National Geographic


Yanbu, Saudi Arabia, 24°04'29" N, 38°06'00" E

I wait out the hottest weeks of the Hejaz desert in the Red Sea port of Yanbu. While waiting, I ride in circles in a Jeep. This occurs at night at a stunt driving rally, under the white floodlights of an urban stadium.

The Jeep advances at a radical tilt. It balances on its two right wheels only. The man performing this driving feat is a stocky showman called “Captain” Ahmed al Shagawi. The Captain has agreed to take me along as a passenger. He wears a motocross jersey and the bored smile of a professional daredevil. He says to me, calmly, as we wobble along: “Be calm.”

The windshield view of Captain Ahmed al Shagawi. Yanbu, Saudi Arabia. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Ahmed al Shagawi’s windshield view. Photograph by Paul Salopek

But I am not calm. Gripping the car seat, I wonder: What will future anthropologists make of this ritual? Automobiles circulating in impossible angles atop a track designed for human foot races? Watched by several hundred rapt men and boys? (There is one woman in the audience—a hotel manager from the Philippines.) Will the experts in early 21st century culture say such gatherings were dances of male bonding? Rituals of warrior prowess? Or benign outlets for the universal desire to witness calamity—communal rubbernecking at car crashes? All are fair assumptions. Tonight, in the Yanbu stadium, all risk is proxy risk. The true danger lurks out on the roads.

Tafheet or “drifting” is an underground motorsport particular to the Middle East at the turn of the millennium.

Young men who chafe against the social and political conformity of their lives are taking to public highways to freely express their testosterone—to spin and slide and wreck cars (often rental cars), much as American drag racers did in the buttoned-down America of the 1950s. These young Arabs film themselves with smart phones. They post their exploits on the Web. Sometimes, they kill themselves. Recently, in Saudi Arabia, a rebel drifter was sentenced to death by beheading for fatally crashing into two other motorists. Yanbu has organized a stunt-driving exhibition to channel this brooding energy.

“Ah! This crowd is nothing,” Captain Al Shagawi says. “I performed in Qassim Province in front of 50,000 people.”

The Captain adds, modestly, that the real draw at that event was an attempt by local Saudis to enter the Guinness Book of World Records by cooking the world’s largest plate of kapsa, a traditional dish of rice and meat. Saudi Arabians hold the record for the world’s largest collection of prayer beads (3,225), the largest bowl of soup (2,600 gallons), and the largest gold ring (118 pounds of precious metal).

An energetic figure, a man as thin as a locust-stripped twig, runs the Yanbu stunt-driving rally. He is everywhere on the field: taking photographs, patting drivers’ backs, kissing children. This is Saeed Al Faidi. I have stabled my two camels at Saeed’s desert farm while I wait for daytime temperatures to subside below 120 degrees Fahrenheit. I am walking through the Arabian Peninsula.

My camels carry food and water, a stack of notepads, a satellite phone, my house key from New Mexico. My Sudanese camel handler, Awad Omran, is preparing for our departure. He has repaired the saddles with electrical tape. Together with an interpreter named Ali al Harbi, we will cross the barren foothills of the Radwa Mountains—a redoubt of wolves—following the old pilgrim road to Sham, a pathway of ancient human migration. Trekking 25 miles a day, helping to hobble and feed the camels, making camp dinners—all of these chores will strangle my written dispatches. There will be silences.

Cameleer Awad Omran and helper Abu Ali repair a saddle in preparation for our resumed journey. Outside Yanbu, Saudi Arabia. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Cameleer Awad Omran and helper Abu Ali repair a saddle in preparation for our resumed journey. Photograph by Paul Salopek

A few days ago, I stood with Saeed al Faidi at his sun-blasted farm, appraising the camels’ condition. I greeted these stout-hearted animals as I always do, in Spanish.

“Que pasó—” I began to say.

And Saeed, the son of Bedouins, an ex-oil man who once lived at the California border with Mexico, completed my sentence: “—vatos.”

I stared at him. But he was cooing at Fares, rubbing the big, grumpy bull behind his ears. Saeed did not realize how he had touched my heart in that instant. He is my new logistician.

Staying put too long is a form of drifting.

I am riding in circles, on two wheels, in the dark.

Forty miles south in this uncanny world, near the fishing village of El Reis, we resume our journey into the Levant. Massive oil tankers sail close past that coastline. Their towering superstructures, gliding eerily above the seaside hills and dunes, look as though they are plowing through sand.

There are 18 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Steve R
    September 27, 2013

    “Be calm.”. Early 70’s, off road races somewhere in Mohave Desert, a mini truck ill equipped for on roading (let alone off), the perfect vantage point to watch the sand rails fly over the dirt berms and hoping to God they actually navigated the quick turn awaiting them when they landed. Yes John had found the perfect spot to see others calamity…or find our own. “Be calm” he would say,” Kenny should be coming any minute.

  2. John Alderman
    September 30, 2013

    Your question about what anthropologists think of our rituals today, puts me in mind of a quote all future experts should remember. ‘Why do we do the things we do? Because it seemed like a good idea at the time.’

  3. HikerBob
    September 30, 2013

    Great dispatch.
    “Be calm”. Good advice for the rest of your trip, Paul.
    120’s! And I thought it was hot in Columbus this summer.
    I saw a film clip once of that fantastic illusion, the superstructure of an oil tanker gliding behind sand dunes. Unforgettable!

  4. yumma
    October 2, 2013

    Be calm.

  5. Ramze Elzahrany
    October 4, 2013

    Just a minor correction Paul, it is Tafheet not Tahfeet for “drifting”.
    Best wishes and regards.

    • Paul Salopek
      October 6, 2013

      Thanks for catching this, Ramze. I’ll ask my editor to correct it.

  6. ed
    October 22, 2013

    I lived in the Kingdom for many years. Thursdays and Friday nights the roads were wicked. I never feared terrorists, only dreaded young Saudi drivers. Especially on the cornish. All you needed to drive like crazy was something hanging between your legs!

  7. Daunte Mucaria
    November 5, 2013

    Hi my name is Daunte im in 7th grade and i like to play soccer and ride my bike.

  8. Alfie Pannell
    November 12, 2013

    Hello Mr.Salopek, I attend the Washington International School. In humanities class we are studying Islam, and are following your Out of Eden Walk while you are in the Arab Peninsula. I am intrigued by this custom of driving and wrecking cars, but wonder what relationship this has to following the footsteps of our ancestors. Thank you very much for your time. Sincerely, Alfie Pannell.

    • Paul Salopek
      November 16, 2013

      Everything we do is connected in some way or another to the byways of our collective past, Alfie. You sitting in a classroom in Washington, D.C. Me pitching camels their alfalfa in a dry wadi. (And yes, even grown men driving cars on two wheels in Yanbu.) It’s all braided together by where we’ve been before.

  9. joline godfrey
    November 24, 2013

    In the desert, just outside Dubai, men in jeeps take tourists on desert rides that are reckless and pointless–I didn’t have context for these strange ‘tourist expeditions’ before this and am grateful for some understanding. I had been looking for ways to get out of Dubai, that strange concoction, and into the desert. Signing up for the jeep ride I got gave me absolutely no real access to desert, but I now have access to the experience of young men who are looking for something…I am loving the dispatches and will be ‘traveling’ with you…

  10. sharon watson
    November 25, 2013

    What an adventure…just amazing

  11. Pat Ka
    July 22, 2014
  12. ALsquidward95
    October 16, 2014

    I envy Paul after reading this article i really wish I was traveling with him ,I wish him best of luck for the rest of his journey

  13. ALsquidward95
    October 16, 2014

    It was so cool how Paul was so close to us he was in Saudi Arabia but I think it is horrible that they are drifting on the motorway and killing people. now Paul will cross through a desert with a camel lets hope he makes it past the desert

  14. 02213
    April 22, 2016

    wow drifting seems so cool the car on the picture is really cool

  15. Ana Sofia
    April 22, 2016

    Hi Paul,

    I think it`s great that you are living new traditions and cultures. I lived the car in the 2 wheels you talked about. It looked interesting how it does it and how people are interested on that kind of things.

  16. Melissa
    April 22, 2016

    Paul, thanks so much for sharing, I’m really glad that you share with us many things because I’m able to learn very easily and thanks for sharing all this information when you travel.

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