, sorting, sewing, plaiting, lacing, dying, combing, and weaving.

This is the first year Dana has made the journey as a wife, and she can feel anticipation and excitement twirling her emotions into a tight ball, the closer she gets to her reunion with Ahmed. Her family’s choice has been perfect, and she looks forward to the stories his gentle voice narrates. The dhows should be heading back to shore soon. She prays it was a good year, despite the urgent whispers of doom that have filled her ears all summer long, declaring that the Japanese have found a way of cultivating pearls. She does not know exactly what this means, but worry has nuanced all the conversations, which have strung the hot days together into a thick chain of trepidation.

My train of thought feels more lucid, when I think with my feet. Free of the demands of daily life, I allow my imagination to take flight, to grow and expand, until it seems to fill the vast blue sky, stretched taught from horizon to horizon. The long hours of continual movement, and rising heat of the day, accumulate in tiny beads of sweat on my skin. My light tread of the early morning morphs into a slog through the soft sand and spiny dunes, and I am grateful when we reach our lunch spot, where fresh salads await our hungry stomachs.

Dana smiles towards me, where I gratefully sink into a tiny spot of shade. The camels, obeying her uncle’s command, come to a noisy halt. She helps her mother to untie a small bundle of fire food. Just enough is sectioned off to make a fire for a pot of coffee. The rest is saved for the coming days and nights. Her uncle and younger siblings erect the roof of their coarsely woven camel hair tent. Everyone has a duty, and soon they sit down in the shade to enjoy coffee, dates, and the left over flat bread from the morning. Here they will nap and talk until the heat scampers westwards, towards the setting sun, before moving on for another couple of hours. There is no rush. No set distance to conquer. Here, in the desert, time is endless, malleable.

Squeezed close together we all vie for a tiny bit of shade. Some talk, some nap. It feels far too long before our enforced rest comes to an end. Time is measured, precise, and should not be wasted. We still have a long way to go before we reach tonight’s camp.

And so, the first day flows into the second, and then into a third, in a blur of movement and routine.  On the third day, the setting moon hides behind a bank of clouds pushing in from the Gulf. In windswept ripples of grey, it mirrors the rolling patterns left by the wind on the sand. The promise of rain keeps the morning cool, and pleasant to walk in. My eyes delight in Leica’s fluid movement, as she bounds past me, enthusiastically chasing after one of the support cars. She is a reminder of a time when salukis were bred and kept for hunting, providing food for the table, fleshing out the otherwise meagre diet of dried fish, rice, bread, dates, and camel milk.

A ghostly movement catches my eye. It is Dana’s saluki. Her family’s dog to be more accurate, yet it is Dana he follows like a shadow. With slender legs, and a streamlined body, he is built for speed. She affectionately calls him her Wind Drinker. Her gentle ways, and soft voice enchant animals and humans alike. Yet, she does not like to be the centre of attention, and prefers to keep her own company. Here in the desert, with the women folk and children riding camels, she prefers to walk. Her heart, like mine, expands with each step she gives.

As the wind picks up, waterfalls of sand cascade over the crests of the dunes. I pull my cotton scarf over my nose and mouth. The grains of sand leave a sting on my exposed skin, and I hide from it as best I can, keeping a steady pace towards where tonight’s camp is being erected by the invisible hands orchestrating the logistics of the walk, leaving me free to roam the dunes, unencumbered by the daily chores Dana still has to deal with, despite her walking alongside me.

She may well be a fragment of my imagination, but with every hour I spend in the desert, she becomes more real. A composite of the many women who inhabited this landscape, long before I was born, and who still survive in the memories of the older generation. Dana, like her name, translating to “pearl”, is a woman of strength and beauty, dignity, kindness, compassion, and gentleness, yet strong, willful, and adaptable. Attributes I strive for, but often fall short of.

On a gravel plain, surrounded by undulating dunes, we stumble upon the men of one of the sheikhs, training his falcons, and we are graciously invited to observe this age-old relationship between man and falcon. Perched regally, with leather hoods covering their eyes, they patiently wait their turn to soar high in the sky. They seem unperturbed by the many feet shuffling around them, as fifty women eagerly snap pictures. Once vital to the livelihood of the desert tribes, falcons have always been highly prized.

A smile washes over Dana’s face, as she watches from a distance. She loves the stories her uncle tells at night around the campfire, and although her younger siblings are enthralled by the stories of jinn, she prefers to listen to those about hunting and camping in the desert. It is then that she wishes she were born in a different body. Her uncle’s eyes always glisten like that of a boy, when he conjures up an alternate world, devoid of the daily grind of chores. It is the reason she loves walking in the desert so much, as it is the closest she can ever come to living these stories of freedom.

The slow gait of camels catches my eye just before they disappear from sight. Their bodies sway, as they make steady progress. Dana follows behind, deep in thought. Here in the desert, it feels effortless to allow time to transform thinking into a ritual. Walking in the footsteps of the thousands of people who left their footprints here through the ages, it is easy to conceive how these paths can lead both inwards and outwards, connecting the present with the past.

With every step, I yearn to know more of the time, when life here was lived close to the earth. A time before air-conditioning had divorced us from our immediate environment. It is not always easy to reconcile the old way of life with the new. Progress, with old-world values. Holding on to romantic notions of the past, can be like trying to capture a mirage, full of distortions. The more I think, the more I entangle myself in opposing thoughts and notions, never reaching a conclusion, but hopefully attaining a deeper understanding of the struggles of the human condition.

Reaching camp I am too tired to indulge in philosophical conversation, although that is exactly what the cushions spread out around the campfire, invite. There is too much to do between arriving dirty and tired, and falling into the welcome embrace of sleep, despite the howling wind and showers of sand sifting through our Bedouin tent, covering our bags, sleeping bags, faces and hair in a layer of grit. While I sleep, the wind increases in strength, reaching speeds in excess of 45 km per hour. The night air becomes choked with dust, and at one o’clock, when our tent comes crashing down on top of us, and the male support team rushes over to secure ropes and pegs, I am grateful to be sheltered from the brunt of the storm. After the umpteenth tent come down, at around three o’clock in the morning, with a weather forecast predicting an increase in wind speeds, the camp is woken up by disjointed voices. The one outside our tent is gruff and business-like. “We are evacuating you. If you are ready in ten minutes, you can be on the second truck.”

Safely ensconced in the spacious interior of a Land Cruiser, with six of my Sand Sisters, I glance back towards the camp, where Dana’s solitary figure is silhouetted like a lost waymark amidst a disheveled looking campsite. She lifts a hand in greeting, and I feel my heart contract with disappointment. Unlike me, she does not have the luxury of escaping the swirling sand. I cannot see her face, as she grips her shayla tight against the onslaught of the wind, but her kohl-lined eyes acknowledge me as a kindred spirit, united by the mystery, beauty, and unpredictability of this desert landscape. I lift my hand to return her greeting, but she is no longer there.


The above story first appeared in Other Wise Ireland, a wonderful magazine focusing on inspirational living. Jano Stefanik, co-creator of this wonderful publication, was kind enough to allow me to reproduce it on my blog. If you live, or find yourself in Ireland, make sure you get your hands on this little gem of a magazine.

**  The Women’s Heritage Walk takes place at the beginning of the year in winter, starting in Al Ain, and ending 5 days later near Abu Dhabi, while the yearly migration, between the coast and inland oases, took place just before and after summer. The desert landscape encourages the imagination to soar, and so I’ve made use of creative carte blanche to mix reality and fiction to create a sense, not only of what the desert is like now, but also to capture a small slice of life, in a time, before oil accelerated development in the United Arab Emirates.