Things you can never escape feel like an invasion of the soul. They burrow into you. I could feel the noise, the hum, damaging my inner organs.
By the twisted, paradoxical nature of things, a 4×4 with a throbbing engine — the 4.2 litre non-turbo diesel in a Nissan Patrol or Toyota Landcruiser — is the best way to experience the single most entrancing characteristic of the desert, the one that sucks you in and leads you to all the others you had only glimpsed or imagined before: that is, the silence.
The rattly, combustion-wheezing, air-filling noise of the car stops with a shudder and a grunt, and the silence rushes in to fill the vacuum. You can feel it sucking away from the ear not air but something finer, some granular constituent of the ether, maybe the secret ingredient of dark matter …
Whatever it is, it gets sucked away, leaving your hearing more acute but with less to listen to. There is the gentle click of the bonnet metal contracting. The slamming of the door by the last person getting out. The sound of bare feet squashing out sand in a few exploratory steps. And then, nothing.
If you walk (and after the engine stops, there is little fun in staying in the car), you find that answers appear to all the forlorn questions you had long ago given up expecting an answer to. The answer comes! But it might not be in words. That’s the craziest thing: to ask a question in words and receive a satisfactory answer that cannot be converted back into words without losing the essential ingredient.
From my earliest youth, I have always believed that the Sahara is the big one, the Everest of deserts — super-arid and super-empty. You can’t really walk out into it. All towns, all villages kind of bleed into it through an ugly hinterland of square irrigated patches and ditches whose banks are white with salt, and odd lobotomised palms and clusters of acacia with a donkey or goats hiding in the speckled shade, making a noise.
So you take a car. It whizzes you far out, though in fact three or four kilometres is enough by day. (You might need to go further at night. I’ve seen city lights glowing under the horizon 60km into the desert on a moonless night. It can spoil things, but not always.) Then the engine stops. The adventure begins. Every journey made for the first time is an adventure.
There is an Arab saying that the donkey that brought you to the palace must be dismounted before you can enter
If it’s windy, you still get it, the silence. But only at first. Then you notice the wind on clothes, or the rustling of a tarpaulin. If the wind is really high, it’ll be picking up sand and shooting it like mist over the ground — swirls, not cloudlike but dreamlike, silky, low-down patterns of the universe, all lit up. The desert is windy at certain times of the day, sometimes all day. You never go days without wind, but there are always periods of calm. Strangely, they often coincide with that moment of getting out of the car, with its big tough tyres and hot exhaust pipe and ticking, contracting bonnet.
You start listening to the silence. You start listening for imperfections, proofs against its existence. Maybe the ticking is reassuring, but it grows less frequent, fainter. People look for proof of their beliefs when they are young, when they are charged with hope. Many give up at what seems a very early age. They prefer the comfort of denial, of nothing with a small ‘n’, a rubbish nothing, easily shouldered aside by music, appetites, money, entertainment and controversy culture, stuff. Cars. The car that got you here, which you can now leave behind. There is an Arab saying that the donkey that brought you to the palace must be dismounted before you can enter.
So you listen for proof of noise. It’s like picking up a celestial phone: instead of an answering voice, instead of heavy breathing, you hear nothing. You listen to disprove the existence of silence. It is your first act, your natural act as a believer. You don’t believe. Belief is no use here. You listen and hear … nothing.
I had been visiting Egypt regularly since 1993. My wife is Egyptian. And yet, until 2004, I had never been in the desert. I’d seen it, driven along its edge in an air-conditioned car, but I’d never experienced it.
For me, the whole Egyptian experience was about the craziness of Cairo. I loved the endless labyrinths of the bazaars behind Khan el-Khalili, night-time drinking on the rooftop bar of the Odeon Palace, listening to music at the El Sawy Culturewheel, battling the six-lane traffic chaos of the Corniche, taking a battered Lada taxi home at dawn through the City of the Dead. But even then, in what would be the quiet times in any other city, Cairo would be humming, buzzing, invading my eardrums.
A film director once told me that shooting exteriors in Cairo is a nightmare. Often they fake it, using Tunisian locations instead. The reason is the sound: the hum, they call it. You get it even if you shoot at 3am on Zamalek island, the wealthy garden district in the middle of the Nile. It’s the aural equivalent of smog; hardly noticeable at first, not a problem for many, but insidious, worming its way inside you, rattling you, shaking you up like a cornflake packet.
Your contents never settle. Someone told me a story about a man who bought adulterated cocaine. A flake of aluminium sulphate lodged in his sinus and burned a hole right through his skull and into his brain. I pictured Cairo’s hum as a slow acid eating its way through the fragile bones of the ear, into the cortex.