There is but one word in Arabic for sand رمل (raml). The sand in the Rub’ al Khali or Empty Quarter could be defined with greater precision as raml as-sa’ah ramliyyah or hourglass sand. I have spent the last week photographing sand.
There is a secret in every grain of sand. This sand is not an inert substance. It is so rich in nutrients and calcium that anything could grow, despite the high salt content, but growth is limited by the density of the sand and, of course, the availability of water. A metre or so below the surface of this sand-sea is another sea, a thin mantle of salt-water, hence the frequent olive-green blazes of nasi (or desert grass) and calligonum shrub. Fresh water is deeper, making another sea, perhaps ten metres below the sand-sea I walked over.
How many colours does sand wear? I counted fourteen, most commonly the dusky camel-tan of blazing midday, to the glorious reddish-orange colour that indicates the presence of feldspar, but also, less commonly flights of blues, purples, and greens.
Each night I climbed the highest dune to await sunset. As the day ended, the sun’s nebulous glow faded to become a golden glowing wafer that dropped quickly behind the highest dune on the horizon. You appreciate why the sun was one of the main deities in most polytheistic cultures.
In camp I read Martin Ling’s Muhammad, an account of his life based on the earliest sources. Lings’ magnificent book holds and hides memories of the desert throughout its pages. He writes of the custom of all great families of Arab towns to send their sons into the desert to be suckled and weaned among the Bedouin tribes: so the bond with the desert had to be renewed in every generation-fresh air for the breast, pure Arabic for the tongue, freedom for the soul.
It is impossible not to be humble when standing, sleeping, walking on a surface that, in Pleistocene times, was an ancient sea-bed. It is also impossible not to be drawn into the realm of the ineffable. There is a longing in the desert, for enchantment, for a beginning. Longing as defined by Mahmoud Darwish: longing is not memory, but rather what is selected from memory’s museum. Longing is selective, like an adept gardener. It is the replaying of a memory after its blemishes have been removed.
Why do I come to Rub’ al Khali? This is my second crossing and I am planning a third, longer trek. Of course I question my reasons for coming here, obsessing that it is misplaced Orientalism, a pursuit of what is exotic and inscrutable. The desert speaks to that longing inside my heart. Rub’ al Khali is contagious, an invitation to what was before. Final word to Wilfred Thesiger: No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will carry within him the yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match.