Wednesday, January 03, 2007

William of Arabia: The Empty Quarter

The Rub al-Kali (pronounced "rube") is the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia - a place with giant red sand dunes that might as well be on another planet. There are Bedouin tribal people living out there but nobody really knows how many.
These Bedouin kids have obviously not seen too many Westerners, if any. This is one of my favorite pictures that I ever took in Arabia. They're looking at me like I just landed in a spaceship.

The year I was born they were still having camel charges so the inner desert of the kingdom was a cross between the 13th century and Mars. Once you can deal with the hostile aspects of the environment a funny thing happens. You begin picking up a magnificent, deep, spiritual vibe that has captivated Westerners since they first ventured there.

In fact, one of the adjustments when I came to Oregon was a feeling that I was never outside. There were so many trees around and it was so often overcast that I felt crowded like I was in a big room. When you get out in the desert you know you're outside. Of course it's seriously hot, so you feel that every molecule of water in your body is being pulled in every direction, but the same thing happens to your soul. You start to feel awestruck. Then at night, when you're so far out there that distant countries are a glow on the horizon, you look up and actually see the cloud of the Milky Way galaxy with a billion stars gleaming down. It's the only time I've ever felt the complete truth - that I was sitting on a planet riding through space. Arabia is an amazing place.

The American returning students all had these little make-work type jobs. I was a lifeguard but I knew someone who was working in Transportation, and one day he asked if I wanted to go on a truck caravan into the Empty Quarter. We would drive down over the course of a few days, and then fly back on an oil company prop plane. It remains one of the great Arabian adventures and there were many.The Ride: Off-Road Semi-Trucks

Stuck. Note the trippy perspective of the pickup truck that scouted the way and carried supplies.

Back on the move out in the middle of nowhere.

My hair was long back then because it was the rock and roll years, and I'm dressed like an Arab because it worked. Their clothes are designed for those temperatures and blowing sand. Hey, this was a grueling environment and I was just trying to hang on. The other American guy was named Paul, and we had a great time with the Arab drivers. A lot of the guides were Bedouin - these people were just so authentic and real. I confess I felt a little superficial around them.The Crew.

The toughest part was the eating arrangements. We had a pickup truck with some sheep in it, and every night they would slaughter one. They would always pick the most banged up beast from being bounced around, and they would always let it have its fill of water before cutting its throat. It was a merciful gesture - the sheep didn't deserve to die thirsty. It was very difficult when they cut a sheep's throat but I had to listen and not flinch. Of course they would always challenge the Americans to eat the weird parts and I had to go along out of respect. For one thing, the sheep's eye is something they give the guest of honor so who could refuse that? I would compare it to a marinated onion. One time they handed me something and I asked what it was. The Arab just made a sound, "Baa!" It was the tongue.The obligatory camel shot. A bouquet of camels. Here it's evening, and we're deep in the Rub al-Kali. Note the red dunes. You can tell from the desert floor and the small outpost in the distance that these dunes are hundreds of feet tall. And red.

The plane taking off was a fitting end to the journey. It was for cargo and we were just sitting on the floor. There was no real runway or anything and we lifted up from the desert to try and clear these tall sand dunes. From the back of the plane looking forward out the cockpit window all I could see was sand for the longest time after takeoff. We finally just nudged over the top of this huge dune and headed back to Dhahran. My trip to the Empty Quarter was over.


At 5:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your pictures and story are great.

I can feel the connection to the sand and the sunset..and the you describe it.

I was in Sudan a number of times for work and had similar feelings that you describe. Part of a spiritual earthiness...
The sunsets were long and dramatic and the people - every one of them - were sweet.

I remember seeing people walking along a road in the middle of NOWHERE ...after we were driving for 1/2 a day with no town - no settlement - in site. This was the scrub desert- an occasional blackwood tree just in site of the next one.

I imagine the dunes were the most spiritual of all places like this. Your description was wonderful. I used to sleep outside and watch the heavens go you described - only you described it best.

It makes sense what you say about Oregon and never feeling outside..
I never felt that way because I was just a visitor...but you are a real part of it.

Nice perspective on this little trip to the dunes...the pictures capture it all.




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