Before the sun set that evening, Nayir filled his canteen, tucked a prayer rug beneath his arm, and climbed the south-facing dune near the camp. Behind him came a burst of loud laughter from one of the tents, and he imagined that his men were playing cards, probably tarneeb, and passing the siddiqi around. Years of traveling in the desert had taught him that it was impossible to stop people from doing whatever they liked. There was no law out here, and if the men wanted alcohol, they would drink. It disgusted Nayir that they would wake up on Friday morning, the holy day, their bodies putrefied with gin. But he said nothing. After ten days of fruitless searching, he was not in the mood to chastise.
He scaled the dune at an easy pace, stopping only once he’d reached the crest. From here he had a sprawling view of the desert valley, crisp and flat, surrounded by low dunes that undulated in the golden color of sunset. But his eye was drawn to the blot on the landscape: half a dozen vultures hunched over a jackal’s carcass. It was the reason they’d stopped here — another false lead.
Two days ago they’d given up scouring the desert and started following the vultures instead, but every flock of vultures only brought the sight of a dead jackal or gazelle. It was a relief, of course, but a disappointment too. He still held out hope that they would find her.
Taking his compass from his pocket, he found the direction of Mecca and pointed his prayer rug there. He opened his canteen and took a precautionary sniff . The water smelled tinny. He took a swig, then quickly knelt on the sand to perform his ablutions. He scrubbed his arms, neck, and hands, and when he was finished screwed the canteen tightly shut, relishing the brief coolness of water on his skin.
Standing above the rug, he began to pray, but his thoughts continually turned to Nouf. For the sake of modesty, he tried not to imagine her face or her body, but the more he thought about her, the more vivid she became. In his mind she was walking through the desert, leaning into the wind, black cloak whipping against her sunburned ankles. Allah forgive me for imagining her ankles, he thought. And then: At least I think she’s still alive.
When he wasn’t praying, he imagined other things about her. He saw her kneeling and shoveling sand into her mouth, mistaking it for water. He saw her sprawled on her back, the metal of a cell phone burning a brand onto her palm. He saw the jackals tearing her body to pieces. During prayers he tried to reverse these fears and imagine her still struggling. Tonight his mind fought harder than ever to give life to what felt like a hopeless case.
Prayers finished, he felt more tired than before. He rolled up the rug and sat on the sand at the very edge of the hill, looking out at the dunes that surrounded the valley. The wind picked up and stroked the desert floor, begging a few grains of sand to flaunt its elegance, while the earth shed its skin with a ripple and seemed to take flight. The bodies of the dunes changed endlessly with the winds. They rose into peaks or slithered like snake trails. The Bedouin had taught him how to interpret the shapes to determine the chance of a sandstorm or the direction of tomorrow’s wind. Some Bedouin believed that the forms held prophetic meanings too. Right now the land directly ahead of him formed a series of crescents, graceful half-moons that rolled toward the horizon. Crescents meant change was in the air.
His thoughts turned to the picture in his pocket. Checking to see that no one was coming up the hill behind him, he took the picture out and allowed himself the rare indulgence of studying a woman’s face.
Nouf ash-Shrawi stood in the center of the frame, smiling happily as she cut a slice of cake at her younger sister’s birthday party. She had a long nose, black eyes, and a gorgeous smile; it was hard to imagine that just four weeks after the picture was taken she had run away — to the desert, no less —leaving everything behind: a fi- ancé, a luxurious life, and a large, happy family. She’d even left the five-year-old sister who stood beside her in the picture, looking up at her with heartbreaking adoration. Why? he wondered. Nouf was only sixteen. She had a whole life in front of her.
And where did she go?
When Othman had phoned and told him about his sister’s disappearance, he had sounded weaker than Nayir had ever heard him. “I’d give my blood,” he stammered, “if that would help find her.” In the long silence that followed, Nayir knew he was crying; he’d heard the choke in his voice. Othman had never asked for anything before. Nayir said he would assist.
For many years he had taken thee Shrawi men to the desert. In fact, he’d taken dozens of families just like the Shrawis, and they were all the same: rich and pompous, desperate to prrrrrove that they hadn’t lost their Bedouin birthright even though for most of them the country’s dark wells of petroleum would always be more compelling than its topside. But Othman was different. He was one of the few men who loved the desert as much as Nayir and who had the brains to enjoy his adventures. He didn’t mount a camel until someone told him how to get off . He didn’t get sunburn. He didn’t get lost. Drawn together by a mutual love of the desert, he and Nayir had fallen into an easy friendship that had deepened over the years.
On the telephone Othman was so distraught that the story came out in confusing fragments. His sister was gone. She had run away. Maybe she’d been kidnapped. Because of their wealth, it was possible that someone wanted ransom money — but kidnappings were rare, and there was no ransom note yet. Only a day had passed, but it seemed long enough. Nayir had to pry to get the facts. No one knew exactly when she had left; they only noticed she was missing in the late afternoon. She had last been seen in the morning, when she told her mother she was going to the mall to exchange a pair of shoes. But by evening the family had discovered that other things were gone too: a pickup truck, the new black cloak she was saving for the honeymoon. When they realized that a camel was missing from the stables, they decided she’d run away to the desert.
Her disappearance had taken everyone by surprise. “She was happy,” Othman said. “She was about to get married.” “Maybe she got nervous?” Nayir asked gently.
“No, she wanted this marriage.” If there was more to the story, Othman wasn’t saying.
Nayir spent the next day making preparations. He refused the lavish payment the family offered, taking only what he needed. He hired fifty- two camels, contacted every desert man he knew, and even called the Ministry of the Interior’s Special Services to see if they could track her by military satellite, but their overhead optics were reserved for other things. Still, he managed to compose a search-and-rescue team involving several dozen men and a unit of part-time Bedouin who wouldn’t even look at Nouf’s picture, claiming that they didn’t need to, that there was only one type of woman for whom being stranded in the largest desert in the world was a kind of improvement on her daily life. The men developed a theory that Nouf had eloped with an American lover to escape her arranged marriage. It was hard to say why they all believed the idea. There had been a few cases of rich Saudi girls falling for American men, and they were shocking enough to linger in the collective memory. But it wasn’t as frequent...