Tag Archives: Desert

Reblogging this post 1) Because it was a cool one and 2) Because it is now cited on a Wiki as evidence that the French explorer Pierre-Constant Letorzec visited Merowe (the link in the footnotes for Merowe leads to my Un-American Graffiti webpage! Hot-diggity dog.)

Not Quite Right

In a land of crushing poverty with a brutal climate, a high rate of disease, and a notorious dictatorship, it might be strange to confess that one of the things most troubling to me in Sudan was its graffiti.  While I started to gain an appreciation for Arabic graffiti itself (noticing some strange juxtapositions between imported Rasta culture, with images of Bob Marley combined with a Muhammad-like veneration) the stuff that most affected me involved the relics from ancient days.

Often covered in names to the point where the hieroglyphs themselves are barely readable, many of the ruins, temples, pyramids and fortifications from three, four and five millenia ago have been been seriously defaced.  What makes a person decide that their name, or their name with the name of their loved-one encircled in a heart, is worth immortalization?  What attraction does an object of history hold, that a man must…

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The Opposite of a Roadblock

During the year I served in the town of Safwan, Iraq, our unit provided armed escort to military and civilian convoys throughout all of Iraq, meeting convoys at Safwan’s border crossing point and taking them on about a 1.5 mile loop along a two-lane town road between the border and the main highway just north of the city.  (This convoy activity forms a backdrop for my novel One Hundred and One Nights).  After that point the vast majority of the remainder of our routes used such fast-moving roads.  Our convoys slowed down on this one stretch, sometimes waiting for another convoy to clear through the border point, sometimes just congested in general.  As a result, a troublesome trend toward piracy sprang up along this road, with a few bandits seizing the opportunity, jumping into vehicles, ejecting the drivers and hurrying away before our widely-dispersed guardian Humvees could react (30 semis in a convoy = a virtual moving wall of trucks, for which 3 Humvees provided only a thin guard).

The Not Quite Right of this post hopes to capture the absolute mastery of the driving of these semis, the types of roads down which the bandits took these hulking vehicles, and also the elegant little solution we put in place.

An armored engineer vehicle emplaces a simple serpentine barricade on a road that 'seems' as if it would already have been impossible for a semi to use!

Here, in the photo, one can see the types of road and the woeful emptiness of the land into which the semis were driven (click photo to enlarge).  It might seem easy, perhaps, to find something like a semi in so much waste but the land was pitted with little quarries, rills of rock, hard-scrabble dunes.  A few tarps slung over a truck, a few shovelfuls of earth and dust, and no one would ever notice it.  Then, in the night, the truck might be driven north to a larger city, dismantled, scrapped, its cargo sold, and a neat little profit — a huge profit in comparison to the average Iraqi salary at that time! — made by the thiefs.  No one ever got injured during these filchings, the TCN (third-country national — Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Afghani, Indian, etc) drivers usually walking back to the border crossing, maybe with a lump on their head from getting shoved out of the vehicle.  But the thefts were annoying and escalating in frequency.

Our solution, proposed by one of my soldiers and at first seeming to be crazy and unworkable, was to wall-in this one lane bypass road all the way from the border to the main, fast-moving highway.  While the initial problem with this idea — the restriction of legitimate local traffic moving from one side of the town to the other — nixed the possibility of an outright wall, the final plan, to put barricades in place around which a small car or truck could easily navigate but through which a semi could not be driven, was brilliant in both its feasibility and its cost-effectiveness.  The semis couldn’t be driven across the open countryside, with its knee-high mud and clay farm walls, so we didn’t need to worry about blocking anything except the few adjoining roads.  We created something akin to the opposite of a roadblock, meant to restrict semis to a known and approved path but to let every other sort of vehicle move with only minimal hindrance.

The idea reduced thievery to almost nothing during the course of our remaining missions in the town, at least for the period of a half year or so, until the thieves adapted and started to carve new and hidden roads in the desert!  A game of cat and mouse during which not a single shot was fired.

Detail in a Photo – Mutrah Harbor


Map of the hike, meandering up-and-down trail in light blue. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

The capital area of Muscat, Oman, stretches lengthwise along the sea for several tens of kilometers in either direction but only extends into the interior of the country a kilometer at the deepest.  This is mostly because a range of bare, jagged mountains looms between the narrow coastal plain and the wetter (mountain watered) interior regions that surround Nizwa, Rustaq, etc.  A corollaries to this close-at-hand range of mountains is the presence, very near the urbanized areas, of great hiking and astonishingly isolated wilderness.

One instance of this hiking is Trail C38, which begins in the village of Riyam at the backside of the Incense Burner Park (on the corniche between Mutrah and Old Muscat) and delivers a hiker, after some fairly difficult climbing, into the alleys behind the old souq in Mutrah.

When we think of hiking in the US, images of lush green forests, maybe a few meandering hills, perhaps even the Appalachian Trail come to mind.  But this, on the other hand, especially if attempted anytime between April and November, is a different sort of hike altogether:  hot, dusty, with rocks sharp enough to accidentally cut a palm or forearm placed by the hiker for stability on the ledges or cliffs.  Hikers should be wary to bring water, sunscreen, and a realistic estimate of how far they will make it along the trail during the heat of the day.

This description, though, doesn’t do the hike complete justice.  Admittedly it is not as satisfying as a hike up one of Oman’s wadis where a clear pool or even a waterfall might serve as a reward, but the views from the summit of the trail and the delivery, at the end, into the secret lanes behind the souq is certainly worthwhile.  Where else, for instance, can someone look over Mutrah Harbor with such calm?  Where else can someone see both sides of Oman with such clarity:  the new/urban and the ancient/traditional?  That these two elements coexist so well in Oman is truly a significant feature of the country, one that should be noted as Quite Right and compared to other places, like Dubai, where the new overshadows everything and the heart of the country is no longer its own; or, like Riyadh, where the tension and resistance against modernity is a much more palpable current.

Mutrah Harbor, as seen from Trail C38.

Here, in this photo, one can see quite a lot of Oman: starting in the background, above the mountainous horizon, a glimpse of the Gulf of Oman, which connects the Strait of Hormuz to the Indian Ocean; cut into that far hillside, a new project expanding the port facilities leaves a scar of ashen land; below it the white-washed stucco buildings, some of them centuries old, gild the corniche boulevard along Mutrah Harbor; there, behind a layer or two of security and with guard boats around it, Sultan Qaboos’ yacht is often moored (the small cruise-ship on the right-hand side of the bay); even closer, two traditional Omani Dhows, transport and fishing vessels, recall the heydey of Oman’s Indian Ocean trading Empire, which included parts of the African and Iranian and Afghan coasts as well as strong links to India;  then, on the hill in the foreground of the harbor, below the level of the camera, a 16th Century relic of Portugeuse occupation nests above the corniche, medieval and lordly, although again testifying to Oman’s former glory as the Omanis were one of very few examples of successful indigenous resistance to colonialism; then, in the very foreground, the jagged cliffs themselves, empty, barren, dusty and forelorn except where a view like this breaks upon the intrepid hiker!

Masada = Awesome

Model of how Pontius Pilate's original palace at Masada may have appeared.

If you want to plumb the depths of commitment to an ideal of religious zealotry, one of the best places to go is the ruin of the mountain fortress of Masada south of Jerusalem on the Dead Sea.  Here, a band of Jewish sicarii (or daggermen) holed themselves and their families up in order to avoid Roman oppression at the end of the Great Jewish Revolt in 70 CE.  In the end, when it became apparent that the huge earthen ramp the Romans built to bring seigeworks to the cliff would prevail, the sicarii men drew lots.  The ten men selected each went among a group of about 70, probably not their own kin, and performed a bloody ritual of slaughter before turning their daggers on themselves.  When the Romans at last breached the fortress they found cooking fires still burning and stores of food and water enough to withstand several more months of seige.  But they found no living rebels.  They took no slaves.  Approximately 700 people died at their own hands, free, that day.

Now, in the present age, Masada has become a national symbol of pride and independence for the state of Israel.  New recruits to the Israeli Defense Forces swear their oaths of allegiance after performing a harrowing early-morning climb up the sheer eastern face of the bluff, following a twisting path called Snake Trail.

The mountain fortress of Masada and the thin winding path of Snake Trail seen in the morning light before my climb.

With one day, actually just one morning, left during my visit to Israel, I decided to wake really early in Tel Aviv, leave the comfort of my hotel, zip through Jerusalem in the gloaming, traffic-free hours before dawn, cruise down the Dead Sea highway, and try to scale Masada in a way that would trace the footsteps of these new recruits and still give me several hours on top to snoop around among the archeological preservations and reconstructions.  I wanted to get a sense for the place and its mystique.  I wanted to maximize my last day of exploration in the Middle East.  I wanted to cap off my travels with the one spot that might be, while not as famous as the Pyramids in Egypt, most relevant to our modern world’s troubles and trials.  In the execution of this plan, I was not disappointed.

First of all, the drive and the climb went just as planned, exhausting my body in such a way that my limbs shook and my skin under my backpack foamed with sweat when I reached the summit.  This was purposeful.  It was my choice to experience the rigor of the climb, sun cresting the Jordanian mountains on the far side of the Dead Sea to bleach the bluff and burn my skin.  I could have taken a ski-lift tram to the top but I wanted to be tired.  I wanted to feel the emotional drain that the new Israeli recruits must feel, along with the euphoria of their ascent and their sacred entrance among the place of the death of those terrible, awesome martyrs from two-thousand years ago.  The view from half-way up Snake Trail shows the amazing precipice of the heights and reveals, also, the outline of one of seven militarily-square Roman encampments, a place that sheltered somewhere around 600 legonaires, and the well-preserved wall of the Roman circumvallation, far below at the start point of the trail.

View from half-way up Snake Trail, just before sunrise.

What I came away with, after relaxing and soaking up the historical information on placards scattered around the blufftop ruins, was a sense of the awesomeness and the holiness of the place, the same strange mixture of secular strength and religious fervor that colors the Israeli outlook on the world.

To talk about that sense, to really give a reader a feeling for it, is — if anything — the Not Quite Right element here.  Think of killing your own children, having those deaths link to cultural motifs like Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in the Torah, and then tying the oath of an impressionable young soldier to that moment.  What do we, as Americans or Canadians or Australians or Europeans hold similarly dear?  What symbols make us fight for our freedoms?  What experiences lead us to rise from the comfort of our Monday Night Football- or Oprah-opiated lives to actually do something for the betterment of ourselves or our fellow men?  Do such symbols exist that might benefit the whole of mankind rather than just one group, one nationality, like the Israelis?

I fear they do not.

Ruins of the storerooms atop Masada.



A Beautiful Stillness

When we think of the Middle East, our stereotypical idea includes a lot of color, action, vibrancy.  Perhaps that is where the romance in the romantic notions of the region comes from:  the contrast against what we perceive to be our own staid, stable, sometimes dreary (certainly climactically chillier) versions of existence.

But this photo, which I choose to share mostly just because it is beautiful and I’m feeling, at this moment, still and quiet and happy with the world, should show a different, wetter, more stable and simple idea of life ‘over there.’

Maybe it’s not just life ‘over there.’  Maybe it is life as a whole . . . or the way we want to see it, to look at it.  Pulsing and full at times.  Quiet and contemplative at others. Always with the possibility to reveal, somewhere, a hidden gem of gracefulness.

I challenge you, dear readers, to probe your set ideas and to discard most of those that come with labels.  That’s what I’ve been tryingt to do here, at NQR. 

There’s always another story, another perspective.  There’s always a way to find beauty around you (or at least a good chuckle).  Either of those two things will dull the edge of the worst dangers in our world.

Rainy day view through an arch in the Frankincense Museum, Salalah, Oman.

Camel Invasion

Camping in the desert with friends, my sons were very lucky to experience some semi-wild camels up close and personal.

The group of camels (pod? posse? flock?) moved past the campsite at close to dusk.  The animals were very interested in the children.  Some of them approached the kids, stared at them, and even played with them, nodding their big heads in time as the children ran around and jumped.

Jack watches as 'his camel' rolls in the sand.

One camel in particular seemed very interested in my youngest son, Jack.  Not only did he put his head on Jack’s head and pose behind Jack as pictures were being taken, but he also took a long ‘sand bath’ in a pit of what must have been especially comfortable dust as Jack, quite amazed, watched him.

The best part was that these animals returned through the campsite the next morning, just about at dawn.  And Jack’s camel recognized Jack, approached Jack again, and the two of them had a long stare at each other.

Back home, in Wisconsin, we hoist our backpacks and food into the trees at night to keep away the bears and we count ourselves as lucky if we see deer or moose or beaver.  To spend this kind of time with the wild animals in Oman was, I think, All Right.

House of the Lock

As I sit, alone, in Israel on the last of this year’s many travels in the Middle East I am reminded of one of the better, funnier remarks my sons made during our travels.  Wesley, my eldest — after finishing one of the many long visits I forced him to endure at some ruin or archeological site — said:  “Just because something is old doesn’t make it interesting.”

I like ruins.  And I like museums.  Correspondingly, my wife and children have been taken to many, many such places during this year of our travels.  They just didn’t want to see more of what they consider ‘the same’ in Israel (while I’m eagerly anticipating a packed itinerary:  Jersusalem, Golan Heights, Nazareth, Masada, etc, etc, over the next couple of days).

So, here is a short entry about a true ‘pile of old rocks’ . . . the Bait al-Qufl, or ‘House of the Lock’ which is a structure unique to the Musandum Penninsula (the little isolated rocky headline belonging to Oman which juts out toward Iran and nearly cuts the Arabian Sea from the Indian Ocean).  It seems the villagers in this remote area would leave their homes for the entire summer, taking their flocks up into the cooler mountains.  To avoid carrying all their earthly possessions up the steep Musandum slopes, they devised small stone storage houses with ingenious, hidden, stone-locking doors.  They then packed all their valuables up in the rooms, sealed them, and went on holiday in the hills until the summer heat grew tolerable again.

All that remain of these houses are a few foundations, a few piles of stones.

I allowed my boys to sit in the air-conditioned car while I scampered through the ruins, snapping a few photos.  Personally, I feel it it’s Not Quite Right of my children to be prejudiced against old things just because they are old. (The ‘old‘ remark felt a little personal, perhaps).  But, I have to admit that this barren-looking photo makes a pretty strong argument in their favor.

Two 'Houses of the Lock' near Khasab, Oman.




Flooded with Infrastructure

One thing no expatriate will fail to notice when visiting Oman is the exceptionally fast pace of infrastructure development here, especially the roads.  This is due both to the fact that the country is still enjoying a phase of rapid modernization — bringing it from a 1970 low of having only 12-km of paved roads to today’s Starbucks-infiltrated, modern-highway, sprawling urban landscape — and also because tropical cyclones Gonu and Phet have wreaked major havoc, major destruction on the roads and sewers and drainage systems in two of the three last years.

Having just avoided, through grace or serendipity, another cyclone, it is worth reflecting on the state of this infrastructure development and some of the peculiarities of the roadwork it has created.

A peculiar Omani road sign with International Appeal

First, you cannot drive more than a mile or two without encountering a major highway construction project.

Second, where you do enjoy a constructionless bit of travel, you’ll certainly encounter a hodge-podge of British, American, and Arabic road engineering.  New highways resemble American Eisenhower-era roads, with gradually sloping overpasses and underpasses merging onto three and four lane expressways.  Older highways often have round-abouts, sometimes two- and three-lane roundabouts, thanks to British systems.  And even older roads, where curb and gutter or on- and off-ramps may not exist at all, lead to the inevitable pulling-on and pulling-off from bare desert to road, no system at all for merging other than a nerve-wracking game of ‘chicken’.

These engineering marvels (marvels because of the rapidity at which they have sprouted!) are tough to capture on camera.  However, one particular roadway shenanigan of which I do have a photo, thanks to Mindy and Mike Scheer, our neighbors in Muscat, is the “Irish Crossing.”

Photo of an actual Irish Crossing in Oman

This is called the “Irish Crossing” because, I guess, it is also used in Ireland.  The idea is to save a few bucks, to provide a crossing for an intermittent watercourse without building a full bridge.  However, it is wise to note that these watercourses, when full, will definitely cut all cross-wadi travel, rendering the highways impassable.  I imagine, though now frequently seen, especially on the route from Muscat to Sohar, these money-saving road constructions will be phased out (or washed out!) in the near future.

When the rains do come these crossings will be areas flooded with Not Quite Right.

Arabian Oryx Conservation

The Arabian Oryx, called maha locally, is a truly beautiful and amazing animal.  It, along with a certain type of desert lynx and the Arabian leopard here in Oman, is the focus of some fairly robust conservation efforts for which applause and attention should be given.  Maha is also a favorite first name for girls in Oman, and one can see the reason why, given the animal’s combination of lithe body and toughness.

An Arabian Oryx on the road from Abu Dhabi to Liwa Oasis.

Maha are a type of gazelle, but with an exceptional ability.  Like a camel, they can go days (and some say even a lifetime) without drinking water.  This is an adaptation specifically designed to help it survive against predators.  If chased by, say, an Arabian leopard, it heads out into the vastnesses of the Neged, or the Rub al-Khali, leading its stalker so deep into the wastes that the other animal has no choice but to turn back or die of dehydration.  They are fast little creatures with curving horns and are even rumored to have been the source of the myth of the unicorn, for — when turned in profile — the two horns exactly mirror eachother in shape, giving the impression of but a single central horn.

Our one encounter with maha here in the Middle East occured in the UAE, rather than Oman (although Oman has set aside a huge tract in its Wahiba Sands area of the Rub al-Khali for Oryx conservation).  There, in the UAE, Sheikh Zayed al-Awal had a fascination for greening the desert.  All the way from the Oman border to Abu Dhabi and to Dubai, and then from Abu Dhabi all the way south to Mizaira’a and the other isolated villages of the Liwa Oasis, the edges of the freeway are ‘forested’ with date palm and scrubby thorn bushes, miles and miles of plastic pipe in the ground providing drips of desalinated water daily to each plant.  Some of these forested areas are fenced.  We wondered why.  Watching, as we passed, we eventually discovered the reason:  they’re used as a conservatory for the Oryx, with groups of 5 or 10 of the little creatures lounging in the shade.  At first, driving past them, I thought I was seeing goats or dogs.  Then I realized what they were and, though they usually scampered away when we tried to photograph them, we did snap this one fine photo, fence and all.

A creature like the maha seems wronged when shown with a fence around it.  But, its really us, our human incursions into the desert, and our hunting of it to near-extinction, that have perpetrated the true wrong.  We are what makes it necessary to institute a Not Quite Right like these fenced-in conservatories.

Rednecks (in the Arabian Gulf?)

Typical Bedu transportation -- no longer the camel.

Rednecks can happen anywhere.  Or, maybe a better shorthand:  Rednecks happen.

I’ve seen them in some ritzy places like Carmel Valley in California where they drive big diesel-guzzling souped up Ford trucks probably with the specific intent of pissing off their conservation-minded, Audi-driving neighbors. And I’ve been to the heart of Redneck country, Arkansas and southwest Alabama and southern Georgia and Lousiana, where to be called a Redneck is something of a badge of honor, of status finally achieved after the labor-intensive application of many reems of peel-on Confederate stickers.

Here in the Middle East the locals have a specific name for their Rednecks:  Bedu.

This is the word from which we, in the English language, receive our highly romanticized notion of Bedouin, hard men eeking out a living in the desert, carrying all their worldly possessions with them on camel-back, and mysterious women with scorching-hot kohl-lined eyes glancing surreptitiously from beneath their veils.

But, such is not the case.  Bedu are Rednecks wearing dirty white dishdashas, nothing more.  And a good part of the youth population (who can blame them?) shun the richer life-style of Ferraris and smooth-riding Toyota Prados for desert-worthy little hooptie trucks, upon the tailgates of which it is not uncommon to see four, five, six, maybe even twelve young men riding.  The trucks blast down the highways (notice how remarkably nice this highway is!) at 140 kmph, 90mph, swerving in and out of traffic, and they bump along the gravel wadi beds at similarly frightful speeds.

In a way, this is survival of the fittest.  Hold on tight or you’ll be thrown off.  And the only thing that really differentiates the Bedu and the American styles of Rednecking is the absence, here, of beer, NASCAR and chewing tobacco.  The similarity makes a person want to dig up all of Jeff Foxworthy’s old jokes:

You might be a redneck if . . . you can name more than three ways that this picture is Not Quite Right.