National Geographic

Goodbye to Banounah

El Reis, Saudi Arabia, 23°32'21" N, 38°33'06" E

Banounah walks no farther.  He has laid aside his walking stick. He has hung up his boonie cap.

He will not walk with us to the Jordanian frontier. He will not follow the old Haj trail from Sham or see the ruined Ottoman forts that crumble like rotting brown teeth atop the burning hills—how they guard nothing now except for the passage of the hot winds. Winds that send out flying columns of dust devils that spin atop the blistering plains. Whirlwinds that some call djinn. He will not cross the wadis where the tombs of Nabateans are cut into stone cliffs that glow the hue of fire-red clouds at sunset. He will not walk where Moses walked, dry-shod, onto the beaches of Arabia after parting the Red Sea.

Mohamad Banounah, my friend and Saudi guide, has landed in intensive care after complications from an earlier surgery. He has walked 240 miles with an abdominal hernia.

“I don’t know how he made it this far,” marvels the Egyptian doctor at the hospital where we take him. “He must have put up with much pain. This is not a small matter.”

Banounah is an ex-soldier. He is trained to keep pain stoppered, this time to his detriment. (When is it not?) And this trek, this strange journey, this forever walk begins to circle a familiar, melancholy topography, the rolling basin and range of new friends made and left behind: beloved people waving, one hand up in a parting salute, on the horizons. “We were a great team,” Banounah, gripping my hand in his hospital bed, says hoarsely. “Weren’t we? ”

What can be said about this man?

That his medical condition has been aggravated by too much jollity? (By way of a warning during his current recovery, the doctors say his previous operation’s incisions may have never mended because Banounah belly-laughs too uncontrollably, too hard.)

Banounah in action -- storytelling at a herder's camp. Near Rabigh, Saudi Arabia. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Banounah in action: telling stories at a herder’s camp near Rabigh. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Or that he is a library of fading Bedouin lore? (A bitter desert melon call hadaj, when cut in half and placed on your cheeks, sucks the thirst right out of your body.)

Banounah demonstrates an old Bedouin remedy to ease thirst: placing bitter desert melons on your cheeks. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Banounah demonstrates an old Bedouin remedy to ease thirst: Placing bitter desert melons on your cheeks. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Or that a lack of charity is the only spark that fires his cannonball temper? When a restaurateur, looking straight at me, blocked his eatery doorway to us—owing as much, I think, to our appalling stink as any anti-foreigner bigotry—Banounah invited the man, with a firm shoulder clasp, into a private sidewalk conference.  The owner returned a fawning angel. What did you tell him? I asked Banounah. “I said to him, ‘You will give us water and rest, or I will bash your head into this wall,'” Banounah said evenly.  As we left, he apologized to the terrified man because “a good Muslim cannot go to bed angry at someone. You have to go fix it, or you cannot sleep in peace.”

Banounah is from an old Mecca family, a clan of Hejaz sheiks and travelers descended from the Prophet Mohammed (in the time of dhows and caravans, one ancestor rambled as far as Morocco). “I am a simple man,” he once told me, ruefully. “Not too psychological. People like me—for being simple.” Yet Banounah is no rustic Zorba, lusty and colorful. Over the course of long afternoons waiting out the sun under some scrap of shade, he explained with supple nuance how the tribal history of Saudi Arabia still tints its worldview. And he heard out my tiresome complaints, with patience and empathy, on the emotionally isolating effects of the Saudis’ strict gender separation.

And then there was the afternoon on the broiling salt flats of Masturah.

We were walking in a nimbus of light. The air was like steam—like breathing through wet cotton.  Then, without warning, we walked through shocking waves of cold air, pulses that lasted perhaps a few seconds: icy, unnatural and beautiful, like the opening and closing of a gigantic refrigerator door. I thought I was hallucinating. I glanced over at my traveling companions. Awad Omran, our Sudanese camelman, merely nodded silently in acknowledgement. But Banounah was grinning hugely. I said something about microclimates, about convection, about freak air currents. Banounah, as usual, chuckled at my rationalism. “We are lucky guys!” he said. “God is with us!”

I waited the month of Ramadan in the coastal city of Yanbu for Mohamad Banounah to recover, to rejoin the walk. But he cannot. He has returned home to Riyadh. The other day, his replacement, a young man named Ali al Harbi, sat sprawled and dazed, miserable and sweating, in the oven of an abandoned shepherd’s hut. His cell phone rang. Within a minute, he was laughing. It was Banounah, of course, calling to buck us all up.

“He is giving to us many compliments,” Ali said. “He is saying that he is with us today in his heart. And he is saying that your grandfather, Paul, had to be Arab.”


There are 31 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Stephen Moyse
    September 18, 2013

    I think of you and your travels and your travelling companions every day. Thanks to you ALL for your walking and your writing.

  2. HikerBob
    September 18, 2013

    Banounah is an Arabian stallion of a man, but the winds of heaven have blown him from this course. He stole our hearts with his delicate, but never meek, and fiery brawn. Banounah will always, in my heart, characterize the perfect companion of the Arabian days and nights of the Out of Eden Walk. He is no inconsistent being. God keep you safe.

  3. Margaret M.
    September 18, 2013

    What a shame to loose such a wonderful companion as Banounah. He will, no doubt, be sorely missed, not just by you and your team of travelers. May his rich spirit remain with you as you continue on this journey, and may Banounah fully recover.

  4. Michelle
    September 18, 2013

    Ah! Banounah! 240 miles with an abdominal hernia! God grant him complete healing and shore up you, Paul and the team as you journey on. Ah! Banounah!

    • Paul Salopek
      September 22, 2013

      Thanks, Michelle.

  5. Adam
    September 18, 2013

    What a true adventurer and traveling companion Banounah has been on the journey! It was refreshing to read of his activities and comments during the postings. He will be missed, but I am glad he has received the medical attention that will enable him to recover his health. Prayers go out to him!

  6. Jerzy PL
    September 19, 2013

    I think Out of Eden as every other travelling adventure is all about meeting companions like Banounah. Hope you will encounter only people of his kind. I envy You the opportunity to learn from their experience and wisdom. Good luck for miles to come!

  7. Lindsay
    September 20, 2013

    Banounah, feel better!!! Thank you Paul for sharing this wonderful man’s spirit and outlook with us!!!

  8. Bear
    September 21, 2013

    Your statement of gender separation brought to mind that in the real trek around the world that not only hardy grizzled men walked but also delicate sturdy women, most likely with children in tow. What kind of people where they that could do such things!

    • Paul Salopek
      September 22, 2013

      As you suggest, Bear, women do much of the day’s walking in the world. In rural Africa it is the daily circuit to the fields. And in Saudi Arabia, Bedouin girls often guard flocks. I look forward to balancing out the human demographic on my trails whenever local culture permits.

  9. Mohamad Banounah
    September 22, 2013

    Thanks For you

    • Paul Salopek
      September 22, 2013

      On the contrary—shukran jazilan, habibi.

  10. Jonathan A
    September 22, 2013

    Get well soon Banounah – You’ve inspoired me to make sure there are more belly laughs around London in your honour!

  11. Linda Hoernke
    September 22, 2013

    Thanks for allowing us to meet Banounah…a rich man in his strength and humor. And, thank you Paul for the wonderful photographs that went along with this story~~

  12. Anne Hunt
    September 27, 2013

    Thank you for “bringing us along” on this amazing journey giving us the opportunity to meet these amazing human beings.

  13. pam wright
    September 27, 2013

    Michael Palin said once (as he was traveling by dhow across the sea to India) “It breaks my heart that I will never see these people again!” Paul, I expect your heart will feel the same pangs many times over the coming years! Be safe! (Get well, Banounah!)

  14. Pamela Livingston
    September 27, 2013

    Best wishes for Banounah’s recovery. Where were the bitter desert melons obtained? Do they have any actual uses? Re: “appalling stink,” is there any evidence that ancient humans practiced personal hygiene?

    • Paul Salopek
      September 29, 2013

      The melons seem to grow most often in wadis. Livestock eat them, though they are far too bitter for humans. As for your last question, it just so happens that stink is a subject of special interest to my photographer friend John Stanmeyer. You can read his research into the topic here.

      • Pamela Livingston
        September 30, 2013

        Paul: Thanks for your prompt reply. I hope the livestock enjoy their bitter melons! Thanks also for the link to Stanmeyer’s blog. It provides far more information than I anticipated. Interesting info about the history of bathing and soap. Though I’ve only anecdotal evidence, some mid-century moms bathed their kids in laundry detergent. Twenty years later, at pediatricians’ instructions, new-borns were bathed Phisohex, containing a disinfectant since outlawed in commercial soaps.

  15. Jose Santos
    September 30, 2013

    Hi Paul :
    From my confortable home desk, in Porto-Portugal, I’m following your oddyssey since the very begginning ,wishing to be there with you.
    Born in a country of explorers, my blood show me the way to understand the meaning of your project, and the importance for those that are wishing and fighting for a better wordl. I’m lighting one chain reaction of all contacts I can, in order to have YOU in our minds.
    Hopping to meet you somewhere in your seven years way.
    I’ll do my best to try that could happen.
    Deep from my heart, take care Paul

    • Paul Salopek
      October 6, 2013

      Thanks, Jose.

  16. Abdullah
    September 30, 2013

    I was 14 years old. I got full mark on Arabic grammar. As a result, my name was called after midday prayer in school. In recognition of my achievement I was presented with a book about living in the desert. Years later a guy walked into my print shop and gallery. Mohammed Bannounah! The name was familiar. I googled him the moment he left the shop. A book he authored came up. The same title. Only God knows how many times I bragged quoting tips from his book. He is a wealth of information and a big heart. Wishing him a quick recovery.

    • Paul Salopek
      October 6, 2013

      Banounah will be gratified to hear this, Abdullah. All his friends have been encouraging him to reissue his book, which features such original photos as combative scorpions wielding matchsticks gripped in each claw.

  17. Wendy Salter
    October 2, 2013

    The thread that runs through all the posts I have read is not the place but the people.What is it that makes me cry a little & yet feel my heart leap with hope for the world at the same time???

    • Paul Salopek
      October 6, 2013

      Yes. Weeping and leaping. Family does that.

  18. Eade Duncan
    November 25, 2013

    Amazing journey you have started. Take good care of your feet so that they can carry you afar.

  19. Betty Murphy
    December 4, 2013

    Your journey has become everyone’s. Thanks for taking us all along. I am only now getting started but look forward with great anticipation to traveling with you in spirit over the next several years. Being over 70, I don’t know if I will make it to the end, but I will wish you “eternal jubilation,” in the words of the great saint, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), one of the patron saints of Europe. She was a poet, too. All best wishes.

    • Paul Salopek
      December 7, 2013

      Thanks, Betty. You’re with the right gang here. We take it slow.

  20. Jill
    March 14, 2014

    Best wishes to you, Mohamad Banounah. Thanks to Mr. Salopek, I feel as though I know you. How glorious that we strangers can be connected across oceans through technology.

  21. Mohammad Al Zahrani
    January 23, 2015

    I am Saudi and I really wanna know more information about banounah .. email address or phone number please

    My email :

  22. Shelley Brooks
    January 31, 2015

    Precious post…..tears down my cheeks…what a gift.

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