Image: With my father on the road leading to the Bitter Lake, Fayid, Egypt, 1951
Sayid came to us out of the desert.
He arrived with other young men in a cloud of dust and an open-topped truck come from northern Sudan. He wore a long white jalabiya, a white turban and a sash. He was black, fine-featured, with a casual, graceful pride in his body and gestures. With us, using an unfamiliar language, his voice was low and quiet. Faultlessly polite, he seemed always on the edge of laughter.
My parents and I, their only child, lived in a small, flat-roofed bungalow built of mud bricks, white-washed and smothered in bougainvillea. The garden was a tiny, heavily scented paradise where sparrows took quarrelsome dust baths. Sayid took on all the tasks of our domestic life: cooking, cleaning, gardening. True, he shared the cooking with my mother, and in the garden I was his devoted assistant. Zinnias, African marigolds, nasturtiums, pepper-scented flowers lurid with their native heat. Plants that depended on our care: primarily, water. The water was sourced from a sweet canal that ran along the back of our house. Every evening, Sayid and I would unblock little channels that carried water to every plant in a sudden gurgling rush of bubbles. Sayid approached this as a sacred ritual, with a measured economy of movement, and I, attentive to his every mood, went about it in exactly the same way. My hands mirrored his. The solemnity of my expression mirrored his. Water, he told me, was the earth’s most precious gift and he was very exacting about when we used it: early morning or evening only, when the plants were in the shade. After which, the channels had to be securely blocked up again. Sometimes we walked along the edge of the canal chewing on sugarcane. It was always Sayid who saw things first, birds, insects, alerting me with a light touch on my arm. A small white egret came there frequently, stepping delicately, breaking its own reflection to stab frogs. (Years later I see migrant egrets wading the shallow waters of rivers in Devon, here because of our warming winters – the significance of which was still not generally recognised.) Sayid referred to the bird as ‘she’. I’d noticed him do this before. ‘He’ or ‘she’, never ‘it’. Why was that? I understood him to say that all birds, all animals, are people. He pressed one hand flat to his chest. ‘Like us.’
This was in 1951. A year earlier, Egypt had demanded that Britain withdraw her troops – here to protect British interests in the Suez Canal – from both Suez and the Sudan. But Britain, intending to do no such thing, was preparing the Sudan for self-government – something Egypt strongly opposed. Egypt considered control of Sudan vital to secure the unimpeded flow of the Nile, on whose waters she depended. Northern Sudan is dominated by the Nubian desert and, in spite of the word ‘Sudan’ meaning ‘country of the blacks’ in Arabic, there were ethnic and political tensions. There was violence over access to water. In a story as old as time, young men came north looking for a better life. Initially, Sayid thought to find work on the cotton-growing farms in the Nile Delta. Instead, he found his way to us.
Sayid laughs often. I realise his laughter means several things: humour, yes, the absurdity of life, often, but also embarrassment, denial, fatalism. And underneath the laughter, sadness. Sayid’s family had been nomadic. By the time Sayid was a young man, however, the family was semi-settled. He told me this with a shrug of his shoulders. His father still owned camels, but used them now to trade between desert and city. More than anything, Sayid loved to accompany him. From his father he learned the desert ways. But one morning, without telling anyone, his father went alone, far out into the Hurra, to a stranger’s well, looking for water. One by one, the camels came home, their empty water-skins flapping. Sayid’s father never returned. I try to imagine this. ‘Did he get lost?’ I ask. Sayid shakes his head. ‘My father not lost. He know the ways like a bird.’
So far as we know, Sayid has no family here in Egypt. At the end of each month my mother gives him his pay and sometimes, with money in his pocket, he disappears for days on end. He returns smelling of cannabis. At the time, I don’t know that’s what it is, only that it smells strong and delicious and is very wrong. My mother does not reproach him. From the kitchen I hear their voices murmuring peaceably as they go about preparing lunch. My mother was an immigrant too. In the 1930s she ‘took the boat’ from Ireland to England looking for a better life. After his sometimes very inconvenient, long absences, she will only say: ‘Sayid is a long way from home.’
I’m deeply curious about the desert. It’s visible here on every side but the real thing, the great yellow ocean of the Sahara, lies outside the Canal Zone to which British military personnel are restricted. The closest I get is when an army truck, its canvas flaps cracking like sails, bombs along the dirt road to the Army school engulfed in a choking cloud of dust. The school, a small Nissen hut, is under threat of being minted flat as a tin penny under the sun’s relentless hammering. Crammed in here, red-faced and gently steaming, are about twenty English pupils aged from five to fourteen. We are not getting an education. Occasionally, our young teacher rouses himself sufficiently to pin images of Ancient Egypt up around the room: the Pyramids, the Sphinx, the Great Temple at Thebes, the Valley of the Kings and, to me above all, the ravishing wall paintings. Our teacher tells us that one of these depicts a mythical oasis, all that was left of a once-fertile savannah which, 6000 BC, became a great wasteland, the Sahara. These images fill my fantasies. But fantasy is what they remain. In that time of political unrest and anti-colonialism, we Brits live in ‘a state of emergency’ and the ancient sites, mysterious, alluring, are out of bounds.
The night sky is clotted with stars. I am walking with my father’s commanding officer, Brigadier George Alms, along our dirt track in the warm, spicy dusk. Little houses are set back in darkness amongst trees, hugging close to the dry earth. The road leads to the Great Bitter Lake, which links the Suez Canal with the Red Sea. I know it by day because I’m allowed to go there, alone, to kick in the sand and to collect the shells I bring home to paint in rainbow colours. The Brigadier is an imposing figure, large, and of considerable girth. Khaki shorts, freckled knees, khaki socks. My head comes not much higher than his military belt, yet he unfailingly treats me as an equal (unlike Sayid who seems to think I am a loved but idiotic child). My companion is telling me about the stars. ‘Hasn’t your father told you any of this?’ he keeps exclaiming. ‘No! Because he doesn’t know it.’ It’s true my father doesn’t name the stars, but even at the age of nine I take this sort of remark with a pinch of salt. As well as being my father’s immediate boss, Brigadier Alms, along with his Japanese wife, Kimi, is my parents’ closest friend, and the Brigadier has taken it upon himself to educate me. He points out the constellations, drawing my eye along the handle of the Plough to Polaris, the North Star. The star we navigate by. ‘But it’s so tiny!’ ‘Yes,’ my companion agrees. ‘You have to look carefully or you’d miss it. Sometimes your life can depend on paying close attention.’
The track ends. We step out from under trees onto the beach. The Lake, a great expanse of black etched with silver, lies eerily still between us and the desert of Sinai undulating in bleached waves under the starlight. This is not the landscape I know. For several moments we are silent. Then the Brigadier remarks: ‘Here is a case in point. Someday you might find yourself lost in the desert. Look up, find the north star, and you will be able to orientate yourself. Remember that, young lady.’
As we walk quietly homeward I look back over my shoulder. From this point of view the Lake lies low, out of sight. It looks as if the desert starts right there at the end of the road.
Under a walnut tree in the school garden, Sussex, England, 1953
Oak. Ash. Beech. No, hornbeam. I rub the oval leaves between my fingers to release the green scent. Hawthorn. Good to eat with bread and cheese. My cousin Lizzie and I are wading through a stream on the edge of woodland in Sussex, our wellies squelching in the mud, sending a thick brown current of the stuff in our wake. We’re moving through a profligacy of green life: trees, plants, moss. Birds flit silently away into invisibility. We crouch to go under Frog Slaughter Bridge, clamber out into the grassy bank. We name the flowers: windflower, primrose, buttercup, milkmaid. I was ten when my mother and I, after only a year in Egypt, were evacuated at twenty-four-hours’ notice and flown home, leaving my father behind for a further year. We’ve come to live with my aunt, and I’ve fallen swooningly in love with England’s green and pleasant land. I’m half aware of what I’m doing. Too young yet to read the Romantic poets, still I’m developing the sensibility that will recognise them as fellow spirits when I seize on their work in my adolescence.
I think of the camel as mine. Of course he isn’t, but he lives in the field that runs alongside our rather bare, sun-blasted garden and sometimes in the dark he roars. Mostly he harrumphs, coughs and growls, working his jaws and big soft lips constantly, looking down his aristocratic nose at me with big, sad eyes. I’m curious. Wary. My family and I are living in Larnaca, in a small grey-washed house on the fringe of the Turkish quarter. At intervals through the day we hear the muezzin call to prayer and at night Turkish pop music pulverises us with its pain and melancholy. At dusk I prowl our garden, enchanted by the star-blazing sky and the dark outline of my lonely camel.
Camels are not indigenous to Cyprus. One-humped camels, dromedaries, were introduced by the Ottomans and used for loading and unloading ships. Was my camel so used – as he occasionally is now, bringing salt from the near-by Salt Lake to Larnaca’s once-busy port? His ancestors must surely have been shipped from Egypt, reluctant emigrants crossing the Mediterranean to find work. To be used and possibly abused – though abusing a camel is not easy. They respond with loyalty and affection to good treatment, but are bad-tempered and dangerous when ill-treated. They will, however, work, work, work. My camel’s extraordinary body and character speak both of his own unique self and of the extreme conditions out of which he has evolved. More exactly adapted to the desert than any other creature, he needs water only every ten to fifteen days; his hump – contrary to popular belief – is not filled with water but with fat (up to 80 lbs of it); he has a double row of lashes to shield his eyes from sun and dust and he has huge, padded feet. Here in southern Cyprus the summer heat can be almost unendurably oppressive. We wait, stupefied, for the evening breeze to come to us out of Egypt. When it does, the camel and I lift our muzzles in relief, sniffing, he with that sideways grinding of his mighty, brown teeth.
Soeur Denise is herself an emigrant, from France. Small, straight as a white candle encased in her black habit, her hands and face are like newly laundered linen, crisp and white, with a pool of blue under her laundry-blue eyes. I am attending the Convent of St Joseph. The nuns of the Sisters of Charity first came here in 1844, arriving in their own wilderness to do God’s work. Larnaca was an unhealthy, neglected place of typhus, cholera and dysentery. A visitor to the island in 1879 described its southern slopes as ‘utterly devoid of vegetation, presenting a sad aspect of desolation’ which reminded him of the desert shores of the Red Sea. But St Joseph’s Convent offered both nursing and schooling, and from the 1840s (until the 1980s, long after my time there) it became an integral part of the education of local young ladies. In the chapel, the nuns’ ethereal singing was a thread rising and falling between earth and heaven.
Today Soeur Denise is telling us the story of the Israelites’ forty years wandering in the desert. (There is a strange element to the Bible that is both too obvious and too familiar to remark on, certainly as a child: it is mostly set in the deserts of Israel and Saudi Arabia between one and two thousand years ago. I still have my own copy of the Bible from that period, much loved for its illustrations which, to my eye, are still beautiful and, in some way I don’t understand, profoundly meaningful, populated with lions, ravens and bearded men who look remarkably like my son-in-law.) I’d always supposed the Israelites wandered for forty years either because it was such a long way or – if they had not been taught about the stars – because they got lost. Now I gather that God was in fact punishing them because, instead of waiting for Him to perform miracles when they are dying of thirst, Moses struck a rock and found water of his own initiative. This, we gather, was unforgivable. There’s something here that bothers me. And there was something that bothered me about last week’s story too, the story of Jesus going into the desert for forty days and forty nights to seek spiritual enlightenment. There he suffered – the Biblical fathers seem much interested in suffering – and then was taken to a high mountain and tempted by the Devil with the promise of worldly power and riches. But Jesus resisted and returned in triumph to Jerusalem riding a donkey.
My camel in full dress, Turkish quarter, Larnaca, Cyprus, 1954
These stories confuse me. Why should Moses not be praised for showing initiative? (I’ve since read that nomadic people did indeed have knowledge of where, by cracking open rocks, they could release trapped water.) And what kind of worldly riches were on offer in the desert, of all places? In fact, unknown to me, and with a significance few at the time could have even imagined, oil had already been struck in the desert, in 1938, in Saudi Arabia: ‘black gold’, the ultimate temptation of power and money. Listening to Soeur Denise’s gently enticing voice, I long to follow her into the wilderness. But a thrum of doubt holds me back.
I have never been for a walk with a camel before. He places his huge feet with a certain delicacy on the salty crust of the earth. As we walk I’m thinking about another passage from the Bible that disturbs me: God giving Adam and Eve dominion ‘over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.’ When I think of this I remember Sayid, whose belief about his fellow creatures was so very different. The camel, his owner and I are going along the shore of the Salt Lake which is drying out in the summer heat. On the other side, floating on a mirage of water, is the Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque. It was here, whilst ‘crossing hills of salt towards Larnaca’ that the Prophet’s aunt, Oum Haram, died when she fell from her donkey – whose ‘hooves clatter like silver dinars’ – and broke her ‘pellucid neck’. The author of these lines, George Seferis, visited Cyprus in the same years we were there: in ’53, ’54 and ’55. Our paths crossed only once when my family and I saw him taking lunch, alone, in the Four Lanterns Hotel in Larnaca. He was pointed out to us in hushed awe as that rare and strange creature: ‘a poet’ – a poet whose seven-year silence had been broken (as the rocks being broken by Moses to gush forth water) by his stay on the island: ‘Cyprus, where it was ordained for me …’ – a poet whose work I came to know and love as an adult. That day in Larnaca I saw a big man with a bald head, not so very unlike George Alms, dressed entirely conventionally, who glanced towards us without interest, nodded, then returned to his book. Here on the hills of salt, the camel’s owner, Mr Jemal – who is the father of one of my friends – is meditatively chewing on a plug of carob bean. The Convent takes girls of every faith and my close friends are: Henriette, French Catholic; Helene, Greek Orthodox; Mira, Armenian Jewish; and Frieda, daughter of a Turkish-Cypriot and an English woman. Repeated waves, not so much of immigrants as of conquerors, along with the notorious Levantine torpor, had bestowed on the island religious tolerance and a sense of easy-going community. Tensions, however, have begun to surface and the eventual division of the island between Greeks and Turks will release its own wave of immigrants to Britain.
All this is in the future. Meanwhile, as has been happening for millennia, Mr Jemal couches the camel and begins laboriously to load his back with panniers of salt, helped by a boy who had been waiting in the shade of an acacia where I now take his place. In Cyprus I’ve begun drawing birds. I would like to do this from life, but usually I can’t. They move too quickly. I use photos and sometimes the illustrations in a bird book, my first, given to me by Brigadier Alms before we left Egypt. I have it still. But I do scrupulously draw only those birds I’ve seen and observed closely. I make notes of where, when, their behaviour and their calls. I’ve begun a habit of close attention, one I continue until early adulthood, lose, and then rediscover in a different form in middle age. For now I sit under an acacia tree; I watch bee-eaters, rollers, and flamingos poised on one leg above the Salt Lake with a shimmer of heat-haze around their ankles.
SUSSEX, ENGLAND, 1956
Rain is falling on the great lawn, on the tennis courts, on the gravelled driveway. I’m in my second year at a boarding school for young ladies in England. I still have my beloved Bible but I never refer to it. I’ve refused Confirmation. I’ve discovered Existentialism. Individualism. The revolutionary romanticism of the English Lakeland poets. I’ve forgotten my old dreams of the desert. But today, sitting idly in the common room staring out at the rain, a news item on the wireless galvanizes me. President Nasser has seized control of the Suez Canal, and Britain, along with France and Israel, has invaded Egypt. The bulletin refers to the fact that Britain’s main source of oil, Saudi Arabia, is accessed by the canal. I recall seeing tankers slowly crossing the horizon of the Bitter Lake. I already know from discussions at home that Nasser is planning to build a huge dam across the Nile, designed to control and store the Nile’s unpredictable flood waters. Water. Oil. The desert. It all seems a very long way away. I step outside onto the lawn and open my mouth to the sky, allowing soft English rain to fall on my tongue.
LONDON, THE SUMMER OF 2022
‘As fires rage and birds faint, the heat is taking its toll on wildlife. Swifts have fallen from the sky over London. Deer crowd, panting, in the hot-house shade. Among the most dramatic events was a wildfire in Norfolk’s Wild Ken Reserve where eight-two acres of thorny scrub went up in flames destroying nesting territories of turtle doves, grasshopper warblers and reed warblers.’ There are wildfires in California. In Spain. In France near where we take a family holiday. In January 2023 several European countries saw the warmest start to the year ever recorded. Is this the future? At home we’re being advised to take a new approach to our gardens, to acquire new knowledge: to make drought-resistant Mediterranean gardens. Even in my mother’s famously rain-soaked homeland – ‘If it’s not raining it’s dripping off the trees’ – the summer was so dry farmers tell me they’ve had difficulty watering their cattle. Milk yields are therefore low. EU grants encouraging more head of cattle have combined with something only just beginning to be understood, namely, climate change (something the fossil-fuel industries were aware of decades ago). Floods. Drought. Fires.
Meanwhile, in Egypt and East Africa, the deserts expand, fuelling political turmoil and sending bigger and bigger waves of immigrants to the north-western world. Areas near the Sahara are at greatest risk. One of these is Sudan, where nomadic people fight with settled farmers over shrinking fertile land and the use of wells. Water. Earth’s most precious gift. But over the past thirty years, rainfall in East Africa has dropped by approximately twenty-two percent and Nasser’s Aswan High Dam, by holding back Nile waters that once annually flooded agricultural land, has created new problems for irrigation. Worldwide our forests, farm areas and grasslands are in retreat and populations are on the move. Egypt now has four million Sudanese migrants, many of whom will attempt that dangerous journey north-west across the Mediterranean, seeking a ‘better life’ in countries ill-prepared to receive them.
Desertification, driven by climate change, was most likely the cause of humankind’s first great migration around 6000 BC. One consequence of that migration was the creation of a great civilization along the Nile, with technical know-how but utterly dependent on the great river’s water; another was the nomadic cultures that flourished on a network of tracks and wells in the desert, utterly dependent on their camels.
Ironically, ancient desertification is what made oil. When oil was first struck in Dhahran in 1938, the Saudis were an almost entirely nomadic people. Now, 98% of their income is from oil, and oil-burning drives desertification, releasing approximately one third of total carbon emissions. The productive areas of the world shrink as our populations multiply.
We are faced with a problem that is both intellectual and moral. Everything, from powering irrigation to the practice of medicine to food security, depends on energy. And cheap, abundant renewable energy is, in principle, achievable. To give just one example: geothermal energy in the Rift Valley of East Africa could make Africa both self-sufficient and a superpower. (BBC Radio 4, Inside Science, Feb. 9th 2023) It comes down to this: what do we want? And: who answers that question?
As I write, BP has announced annual profits that have more than doubled. Its shareholders, instead of asking for these profits to hasten the promised transition to renewable energy, have voted to invest in yet more oil: more ‘black gold’. They have embraced the desert temptation of power and riches that Christ resisted. Does this decision come from indifference to the fate of the living earth and of our children? Or from an almost religious faith in the power of wealth and exclusivity weighed against the uncertain future? For many, the balancing act required is (to quote Geoffrey Robertson KC) ‘like balancing hard cash against hot air’ (in this context, an apposite phrase).
I’ve been back to Cyprus several times. The only camels here now are in the Mazotos Park, grumpily giving rides to tourists. Giorgos Lialios (Ekathimerini Report, 2017) suggests that: ‘Cyprus [is] at risk of desertification from a combination of increasing heat and drought, abandonment of rural areas and huge increase in water consumption.’ Through the millennia, tree felling wrought devastation. So too did accelerated timber harvesting during WW2. In the 1950s, the British Forestry Commission began a massive reforestation programme. With qualified success. Nevertheless, the Forestry Commission (now Cypriot), still exists and its achievement is plain to see, especially on the mountains. Where the forest falls away, out on the Karpaz Peninsula, clouds of small brown butterflies accompany me as I walk the dirt road. And there are wild donkeys – not stupid, stubborn beasts of burden but glossy and wild as punk rock, yet all with that dark cross marking their backs. They race away from me as I approach, no matter how softly I tread, and I think of the passage in Genesis 9.2, where God tells Noah that ‘the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth … into your hand are they delivered … every living thing that moveth shall be meat for you …’ This, unfortunately, became the dominant philosophy in the dominant culture, encouraging us to be exploiters rather than guardians of the natural world. But it is not the only way.
Though they have different names for them, the desert nomads certainly navigate by those same stars that Brigadier Alms pointed out to me. But, out on the featureless ocean of sand, they have other, subtler means of orientation. In Michael Asher’s book The Oasis of the Last Story the narrator asks his companion how he knows he’s going in the right direction. Rafig replies: ‘Close your eyes. Do you feel the wind on the right side of your jaw, at the back? That wind comes from the Nile Valley. The moment you feel the wind on a different part of your head, it means you’ve changed direction. If you wish to find your way in the desert, you must not let your senses slip. You must feel the wind. Know the texture and the smell of the earth under your feet.’
As if having stepped out of an Ancient Egyptian wall painting, Egyptian geese now feed and breed in my local London park. Native to sub-tropical Africa, the Egyptian goose is undergoing a population explosion here in England, almost certainly due to climate warming. I’ve seen my fellow Londoners walk within yards of these beautiful creatures – their kohled eyes, the sun disc on their creamy breasts – without noticing them. They appear scarcely to notice one another, either. It’s as if they have turned off their senses. But sensitivity to real, lived experience (as opposed to the virtual kind) is something we urgently need to relearn. To Egyptian geese and to each other, embracing the ancient idea that it is possible ‘to live on an equal footing with everything that exists in the natural world.’ (Stattin, ‘Nomads’, 2022) Above all, we must be careful not create a world more brutal than the one we replace. And clues may lie close to hand: written in our own bodies.
A 2008 study of the Ariaal people in Kenya discovered a gene, DRD4/7R. Those with this gene prospered as nomads but not as city dwellers. ‘Attention deficit disorder’ is said to affect one in twenty adults and one in five children and is, of course, widely treated with drugs. The study speculated that we might look on it not as a disorder but as a biological adaptation: the tendency that makes it hard for some of us to stay still and happy within four walls, to focus on our maths homework, may equip us to pay close attention to the wider environment i.e. it may not be attention deficit but attention deracine, attention looking for a more spacious and subtle field of focus. In her 1947 work, Gravity and Grace, the mystic and philosopher Simone Weil describes attention as ‘the rarest and purest form of generosity.’ The gene DRD4/7R is just one small clue. But it should give us pause for thought.
My family and I were nomadic in our way. The boarding school in Sussex was my eighth school. The house my parents finally came back to and settled in in England was their eleventh home. I was an only child, allowed to roam and dream and stare. To follow my own trail of clues: Sayid, the Bible, ‘my’ camel, and Brigadier Alms. It’s possible these experiences heightened the over-alert sensory system I’d been born with, inclining me to be interested in both nomadic philosophy and in poetry. I appreciate that this isn’t the full answer to our modern malaise, but it must be part of it. George Seferis, a Nobel Laureate, was not only a poet but a highly effective Greek diplomat in Cyprus during her most troubled years. I like to imagine the frail Simone, strolling arm in arm with Brigadier Alms along that twilit track towards the Bitter Lake, companionably star gazing. I have endeavoured to hold to my childhood habits of close observation in the form of memoir, botanical painting and, in my old age, the writing of poetry. Recently I came across a passage in an early work by the American poet Gary Snyder, which beautifully echoes the desert philosophy. It’s from a poem called ‘What You Need to be a Poet’. Namely: to know ‘all you can about animals as persons, the names of trees and flowers and weeds the names of stars and the movement of the planets and the moon’, and to know all this you must learn ‘to use your own six senses with a watchful and elegant mind.’
I’m out on the Karpaz Peninsula again, above the sea. The rocks are hot to the touch. Amongst them I find thyme, Jerusalem sage, cistus and spiky thistle. I shake seeds into my palm and pocket them to take home for my Mediterranean-English garden. Looking back over my shoulder, through a haze of small brown butterflies, I see it there at the end of the road: the desert.
APRIL 2023 Maggie Wadey MONK
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