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Sierra magazine
A Sandy Place to Stop Thinking

The author sought desert adventure and found herself at home with a bedouin family

By Tracy Johnston

Said, the head of the family, was lying in the sand next to me, trying to take a nap. It was hot and his youngest son, a toddler, was climbing all over him, pulling his hair and clutching his gown. Said seemed not to mind, which struck me as odd. I assumed Arab men could, with a simple grunt or raised eyebrow, absolve themselves of child rearing and impose obedient silence in their homes. Every now and then he'd reach up, gather the kid in his arms, and roll over with him like a sleepy lion.

Said's wife sat a few feet away, weaving a bracelet from threads fastened to her big toe. The infant she had just nursed was now asleep--her grandson, her oldest daughter's baby. Her own ten children were scattered around the camp--sleeping, embroidering, and playing tag with two newborn camels.

No one talked much. Not today and not yesterday. I wasn't talking much either. I don't speak Arabic. I was getting grumpy. My husband and I had planned on having some sort of adventure in Oman, but now it was too darn hot. We'd ended up in Oman because we'd gotten a gig teaching travel writing on a cruise ship and Muscat, the sultanate's largest city, was where we had to disembark. We'd found Chris Beale--a former major in the British army who'd been in Oman for 22 years--on the Internet, and he'd promised to take us hiking in the desert.

But here we were, just hanging out in a stretch of red sand dunes about the size of Rhode Island. We weren't hiking; we weren't even moving.

"So why does Said's wife have to hide her face here at her own home?" I asked Beale. She was not wearing the black face covering with a stiff vertical bar that I'd seen in the marketplace, but she was keeping a corner of her head scarf over her mouth, holding it in place with her teeth.

"Actually," he said, "I think she's just hiding her smile--she has a bad bucktooth."

"But that's terrible," I said.

Beale waved his hand as if he were brushing away a fly. "Don't worry about it," he said. He is the kind of man who is hard on himself. ("Bloody stupid of me," he'd say whenever anything went wrong. "I am an utter ass, pardon my language.") If he tells you not to worry about something, you don't.

"It's just that so much attention is paid to how beautiful Arabic women are--" I began.

"Look at her eyes," Beale interrupted. "They are gorgeous. Just relax and enjoy her."

And so I settled back into silence and thought about what I'd told my class on the cruise ship: The hardest thing to do as a travel writer is to get away from yourself.

And here I was.

How could Said's wife just sit there doing embroidery day after day, year after year? Why did bedouin women have to wear so many layers of clothing, even in the shade? Said's wife had on pants, a brightly colored dress, a gauzy black gown, and a head scarf. How much of Oman's oil money was trickling down to Said? Were the girls in the family going to receive an education?

"It's just that her life offers no possibilities," I said.

"Have a date," Beale said and handed me a tin pot.

I got out a notebook and started to write. I had an impulse to write a letter to my mother.

But then I noticed the shadows had lengthened. I checked my watch. An hour had passed. I had spent the time watching the children play with the baby camels, all fur and legs and Betty Boop eyelashes. I was staring at Said's wife--at her delicate fingers and her strong brown toes and her beautiful flashing eyes. I saw her give a casual push to a swinging yogurt maker and say something to Said. He got up, and I heard the squeal of a chicken being killed. I watched Said's oldest son playing tag with his youngest sisters. They were small--maybe three and four years old. They looked like tiny adults with their lipstick and earrings, and he looked like Fabio in his tight white T-shirt. They played tag for maybe a half hour.

Said's camp was ramshackle and exotic but comfortable--unbelievably comfortable for a home made of lashed-together sticks. From a distance it looked like a hovel--all twigs and plastic--and even up close it was pretty basic: no woven rugs, no brass teapots, no ornate chests. But the main room was open on one side to the air and covered by some strung-up cloth. It had a floor of cool, soft sand, and there was always a thermos of tea and a pot of dates. The smell of frankincense filled the air.

Said's wife had brought out the burner when a visitor showed up that morning. The man had wafted the scent into his armpits and unwound his long turban and held it in the smoke. The smoke billowed around his form and into the air. I could still smell it if I flapped my blouse.

I put away my letter. Somehow the words seemed too noisy, too self-conscious. They seemed to make too much of things. As the sun went down, everyone started moving, and I walked over some dunes to check my tent. When I came back to camp, almost everyone was gone. Beale was talking to my husband, and Said's mother was sitting so still in her layers of black that I kept mistaking her for a pile of cloth.

"They've gone to feed the goats," Beale said. "Do you want to see if we can find the pens?"

And so we got in the Toyota Land Cruiser and headed down a long valley dotted with a few patches of scrub and the occasional acacia tree. Beale turned abruptly to the left, and we drove up to the base of a plateau of high dunes. He put his foot on the gas pedal, and we started to climb. At the top of the highest dune, we stalled for a moment, tilted sideways, then sailed over into a sea of undulating shapes. There were no valleys now, no peaks, no trees, no landmarks--everything looked the same. Beale had to keep up some speed in order not to get stuck in the sand, so we careened up and over and around and down the dunes until I had to post in my seat as if I were riding a horse.

"Can't stop," Beale said, "unless you want to spend the night."

Then the light began to fade and Beale started talking to himself. "That may be it. Not that. Have to get around this. Jolly good. Sorry about that."

Ahead of us the desert had turned to a single shade of peach-colored gray, and the dunes were without shadows, without height or depth. We kept cresting dunes that seemed to arise out of nowhere--riding them as if they were rogue waves. I looked back to find the camp, but there was no valley, no plateau--they had disappeared. I looked at my husband and saw that he was afraid. Like all good navigators, he hates being lost.

Now it was dark and Beale turned on his lights; we could see maybe 20 feet in front of us. Everything outside the tunnel of light was black. We kept turning and turning, going in circles. Then Beale turned the lights off and we drove for a while in the dark. Finally he stopped and got out of the car. In the distance was a low, dark shape.

"Goats!" he said triumphantly.

Said and his oldest son were standing on a pickup truck pitching alfalfa into pens. Everyone else in the family was helping or wandering around. A baby gurgled happily, the two little girls danced around my legs, and a small boy came over to show us a newborn kid bleating in his arms. Said's wife smiled at me with her eyes.

It was at that moment when all my questions about Oman, about Islam, about the role of women in blah, blah, blah, just slipped away. This was a family--not a country, not a religion, not a term paper. I was in the heart of a traditional tribal family, one that over the centuries had developed amazing strength. I felt safe here. Said's wife was beautiful and her children were happy and she had married a good man--what else was there?

For a moment I stood under a giant scaffold of diamonds in the whirling drum of the night sky and believed that if I made my tiny family strong, that might be enough.

Tracy Johnston is the author of Shooting the Boh: A Woman's Voyage Down the Wildest River in Borneo (Random House) and is now working on her photography.

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