There are times in our lives where we experience encounters in the least likely of places that brings perfect strangers close as they collaborate for survival. In an instant all the barriers that divide us - such as language, religion, creed and custom are broken and we interact as human beings – we may part and go our separate ways later, but the memories are etched forever in our hearts and we carry these to our graves.
It was late afternoon as I stepped out of the car, the sun was still bright and there was a balmy breeze. I did a quick check before I locked the car – pedometer, headphones, iPod and a bottle of water. I did a bit of spot jogging and stretches before I bent down to tighten my shoe laces in readiness for the jog.
This was my routine on most weekends. I was here in the Middle East on a yearlong assignment, in the bank I worked for. My regular workday included long hours of work and indiscrete food choices. It was so easy to pile on the pounds. I had hit upon this routine, (reluctantly at first) but now I really looked forward to these moments alone with myself – alone with my thoughts, perfecting strategies as I jogged along at a slow pace listening to my favourite music.
The beaches in this part of the world are breathtaking. Everything is so tastefully and neatly laid out. The deep blue sea is abutted by a vast sandy beach. A large beautifully tiled promenade forms the third tier. Lining the promenade are landscaped gardens with luscious lawns and beyond these grassy stretches are the parking lots.
The beach usually had a large turnout in the weekends, where people came in large groups armed with grills, tents, cushions, carpets, chairs and partied in the open, till the wee hours of the morning. Children brought along their toy bikes and cars, which they rode on the promenade even as their parents watched over them from the lawns. Today, though the beach was bereft of activity except for a few people – I was surprised, but I was not unduly perturbed, as I now had the place all to myself.
It began rather imperceptibly at first… Circular waves of sand that moved inland blown by the winds from the sea- it was so beautiful to watch and quite unlike anything I had ever seen before. I was even considering taking a picture on my phone, but the sand haze intensified and I realized in that instant that I was in the midst of a sandstorm. Now, ever since I moved here, I had witnessed sand storms before- from the safety of my car of course and it usually happened in short spells, where visibility dimmed a little and the sand hissed shrilly against the tyres of the car and eddying on both sides of the road. I thought this too would be short lived and jogged on, but was puzzled by the fact that the woman jogging a little ahead turned hurriedly and began running back. I also noticed the few others scurrying to their cars after hurriedly packing up their picnic mats and baskets.
All of a sudden, I realized why… the circles of sand began to gather momentum and density and in no time the visibility around me became next to nil.
I stopped in my tracks as needle sharp sand particles pierced my skin and eyes. I couldn't breathe as sand began to enter my nostrils and I hurriedly fumbled in my pockets and covered my nose with tissue paper. Yes, I was caught in the middle of a sandstorm with absolutely no clue about how I should protect myself.
Now, I understood the reason for the sparse turnout that day. Maybe there was a warning, which I had missed. I regretted my decision to continue jogging, even after noticing the others leave. I froze in my tracks, as I could not see even a few inches ahead of me mostly from the haze and the dust in my eyes, which were now watering …
My mind was in a daze as I quickly weighed and discarded the options before me. I was not sure which way to proceed as I had lost my sense of direction. I fumbled for my phone and with head bent low and a hand uselessly covering my eyes I tried to open the compass application, but I soon realized, I had never used it in this location and so I wouldn’t be able to use the information effectively. My only option seemed to be to turn around on my heel, switch on the torch in the phone and plod along through the haze of sand, wind and fear. I even contemplated lying down flat on the ground- waiting for the storm to pass but was afraid to do so as the storm showed no signs of letting up. With my eyes nearly shut, I kept on walking slowly against the wind not even sure if I was keeping a straight line, praying not to ram into anything…
Suddenly, I thought I heard faint footsteps. I turned eagerly and called out - but my voice was lost in the wind and the sand entered my mouth. I was somewhat comforted by the bobbing light that was now advancing towards me … I was unsure of what or whom to expect – but I did feel greatly relieved!
He emerged from the haze, light from his phone bobbing through the dust.When he was close enough, I realized he had a carpet over his head, which protected him somewhat better than me from the storm – he muttered something is Arabic that I didn’t understand. He grabbed my hand and put the carpet over my head. He signaled me to squat down and I slid down slowly waiting for the ground to come up to me. We sat there in that tiny tent, barely inches from each other -- In any other time and place I would not have felt the comfort I felt now.
He was using his turban to cover his nose and he now extended it to me. I held it over my head and nose gratefully and opened my eyes a little more to see his face – but it was fully spattered with mud – he was a strange sight indeed but I was so glad that he was there.
We tried opening the mat further and creating more room for ourselves, it was herculean, but we finally managed to make a little tent for ourselves, pulling down the ends with our hands and feet to prevent the carpet from flying away. We laughed like children every time the tent threatened to lift up. We would have stayed there for what seemed like several hours, but which I later found to be three-quarters of an hour and the whirling and hurtling sounds began to die down.
The air cleared finally and we pushed the carpet away and stood up. There was dust everywhere – on the ground, on the trees on the lawns making the place totally unrecognizable. He said something to me in Arabic and began sprinting towards the parking lot and I was seized by an urge to retreat to the safety of my car, so I followed suit. Only two cars remained there, mine was closer than his, and both looked a muddy brown. I opened the car and began to clean the windows and the rear view mirrors ineffectively with facial tissue– that’s when I noticed how terrifying I looked! I hurriedly took out a bottle of water and began washing my face vigorously- to my dismay I found that there was a lot of sand in my hair (which I had only washed that morning) and my clothes. My shoes looked almost black. I turned to look for him, and found him cleaning his car. I got into the car and parked it alongside his. I got out and said the only word in Arabic that I knew-
“ Shukran! “ I said, and hoped my voice would convey my gratitude much better than my paucity of words…
I waited for him to finish and held out my hand for a handshake and he offered his grimy hand, rather hesitantly. He said “ Maa salamah,” which I knew was goodbye and signaled me gallantly to drive away first.
As I waved and drove away, I realized I didn’t even know his name, or what he did for a living. I also knew that in all likelihood I would never meet him again. But none of this mattered. I had been through a crisis, and I had shared that moment with a complete stranger, which had forged a unique bond between us. I knew that he would be an integral part of my memory of this event and that I would recall his face distinctly every time I spoke or thought of this adventure in the desert.