North of Rabigh we encounter an alien world. Its dominant color: white. A concussive white—the non-color you see receiving a sharp blow. The white of lightning. It dazzles the eyes. It stings the lips. It burns our tongues and stiffens our hair. It eats away at our boots. Salt white.
The coastal flats of Masturah are famous for their salt works. The ponderous breathing of the sea, rising and falling in neap tides, fills and drains beach pools with a brine that glints unearthly purple. Pools like gems. Transparent as amethyst. Rimmed with a stinging lather, a corrosive foam. Ibn Saud, the conqueror of Saudi Arabia, reserved these immense salt ponds, by royal decree, for the exclusive use of local villagers—the Zubaid clan of the Harb tribe.
“This is from god,” says Abdulaziz Ibn Hussein al Ghamni, a salt harvester who at 85 looks jerked, dried down to his essences, pickled. “God made it. It’s straight from the sea. Nothing is purer or cleaner.”
T.E. Lawrence, the British soldier and scholar, rode his she-camel atop Masturah’s salt crusts in 1916. He was rushing to rally the Arab forces under Feisal against the Ottomans. “Such going was like a pile-carpet for our camels’ running,” he wrote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. “The particles of sand were clean and polished, and caught the blaze of sun like little diamonds in a reflection so fierce, that after a while I could not endure it.”
Lawrence of Arabia could not endure a lot of things. He found a way to kill himself, finally, on a country road in Dorset, on a motorcycle. A late casualty of war.
Pure and clean Masturah.
We trudge on, squinting.