Dawn. A sun pale as honeycomb wax. The desert holds us in two dimensions. We walk it. We leave our mark. Our bodies draw their stories.
Awad Omran, the Sudanese cameleer, rocks atop the young bull Seema. He leaves behind him the flat, oval ellipses of camel prints. Glance up: The face of Africa stares back—watchful, skeptical, impassive as the nitrogen-blue sky behind it. Awad says little. He walks rarely. When he does dismount to stretch his bandy legs, he smacks his riding whip rhythmically upon the sand before him. He stencils the desert with chevrons:
. . . for miles.
Awad is 40. Maybe he’s 50. He’s from the Nubian Desert next to the Nile. He can live anywhere out of a cheap nylon duffle bag. He is at play.
Mohamad Banounah, my Saudi walking partner, leaves holes with a walking stick. But his tripedal prints are beside the point. Because it is his lungs that puncture the desert. He spills a trail of words behind him. Tales starring wild animals. Bawdy reminiscences. Songs. And a repertoire of Bedouin fables—few less than 30 minutes long—that have the blunt conclusions of hand-poured bullets. (Listen to one below.)
Mysterious divots pock the desert sand—marks left by windblown things. There are the tracks of birds. Of foxes. Of free-ranging cars. We sometimes follow these lonesome tire lines for hours. They remind me of the “zip” paintings of Barnett Newman.
Newman thought that art was a force capable of changing the world. “Man’s first expression, like his first dream, was an aesthetic one,” he wrote in an essay called “The First Man was an Artist.” Newman’s vision ripened during World War II. He had to think that way.
We walk into a featureless space. It is a vast blank expanse of sand.
I look around. I unclip the drinking tube plugged into the water bladder on my back. I suck on it. Out comes a gasp of moist air. It is empty. I am seized by an impulse to write on my skin.