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Rafiq of the Desert

RAFIQ is a friend, a companion on the desert travel to guide the way. Here one eye-whitness account by Gertrude Bell that touches the heart and reveals a lot about the simplicity of past Bedouin understanding of life similar to children.

God is merciful and we have done with the Nefud. The day after the rain - oh but the wet sand smelt good and there was a twittering of small birds to gladden the heart! - We came in the afternoon to some tents of the Shammar and pitching our camp not far off we were visited by the old sheikh, Mhailam, who brought us a goat and some butter. Him we induced to come with us as rafiq. He is old and lean, gray haired and toothless, and ragged beyond belief, he has not even an ´agal to bind the kerchief and we have given him a piece of rope. But he is an excellent rafiq - I have not had a better. He knows the country and he is anxious to serve us well. And the next day we rode over sand to the northern point of Jebel Mismah´. Then Mhailam importuned me to camp saying there was no pasturage in the jellad, the flat plain below; and Muhammad al-Ma´rawi backed him for he feared that we might fall with Hetaim raiders if we left the Nefud. But I held firm. Raiders and hunger were as nothing to the possibility of a hard straight road. For you understand that traveling in the Nefud is like traveling in the Labyrinth. You are forever skirting round a deep horseshoe pit of sand, perhaps half a mile wide, and climbing up the opposite slope, and skirting round the next horseshoe. If we made a mile an hour as the crow flies we did well. Even after I had delivered the ultimatum, my two old parties were constantly heading off to the Nefud and I had to keep a watchful eye on them and herd them back every half hour. It was bitter cold; the temperature had fallen to 27 ° (F) in the night and there was a tempestuous north wind. And so we came to the last sand crest and I looked down between the black rocks of Misma´and saw Nejd. It was a landscape terrifying in its desolation. Misma´drops to the east in precipices of sandstone, weathered to a rusty black, at its feet are gathered endless companies of sandstone pinnacles, black too, shouldering one over the other. They took like the skeleton of a vast city planted on a sandstone and sand-strewn floor. And beyond and beyond more pallid lifeless plain and more crags of sandstone mountains rising abruptly out of it. Over it all the bitter wind whipped the cloud shadows. “Subhan Allah!” said one of my Damascenes, “we have come to Jehannum.” Down into it we went and camped on the skirts of the Nefud with a sufficiently of pasturage. And today the sun shone and the world smiled and we marched off gaily and found the floor of Hell to be a pleasant place after all. For the rain has filled all the sandstone hollows with clear water, and the pasturage is abundant, and the going, over the flat rocky floor, is all heart could desire. In the afternoon we passed between the rocks of Jebel Habran, marching over a sandy floor with black pinnacled precipices on either hand, and camped on the east, in a bay of rock with khabras of rain water below and pasturage all round us in the sand. We have for neighbours about a mile away a small ferij of Shammar tents, and lest there should be anyone evil minded as to dream of stealing a camel from us, Mhailam has just now stepped out into the night and shouted: “Ho! Anyone who watches! Come in to supper! I am Mhailam, Mhailam ibn Hamad! Let anyone who is hungry come and eat!” And having thus invited the universe to our bowl, we sleep, I trust, in peace."                                                                                                                                             

Gertrude Bell 20 February 1914

A personal word:

The above text about the last days of Gertrude Bell´s journey to the high lands of Nejd seems to me like a reflection from Biblical times, from a world distant and past. When I read those lines for the first time, I was touched and instantly felt the connectednes with Jesus who is the RAFIQ of my life, but also the RAFIQ of every human life. Because Jesus tells us this in John 14: 6:

I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.

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