• The Mysterious Poetry of the Desert

    Translated from Malayalam by PJ Mathew

    V Muzafer Ahamed

    September 14, 2019

    Translation is not just about words, it is about carrying a culture, a history, a whole world into another language. Translations do not just bring languages closer to one another, they also introduce us to diverse modes of imagining and perceiving different cultures.

    To mark the International Translation Day, celebrated on 30 September, the Indian Cultural Forum will be doing a series of posts to emphasise the power and importance of translations.

    Camels in the Sky: Travels in Arabia has been written by V Muzafer Ahamed, edited by Mini Krishnan, and translated into English by PJ Mathew. The book is a travelogue exploring the history, archaeology, legends, folklore and travails of migrant Asian workers in the Arabic world.

    This is an excerpt from the chapter "The Bedouins and the Gaaf Tree" of the book.

    Image courtesy OUP


    The Bedouin and the Gaaf Tree

    A dying gaaf tree | Photograph by Muhammed Nowfal

    The deserts have rains that man cannot see. The briefest of rain—a single drop which cools but a single cell, and which only a tree can feel.

    The secret of this rain and the trees is known only to the Bedouin, who are privy to the deep mysteries of nature and the universe. They call it the single-drop rain. This rain will shed just a drop into the vast expanse of the desert and vanish instantly.

    It is extremely difficult to spot the single-drop rain but the Bedouin will recognize it if it falls on a gaaf tree that is nearly dead from prolonged exposure to heat and lack of water. The Bedouin believe that the gaaf will sprout at least a single green leaf with that drop. They claim that this one-drop, one-sprout phenomenon is the mysterious poetry of the desert. And only the Bedouin can spot the gaaf tree with the single green leaf in the vast and mysterious recesses of the desert’s arid sand dunes. To outsiders, the gaaf would appear only as a collection of shrivelled-up twigs ready to die and merge into the sands. Of course, a single drop of rain may not be enough to create a green leaf. In such circumstances, that drop is guarded in the underbelly of the tree as a potent green vein, not readily discernible to a non-Bedouin.

    Desert life is guided by signs. It is based on their science of signs that the Bedouin estimate the weight a camel can carry and how far it can travel in the desert. They do it by feeling the camel’s knees. Much like the Sufi s who heal the human body’s damages by feeling the pulse and stroking the nerves, the Bedouin have formulated all their survival philosophies by reading the signs.

    The gaaf tree found amidst the sand dunes of the desert is an appropriate metaphor for the Bedouin’s life. The tree resembles driftwood in the hot desert and betrays no sign of harbouring any life. Even the feeblest signs of life would appear to have been blown away in the intermittent sweep of sandstorms. But, in reality, it might probably have been standing still for decades. But with just one shower, it would turn green and fl ourish. The next rain might be another decade away, but the gaaf would not have given up. The Bedouin certify that the gaaf tree will survive for three decades with just two rains, each a decade apart. What they say about the tree is, in fact, true about themselves.

    A Bedouin grandfather who had seen a century in the desert asked me how many rains I had seen in my life. How many rains would a Keralite have seen in his life? Has anyone cared to count? Does anyone count? I said I must have experienced countless rains. He said he knew exactly how many spells of rain he had seen—less than 50! He remembers the details of all the rains he had seen.

    The one that he remembered most vividly was the rain when his camel was in labour. There was great uncertainty and anxiety. The mother and the calf were at risk of dying when the rain came. In the midst of her labour, the camel swung its eyes towards the falling raindrops. The shower gathered intensity and the camel forgot her pain and eased out the calf. And the Bedouin said the camel ran out into the rain even before licking its newborn clean. What was he doing then, I asked the grand old man. Of course, he had run out into the rain even before the camel did, he said, chortling artlessly.

    Those gaaf trees that receive a good shower would then survive for several decades. Its seeds survive in the desert’s depths for ages. They rear their green heads and come overground soon after a rain. The survival of the gaaf tree symbolizes not only the life of the Bedouin but also all of life in its varying layers of existence. In them are ingrained the secrets of human survival. That is why there exists a rain that is visible only to the gaaf.

    Once, in the midst of a journey, I noticed a page of Arabic stuck on the branch of a gaaf. It looked as though the tree was hugging the letters. Words (the imperishable) hugging the icon of survival! How that leaf from an unknown book survived the winds and came this far into the desert was a mystery. But its survival seemed to eloquently convey a message. The winds did not allow the paper to stay stuck to one tree. It kept taking it from one tree to another. At times, it wafted down to a sand dune, before being blown away again to a far-off tree. A piece of paper that could easily have been shredded by the winds was surviving, probably to certify the imperishability of words!

    I came across several signs of desert life when I stayed in tents in the desert: snakes’ sloughs, bits of goats’ legs reeking of dried blood, footprints of birds, and trails of creeping creatures just outside the tents in the morning. Once, curiously, I dreamt of two green leaves and the wings of a butterfly shining in the breaking light. Colourful feathers were strewn around.


    V. Muzafer Ahamed is the periodicals editor of Madhyamam Daily, Kerala, India, and winner of the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award (2010) for travel writing.
    PJ Mathew is a bilingual journalist with two decades of experience in English journalism and three decades in Malayalam.
    Mini Krishnan is Editor, Translations, at Oxford University Press. So far she has edited 62 literary translations, four of which have won the Crossword Award for translation. She is an advocate of translation education in universities and colleges and is on the National Translation Mission, which operates under the National Knowledge Commission.

    These are excerpts from Camels in the Sky: Travels in Arabia written by V. Muzafer Ahamed, translated by P.J. Mathew and published by Oxford University Press. Republished here with permission from the publisher.

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