The recent discovery of dry riverbeds on the Arabian Peninsula has caused excitement among geologists and archaeologists alike. Surveys have found evidence of ancient river communities populating these areas during more fertile times, and a number of clay tablets dating from the first millenium BC have come to light. Significantly, these tablets are in a dialect ancestral to that of the Hurdu nomads who still roam the surrounding desert.
What happened to the ancient river dwellers when their life-source dried up? Did they die out, or was the instinct for survival too great? It seems likely that they were forced into a wandering existence, and that the present-day Hurdu are their descendants. It could not have been an easy transition. The conflict between agricultural and nomadic societies is age old.
Among seventeen tablets discovered last year at site MO 7 is one in particular which provides a striking insight into the psyche of the river dwelling Proto-Hurdu people, and their uneasy relationship with the arid wastelands around them.
tablet mo 7. II
|Traveller, be always alert;|
|The desert is full of perils.||2|
|Look always in all directions|
|For the Dark Army marches without noise.||4|
|Beware the Painter Who Never Paints|
|And waits in the sand with canvas and brush.||6 page 110|
|Be not seduced by the Many Coloured Bonfire;|
|Dancing on tigertraps is not advised.||8|
|If you become hungry, starve yourself;|
|If you become disoriented, lose yourself;||10|
|Only then will you find the Shifting Sands Soup Kitchen|
|And be privileged to speak with The Cook.||12|
Line 4:A fragmentary Middle Babylonian tablet speaks of a Black Army: a long, silent caravan of people and animals, coloured entirely black. It moves relentlessly across the sands, sweeping along any unwary traveller in its path. Once caught up in the procession, the traveller is unable to escape and is doomed to march soullessly with the army for eternity. For a translation see Jim Chalk and Pamela Strewth, Scripta ObscuraV (1989) pp. 163-4.
To the present day, the Painter Who Never Paints is a folk figure in certain areas of the Arabian Peninsula. It is said that she lures an unsuspecting desert traveller to pose for a portrait, then sits and watches without painting a speck. After a time the traveller becomes uneasy and asks the Painter what she is doing. She replies, 'I cannot paint you until I have found your essence.' Now the traveller realises that while posing he or she has been becoming gradually disembodied. By this stage it is too late to escape. The traveller is becoming blind and transparent, and is powerless to stop the layers of existence being stripped away. Finally the traveller vanishes altogether.
The Painter now sits back and smiles at her blank canvas, satisfied that it depicts the essence of her subject.
Line 7: Dame Lona Bonaventure travelled with a tribe of Hurdu nomads for three and a half months in 1937. Her account of her expedition, Into the Wilderness (London, 1947) contains the following passage on p. 94:page 111
'Presently talk grew lively, and Qadim told us the story of his brother's wife's great-grandmother, who had died in a peculiar ghostly bonfire. The others became much excited, and each told eagerly his own tale of someone who was reputed to have died in such a manner.
'This curious bonfire, I was told, is a seductive apparition of which even the most strong-willed tribesman must beware. It appears at night and, most commonly, to a solitary traveller. It flares and roars and lights up the sands with flames of every imaginable colour. Upon sighting it, a man is filled with excitement and pulled towards it by an invisible force. The closer he is pulled, the more irresistable becomes the force, until he leaps wildly into the fire and dances amongst the flames with ecstatic abandon. But the branches underfoot are weak. They begin to crack and snap. As his dance reaches its frenzied climax the branches give way and he falls through into a bottomless abyss.'
In later years Dame Lona asserted that, while travelling through the desert, she herself had seen a ghostly multi-coloured bonfire, but with great effort had managed to resist its hypnotic pull. See Peter Pursglove-Spittal, Dame Lona——the Woman Behind the Myth (New York, 1984) pp. 12, 206.
Line 12: In contemporary Hurdu lore, The Cook is a giant hermaphrodite ogre, proprieter of The Shifting Sands Soup Kitchen, and stirrer of The Great Soup, the primal pot from which all existence is dished out. See Nebelschmuck, op. cit.p. 87. Cf. also Paul-Antoine Sablier, Les potages cosmiques(Paris, 1967) p. 568.