Lying in my sleeping bag, wriggling to make a body-sized dent in the hard mattress of the lumpy desert floor, I felt glad day five was over. Not for the first time had Samir repeated verses from the Qur’an that he knew off by heart, giving himself marks out of ten, all of which were high, although his father gave him ones and twos.
It was not just the Qur’an that divided them. Where to set down camp proved a continuing subject of debate. Suleyman insisted that, according to desert lore, we should never pitch our tents in a dried-out riverbed in case of a flash flood, while Samir argued that the spots Suleyman chose were too stony or exposed, insisting we set up near the fire to discourage mosquitoes.
Already, the laws were in pieces. Suleyman had broken first. He just couldn’t be bothered when it came to the toilet arrangements, returning to camp with his trousers not done up properly.
There was also a raft of missing objects, equipment mislaid and essentials forgotten. In the morning they draped blankets around their shoulders and ate breakfast in silence. In the evening they squabbled in whispers. Suleyman sang to the camels, Samir stuffed rags in his ears in response, and afterwards they argued about whose turn it was to do the dishes.
Samir was possessed of that youthful male habit of being unable to stop messing around. Often I caught him staring at a picture he kept in his pocket, which he would surreptitiously take out when he thought no one was looking and which he seemed determined to hide from me, snatching it back immediately if I asked about it. It was hard to see why he was embarrassed. The woman wasn’t even naked.
There were disputes about the route, the well locations, plants, the camels and the cooking – until finally they united against the greatest foe of all – woman!
The camels tended to do things at their own pace, where and when they felt like it. Usem was the ringleader. You could push him so far, but he would always draw the line, pausing at frequent intervals, showing his disapproval by bellowing in a bout of triumphant peeing which Winaruz imitated, while Agizul dribbled incontinently.
Fleabag learned from them quickly, enjoying playing hard to get, particularly with Samir, while I hung around like a gooseberry.
Her vocabulary was expanding. Low, guttural groans were powerful reminders of her past and required sympathy. Willowy peals were to alert me to djinn lurking in the thorn bushes. High vibrato to show excitement was reserved for wide, open pistes. Then she could really let rip. I feared now that in helping her I had spoiled her.
If I had been anticipating a revelation or a release, I had to accept that nothing particularly transformational was happening. I was the same inadequate soul, empty of things, comforts and people. Bruce Chatwin once wrote that a dervish wandered the earth because the act of walking dissolved the attachments of this world. His aim was to become a dead man walking, his feet rooted, his spirit in heaven. I am not sure where my spirit was at this stage, but I certainly felt dead.
In reality, we were all exhausted. Suleyman was having breathing difficulties, Samir’s legs were aching and my entire body was packing up. The copious consumption of dates was disagreeing with my system and I frequently had to head off, clutching small shovel, loo paper and a box of matches, and hike for England to catch back up with the group.
With a fair wind I reckoned I would last another week. The others gave me less, which was unfortunate, because we were in such a remote spot that it would take twice that to get out.
Tensions abated amid the daily welter of detail and frustrations, and arguments were adjusted into terms such as ‘debates’, ‘challenges’ and ‘discussions’. Suleyman made tea of the tegar for our souls, prayed to Allah for deliverance and we pressed on, our spirits buoyed up by the prospect of a blessing which now was needed not just for Fleabag – but for us all.