Chapter 1 : A Child of the Desert

Where do I begin? I must admit that to tell everything from the start would challenge even the most patient of audiences. I cannot claim my life was always so fascinating as to require much in the way of context. I was born. I grew up – healthy for the most of it. I lived and I died. What is most interesting is not who I am, but what happened to me as the result of an encounter with another – someone whose shadow I will inhabit for all of history and in whose presence I am less than an afterthought.

It is not jealousy or bitterness which inspires these words, but the plain, honest facts of the matter. Nor would I wish to claim any of the light that so clearly belongs to him. I would merely tell you a story – my story – with as little embellishment as I can and without need of fanfare or praise. Like all good storytellers, I will begin by setting the scene to reveal those forces which shaped my destiny. So much has already been told: so many lies, half-truths and misconceptions; it is vital I tell all this in the right way.

As a boy I did not fit in. My parents worried about me endlessly: my silences, my unwillingness to play with other children, my almost obsessional curiosity for wild creatures and the natural world around me. All these things separated me and singled me out as strange, unhealthy, even possessed of devils and spirits. I was mostly oblivious to these accusations, or brushed them off the way you would brush sand from your tunic. It is only now I realise I was adopting the instincts of any wild creature when cornered or under threat. We inhabit the behaviours and attitudes most suited to our environments and, though they may feel constrictive or even damaging to our souls, we make of them a home.
I was blessed with the wilderness around me and would wander alone for days on end. Like all wild creatures I learned to hunt for food, scavenging and preparing whatever plants, fruits – and even insects and scorpions – I stumbled upon. Life in the village puzzled me for it seemed contrary in every way to the laws of my desert home. When I was confined to my family’s two-room mud brick house, with its low ceiling and lime-washed walls, I would feel as though the entire world had shrunk to the size of a prison. I would pace up and down, unable to sit or apply myself to even the most basic of tasks until finally my mother would relent and let me loose into the surrounding hills.

Once, after disobeying my parents over some trivial matter, I was ordered to remain in the house for four days. After just one day I could not stand it any longer and made my escape by climbing from the flat roof into the branches of an adjacent almond tree, whereupon I slid down the trunk like a monkey and ran as fast as I could from the village. I was gone for a week, hiding out in the hills and playing in the many caves which are a feature of the cliffs and canyons of this landscape. When finally I returned to my parents’ home, fully expecting my next sentence of imprisonment to be even longer, my mother sat me down and handed me a bowl of barley and vegetables without so much as a word. From that day I lived a twin existence: fetching water and helping my father with the planting and harvesting, then roaming the desert beneath a sky so vast I felt I could have expanded into it and never reached a limit.

I grew up only half-civilised. I paid my debts to a society that meant little to me, and when the work was done I considered myself free like the wind. There was so much I wanted to know and I found in nature the most patient and responsive of teachers. Even when I placed myself in the path of needless danger there was always a lesson for me, and I would rarely commit the same error twice. Once, while sleeping in the open with nothing but the stars above my head, I let the fire go out having failed to scavenge enough fuel to last through the night. Sleeping in the desert is danger enough, but sleeping without shelter requires at least the protection of fire to keep predators at bay. It is perhaps not surprising that I woke in the early hours, chilled to the bone and with hot animal breath against my skin.

The hyena is a scavenger by nature but she is also an opportunist. Aggressive and unpredictable, she will strike at live meat as well as dead if the chance arises and hunger dictates. Her jaws are powerful enough to crunch easily through bone and sinew, stripping a carcass with the efficiency of a practised killer. Finding that such a nightmare had followed me into the waking world, I leapt to my feet with a cry so piercing the startled animal backed away. This small opportunity was enough for me to grab a stick – a laughable weapon under the circumstances – and wield it like a soldier in the bloodlust of battle. Having lost the advantage of surprise the animal retreated and slunk away in search of easier prey.

I cannot say whether my love for wild places was something I was born with or whether I chose it in reaction to the stifling atmosphere of life in the village. Whichever is true, I can say that the desert shaped me just as its winds shape the contours of the rocks. You cannot live in one of the emptiest places on this earth without becoming empty yourself, freed from the petty concerns of domestic life and from traditions so ancient they could have been etched into the mountains. My thoughts and dreams had grown attuned to a different rhythm: to the turning of the stars at night and the rising of the sun in the morning, to the character of the wind and the quality of the light, and to the silence which is such a feature of this landscape that it leads you deeper into your own inner country, beyond anything you have known.