I just got back from a program training Egyptian women in leadership. This was the third time for me. The women were all wonderful again: Beautiful both in their headscarves and without, Eager and brilliant in their learning. It is always a humbling experience to be in the midst of such noble women.
This time when I went to Egypt it was time for something other than the tourist clichés of Cairo, even though they are wonderful. I had seen the museums and the pyramids, and I had traveled to Luxor and Aswan and Alexandria and cruised on the Nile. I wanted something really different. Egypt has plenty. No shortage of stuff that’s different. It’s a real cornucopia of different stuff: A connoisseur’s dream. So I recruited a courageous colleague and went to the desert.
The desert is not just a bunch of sand. That was my first learning. The geology of the ancient Sahara desert includes, apparently, both volcanoes and glaciers. And according to many climatologists, the prognosis for this 3,000 mile wide stretch of earth if global warming continues is verdant green again! Who’da thunk it? Sorry. Who would have thought it? 🙂
The volcanoes in the Black Desert are numerous and breathtaking. Take a digital camera if you go, or you’ll run out of film. The sunrises and sunsets are spectacular, especially in the White Desert, a curious and stunning collection of windcarved calcite monuments reminiscent of a Dr. Seuss book. That’s where our little safari slept. The SUV’s separated themselves from one another but some were still visible. Each little campsite with its own white statues. Ours were strangely like Mt. Rushmore to me in the dark, so that’s what I called them. Others were like rabbits, chickens, horses, mushrooms (lots of mushrooms!) sphinxes, nefertittis, and cats.
My colleague Ginny and I had objected to our first driver, so we used my limited Arabic to give our guide some feedback and request a new driver. “Mish ayzeen Nassar,” I said, and pantomimed how he hollered angrily and waved his arms around. We were afraid he would have road rage or something. We didn’t want him at the wheel. So we got Omda. He was much calmer. Apparently we had fired the leader of the safari, though, so he didn’t go away. I think he and Omda just changed cars. Anyway, Ginny and I were happier.
I was glad to see our guide Abdul seemed to use a “leave no trace” policy in the desert. We packed out everything we brought in, except for a few chicken bones and scraps they threw to the desert foxes. The foxes were really cute, with huge ears. I heard them all night: chuh chuh chuh chuh chuh chuh chuh chuh chuh as they ran around collecting every morsel that had been left for them by any of the groups. Except for the tire tracks, in the morning no one would have been able to ever tell we were there.
Ginny asked me later what stories I would collect from our experience in the desert to share with my participants later in the classroom. I thought for a moment. Taking care of our real concerns by firing Nasser? I guess the feedback helped. He certainly was more amiable later as he walked from his campsite about 100 yards away to ours to eat Abdul and Omda’s good food. His son Ahmed (about 12, learning the business?) was still with us, so it made sense for him to come. He also brought his carload of Egyptian tourists and their little table. I guess he never intended to cook. Fortunately we had plenty.
Maybe that’s a good lesson. I wondered what we would have done if I hadn’t spent months before the trip learning Arabic on my 45 minute commute into work. We still could have done it somehow. I remember when a friend fired our driver in India because he had been drinking. There’s always a way. Anyway I felt vindicated that all that time hadn’t been a total waste. In the desert they really don’t speak much English.
But no, I think the story I will take is of the foxes. We saw two of them in the morning, perched on a tiny bit of shade on one of the rock formations, watching us leave. They had found a way to blend in perfectly with their environment. I know they didn’t live anywhere else but the desert, because everything else was 40 or 50 miles away. I asked Abdul how they got water. “Mayya” is the word for water, but the rest of the sentence was a bit complicated for me. I had to draw a picture of a fox. Finally the Egyptian tourists helped and Omda said there are tiny springs around in the desert, plus they can lick moisture from the rocks. I don’t know. Abdul said they get water from the campsites. I didn’t see anyone give them any water. But anyway, they survive. Clever like a fox, I guess.
A leader has to be clever to survive in a hostile environment, to fit in even when there is no water. In this hostile economy we are all learning to do without. Like the fox, we are patrolling our territory to find something we might use, something we might have ignored in better times. It takes watchful oversight. It takes courage. It takes the ability to learn quickly. And the ability to just wait. We have to be clever like a fox.