Muhammad, the Desert Driver
Last October, my partner Matthias and I traveled to Egypt, the magical place of my childhood dreams. On the first 7 days of the 10-day trip, we visited the major temples and sights, crowded with tourists and pushy salespeople. For the last three days of our vacation, I wanted more adventure, so I booked us a trip to the desert. I’d heard all about the jaw-dropping endless landscapes, the alien-looking rocks, the magically bright night sky. What nobody told me about was the awkward 4h drive.
The representative from the travel agency picked us up at 8AM in the lobby of our hotel in Cairo. Her name was Kholoud, a woman in her early twenties with a black mane of hair. Until this point, everyone from the agency we’d spoken to was Egyptian but highly fluent in English. I assumed this would also be the case with Kholoud, especially being so young.
“How long is the drive going to be?” I asked her in English while we waited in line to check out of the hotel.
“Excuse me?” said Kholoud with puzzled eyes.
“How long is the journey?” I repeated, slower, gesturing with my hand like a car driving through the air. “To the desert?”
“Uh,” she hesitated, and after a few seconds of processing my words, she replied with conviction. “Yes.”
She quickly looked away, focusing her gaze on the hotel receptionist, still several guests away. It was obviously an attempt to halt the conversation. I could have tried different ways of asking my question until she got it, but politeness stopped me from doing so. I’d rather let her think that she’d guessed the correct answer to my question than make her feel like her English sucked.
After the check-out, we walked to the car that would take us to the desert. The driver was standing next to the vehicle to help us with our luggage.
I hope his English is better, I thought.
The driver was a large, middle-aged man with a gray beard, a balding head, and his right eye shut. He was dressed in a long, brown, long-sleeved tunic reaching his ankles, indicating that he was of Bedouin origin. The Bedouin belong to nomadic tribes living in the Middle Eastern deserts, so I was excited for the many stories he could tell us about his life in the desert.
He greeted us with a big, kind grin, showing some missing teeth.
“Hello, Muhammad,” he said, pointing at himself. “Family Bahariya Oasis.”
Not too bad, I thought. No complete sentences, but at least I can understand him.
The Bahariya Oasis was the place he was driving us to. There, we’d be picked up by the desert guide to take us by Jeep to the remote desert campsite.
“So your family lives in the Bahariya Oasis?” I asked to clarify his last statement.
“Bahariya Oasis. Family. Beautiful,” Muhammad answered.
“Do you have a big family?”
“Family Bahariya Oasis.”
“Yes, but is it big?” I asked, spreading my arms to the sides to show big.
“Family Bahariya Oasis.”
Oh no, I thought. Did he exhaust his English vocabulary in the first minute of our interaction?
We got into the white Toyota RAV4 SUV. The car was spotless inside and out. I wondered how he managed to keep it so clean, driving around in the desert — my dad’s white FIAT was always dirty, and we lived in the city.
Kholoud was sitting next to Muhammad. As we meandered through the heavy Cairo traffic, they chatted with each other in Egyptian, completely shutting us off from the conversation.
After a few kilometers, we dropped Kholoud off at a market.
“You won’t be coming with us?” I asked, a hint of panic in my voice.
She shook her head and pointed to the driver, saying, “Muhammad.”
For the previous 7 days, the travel agency had always sent us a guide and a driver. The guides had been fluent in English, giving us the context of what we saw and answering our questions. In this case, it seemed like we’d only have one person who knew at most 10 words of English and a couple of memorized introductory phrases.
After saying goodbye to Kholoud, Muhammad turned to us from the front seat.
“Baharyia desert,” he said.
He then put four fingers up.
“Four hours until Baharyia desert?” I asked, showing him four fingers too.
I hadn’t imagined the drive would take that long. My heart was racing, hoping this was a misunderstanding.
“Yes,” Muhammad nodded.
I exchanged a panicked look with Matthias. I then checked Google Maps: Cairo to Bahariya desert — 400km — 4h.
Oh boy. A 4h drive with Muhammad. This was not my idea of fun.
Muhammad didn’t wear a seatbelt, and he was constantly on his old Nokia cell phone while we passed several signs on the highway saying CELL PHONE USE PROHIBITED. I wondered if this disregard for the rules came from his Bedouin roots. Maybe everyone in the harsh desert is wild and free and doesn’t worry about dying.
As time went by and the cityscape turned into endless sand, we started finding our way of communicating. Single words, pointing, gestures, and lots of repetition. The driver would never use I or me but instead would talk about himself in the third person, “Muhammad this,” “Muhammad that,” which I found endearing.
I was still disappointed that I didn’t get a proper guide to explain the mysteries of Muhammad’s culture or even simple things like How to go to the bathroom in the middle of the desert. So, like any good millennial, I typed bedouin culture into Google. But my hopes were quickly shattered when I realized I had no signal. We were already too far from civilization. It was too late for Google to help.
The international language of food was no problem for us. Muhammad offered us grapes, figs, seeds, and peanuts to snack on, which I gladly gobbled. I also offered him some of the toasted corn I had with me, which he ate as if it were a delicacy.
Then, Muhammad stuck a USB stick in the audio player. Music started blasting into our ears.
“Bedouin,” he said, pointing up at the invisible soundwaves.
I’d never heard Bedouin music before, but these electronic beats and distorted voices sounded like the clubby dance version of whatever Bedouin music was. I had a hard time imagining desert nomads singing this around the campfire.
Muhammad started clapping to the beat and looked at us, nodding. At this point, I’d gotten pretty good at deciphering his gestures, so I understood that he wanted us to clap along. I started clapping too, and a big smile covered Muhammad’s face.
I couldn’t understand the lyrics of any of the songs. Still, one, in particular, had a catchy chorus that went something like Ya La, Ya La La, Ya La La, Ya La La (then repeat that several times). Even I could sing that. So I did. Muhammad joined me, and we were happily singing and clapping to the music. Matthias, on the other hand, refused to participate in either the clapping or the singing, looking at us like we were deranged lunatics.
“What time is it?” Matthias asked me when the song was over.
“10AM,” I said.
He grunted something I couldn’t understand. This meant we still had over two hours until our final destination, the Baharyia Oasis.
We stopped at a gas station. Even though we were in the middle of nowhere, the owner greeted us warmly in perfect English.
“Welcome to Egypt!” he said. “Where are you from?”
I wish he was our guide, I thought. So many people speak great English in Egypt, how come none of them were available?
We got back to the car, refueled by drinks and snacks. Muhammad gave us hard, pale green candy the size of mentos. They were delicious, and I gave him a thumbs-up through the rear-view mirror.
“Ya La La?” Muhammad asked me.
I smiled and nodded. So he selected our song, and we resumed our singing and clapping while Matthias resumed his frown.
There were about six songs in total on the driver’s USB stick, so they kept looping over and over.
“No music,” Matthias told Muhammad, clearly exasperated, after the fourth time that Ya La La came along. “Sleep,” he added, illustrating his speech by bringing his hands together next to his cheek.
Muhammad jokingly started singing Ya La, Ya La La, but seeing that he couldn’t convince Matthias to go along, he turned the music off.
About half an hour later, Matthias woke up.
“Music?” Muhammad asked immediately.
“OK,” Matthias said, purely out of politeness.
The driver selected Ya La La for the fifth time. He kept gesturing at Matthias to join the clapping until Matthias finally caved in. He slowly started clapping along, so softly I couldn’t hear him. But Muhammad was all smiles.
Convincing a tourist to clap to Bedouin music might have made his day, I thought.
We kept listening to the same six songs on loop, clapping and singing, until we arrived at the Baharyia Oasis. The four-hour drive was over. We made it.
I didn’t learn about the desert or Bedouin culture. However, clapping and singing to the music, I experienced a deeper connection than any words could express.