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On Separation and Sanddunes

…before that I loved the desert. It wasn’t particular things but the space between them, that abundance of absence, that is the desert’s invitation. There the geology that underlies lusher landscapes is exposed to the eye, and this gives it a skeletal elegance, just as its harsh conditions - the vast distances between water, the many dangers, the extremes of heat and cold - keep you in mind of your mortality. But the desert is made first and foremost out of light, at least to the eye and the heart, and you quickly learn that the mountain range twenty miles away is pink at dawn, a scrubby green at midday, blue in evening and under clouds. The light belies the bony solidity of the land, playing over it like emotion on a face, and in this the desert is intensely alive, as the apparent mood of the mountains changes hourly, as places that are flat and stark at noon fill with shadows and mystery in the evening, as darkness becomes a reservoir from which the eyes drink as clouds promise rain that comes like passion and leaves like redemption…

-Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

I was raised on adventurous Shabbossim. One of my first Shabbat memories is of sitting around the tiny table in the back of our camper van, Campbell’s chicken noodle soup heating on the gas stove as the Shabbat candles burnt, the waves crashing against the beach somewhere on the Oregon coast. I was born on a Friday morning, and spent my first Shabbat in hospital, marked with challah brought in by friends.

I’ve spent Shabbat in Himalayan mountain towns, tiny Indian villages, and all around the Scottish Highlands. I’ll always remember my first Shabbat camped out on the beaches of the Morar Coastline, 24 hours alone, unplugged, and watching the light change over the Sound of Sleat and the Small Isles in the distance. Or the Shabbat right after when I drove until 2 minutes before sunset, and unable to find a suitable place to camp, pulled over in a utilities lay-by and spent 24 hours avoiding a yellow-warning rainstorm in the back seat (read about them in Challah Magazine).

There was the Shabbat I spent in North Wales, in the aging resort town of Llandudno, where I expected a quiet Shabbat of rest after a week of wild camping, only to find myself at the tisch of the Viznitzer Rebbe. Or the Shabbat alone in an old caravan hoisted up a tree in the middle of a forestry plantation in rural Aberdeenshire; Shabbat in a mud hut in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan, watching the local women draw water from the well; Shabbat strolling through the tea plantations of Munnar; Feverish in a three-tiered bunkbed in a closet-sized dorm room in Calcutta; In a villa backing onto the river in the Serrania de Ronda of Southern Spain.

I’ll always remember Shabbats growing up at summer camp on an island in British Columbia - Kabbalat Shabbat on the rock formations at Berry Point, and Shabbat morning picnics at Twin Beaches. The smell of roast chicken filling the Cheder Ochel as the evening sun cast whirring shadows on the wall, the silence of 150 people lying on the floor watching the Havdallah candle burn.

And I’ve spent countless Shabbats with Jewish communities across India, Europe, Israel, Asia and more, being invited into the homes of strangers to celebrate Shabbat meals, and in turn, hosting a multitude of strangers and friends at my own Shabbat meals.

But the two Shabbats I spent in Morocco have to be up there. I spent my first Shabbat in the desert, at the aptly named ‘Erg Lehudi’ or Dune of the Jews, which is an area that used to be inhabited by Jewish traders and nomads. Friday afternoon, Younnes picked me up in the dusty desert town of Tagounite, to take me to his family’s nomad camp in the desert. I’ll admit I was quite apprehensive when he told me there were no other guests that night, and only him, his brother Mohammed, and their assistant Rachid for company. But it was a few hours before Shabbat, and there was nothing much to be done about it anyways, so I got into his truck and we headed off-road into the desert.

The camp was beautiful. There were a few canvas tents strung up around a central lounge area, all Moroccan carpets, luxe poufs and beautiful tapestries. I had my own tent, but I slept out on the dunes, wrapped in a wool blanket, under the desert sky. That first night the stars were incredible. I could see the Milky Way with such clarity, and the brightness kept me up late into the night. I watched the moon make its way across the sky, before fading below the horizon. Then it was dark, until the sky began to tinge with grey and eventually the sun rose over the dunes behind me.

During the day, the sun was relentless. I hid in the shade, as the 40-degree heat burnt across the dunes. The sand hurt my feet as it slid in through the sides of my sandals. I drank litres of water, but was continuously thirsty, sweating through the dry heat. But just as quickly as it came, the heat faded away. The shadows stretched across the dunes, and I climbed the highest one and lay down in the sand. The stars began to pop out through the darkening sky, the same place they had been the night before, as Shabbat faded away.

It was a very intense experience to spend Shabbat alone in the desert. There was nothing to do, no one to talk to, and nothing to distract me from my surroundings. There was nothing to do except feel the temperature of the sand change throughout the day. At night I dug my fingers into it, feeling the residual warmth beneath the cool surface. I watched the distant hills change from grey to pink to blue to green and back again. I watch the shadows disappear and then lengthen on the other side, lay down on my stomach and watched the grains of sand blow over each other, untold millions of individual pieces, coming together to form a mass of gold.

The next Shabbat I was in the mountain village of Chefchaouen, not far from the Straits of Gibraltar and the Spanish coastline. Chefchaouen is set away from the coast, nestled in the folds of the Rif Mountains. It’s known as the Blue Pearl because many of the buildings are painted blue. Some say it’s left over from the town’s previous Jewish inhabitants, who used the colour blue to reflect the idea of heaven. Some say it wards off mosquitoes. Today it draws in hoards of tourists, with some locals setting up special decorated street corners where they charge visitors to take selfies. It can be a bit much, but once the day trippers from Fez fade away, the streets are quiet, and you can see locals going about their daily lives in many shades of blue.

It’s very easy to take thousands of photos in Chefchaouen, which of course I did. But being there on Shabbat, with no phone, and no camera, meant that I could just walk and be there. I talked to locals. I sat in the square. I made friends. I watched the shades of blue shift throughout the changing light. And late Shabbat afternoon, as the sun was lowering in the sky, I headed for the local hammam.

A hammam is a typical Arabic bathhouse. They stem from the days when locals didn’t have hot or running water in their houses, so they would come to communal bathhouses to wash. You can also have a massage, or a scrub down, where a local woman rubs off all your dead skin with a rough mitten and buckets of a special gelatinous black soap made of olive oil, called beldi.

All around me were local women, dressed so conservatively on the streets, but here so relaxed, completely naked, and pouring bucketfuls of warm water over themselves. It was the sort of local experience which lends itself perfectly to Shabbat (if you can get over the faff of explaining to someone in hand motions that you want to pre-pay before Shabbat and come back for the scrub down tomorrow), because there’s nothing to do except sit, look around you, and take it in. I left the hammam in a sort of daze - relaxed and exfoliated in the cool evening air, as I made my way back to the hotel through the cobbled blue alleys.

Shabbat is an incredible time. I used to get frustrated and feel like I was wasting precious days of my vacation sitting and doing nothing. But now I see travelling Shabbats as incredible days to really see what’s around me, to immerse, to take a break from the rushing. During the week, I’m often collecting - photographs, road miles, souvenirs - but during Shabbat, it’s a time to collect experiences.

At the end of Shabbat we celebrate Havdallah הַבדָלָה - the separation between Kodesh קוֹדֶשׁ and Chol חוֹל, between holiness and the mundane. And we need that separation. I couldn’t live all in Shabbat, or all in the weekdays, and it’s the difference and the transitions between the two that make them each special, like how Autumn and Spring are so wonderful and temporal, while Winter and Summer can seem to stretch on. The Hebrew word Chol חוֹל - the mundane - also means sand.

I thought back to the desert - the endless stretches of sand, the solitude of taking in the landscape. I thought of the sacredness of space that can be found in places like dunes and hammams and winding alleyways, the way that being in such different places can make you realize how incredible it is simply to be able to experience. Havdallah is meant to be a time of clear separation, but the distinction between what is Kodesh קוֹדֶשׁ and what is Chol חוֹל is not always so distinct. The endless rolling dunes of the Sahara clearly ride that boundary.

And here I am back in Glasgow, celebrating Shabbat at my shul, in my community. A very different type of Kodesh קוֹדֶשׁ and a very different type of Chol חוֹל. One more Shabbat in a long line of Shabbats, a continuum of new experiences.


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