I am about to fall asleep when Saada Saida tells the other women that I have no mother. Where she got it from I don’t know. We have known each other no more than a few minutes, since Mikael and I arrived with our guide, Muhammed al-Kathiri, to her settlement with the camel Kensington. I have introduced myself and said only that Mikael and I walk through the desert in hope of learning something about the landscape, culture and preferably its people.
“Poor her,” says a girl.
I have no strength to talk of my family. In Yemen it takes long before conversations about them end. There are plenty of follow up questions.
“Is your brother taller than you?”
“Is your father taller than you?”
“But not your mother, right?”
Other questions asked on the trip are the following.
“Would your family reject you if you changed your religion?”
“Would your husband beat you if you said you want to live in Yemen all your life?”
“Will you be put in prison when you return to your country, because you have lived in Yemen?”
I lay on a plastic rug next to a few tents and a simple built house of grey bricks. Saada Saida has given me a heavy blanket to rest my head against. Her family sits around. Muhammed al-Kathiri tells me off.
“Men don’t like to see women lay like that,” he says.
I have walked the same 16 kilometers as he has. I have no strength to sit up and I tell him so.
“You can lay with your butt in another direction than the men’s,” explains Saada Saida, quietly.
I find a proper position for myself.
“I am your mother,” she says and caresses me over the hijab.
I can barely see her. The fluorescent lamp cuts into my eyes, tears are running to my cheeks, not because I am sad, but because it burns awfully when one has eyes full of sand. That the sun took my vision away during the day might have something to do with it. Saada Saida has the cure.
She is in her sixties. She points to the legs and arms and stomach and says “sick.” I say “poor you” and finally I fall sleep.
Poor, “maskina”, is a word I hear a lot in al-Mahra. The women we meet obviously pity me. Maskina, they say about me, arriving in men’s clothing. I’m given several sets of thin cotton dresses with matching shawl. Maskina, they say when they hear that I am the only woman walking with one, two, three men. They invite me to the women’s tents and wedding parties. Maskina, am I who smell so bad. I cannot count the number of times they spray perfume on me and tell me to wash myself.
One evil hot day amongst others a fashionable woman drives up to me in a little jeep, for a chat through the window. We are the same age, I think, and she is dressed in bright purple, except for a small, black face veil that brings out the eyes like nothing else. Her watch would be far too big for a raven to grab, but you would think one would try to go at it a number of times. The woman has gold on most of her fingers. Quickly she hands over a large glass bottle of perfume. It looks expensive; I don’t want to waste any so I spray only once on my neck.
“More!” she says.
“It’s necessary,” she says.
I spray yet another time. Then I give her the bottle but she will not accept it.
“It’s a gift,” she says.
She soon drives away in the desert.
I never cease to be amazed at how clean the Bedouins are, with washed and scented clothes, despite the very scarce water resources.
“Do you pity also Michael?” I ask a few women.
They look surprised and say nothing.
“Do you pity Kensington?”
He is a camel, they say.
There is nothing kind about al-Mahra’s June sun and one is no more than an ant underneath it. It is not the walk that is the hardest; I’ve walked, camped and enjoyed the outdoor life before. But the heat, around 50 degrees Celsius, drains. Several hours a day, I lie down just to breathe, a gasping breath. Sometimes I get the strength to yell. It feels good. But it changes nothing. I yell at Mikael who thinks his 25 years of travel experience, and knowledge about the desert, is of interest to me. “I don’t care!” The reason I neither want nor ask for advice is because I’m like most people: unless I find my own way, I’m deeply unhappy.
At times drinking seems unnecessary. It’s as if the body is punctured again and again. The water runs straight through the skin. My thirst disappears. I cannot drink the water that is hotter than piss. Instead I bark at Michael who nags at me to drink and eat and drink even more.
“Do not tell me what I should and should not do,” I say.
Then I throw away the vitamin tablets he gives me. One must obtain a little damn integrity even though on “expedition”.
When there is not even a tree to shelter under, or a mountain, and the sun reigns above so one’s shadow disappears under the feet, then also I feel a tiny little, little bit sorry for myself.
Maskina, the women say when they see me.
“Yes, poor me,” I answer.
When I am lucky there is a Saada Saida around to mother me.
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