Lessons from the Sahara Sands

“By 1932, Bagnold was finished and Madox and the rest of us were everywhere. Looking for the lost army of Cambyses. Looking for Zerzura. 1932 and 1933 and 1934. Not seeing each other for months. Just the Bedouin and us, crisscrossing the Forty Days Road. There were rivers of desert tribes, the most beautiful humans I’ve met in my life. We were German, English, Hungarian, African—all of us insignificant to them. Gradually we became nationless. I came to hate nations. We are deformed by nation-states. Madox died because of nations.
The desert could not be claimed or owned—it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names long before Canterbury existed, long before battles and treaties quilted Europe and the East. Its caravans, those strange rambling feasts and cultures left nothing behind, not an ember. All of us, even those with European homes and children in the distance, wished to remove the clothing of our countries. It was a place of faith. We disappeared into landscape. Fire and sand. We left the harbours of oasis. The places water came to and touched… Ain, Bir, Wadi, Foggara, Khottara, Shaduf. I didn’t want my name against such beautiful names. Erase the family name! Erase nations! I was taught such things by the desert.” – The English Patient, Ondaatje.

Ever felt like losing yourself in a place? I got that sensation when reading this passage from The English Patient. I have never been to the Sahara Desert, but Ondaatje makes the experience sound so fulfilling. To just lose yourself to the wonder of it over time. The story probes the mystery of a man burnt during a plane crash during World War 2. Now bed-ridden in a makeshift hospital in the Italian countryside during the closing months of the War, he narrates his past to his nurse.

The Patient is recounting his time in the Sahara Desert as part of Britain’s Geographical Survey team. From those distant years before World War 2. He speaks in the context of his insignificance in the face of the infinite desert. In a world ravaged after the War, the English Patient values his time spent in the desert accompanied by the Bedouin tribes. People who knew their place in the desert, in their world. Nomadic and forever weaving their way across the dunes, the desert always shifting. Not belonging to any nations. To any castes or creeds. One humanity.

The Patient saw their practical approach to life as a model. The Bedouin realized the harshness of the environment they lived in. A desert so vast and changing, it rose up around them greater than their collective lives. They realized their cosmic value in the face of the Sahara. Just another grain in the sand. Conflict between themselves was pointless, mastery over the environment essential to survival. Hence the need to stick with each other. To keep on moving. Together.

A common, bonded humanity. It’s something I would like to live by. It’s a message many of us claim to believe in, yet foolishly act against all the time. I just feel it is a theme that is increasingly more relevant today, in a world already torn by conflict – of race, religion, sexual orientation. The list is endless. Our news is filled with incidents of conflict, and opinions about each conflict. Ironically, the world lost a hero who believed in common humanity just last month. Abdul Sattar Edhi. Globally, his humanitarian work did not get the attention it deserved, but he made a difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands.

Particularly intriguing in this story was how The English Patient, a handicapped and dying fictional man, seemed to be at peace. He voiced his regrets and stance on life, exploring his past and all that he had been through. He had become a firm believer in a life without attachment to nations. Of living unburdened without the weight of their conflicts. A stance further affirmed after the War.

Granted, war is a damaging condition. It can give you that perspective after you go through something like that. It destroys the human soul on so many levels, no matter your side. Whether you’re the conqueror or the conquered, a nurse or a handicapped spy, you feel the shock waves of the conflict around you. I can never compare every day experiences to war, but I feel that life inflicts some degree of damage on all our souls over time. It is a constant pursuit to keep fighting back, to find love and meaning.

So in the search for common empathetic ground, I ask myself, can we relate to the English Patient? And more importantly so, can we relate to him now than before it is too late? To try and stand in his shoes for a moment before life actually forces us in them? In these troubled times, we need to believe in these bonds to navigate to a greater sense of peace. Of a sense of humanity above and beyond the weight of nations.



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