Bahraini desert without mental images from American movies or real European mountains

January 8, 2010


“You want to eliminate the last ten months of pent-up office stress? Just put on something light and I will pick up at 10 o’clock tomorrow to go to a desert camp,” Ibrahim, my friend, told me, flashing into a large grin that he thought was highly inviting, but that I found eerily malicious.

But I eventually decided to go along, deep inside expecting a dull day.
I was wrong.

Ten minutes on the serrated roads of Bahrain’s hinterlands, and I was already conquered by the peaceful easiness and the startling vividness emanating from the rocky hills.

The furtive permutations of colour and light particularly fascinated me. The hills shifted from light amber to fox-brown to deep russet. The show was eye-dazzling, and a sense of deep peace filled me.

“That is the great secret of getting away from the city and its bustling offices and overcrowded roads. Here the golden rule is simple: let go down, give the desert half a chance, and allow it to take control,” Ebrahim advised me as we moved deeper into the rocky desert.

Soon, the car journey ended, but the enchantment intensified.

We got off the car as the sun was arching overhead, casting shadows that stretched over the three tents at the camp of Shaikh Rashid Bin Abdul Rahman, our host for the day. The other guests were already there.

“The tent on the left is used as a kitchenette, while the one on the right is for visitors who wanted to smoke shishas. The largest tent, as big as a basketball court, is the majlis,” Ebrahim told me.

I took some time to admire the setting. Silence was complete and the air was perfectly still, not a single sound coming from any of the tents or from the other camps in the area. There was not the faintest whisper of wind. A sense of peace and tranquility that I have not felt for a long time immediately overwhelmed me. Little action and plenty of freedom. I took a long breath.

“There is nothing to pollute the sky here. The air you breathe carries the scent of pure life,” Shaikh Rashid said as he greeted us, his hand extended in a message of peace and welcome that fitted perfectly with the scene. Visits to such a place should not be mere slots in busy diaries.

The main tent was a special mix of Arab simplicity and modern accommodations and was comfortable and classy.

We talked about the desert, I relentlessly asking and he eagerly answering.

“You see the standard of beauty in the Bahraini desert is different from what most non-Bahrainis have experienced. When people think of the desert, their mind almost invariably races to those Hollywood movies where heroes have to struggle hard against formidable dunes, scorpion and snakes and all kind of weird creatures. But that is far away from reality here. You cannot appreciate the Bahraini desert with mental images from American movies or real European mountains such as the Alps,” he said.
For the shaikh who has regularly spent at least one month a year for the last two decades camping in the desert, people needed time to meld with its peculiar surroundings.

“The desert has a special whispered language that takes years to learn. We have thousands of Bahrainis who patiently cultivate the art of communicating with the immense and mysterious desert. To some, visits to the desert may be a boring, or at best an ephemeral, event. But to some people, communing with the desert is one of the most gratifying passions they can indulge in,” Shaikh Rashed said.

But the shaikh warned that the desert was not for pampered school kids looking for space to prance and pound or rave noisily. “You have to come with a quiet heart and, like William Blake said, be able to see a world in a grain of sand. The desert is about wonderful mediation and pure resilience. It is a place where people perfect the art of aging gracefully and with dignity.”

But in today’s Bahrain, the desert is also a setting for ordinary families to relax and for political associations to discuss national, regional and international issues and to seek out new adherents.

Thousands of people swarm the desert in January and February. For many, it is reminiscent of their roots. For some, it is an opportunity to get away, even if it is for fleeting hours from the city.

“Political associations set up tents in the camping zone and organize several activities to explain their policies and views and attempt to win the hearts and minds of young people,” according to a political activist.

“Many young people are keen on the desert experience, particularly those whose families do not engage in desert camping. The associations practically move their headquarters to the area during the school mid-year holidays so that they can reach out to them,” Ahmed Juma said.

Islamic societies have found the practice very rewarding and set up Islamic tents where old members and new members meet and engage in lectures about the religion and ways to uphold Islamic values.

Their activities are often published in their periodicals and in the local press. “They use well-oiled publicity machines to attract young people to them as part of their long-term investment in the future,” Ahmed said. “Now, more associations want to do the same thing, giving a new dimension to the significance of the desert in Bahrain.”


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About the author

Born August 3, 1960 in Monastir, Tunisia
Media career:
  • ABC News (Tunisia)
  • Bahrain Tribune
  • Gulf News
  • Bahrain Television News
Teaching career:
  • Monastir (Tunisia)
  • University of Bahrain
  • MA  Mass Communications, University of Leicester
  • BA  in English & US literature and studies, University of Tunis

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