Photo by Roxanne Shewchuk from Pexels

This story appears in issue 7 of Medium Chill, released 23 February 2022. Buy it here.

We woke up the second morning in the desert a few hundred kilometers south of Cairo to fresh animal tracks all throughout our campsite. One of the guys said it was a small pack of fennec foxes, indigenous to the area. It must have been Seth, the science teacher. That sounds like a real science teacher way to put it: indigenous to the area as opposed to from here or maybe just passing through on their way to some farther-off habitat. We’d slept the night before in the open air without tents or shelter, so the evidence was everywhere, all around us and our supplies. One set of front paws was imprinted in the sand right above Sullivan’s head as though the creature had been sniffing him as we all slept. No one was particularly concerned about it. We were all so tired and hungover that morning that we just laughed off our night visitors.

Remembering, I suddenly burst out laughing and yelled “Sully!”, which sent Seth and Kenny into hysterics. Sullivan looked confused, thinking it was about the fox tracks, but then we told him about the sleepwalking. I told the story because I had the funniest take despite having passed out early near the campfire and come to only as the whole event was already in progress. I’d been drinking cans of lukewarm Sakara plus most of a bottle of Omar Khayyem red wine and smoking something our guides, Mahmoud and Ali, called ghabbour and fell asleep on a blanket in the sand as everyone danced to the bedouin folk music Ali played on an antique Arabic oud while Mahmoud sang. 

Ghabbour is this kind of incense stick made from hashish you pass around inside two small glass tea cups pressed together, one overturned atop the other. Drunk as I was, I’d first tried to inhale from the bottom of the top cup, which made everyone howl, before figuring it out and separating the cups to breathe in the rising smoke. I don’t know if ghabbour is an official term or even if it’s common slang used by anyone other than our guides and their friends. No one I knew back in Cairo had heard of it when I asked later. “We just call it hashish,” one Egyptian friend said.

I’d been sleeping for an hour or two a few meters from the campsite when Seth shook my shoulder to wake me up. The fire had gone out and everyone else had climbed into their sleeping bags on the soft, padded mats Mahmoud and Ali laid out for us. Seth was crouched beside me and laughing as I awoke while Kenny stood behind him whispering in exaggerated mock horror, “I’m so scared right now.”

“What’s going on?” I asked, amused.

“Check this out,” Seth said and pointed a flashlight toward the campsite. A beam of light revealed Sullivan standing bent double over the sleeping bodies of Miriam and Angela. “He’s been that way for like 20 minutes now. It seemed like he was getting something out of his bag, but then he just sort of froze in that position.”

“It’s a horror movie,” Kenny said. “He’s going to eat their faces.”

“We should probably wake him up,” I said.

“No!” Kenny said, “You can’t wake up sleepwalkers. They’ll freak out and attack you.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” Seth said.

I stood up, and the three of us started back to the campsite. Seth and I laughed while Kenny whimpered “oh my god” comically as though he were stifling a scream. As we neared, Sullivan suddenly began moving as if he’d been rebooted. He then fished a pack of cigarettes from his bag, lit one and sat at the edge of the campsite smoking it. After two or three drags, he flicked it into the distance and climbed back into his sleeping bag without acknowledging the three of us standing there perplexed and watching him.

“That’s really creepy, Sully,” Miriam said after my retelling. “I’m not sure I like the thought of you hunched over me while I sleep.”

“I’d hunch over you awake anytime,” Sullivan said. “Just say the word.”

After breakfast, we climbed into two Land Rovers headed south to our next stop in the Black Desert. I rode in Mahmoud’s car with Angela, who shared one headphone and a playlist of earnest mid-00s indie rock with me, and Sullivan, who nodded off through most of the trip, as we traveled up and down one dune after another and the landscape grew dark with volcanic rock deposits. We stopped for lunch on the sand, which was both nice and appropriately scenic and also a bit of a letdown after the stop we’d made the previous day at Bahariya Oasis picking fresh dates from palm trees and having mint tea and rice with vermicelli under a canopy of green interwoven fronds. 

After lunch, Seth handed me another bag of the brownies we’d been munching on steadily and returned to his own car with Kenny and Miriam. I split a brownie with Angela while Sullivan had one to himself. Seth said the key was to mix the hash with the butter rather than just dropping chunks into the wet or dry ingredients. I had no opinion about this but couldn’t argue with the results as Angela and I giggled for the next hour through Sullivan’s stream-of-consciousness observations about the sand and “Don’t you think it’s weird all these black rocks?”

That night played out similarly with more drinking and music and ghabbour. Mahmoud and Ali built a fire and used the hot coals to cook goat in a natural oven they fashioned from a hole in the sand. I sat with Kenny teasing Miriam and drinking from the box of “old lady” Franzia red wine she’d bought at the Duty Free shop in Maadi. Angela twirled in the firelight to Mahmoud’s singing and Ali’s oud while Seth and Sullivan sat on the sand smoking L&M cigarettes and eating more of the brownies.

We arrived in the White Desert the next day and spent much of the afternoon climbing the giant chalk formations resembling towers and castles and sometimes obvious animal shapes. We ate more of the brownies and took turns riding the sandboard down the dunes. We were all pretty terrible at it and ended most runs facedown in the sand or as Mariam put it “going ass over teakettle”. Seth called us together and lectured us because one of us hadn’t properly buried a considerable mound of human shit in the sand, and we all laughed and mocked Kenny, the assumed culprit despite his hilarious denials.

We rode to the campsite after lunch as Angela introduced me to the music of a band from her hometown of Dallas and Sullivan ad-libbed free-associative tunes about whatever the rock formations reminded him of: dogs, dragons, baseball players, etc. Mahmoud eventually tired of this and turned up his radio, filling the car with plaintive Arabic ballads. Angela fell asleep with her head on my shoulder, and Sullivan performed a repertoire of dirty hand gestures and assorted sexual pantomimes to try to make me laugh.

We spent our final two nights in the White Desert drunk and stoned and in awe of the panorama. On the final night, Angela and I took a short walk from the campsite and sat atop a high dune looking out at the endless black sky. This was no romantic tryst. I had a wife back in Cairo, who’d gone on a separate trip with friends to Beirut for the Eid al-Fitr holiday. Angela and I sat in silence for a long time eating a few remaining brownie crumbs from the pan we’d snatched from the campsite and brought with us. Then, we both lay back in the sand staring up at the stars and the stars behind the stars, all brilliant and unobscured. 

We didn’t say much but mostly just lay side by side in the sand, sometimes giggling from the lingering effects of the hashish and sometimes sharing our reactions to the beauty of the night sky far too enthusiastically. At one point, Angela screamed as some species of small desert rodent or other–a gerbil or mouse or jarboe–ran through the perimeter of her long, splayed hair, and we both lay there in the sand convulsing with laughter as Seth and Sullivan came to investigate the sound. 

“We thought something happened,” Seth said.

“I thought you two were boning,” Sullivan said.

We ended the night around the fire while Mahmoud sang and Ali played his oud. After each song, Miriam, the only bilingual English Arabic speaker in our group, translated the lyrics approximately, and we sat drinking and smoking ghabbour and listening to sentiments of lost loves and family, of the Nile River Delta and ancient temples and of the unequaled majesty of the Sahara. 

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