“It looks like Kuwait,” said an old flame of mine when I asked him to describe west Texas.
I immediately got the picture. It helped that we’d both lived in Kuwait when we were younger. While Texas had diverse nature, a large part of it is just desert. When I was in the east of the state, Hill Country with its sea of bursting bluebonnets was a complete contrast. In San Antonio, I felt the colonial influence that Mexicans imparted through Spanish-influenced architecture. Dallas was an oil-enveloped concrete jungle. But west Texas was a mass land of emptiness, with large oil pumpjacks scattered across an endless abyss of sand with a bleeding sunset of gleaming reds, oranges and yellows in the background.
Open Space for Mind Clearing
I grew up in Kuwait, a place with open spaces. When people picture the Middle East, they think of gorgeous dunes the colour of hybrid red-gold sand that spills like liquid fairy dust into one’s hands, with a camel strolling across a valley that leads into some cave where a blue genie can be found. Disney has a wide reach.
But Kuwait wasn’t really like the beautiful caramel-coloured desert cinematics in the movies. The land is flat, there are random sizes of rocks everywhere (especially those that get stuck in your shoe) and the sand feels more like dust, the kind you wipe off your balcony when you haven’t cleaned since the summer.
But there is something about this space, this emptiness that invites my brain to clear. Visually, the desert is a blank slate that made me want to emulate a similar effect in my cluttered mind. I find the concept similar to forest bathing, a practice that originated in Japan. But in this case, the desert and its bare, minimal visuals get rid of the unimportant things that don’t matter. My thoughts melt away or rather, are dusted away.
The desert was my first home in nature, which is probably why I always felt the compulsion to declutter my mind, work and personal spaces. It was, after all, a mentally familiar place. I projected my worries, aspirations, and reflections when I felt unsettled or needed silence so an answer can rise up from my soul. IT was my version of a Middle Eastern meditation as I’d like to call it.
In Islam, you’re supposed to wash before you pray, a ritual called wuthu. Typically, you would use water to physically (and mentally) cleanse yourself, preparing your body and soul before prayer. But, if you are stuck in a desert (likely in the old times when only foot travel was available and you were walking for days on end to reach a destination), you were allowed to use sand in place of water. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense; sand had exfoliating properties. At the very least you’d get a chance to slough off dead skin cells. In addition, the rugged feel of the granules against my skin made me feel like I was cleansing the mental debris that had a tendency to replenish, sometimes on a minute-by-minute basis, depending on what my anxiety levels are that day.
The last time I was in a desert in the Middle East was in Qatar, close to the Saudi border. I’d gone on a lovely day trip with my friend N, and after sand duning (this desert actually did have those gorgeous flows you see in movies), I decided to walk barefoot, sinking my feet into these soft sand clouds.
It brought me to the past and the present at the same time. I suddenly remembered all the beach trips I took with my family along Gulf Road when I lived in Kuwait. It was amazing to me how something I physically felt in the present could instantaneously transport me to the past. I became wistful for a time when my dreams felt so achievable. A vast space opened my heart to endless possibilities, like a mirage in the desert.
Clearing Your Mind to Build Your Dreams
A bored mind wanders; it creates lives we want (and don’t want). It’s one of the reasons creatives need empty mental and physical space. I came up with the idea of a flying stadium in eighth grade when someone told me that the World Cup would never happen in the Middle East because it wasn’t feasible (who’s laughing now?). I yearned for geographical mobility because I was stuck in an air-conditioned apartment for weeks. Being at home was a petri-dish where lifelong curiosity was born. This allowed me to develop an interest in books, people and places.
The desert’s stillness can allow your mind to fill with dreams, aspirations and ideas. And when you’ve gone out to explore and live your life, you can intermittently return to de-clutter, using the same concept of emptiness. It fills and then clears. Rinse and repeat, just like when you pray.
I no longer live in Kuwait. Today I am in a huge North American metropolis, which over time, I’ve gotten used to. I likely won’t ever return to Kuwait except to visit, but it carries a special place in my heart because I learned to dream there. I spent endless days in stillness before the internet, in a country where there wasn’t much do to in terms of leisure activities (likely a reason why people built good relationships and learned to develop better social skills, especially before cell phones were born).
I have a vase filled with sand sitting on my night table; it’s a reminder for me to pause and reflect when the daily grind of living a chaotic North American life in a city of three million people de-centres and ungrounds me. The beige colour of sand, almost an identical hue to my skin, gently reminds me that I too, am part of nature, that it lives inside me, and protects me from getting too carried away in my head when things get rocky.
My relationship with the desert is my relationship to my land; visceral, tactile and open– a reflection of how I choose to live my life.