I arrived back in Salala on 16 October 1946. I planned to cross the Empty Quarter from Mughshin to the Trucial Coast, and to return to Salala across the gravel steppes at the back of Oman, but I realized that if a hint of my plans reached the Wali he would forbid the Bedu to take me farther than Mughshin. All that I could do was to make arrangements as though that were as far as I intended to go, and hope that when I got there I should be able to persuade some of the Bedu to cross the Sands with me. I therefore agreed with the Wali that the same number of Bait Kathir should accompany me as the year before.
The Bait Kathir live in the mountains and on the gravel plains to the south of the Empty Quarter. Only one section of the tribe, the Bait Musan, ever enter the Sands, and even they only know the area round Ghanim. Bertram Thomas had made his first attempt to cross the Empty Quarter with Bait Kathir and had been forced to turn back after going a short way. He had succeeded in his second attempt with the Rashid. I knew that if I were to cross the Sands I must get hold of the Rashid.
One day while buying clothes in the market I met a young Rashid, called Amair, who had been with me the year before. Until I met him I had seen no Rashid in the town and was wondering how to get in touch with them. I knew that Bait Kathir from jealousy would not be willing to help me. After I had greeted Amair I took him aside and asked him to fetch bin al Kamam, bin Kabina, and two other Rashid whom I named. I promised that I would take him with me if he found me the people I wanted. He said that bin Kabina was at Habarut, four days’ journey away. He believed that bin al Kamam had gone to the Yemen to seek a truce for the Rashid with the Dahm. We arranged that he should fetch bin Kabina and meet me at Shisur in ten days’ time. I was now certain that more Rashid than I required would meet me there, as indeed they did.
While I was talking to Amair, one of the Wali’s slaves came up and told me rudely that I was forbidden to speak to strangers. I answered that Amair was not a stranger and in structed him to mind his own business. He went off muttering. Slaves belonging to men of importance are often overbearing and ill-mannered, trading on their master’s position. Arabs have little if any sense of colour-bar; socially they treat a slave, however black, as one of themselves. In the Hajaz I was sitting in the audience chamber of an Amir who was a relation of Ibn Saud’s, when an expensively dressed old Negro be longing to the king came into the room. After rising to greet him, the Amir seated this slave beside him, and during dinner served him with his own hands. Arab rulers raise slaves to positions of great power, often trusting them more than they do their own relations.
I left Salala on the afternoon of 25 October, with the twenty-four Bait Kathir who were to accompany me. Nearly all of them had been with me the year before. Old Tamtaim was there, and he told me with pride that his wife had just produced a son. I remembered how after a long march he had shuffled round in a war-dance when he got off his camel, to prove that he at any rate was still as fresh as ever. I also re membered that he had once gone to sleep on his camel and fallen off, and how relieved I had been when he had got to his feet shamefaced but unhurt. I was glad that he was with me now ; he would give good advice, and would keep the main party together while I was away, for I intended to cross the Sands with only a few Arabs. Sultan was also there. I knew that ultimately the decision about crossing the Sands would rest with him, and I felt confident that he would support me. He had been invaluable to me the year before. Already I was sure that he guessed my purpose, for when I commented on the poor condition of the camels he said, ‘They will get us to Mughshin and we can change some of them there before we go farther.’ Musallim Tafl was with them; while he was with us I knew that we should feed on fresh meat if there was any to be had. Mabkhaut bin Arbain was also there, and Salim bin Turkia, his kinsman, with his fifteen-year-old son, whom he wished to take with him, a handsome youth with brooding eyes and a curious cock’s-comb of hair, a sign that he was still uncircumcised.
We camped at Al Ain, a spring at the foot of the Qarra mountains and spent the next day there sorting and arranging loads. I-had provided two thousand pounds of flour, five hundred pounds of rice, and also clarified butter, coffee, tea, sugar, and some packages of poor-quality dates. There were very few dates to be had in the market at this time of year, for the dhows did not arrive with new supplies from Basra until December. I planned to be away for three months, and I intended to enlist six Rashid so that our party would number thirty-one, but it was possible that there would be more. We had enough flour for each of us to have a daily ration of three-quarters of a pound. I knew, however, that the Bedu would leave half this supply to feed their families while we were away; and I also knew from bitter experience that while we were in inhabited country every Bedu for miles around would come to feed at our expense. It would be impossible to refuse them food: in the desert one may never turn a guest away, however unwanted he may be. Even here many people had turned up, mostly from Salala, all hoping to get a meal. I refused, however, to agree to this, saying that we were going into the desert and that their own homes were only a few miles away across the plain. We got rid of most of them before evening.
We camped under some cliffs on a small level space among tumbled boulders and divided ourselves into parties of six or seven for feeding. It was difficult to move about, for the camels were couched wherever there was room for them. Many of them were being hand-fed with sardines, and the penetrating stench of the half-dried fish hung round our camp for days, until the last sardine had been eaten. The smell of decay at tracted clouds of flies, which we later carried with us into the desert, clustered on our backs as we rode along. I had bought a goat for dinner, and we fed well, with boiled rice and rich savoury soup. Then Musallim brewed coffee, and Sultan pro duced a bowl of frothing camel’s milk, warm from the udder; like all camel’s milk, it tasted slightly’ salty. The light of the fires played over the men’s bearded faces, and silhouetted the heads and necks of camels staring out into the darkness. Their eyes shone greenly. I thought of the first time I had camped here. Then I had been a stranger and lonely; now I felt that I was half accepted. I remembered the aching nostalgia for this comfortless yet satisfying life which had come over me a few months before on the slopes of the Hajaz mountains.
Where had I been? What had I done since I had left them? The Hajaz? Where was that? Were there Bedu there? The questions poured in and I in turn asked others. Where was bin Lawi? Where was Dakhit bin Karaith? Had the Dahm raided the Rashid? Had any rain fallen at Mughshin? Where was Umbrausha? Sultan answered that she was dead, having fallen among some rocks two months before and broken her shoulder. And so the hours passed, and then one by one we rose and sought a place to sleep. I had left my possessions behind a pile of rocks, near a small level spot which I had chosen, but I now found a camel couched there. I decided that there was just room for the two of us, and spread my rug and sheepskin beside her. I had brought blankets with me the year before, but, for very shame, I had given them one by one to my companions, till I was left shivering with only one. It can be very cold in the desert during the winter nights. This year I had brought a sleeping-bag. I had a few things with me but they were all that I needed. I had the clothes which I wore – a coloured loin-cloth and a long shirt that was still white but which I intended to dye russet-coloured as soon as I got into the desert and could find an abal bush from which to make the dye. Round my loins under my clothes I had fastened a leather cincture of many strands, such as every Bedu wears to support his back. My shirt was girded in at the waist with the belt of my heavy silver-hilted Omani dagger, so that I had a natural pocket between my shirt and skin where I could carry my compass, a small notebook, and anything else I required. I had a head-cloth from Oman, like a Kashmiri shawl, and a brown Arab cloak from the Hajaz. I had my rifle and cartridge belt. Inside my saddle-bags were spare ammunition, my camera, films, an aneroid and thermometer, a large notebook, a volume of Gibbon and War and Peace, a press for plants, a small medicine chest, a set of clothes for bin Kabina, since I knew that he would be in rags, the dagger which I had worn last year and which I had replaced with the one I was now wearing, and several bags of Maria Theresa dollars. These coins, dated 1780, are still minted. They are about the size of a five-shilling piece, are worth half-a-crown, and are the only coins acceptable here; the Arabs call them riyals.
This money was in canvas bags tied with string; the saddle bags were unfastened. My companions were desperately poor and yet the coins were as safe in my saddle-bags as if they had been in a bank. I was five years with the Bedu and I never lost a single coin nor a round of ammunition, although this was even more valuable to them than money.
I lay in my sleeping-bag listening to the never-ending noises. Some people were still talking. They talked at intervals throughout the night as, woken by the cold, they squatted round the fire. Someone else was singing quietly to himself on the far side of the camp. The camels, uncomfortable on the rocky floor, shuffled and groaned. I heard a leopard cough somewhere on the slopes above us. Others heard it too and Musallim called out, ‘Did you hear that? It is a leopard.’ I found it difficult to sleep; my mind was too full of plans, too stimulated by my return. I thought how welcoming are Arabs, more so than any race I know.