Fullness of the Empty Quarter: A reading of Muzafer Ahmed’s Camels in the Sky
Dr. Krishna Kumar Gopinathan
It is quite unbecoming to call a place empty. Rather, easy as well. That could just be another way to mark the location. That has been the case with Rub-al-Khali or the Empty Quarter, the largest contiguous sand desert (erg) in the world. Being called “empty” is much of an irony for this place. The Empty Quarter is in fact so full of life, that it would be nearly impossible for anyone to explore and experience it completely in a lifetime. V. Muzafer Ahamed’s Camels in the Sky promptly reveals a good amount of life in its full spectrum in the Arabian dunes.
The author’s venture into Saudi Arabia as journalist with a Malayalam language daily brought him into direct contact with the desert. The author was initially reluctant to journey into the desert especially after the bitter experiences he has had while on a rural reporting assignment. He recollects an accidental encounter with a Bedouin that planted the seeds of the desert travel tree in him. Had it not been for the temptation to discover the unfathomed other side of the “severity of the desert” Muzafer Ahamed would have ended up being another migrant worker in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah, totally unaware of the nuances of life in the great Arabian desert.
Camels in the Sky, is a collection of travel essays translated from Malayalam by P. J. Mathew, that records the taste of life that the author had from his adventures in the Saudi Arabian desert over a period of thirteen years. The essays lays open some hitherto unseen vistas of life in the desert villages of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, much to the surprise of readers who have no clue about the hues that life in this part of the planet carries. The author takes us through a journey deep through the alleys of desert life, sketching a vivid and detailed picture of it. Much like the magical vision of Garcia Marques, (as compared by the translator in his introduction to the book), Muzafer Ahamed’s unique perspective of narrating the desert generates massive urge in the readers’ mind to forage into the backdrops of this narrative.
The book begins with a tale of utmost relevance in the contemporary world, water war! Water has always been a valuable commodity in the desert, even before it became a serious matter of discussion elsewhere. The author’s first major encounter with Saudi life is related to this much valued object is more than just a coincidence. It’s the light that led the author into the specificities of life in the Kingdom. Although the personal injuries faced in Sakaka had initially killed the spirit of the traveler, he was rejuvenated into carrying out his adventure by the pointer made by Abd’ Rehman, a Bedouin, whom the author met at a restaurant in Jeddah. The travel bug that thus bit the author took him into every corner of the vast Arabian country. And the result is this invaluable collection of life sketches that is put together in this book.
Muzafer takes us through a series of diverse narratives to prove that the desert is oozing with life. Through historical accounts of the Kinda, the perils of travel through the hard desert terrain and vast civilization and heritage the author leaves no stone unturned on his way. For most people unfamiliar with the desert climate, desert winter would be a welcome surprise. When the author writes of camels turning into deer in the snowfall in Tabuk, readers would be flying with delight and awe. From the relentless spirit of the gaaf tree that retains its green with sprinkles of rain that come once in a decade or so, to the anonymous man who comes to rescue travelers in the desert, the adventures at the mighty sand traps, mating of the beetles, bird houses in the desert, different shades of sand, camels in all glory, Muzafer Ahamed paints a complete picture of a land that is so little explored.
A unique feature of Muzafer Ahamed’s writing style is the blending of Arabian life with historical and literary references and analogies from elsewhere in the world, thereby uniting life in this less navigated landscape and that in the other parts of the world. The author frosts his travelogue some valid references from the Holy Quran. The best of which is the answer that the author feels like to have been given by the mountains of the Sarawat when asked about their existence, “Don’t you know, we are the nails that bind the earth!” Camels in the Sky presents not only a unique reading experience but also succeeds in planting the seeds of travel and the urge to foray into unknown corridors of life. In short, the book is reminder of the vast ocean of experiences that out blue planet holds in store.
Photos : Omar sharief. courtesy : Arab News