Declare

9,039
07.03.2019

"Allah is all-beneficent," Hale told him mildly. Look to him for reproof, not to me.

A few miles south of the palms and apartment blocks and petrol stations of Magwa, bin Jalawi slowed the car and then steered it off the pavement onto a rutted dry-mud track, and through the jolting windscreen Hale could see, a hundred yards ahead, the glint of sunlight reflecting from the bumpers of several jeeps parked on the sand. Around the vehicles stood the old familiar silhouettes of robed Bedu and baggage-laden camels.

"These are Mutair and 'Awazim," said Ishmael rapidly in Arabic, "there is no enmity among them. Our destination is on the Saudi border, at the southern edge of the Neutral Zone-motor vehicles or helicopters in that region would draw the attentions of all the nations involved in this, so we will travel with these Bedu, as Bedu. They understand that you are a Frank"-Hale smiled, recalling that Bedu somehow always confused all Westerners with the French-"but do try to behave as one of them. They have each a khusa dagger and a rifle, naturally; you have no weapon; try to make up for that with an air of authority. You have the advantage of having more experience, than they, with the sort of thing we go to consult."

Hale could feel his scalp prickling. He remembered the man he and bin Jalawi had encountered at Wabar in 1948, the lower half of whose body had so long ago been transformed to stone that the immobile knees had been weathered to grotesque flattened flipper shapes by sandstorms; and for the second time in three days his right hand twitched in a reflexive impulse to make the sign of the cross. He made a fist instead, and took several deep breaths, and because bin Jalawi might be looking at him in the rocking rear-view mirror, he kept an impassive expression on his face.

The car began to slew like a boat in the loose sand when they were still some distance from the jeeps, and bin Jalawi sighed theatrically and trod on the brake; and when he switched off the engine, Hale heard and remembered the windy silence of the Arabian desert.

They levered open the doors, and bin Jalawi plodded around to unlock the trunk, from which he lifted two rifles which Hale recognized as old U.S. Army.30-caliber BARs, with blocky magazines protruding down in front of the trigger guards. Bin Jalawi handed one to Ishmael and held on to the other himself, and he ostentatiously did not look at Hale as the three of them began striding barefoot over the cold sand toward the jeeps.

It was clearly meant as a snub, so that Hale would lose face in front of these Arabs-but the tops of the low sand hummocks were furred green with the desert grasses that the rains always conjured up in the winter, and when Hale saw the yellow blossoms of the Alqa waving in the wind, he forgot his naked feet and his lack of a rifle and was cheered simply by this promise of good grazing ahead; and this very Bedu thought gave him the confidence to smile easily at the Arabs around the jeeps.

Two of the camels were white, clearly from the herds of the Dhafir, and the other five were the characteristic red-brown beasts of the Mutair and 'Awazim; all were laden with saddlebags and glistening water-skins and northern saddles with tall pommels fore and aft.

The camels were being tugged away into a walk toward the open desert to the west-apparently the party was to set off immediately-and one old graybeard by the jeeps was jangling a set of car keys impatiently; in Arabic he said to Hale, "An ill welcome to a face that will never prosper!"

Now the smells of old sweat and camels and automobile exhaust on the clean desert breeze had at least for the moment completely shaken away all memory of the years at Weybridge, and when one of the Bedu held out the reins of a Mutair camel to Hale, he took them and automatically tugged to bring the walking camel's head swinging heavily down.

And as Hale took a long step forward to set his bare right foot on the camel's neck and then was lifted up past the swaying saddlebags to the height of the saddle, he looked over his shoulder and called back to the man, "Ya ibn alkalb! Kaif halak?"

It meant O dog-son, how have you been?-for Hale had recognized the man's voice as that of a Muntafik shepherd who had long ago been given the nickname Al Auf, which meant The Bad, because of his deceptively gruff manner.

Hale settled onto the flat saddle platform, kneeling far back as the Bedu did, and he heard Al Auf wonderingly call after him, "Bin Sikkah?"

Hale waved without looking back. He had been given the nickname bin Sikkah by the Mutair tribe when he had traveled with them in the winters of 1946 and '47. It meant Son of the Iron Road, which was the railway-the Arabs had always identified Europeans with the trains and rails that transected the coastal regions, and the steel rails were said to confound the attention of djinn.

Several of the Bedu had mounted their camels, and now as they rocked along up on the saddles they were peering curiously across at Hale, and he heard them mutter to one another, "It is bin Sikkah, back from the land of the Franks!" "It is bin Sikkah the Nazrani!"

Nazrani was almost a synonym with Frank, but it meant specifically Christian, and at least in Hale's day Christians had been held in very low esteem among the Bedu; so Hale decided to force a defining greeting before the despised term could be fully considered.

He glanced at the Bedu nearest him, a young Mutair to judge by the red mare he was riding, and nodded and said, "Al kuwa," a common Bedu greeting which was a short way of saying God give you strength. If the man responded in kind, he would be nearly as bound to Hale as if he had invited Hale to drink a cup of coffee in his tent.

The man looked away from Hale toward his companions, but they were all absorbed in scanning the bumpy western horizon far out beyond the long blue shadows that stretched ahead of them across the reddish sand. At last the young Bedu nodded at Hale and gave the reply, "Allah-i-gauik," which meant May God strengthen you.

After that the other three whom Hale had not met swung their camels into closer parallel around him as they rode west, and as soon as the customary pious greetings had been exchanged, Hale was included in the conversation as they reviewed the news of the last ten years or so. He learned about deaths and births and winter rainfalls and botched circumcisions, but altogether it appeared that most of the Bedu he had known were now living in new cement houses out near the airfield, and apparently all owned American trucks. His new companions in turn asked about the health of the Frank queen, and Hale assured them that she was well. From behind him, Hale heard the car and jeep engines start up and recede, sounding very far away because of the desert wind in his face.

The tufted, placid head of Ishmael's camel bobbed into view on Hale's left, and Hale saw that the old man was riding astride the saddle, rather than kneeling on it; from experience Hale knew that in this posture the saddle edges would eventually bite uncomfortably into the thighs, and he wondered if the old man would get down and walk beside his camel after a while. Ishmael carried his rifle slung over his shoulder, military fashion.

"We ride west," said Ishmael crossly in Arabic, "to the Ash Shaq valley, which we will follow south along the Saudi border, to avoid the Burgan oil fields. Nothing should obstruct us before we camp for the night, which should be at the mouth of the valley but nowhere near the Dughaiyim water hole; do, therefore, nothing of a signaling nature, am I understood?"

Hale nodded impassively; but he wondered what sort of signal the old man imagined he could give, from here, and to what sort of entities. As to camping away from the water hole, that was simply common sense-a known water hole was likely to be the destination of any travelers out on the desert, and the custom was to refill the water-skins and let the camels drink as quickly as possible and then to move off before any other, unknown parties might approach the place.

The Bedu had presumably had their coffee and made their morning prayers before Hale's party had arrived at the meeting place, and now they all, bin Jalawi included, began the monotonous falsetto singing that they could keep up for hours-a high trilling chatter of "La ilaha illa 'llah," which meant There is no God but God, repeated until it became as meaningless to Hale as the songs of birds.

As his legs and back rediscovered the postures of riding, Hale gradually became aware of wrongnesses in his clothing-he missed the constriction of the woven leather belt Bedu wore over the kidneys and abdomen; and without a dagger at his waist his robe didn't fold into the natural pocket in which he used to carry the comforting weights of compass and notebook and camera; and most of all he missed the strap over his right shoulder, the wooden stock by his elbow, and the rifle muzzle bobbing always ready in his peripheral vision.

The Ash Shaq was a gravel plain between eroded cliffs, and in the patches where low dunes transected it Hale could see little wake trails in the sand on the south sides of the solitary abal shrubs, indicating the prevalence here of the Shamal wind. Late in the afternoon Hale's party came upon the al-Sur water hole-bin Jalawi rode his camel up the western cliff slope to scout ahead along the higher ground and be sure that no other desert folk were pausing there for water-and then when he waved broadly from a farther promontory Hale and the others goaded their camels past the water hole in a fast walk. The gravel was polished and packed in paths radiating from the ring of stones, but there were no very fresh camel droppings visible.

Twice a fox scampered across their path, and Hale's companions told him how the desert foxes would sometimes stand in front of a man on his knees praying and imitate the man's gestures, distracting him from his devotions; and how Al Auf had once set up a head-cloth and robe on a stick, and when the fox imitated the scarecrow's immobility, Al Auf had succeeded in catching the creature. Hale nodded without envy, remembering but not sharing with these Bedu a time when, at his approach, solitary foxes had run with evident deliberateness across the unstable slip-faces of dunes and provoked the roaring of the sands, like courtiers summoning kings.

At dusk rain began to fall from the low sky, and by the time the darkness forced them to make camp, the rain was thrashing down with a numbing constant hiss onto the gravel. They had not found any wood or brush for starting a fire, and when they had all dismounted and unloaded the camels, Ishmael distributed cheese sandwiches, commercially sealed in cellophane.

Hale unrolled the sleeping bag that had been strapped to his camel, and he covered it with the rug and sheepskin from under the saddle, but as he lay on the humped mattress of gravel, the icy water found its way in and gathered in un-warming pools at his elbow, hip, and knee. Even though he had not slept at all the night before, he slept now only fitfully, often shivering awake to glance around at the dim shapes of the camels sitting facing away from the wind.

In the gray light of dawn Hale was awakened by the Arabs calling to one another as they roused the hobbled camels; frost crackled on the sheepskin as he pushed it off, and the camels' breath was white plumes in the dawn air. Hale sat shivering and rubbing his bare feet while all his companions except Ishmael knelt in the wet gravel facing west toward Mecca to pray, and then he struggled stiffly to his feet when bin Jalawi started a fire of old heliotrope roots which he forced into flame with gasoline and scrapings from a bar of magnesium. The brassy ringing of a pestle pounding coffee beans in a mortar promised hot coffee, and another Bedu was soon mixing flour with water and kneading it into lumps to flatten and drop onto the embers of the fire. The camels had wandered off to a patch of green arfaj and were chewing noisily.

One of the Arabs had walked away to dig a hole in a sand dune, and he came back with the news that the rain had penetrated the sand as deep as his forearm. All the Bedu were cheered, and glanced around to fix the area in their memories, for a good soaking rain would produce grazing that would be green for years to come.

But though the sun was a red disk in the cleared eastern sky, throwing a watery rose light over their labors as they lifted the wet bales and saddlebags back onto the camels and strapped them securely down, the Bedu were soon moody and grumbling, for the course now lay due east, toward salt flats and the sulfur spring at Ain al' Abd.

Hale now recalled hearing of the place-the Bedu he had traveled with had never visited it, for the water was foul and the place was said to be a haunt of djinn. He assumed Ishmael was paying a stiff price for these guides.

By midmorning they had reached the border of the desert where the red sand gave way to the gray-white salt flats, and before they could proceed across they had to dismount and tie knotted cords under the hooves of the camels to keep them from slipping.

It had not rained here last night, and at first the salt sheets grated crisply under the camel's hooves, and Hale's companions looked unearthly with their chins and eyebrows underlit by the glare of reflected sunlight; the camels walked carefully, for fossil sea shells and the stumps of dead 'ausaj bushes projected sharply from the gray surface; then their hooves began to break through the salt to the greasy black mud, and their progress became a slow, sliding dialogue between balance and gravity, punctuated by the curses of the riders and the camels' panicky braying. When at last the beasts climbed long-legged up the shallow slope of the first of a succession of white dune chains, they had spent two hours traversing less than two miles.

The glaring gray expanses of salt still stretched away around them into the flickering horizon, and the Bedu muttered and kept their hands on their rifles, for in the universal dazzlement of the reflecting flats and the rising sun, every distant bush or rock seemed to be a cluster of tents or mounted men. And Hale thought too that he saw whirlwind shapes rising from the distant expanses of desert, among the dark spots in his vision that were just sun glare on his retinas; and he wondered what topologically effective shapes he might be able to make with the reins and his camel stick, if he should have to in a hurry. Once in Berlin he had made an ankh out of a dagger and a length of rope.

At dawn the Bedu had been sniffing the breeze for any whiff of alien campfires, but now they swore and spat, for the breeze from the ten-miles-distant ocean was fouled with the rotten-egg reek of sulfur. And the camels were moving slowly even across the sand, for their long necks were down low so that they could sweep their big heads back and forth and graze on the green 'ausaj bushes as they walked; among the desert Arabs the 'ausaj was considered to be haunted by djinn, and they would never use it as campfire fuel.

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