Facing My Fears in the World’s Largest Sand Desert
We were three single Americans with a whiskey handle. What reception would we wake to if we fall asleep on the wrong sand?
Explanations, none but bone-chilling, barrel through my mind. I listen so hard for any clue, for menacing intruders tucking their lanterns out of sight. I start regressing to fears unfiltered by rationale. There is nothing to be scared of here, I tell myself—in fact, there is literally nothing here—but at the same time, I can’t halt it. I am actually terrified. My heart pounds. My skin bristles. My breath speeds up. Some of these thoughts, I realize later, have roots deep in my subconscious.
What if we are arrested by hostile police, I think. What if we are kidnapped for ransom? What if we are robbed, slashed with scimitars and left for dead in this parched wilderness? I strain to hear them, whatever anachronistic shadowy figures I’m trying to stop myself from visualizing, making their way toward us. I hear nothing at all.
The amygdala is the part of our brain that signals us to be afraid if we encounter a threat. It catalogs fears, instinctive and learned, and pins them to memories we keep filed away in a different part of our brain called the hippocampus. When the amygdala recognizes something that it associates with danger, the physical symptoms of fear are triggered. I’ve never encountered desert marauders. So why should I feel threatened by them now?
Scientists have found that we don’t actually need to experience a traumatic event firsthand in order to develop a fear based on it; we only need to have witnessed it—in a movie, or on the news, or even in our own imaginations, as we listen to someone else recount a threatening episode. Hollywood and hearsay are enough to instill us with real, visceral fears.
Scientists are also finding that traumatic events involving people who are “other” inspire deeper, longer-lasting fears than traumatic events with people who look the same as us. We are biologically predisposed to buy into divisive messages about people outside our own communities from governments, media, and each other. The fears some Americans harbor—the fears that drive conservative immigration policy and cuts to social welfare programs—are born of stereotypes, but they are reinforced by brain chemistry. They aren’t actually related to other people; they are our own, ingrained in us.
On the wide open sand, our tent the only familiar object, I feel distracted and vulnerable. Laura and Sami don’t, but they didn’t see the light. While I try to appear present for the conversation, I am scanning the ground for scorpions, and our periphery for signs of the lamplight again and again.
As the night wears on (and no dune lurkers reveal themselves), my guard drops just a little. We stretch and dance, drink, and describe our childhood homes. Mine was a dark old house with a big porch in a patch of pinewoods beside a pond full of ducks. We had gnarly apple trees my dad said were planted by Johnny Appleseed. I was afraid of falling through the ice on the pond in the winter, and of the dark recesses of our basement, where I was sure there were spiders, snakes, even robbers. What are the quotidian fears that come with growing up here, at the edge of the Liwa Oasis?
As I let the sand swallow my feet, ankles, legs, I meditate myself into sedation. It was inhumanly hot today. My body and my brain are tired.
When we decide to crash, Sami sleeps outside our zipped tent door, face to the stars. And we all sleep well, somehow, the sand almost body-temperature, caving to our weight like a cradle.
In the morning, I wake up first. It’s still and tranquil, and the ground is glowing. I step out into a pink and blue pre-sunrise, hike up to the dune’s edge, and look west, toward Saudi Arabia. A herd of camels are specks against the ghost of a lake that had been there before, now a shimmering salt flat. At the flat’s perimeter, there’s a one-story house, like the house where we parked.
In the daylight, I can see plainly, we were never unsafe.
While my eyes are on the house, in the dawn haze, its porch light flips on: a benevolent bright white pixel, hundreds of yards in the distance. I laugh. My light, the great midnight menace that had scared me half to death. Someone’s porchlight. The farmer with the camels. A neighbor of the man who helped us free our tires on the road.
What changed for me between Kurdistan at Ramadan, and last night? Why was I so scared? Maybe America. Maybe the news, or how much attention I pay to it. Maybe it’s just that I’m older now; scientists say that simply an accumulation of stress over time can heighten those responses. Whatever the source, with no other sensory input, this quiet, empty place became a vacuum of my anxieties. Emptiness was the room into which they were invited. To match the landscape, the threats my amygdala referenced were ancient, primitive ones: Venomous animals, hostile foreign tribes. Portable fears, already with me, no matter where I am.
Now the dunes look calm. All of their shadows are drying up in the sun. I am taken by the beauty of it, and a little hungover from fear and guilt. In the daylight, I can see plainly, we were never unsafe.
Alex is a freelance writer and photographer based in Savannah. Recently she's written for the Nation, Topic, Atlas Obscura, and CityLab. She has been a regular contributor to Vanity Fair's the Daily, the Huffington Post, and GOOD, and a staff film reviewer for Cinespect. Her travel writing has been published by CNN, the Washington Post, Suitcase, and others. She attended the The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop for poetry in 2016. alexmarvar.com