Published: February 2005

Empty Quarter

By Donovan Webster
Photographs by George Steinmetz
The borders of four nations blur beneath the shifting sands of the Rub al Khali, or Empty Quarter. Defined by geologic wonders and the tribes who roam its edges, this vast desert wilderness has beguiled travelers for centuries.

Aedaa bin Hassan's "hello" comes from his Kalashnikov. And as my four-wheel drive bumps up a dry riverbed toward his white canvas tent in Arabia's Empty Quarter, bin Hassan gladly extends some Bedouin hospitality my way. CRACK! A chunky 5.45-millimeter bullet splits the blue sky as it whizzes past my car window. The rifle's report echoes chaotically through the dry canyon. I take a gulp of air.

We are in Yemen, after all: a poor nation at the south end of Arabia, where gun culture is so ingrained that it ranks as one of the most heavily armed societies in the world. Still, despite this wealth of weapons, there remain proper ways of behaving, especially among Bedouin herdsmen. So, as tradition demands, we continue our approach toward bin Hassan's tent, letting him complete his welcome.

CRACK! Another bullet shatters the afternoon sky. It rips the air above my head, again trailed by the roar of the rifle.

Aedaa bin Hassan has now finished his greeting. Three hundred yards from his tent, beneath a blistering sun, we halt our line of vehicles.

In the vehicle ahead, Awad—a Yemeni Army officer assigned to guide me—opens a hand in my direction, signaling me to wait. Among the Bedouin, whether you're approaching their camps by camel or car, a representative must split from the arriving group and declare intentions following a host's greeting. So Awad steers his four-wheel drive away from our convoy, and, 200 yards from the tent, he stops and steps out.

He shouts "Salaam Alaikum!—Peace be with you!"—several times toward the tent, while flopping his right hand in the air as proof he is unarmed. Reaching down, he tosses sand high on the wind, also with his right hand: a time-honored signal of peace in the region.

Behind a gray stone outcrop near the tent, bin Hassan, a bony man with a long gray beard, rises from his hiding place. He's wearing a traditional white Arab gown—known in Yemen as a thawb—and a head wrap printed in red and white checks, here called a mashadah. He lifts his assault rifle above his head, a signal that all is well. Then, as Awad begins walking toward bin Hassan's tent, he waves for me to follow.

By the time I arrive at the tent, a group has assembled on the oriental rugs inside, seated with a pot of tea and a silver tray full of empty cups between them. As I enter, bin Hassan introduces himself and his one-eyed, gray-bearded brother, Hamid. Both are in their 70s.

"You, as a Westerner, may not understand a Bedouin greeting," bin Hassan says. "But this is the way we've always done it. If the visitor approaches as you did, he is welcomed, even if he is from an enemy tribe. Once welcomed, he's entitled to all we have—food, tea, rest, care. That is our way. Even for our enemies, we give everything if they show peacefulness."

What happens, I ask, if someone approaches in an unfriendly way?

At that moment, four bearded and robed young men file into the tent. Each carries an assault rifle seemingly held together by duct tape. They set their weapons in a pile next to bin Hassan's Kalashnikov.

"We saw you coming from a long way away," he says, handing me a steaming cup of sweet tea. "My sons and nephews"—bin Hassan nods to the newcomers—"surrounded you as you approached. If you had showed hostility, our shots would have come nearer to you with every step. You would soon see the wisdom of retreat."

Welcome to the Rub al Khali, or Empty Quarter—a world of harsh extremes that may rank as both the least, and most, hospitable place on Earth. I arrived in Arabia last January with photographer George Steinmetz and a plan to explore the Empty Quarter. Before our eight-week expedition is over, we will cover more than 5,300 miles (8,530 kilometers) on a journey through Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Yemen. We will also be shot at—in the most genial of ways—not once but several times, invariably followed by an invitation to drink tea.

For thousands of years this territory has resisted settlement as one of the Earth's hottest, driest, and most unyielding environments. Yet it's also home to a culture on the edge, a proud Bedouin society working to adapt its mix of Islam, ancient tribal custom, and newfound oil riches to a demanding and fast-paced modern world.

Taking up a fifth of the Arabian Peninsula, the Rub al Khali (literally, "quarter of emptiness"), or the Sands for short, is the world's largest sand sea. At more than 225,000 square miles (582,747 square kilometers), it takes in substantial portions of Saudi Arabia, as well as parts of Oman, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates to create an arid wilderness larger than France. It holds roughly half as much sand as the Sahara, which is 15 times the Empty Quarter's size but composed mostly of graveled plains and rocky outcrops.

Because of these sandy expanses, not to mention its profound heat, the Sands have long been judged too unforgiving for all but the most resourceful humans, considered more a wasteland to cross than a landscape to settle in. Still, along its edges—and venturing across it from time to time—the dozen tribes of leathery and enterprising Bedouin, also known (especially in Arabia) as Bedu, have survived here since before recorded time.

The Bedu inhabited the desert with intelligence and the accumulated skill of a hundred generations. Masters of their environment, the tribes of the Rub al Khali—including the Saar, the Rashid, the Manahil, the Mahrah, the Awamir, the Bani Yas, and the Dawasir—operated in a complex, honor-based world of conflicts and alliances, raids and counterraids, where no detail (a camel's hoofprint in the sand, a day-old fire) went unnoted, and wells were defended to the death.

The tribes ignored national borders, adhering to their own territorial boundaries defined by kinship and tradition. And until recently, they remained uninterested in the petrochemical riches beneath their feet, which now threaten to sweep away what's left of their traditional lives.

So one of my goals on the expedition is to see what remains of Bedu culture during this time of turbulent change. Another is simply to experience the Rub al Khali's harsh and gorgeous landscape on its own terms.

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