Monday, October 19, 2009

The Language of Storytelling

[Bahariyya, White Desert]

When confronted with fire, stories come to life. They glow on the faces of their authors and they flirt in the flicker of light and shadow. Why else are stories told around a bonfire so fascinating? Darkness caves in but is arrested by the heat at the core of the story circle, and the story triumphs, growing in the nighttime as everyone becomes a part of it.

An early morning, eight-hour bus ride and jeep ride later, you are two hundred miles from Egypt’s capital city of Cairo in a small, quiet Bedouin town called Bahariyya. 125 miles from there, in the White Desert, civilization comes to a full stop. Endless sand dunes are permanently prostrated before the sky, where stars dance with gay abandon through the swirls of the Milky Way and constellations look like zoomed-in connect-the-dots exercises in a children’s book.

You are here with two Bedouin guides and two tourists for one night, and it is nothing like you have experienced before, it is utterly mystical. Waagdi, your guide, makes Egyptian mint tea: the kettle sits atop the fire for what feels like hours, and its serpentine spout seems to issue a perennial supply of tea into five little cups. You are convinced Waagdi is brewing magic with a recipe of desert sand, star dust and fresh mint leaves. When the tea is ready you gather closer around the fire to drink it, feeling the heat permeate you and incite you with hope and potential: stories are born. You smiled as you exchange histories; it doesn't matter that two of you speak Korean, two more spoke Arabic and that you rely on English. Language simply happens, through fire-emboldened song, gesture and laughter.

The swirls of the Milky Way wrap around the sky like ribbon, it feels absurdly within reach. The stars are restless, they flit from here to there, you count ten shooting stars in as many minutes. Dinner leftovers have been left some distance away; sure enough desert foxes patter past you for their evening meal, shirking your camera flash as you marvel at the effervescence in the sky and the blackness on the ground.

When you awake the next morning, a large red ball of fire has started its ascent from the corner of a once hectic sky that has been scrubbed of its glitter: a clean slate for a clean batch of stories, flat as the desert you spent the night in.

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