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Volume 18, Number 5September/October 1967

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In The Great Nefud

Written by Alois Musil
Illustrated by Morag Aboul-Hosn

From the Classics # 3

Some of the men who traveled in Arabia and wrote the classic accounts were scholars whose interest derived from thereports which had come down from antiquity and Biblical times. The Czech orientalist Alois Musil was such a man. A professor in Vienna and Prague, a dedicated student of Bedouin life and ancient Arab history, yet a man of unusual physical toughness and courage, he wandered the lands of Moab and Edom at the turn of the century in an effort to
gain an insight into the desert-born concept of monotheism and Arabia's role in the wider history of civilization. From 1908 to 1915 he explored Mesopotamia and much of the Arabian Peninsula, later writing a detailed narrative and topographical notes which were published in six volumes by the American Geographical Society. Two volumes,
Arabia Deserta and The Manners and Customs of the Rwala Bedouins, were edited by Katherine McGiffert Wright and incorporated into the book In the Arabian Desert from which this excerpt, a vivid journal of his crossing of a section of the Great Nefud Desert, is taken.

We proceeded through a boundless plain toward the rosy Areyzh an-Nefud, a sandy projection which the Nefud thrusts out against the wind toward the west, seeking, as the Shararat declare, to destroy all their wells. The sand hills seemed to be close to us, yet we could not reach them. I kept closing my eyes to convince myself after a few minutes that we really had made progress; but the plain was endless. Masud, beside me, had been singing the same short ditty, off the key, for over an hour:

"May your omen, O ghazw (raid), be good !

May it signify herds spending the night far from tents.

May your omen, O ghazw, be good !

May it signify herds close by."

In the fine sand we found many tracks of lizards, showing the sharp outlines of their feet on both sides of grooves made by their tails, and near many of the bushes we saw deep spirals made by snakes, which lean upon their own bodies, especially when crawling upward. Several times we crossed the fresh tracks of antelopes, ostriches, hyenas, and wolves. Once we came upon the new grave of a Sharari into which hyenas had penetrated; from within protruded the two shins of the dead, both gnawed off.

At last a dark solitary hill, a landmark in the district of Khunfa, appeared on our right. It is a sign to travelers from the north that they will soon enter the stony desert, whereas to travelers from the south it heralds the proximity of the sandy waste.

We reached the edge of the sandy desert. Whoever views it from the south notices innumerable sand dunes, sharply pointed, ranging from west to east; all are of the same height and all are separated by hollows sixty to a hundred feet deep.

In the afternoon we entered the projection of the Nefud which rises gradually from the level plain. On its southern slope ghaza, which is one of the most beautiful plants in the desert, grows abundantly. Frequently it develops into trees twenty-five feet high with trunks eight inches in diameter, but more often it grows in bushes. The branches are long and elastic, the bark clear white, the needles a fresh green. Camels eat the needles and young twigs with gusto. The wood is tough and when dry it is an ideal fuel, producing almost no smoke, burning with a white flame for a long time and leaving only smoldering red coals and fine white ashes. No other fuel furnishes so much heat as the ghaza and its coals will smolder for over ten hours. What joy they give to a traveler shivering with cold, who dares not have a flame in the night although he yearns for warmth! Wherever the ghaza grows in bushes it holds the sand by its roots, thus making a nucleus for the formation of small mounds of sand.

A very sad spectacle is presented by bushes that have been uprooted by the wind. Their glistening, dry, white branches and trunks protrude from the sand so bent and broken that they seem like the bleached bones of men or camels covering a former battleground. Indeed, the uprooted ghaza does in reality lie scattered over a battleground, but the battle has been fought not between men, but between frail plants and the indomitable, pitiless wind and its ally, the treacherous sand. At the wind's bidding the sand forms a mound among and around the stems of the ghaza into which it permits the plant's roots to sink; hardly has the plant come to feel secure than the sand obeys the wind again and the piteous ghaza must perish.

As we found some of the sand dunes too steep to climb we went around them to the west. On this detour we crossed fresh tracks of eight large and three small antelopes. We made camp for the night in a secluded pit.

Now, February 2, we began to traverse the Nefud proper. The Nefud is one of the most interesting and beautiful natural features of northern Arabia. The low, rosy dunes, their steep sides overgrown by ghaza and other plants, give it the appearance of a huge garden or a terrace-like cemetery planted with weeping willows and birches. The sharp bare peaks and crests of the dunes remind one of glaciers in high mountains, and the hollows among the dunes resemble green mountain valleys. But there is no water and the soil of this beautiful region is treacherous sand. Even the sea is not so dangerous as the shimmering, rose-colored sand which forms these splendid, sleek plains. The eye lets itself be deceived; the rider takes it for granted that he may hasten ahead and urges his mount to a swifter pace. At places the sand is so solid that it does not even take footprints, when suddenly the animal sinks up to knees and the rider must quickly swerve his frightened mount if he is to avoid disaster. Often the camel has been going in long strides over the sandy level when, on entering what looks like nothing but a small swell, he finds himself on the brink of a precipitous wall of sand : one more step and both animal and rider would lie, with shattered bones, in the deep pit. "In the Nefud there are roads everywhere," mused our guide, "and yet in the Nefud there are no roads. Whosoever does not know the Nefud must not venture thither, and who loses his way in the Nefud loses his life."

Every migrating tribe and every raiding party provides itself with a guide who knows the Nefud well, usually an ostrich or antelope hunter. Only he who is thoroughly acquainted with the passes among the various sand dunes can travel through the Nefud freely. These passes are usually near the funnel-shaped pits.

Besides numerous tracks of antelopes and ostriches, we noted in the sand the footprints of the rapacious zarbul. It is said to be an animal smaller than a dog with a grayish-yellow back, a black belly, and a dog's head. Its skin has a characteristic smell. It attacks lone camels and even sleeping travelers.

From under an arta bush (...a nearly leafless shrub with scaly branches, clusters of small flowers, and hairy nut-shaped fruit) I scared out a yellow bird about as large as a domestic fowl and known as tandara. Its meat is reputed to be excellent. Flapping its wings heavily, it flew several hundred yards off and hid again in a thicket. I shot two dozing hares. The color of their fur was a blend of yellows and reds completely harmonizing with the sand, whereas the fur of the hares I had shot in the volcanic region was dark brown or black. Even the smaller birds I saw in the Nefud were the color of the sand. The umm salem, about the size of our sparrow, has a pleasant song, brief and quiet.

Before noon our camels grazed. Later on we crossed several perilous slopes so steep that we had to dig a succession of slanting steps in the sand down which we cautiously led our animals. A false step, a slip, and the animal would roll down the steep incline. The camels trembled, spread their legs, leaned upon their forefeet, testing the ground before venturing ahead. The Nefud fairly bristles with such hollows.

Often it seemed to me as if we were proceeding through vineyards; this was especially so where arta grew abundantly, often developing into huge stalks with heads as large as four yards across. Its bare branches resemble the branches of vines and cover the mounds of sand just as the vine branches rest upon heaps of stone in many parts of northern Syria. The thin roots look like ropes and are sometimes as much as twenty yards long. The foliage of the arta, long and narrow like needles, is utilized by women in place of tanbark in the tanning of hides.

We encamped on the eastern side of a pit. The camels were tired and the terrain was arduous, and since we were well concealed there, I did not intend to proceed at night. We made a map of the environs, ascertained the latitude, and spent some time in changing photographic plates.

Feeling safe in the pit, we built a cheery fire in the morning, heated our coffee, and rode merrily on. The dunes of this part of the Nefud run from northwest to southeast. Several days before, this district had been traversed by a large migrating throng of the Rwala: evidently hundreds, nay, thousands of camels had trodden the sand. We could see their tracks, however, only in the hollows; upon the upper flat areas all the prints had been leveled even with the surface, which was again seamed by ripples shaped like ellipses with transverse axes running at right angles to the direction of the last wind. Only camel dung indicated the direction that the migrating throng had followed...

Far ahead of us and, as it seemed, below us we saw the Tawil range, which appeared to be lower than the Nefud. Rwala herdsmen told us that Feysal eben Rashid had ordered the wells of sfan to be filled up in order to prevent an attack on his people. This news was disappointing for, as sfan had always contained water even when all the other wells went dry, we had intended to water our camels there and to fill our bags. The only thing left for us to do, therefore, was to hasten on to Jowf. We left the Nefud behind us.

This article appeared on pages 6-7 of the September/October 1967 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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