“Checkmate!” Mrs J shouted out, completely out of the blue and completely unrelated to anything.
“What??” I looked at her next to me in the passenger’s seat.
We had left the Ubar museum behind us and were back on the main road to Salalah, in our quest to one day safely reach the City of Coconuts. Which, if I had to be honest, was taking somewhat longer than I had planned with Mrs J by my side. Not only because the Pajero was still firmly stuck in third gear, but also because Mrs J insisted on stopping to visit every tourist sight which carried more than 3 stars in her tourist guide book. I was still working on a plan to accidentally ‘lose’ that book somewhere along the way. I hadn’t succeeded so far.
“You know, checkmate, as in chess” she repeated and gave me one of those looks you give 35 year olds who still haven’t learned to tie their shoelaces.
“Did you know, that the chess piece archaeologists found when excavating the ruins of the fortress in Ubar, and which we just saw photos of in the museum, is part of the earliest medieval chess sets found in the Middle East?”. Mrs J continued her lecture straight from the dreaded guide book.
“And did you know, that when the game of chess was introduced from Persia to the Middle East, the players still used the Persian word for king – ‘shah’ - and would call it out when attacking their opponent? ‘Shah mat’ (Persian for ‘the king is helpless’) which would be used when the king could not escape the attack, became today’s ‘checkmate’. Wow, this is so fascinating”. Mrs J was all fired up and eager to share her newfound knowledge. What she forgot was that she was talking to someone who still lost every single game of ‘Snakes and Ladders’, even when playing against kids. Chess was too advanced for me.
It was getting late and we decided to set up camp for the night just outside Thamrait. We had already reached the roundabouts which gave us a few choices; the airforce base, Salalah, town centre – and somewhere else. We chose the exit to somewhere else and soon came across an area perfect for our needs. No houses, sandy ground, big rocks to shield out tents, and yet still close enough to town and dinner options. There were quite a few wheel tracks in the sand so we just followed one of them at random. Half buried plastic sheets and what looked like blown-away camouflage nets were strewn around but it was getting dark fast and we decided to close our eyes to the mess and quickly get the tents up.
It was a freezing cold night. Both Mrs J and I slept poorly and got up before sunrise, shivering with cold.
“Listen to the thunder in the distance” I told Mrs J who was grumpily waiting for the campfire to warm her up a bit. It sounded like heavy thunder, deep rumblings and loud booms, just behind the rocky hills. “It’s getting closer”, she agreed. Lightening.
Then all hell broke loose.
Let’s just say that we didn’t bother packing the camping gear neatly but rather threw it in the back of the car and did a frantic tap-dance on the campfire to put it out, as the military vehicles came over the hill. We sped as fast as the old Pajero could manage across sand, rocks and camouflage netting to reach the tarmac. In fact, we went so fast that we hardly noticed the large sign, which we had obviously missed in the dark the night before, saying: ‘Ministry of Defence range. Keep out when the red flag or red lamps are displayed’. We had also missed the red flag.
The silence in the car was deafening. Mrs J once more referred to her guidebook.
“The poet Al-Katib once said about chess that the skilled player places his pieces in such a way as to discover consequences that the ignorant man (or woman) never sees...”
I admit it, we hadn’t been skillfully placed. It hadn’t been a great move. We had been ignorant.
“Oh, put a sock in it!” was all I could think of saying.