Last weekend, I felt like someone let me in on a secret. We’ve lived here in the land of sand for 6 months and 15 days and I have moaned about the heat, struggled to love the desert, and I have searched for local food and music and drawn a blank. That all changed at a camel festival.
As the sun sat low on the horizon and a breeze started lifting waves of sand over our heads, we hurried to a nearby tent, where we ordered karak tea and mango shakes (Indian and Pakistani treats sweeping the Middle East). As we waited for our order, the children kept darting off to gather free dates from a nearby stand.
The chaotic ordering system, combined with my Arabic skills (it hasn’t developed much beyond sign language yet- even our toddler delivers ‘Salam alaikum’ better than me) meant that a jumble of drinks arrived at various intervals. It forced our children, normally fiercely territorial when it comes to anything they’ve ordered, to share their drinks around as we waited for the rest to appear. The sweetness of the drinks seeped to sweeten their moods and they didn’t squabble for the first time all day as we sat watching the sun set, chatting about what we had seen.
Offering to show the children a camel these days is a bit like offering to show cheese to the French. We totally ruined them when we took them to the royal camel farm in Bahrain recently- they now feel they’ve seen all that camels have to offer. But none of us had ever seen a train of camels transporting precious commodities on their backs, as we had just done. ‘It’s Jesus,’ our toddler yelled, upon spying the man riding the lead camel. (More work needed on his Bible stories.) And we’d never seen camels wearing pom-poms and necklaces, the prettiest one set to earn its owner a whopping £40,000,000.
But it wasn’t the camels who unlocked the secret for me. Feeling sleepily happy as I sipped my tea, the camel festival unexpectedly burst into life with music and dancing. Men dressed in thobes, often a serious looking crowd, started carving up the dance floor, an area of sand and dust by the stalls selling honey and tea. The secret I had unlocked was joy. Here it was, in the middle of the desert, in the dancing and the smiling, and it felt good.
As we drove home later on, I realised that a large part of my moaning and complaining about the desert has been down to my failure to find any sense of joy here. We’ve visited the malls and the souks, we’ve been on desert trips, we’ve seen quite a few camels and a lot of sand. But like water in the desert, joy has seemed to be in short supply, on the surface anyway.
I’m not talking about the compound where I live with other expats. There’s lots of joy here. But I’ve wanted to understand life outside the compound and that has seemed to elude me. I haven’t been able to get a sense of what makes it tick, to feel its pulse or sense a heartbeat. Beyond the compound walls, alI I’ve been able to see are the restrictions and the challenges. To put it bluntly, it has felt dead.
I have repeated to myself the mantra I was told as a child ‘Only boring people get bored’ and I have wondered if the fault lies with me. Maybe I’m not looking hard enough, maybe the desert’s only meant for some people. Another line played out in my head- a line from the film ‘Pretty Woman’ about people’s response to opera. I wondered if it was true of the desert. ‘They either love it or they hate it. If they love it, they will always love it. If they don’t, they may learn to appreciate it, but it will never become part of their soul.’
Whilst we may have toured around seeing various sites, the problem is that I have rarely had any encounters with the people of this country. The fact that they are a nocturnal people, avoiding the heat of the day, and I’m a westerner who likes her light off by 10pm (the time guests will start arriving for a wedding out here) hasn’t helped. Places we visit often seem lifeless because we visit during their night-time. My day-to-day life as an expat wife never really brings me into contact with local people. And when I do brush past them in the supermarket or malls, the difference in how we dress doesn’t help. However superficial clothes are, they can make a powerful statement, a demarcation between different ways of living.
The joy I sensed at the festival came from a sense that we were being allowed a glimpse of what this country’s people are really like. And it turns out, they are fun. They enjoy music, they know how to dance and they know how to laugh. By all accounts, they are some of the world’s most hospitable people. When my husband suggested we take our BBQ into the desert during half term next week, my daughter explained we should expect visitors. In her Arabic lessons at school, she’s learnt that lighting a fire in the desert is an invitation for others to come and join the party.
As is often the way when our viewpoint opens up, we begin to see more of what we were previously blind to. Walking through a park last weekend, weaving between local families picnicking beneath palm trees, our toddler decided he didn’t want to walk. And he didn’t want to be carried. So we all stood by, helplessly, as a volcano of vexation erupted in our midst. Other members of our family joined in, not all of them children.
A lady in black, veiled, came over with an enormous Tupperware box crammed with packets of biscuits. She didn’t have much English but maybe biscuits are a universal language, certainly during a toddler tantrum. She handed out her biscuits to the whole family. Unlike me, carefully counting out what we need for a picnic of five, this woman had packed a picnic for the whole park. The tantrum immediately stopped with the offer of sweet treats and the lady’s smiling eyes indicated that she was happy to have helped. Then her friends and family gathered round, everyone celebrating together.
It turned out that the secret- this sense of joy- is housed in relationship. It’s found in people. No amount of sightseeing really brought me any closer to knowing anything about this country beyond a bit of general knowledge. I wonder if the same is true of our faith. We can tour around ‘religion’, maybe visit a church, attend an Easter or Christmas event at our children’s school, perhaps a family christening, we may even read a bit of the Bible, but until we realise these things are about a relationship, there is no pulse to it. It’s dead.
When I joined a church at university, I remember the vicar explaining that the Bible is essentially about relationship- God’s desire to have a relationship with each one of us. It describes the world as God originally made it, when it was a place of perfect love and harmony. Then it describes how we broke it. The rest of the Bible is about God reaching out, through the mess, to his creation and to his children.
Like many people, I have attempted to read the Bible in a year. I started 10 years ago. I am currently on the entry for 25 February. It’s not going well for me. I blame it on Leviticus. I have a Theology degree and I could still do with a hand understanding it. But picking it up again this January, I am trying to remember that all those tricky rules and rituals were actually God’s way of caring for a lost people stumbling, like me, around in the desert. Those rules were intended to help them survive, not just spiritually but also practically, so that they could find their way back to him.
But, as we move on in the story, we discover we no longer need to worry about rules and rituals. Act 2 of the Bible shows us that when we failed to return to God by obeying his laws, he sent Jesus. And it’s through relationship with Jesus that we find ourselves being led from the wilderness to our spiritual home with God.
One of my favourite verses in the whole Bible, ironically, is from those first books of the Bible that caused me to abandon my attempt to read it in a year. It’s a snapshot of Moses’ relationship with God. As he tried to lead the Israelites out of the desert, Moses would meet with God and they would chat like friends. The verse reveals an intimacy between God and one of his children that I want for myself.
I don’t like the word ‘religion’ because it doesn’t speak to me of relationship. When we discover relationship with God, we discover something that’s alive, like finding people laughing and dancing in the desert, when previously all we could see were their rules.
A song to dance to…