The evening call to prayer

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One weekend, towards the end of my time, in the Middle East I headed out of the city with some friends. We went north along the coast, going off the road into the desert.  Our first find of the day was a deserted village, at the very tip of the country. The village was crumpled in rubble, with signs of gun shots and syringes all around.  I wonder what happened here? A party haunt for the desert playboys … or ….

After this unnerving place, we continued along the beach until we found a vast, empty, modern palace, with its own luxury pier and island.  Who lives out here, so alone?

We headed inland across the hard desert, navigating by compass.  Back on the road, we found the main northern fishing town. Almost toppling into the azure sea was a four hundred year old mosque, the oldest structure in the country.  A muddy thumb, poking up from the ground.

Next, we skirted around the far coast, passing two Arabic stallions on the way.  Their silvery manes glistening in the sun, as their hooves kicked up clouds of luminous dust.

At the most northern beach, an ancient fort stood guard. Built in a medieval style on the site of an ancient city, it was an imposing red mud edifice.  The only soul was the keeper, who lived in a tumbledown shack. His face was red with a birth mark, imprinting him to the fort. He handed us the huge, iron keys and we stepped through the ancient wooden gate, and back to the times of the crusaders. The wind was howling, knifing through the many air slits in the towers. We clambered along the walls, open to  long drops and looking out across the sea. In cave-like chambers we found coins, fragments of pottery and stoneware.

Back onto the camel road, hoping we would spot some rare, wild specimens. As the day drew on we had passed nothing, not even another car, it was so remote.   The sun slipped pale down the sky, pulling smoky grey covers behind it. Then we spotted them, seven dark camels shambling along the side of the road, snatching at the ragged bushes. We  got out to photograph them, just as the sun flared from platinum to a fiery ruby, and the camels swayed off to the horizon.

As we turned back to the car another Land Cruiser pulled up, the first car we had seen in ages. A young man called out to us, asking if we wanted to see his camels. He was insistent, so we followed him deep into the desert. No road and we had no idea where we were heading… or how we would find our way back in the gathering darkness.

After a few kilometers, we reached a circle of tents and a couple of pens with the camels and sheep. We had arrived at a particularly propitious moment, as it was the day for camel siring. It was not an edifying sight, with the bull foaming  at the mouth. Our host was greeted by his brother and cousin. They spoke only a little English, and I spoke about as much Arabic, but we were all delighted with each other’s vague grasp on another language and somehow got by. The brothers talked about their camels, which were racing camels and prized by the Prince, with whom they seemed to be on intimate terms.  Crimson carpets were set out on the sand with huge cushions, and we sat down and drank chai together.  Listening to the voice of the ages, as one of the brothers stood, his arms raised to the stars, calling the evening prayers.

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