1 Other Lives to Lead The Road to the Drâa Valley
In 1986, while in graduate school writing a master’s thesis on famine in the Soviet Ukraine, I discovered two books that pointed me toward transformational peregrinations in the Arab world. The first was Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands, the great British explorer’s account of his postwar travels on foot and by camel with Bedouin tribesmen in the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Peninsula. Though hired by the Middle East Anti- Locust Unit to search out locust breeding grounds, Thesiger pursued a personal quest while in Arabia, a quest intimately related to the nomads with whom he lived: he hoped to “find the peace that comes with solitude, and among the [Bedouin], comradeship in a hostile world.” The spirit of the Bedouin, he wrote, “lit the desert like a flame.” Traversing much of Oman and Saudi Arabia in their company, he at first felt like “an uncouth and inarticulate barbarian, an intruder from a shoddy and materialistic world.” So poor were the Bedouin that they wore only smocks, loincloths, and daggers, yet they never stole from him. Indeed, they proved themselves paragons of desert virtue, and, during the five years he spent roaming the sands as their guest, they became his closest friends. Thesiger emerged from the Empty Quarter hardened by heat, hunger, thirst, and tribal raids, and forever after felt himself a stranger in “civilized” company. He had, in sum, found what he was looking for among the Bedouin, and it had transformed him.
When I read Sands, I was studying Arabic, having had an inkling that adventure — another life, even — awaited me in the Arab world. Sands introduced me to the Bedouin, who were masters of terrain in which one needed stamina and courage to survive. I read and reread the book, dreaming of journeys in the Empty Quarter, but Arabia had changed much since Thesiger’s day, as he himself had written. In the 1970s he had revisited his old haunts and found them an “Arabian nightmare” of oil money and skyscrapers, of Bedouin who had abandoned their camels for Land Rovers. Sands was really an elegy, a travelogue that would, he hoped, remain a “memorial to a vanished past, a tribute to a once magnificent people.” Soon after finishing Sands, I came across the other book that fired me with passion for the Arab world: Philip K. Hitti’s History of the Arabs. Every word of History rang with the author’s love of Arab civilization, the Islamic era of which began in the seventh century with the eruption of Arab armies, largely composed of Bedouin tribesmen, out of Arabia. In the name of Islam, the Arabs conquered all of North Africa; in Europe, they overran Spain and reached France; in Asia, they made it to China. “Around the name of the Arabs,” Hitti wrote, “would gleam the halo that belongs to world-conquerors.” To the Bedouin, “the Arabian nation is the noblest of all nations (afkhar alumam). The civilized man, from the Bedouin’s exalted point of view, is less happy and far inferior. In the purity of his blood, his eloquence and poetry, his sword and horse and above all his noble ancestry (nasab), the Arabian takes infinite pride. . . . The phenomenal and almost unparalleled efflorescence of early Islam was due in no small measure to the latent powers of the Bedouins, who, in the words of the Caliph ‘Umar, ‘furnished Islam with its raw material.’” From Hitti I learned that the Bedouin were not only the archetypal wanderers, but also the co-originators of Islamic civilization, which was once one of the most progressive civilizations on earth. From the eighth to the thirteenth centuries, while Europe recovered from barbarian invasions and suffered seignorialism and feudal rule, Córdoba of the Umayyad dynasty and Baghdad of the Abbasids rivaled Constantinople in splendor. While Western Europe was largely illiterate, the Arabs were conquering the Middle Eastern and North African territories of Byzantium and absorbing Hellenic culture; Arab caliphs were reading Aristotle; and Arab thinkers were syncretizing Hellenic and Islamic philosophies and transmitting Greek scholarship to Europe, thus eventually fostering the Renaissance. During the Middle Ages Arabic became a language of science and literature and, by way of Medieval Latin, contributed to English a wealth of now common words, among them “alcohol,” “algebra,” “syrup,” and “coffee.” From the eastern realms of their empire, the Arabs brought back Hindi (“Indian,” later called “Arabic”) numerals and passed them on to Europe; the Indian concept of zero permitted the birth of modern mathematics and science. The Arabs kept alive the ancient Greek notion that the earth was round and, through a work in Latin, delivered it to Columbus,, thus aiding his discovery of the Americas.
Hitti’s work taught me that the Arabs were the exponents of a civilization that differrrrred fundamentally from that of the West. Whereas in the West commercialism and multitudinous creeds, religions, and philosophies flourish and in their cacophony offer no single answer to our existential quandaries, in most of the Arab world one religion, Islam (which translates as “submission”— to the will of God), dominates all aspects of life, demanding of its followers discipline, self-abnegation, and the observance of ritual. In the concept of Umma, the Islamic Nation, are a refutal of Western individualism and an antidote to loneliness and alienation. Moreover, and this was crucial to me as a traveler, the cities that gave birth to this civilization bore some of the most exotic and alluring names (Baghdad, Marrakesh, Damascus) that I had ever heard.
After reading Hitti, I threw myself into the study of Arabic, spending six hours every day learning grammar, listening to tapes, and meeting with my Jordanian and Palestinian instructors. A year later, in 1987, I quit graduate school, flew to Portugal, and sailed from Algeciras in southern Spain across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco, from where I intended to make my way east across the entire Arab world, my destination Baghdad.
This was a grand idea that owed more to rash enthusiasm than to planning. A few days after arriving in Morocco, beneath the soaring minarets and earthen ramparts of Mekncs, I ate a bad kebab and it nearly killed me with a fortnight of nausea, vomiting, dizzying headaches, and diarrhea. But along with food poisoning I confronted other impediments. Darija, the Arabic dialect of Morocco, proved almost completely unintelligible to me, bearing little resemblance to the classical Arabic I had been studying. I thus found myself able to recite chapters from A Thousand and One Nights while having trouble understanding directions to the bathrooms I so often needed. There were also faux guides who set upon Nasranis (“foreigners,” or more exactly, “Nazarenes,” “Christians”) in the streets. Day after day, as I staggered out of my hotel to buy yogurt and Lomotil, I was accosted by unemployed youths demanding I hire them as guides for tours of the medina. Few took kindly to rejection. One youth whose services I declined grew irate. “You won’t hire me! Then you’ll rot in a Moroccan prison!” He turned to passersby and shouted, while pointing at me, “Drug dealer! Drug dealer! This Nasrani’s trying to sell me drugs! Police! Police! Drug dealer!” There were no police about, though, and I slipped back into my hotel, shaken up and uncomprehending. More incidents like this followed.
Previous travels in Europe and Turkey had