Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What the Desert Said

At the beginning of Book III of the Odyssey, Telemachus’ ship pulls into the harbor of sandy Pylos, city of the aging Nestor, as the morning light burnishes the sea.  Homer tells us how
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.
Though that sun dawns upon gods and men alike, this is how we humans are defined: as the men who die on the life-giving earth.  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, as other traditions tell it, 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.
The search for the sacred is the search for a return to that state of timelessness.  Sacred places 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 saying, “Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground,” 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.   And when, centuries later, as legend has it, the Roman Empress Helena commands that a Chapel of the Burning Bush be built at the base of Mount Sinai to commemorate this moment and this miracle, she too is marking off sacred space, inside of which that miracle, when remembered by pilgrims, is forever happening, and time is therefore annulled. 
Last summer, my daughter, Ellie, and I traveled to the Chapel of the Burning Bush in the southern Sinai peninsula, now part of St Catherine’s Monastery, one of the oldest Christian monasteries still in existence near one of the most sacred spaces on earth.  We were following in the footsteps a Dominican friar from Ulm, Germany, Brother Felix Fabri, who wrote an account of his pilgrimage across the Mediterranean Sea by galley, and around the Holy Land by donkey, and through the Sinai Desert by camel caravan in 1483, an account which had obsessed me for several years.  We were trying to retrace his path as closely as possible, given such minor contemporary roadblocks as the recent Egyptian Revolution, the fraught relations between Israelis and Palestinians, and the unreliability of the Greek ferry and bus systems in a country on the verge of economic collapse.  In the two months of our travels we saw many sacred sites—churches and cathedrals in Venice where paintings by the likes of Titian and Tintoretto reinterpreted the stories of the bible; small pilgrimage shrines in Croatia where the bodily relics of forgotten saints were housed in carved marble reliquaries; the first grave of Lazarus in the West Bank town of Bethany; the second grave of Lazarus in a damp and dingy catacomb on the island of Cyprus; the mosque that shelters the rock from which Mohammad ascended to heaven during his Night Journey; the spot marking the birth of Christ in Bethlehem; the spot marking his death and resurrection in Jerusalem; his empty tomb.  But week after passing week of our journey, our capacity for wonder diminished.  And, like Odysseus with his salt-rimmed eyes, by the time we reached St Catherine’s, we only longed for home.
In fact, outside the Chapel of the Burning Bush, in a courtyard formed by the protective walls of the monastery, as we tried to get a glimpse of the sacred bush, frankly, I wanted to hit someone.  The red-faced Russian Orthodox pilgrims, who had been herded to St Catherine’s on tour buses from Sharm El Sheikh near the coast of the Red Sea, were blocking our view with their headkerchiefs and floral polyester skirt-and-sweater ensembles and their plastic bags filled with painted wooden icons and charm bracelets with pictures of the saints.  Another tour group from somewhere in Latin America had just been unloaded and was pressing in fast with their rosaries held high in their hands.  Some Koreans I’d spotted earlier in the chapel wearing matching blue nylon collapsible sun hats were due out any moment.  I sent Ellie ahead of me into the fray armed with our camera, and she elbowed her way through the crowd up to the barrier, and snapped a picture of the seneh—the Hebrew word for “bush” which perhaps gave the Sinai its name.  The Russians glared.  An elderly Latina grabbed Ellie’s arm and yelled something in a Spanish spoken so fast we could not catch it.  I grabbed Ellie back and we made our escape

It had been different, though, in the desert itself.  We’d crossed into that wilderness about a week before at Taba, near the Israeli Red Sea resort town of Eilat.  Our guide and interpreter, Mohammad, was a Cairene, fresh from the Revolution in Tahrir Square.  Our driver, Sheik Swelam, a sinewy Muzeina Bedouin in pale gray jalabiyya and white rayon-blend kufiyya held in place by a black agal rope.    

His sullen twelve-year-old son, wearing athletic shorts and flip flops, accompanied him.  For days, traveling towards St Catherine’s Monastery and Mount Sinai, we navigated wadis, dry riverbeds which served as roads, running through the desert’s variegated landscape.  In the sheik’s jeep, its seats covered with bright, woven rugs, we climbed colossal dunes whose fine white sand is used in making glass, and stony red outcrops etched and worn, maybe by water, maybe by wind.  We passed over an endless blackened swathe of earth littered with hollow cones of iron ore.  “Aye Aye Aye!” Sheik Swelam would say as we trundled over the cobbled desert floor.  And then, with a laugh, “Good massage?” One day, we rode camels across the bottom of this once ancient ocean, past pale sandstone formations, striated, some crouched on the desert floor like sphinx, some dissolving like fallen temples.  The stone hills in the distance seemed chiseled and carved as with a frieze, but one so worn away it could no longer be read. But the sphinxes, the temples, the friezes I thought I saw—these were just metaphors.  In actuality there were no monuments here trying to stay the passage of time.  No monuments marking anything at all.  In this vast, still desert, we seemed to be the only breathing, moving things.  Everywhere, the relentless sun shining upon men who die on the life-giving earth. 

     As Felix Fabri and his pilgrim band leave Gaza behind 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,” Fabri writes on the eleventh of September, 1483.  “Over this wide tract we wearily traveled for many hours, suffering from the heat of the sun.”  But in the afternoon of that day, they come into a land of swelling hills, and in a valley between them, the travelers pitch their tents.  The camel drivers go off with jars and water-skins to fetch fresh water from a cistern, while the pilgrims—clergymen, priests, counts, barons, knights, all ranks without exception—spread out in search of firewood.  They find only dry bushes, which they pull up by the roots.  Preparing to eat, the travelers take from their scrips the meat they had cooked and packed the evening before, but they discover that it has rotted in the heat.  They dine on cheese and biscuits instead.
     “This place was called in Arabic Chawatha, and here we found many proofs that once human dwellings had stood there,” Fabri recalls of this way station in the valley;
for we found above us twelve great ancient walled cisterns, round about which lay many broken bricks, broken pots, and ashes from smiths’ forges, and it seemed to us that these cisterns had not been made to hold drinking-water, but to prepare clay for making bricks and pottery.  In the cisterns we saw the dead bodies of great and terrible serpents, and of animals unknown to us.  We likewise found a heathen burying-place, and elsewhere we found many borings and trenches made by men in search of white marble, which can be dug out of the bowels of that land.
On the morning of the twelfth, they load the camels early, before daylight, saddle their asses, and depart from Chawatha together in the dark.
The Bedouin, Mohammad explained to us, set up their encampments and graze their flocks of goats, and then, when the water runs low or the season changes, they move on.  The day we rode camels through the desert, we passed through an abandoned Bedouin camp.   As the camels stopped to graze on the clumps of spiny grasses, their necks moving telescopically, periscopically, their gaze, like their chewing, ruminative, I noted the detritus of detritus left over: nylon fencing, wood scraps, scraps of rice bags, metal barrels, plastic water cans, oil drums, mangled water shoes, a single black rubber boot.

We found other proof of human existence too, as we traversed the desert.  Acacia trees tied with bits of fading fabric.  Precarious stacks of flat stones.  “Signs,” Mohammad said, by which he meant road signs, notices marking the way through the desert, because there is no fixed path.  And there were other signs, too, marks on the desert walls—camels and goats scratched into the sandstone surface, strange vertical lines over and over, as if marking time, bits of Arabic—Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim, In the name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the most Merciful. 
And we found humans, too, often least where we expected, although to me, anywhere in this place of red rock and sun and almost nothing green was an unexpected place to find someone of my kind.  One afternoon, 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 between their green Toyota jeep and the stone wall, and when we pulled up, the woman covered her head and moved to a nook in the stone where she could not be seen by Mohammad, a male and a foreigner.  There, over a small fire, she made us hot tea in a tin can rinsed clean.  Her husband jammed stones beneath the rug they had both been sitting on and gave the space to Ellie and me.  The stones were for us to lean against.  The wife poured the very sweet tea into two glasses.  Later, when we finished our tea and the glasses were rinsed and refilled for Sheik Swelam and Mohammad, I realized that these were the only glasses they had.  “What are you doing here?” I asked Mohammad to ask the sheik.  I looked out on the endless floor of the former sea, lined by bisque-colored buttes and mesas, sky and sky and sky.  “They are waiting for their camels,” Mohammad told me after an exchange.  Though I could not distinguish the difference, Mohammad told me that Sheik Swelam and the couple were speaking together in an older Arabic, one that he could not understand, an Arabic brought with these desert nomads when they came, like Abraham, with their camels and goats and their wool tents and woven rugs from the Near East centuries ago. “First time in the desert?” the sheik asked us, and we nodded and smiled.  “You are welcome,” he told us, which was a reminder that this land belonged to him, to the tribe of these two sheiks, and that we were guests upon it.  “Insha’Allah you will return.” 
In the desert, time seemed to slow and stretch, or maybe condense, I’m not sure which.  It thickened like a reduction in which all excess is boiled away, a distillation.  Or perhaps that is only how it is in my mind, in my memory of it.  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 small, clear glasses with a bit of water, elegantly swirling and rubbing with his thumb at the same time.  We sit on the rugs from the jeep in silence, eating flatbread and a soft white cheese and jam.  Then all day we drive the wadis, stopping at a Bedouin encampment for tea and cigarettes with men possessed of piercing eyes and stained teeth, or in the shade of an acacia tree or a sandstone cliff for lunch when there are no camps to be had.  After lunch and a rest, we drive on.  From time to time, Sheik Swelam veers off the wadi to a well he remembers in this vast terrain, and he fills the plastic water jugs, protected by cloth covers embroidered by the women, distant figures against the hills, young children on their hips, or surrounded by shaggy goats, black shawls covering their heads and some brilliant-colored ankle-length dress beneath—turquoise or magenta or emerald.   

At the wells, Sheik Swelam has me and Ellie bend over while he 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 afternoons, when Sheik Swelam sees a promising band of shrubs in the parched riverbeds, we get out of the jeep and, like the pilgrims centuries ago, we gather dried branches of the desert bushes, the seneh, 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.  As the fire dies out, we fall asleep beneath the stars.  No voice calls out to us from the midst of the burning.

   Just before he launches into the account of his journey across the Sinai Peninsula, Felix Fabri gives a lengthy disquisition on “The State of the Desert or Wilderness”—its qualities and characteristics, its cultural history, what it has come to mean.  For Fabri and the medieval pilgrims who made this punishing journey, the desert wasteland of the Sinai was a sacred place.  It was a living symbol, the Word of God made Flesh.  As they travel this desolate terrain, they feel themselves at the mercy of this particular and brutal place on the map, and at the same time they know themselves to be crossing a spiritual landscape that exists beyond time, beyond the physical world that makes their bodies suffer.
     “Firstly, this country is called the desert because it seems to be, so to speak, deserted by God, by the heavens, and by the world,” Fabri begins.
It is deserted by God, because it is empty and void, as though God had used it to improve or adorn the rest of the universe.  The country 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.  In consequence of this the country is also deserted by mankind, who depart from it as from a useless thing.
Besides this forsaken quality, Fabri goes on to enumerate other associations of the desert.  It is barren and waterless, an image of death.  It is a land of serpents and scorpions, worms and dragons, fauns and satyrs and devils.  It is a site of testing and temptation.  But it is also where the laws were bestowed.  It’s where manna rained down.  It’s where divine command and comfort was given.  It is a place of retreat from the world, and of devotion and contemplation, a place where one is found.  At the same time, it is a place where one is easily lost, for through it 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 would write 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 an ancient acacia tree, the only shade to be found.  Tomatoes and cucumbers, canned tuna with chopped onions, white cheese, unleavened bread, and afterwards, grapes and tea.  The only sounds: flies, the wind.  Ellie and I lay on mats beneath the delicate leaves of the acacia and read.  Sheik Swelam and Mohammad smoked cigarettes.  The son slept in the jeep.  I asked the sheik where we were, and he drew a map of where we’d been in the dirt with a stick, one wadi branching off into another like a bare tree in winter.  Looking out across the expanse of sand and scrub, he told me he could travel this land day or night.  “Everything I have in here,” he said, tapping his head.
The evening before, we had camped in a ravine, at the point where two wadis meet, one flowing to the Suez Gulf, the other to the Gulf of Aqaba, a tipping point, a center, a hinge of the earth.  During dinner, made in the small fire pit of stones and hollowed out sand, built with those splinters of seneh we’d collected in the afternoon, Sheik Swelam pointed off to the Milky Way far south of us and said that when it is centered over the southern sky, then the dates from the date palms are most sweet.
I know that I have said no voice called out to us from the midst of the burning fire, but some time in the night, I woke up in the darkness, cold from the dry desert air.  Maybe it was only the chill that sharpened my mind, or maybe it was the divine nudging me awake, but I opened my eyes to the clarity of the stars, near and bright and abundant as the children Yahweh promises to Abraham in Genesis.  It seemed that 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 still, quiet hour, and I thought that I was looking at 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 thought about that other world, gazing out, the desert I was in their sky and constellations, them looking up in wonder at us lying here in the sand.  I thought, too, in looking at those stars, about how much is hidden from us by the deceptive light of day, how little we actually see of what exists.
“Everything I have in here,” Sheik Swelam had said, and I remembered 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. 

One afternoon, under a sky white with heat, we passed through a valley framed by low red rock mesas.  On a hill beside the wadi, a cemetery, hardly distinguishable from the fields of stone over which we drove except for the rectangular plots of that same stone.   Everywhere on this trip, Ellie and I had seen monuments built by human hands to commemorate and mark and remember.  Even Fabri’s account, the one that had propelled me to follow him, was a kind of shrine of memory, all that happened encased in words.  “I shall begin with the day of my departure, and end with that of my return,” he’d written to his Dominican brethren, left behind at their convent in Ulm,
and shall faithfully set down all the places which we saw month by month and day by day, each day, adding descriptions of the holy and other places the better to explain my narrative.  For I never passed one single day while I was on my travels 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 understand this impulse.  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 embroidered with stars.  This attempt to capture memory is like the marking out of sacred space.  Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.  It encloses the past and tries to keep it alive.  But of course this is impossible—to capture any moment and take it home as a souvenir.  Souvenir, from the French: to remember.  Time just goes, and us with it.  We fool ourselves with these trinkets.
Here in the Sinai peninsula, 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 seems to me, a kind of submission to this essential fact of human existence: our fragility.  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 the 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.
—Kim Meyer

No comments:

Post a Comment