One of the many images the desert evokes is the infinite paths created by God, but the songs of Arita Baaijens in her latest book “Desert Songs are more earthly than heavenly.
She spent nearly 20 years exploring the deserts of Egypt and Sudan with a camel caravan, documenting her experience in this memoir-type book, aided by stunning photographs.
The author’s work was showcased last month as part of an exhibit called “Al-Arab hosted by the Museon Museum in The Hague, Netherlands.
Throughout the history of the Middle East, several historical figures have chosen to leave their homes and explore the world of the desert; from Akhnaton, Moses, Jesus and Coptic monks to Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah. The desert was a place to seek a connection to the divine.
For Baaijens, her journey was a introspective, earth-bound one; her desert was “the unknown where you discover your true strength.
To desert home and leave for the unknown wasteland is not an endeavor many would brave. But over time, the yearning for silence and solitude has propelled people to seek some kind of a meaning to overcome the intellectual noise of the city. There is a singular spiritual aura about the desert which promises exactly that.
The distance separating the desert traveler from the world is not only physical but emotional and metaphorical, especially when the move is the result of a choice not a chance encounter. The journey that begins in the wide open spaces is ultimately directed inside.
In the desert, the traveler might lose illusion of identity, one’s false conception of his/her persona as Baaijens did. “The person I thought I was proved to be no more than the sum of what others thought of me, she writes.
And just as in a fast-paced life one might blend in until no hint of one’s true self remains; in the desert, one might feel that “the world beyond simply did not exist. The desert brings such deep reflections which she sometimes captures lucidly and sometimes transforms into used and slightly worn-out wisdoms along the lines of “the journey is more important than the arrival.
Her journey in the desert wasn’t entirely romantic and philosophical however. She alludes to the fact that it was indeed a harsh experience where she had to deal with weeks-long sandstorms or the fleeing camels she constantly chased after. Learning to navigate unwelcoming terrains and administer camels is not an easy task when your life depends on it, and especially when your communication with Bedouins is less than perfect.
Speaking of Bedouins, the desert natives were quite startled at why Baaijens left her comfortable life in Holland and decided to roam the desert “out of curiosity in a pair of sporty shoes and a long scarf wrapped around her forehead.
This begs a question that lurks in this expose of escape. Solitude and suffering, some believe, can be efficient healing techniques, but can they truly cure when chosen freely and out of curiosity rather than being forced upon a person?
Baaijens’ love for the desert vessels , as the Bedouins dub them, is palpable throughout her book. “There are no more beautiful creatures on earth than camels, except of course baby camels, she confesses. The camel is the sole companion of a nomad in those long days and nights of emptiness, but to say “I love the pungent smell of their urine is taking the sentiment a bit too far.
Ranting about the total of 11 camels she owned, the author describes many interesting details that may be largely invaluable for amateur camel enthusiasts. One interesting observation she makes is that camels take walking rather seriously: a one-week old camel can do 20 kilometers a day.
From 1,000-year-old cave graffiti, inviting sanctuary-like oases boasting striking lakes encircled by king-sized palm trees, to layers of sand dunes flowing smoothly and reaching as far as the eye can gaze, the desert vitas and landscapes she depicts are breathtaking. Most eye catching of all are Baaijens’ Bedouin portraits. There is something undecorated yet deep in the eyes of Bedouins which difficult to discern by us city dwellers.
“Desert Songs is a polished invitation for the adventurous reader to and abscond from the city on a camel, a call to explore a world that’s very near yet far; to leave behind what Baaijens calls “false certainties.
Learn more about the author’s adventures at www.arita.baaijens.com. The book is available at AUC bookstores for LE 180.