Desert Tales (I): Voyage in the Dehna Desert

A voyage in the Dehna desert of the South West Saudi Arabia.
By V. Muzafer Ahmed
Translated from Malayalam by Benoy P Jacob

Ah! The smell of water! Waves and ripples shimmering at a distance. Parched lips and dry throat trembled at the prospects moisture. A herd of camels sped past the pool. We saw water splashing under their hooves. A water bird flew past us, flagging its tail queerly as if jeering at us.

The sky lay clear. A cloud in the guise of a giraffe stretched its long neck as if to drink the water. After a long drive we reached the camels. Alas! Not a drop of water. The camels hesitated a moment; then continued the trudge. At some distance, again water splashed under their hooves.

A lakeshore. Waves play tender music. Animals that look strangely like whales rest by the lake. Vessels have anchored there; but the eyes cannot say whether they are ships or boats. Yes, there people are bathing; some are washing clothes. It is not very far. "Really, it's very close. Slow down, or the car will plunge headlong into the lake." We drove a whole day; but never reached that lake.

Islands lay ahead. Tree stumps poked their heads above the water—reminding us of Thekkady Lake in our homeland, Kerala. Birds are perched on the tree stumps, their wings visible. Amidst those stumps there are spots of dense greenery. Ah, deep woods. The tyres of our car groaned, tired and weary; the islands still lay far away.

Eating up the land, water moves rapidly towards us. A deluge. No, it is the sea; the wind smells of salt. Clouds build a bridge into the sea. They have piled rocks at one end. Our car drove on for quite a while. It seemed we would never reach the sea.

How many times have we been chasing water like this! Eight days, 800 kilometres. Too many times did we see waves, fingers and shores, merely shadows; but never did water reveal its true being.

Our seven-member crew had hallucinatory experiences—mirages, psychedelic illusions of pools, lakes and puddles—in the Barak al Wadi region of the Dehna desert in the South Western KSA.

These tantalizing illusions of moisture—called 'Mirage' in English, 'Suraab' in Arabic— come alive when the lands gets unbearably hot. The interplay of sunlight and hot air spreads the illusion of undulating water onto the wide canvas of the desert. This becomes most apparent at noontime, and disappears just before sundown. This is how we can see air with our naked eyes — in the form of water. In sultry summers, miniature mirages appear on the sandy banks of rivers and beaches. But since they do not have the infinite vastness of deserts, these miniatures do not betray us completely.

How many men and animals driven by thirst have been led astray by mirages? Some may have reached oases, unbelievably pregnant with water. No wonder the desert travellers of yore addressed the oasis as God, the Be-All and the End-All.

Lone trees are seen occasionally in the Dehna desert. The interplay of these trees and their shadows take on the guise of islands, wharfs and whales. The histrionics of one tree is mirrored by that of another.

Actors thrown up by the sunlight, falling across trees in the desert, are numerous. All aspirants of theatre should observe the skill of the light here; the multiple roles that trees play in the drama of a mirage. The drama closes by the fag end of the evening. The trees then pretend to be mere trees, and nothing more. The air says, 'I am just air.' The sun shyly says, 'I am merely light,' and withdraws from the hours-long drama of illusions.

The mirage is the eyeshade of the deserts; the gospel of the presence of water, and of thirst; the illusion of Yes and No. The mirage is the desert's nostalgic journey back into its past. From the deep unconscious, the desert pours forth its memories of being a sea long ago. Moistening memories, vapour-laden sighs. Those days of pursuing an entity, fully aware of its non-existence, instilled in me a feeling—a feeling of becoming more of a man. Those incarnations of hope repeated themselves many a time.

"Come on, move forward," is what every mirage says. "The substance of your search will be found; you must hold on till the end," it exhorts.  Powerful metaphor it is, of the distances and agonies of the journey of life.

A fellow traveller spotted an eagle's nest built of the leaves and twigs of thorny trees. Thanks to the thorny building blocks, the nest has hefty nails that hold on strongly to the branches. Superb design to survive high-winds and simooms. On the way we saw the burrows of desert lizards; but no lizards.

All this while, the mirages had been cheating our camera, crouching in the frames as islands and seas and lakes and trunks of elephantine waves. When we enlarged the photos on computer screen, ah, the strokes and dots of a watercolour.

Look out for Desert Tales (II): Nude Women Lying Belly-down

The author can be contacted at
Photos by: Mohammed Nowfal, Mohammed Sajid

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