Near the end of 1997, I found myself back in Cairo after spending most of the year performing in Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. Some Bedouin friends of mine invited me to spend New Year’s Eve camping in the White Desert near the Farafra Oasis. They had, in fact, asked a whole group of us to join them: Egyptians and expats from Cairo, family and friends from Farafra, as well as some local musicians. Eager for a break from the glitz of the nightclub dancer’s life, I gratefully accepted.
Farafra was the ultimate place to get away from the chaos of Cairo on New Year’s. Situated roughly in the center of Egypt’s Western Desert, it is about an eight hour bus ride from the capital. With only one narrow highway leading there, it had remained somewhat isolated. The town itself had only about 6000 inhabitants at the time, mainly settled Bedouin. They have their own culture, and their own music and dance, distinct from the Egyptians of the Nile Valley. After leaving the mud brick homes of Farafra, the White Desert is only a 30 minute drive away- provided you have a 4 x 4. We did.
I always considered myself a beach person until I spent time in the White Desert. Huge natural monuments of limestone and sandstone dot the landscape, some shaped like the heads of half buried sphinxes, others resemble huge birds contemplating flight. For 4 days, friends and I wandered through the expanse of the desert, occasionally picking up fossilized shells from an ancient sea long since swallowed up by sand. The stillness was so deep that our steps became calm and deliberate, the beauty so surreal that conversation became less important, the silence so complete that it almost had its own sound. Nothing needed to be said, neither social small-talk nor deep philosophical debate. One could just be. And be content.
The nights were a different story. Every night we all took our places in the circle around the bonfire to protect us from the bone-chilling cold of the desert at night. The musicians made themselves comfortable and began to play. While I was accustomed to listening and dancing to the music of talented professionals in Cairo, there was something about this music that was raw and free. Perhaps it was the raspy drone of the arghool, the repetitive nature of the Bedouin melodies, or the fact that most of it was completely improvised, including the lyrics. It was clear that the beauty of this music was not in the virtuosity of the musicians, but in the communal style in which we experienced it. Many times the instruments (the arghool, tabla, and duff) were exchanged or passed around to anyone who was proficient, and the men took turns improvising lyrics or leading a folk song. The group enthusiasm, the fire, and the music collaborated to create an intangible enclosure, a bubble of firelight, heat, and sound that was intimate yet encompassed the vast desert around us.
Time, like the desert, seemed to stretch out into infinity. Brought to our feet by the pull of the music, we danced in ankle deep sand until we couldn’t dance anymore. It could have been two hours or six for all I know, but it doesn’t matter. All I know is that by the third night of this, I was dancing with pure abandonment. I returned to Cairo a different person. The effects of the trip were much more profound than that of a short break from city nightlife. The experience was healing.