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Six Marathons in the Desert

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  • Six Marathons in the Desert

 

The day before: Why?

In the name of God, the merciful, the loving kind…

Any formal tale in Arabia begins with these words, and mine is an Arabian tale: a tale of an ordinary person stepping into what is unordinary.

This is a journey in nature at it's best, unspoiled by global tourism.

This is a journey of self discovery and achievement.

This is a journey about getting under the skin of a place, all checklists be damned!

This tale is about running 6 marathons in 6 days in the desert of Arabia; a tale about achievement travel, about my own need to challenge myself and to find the limits of my own capabilities. In that sense, it is not just about running in the desert, but also about embarking on an experience that it is life enriching. To understand the Arabian desert, the sand, the heat, the silence, I need to feel and taste these elemental forces. During this journey, I will be retracing the history of mankind, of travelers, soldiers, religious men, traders and writers whose remarkable adventures where the subject of many of my dreams. There is one who stands out from the lot: T.E. Lawrence.

We know of him mainly as Lawrence of Arabia, of Hollywood fame. The reality is less romantic but still remarkable. During the first world war he secured a role as a liaison officer of the British Army with the Sheriff of Medina. The only westerner amongst the traditionally closed-to-outsider Arabs, he involved himself in the epic journey ― closer to a Picarian adventure than a military campaign ― in which a handful of the Sherif's men crossed the Arabian Desert, between May and July 1917, and captured Aqaba.

Aqaba, a port on the eastern branch of the Red Sea, now in Jordan, was a strategic asset of the Ottoman Empire, never challenged by land, protected as it was by the great desert and vital to supply troops stationed in the region. Its capture would prove as a seminal event for the Arab Revolt, to free Arabia and the Middle East from Ottomans rule.

As I move along the desert of Jordan I will look for inspiration in his memoirs Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence's memoir of his adventure among the Arabs.

As I was planning my adventure, studying the place, charting the course, organizing the expedition I looked deeply to my motives. Why I am doing it? My Mom had the same question, and many of my friends too.

It is not a simple question. I found inspiration and motivation in many daydreaming spells during countless walks and runs. I found reasons in many books that kept me awake at night. This journey is about achieving for myself. To answer my Mom and friend, I need to talk about myself: about running; about cultural diversity, about Arabia, about connecting with nature… about the desert.

Lawrence touches on two points that have great appeal, certainly to me, to characterize his resolve to engage with Arabia: to dream and to act.

All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.

This is why I need to challenge myself as a traveller: mainstream travel is now being infused more with the spectator's essence than that of discovery, as tourists are being stripped of experiences and taken to an orgy of landmarks of different and heterogeneous relevance. A gothic cathedral, followed by a Renaissance painting, followed by a postmodern bridge. Beauty and art are subtle, they reveal themselves to the trained eye and expert mind. To unlock their meaning we need dedication, slowly becoming familiar with a philosophy of thought or the features of an environment. What is the point of visiting the Duomo of Milan if you don't have an interest in Gothic architecture? Wouldn't it be better to spend our time experiencing the objects of our dreams, traversing landscapes that ignite our passion, and tingle our interest?

 

Even for those than manage to escape the main tourist routes, there is another problem in being a traveller in a globalized world: authenticity. James Duncan, in his Writes of Passage, points out the feeling that most of us experience as we travel.

the networks that made escape from home possible - railways and steamships, hotels and tour companies - ensured that modern tourism was constantly haunted by the spectre of belatedness, by the sense of arriving at the very moment that a non-modern world was fast disappearing under the impress of modernity.

With the authenticity of traveling compromised in the XXI century, questioning the personal reason for traveling is unavoidable. Why not stay at home instead? The hope to counter the sense of belatedness comes by being able to find a sense of purpose in our wanderings.

Running through the Arabian desert gives me a sense of purpose which a guided tour of Jordan would not. This is not to say that everyone needs to engage in endurance sport in extreme environments to draw meaning to one's travels. It means that travelling per se in not enough anymore. In the pursuit of achievement, we can find meaning in travel a reconnect with what we deeply love.

Blasting the dunes with a jeep or waxing poetic on a camel seem like more sensible ways to cross the Arabian desert, and are commendable achievements in their own right. Why then should I run?

Six Marathons in the Desert

Another great desert explorer, Wilfred Thesiger, discovered his thirst for adventure in Ethiopia as a young man and spent his life becoming intimate with Arabia, in its empty quarters and among the Bedu, seeing in them an ideal purity that his England had long lost. He explains in "Arabian Sands" my reason to go about on foot:

I had no desire to travel faster. In this way, there was time to notice things -- a grasshopper under a bush, a dead swallow on the ground, the tracks of a hare, a bird's nest, the shape and colour of ripples on the sand, the bloom of tiny seedlings pushing through the soil. There was time to collect a plant or to look at a rock. The very slowness of our march diminished its monotony. I thought how terribly boring it would be to rush about this country in a car.

Running is a means to rediscover the art of looking by giving me time to form associations and reflect on what I observe. I learn to be present in what I do and what is around me, without distractions. When I run I am a flâneur. Baudelaire coined the term to describe a city walker who savours the spectacle of modern life as an ever-changing work of art.

Finally, there is the achievement. I have set for myself a task in which I might fail. My feet may give out, I may fall prey to heatstroke, or simply lose my mettle. I know that I will have to endure pain and discomfort, that the landscape that I so admire might, all of a sudden, turn against me and defeat me with uncanny indifference. And still, there is the chance that I will succeed. I contemplate the paradox, that battering my ego, I stand to win so much.

My journey begins tomorrow. At present I am in a cave, on a plain outside Petra lighted by the full moon. Yousef and Waleed just finished preparing the hot coals to cook. The momentous occasion merits the sumptuous Makloubah: a rice dish of meat with saffron, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cauliflower, eggplant and potatoes.

Yousef and Waleed are my support team. We agreed that they will meet me more or less every 15 km. I will be running alone but keep radio contact with them. They will carry food, water, my clothes and equipment in their Jeep. We will sleep under the stars at whichever point I finish my daily 42.2 km. We will play along, adapting to what we find in the sands.

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The atmosphere is of joy and excitement. I feel the novelty, the uncertainty of an adventure designed to be challenging and unexpected. They are excited too. Even if they are locals, the prospect of 6 days of adventure with a crazy running man is not the classic tour in the desert. Heading out to the sands is a return to their Bedouin roots, heeding the call of a place which makes the virtues of men. Nevertheless, I ask them to be patient with me and understand that a possible change of mood would be the result of tiredness, fatigue and pain. I ask them not take it personal, instead cheer me up and make me smile again.

Waleed starts playing the traditional guitar of the Arabs and prods Yousef to a singing and storytelling contest. The rule is to answer logically to the rhyme sung by your opponent and continue the story with a new rhyme, and so on. The challenge is to be creative and funny. A favorite pastime in Arabia, where the most brilliant rhymes are hailed with cheers by the crowd sitting around the fire. Waleed begins:

Mar'iah yalbent mar'iah Mar'iah wella bala ra'i Oh Shepard girl, do you have a a Shepard man, Or don't you?

Yousef responds:

Qalat wehiataak mani mar'ei
La gheirk ma wased thra'ei

No I don't have Shepard man with me
I want one to put my arms around

Waleed strikes:

Endi habal wadabash kheirah
Ta'ali khan nekhlet felmara'ei

I have many goats
Come and mix your goats with mine

He lets out a scream of joy, pleased of his response. As Yousef tries to counter Waleed's brilliance, I step out of the cave and look at the plain of Little Petra in moonlight. For the last time, I savour the beauty of dreaming about something. Tomorrow, is an altogether different story.

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Six Marathons in the Desert
Marathon 1: desert

It is a windy morning. We are swept by a cold, southerly wind caused by the Red Sea Trough and the Khamasin. Gloves, wool hat and jacket might seem unusual for desert running, but being covered is the way to go face the outdoors in an environment characterized by a killer sun and sudden ― and extreme ― temperature changes.

I am ready to go as Lawrence was on that morning of May in 1917 from his base in Wejh. He knew what he wanted to do and acted. He abandoned the mission he was given by his military superiors, who were comfortably sitting in Cairo. Without an order he followed a small contingent of Arabs, guided by the warrior leader Auda, on behalf of Feisal, one of the sons of the Sherif of Mecca, to do what many though impossible: crossing a desert and take the Ottomans by surprise. Capturing Aqaba would open a vital lifeline of Arab and English forces in the Middle East.

The eastern was the unguarded side, the line of least resistance, the easiest for us. Our march would be an extreme example of a turning movement, since it involved a desert journey of six hundred miles to capture a trench within gunfire of our ships: but there was no practicable alternative, and it was so entirely in the spirit of my sick-bed ruminations that its issue might well be fortunate, and would surely be instructive. Auda thought all things possible with dynamite and money, and that the smaller clans about Akaba would join us.

The desert route to Akaba was so long and so difficult that we could take neither guns nor machine-guns, nor stores nor regular soldiers.

Accordingly the element I would withdraw from the railway scheme was only my single self; and, in the circumstances, this amount was negligible, since I felt so strongly against it that my help there would have been half-hearted. So I decided to go my own way, with or without orders. I wrote a letter full of apologies to Clayton, telling him that my intentions were of the best: and went.

By May the ninth all things were ready, and in the glare of mid-afternoon we left Feisal's tent, his good wishes sounding after us from the hill-top as we marched away.

My run starts in the ancient city of Petra, a city of wonder, an inspiring setting for my adventure.

The Nabataeans, a nomadic people, settled here around the fourth century BC. This area of southern Jordan has been dramatically carved by the elements into steep, rocky gorges. The Nabataeans used the sandstone walls of the canyons to carve magnificent facades for their homes, temples and tombs. Their fortune and the opulence of their architecture was built on its strategic location: before Augustus, under the Ptolemies, a very large portion of the commerce of Arabia, East Africa and India passed through Petra on its way across the Sinai, to the Mediterranean and to Rome.

Petra is a wonder because is an hidden city. Its main entrance is a narrow, winding route through towering cliffs, the 2km long "Siq". The imposing silence, even today, is broken only by gusts of winds and by the horses' hooves hitting the rocks. Deeper and deeper you delve into the canyon and suddenly, without any prelude, the traveller is confronted by the first of several imposing buildings carved in the rocks of beautiful red sandstone and its colour variations.

Petra has strongly captured human imagination and become a city of myths. The lost city. The city made by giants. The place where Moses struck the rock to secure water for his wandering people after the flight from Egypt. The location where the Pharaoh of Exodus, during his chase of the fleeing Hebrews, decided to hide his treasure because it was slowing his army, and deposited it in the urn-like decoration on the top of the most iconic building, the Khaznat al-Faroun, which today still carries the pockmarks of Bedouin bullets, fired at the urn in the hope that Pharaoh's gold would fall down. This is the setting where Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones discovered the Lost Ark.

Petra’s re-discovery added to the myth: the ancient city remained largely hidden to outsider until 1812 when John Lewis Burkhardt, in his travels across the Holy Land, disguised as a Bedouin sheik, and found Petra by tricking his Arab guides to show him this long lost city by expressing a desire to sacrifice a goat at the traditional tomb of Aaron, brother of Moses.

I have been talking to experienced ultra-runners, seeking advice on how to approach this adventure. It is the first time I embark in such a long multi-day run. Clive Suffrey gave me a striking suggestion: "find a pace you can keep all day". Revolutionary advice, suggesting to solve the impossible by means of the impossible. Can a man truly run all day?

I would discover that it is not only possible, but endurance is a key quality of Homo sapiens, one which allowed us to survive as a species. In Born to Run, Christopher McDougall tells how prehistoric men, without the ferocity nor the speed to capture animals, won the survival game with the ability to run indefinitely and by chasing their prey until it could no longer endure our “easy pace” anymore. Clive's advice is my first quest: to find a running rhythm I can keep all day. It is a poetic idea: theoretically I could run until the end of the world.

 

I will manage the enormous distance by running for 25 minutes, with 5-minute walking intervals. I will walk the hills and the dunes. I will keep a fast cadence. I will use the stops to refill my water and eat occasional gels and bars. At the end of the marathon, I will light a fire and eat real food, heavy on proteins and vegetables. Then I will relax on a mat in the middle of the desert to enjoy the setting sun. I will watch the stars, read Lawrence's memoirs and talk with my companions about the meaning of life, love, politics and the Arabs.

I leave Petra heading south on an ancient, stony, dirt trail on the Petra mountains. It was used by the Romans and the Nabataean on their way to Aqaba. I run across dried orchards, crossing ways with local Bedouins and their donkeys and camels who are surprised by my presence and my funky glasses. To my west, I can gaze the dramatic scenery of the summits of Jebel Harun, Salama, Khurma. Beyond them, the large depression of Wadi Arabia.

The trail turns East and finds its way across the mountains. It is a gentle slope, passing the village of Dlaghah and the important wheel at Bir Hamad, powered by a windmill. Encounters with locals are becoming scarce. The road begins its descent towards the Thujhrah desert, a limitless expanse that opens in front of my eyes: that is the unforgiving land I intend to cross. As I approach it, my heart is filled with anticipation and a bit of apprehension. After 30 km I leave the last village behind and venture into the endless sands.

My fascination with the desert is a modern cultural construction, unless I was born in the Orient where the attraction has had a longer history, and a different meaning. In Europe, just 300 years ago, wild places like the desert had no appeal. The landscape of choice was arable land, meadows, orchards and pasture. Tiziano and the Flemish painters portrayed biblical scenes of Egypt and Jordan with typical Tuscan hills. The desert was not worth wondering about: these wildernesses were repulsive places inhabited by violent and barbaric people.

 

Six Marathons in the Desert

The Romantic movement changed this approach radically. In 1757, Edmund Burke published his treatise on the idea of the 'sublime'. In it, nature was recognized as having an aesthetic quality in its greatness beyond all possibility of measurement or imitation. This quality was able to generate feelings of intense emotion. An initial sense of fear and meaninglessness before of nature is replaced by a sense of well-being and security when confronted with nature's superior might. Quickly, danger become synonymous with excitement rather than with repulsion. John Ruskin in 1863 suggested that if you did not risk your life you are "weaker, more lifeless, more effeminate, more liable to passion and error in the future."

The infatuation lived on, surviving the changes of thoughts in the Western mind. John Van Dyke, at the beginning of the XX century, eloquently relates the consciousness of the sublime that the desert inspired in him:

But the desert has none of these charms. Nor is it a livable place. There is not a thing about it that is "pretty," and not a spot upon it that is "picturesque" in any Berkshire-Valley sense. The shadows of foliage, the drift of clouds, the fall of rain upon leaves, the sound of running waters - all the gentler qualities of nature that minor poets love to juggle with - are missing on the desert. It is stern, harsh, and at first repellent. But what tongue shall tell the majesty of it, the eternal strength of it, the poetry of its wide-spread chaos, the sublimity of its lonely desolation! And who shall paint the splendor of its light; and from the rising up of the sun to the going down of the moon over the iron mountains, the glory of its wondrous coloring! It is a gaunt land of splintered peaks, torn valleys, and hot skies. And at every step there is the suggestion of the fierce, the defiant, the defensive. Everything within its borders seems fighting to maintain itself against destroying forces. There is a war of elements and a struggle for existence going on here that for ferocity is unparalleled elsewhere in nature.The feeling of fierceness grows upon you as you come to know the desert better.

Ultimately, it is not about wild places, but it is about us. In his Mountains of Mind, Robert Macfarlane summarizes the history of the western fascination with wildernesses, specifically with mountains, and concludes:

What we call a mountain is thus in fact a collaboration of the physical forms of the world with the imagination of humans -- a mountain of the mind. And the way people behave toward mountains has little or nothing to do with the actual objects of rock and ice themselves.

Just being in a place and looking at it, which is what modern travel often is, does nothing to make us better persons… we actually have to live it.

I read poems, novels and the diaries of explorers to understand the desert better. They often explain the wilderness’ allure based on the search for freedom, the escape from modern life, to look within the self, or just to be amazed by its magic. Thesiger is clear about his motives:

For me, exploration was a personal venture. I did not go to the Arabian desert to collect plants nor to make a map; such things were incidental. At heart I knew that to write or even talk of my travels was to tarnish the achievement. I went there to find peace in the hardship of desert travel and the company of desert peoples. [...] I was often tired and thirsty, sometimes frightened and lonely, but I tasted freedom and a way of life from which there could be no recall.

He envies the simplicity of the Bedu way of life: "Everything that was not a necessity was an encumbrance."

Like many beduin poets, Shanfara, a pre-Islamic poet, uses the desert to glorify the freedom. In "Arabian ode in 'L,'" Shanfara writes:

How many a desert plain, wind-swept, like the surface of a shield, empty, impenetrable, have I cut through on foot, joining the near end to the far, then looking out from a summit, crouching sometimes, then standing, while mountain goats, flint-yellow, graze around me, meandering like maidens draped in flowing shawls.

Modernist Arab poets like Adonis, accustomed to city life, see the desert similarly to many Western poets: an allegory for the tragedy of the Palestinian conflict, the alienation and isolation to live in exile, the failures of 21st century life. But for others the desert is home, not feared nor foreigner. Many Bedouin poets focus their attention instead in the power of the desert to foster community. Lawrence stresses this point too, interested as he is in its socio-political environment:

Men have looked upon the desert as barren land, the free holding of whoever chose; but in fact each hill and valley in it had a man who was its acknowledged owner and would quickly assert the right of his family or clan to it, against aggression. Even the wells and trees had their masters, who allowed men to make firewood of the one and drink of the other freely, as much as was required for their need, but who would instantly check anyone trying to turn the property to account and to exploit it or its products among others for private benefit. The desert was held in a crazed communism by which Nature and the elements were for the free use of every known friendly person for his own purposes and no more. Logical outcomes were the reduction of this license to privilege by the men of the desert, and their hardness to strangers unprovided with introduction or guarantee, since the common security lay in the common responsibility of kinsmen.

Despite its sublime sense of freedom and it's danger, there is magic to grasp in desert. For example, I wait with anticipation for the nights I will spend in the sleeping bag on the soft sands watching the moon run its arch in the sky. The desert gives us the opportunity to clearly see the essence of impermanence of the world, we do not need to meditate to become aware of it as it is right in our eyes, John Van Dyke in his superb The Desert describes

The shifting sands! Slowly they move, wave upon wave, drift upon drift; but by day and by night they gather, gather, gather. They overwhelm, they bury, they destroy, and then a spirit of restlessness seizes them and they move off elsewhere, swirl upon swirl, line upon line, in serpentine windings that enfold some new growth or fill in some new valley in the waste. So it happens that the surface of the desert is far from being a permanent affair. There is hardly enough vegetation to hold the sands in place. With little or no restraint upon them they are transported hither and yon at the mercy of the winds.

I recall all these ideas about the desert from memory. They come and go with the kilometres, some half-remembered, some strikingly clear. My Garmin tells me that I have just completed my first marathon, in less than six hours. Next to me is a small wadi, a dry riverbed slightly sheltered. We will camp here tonight.

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Yousef prepares chickens, hummus, tomatoes, olives and some cheese. I tell him about my objective of retracing Lawrence. What does he think about this inspirational man, so much used in Jordan's tourism industry?

“He is a mot***fu**,” Yousef, responds with surprising definitivness. “A spy who used for his advantage the ignorance of the local Bedouin and betrayed them by delivering the Middle East to the British, as he always wanted to, instead of independence, as he promised. And the British mandate created the Israel problem; don't get me started on it.”

Trying to move the conversation to a local role model, I ask him about Auda, the great warrior who led the expedition.

“Auda is a thief,” Yousef told me as he bit into a mouthful of bread generously dipped in hummus.

As the darkness falls and the campfire flickers, the moon rises bright in the sky. It is a beautiful sight which warms my heart, and brings out the melancholic-romantic character of my companions. Yousef breaks the silence and tells me that when he was young he wanted to marry a Bedouin girl, but his family refused because of money considerations.

“How may wife did Auda had?” I ask him.

“Forty four,” he replies.

“If you were Auda you would have had 50,” I say. A grin lightens his face:

“I would have 100,” he says.

As we turn silent around the fire to let our thoughts wander, I open Lawrence's book and read:

We were now five weeks out from Wejh: we had spent nearly all the money we had brought with us: we had eaten all the Howeitat sheep: we had rested or replaced all our old camels: nothing hindered the start. The freshness of the adventure in hand consoled us for everything; and Auda, importing more mutton, gave a farewell feast, the greatest of the whole series, in his huge tent the eve before we started. Hundreds were present, and five fills of the great tray were eaten up in relay as fast as they were cooked and carried in.

Sunset came down, delightfully red, and after the feast the whole party lay round the outside coffee-hearth lingering under the stars, while Auda and others told us stories.

Six Marathons in the Desert
Marathon 2: Orientalism

We spent the night in the open waste. There is no sound other than the occasional gust of wind. My sleeping bag is my only protection from the desert’s night chill.

We made breakfast and it takes less than twenty minutes to pack our things and leave. Nothing holds us to this spot. It is easy to move away, carry on with our lives. Chatwin uses Pascal's claim that our nature is to move, Montaigne's view that customs dull the senses, Ibn Battuta’s conviction that "He who does not travel does not know the value of men".

We all have adrenaline. We cannot drain it from our systems or pray it will evaporate. Deprived of danger we invent artificial enemies, psychosomatic illnesses, tax collectors, and, worst of all, ourselves, if we are left alone in a room. Adrenalin is our travel allowance. We might just as well use it up in a harmless way.

Yousef points me in the direction of Nawajaah, a group of Bedouin tents in the barren wastes of the Hesmah desert. They will wait there for me, sipping coffee with the elders.

My legs are fresh, the walk/run routine has worked wonders so far. I set off at a mild pace and lose myself in the landscape around me and its history.

After Nawajaah, I run towards Humymah, an important caravan-serrai on the Roman Nova Via Traiana. It later became part of the Haji pilgrimage route between Damascus and Mecca. There are reservoirs, underground cisterns and baths filled by an aqueducts which bring water down nineteen kilometres from the Shara Mountains. It is an outstanding achievement.

The scattered ruins help my mind to wander and imagine myself on one of those pilgrimages. The authenticity of travel is compromised in our days. There is a prevalent sense of having just missed-out the genuineness of the places and cultures we visit. Against this malady, History is a powerful ally. We should leave to the books the encyclopedic lists of dates, events and heroes. It is not an intellectual exercise we should embark on, but rather an emotional journey. A journey where we transport ourselves to a time in history.

When we dream we are innocent, able to get rid of the worries of our daily life. We do not need to be kings or famous warriors, we could become someone easy to connect to. I could be a minor merchant of Baghdad, a pious man. I found my way to Damascus and payed with the carpets I brought from Syria a passage on the seasonal caravan to Mecca.What a journey the Haji is and must have been! Charles Doughty, the only Christian in a company of 6,000 Muslim pilgrims traveling by camel to Mecca in the autumn of 1876, brings us into that atmosphere of wonder:

We waited to hear the cannon shot which should open that year's pilgrimage. It was near ten o'clock when we heard the signal gun fired, and then, without any disorder litters were suddenly heaved and braced upon the bearing beasts, their charges laid upon the kneeling camels, and the thousands of riders, all born in the caravan countries, mounted in silence. [...] the length of the slow-footed multitude of men and cattle is near two miles, and the width some hundred yards in the open plains. The hajjaj were this year by their account (which may be above the truth) 6000 persons; of these more than half are serving men on foot; and 10,000 of all kinds of cattle, the most camels, then mules, hackneys, asses and a few dromedaries of Arabians returning in security of the great convoy to their own districts. We march in an empty waste, a plain of gravel, where nothing appeared and never a road before us.

 

A few kilometers out of Humymah, my feet starts to ache: they are blistering. To try to minimize the impact of the sand, desert runners use foot guards made of fabric sewn to the shoes. I feel that they are chafing my feet just a couple of millimetres. It’s enough to create friction. These blisters will make me suffer. I knew they would eventually appear but I am surprised to see how early into my adventure they have come. It was harder for Lawrence:

Nothing in the march was normal or reassuring. We felt we were in an ominous land, incapable of life, hostile even to the passing of life, except painfully along such sparse roads as time had laid across its face. We were forced into a single file of weary camels, picking a hesitant way step by step through the boulders for hour after hour.

Yousef predicted that it would get hard for me and is dedicated to his appointed job of keeping me in a good mood. All of a sudden I hear classical Arabian music coming out of my Walkie-Talkie. He is somewhere in the distance, sipping his cup of coffee and listening to Abd-Al-Hakeem Hafez. He is happy there and thought that listening Hafez's beautiful voice singing Zai El-Hawa would lift my spirit. He is right.

I cross the desert highway and enter the Kharazah desert. In the distance, I see the spectacular sandstone formation where we will seek shelter for the night.

With much insistence, Yousef points out that I just passed the "last tree", a lonesome plant standing in the waste. I press on and after one hour I arrive at the rock formations and stop by a spectacular arch to take some photographs. Waleed enjoys the photography responsibility I gave to him and, like a child with his new toy, he is possessed by a shooting frenzy:

“Go there! Move here! Now this angle, try this....” His behavior annoys Yousef, who quickly loses his patience and wants to move on. I make our progress slower by directing Waleed. He does not like to be directed and would rather explore his own ideas. I keep reviewing and retaking every shot. Yousef gets more annoyed. Like Laurel and Hardy, which they resemble physically, they argue and this will repeat over and over in the next 5 days, every time I decided to stop for photos. Each time I will look at Yousef and say "Look at the nice mess you got me into". He does not understand my quote but will always appropriately answer: "It’s his fault!". I start running again, good-humored.

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Six Marathons in the Desert

I finish my marathon and we find shelter and make our camp by a small canyon surrounded by vertical cliffs and a dry waterfall at the end. I am starving and devour my ration of tomatoes and hummus. My muscles are very sore. Tomorrow will be difficult but for now I yield to the oblivion of hummus and tomatoes and I recall the atmosphere of Doughty's Haji evening camps.

In the first evening hours there is some merrymaking of drum-beating and soft fluting, and Arcadian sweetness of the Persians singing in the tents about us; in others they chant together some piece of their devotion. In all the pilgrims' lodgings are paper lanterns with candles burning

Waleed is singing and playing his guitar, the fire burns, the firmament of stars above us. In 1849 Gustav Flaubert fled the boredom, the snobbery and the pomposity of Franch bourgeoisie for the exoticism of Egypt. He let go to part of his identity.

My native country is for me the country that I love, that is, the one that makes me dream, that makes me feel well. I am as much Chinese as French, and I don’t rejoice about our victories over the Arabs because I am saddened by their defeats. I love those harsh, enduring, hardy people, the last of the primitives, who at midday, lie down in the shade under the bellies of their camels, and while smoking their chibouks, poke fun at our good civilisation, which quivers with rage about it . . .

The fascination with the exotic East intoxicated the mind of generations of intellectuals and travellers. It infused love, poetry and beauty to a life threatened by the monotonousness of daily living. De Button wrote that “what we find exotic abroad may be what we hunger for in vain at home.” What we love of the East could be traced back to our personality: the Orient lent support “to ideas and values that are part of our identity but for which our own society have little sympathy.” De Button takes as an example the shitting donkeys to make his point. The shitting donkey and the pissing man that are a common sight in many cities of the East remind us that “we are not simply spiritual creatures, but also pissing and shitting ones;” in the Orient we could more easily accept ”life's duality: shit-mind, death-life, sexuality-purity, madness-sanity.”

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The Orientalist allure has also faced fierce criticism. Edward Said in his famous essay Orientalism declared that the Europeans used Orientalism to define themselves and in doing so created an artificial boundary between the civilized west and the uncivilized East. The West constructed themselves as superior, to justify their colonization, creating generalized attributes about the Orientals which produced prejudices and a biased attitude in the European mind towards the people of the East which is still alive today, for example, when Islam is seen as the religion of terrorists. If they are lazy, we are active, if they are crude, we are sophisticated…. Said had his own academic and political agenda too. It could very well be that my fascination with the Orient is culturally constructed on the basis of what I have and have not at home. However, it was long ago cleared of any tendency toward a feeling of superiority. Rather, it is a strong drive to travel, to discover something new, to free myself of my worries, to look inward, to meditate and let diversity speak to me.

As my words and gestures constantly show my romance towards Arabia, I wonder how Yousef and his countryman see it. The orientalist fascination towards the East has been viewed at least with suspicion from the locals. As we talk into the night, it is clear that Yousef sees America and Europe as enemies, and his view is widespread in the Middle East. But Yousef makes a big distinction between America and its people, between Europe and myself. He condemns the governments, the countries as imperialist, enemies of Arabia, but he loves its people and he is proud when I show appreciation and respect for his home.

I open Lawrence before falling asleep, who brings me back to where I am:

We lived anyhow with one another in the naked desert, under the indifferent heaven. By day the hot sun fermented us; and we were dizzied by the beating wind. At night we were stained by dew, and shamed into pettiness by the innumerable silences of the stars.

Six Marathons in the Desert
Marathon 3: Suffering

My day does not start well. After 4km I have to stop, my knee hurts, the legs hurt, the blisters hurt.

Yousef looks at me and says:

“Matdakk Khara.”

“Matdakk Khara?” I ask him.

“Matdakk Khara. Today, your day is a shitty day,” he says.

“Be patient with me Yousef.”

He smiles.

Dunes, the epitome of the desert landscape, symbol of it's impermanence, a fascination for men that comes at a high price: physical exertion and ultimately, getting lost. I finally reach the dunes at Abo Rushrasha. They are beautiful but tough. The soft terrain stresses my ankles, the sand gets everywhere creating more blisters, the continuous ups and downs strain my muscles, my progress is significantly slower.

Suffering itself could be a spiritual exercise and Murakami is one of its adherents. He believes that "learning something essential in life requires physical pain. It's precisely because of the pain, precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get the feeling, through this process, of really being alive."

There are still 15 km to end today's marathon. After that, another 125 km to Aqaba. My feet are a mess. I stop and try to mend my blisters and tape my feet, but the success is minimal. I keep running hoping that the pain will subside, that my feet will just go numb. Running is often a process of transcendence, of exiting the self and its worries. The rhythmical repetition of putting one feet after the other, endlessly.

The Sufi used their whirls, shamans used the sound of drums, runners have their pace. I help the process by singing, over and over again, short lines of a song, or a childhood lullaby that pops up in my mind. The songs in my head should work like a chanted mantra. Instead of my breathing, I focus on my steps. It is an heroic attempt ― which I just invented ― to translate Pranayama into running. I should be able to focus on my pain without judging it, I should be able to distance myself from the pain. I try to practice my theory: I focus on the pain, then away from the pain.

It is not working. I feel miserable. My feet keep hurting, I should sign up for a guided meditation practice.

I am not a fan of suffering but I cannot ignore that every time I make an effort, every time that I hang in there, every time that I do not let go because of discomfort, the pain eventually subsides and gives way to emotional and physiological wellbeing. It is one of the best states you can put yourself in. The Romans, and then the pilots of the RAF, used the motto: Per aspera ad astra: through hardship to the stars. I engraved this motto in my wristband where I keep my name, emergency numbers and medical details. To reach the stars, the real stars, not a water down version of happiness, you have got to go outside your comfort zone, and take some risks.

The footprints on the sand are fascinating and tell the story of the day's event in this marginal corner of the world. Camels leave the biggest footprint. I can also recognize hyenas, goats, rabbits, foxes, dogs. Then I see the smaller ones: crows, falcons, snakes. Finally, I focus on the smallest of all: scorpions and spiders. The waves in the sand are perfect, a symmetrical pattern. My mind flies to the beauty of Japanese dry gardens: the rocks, the moss, the pattern in the sands. The significance of the dry gardens is not in their physical allusion to other natural form, like the sea or an island. Nature is reduced to its simplest expression so that we can understand its essence and our own. The beauty of the dry gardens is that we are in their presence and while contemplating them, they facilitate meditation. The core of Zen Buddhism is the enlightenment by meditating in the presence of Nature. My stream of consciousness goes on and move to the Japanese tea ceremony with its strict canon to attain simplicity and naturality.

I love finding connections, creating networks between single ideas and different interests: sands, patterns, dry gardens, tea ceremony. As my mind floats in search of more connections, my iPod is playing a mix of Jon Sa Trinxa. The music supports my sense of wellbeing. The different tonalities have an impact on my mood. Perhaps even more, as Mozart tried to achieve with the Magic Flute. He was looking for music notes with the power to hold the key of the universe. The cabbala in music.

The waves of the sands give way to the hexagonal pattern of the dry lake that I enter into. In the distance I glimpse the Hejaz railway, one of the key issues of the Arab Revolt. It was a vital lifeline for the Ottomans to collect and transport and supplies for their reinforcements in Arabia. It served as stage for a myriad raids by Lawrence. It became a mythical place which I myself raided in many daydreams.

Three or four of us, in advance of the main body, climbed a sand-peak on hands and knees to spy out the railway. There was no air, and the exercise was more than we required; but our reward was immediate, for the line showed itself quiet and deserted-looking, on a green flat at the mouth of the deep valley down which the rest of the company was marching circumspectly with ready weapons. […] Ageyl amused us by fixing gun-cotton or gelatine charges about our crossing-place to as many of the rails as we had time to reach, and when our munching camels had been dragged away into safety on the far side of the line, we began, in proper order, to light the fuses, filling the hollow valley with the echoes of repeated bursts. Auda had not before known dynamite, and with a child’s first pleasure was moved to a rush of hasty poetry on its powerful glory. We cut three telegraph wires, and fastened the free ends to the saddles of six riding-camels of the Howeitat. The astonished team struggled far into the eastern valleys with the growing weight of twanging, tangling wire and the bursting poles dragging after them. At last they could no longer move. So we cut them loose and rode laughing after the caravan.

After a couple of kilometres of following the railway and thinking about the bravery of both the Ottomans and the Arabs that defended and attacked two metal lines piercing the wasteland, I turn south again towards Rum, one of the most colourful desert landscapes on the Planet. Today my marathon finishes few kilometers shy of Rum. I am tired and cold and the fact that I reach halfway does not cheer me up or motivative me. I don't have any feeling of accomplishment.

 

Yousef brought with him, in the Jeep, a large plastic cooler full of ice, where some of our food was stored. He was proud to say that he could treat me with an ice bath in the middle of the desert, to aid my recovery. The ultimate proof of his superior ability to serve. I did not want any of it. The sun is already down, the large cooler, barley the width of my hips, looks uncomfortable. My interest is the fireplace, the mattress, hummus and tea. I was able to put him off for two days but tonight he would not listen to me. I had to take the bath.

“I carried ice for two days in the desert,” he screams at me.

And so, I undress, get into the cooler, and push myself to sit on its bottom. The icy water forces me to scream, and nevertheless I lay there, shivering for a good 10 minutes, while my companions watch me pleased with themselves and making jokes about me in Arabic. After this torture I put on warm clothes and get inside my sleeping bag. Yousef was right, it was a shitty day, but now, in my sleeping bag, I start feeling content and, surprisingly I also feel strong, despite my pain. For the first time since I envisioned this trip, I know I can finish.

Yousef and Waleed are fast asleep. I open Lawrence's memories and come across a passage that changed my mood once again:

The plague of snakes which had been with us since our first entry into Sirhan today rose to memorable height, and became a terror. In ordinary times, so the Arabs said, snakes were little worse here than elsewhere by water in the desert: but this year the valley seemed to creep with horned vipers and puff-adders, cobras and black snakes. By night movement was dangerous: and at last we found it necessary to walk with sticks, beating the bushes each side while we stepped warily through on bare feet. Three of our men died of bites; four recovered after great fear and pain, and a swelling of the poisoned limb. Howeitat treatment was to bind up the part with snake-skin plaster, and read chapters of the Koran to the sufferer until he died. They also pulled thick Damascene ankle-boots, red, with blue tassels and horse-shoe heels, over their horny feet when they went late abroad. A strange thing was the snakes' habit, at night, of lying beside us, probably for warmth, under or on the blanket. When we learned this our rising was with infinite care, and the first up would search round his fellows with a stick till he could pronounce them unencumbered. Our party of fifty men killed perhaps twenty snakes daily.

I repeat myself that snakes, or at least most of them, would be hibernating this time of year, not sure whether mine is real knowledge or delusion. I fall asleep. The Medusa of Greek mythology might come into my dream tonight, but hopefully, there are no snakes in my sleeping bag.

 

Six Marathons in the Desert
Six Marathons in the Desert

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