“You want to give the prince canned corn?”
It is my walking guide, Mohamad Banounah.
He is incredulous. He is sick of explaining. He is taking matters into his own hands. This is doubtless a good thing for His Royal Highness Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, president of the Saudi Commission on Tourism and Antiquities and the eldest son of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Prince Sultan is a cultured man, a seasoned pilot, a champion of Saudi history, and an extraordinary traveler in his own right: He is the first Arab in the world—the first Muslim, the first royal—to visit outer space. He is paying us a visit at our beach camp. I have just suggested to Banounah that he share our lunch from the sweat-crusted camel bags.
“That’s what he’s coming for,” I say, “an authentic experience.”
Banounah shakes his head sadly. At my ignorance. At my lack of sophistication. At my folly. He waves me off to “go write.” He gets busy.
A word about the corn:
It was Banounah’s idea. We needed a high-calorie staple to satisfy the multinational palates of our micro-caravan: Saudi tastes, Sudanese tastes (Awad Omran, our cameleer, hails from near the sixth cataract of the Nile), and American tastes. Banounah’s solution: cans of whole-kernel sweet corn. Such corn may be consumed at any temperature. It is a walking fuel conveniently spooned straight from the can. Except Awad won’t touch the stuff. Even Banounah dislikes it. And I am tired of it, too, though my stomach is no more discriminating than a goat’s. We carry many pounds of canned corn north through the Hejaz desert. Our camel bags sag with this wonder food. Perhaps we can trade it in Jordan—as a novelty item—for something more edible.
“You have a very nice camp,” Prince Sultan says eight hours later, after landing on the beach in a Sikorsky helicopter. He is a no-nonsense, friendly man, curious about the world he circled every 90 minutes as a payload specialist aboard the space shuttle in 1985.
From the landing zone, where Banounah has staked a makeshift windsock, we walk to a large open-sided tent that Banounah has pegged next to the surf. It is floored with fine red carpets that Banounah has unrolled onto the sand. Banounah has positioned plush elbow cushions at various spots in the shade. He has brewed dozens of cups of tea and coffee for the Prince’s entourage, produced platters of dates, and installed washbasins complete with a small bottle of perfume for the hands. I am seeing most of these accessories for the first time. All of it—minus two roast sheep Banounah bought from a nearby village—emerged from the back of Banounah’s dusty Yukon support vehicle, which apparently holds 98 percent of the material culture of the early 21st century.
I agree heartily with Prince Sultan. We have a very nice camp.