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ODE TO THE PAST (with the occasional nod to the present)


Daphne in full desert attire...
The desert is unpredictable, capricious and often tempestuous. Just when you think it is a barren, inhospitable place, it unexpectedly gives. But it can just as swiftly take away.

The always-changing nature of the desert--its impermanence--has long been a source of fascination for me. I've spent time in deserts from the Namib to the Sahara to the Thar to the Rub' al-Khali, and every time I've been humbled and awed. Nothing will humble and awe you faster than the fury of a sandstorm.

With a caravan of five friends and three camel drivers from nomadic tribes, I crossed the Sahara between Morocco and Mali. The temps during the day were so searing we had to stop for hours to avoid the midday sun. By night, the same place turned frigid and we huddled in blankets as we slept under the stars.

About a week into the trip, on the night prior to reaching an oasis, we noticed the gathering cloud of dust in the horizon. The camel drivers did not worry. They built barriers with blankets, since there was nowhere to take shelter, and they made tea. We stared at the sky nervously and tasted the granules in our mouths even before the storm was upon us; the air was already thick with sand.

When the cloud rolled toward us, there was nothing to do but sit in a tight circle, our heads covered with indigo gauze, and wait it out. The wind howled in our ears, the sand whipped our backs. It lasted from 7 pm to about 4 am...nine of the longest hours of my life. As the sand did its best to bury us, we shifted and drifted in a bid for air. We were exhausted but unable to rest.

In a way, it was meditative. You have no choice but to be in the moment and to think about nothing except the wrath of nature. I didn't doubt my survival, but I did consider how small I am in the face of such infinite, unbridled power and how, under the right conditions, a single sand granule can become a force to be reckoned with.

That night embedded itself on my consciousness and became both a reality check and an inspiration. In The Tenth Saint, the scene in the Rub' al-Khali, where the Bedouins face the full fury of the desert winds, was inspired by this experience. When readers tell me how real it sounds, how they feel as if they were there ... I smile.
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