Bonds in the desert form through shared cultures

Breaking the Ice is a multicultural crew travelling across the Sahara Desert.

breaking ice 298.88 (photo credit: Associated Press)
breaking ice 298.88
(photo credit: Associated Press)
The sun was quickly dropping below the horizon, and the hard sand desert studded with 200-million-year-old petrified wood chunks wasn't getting any warmer. With the wind picking up and some question as to whether camp was struck in a mine field, instructions were given to stay close to the vehicles last night. So, in a 21st-century version of circling the wagons, Gil Fogiel, Galit Oren, Mohammad Azzam Alarjah, Latif Yahia, and Neda Sarmast pitched their tents in a tight circle, laying a carpet in the middle as a makeshift courtyard. The act was a natural one for them, as it would be for any group of travelers stuck in a similar situation. But the fact that the clique of two Israelis, a Palestinian, an Iraqi and an Iranian respectively felt most comfortable with each other amidst more natural geopolitical allies speaks volumes of the bonds the Middle Easterners have formed on this desert trek. "We have more in common with the Arabs than with the Americans and the others," said Fogiel, who learned Arabic as a prisoner of war in Syria. "There's more of a bond between us." That bond manifested itself in the seamless rapport between the five and the natural way they rested their arms and heads on each other's shoulders during the long, cramped hours of driving along these barren Saharan byways. The Middle Easterners have no major quarrels with the two Americans, the Ukrainian and the Tibetan (the Afghani is more a solitary man) on the trip, and also count them among the unlikely friends this journey has brought them. But away from the violence and heightening political rhetoric in their home nations, the bonds of common culture have trumped ingrained political differences. "We are hot-blooded and our cultural system is the same," said Yahia, the former Uday Hussein body double. "When I was in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, I felt at home. In the West, it's totally different." "Ours is an emotional language," added Oren, whose mother was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber in 1995. She felt equally comfortable in the Arab world. "Americans put a barrier between speech and feelings and you can't tell what their face says. We are always direct." Their unabashed banter is most evident in the joking that flies between them in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Though translation is sometimes required, their shared background always allows them to "get" the jokes, while their Western counterparts are often left shrugging their shoulders. Excluding Sarmast's mother tongue, Farsi, the five know at least the basics - and sometimes more - of each other's languages, and have been improving their comprehension as the trip moves forward. But it is the protection of one another that best defines this group. In Israel, Fogiel and Oren took care of Yahia, Alarjah, and Sarmast. Here, the Palestinian and Iraqi returned the favor, following them in the streets and calming the occasional nervous Egyptian whose reaction to Israeli visitors was less than welcoming. "We look after each other and our families. It's not like in the West, where they split the family," Yahia said. "They know that if something happens here I'll be the one to take the bullet, and in Israel it would have been them." Of course, there is the Arab-Israeli conflict. In a different setting, it may have driven the group apart. Here, said Alarjah, it meant a camaraderie that was impossible to achieve with the Westerners, who knew it only through the filtered lens of the media. "Everyone knows each other and how they are feeling and what they face every day," he said. "With Mohammad," said Fogiel, who took Alarjah as a surrogate son in their travels together, "we definitely share something unique. We share the same piece of land and the same experiences even if we've seen them from different angles." The Arabs and Israelis also shared another attribute whose importance knew no bounds in the Sahara - a sense of time being a fluid, malleable measurement which relates only to the most general of estimates. It is a concept which the Westerners, particularly US Army Colonel Raymond Benson, found frustrating in the unhurried Arab culture. "We're so much less serious," Sarmast said, "but we're also much more passionate about what we believe."