Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Caught Dead In A Syrian Sandstorm!

Dry hills of Syria
After saying our good byes to our Bedouin friends, we continued our journey, driving even deeper into the desert; that is if “deeper” was even possible. At some point when digging to the center of the earth, you start to come out the other side, of course, in this case, that other side was the Iraqi border.

Looking for a good place to camp for the night, the horizon seems to be getting darker, but those aren't low lying rain clouds. Haji, explains, “Ladies and gentlemen, brace yourself, we’re about to be caught in a sandstorm.”
Of course, this was new and exciting for yours truly, who ventured outside the car to see the sand storm up close.

(See the sand storm as we saw it in the middle of the desert)

A minute after video camera was turned off, we were caught in a deluge of sand. Strong winds whipping sand around like shrapnel, your body instinctively positioning itself in a fetal position attempting to limit damage to vital organs. The storm rages for several minutes around us. When it ends, sand is everywhere, in our noses, ears, throats, underpants… even cameras …
Annie’s Nikon has stopped working, sand has penetrated her lens despite her best efforts to protect her baby. She wipes it down, hoping to fix it.
Lars and I, though the experience itself was not exactly pleasant, feel emboldened and alive having survived what we just did. Haji suggests we get back to the car and look for a place to camp, as he would not be surprised if the next sand storm would be far stronger, and longer.
“How long can sand storms last,” I naively ask.
“Days,” answers Haji, with an air of morbid seriousness about our situation.

We get back in the car and start driving, seemingly aimlessly. Haji announces another storm will be arriving shortly. We must find shelter. Ten minutes later it descends upon us, the dark clouds of sand blotting out the setting sun entirely. The wind howls, the swirling sand under its command makes visibility a joke, forming icy spears of high velocity shrapnel, denting the sides of our beleaguered car.
I laugh somehow. Annie starts to freak out- the fear of death. She wills herself to maintain some sense of control. At first it seems fun to tease her about it, an art which Lars, Haji, and I have attained black belt status. I start to feel sorry for Annie, barely able to continue keep up her Germanic stiffness, let alone her composure.
“Don’t fight against it Annie,” I explain in a calm voice, “there’s really nothing we can do about it in the moment. If we die, we die, it’s not that big a deal, just rest peacefully in the Now, that’s all we have.”
I feel Annie’s hands around my neck. She wants to choke me, despite my helpful intentions. Apparently I would make a terrible bereavement counselor.
Annie H and Lars Buckholder- not Haji
Haji apologizes, and tells us we likely won’t be spending the night under the desert stars. He knows of a place we can stay.
We drive around for an hour, relying on Haji’s knowledge of the desert and experience. Eventually we find it, a small government owned building with a well, set-up to help the Nomadic Bedouin people survive.
Haji knows all the men here, there isn’t a large contingent of people, even in the Middle East, who want spend their whole lives in this desolate tract of sand.
A strapping man greets us, shaking our hands, and offers the standard welcoming Arab gift of overly sweetened tea. We sit inside a very modest structure, hoping that the storm will pass.
Eventually the sands die down, though it takes several hours. By now it is pitch dark, the only lights coming from our structure and the few stars not hidden by the remaining sand clouds. Haji announces it is time to prepare dinner.
Over a fire we grill chicken and vegetables. It tastes fantastic, I could a eat a ton of this stuff, and I come close to the mark. We dine with the caretaker of the well, and his nephews, who have been hunting in the surrounding desert. A half hour into dinner, a small truck pulls up. They know the driver and greet him as a brother.
His eyes go wide at the site of Annie. A white woman in these parts is an unheard of prize. His heavy flirtation becomes more aggressive as he consumes more shots of the hard liquor everyone except for me is drinking. He excuses himself. I feel uncomfortable, I ask Haji where he is going. “To get something to give you a proper greeting,” Haji reveals, chuckling, knowing more than I do.
I ask who the guy is. Haji describes as the village idiot, who no matter how long he has been out in the desert, can never find his way, gets lost every time.
Moments later the idiot reappears with a loaded shotgun. I ease away. He points it at the sky and fires three times. Then silence. No one’s dead, I’m half-surprised.
This is an Arab tradition for welcoming guests of honor. You can tell me all you want about embracing other cultures, I find this custom absolutely idiotic. Aside of the potential accident of having a drunk discharge a loaded gun, those bullets have to land somewhere.
He continues his flirtation with Annie. Me and Lars both remark to Haji that the idiot should take it down a notch. To her credit, Annie’s doing a marvellous job of staying friendly, without giving way. Eventually it gets too much for me. I don’t really want to insult the idiot the gun, I just want Haji to intervene. Finally Haji does, in a calm, friendly way.
We eat in peace for a few minutes before he starts up again. It’s not like he’s touching her inappropriately, it’s the energy of a stupid, horny drunk man, who hasn’t been around a woman, much less an exotic one, for years, and can barely contain his predatory instincts. Haji assures me he would never harm a soul.
Almost on cue, in an effort to impress Annie with his “power” he picks up his shotgun and points it at the sky. Lars is more okay with this than I am with it, but then again, Lars has been drinking. I hide behind whatever cover I could find. The Arab men take the idiot’s gun away, and wrap it in its cloth holder. We finish dinner in relative peace.
We’re sleeping outside, Haji makes the beds, blankets over ancient mattress covering the desert floor. Forget bed bugs, we’re checking these babies for scorpions. We stay awake for hours, chatting, explaining our dreams, what brought us here. For me, it was partly an ex-girlfriend who I found out only a few months before had moved back to Europe and hung herself. Someone who you would look at, speak to, and say, “Oh my God, she is amazing.”
I look around, the calm, dark sky, the ocean of sand surrounding us. There isn’t a noise to be heard for miles, aside of maybe my heart beating as I think of her. Memories often seem like a dream. Did they even really take place? Perhaps this moment is a dream. Perhaps this is a moment of "Inception." I look around. I see no top spinning.

Desolate hills of Syria

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