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  Field Notes From
Empty Quarter

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Empty Quarter On AssignmentArrows

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From Author

Donovan Webster

Empty Quarter On Assignment

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From Photographer

George Steinmetz

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by George Steinmetz


Empty Quarter On Assignment Author Empty Quarter On Assignment Author
Empty Quarter

Field Notes From Author
Donovan Webster

Best Worst Quirkiest
    The best part of being on assignment in the desert is the night sky. As much as I love talking to people for my job, I love nothing better than the night. I would get my iPod, or my Walkman, and walk off with my mattress and sleeping bag and climb into bed, far enough away from our camp that the fire wouldn't affect me. Then, with no lights in either direction, I watched the stars. I literally lay there listening to a book on tape or some music—Brahm's symphonies were particularly nice—and just watched the stars for an hour or two. It was so lovely and calming. Eventually I would drift off to sleep, and if I woke up in the middle of the night, I would just stare at the stars again. It was like lying adrift in the universe.

    The worst was getting stuck.
    One night our group was speeding through the desert so that photographer George Steinmetz could get to his next shooting location by morning. A goat, which we were going to eat at some point, was in the back of a truck with a little area set up for him to lie down. Suddenly I looked around, and the goat was lying on the ground. He had been thrown out of the truck. The Land Cruiser I was in stopped, and I put the trussed-up goat in the back of the car. Then we sped off to catch up with everyone. 
    It turned out that we were on a big shelf of sand. So the Land Cruiser went sailing off it in the dark, fell eight or ten feet (two or three meters), landed nose down, and got stuck at a 45-degree angle. When we hit, the goat flew forward and smashed me in the back of the head. 
    On another night, we drove around lost until two in the morning and ended up camping in the middle of nowhere. Night driving on roadless dunes with a GPS but no reliable maps is tough. It was a hard trip.

    The teachings of the Koran and the unwritten code of the Bedouin say that it is an obligation to share what you have with any visitor. So everyone we met would literally set out 10 to 30 square feet (one to three square meters) of food for us. And while I greatly appreciated everything everyone tried to do to make sure I was comfortable, we were eating five or six banquet-style meals a day.  I wanted to say, "I want to have more food. I just can't do it."  But instead I became gifted at creating the illusion of eating more than I had. These people only wanted to show us how much they loved and respected us, so it would be offensive to refuse food. That's why it was so frustrating. It's one of those collusions of the West and the East. But it's also one of the great joys of doing an assignment like this.


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