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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Barefoot in the Desert

The early morning knock at the door came hard and furious. 

It was barely five a.m. after a night that that went into the wee small hours and included a wonderful Arabic meal, great conversation, star-gazing, and a scorpion sighting. It was time to get to the desert.

This is the weekly Friday morning ritual at Art Hub Liwa, where I have been fortunate enough to be selected as the ‘Writer in Residence” for the International Historical Memory Festival – an art event taking place throughout the month of October with more than ten artists from around the globe (Iran, Italy, UK, Thailand, Australia and more) exploring the history of the UAE and the Transformation Era through their works of art.

But I digress.  

One thing you need to know about me is that early mornings are not my thing (and that sound you just heard? That's the yowl of agreement from my husband). But this was one of those moments where I remind myself that there will be plenty of time to rest when I’m dead. Or that the early bird gets the worm. Or at least fresh coffee… or something.

Here I was in Liwa, with a chance to walk in the desert at sunrise thanks to Mr. Ahmed, the owner of Art Hub, and moreover, an Emirati gentleman who is affable, generous and eager to share his country and culture with all its visitors.

One by one, we emerged from our rooms set in a campus quad meets oasis setting that is the Art Hub Liwa facility, quietly took that fresh Arabic coffee offered, and piled into Mr. A's Land Cruiser. When one last straggler managed to emerge from their slumber, we raced against the sunrise to the point where Liwa Oasis fades into the foothills of the largest sand desert in the world – the Empty Quarter.  

While I had been to a desert before – Death Valley, the Sonoran Desert of Baja and Arizona, and even Moreeb Dune down the road and the red sands of Al Ain, this was the first time I actually WALKED in the desert rather than view it from the air-conditioned coolness of a car, rushing by at 50 mph or dune-bashing with quick stops to jump out for requisite photo-ops.

This time, we were communing with the place.

Mr. A led our early morning walk, instructing us to kick-off our footwear and go barefoot. To the east we could see the first break of light, while to the west, the moon began to sink behind the horizon.

Walking barefoot along the dunes gave me a whole different perspective. You see, the desert isn’t hard. It’s soft. My first step was taken gingerly (worried about glass shards and dangerous desert critters emerging from the sand). But the sand was pristine, cool and silky underfoot. And through this we walked nearly a mile with the sand giving way and at the same time standing firm with each step.

Early morning shadow play
Depending on the wind, the atmosphere, and probably a thousand other factors I haven’t even thought of, in the early morning hours in the Empty Quarter there is almost a dance – of color, light and shadow – as the sun rises the desert moves, moment by moment – and suddenly you realize that those peaks and dips are actually waves. They have motion. They are in constant flow.

Desert 'Waves"

It’s with this flow that you come to realize that the desert is alive. I mean vibrantly so. Up close walking in the dunes you’ll see the tracks of a gazelle, the slither marks of a snake, the scampering footprints of a gecko and tufts of green from desert plants bursting and flowering from the dunes. 

It’s hard to put the camera down on a walk like this. There’s just no comparison. I’ve been to Uluru (Ayer’s Rock), and while I admit that it rained on the morning that we trekked out in the pre-dawn to capture the red sunrise that’s promised in all the Australian travel brochures, nothing comes close to seeing a desert sunrise in the Rub’ al Khali.

Into the Empty Quarter
As we walked, I felt like I was in a half dream state. Mr. A led us up to the top a large dune. And there, just over the ‘ledge’ was a stunning valley, full of desert shrubs and flowers, along with a bright and beautiful red kilim set atop the dune with a gorgeous breakfast spread.

We sat down and had our meal, quietly in awe as we looked over the deep valley full of green, thinking of the past people who lived here. Seeing it up close, its life and luster, I could see why people have made a place like this – with all its exterior harshness and secret softness -- their home. 

Sheikh Zayed Sulṭân Âl Nahyân once said, “He who does not know his past cannot make the best of his present and future, for it is from the past that we learn.”

In a way, Liwa represents one of the geographic hearts of Emirati history and culture. Over that weekend, I learned about the Liwa oasis, about the water that was once just five meters below the sand’s surface, and of how the Bedu lived and thrived in the region. Even though it was harsh, the desert was good to them, the harshness protected them. To them the desert was soft, at times cool and colorful, and always full of life.

Art Hub Liwa is beginning to offer weekend retreats at their compound at the edge of the Empty Quarter. Here’s an article about the Art Hub Liwa festival I’m currently participating in, and details on the overnight desert experience available. If you have the chance (and don’t mind getting up before dawn), it’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences not to be missed in the UAE.

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