Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home pageNo. 35, Spring/Summer 1994
The Deserts in Literature

The Desert

by Pierre Loti (1850-1923)


Pierre Loti is the pseudonym under which the French Decadent novelist - and naval officer, artist, and acrobat - Julien Viaud wrote. Le Désert, first published in Paris in 1895, is not a novel but a poetic account of the author's journey by camel caravan from Suez to Gaza by way of Sinai in 1894. As Peter Wild observes of Loti in his introductory essay in this issue, "his writing shows a gross misunderstanding of the Arab cultures he encountered, but . . . The Desert, for all the blithe liberties it takes with the facts, is an accomplished effervescence." Our excerpt is drawn from Jay Paul Minn's translation, published in 1993 by The University of Utah Press. We pick up Loti's narrative on the fourth day of what he acknowledged in his preface to be &nothing but the fantasy of a slow journey, at the pace of swaying camels in the infinite of the pink desert."

Five: Monday, February 26

Every morning you wake up in a different setting of the vast desert. You leave your tent and are surrounded by the splendor of the virginal morning. You stretch your arms and half-naked body in the cold pure air. Out on the sand, you wrap your turban and drape yourself in your white woolen veils. You get drunk on light and space. At the time of waking, you know the heady intoxication of just being able to breathe, just being alive . . .

And then off you go, perched atop the ever-moving camel that steadily plods along until nighttime. You go along, go along, go along, and you see in front of you a hairy head decorated with shells and its long neck, cutting the air like the prow of a ship at sea. Wasteland follows wasteland. You stretch your ears into the silence and you hear nothing, not a birdsong, nor the buzz of a fly, because there is nothing alive anywhere . . .

After a chilly dawn, the sun suddenly climbs and warms. The four hours of our morning travel as we go east into the sun are the most dazzling time of the day. Then we have our noon stop at a randomly chosen spot, in a flimsy tent that was set up quickly. The slower caravan of our Bedouin and baggage camels catches up, goes by with shouts as if at a wild party, and disappears into the unknown ahead. Then, after the four hours of our afternoon trek, we finally arrive at our new place for the night, and we have the simple physical joy of finding our tents again, where our gentle dromedaries kneel to set us down.

This morning we start off into hot valleys between claustrophobic mountains. The sun is dreary, dreary; it is like a big dying ember that could fall from the sky. Your tired eyes follow the shadows of the camels as they move along the reflecting sand. And as always happens when you approach distant mountains, the mountains seem black in contrast with the sheen of the sand nearby.

Toward afternoon we are very high up in the remote wastes of the Sinai peninsula. New spaces unfold on all sides; this tangible sign of their immensity increases our understanding of what wilderness is, but it also intimidates us more.

And it is an almost terrifying magnificence . . . In a distance that is much clearer than usual earthly distances, mountain chains join and overlap. They are in regular arrangements that man has not interfered with since the creation of the world. And they have harsh brittle edges, never softened by the least vegetation. The closest row of mountains is a reddish brown; then, as they stand closer to the horizon, the mountains go through elegant violet, turning a deeper and deeper blue, until they are pure indigo in the farthest chain. And everything is empty, silent, and dead. Here you have the splendor of fixed perspectives, without the ephemeral attraction of forests, greeneries, and grasslands; it is also the splendor of almost eternal stuff, freed of life's instabilities. The geological splendor from before the Creation . . .

From another height at evening, we discover a plain with no visible limits, composed of sand and stone, speckled with spindly reddish bushes. The plain is flooded with light, burning with the sun's rays, and our camp, already set up out there with its infinitely tiny white tents, becomes a pygmy village dwarfed by this magnificent wilderness.

Oh! The sunset this time! Never had we seen so much gold spread out around our lonely camp for us alone. And as our camels are doing their usual evening foraging, they loom strangely large against the empty horizon and have gold on their heads, on their legs, and on their long necks. They are completely edged with gold. The plain is all gold. And the bushes are gold . . .Then comes the night, the clear silent night . . .

And now you feel an almost religious fear if you wander away and lose sight of the camp. But in order to be absolutely alone in the black emptiness, you separate yourself from your little handfull of living things lost in this dead land. The stars shine in the cosmic void but are closer and more accessible than before. In this desert the stars are permanent and ageless; looking at them here, one feels closer to understanding their inconceivable infinity; one almost has the illusion of truly being united with universal permanence and time . . .

Six: Tuesday, February 27

For they were departed from Rephidim, and were come to the desert of Sinai, and had pitched in the wilderness. (Exodus xix:2)

Five days now without finding water. But we still have enough from the Nile.

Traveled all morning in yesterday's plain, where the broom has been replaced with sparser clumps of plants, whitish green, half-buried in sand, balls of thorns that could pierce feet like iron spikes.

We are beginning to come upon big black stones standing upright on the sand, set up like men or menhirs. At first rather sparse, they become more and more numerous_and also taller and taller. Then little by little, as we go on gently swaying, they take on the dimensions of dungeons, towers, and fortresses; finally they group, forming corridors, like the streets of some destroyed cyclopean city - and they enclose us with dark walls.

The noon stop is in one of these forbidding valleys . . .

While we are sleeping on our carpets, raucous loud voices suddenly resound from the reflecting stones. Our guards, our drivers, and our camels are letting us know they are going by. It's the slower caravan that follows us every morning and gets ahead of us during our noon rest, so that it can beat us to the evening stop. Both animals and men usually greet us with shrieks as they go by, and today their voices are more piercing, due to surprisingly loud echoes from these dry rocks that resonate like dead wood.

We proceed until the hour of evening prayer through narrow winding valleys. But their walls are constantly changing shape and color. They become pink granite, veined with broad bands of blue or green rock.

This region is less desolate than before, because here we have trees, the first we have seen in five days. Oh, wretched little trees, a kind of thorny mimosa like those you find in the Sahara, in Senegal, and Obock; during this early spring they have just turned light green, with barely visible pale leaves. And strewn about occasionally among chunks of granite, there are delicate little white flowers.

At a fork in these valleys, we came upon two adorable Bedouin youngsters, brother and sister, who watched us approaching with fright in their dark velvet eyes. They tell us there are campsites up in the mountain. Indeed we hear distant guard dogs barking to announce our presence. Soon afterwards we see herds of goats shepherded by Bedouin dressed and veiled in black.

Our old driver-sheik then comes and requests my permission to leave us until tomorrow, so that he can visit this tribe, where he has sons.

We come close to the "Myrrh Mountain" and suddenly the whole desert has a delightful scent, because skinny little plants release delicious, strange odors as they are crushed by the hooves of our camels.

The ground of these interminable mountain passes is slowly climbing toward the central plateau in almost unnoticeable degrees. We will continue to go up for two more days, slowly heading for the Sinai Convent at a height of two thousand meters.

We are still in rough terrain. Very recently mountains must have crumbled, breaking up on the sand with apocalyptic noise, for gigantic ruins with fresh fractures give evidence of past catastrophes. And we continue our ascent on crumbled blue and pink granite, between stands of the same rock that are cracked at the bottom, seemingly on the verge of tumbling down.

For the night we camp in a high valley beside stark and frightening embankments of red granite, where the air is turning cold as ice.

Seven: Wednesday, February 28

And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled. (Exodus xix:16)

In the middle of the night, we are awakened by the racket of thunder made outsize and terrible here in this resonant echoing valley. A violent wind shakes our fragile canvas houses and threatens to blow us away. And our camels moan in the sudden and torrential downpour. . .

Wind more than rain is the enemy of the nomads. You have to get up and drive the stakes deeper, while the tents swell up, rip loose, and tear_and then you wait, trying to face up to losing your shelter in the frigid deluge: this is the impotent stress of the infinitely small faced with massive sovereign forces . . .

As the forbidding valley explodes outside with almost continual light, there is a terror of apocalypse. The valley seems shaken to its core, giving off muffled and crackling noise. You could say it is shuddering, opening up, caving in . . .

And then the bolts are slower and farther away. It all becomes something deep and cavernous, as if one could hear worlds turn in far-off voids . . .

And at last all is peaceful and calm . . .

Little by little we regain our silence, safety, and sleep.

In the cool, quiet morning at sunrise, when I open my tent, the outside air carries a whiff of perfume, so that it seems as if someone has broken a vial of aromatics in front of my door. And all this forlorn valley of granite is also perfumed, as if it were an oriental temple. Its few little pale plants, held back by drought, have awakened because of the night's deluge and waft their odors like countless incense burners. You could say that the air is ripe with benjamin, citronella, geranium, and myrrh. . .

Right off I look at the deserted valley, so strange and superb under the morning sun that is striking the red peaks into flame, against a backdrop of black, tattered clouds, fleeing fast to the north. The storm is still up there, while down here the air is slack and still.

Then I look at the ground, the source of all these perfumes; it is covered with white spots, like hailstorms after a storm . . .


And when the dew that lay was gone up, behold, upon the face of the wilderness there lay a small round thing, as small as the hoar frost on the ground. (Exodus xix:14)

What was shredded and left by wind and rain around our tents last night appears to be manna . . . I pick up some of these "small round things," these very hard white seeds, smelling something like cheese - they are the dried fruit of the thorny little plants that carpet these mountains here and there.

By collecting this manna, I have stirred up the perfumes of the soil, and for some time my hands give off an exquisite scent.

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