National Geographic

Lines in Sand

North of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 21°48'46" N, 39°3'16" E

It is night. I hear Mohamad Banounah praying: “. . . بسم الله الرحمان الرحيم . . . ”

He is bent at the waist, circling my sleeping bag, walking backward through the dark. Is it a joke? Some type of dance? Is he suffering from heatstroke? No: It is an improvised blessing. My Saudi guide, a compact, effusive, methodical man, a desert survival expert, a wildlife photographer, a retired military officer, is dragging a stick through the sand. He is drawing a circle around my tarp—invoking the name of Allah, the Benificent, the Merciful, for divine protection. It is our first camp in the desert of Arabia.

We have walked two days out of the vast port city of Jeddah: more than 60 miles atop sidewalks sterilized by the cauterizing rays of the sun. Behind us: the jostling dreams of 3.5 million slumbering urbanites. Ahead: the long, austere, salt plain of the Hejaz coast, a white ramp that leads 700 miles north to Jordan—a strip of Saudi Arabia not traversed by an outside traveler on foot since the days of Lawrence of Arabia, and not walked by Saudis at least since cars began bumping down old caravan trails in the early 1940s. And already, we are lost.

Jeddah’s suburban fringe is a maze, a scribble of plans, a palimpsest. The desert is sprinkled with fortress-like mansions. It is slashed by new fences, walls, power lines, roads that go nowhere. Thousands of mounds of dirt pimple the landscape: a spreading sea of landfill, evidence of a massive building boom. (All of Saudi Arabia is a construction site.) We are zigzagging toward a rendezvous with our two cargo camels. Tomorrow, they will be trucked to an empty crossroad. We must find them. But tonight we are tired. (Banounah has collapsed under his mosquito net.) I switch off my headlamp and close my eyes. I press my ear to the sand. I am listening for the hoof beats of wild ibexes, for swarming herds of gazelles, for the wind raking through a lush savanna. Instead, what I hear is Jeddah. The city emits a long, continuous, mechanical sigh into the night.

When the first humans wandered out of Africa, they stumbled into a paradise.

After fording the Bab-el-Mandeb strait that divides present-day Djibouti from Yemen, they encountered a green, green Arabia. No desert is eternal. Water once sparkled here: Rivers ran to the sea, chains of lakes glistened in the interior. There were marshes, flocks of birds, open woodlands. A thousand centuries ago, the notorious Empty Quarter of the Arabian Peninsula was a Serengeti.

A quiet golden age in Arabian archaeology is now unveiling that ancient world. Stone tools that look remarkably like those littering northeast Africa were discovered here recently. These finds have effectively doubled the record of Homo sapiens in the Arabian Peninsula, pushing it back at least 106,000 years. These data are reshaping the traditional “out of Africa” dispersal theory. Our great, primal journey across the globe—the ancestral trail that I am following—may be far older than we think. Moreover, one long accepted pathway of earliest migration out of Africa, north up the Nile Valley into the Sinai and beyond, is now being challenged by genetic studies. DNA markers in living populations instead point due east: From Africa we spread first to Arabia, and then onward into southern Asia. The peopling of Europe appears to have originated from distant India, not the Middle East.

“Both routes could be correct,” says Abdullah Mohammed Alsharekh, an archaeologist at King Saud University in Riyadh. “The record of human expansion has big gaps. Humans went everywhere, chasing resources—water, animals to hunt, plants to eat. We didn’t walk in straight lines. We radiated. We scattered.”

At dawn Banounah lights a miniature stove. He boils two miniscule cups of tea.

Morning tea in the desert 'burbs. The line in the sand is Banounah's prayer circle. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Morning tea in the desert ‘burbs. The line in the sand is Banounah’s prayer circle. Photograph by Paul Salopek

We scatter north of Jeddah. We radiate along the tangents of roads, fences, piles of junk, searching for our two camels—for our new cameleer, a stoic Sudanese named Awad Omran. We scan the ruptured horizon.

“Craaaazy!” Banounah says in bewilderment.

Hours later, sopping with sweat, we give up. We call our camel support team. We summon Awad. We send our GPS coordinates: a business college marooned in the sand barrens. They drive to us. Our camels, Seema and Fares, stare skeptically down, with their enormous jet eyes, from the back of the truck. Like all camels, they expect the worst. The truck’s cargo winch fires up.

The world’s first walkers had no maps. I try to imagine this.

Our original journeys across the world featured no preplanned routes, no shortcuts, no destinations. The very concept of “destination” had yet to be invented. Each virgin horizon unfolded with an open-ended question: Where next? Having no preconceived places to go, the Stone Age pioneers were, by definition, never lost. We might be able to remember this feeling, but we cannot have it again.

Fares, our big bull camel, growls like a dinosaur when he is lowered to the sand in a sling.

Fares airborne at the camel rendezvous. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Fares, airborne and grumpy, at the camel rendezvous. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Being lost, I think, must be a modern affliction. It requires a collapse of personal geography. And herein lies a paradox. As our species becomes more successful, more populous, we fracture the world into ever tighter panoramas—into countries, provinces, towns, neighborhoods, streets, houses, rooms, “private space.” In this way, a proportionally larger share of the planet becomes alien, exotic, threatening, unknown. Today, we take up residence in our navels. We forget: The entire world is ours. We possess it. It is ours to move through. The anxiety of becoming lost in it—the jail-yard lifer’s fear of losing sight of his cell—is another unhappy side effect, like bad teeth, of sedentary life.

A few Saudi friends have come to say goodbye north of Jeddah. They bring our last cool water for miles. We snap photos. We wave. We set off.

I consult my GPS. A reflex. I remind myself: The people who discovered the world were going nowhere.

Navigating Jeddah's booming margins by GPS. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Navigating Jeddah’s booming margins by GPS. Photograph by Paul Salopek

There are 71 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Adam Jasmick Jr.
    July 24, 2013

    Paul,
    Your narrative and photos give the reader of “sense” of being with you. Though not being there, your attention to detail and insights on the history of the areas you travel help to bring the reader into your journey.
    Stay safe! Looking forward to your next posting.
    Adam

  2. barbara
    July 24, 2013

    beautiful, as always. reads like holy scripture, from the arabian desert. i send blessings too, from the shores of lake michigan…

  3. LeAnn
    July 24, 2013

    lovely reading.

  4. al kalk
    July 24, 2013

    Thank you for this wonderful post on my birthday. May you find wonderful things on each of your 7 birthdays during this walk, and all the days in between.

    • Paul Salopek
      July 26, 2013

      I don’t normally measure out my passing days in this way, Al Kalk. (I lean more toward the old Lakota winter count method.) But thank you for your kind wishes. And may you enjoy a rejuvenating and joyous birthday.

  5. mohammad tarawneh
    July 24, 2013

    No, human lived in Arabia millions of years ago not 100000 years.

  6. Darliss
    July 24, 2013

    Love your comments about how we have set tiny little zones for ourselves. The world is too big and beautiful and the people so wonderful to cutout of life

  7. Michael Sean Comerford
    July 24, 2013

    This story radiates.

    • Paul Salopek
      August 3, 2013

      Very kind, Michael. A bit of war corresponding advice: Be careful with selfies. What you pose with canbe used against you.

    • Paul Salopek
      August 3, 2013

      Very kind, Michael. A bit of war corresponding advice: Be careful with selfies. What you pose with can be used against you.

  8. Linda Hoernke
    July 24, 2013

    Wonderful writing…I so enjoyed reading this post. Words like “destination” take on a new meaning…thank you again!

  9. Gary Boivin
    July 25, 2013

    This may well be the driest phase of your journey, until you get to the Atacama, near the tail end. The idea of sidewalks in the desert is fascinating, but only augments the already ferocious heat.

    • Paul Salopek
      July 26, 2013

      This may explain why the daytime sidewalks were so spookily empty. We saw fewer than 20 people on foot over the course of 60 miles of urban hiking. At night, though, people start venturing outside their air-conditioned buildings. Life in summertime Jeddah is nocturnal.

  10. yalew bekele
    July 25, 2013

    Really wonderful naration and thankyou paul salopek. i wonder how our ancestors crossed the red sea and/or the indian ocean on thier way to the arabian peninsula because at that time ships were not discovered

    • Paul Salopek
      August 3, 2013

      Sea levels were about 200 feet (70 meters) below current levels in the late Pleistocene. Undersea surveys show that this may have exposed an archipelago that was swimmable—at at most, navigable by raft—between islands. Still, an astonishing impulse, wanting to cross to distant shores.

  11. Parvez
    July 25, 2013

    Very, very Interesting!

  12. David J
    July 25, 2013

    That Stone Age pioneers were never lost is an idea to chew on. That they were “pioneers” is another.

  13. Michael
    July 25, 2013

    Delightful…….I look forward to each new dispatch, with great anticipation.

  14. HikerBob
    July 26, 2013

    You Walk is so fantastic to me, this one couldn’t be more captivated by the adventure, and the historical background being presented, and most of all by your acute descriptions that make my imagination dance.

  15. Linda Laursen B.
    July 26, 2013

    So good to see a new post, Paul–a most brilliant and thought-provoking one. Rethinking a whole lifetime of cultural and familial indoctrination on the concept of “destination” will require some effort on my part. But I’m going to give it a bit of a try. Stay well. And hydrated. Scritches behind the ears to Seema and Fares from me.

  16. HikerBob
    July 26, 2013

    happy birthday al kaulk

  17. James Janega
    July 29, 2013

    Lovely, Paul. Still with you.

  18. Melissa Ney
    July 30, 2013

    Thank you Paul. That post particularly struck a chord with me. I had a minor adventure in my 20’s in the north of England and Scotland. I was at the tail end of working abroad there but from the U.S. No schedule, no reservations. Just assisted by a Britrail pass. I remember thinking, “If I get on the wrong train, what will it matter….I will still see things I’ve never seen before.” When the tracks ended, I eventually footed it. Fortunate to meet kind people with good advice. The further from civilization I wandered, the further back in history I went but I never felt lost.
    Really enjoy your posts. Best wishes on your journey.

  19. Bilal
    August 1, 2013

    Paul:
    May the blessings of Ramadan shower upon you during your journey !!!

    • Paul Salopek
      August 3, 2013

      Thanks, Bilal. Ramadan kareem.

  20. Gerry de Wit
    August 2, 2013

    ok

  21. Vic Aplin
    August 3, 2013

    “Like all camels, they expect the worst.”
    One of the many gems in this narrative.

  22. Cynthia Sexton
    August 18, 2013

    Thank you for this delicious soulful nutrition. My 11 and 13 year olds girls and I will be walking with you. This is a great gift. Your free invitation to join you in attentiveness at a time when distractibility seems to have become life’s goal might just change their futures… Your words dance as well as the best Whirling Dervish

  23. George Okoh
    August 22, 2013

    I really love your thoughts about the whole world being ours without the possibility of been lost. The “separateness” in our age is the cause of all strifes and wars in the world today

  24. Win Grace
    August 28, 2013

    Your thoughts about the whole world belonging to us brought back the memory of another’s words when seeing the tiny dot of earth between the rings of Saturn. They said just imagine, all the living things that have ever lived, and those living now and those yet to come are all contained in that tiny dot of planet earth as we whiz through space! (Paraphrased by me…) It is an amazing place where we’re living. Thanks again for sharing some of those places I will most likely never see!

    • Paul Salopek
      September 2, 2013

      Glad to have you traveling along, Win.

  25. Jody M Clark
    December 7, 2013

    Marvelous comparison between first walkers and yourself.

  26. Al McDowell
    January 22, 2014

    Currently reading CS Lewis “Mere Christianity” on moraiity–what struck was the sense of morality by a native Ethiopean–hence all pervading, Following with interest your journey

  27. Deborah
    February 23, 2014

    Beautiful reflection!! Thank you.

  28. Brandon
    April 24, 2014

    Even though Paul had a gps, they really going,because their was no maps back then.

  29. Celena paniagua
    April 24, 2014

    The most important thing I read was that the people with Paul didn’t have a map to show them were they are going,so basically the people are just going of what they know and the knowledge of the surroundings.
    One question that I have was about the camels being tied up, with them being tied up does it hurt them, and do the camels try to attack the people for trying to untying them.!!

  30. Brandon
    April 24, 2014

    One question I have is,even though Paul is re-walking steps of man’s evolution,why doesn’t he use a map or some kind of communication so he can know where he is going?

  31. Ryan
    April 24, 2014

    I find it interesting that I read is Mohamad Banounah had all those careers and now is a guide. One question I have is what made Mohamad Banounah decide to just be a guide if he has all that experience in everything else?

  32. Brandon
    April 24, 2014

    Didn’t know where they were * that phrase is supposed to be in my comment?I messed up :/

  33. Mariana Moreno
    April 24, 2014

    What I thought was interesting was that Homo sapiens have been living there for 106,000 years because that is a very long time. How they know that Homo sapiens have been living there for so long?

  34. Christian Werner
    April 24, 2014

    The most interesting thing about this article is the fact that he is explaining everything that is happening to him in the Middle East. This is important to me because it shows that he is being able to experience what the people have to face on a dally struggle. One question I have to ask is what are some of the struggles that the people and Paul have to go through.

  35. Kevin
    April 24, 2014

    The thing I find most interesting is that people in the Middle East traveled through those parts without the technology we have today. One question I have is, Do people still use the techniques of the people before them?

  36. Mykiel
    April 24, 2014

    The most interesting thing I read was how humans traversed the Arabian peninsula without the use of maps because by doing so helped them find food and water which also led humans to other parts of the world.One question I have is, what conditions do you undergo traveling through Saudi Arabia?

  37. Bryan not Ryan
    April 24, 2014

    I find this article very interesting.The Middle East is a very interesting topic.with this article it helps me see through another persons shoes witch helps me out a lot.

  38. Sam
    April 24, 2014

    The most interesting thing I read was that Homo sapiens were sent recorded back 106,000 years ago. Why did the camel support team have to the camel to them in a truck?

  39. Iyanna
    April 24, 2014

    I think the most interesting thing I read was there was no specific destination or map but still went the long travel.
    At any time did you want to go back home or did u want to go finish the journey more?

  40. Alexander
    April 24, 2014

    I found it interesting of how much distance they walked because I never knew someone could just walk the far without there body giving up! One question I have is what prayer was what was his friend saying in the prayer in the beginning and if it even is his friend?

  41. Joseph l
    April 24, 2014

    The most interesting thing I read was that the people of the Middle East are able to travel with none of the technology we have today because I would get lost without Google maps! One question I have is did they use maps to figure out where they were at ?

  42. Omar
    April 24, 2014

    The most interesting thing I’ve read about this article is the place called jeddahs it sounds like a cool place to see.

  43. Geavon
    April 24, 2014

    The most interesting thing I read was that Mohamad Banounah was drawing a circle around Paul’s sleeping bag because out of the dirt/surface there is around him he chose that spot. Also it’s interesting that Paul has walked for two days out of a city called Jeddah in the sun because they have walked for an extensive long period of time and still have no clue where they are at. Why did Mohamad Banounah doing an improvised blessing around Paul’s sleeping bag.

  44. Geavon
    April 24, 2014

    The most interesting thing I read was that Mohamad Banounah was drawing a circle around Paul’s sleeping bag because out of the dirt/surface there is around him he chose that spot. Also it’s interesting that Paul has walked for two days out of a city called Jeddah in the sun because they have walked for an extensive long period of time and still have no clue where they are at. Why did Mohamad Banounah doing an improvised blessing around Paul’s sleeping bag?

  45. James
    April 24, 2014

    I think it’s interesting how you managed to navigate the Middle East with your personal geography.I think this is interesting because you used your personal knowledge to determine what detection to travel in.

    One of my questions is what was the most troubling thing you encountered?

  46. Iyanna
    April 24, 2014

    I forgot to put why I believe it’s interesting so I think the most interesting thing in the article was that Paul and the others with him didn’t have a exact destination for where they were going and didn’t have a map, I think this is interesting BECAUSE even though Paul and the others didn’t have a map they didn’t give up on the journey and kept on going on this long journey together.

  47. Victor Arriaga
    April 24, 2014

    Very excellent writing, if it weren’t for the aide of the pictures, the wording of this would allow me to imagine it still.

  48. Omar
    April 24, 2014

    One of the questions I have is….what clothing is he wearing?

  49. Quantrell
    April 24, 2014

    The most interesting thing I read is that these two men traveled all this way on foot. I myself could never do that or travel that far. How did this man travel that far on foot with a stove.

  50. Luis
    April 24, 2014

    The most interesting thing I read was how Homo sapiens were recorded 106,000 years ago because i didn’t know that Homo sapiens have been around for 106,000 years.
    One question that I have is do you sometimes need to go another route than you planned?

  51. Zach
    April 24, 2014

    The most interesting thing I read was how Jeddah’s suburban fringe is a maze because it makes you wonder if they were man made or if they were naturally like that.
    What did you mean you heard Jeddah? What kind of sound did the city actually make?

  52. Victor Arriaga
    April 24, 2014

    Were the camels how you imagined them to be?

  53. Quantrell
    April 24, 2014

    I meant at the end that how did he make a fire with out any utensials

  54. Naomy
    April 24, 2014

    I think the most interesting things I read in this article was that the first walkers had no maps , meaning they had no idea where they were going or what they might run into . In a way it’s bizzare knowing what you might come across , but it might have also been a beautiful journey .
    One question I have is why do they drink tea instead of drinking water ?

  55. Geavon
    April 24, 2014

    Is it difficult to see how others live? Do you get endorsements while walking around the world?

  56. Quantrell
    April 24, 2014

    I didn’t see how or why they lost the camels so how did they lose them

  57. Maricruz
    April 24, 2014

    The most interesting thing I read was that people walk around with out anything to help them see where they are going.

  58. Marvin
    April 24, 2014

    We didn’t walk in straight lines. We radiated. We scattered.”I consult my GPS. A reflex. I remind myself: The people who discovered the world were going nowhere. One question that I have would be is there any trouble while traveling the desert have your ran into unpleasant people?

  59. Tiny hands
    April 24, 2014

    The most interesting thing I read was that the desert is sprinkled with fortress-like mansions , it is slashed by new fences, walls, power lines, roads that go nowhere. One question that I have is, what are some struggles Paul went through?

  60. Alfredo
    April 24, 2014

    The mort interesting thing i found was that in the desert Jeddah fringe there was random mansions. Do you get paid

  61. Dan N.
    April 25, 2014

    I hope you’re sending home every pair of shoes you wore on this trip so you can show them all at the end.

  62. Yerbol
    May 25, 2014

    Interesting what you say regarding Arabia having been green in the context of the following:
    Based on Abu Huraira, Prophet Mohammad said: ” The Hour (of Resurrection) will not occur….. until the land of the Arabs returns to being pastures and rivers.” (Sahih Muslim).
    A variation of this Hadith appears in Musnad Ahmad:
    The Hour (of Resurrection) will not occur until the Arabian Peninsula returns, as it used to be, paradises and rivers.” (Musnad Ahmad)

  63. MONCHY LEO
    May 30, 2014

    It’s a long way , be strong !

  64. MONCHY LEO
    May 30, 2014

    …it’s a long way to go , be strong !

Add Your Comments

All fields required.

Related Posts

Ghost City

A fenced “Green Line” separates northern and southern Cyprus. It is a barbed-wire scar: a ...

Exit

We had come up over the forested ridge through the old fire burns of Mt. ...

Aftertaste

We’re cooking: cutting up zucchinis, rolling dough, stirring pots of boiling yoghurt. We are with ...

Bang

We turn the corner of the road when the first round whips in. It kicks ...