Crossing the Empty Quarter

A famous Arabic proverb says: “Everyone takes a share of their name”. This is what I thought sitting across from Baida al Zadjali. Baida means desert in Arabic and she did take a share of her name by being one of the first Omani women crossing the Empty Quarter last month. So how did it all start? Baida heard about an all-women expedition crossing the Omani side of the Empty Quarter and decided to join along with Atheer al Sabri and Janey McGill.
The expedition covered three governorates: Dhofar, Al Wusta and Al Dhahirah where it ended in Ibri. To Baida, the 760 km that they covered in 28 days was a learning experience in all aspects. Although it’s called the Empty Quarter, the place was full of diversity that surprised them every day. They moved from areas with dunes to areas with mountains and greenery that was filled with grasshoppers and moths. They encountered sulphur springs that smelled of rotten eggs and dreaded quick sands that they were lucky enough not to come across. They watched sunrise and sunset and were amazed by the number of stars that was visible above them.
The desert teaches you many lessons on how simple yet harsh life could get. Their daily routine was a simple one: pack, walk, eat and sleep. They enjoyed the silence that enveloped them, yet there were times when it became too eerie like when crossing an area called Um Al Simeem.
The place had nothing but flat sand and no sign of life at all, but for one dead locust. But the best experience was meeting the locals and the Bedouin tribes — who were generous enough to provide them with food, company and stories around campfires.
The Bedouins were very proud to see Omani woman crossing the desert, as the majority of who’d crossed before them were expat men. They were happy to share stories of their grandmothers who crossed the desert many decades before them. A Bedouin woman shared the story of her grandmother, who walked from Dhofar to Kuwait with her cattle after hearing about the rain there. The ladies also tried some local delicacies such as coconut water and Muajeen — dried camel meat preserved in its own fat.
Away from the hectic city life, Baida had the time to contemplate and learn many things. She learned about how teamwork was much simpler than what people think, especially if you share a common goal that everyone is working towards achieving.
She learned about the importance of her family and the happiness she felt calling them whenever a signal was available on her phone was indescribable. The ladies called their team ‘Her Faces of Change’ and the main idea behind it was to challenge the stereotypical image of Arab women. Many western countries consider Arab women as oppressed beings in a male dominant society. But this expedition proved that in many Arab societies, women are empowered to the point of being capable of crossing the desert with men around offering their help and support.
Despite the sunburn, blisters and bodily aches that went throughout the trip till now, Baida is still smiling and enthusiastic. She tells me that a documentary about their expedition, filmed by Mathew Millan, is coming out next year. So, what’s next for Baida? “Well, once I recover — physically and mentally — I’ll start training for the Ironman competition for next year. Why don’t you join me? It will be fun!”. I give her a big smile thanking her thoughtfulness and refuse instantly. In my dictionary, sports fall under ‘Physical Torture’ not ‘Fun’!
Rasha al Raisi is a certified skills trainer and the author of:
The World According to Bahja. rashabooks@yahoo.com