Hourglass Sand of Rub’ al Khali

Rub' al Khali (March 2013)

Rub’ al Khali (March 2013)

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.

Rub' al Khali (March 2013)

Rub’ al Khali (March 2013)

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.

Rub' al Khali (March 2013)

Rub’ al Khali (March 2013)

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.

19 thoughts on “Hourglass Sand of Rub’ al Khali

    • A perfect quotation. And thank you so much for the encouragement to write this post, and for introducing me to Martin Lings and Mahmoud Darwish.

  1. I can’t stop looking at the sun going down behind these dunes, Anthony… And your words (as well as Rima’s quotes in her comment) transport the poetry and wisdom of the sand in all its colours; make me wish that the next crossing could become a project for a group of readers. Call it romantic or “misplaced Oriantalism” or whatever you want, but there’s nothing wrong with wishing a walking stick and a desert from time to time.
    Thank you for sharing the colours of the sand.

    • I’m planning a trip for Spring 2014, for maybe a 10-12 day crossing. It will depend on the situation in Yemen. Even on this trip we got close to the Yemen border and had an edgy incident. It would be wonderful to go with a group of readers. I didn’t get to pick my group and there were some less than ideal people to balance some very humble and decent people.

    • A crossing with a group of readers would be awesome! And of course we’d refer to each other by our Twitter handles. (“Hey, Magda Kapa & Death Zen keep eating all the olives!”) Oh, what a splendid adventure that would be.

  2. This is a beautiful post, Anthony. The sand is breathtaking in your photos so I imagine that seeing/witnessing/feeling it is a whole other experience.

    I’ve long associated longing with the sea and, to a certain extent, the desert, though I never wonder why I linked them together. But of course they are the same but in different times, eras, millennia.

    • Thank you, Gina.

      The hourglass sand in Rub’ al Khali is far, far finer than the sand on a typical beach, which gives you a deep impression for how old this terrain has existed. The sand is also constantly shifting, before your eyes, so it feels like a sand-sea.

  3. Wow! I just finished 2000 pieces of jigsaw puzzle picturing desert sand, so I don’t doubt the colours in it. But wow, you’re lucky to see the real thing.

    • Thank you, Paul, I truly appreciate that you’ve taken time to comment. Compared to Thesiger et al. my trek was superficial but I am planning something deeper.

  4. These are beautiful photos – and your thoughts on the experience also a real pleasure to read. I’m stuck on your comment about obsessing over a kind of misplaced Orientalism – and do believe I know what you mean (as someone with a deep interest in the East, and constant concerns that I am romanticizing, or worse), but how else are we travel? It would be worse to regard it all without awe, wouldn’t it?

    I have had Thesiger on my reading list for ages (I have the FS edition of Arabian Sands/The Marsh Arabs – from my days working for their US office) but other reading projects always seem to get in the way. Some day, I suppose.

    • I’ve taken to randomly opening Thesiger’s book and sampling excerpts. His style is a little dry, perfectly in tune with the environment he was addressing. I will read it through one day perhaps.

      Your point about regarding the East with awe is important, and I couldn’t agree more. What I like about Thesiger is that his perspective on the East was one of humbleness and respect for an ancient and learned culture. This seems to be appropriate.


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