Late afternoon in the moonscape of Wadi Rum, the sun falls behind the mountain called Seven Pillars of Wisdom, casting craggy shadows. A red-haired writer sits cross-legged on red sand, her notebook opened to a blank page, though her pencil has not moved since the sun was high.
After dozing a bit, as a slight rustling sound snaps her awake and she sees a man dressed in thobe, kaffiyeh, and Nike high-tops kneeling a few feet to her right, a Bedu man with warm eyes. He sparks a wooden match with his thumbnail, lights up nearly invisible twigs, and feeds the fire with larger twigs, until it flares enough for the metal teakettle. He adds black tea, desert sage leaves, cinnamon, and cardamom, and serves Bedouin tea in a delicate ceramic cup.
The drink is like nothing the writer has tasted– sweet, strong, and spicy–and runs swiftly from her stomach up her spine, turning forward at the base of the skull, eventually filling her eyeballs with a jagged glow. Newly acute vision scans the landscape and finds a naturally camouflaged hoopoe sunbathing on the other side of the valley. The hoopoe senses the eyes, flares his crest, and flies–with the undulating flight of a feathered butterfly toward her. As he lands, the trisyllabic call of oop-oop-oop morphs into hellew-hellew-hellew, and the writer replies hello.
The hoopoe cocks his head questioningly. The writer shows the pages of her journal, mostly blank. The hoopoe reaches his strong long beak to grasp the journal, flips it up in the air, and as it falls it morphs into a clay tablet. Lying in the sand, diagrammatic markings and Akkadian words become visible and reveal an imago mundi.
You are a writer of words without words, and I sense you have come here in search of a new language, perhaps the language of maps. Would you like to journey with me to the east, past the Zagros Mountains, past the island beyond the flight of birds, past the island where the sun is hidden
Why should I do this?
There must be two of us to be allowed onto the last island, the one where stories are born
The writer picks up the map, runs her fingers over its markings. Looks at the mountain. Drinks some tea.
How will we travel?
Just do as I do.
The writer gently hands the cup back to her Bedouin friend. The hoopoe picks up the clay tablet, gently places it in the writer’s lap, spreads his wings wide and puts their tips under the sand. The writer spreads her arms, palms downward, and puts her fingers under the red sand.
Together they breathe, one, two, three.
And they fly.
Photo: Hazel Fasaha Tobo