The desert, like deep blue ocean, has always been an enigma to humanity since the time travel begun. Those who ventured into its mysteries were confronted with uncertainties, leading them to pointless wanderings, insanity and almost always to death. Nevertheless, this did not stop them. History is full of stories of people crossing sand dunes and barren mountains, braving adverse climate and unforeseeable hazards. In a way, Semitic religions survived not only the wrath of unsympathetic kings and gods of their times, but also these hostile terrains and weathers.

Muzafer Ahamed’s book Camels in the Sky is a modern take on travels across the deserts of Saudi Arabia, where the author lived for nearly a decade and a half as a journalist. It is a translation of the Kerala Sahitya Academy award-winning collection of essays in Malayalam, more poetically titled Autobiography of the Desert. The English translation includes a few additional essays.

No easy journey

Given modern transport and communication, it may seem that journeys across deserts in the 21st century involve little or no risk, unlike historic times. Nothing could be farther from reality. As we step into this book, the illusion vanishes quickly. Despite the accuracy of GPS, the desert is no joy-ride for people even now, with many imponderables, challenges, risks and dangers awaiting the traveller.

Consider the unexpected desert storm the travellers in this book encounter along the road to Mushaikhira. The outcome is not very different from the affliction of sudden blindness on a busy traffic junction in Jose Saramago’s novel. Soon the car sinks into the sand and the travellers’ efforts to lift the tyres out turn futile.

That’s not all. On the way they see the carcass of a huge camel who died a long time ago, its teeth bared, as though in expectation of green shoots and water. Ahamed writes: “As we stood there, it becomes starkly obvious how terrible and lonely death in a desert could be.”

Ironically perhaps, Camels in the Sky, a narrative of desert travel, always brings water into the centre of the discussions. Water becomes the literal bone of contention here. Wars are waged on the ownership of water wells in the deserts. Clans engage in endless clashes over their rights, and the ensuing complexities lead them to battle it out in the courts.

Travelling to the desert for the first time, to report on the rural life in Al Jouf for the Jeddah-based Malayalam newspaper in which he was working, the author had an encounter with one of these warring factions. When trying to photograph a well, the journalists were attacked by a violent mob who thought they were taking pictures to gather evidence in support of one of the contenders. The experience stayed with the writer. You can’t separate water wars from the history of deserts, and they form a large segment of Arabia’s history too, he writes later.

Unlike Kerala, where lashing rains have come to be a part of life, rain in the deserts is a rare sight, lasting for a few minutes, if not seconds. Sometimes it is so short lived that humans don’t see it at all. There is a “one drop” rain that sheds just a single drop of rainwater on the vast expanse of sand and disappears instantly.

Maybe the Bedouins, ancient settlers of the desert, can recognise the transient presence of rain. They claim the dry gaaf tree, hibernating in the heat of death for years, needs only a single drop of rain for its leaves and shoots to sprout. The author considers the gaaf a metaphor for the Bedouin’s tribal life. Their existence, endurance, struggles, survival – all are etched in the life story of this indomitable tree.

Light and dark

Water is conspicuous in the desert by its absence everywhere. Light, on the contrary, is the focus of most of the essays here, which count on its presence. The interplay of light and shadows in the barren lands is always manifest. Sand dunes transform themselves into innumerable shapes and figures in sunlight. The sun sets all at once in the desert, the author points out, and until the last moment it appears it has all the time in the world before setting.

Then it sets, as though countless blankets have been used to screen it off. Pitch darkness follows in no time. Moonlit nights have a mysterious aura here, and the flood of moonbeams seems to make the sand move and heave, turning the desert into a sea.

Another motif that frequently appears in these pages is that of decay. Dead trees, carcasses of camels, dogs, snakes, fossils of pre-historic animals all visit and revisit the reader throughout the book. The desert has an uncanny ability to preserve these relics for posterity. You will find them everywhere. Always.

At the same time, the desert is so passionate that it can erase all traces of life from its surface at the drop of a hat. In the dances of storms, even oases have vanished forever. Even seas abutting barren lands have been swallowed up by their eternal thirst. In that sense, we feel that the desert is itself a fossil of its own vibrant past.

Any journey across these lands, therefore, is a mystic tour of a museum displaying the artefacts of the history of human civilisation. The author attempts to document the remains on the ancient trails taken by people who dared nature.

Rare depiction

Kerala can boast of having the largest number of its people in the Gulf countries. The history of this diaspora dates back to the 1960s, when these countries began digging for oil off shore. Millions of Malayalis have lived in these countries since then, the majority struggling to make a humble living. But the literature representing these struggles are hard to come by in our language, barring a few examples like Goat Days by Benyamin and a few short stories and poems here and there.

On the other hand, the portrayal of Gulf Malayalis has almost always been derogatory in our mainstream films and fiction, where these nouveau riche are made play the role of illiterates and imbeciles trying to show off their wealth and pomp. Ahamed’s travelogue, though not exactly about the lives of the diaspora, gives a vivid picture of the life in the desert. An honest portrayal of life, times and places.

What made it unique in Malayalam was its striking beauty of language, arresting visuals, and meditative calm between the turbulent storms, alongside the concerns it raised on the politics of survival. PJ Mathew’s translation is so brilliant that I felt I was reading the Malayalam original once again. Subtle emotions and nuances are narrated skilfully in a poetic diction in English.

Rarely have non-fiction writings from Malayalam appeared in English translation. Travelogues are no exception. That said, there is no dearth of books in the genre – in fatc, Malayalam has a long and illustrious tradition of travel writing. It goes back to Varthamana Pusthakam, by Parammekkal Thoma Kathanar (1736-99), a Syriac Christian Priest who diarised his historic journey to Rome to represent the grievances of Kerala Syrian Catholics in the 18th century.

Others like S K Pottekkad, Jnanpith Award winner, K P Kesava Menon, freedom fighter, Rajan Kakkanadan, painter, Ravindran, film maker, Paul Zacharia, writer – to name a few – have enriched the language in modern times with articles and books which eventually became landmarks. Muzafer Ahamed inherits this rich legacy and succeeds in taking it forward.

Camels in the Sky: Travels in Arabia

Camels in the Sky: Travels in Arabia, V Muzafer Ahamed, translated from the Malayalam by PJ Mathew, Oxford University Press.