Desert Journey

In the gloom of a pale desert morning—too early to be dawn but too bright to be night—the camp begins to come to life. My herd mates and I were up long ago, when the first glimpse of light settled across the Great East Sky. The night was cold and the chill stills hangs in the air but my fur is enough to keep me warm. Fires start in the camp below, billowing smoke across the land and bearing with it the scent of baking flatbread. Tents collapse and the dry river bed, the wadi, we have invaded for the night is returned to the Land. The murmur of human voices and the low drone of camel calls begin to arise. We occupy ourselves with nibbling on the brush and stubborn grasses at our feet.

Not long after, my human comes toward us bearing saddle and bridle. He is tall, taller then most of his herd mates, and has curly black hair. His face is soft and cheerful. A smile always plays at the corners of his mouth. He is a good human, never cruel or harsh.

But he is human and so beneath me.

As he approaches, I don’t deign to accept his presence yet, instead turning away and presenting him with my tail. He laughs and shifts the tack as he turns toward the camp again.

“Adli,” he cries out, “Adeem thinks herself queen of all once again!”

A muffled voice from a distance calls. “Tell your Queen that we can bear no delay today, and if she could, in the name all that is holy, be so kind as to not make a fuss!”

My human laughs again and places the tack on the desert sand.

“Did you hear, Adeem, the blackest of mares, Queen of the herd?” He says cheerfully, reaching a hand into his pocket. “Adli thinks you make a fuss.”

I swish my tail, ignoring his efforts. The two other mares with me, Iman and Hadil, look as he withdraws his hand, interests peaked by the movement. When they begin to come closer, I pin my ears and raise my head. He is my human and whatever gifts he brings are mine.

Now that I am paying attention, the scent of dates wafts toward my nose and I suppose, presented with such a fine gift, I can accept it. He holds out his hand and I arch my neck and delicately step forward until I can lip the date up. My human smiles ever more widely and rubs my forehead. I don’t snap at him, too occupied with the excellent treat.

“Behar, rider of Adeem the daughter of Seglawi Karimah, daughter of Seglawi Basmet al Reem, born from Seglawi, one of the Five Mares of the Prophet, the Queen has not snubbed you away!” Two men, Nadim and Tamir, approach, both also carrying saddles and bridles. It is Nadim who calls out, as he often does. I find him annoying, constantly chattering away, but Iman, whose human he is, does not mind. Tamir is more like Behar, he keeps his silence until his words are required. Unlike my human who is slender, Tamir is broad and muscular. Much more suited to Hadil’s height and strength. But strength and temperament do not prove who is best in the desert. Intelligence, quickness, and stamina do, all of which I have in abundance.

The desert does not conquer me. I conquer the desert.

My human, Behar, throws the saddle on my back but as he gave me dates as a peace offering, I allow it.

“Nadim,” he says with a chuckle. “My Queen is feeling generous today.”

Nadim and Tamir only respond with laughter. I huff, slightly offended.

Upon seeing their own humans, Iman and Hadil abandon the brush and walk up to them, searching for dates. I ignore them in favor of accepting the bit of the bridle. The straps are done up quickly, the girth checked, and Behar swings up onto my back. Excitement for the day ahead sparks up inside me and I cannot help but dance in place, raring to be off. Iman and Hadil have also been made ready and their humans swing up on their backs.

On the other side of the wadi, the rest of my human’s herd mates load the camels with the rolled tents, bags, and the bolts of heavy cloth that my human sells to other human herds. The camels will go slow, following the trail that I, Iman, and Hadil will scout out.

We walk the curves of the desert, following the wadi as it spirals between dunes shaped by winds and water, the leagues disappearing under our hooves.
Credit: Edmund Ollier, The British Library

The sand is not too deep that it feels as if my hooves are stuck in mud. I felt this once when we traveled to a city on the edge of a great lake so vast I could not see the other side. Behar called it “the sea” and it seemed to unnerve him just as much as it did me. The desert, at least, is land. If you have legs underneath you, you can find a way out.

The sun has since risen completely and the heat creates mirages at the edges of our visions. I have begun to sweat and feel the breastplate rub against my wet chest. But I am not tired. The heat, if anything, gives me energy. I feel as if I could run all day, beating not only any horse who dared challenge me, but the sun itself.

Behar must have felt my energy for he turns in the saddle toward Hadil and Tamir. I shift slightly to adjust his weight against my back.

“What say you to a race?” He asks. In the near distance, a huge rock swells up and Behar points to it. “First to the rock wins.”

“And what’s a race without a wager?” Nadim jumps in.

Tamir rubs a hand over his beard. His head wrap, a keffiyeh, flutters in the breeze as he thinks.

“The one who fails to be first cooks dinner tonight,” his deep voice rumbles at last.

“Hai, Behar! Don’t subject us to Tamir’s cooking!”

“I make no promises,” my human replies and leans down to check my girth. A race! I am ready. Hadil is big and has a larger stride but I am fast and I am better.

I nod my head up and down, impatient with Behar’s methodical slowness as he checks all the tack. Enough! I want to race the wind itself!

Nadim trots forward with Iman and then turns to face us. He takes off his own keffiyeh and holds it high in the air.

“On my mark!” He cries. I eye Hadil who meets my gaze. I pin my ears at her questioning of my authority. “Three…two…one!” Nadim drops his arm, the cloth falling more slowly.

Behar barely needs to touch his heels to my sides before I am off. I dig into the sand, taking huge strides. My hooves pound against the dunes so fast, I can’t distinguish one hoof beat from the other. The wind whistles by my ears and pins them back against my head. Behar is light on my back, hands barely pressing on the reins, heels touching my side in reminder. As if I needed it. I am better than Hadil, I am better than the wind, I am better even than the heat as the wind cools my soaked chest. Hadil begins to gain on me and I want to press on but Behar pulls more firmly on the reins, holding me back. I listen to him, only just and only because he has proven himself to me before. He holds us even with Hadil and Tamir as the rock looms ever closer. We have only one dune left before it when he suddenly gives me my head. I leap forward, sprinting along the bed of the old dry river.

This is what I am made for: flying through the desert on hooves made of wind.
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We reach the rocks far ahead of Tamir and Hadil. Upon light pressure from Behar, I slow, unwilling to stop but grudgingly cantering instead of galloping. I prick my ears forward with pride and hold my tail high, showing off to Hadil who is now at the rocks with us. I am indeed queen. She does not meet my eye now, acknowledging my superiority. Behar asks me to trot now and I do, flicking my toes out in satisfaction. My head lowers as I arch my neck, gleefully proud of myself, conquering the sand.

It is the sand that warns me now.

It shifts as we pass a pile of rocks and without warning, a sand cobra lunges forward, fangs bared and aimed for my leg. With a squeal, I rear up, desperately trying to get out of the way. Behar, a split second behind me, does not pull on the reins and unbalance me. The cobra sails past me and I don’t wait for it to turn. Fear and fury well up inside me and I land with all my weight on my front legs, on the area directly behind the cobra’s head. Once, twice, three times, before Behar pulls me away. The snake does not move as we trot a safe distance away.

Behar dismounts as soon as it is safe and bends down, rubbing his hands along my legs. I don’t move but take deep breaths, nostrils flaring as I try to catch the scent of more, looking around for any new danger, ears straining forward for movement in the sand.

Tamir and Nadim don’t speak until Behar stands and presses his forehead to mine. This gesture relaxes both of us. My human and I are safe because I made it so.

“You have a fine mare, Behar,” Tamir says and reaches out to a hand. Behar takes it and they shake.

“She is a blessing from Allah,” Behar replies and places a hand on my neck. Without speaking, he remounts. Glancing up, he stares at the massive boulders. They look as if a giant hand placed them here. The one closest to us looks like a sort of triangle.

“These are the Dajleh Rocks, no?” He asks. Nadim, as the navigator, stares up at them for a moment and measures their position against the sun with his hand.

“Yes, it is half a day’s ride down the wadi to an oasis, maybe a little more.” He grins suddenly, a wild expression on his face. “No digging for water tonight!”

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We stop at noon to let the harshest heat of the day pass. There are no high dunes to provide shade to hide in, no trees, and no rocks, so the humans set up a tent for themselves and relieve us and the camels of our tack and burdens. The break is useful and when we set out once again, it is with renewed energy.

The snake attack is all but forgotten as we follow the riverbed and it is late after the midday break that the mirages in the distance take on a green tinge. Nadim rides back to the main caravan to tell them we are close to the oasis and the pace picks up. We move now at a trot instead of a walk. The sun is just beginning to set when we make the last turn, the oasis is before us.

Surprise of all surprises, we are not the only ones here.

There is an encampment in the trees and from our position, we can hear the sound of children at play and the tell tale snipping of women gossiping. But before we get any closer, someone spots us and a cry goes up in the camp. Instantly, all is quiet. Within seconds, a group of men appear at the edge of the oasis, carrying a mixture of swords, shields, and the curved heavy daggers humans call khanjars.

He bends to the ground and throws a handful of sand into the air, a sign that we come in peace.

“Dismount,” Behar says and does so himself, Tamir and Nadim a second behind him. We wait for a moment, then a horse and rider come from behind the group, armed with a lance and shield. They gallop toward us but stop a horse length away. Behar, Nadim, and Tamir do not move but I pin my ears at the stranger mare. She doesn’t expect this aggression and backs up a step.

“Salam alaikum,” Behar says. “I am Behar Ibn Fadh, of the Anezah clan, son of Fadh al Shadi, We come from a caravan bearing cloth for sale and make our way toward the Aljams clan in the east.”

“Salam alaikum,” the man says back, lowering his lance. “I am Shamar al Harith, son of Harith Ibn Hussani. We are the Benoo-Harb. Come, be welcome at our fires.” He turns his mare around and waits for us.

Behar takes the lead and we follow Shamar into the oasis to a big, elegant tent in the center of their encampment. He dismounts before it and a young boy comes and leads his mare away. Gesturing inside the tent, where a center pole holds up the heavy roof, he says simply: “Be our guest.”

Behar turns toward me and undoes the bridle, leaving my halter on. I release the bit as he pulls the crown over my ears. He hands the lead rope to Tamir and familiar with this ceremony, I don’t make a move to snap at the man, though normally I would. Behar walks into the tent and hangs my bridle from the hook screwed onto the pole for this reason. It is a place of honor and respect, a sign that my herd, animals and humans all, have been given the status of guest and will stay this night in safety here among this clan. When the rest arrive, they will be greeted with joy and welcome, given a place to sleep, food to eat, and good company.

“When the rest arrive, they will be greeted with joy and welcome, given a place to sleep, food to eat, and good company.”

My bridle, hanging from that pole, ensures my family will be safe tonight.


BACKGROUND:

The rise of the popularity of the Arabian horse in the Bedouin culture coincided with the rise of Islam. A legend of Mohammed follows that by the order of Allah, to test the loyalty of his horses, the Prophet withheld food and drink from his herd of a hundred for three days. On third day, he turned them loose on an oasis to receive sustenance and as they ran to the water, he took his horn and sounded the call for battle. Only five of the mares returned to his side.

These were called the Al Khamsa, the Five Mares of the Prophet. Their names were Kehilan, Seglawi, Abeyan, Hamdani, and Hadban. The Bedouin value the purest strain in their Arabians and it is said that the purest are descended from the Al Khamsa. Of those pure in strain, called Asil, the Bedouin prefer dark colors, blacks and bays most especially, and mares. In addition to dark colors, a big forehead, called Jibbah, was a blessing from Allah and so the bigger the better. Mares were preferred war horses because they were more easily trained and did not whicker to enemy horses. The Bedouin were nomadic and warring tribes so stealth in battle was valued.

Image Credits in Order:
Article Cover Photo: “ABDMBW837” by Abdullah Al-Meshal, used under CC BY 2.0 / Lowered opacity and adjusted blur and hue from original
Edmund Ollier, The British Library Archive
“Desert Sand Dunes” by PublicDomainArchive.com under CC0
“Black Horse” by PublicDomainArchive.com under CC0