Rob Rinder

Like Moses, I wandered the desert with no phone signal – and my mind soared

How a trip to the Sahara made me think of the exodus


Algeria Sahara Desert Photo From Drone

May 01, 2024 10:42

A couple of weeks back, I was lucky enough to take part in the Marathon des Sables (“Marathon of the Sands”) alongside many splendid members of our armed forces. It’s an ultra-marathon that takes place in southern Morocco, ploughing right through the heart of the Sahara. Frankly, it was pretty intense.

I did suspect that I’ve become a bit too accustomed to soft living. Doing shows from hotels with a minimum of 20 stars and 15 types of pillow does alter your baseline of comfort. I was told I’d get a tent and, being one of life’s great under-thinkers, that seemed fine. True, I’m no fan of camping (I generally find it grotesque), but I imagined I could rough it in some chic pavilion with four-poster beds and an extensive mini-bar: your basic platinum-level mega-glamp with teak and rattan knobs on. If there were any issues, I’d just speak to the concierge.

On arrival at camp, I was shown what is apparently called a “bivouac”. I stared at it for a solid hour, hoping it might change into something better. Eventually I realised it would not. I chose not to ask about the lavatories.

I soon regained perspective. After all, I was privileged to be doing this with some of our bravest men and women – a community for whom grumbling isn’t an option. “Jolly well get on with it” is a polite summary of their credo. You can’t help but be inspired by every one of them.

Not only that, but I knew already how magnificent crossing the desert on foot can be. I’d actually done it a few years back, trekking through the Namib for Sport Relief. That had been a genuinely transformative experience – as profound as it was chafing – and it left me yearning for more.

I’ve visited countless achingly beautiful locations since then but there’s nothing equal to seeing those lone and level sands stretching to the horizon.

My Sahara-thon was shortly before Pesach so, inevitably, my mind turned to the wanderings of the Israelites after Egypt. As I took step after exhausting step, I thought of Moses and the Exodus and a million other things besides, indulging the freedom you get in that bleak, stunning, space to let your mind meander. It’s not surprising so many religious stories arise from desert communities. It’s a landscape that demands you journey inside.

I began to reflect that, although so much of the fabulous stuff in my life seems utterly indispensable (my white baby-grand and roof-top Jacuzzi spring to mind), in the end little of it truly matters. It’s a notion I think most of us have had before but I have never felt it so so powerfully as in that place, feeling the ancient sand between my toes and thinking about what any of us really need to be happy.

Mobile reception being spotty in the middle of the Sahara, I could only access the arbitrary smorgasbord of songs I’d downloaded onto my phone years ago (back in the dark ages before you could stream all music instantly). I made a promise to myself that I’d listen to them all with no skipping. So I twirled across the sand to Defying Gravity and let my heart soar to the slow movement of Mahler’s Fifth. Unexpectedly, up came a poppy version of Modeh Ani, made by group called Tzemed Yeled. As soon as it started, I burst into tears – the desert will do that to you – because it suddenly made me think of all our communities, those I grew up with and those now in Israel, and how the world had told us who we Jews have to be.

Such a lot of what we tell ourselves, and what others tell us too, is mistaken, whether it’s “I must have my comforts” and “I can’t possibly walk this far” or “Jews believe this” and “Jews think that”. But we always have the power to grab back the pen and write (or re-write) our own books.

It’s that notion of “davka” – of being contrary – that I’ve written about before and it became the pulse of my marathon. It had never felt more present, more urgent, more spiritually bang on.

It’s woven into the mission of our people, from leaving the land of Egypt onwards, to choose how our story goes. To carry it through the desert and proclaim it to the world. In these unbearably difficult times, it’s as important now as it’s ever been.

May 01, 2024 10:42

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