What the Desert Said
At the beginning of the third book of the Odyssey, Telemachus’ ship pulls into the harbor of sandy Pylos, as the morning light burnishes the sea. Homer tells us:
The sun rose from the still, beautiful water
Into the bronze sky, to shine upon the gods
And upon men who die on the life-giving earth.
Although that sun dawns upon gods and men alike, this is how we humans are defined: as the men who die. We are not the gods, the athanatoi, as the original Greek has it—the ones without death, and therefore beyond time. Instead, we are bound by time. We may once have walked in a garden with the Lord of all creation, but we’ve been banished to a land of thorn and thistle, and the life-giving earth from which we were made now folds us back into its dust at the end of our days. The time of timelessness is over.
And yet the ache for that state of timelessness remains. We seek it in sacred places, which mark off a space from the ravages of the time-bound world that our mortal bodies inhabit. When Yahweh calls out to Moses from the midst of the bush that burned with fire but was not consumed, he is marking off sacred space—the place where He will appoint Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and to their homeland of Canaan. “Draw not nigh hither, “Yahweh commands, “put off thy shoes from off they feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.” So holy that seneh, the Hebrew word for “bush,” perhaps even gave the Sinai its name. When, centuries later, the Roman Empress Helena ordered that a Chapel of the Burning Bush be built at the base of Mount Sinai to commemorate this moment, she too was marking off sacred space. And when the miracle is remembered by pilgrims who travel to the desert to put off their shoes and stand inside that church, it is still happening, it is always happening, and time, and our subjection to it, is therefore, annulled.
Last summer, my daughter, Ellie, and I attempted to retrace the path of one such pilgrim, a Dominican priest from Ulm, Germany, who had traveled to the Holy Land and Mount Sinai in 1483. This friar, Felix Fabri, had written an account of his journey, one filled with tangible details— traversing the dry Judean hills by donkey, paying tolls to the Saracen lords of Jerusalem, kissing the bodily relics of saints—of travel in the Age of Faith. I’d stumbled across his Book of Wanderings in the library years before and been inexplicably transfixed. My preoccupation seemed in some ways especially mystifying given the precarious state of my immortal soul, which had been in self-imposed exile from the Kingdom of God for the better part of my life. All that time, I stood on the outside of faith, my face peering in through the bars of the gates of the garden, while the cherubim with their whirling swords of flame kept me at bay. But in my exile, I was haunted. By God, maybe. Or maybe by a longing for evidence to refute my fear that this material world is all there is. Perhaps God and this longing are one. It’s not that I thought I would find either God or solace for my fears by retracing Fabri’s path. I knew that he traveled through a world still enchanted by belief, a world that for me was irrevocably shorn of magic and miracles. And yet I went.
A restlessness seemed to drive Fabri. “I call God to witness that for many years I was in such a fever of longing to perform that pilgrimage that whether I was asleep or awake I hardly ever had any other subject before my mind,” Fabri writes. “And I may say with truth that while engaged in these thoughts I lay awake for more than a thousand hours of the night and time of rest.” A similar restlessness had driven me. For almost two months, my daughter and I followed Fabri from Ulm to Venice, where he had boarded a pilgrim galley. We followed him as he sailed along the Dalmatian Coast and through Greece and Cyprus. We followed him through the port of Jaffa into Jerusalem, and then across the Negev. Here, on this very spot, we were told at all the churches and monasteries and historical monuments we visited, here, right here, touch it, bless your rosary upon it, a miracle occurred. Maybe a martyrdom. Maybe a sermon. Maybe a last supper. Maybe a birth or death or resurrection. By the time we reached Taba, where we crossed from Israel into the wilderness of the Sinai Desert on our way to St. Catherine’s Monastery and the Chapel of the Burning Bush, our capacity for wonder was severely frayed.
For days, we navigated the wadis, dry riverbeds running through the desert, in the jeep of Sheik Swelam, a sinewy chain-smoking Bedouin in jalabiya and keffiyeh and Ray-Bans, who brought with him his sullen twelve-year-old son, and Mohammad, an Egyptian interpreter, fresh from the Revolution in Tahrir Square. As we drove across the bottom of what was once an ancient ocean, we stared out of the open windows at pale sandstone formations, some crouched on the desert floor like sphinxes, some like fallen temples. The red stone hills in the distance seemed chiseled and carved like a frieze. Others were round as if turned on a potter’s wheel. But the sphinxes, the temples, the friezes are just similes: like or as. In reality, there were no monuments here trying to stay the passage of time. No monuments marking anything at all. And in this vast desert, we seemed to be the only breathing, moving things. Everywhere, the relentless sun was shining upon men who die on the life-giving earth.
As Felix Fabri and his pilgrim band, led by an Arab guide, leave Gaza and that last outpost of civilization recedes behind them, the pitilessness of the terrain, their own relentless thirst, the breadth of the endless waste take hold. “In these plains we saw neither men nor beasts, neither villages, houses, trees, grass, nor bushes, but only the sandy earth, parched by the sun’s heat,” he writes on the 11th of September, 1483. In the afternoon, they enter a land of swelling hills. In the valley between them, the travelers pitch their tents. The camel drivers head off with jars and water- skins to fetch fresh water from a cistern, while the pilgrims spread out in search of firewood. They find only dry bushes—seneh—which they pull up by the roots.
“This place was called in Arabic Chawatha, and here we found many proofs that once human dwellings had stood there,” Fabri writes, “for we found above us twelve great ancient walled cisterns, round about which lay many broken bricks, broken pots, and ashes from smiths’ forges... In the cisterns we saw the dead bodies of great and terrible serpents, and of animals unknown to us.” On the morning of the 12th, they load the camels early, before daylight, and depart from Chawatha together in the dark.
Although the days of camel caravans, like the days of miracles, are over, I had insisted on riding camels in the desert. So Sheik Swelam hired camels for us that first afternoon. Often we paused to let the camels graze on clumps of spiny grasses, their heads on their necks moving periscopically, their gaze, like their chewing, ruminative. We passed through an abandoned Bedouin camp, detritus of detritus: nylon fencing, wood scraps, oil drums, empty and tattered rice bags. Later we saw acacia trees tied with bits of fading fabric, precarious stacks of flat stones. “Signs,” said Mohammad, though of what he did not say. Of the presence of humans? The way through the desert? Portents of the divine? We tried to read the engravings on the desert walls—camels and goats scratched into the sandstone surface, strange rows of vertical lines. What did they mean? There were fragments of Arabic, nearly worn away—Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim, In the name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the most Merciful.
We came across a wizened elderly sheik and his plump younger wife in the shadow of a rock formation, the shade like the curve of the lunula of a fingernail. They sat on a rug beside their jeep. When we pulled up, the woman covered her head. Over a small fire, she made us sweet tea in a tin vegetable can rinsed clean, then poured the tea into two small, clear glasses. Later, when the glasses were rinsed and refilled for Sheik Swelam and Mohammad, and again for the sullen son, I realized that these were the only ones they had. While Sheik Swelam and the couple talked, Ellie and I looked out together on the endless floor of the former sea, lined by bisque-colored buttes and mesas, sky and sky and sky. Mohammad said the couple were speaking together with Sheik Swelam in an older Arabic, one brought by their ancestors when these desert nomads came, like Abraham, with their camels and goats and their wool tents and woven rugs from Arabia centuries ago. In some unfathomable way, that ancient tongue they spoke seemed connected to the faded etchings on the walls of the canyons.
In the desert, time slowed and stretched, or maybe condensed, thickening like a reduction in which all excess is boiled away. Or perhaps that is only how it was in my mind, or now, in my memory of it. In the mornings, Sheik Swelam, a cigarette dangling from his lips, makes milky Nescafe over a fire of a few twigs, washing out the clear glasses with a swill of water, elegantly whirling and rubbing with his thumb at the same time. We sit on the rugs from the jeep in silence, eating flatbread and soft white cheese and jam. Then all day we drive the wadis, stopping at a Bedouin camp where we all drink tea and Sheik Swelam and Mohammad smoke cigarettes with men possessed of piercing eyes and stained teeth. Later, in the shade of an acacia tree or a sandstone cliff, lunch and a rest. Then we drive on. From time to time, Sheik Swelam veers off the wadi to a well he remembers, and he fills the water jugs, protected by cloth covers embroidered by the women—distant figures against the hills in black shawls and long black robes, young children on their hips, surrounded by shaggy goats. At the wells, Ellie and I bend over while Sheik Swelam pours the cold water down our necks, wetting our hair, keeping us cool in the intense desert heat, heat like a kiln, heat without relief. Later in the afternoon, when he spots a band of shrubs in the parched riverbeds, we get out of the jeep and, like the medieval pilgrims, we gather dried branches of the desert bushes to burn. Towards evening, in a gully or in an encampment or at an oasis, Mohammad and the sheik and his wordless son pull out the sleeping bags and the food and the pots and plates, and while Ellie and I try to find a hidden place to wash the desert sand out of the pores of our faces, they cook for us—chicken and vegetables, flatbread, a thick fava bean stew. We fall asleep beneath the stars as the fire dies down. No voice calls out to us from the midst of the burning.
For Fabri and the medieval pilgrims who make their punishing journey that late summer and early fall of 1483, the desert wilderness of the Sinai is sacred, the Word of God made Flesh. Although their bodies are at the mercy of this brutal place on the map, they cross a spiritual landscape that exists beyond time, beyond the physical world that makes their bodies suffer. As he travels, Fabri thinks about the symbolic nature of the desert. It is, he says, a wasteland, abandoned by God, “as though [He] had used it to improve or adorn the rest of the universe. The country,” he goes on, “seems also forsaken by the heavens, for it lacks the kindly influence of the stars, and seems to be viewed angrily by them, and, as it were, turned into iron, while the heaven above seems harsh, pitiless, and brazen.” Because of this harshness, he says, the desert has always been a site of testing and temptation. But it is also where God bestowed the commandments upon his wandering people. It’s where manna rained down, and water burst forth from stone. It’s a place of retreat from the world, and of devotion and contemplation. You can be found here. At the same time, you can easily get lost, for through the desert there is no fixed path.
I never knew where I was in the desert. Not only were we untethered from time, we were untethered from space as well. As we passed from wadi to wadi, I wrote down their names in my notebook: Wadi Razala, Wadi Lathi, Wadi Watir. But without a map to pin them to, the names meant nothing.
Lunch one day beneath a gnarled acacia tree, the only shade to be found. Tomatoes and cucumbers, canned tuna with chopped onions, white cheese, tea, unleavened bread. The only sounds: flies, the wind. Ellie and I lie on mats beneath the delicate leaves of the acacia and read. The son sleeps in the jeep. I ask the sheik where, exactly, we are. With a stick, he draws a map in the dirt of where we’ve been, one wadi branching off into another like a bare tree in winter. Looking out across the expanse of sand and scrub, he tells me he could travel this land day or night. “Everything I have in here,” he says, tapping his head.
That night we camped in a ravine, at the point where two wadis meet, one flowing to the Gulf of Suez, the other to the Gulf of Aqaba, a tipping point, a hinge of the earth. During dinner, cooked over the small fire pit fueled by splinters of seneh we’d collected that afternoon, Sheik Swelam had pointed off to the Milky Way far south of us and said that when it’s centered over the southern sky, then the fruit of the date palms is most sweet. After the dishes had been washed, and the others had closed their eyes, I lay in the dark looking up at the sky feeling microscopic, mitochondrial in the vastness.
I said no voice called out to us from the midst of the burning fire. But sometime in the night, I woke up in the darkness, shivering in the dry desert air. The fire had turned to cold ash, and the whole world had stilled, as if it was holding its breath, waiting for a revelation. Maybe it was only the chill that sharpened my mind, or maybe it was the divine nudging me awake so that I might see, but I opened my eyes that night to the clarity of the stars, so near my face and bright that it seemed a universe of light was trying to press itself through the curved veil of dark sky above me. I was not so much looking at things as looking through them to something beyond. The turning earth had carried the Milky Way straight above us by this motionless hour, and, for a moment, I saw the sky as a topographical map of another world, the white, ridged cloud of the Milky Way like a chain of mountains, and the countless stars like the towns and villages and cities of a country I didn’t know. I imagined that other world, gazing out at us, the desert I inhabited its firmament, any living creature there looking up in wonder at us lying in these heavens of sand. How much is hidden, I thought, by the deceptive light of day. How little we actually see of what exists.
But in the cold illumination of the morning, as Sheik Swelam washed his face and lit a fire, it seemed again that the days of revelation might be over. That there are only, if we are lucky, small moments of clarity that open something in us amid the clamor and confusion. And then the void closes up like a wound, the ache only vaguely remembered.
“Everything I have in here,” Sheik Swelam had said, like one of the ancient bards who sang from memory of gods and heroes and men who die on the life-giving earth. How lightly the Bedouin travel, how little they carry, how few marks they make. Everywhere on this trip, Ellie and I had seen monuments built by human hands to commemorate and mark and remember. Even Fabri’s account was a shrine of memory, his experiences encased in words. “I never passed one single day while I was on my travels,” he wrote to his Dominican brethren, “without writing some notes, not even when I was at sea, in storms, or in the Holy Land; and in the desert I have frequently written as I sat on an ass or a camel; or at night, while the others were asleep, I would sit and put into writing what I had seen.”
I wanted to write it all down too—sweet tea made in a tin can and the curve of shade at the base of the curve of a mesa, a Bedouin woman, glint of black against the dun-colored sand, a sky punctured by stars. This attempt to pluck ephemera from the flux of experience and to pin them in words is also, like the building of monuments, the marking out of sacred space. It encloses the past, removes it from time, and tries to keep it alive in its own private Eden. But of course this is impossible—to capture any moment and take it home as a souvenir.
One morning, Fabri and his pilgrim band enter the region of Wadi el-Arish. On their right rise mountains of exceeding whiteness; on their left, an expanse of black stone and sand, “scorched as though a fire had lately burned everything that would burn therein.” Fabri asks his guide where this wilderness ends, and the guide replies that no living man has ever been to the end of it. Because for Fabri this desert wilderness is sacred territory, because it is both spiritual and actual, he imagines that abutting the boundary of these plains must be the earthly paradise where time stands still, “and therefore the flashings of the fiery sword, which the Lord has placed before the entrance to paradise, has scorched these plains and forbids all approach.” But paradise is manifestly there.
In the Sinai peninsula that my daughter and I crossed, the only monument is the desert itself, and what’s remembered is only in the mind. A few marks on the rock walls, a few stacks of stones, bright rags tied in trees. The Bedouin who inhabit this precarious land seem to recognize of necessity how flimsy are the things made, how soon they will pass away. And this recognition is, it seemed to me as we drove over the impenetrable surface of it, a humble submission to this essential fact of human existence: our fragility in this transitory world. We are the men who die on the life- giving earth.
After every meal, Sheik Swelam would scrape the plastic plates clean, and wash them with water from the jugs we carried in the jeep, then throw what couldn’t be saved into the fire. The scrapings he would leave on a flat stone for the desert animals.
This is what the desert said: Carry only what you need. Burn what can’t be saved. Leave the remnants as an offering.