"He led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water; He brought water for you out of the rock of flint.” (NASB)
I was reading Deuteronomy as we drove into the mountains. I’d been in Oman’s capital city, Muscat, for nearly a week, staying just outside the old gate of the historic Matrah port at the Al Amana Centre. Al Amana’s deep roots in the city, growing out of the 19th century Reformed Church mission hospital on the grounds where it stands today, had given me my bearings in an unfamiliar place. Eight-hour jetlag had given way to 4:30am runs on the harborside corniche—the only comfortable time to engage in outdoor aerobic activity. I’d walked through the stalls of the early morning fishmarket; I knew where to get the good shawarma and how to find the alley that led to the best shop in the souq, where tea, samosas and long conversations awaited you no matter whether you intended to buy a pashmina, or indeed even to pay for it at the moment. (“Just take them,” the shopkeepers said when I’d piled up shawls by the register before realizing I didn’t have my wallet. Knowing I was with Al Amana, they insisted on trusting I’d come back to settle the bill.) I’d settled into the daily rhythm of the five calls to prayer, loudspeaker-sung in an echoing round.
Now I was leaving behind this little pocket of familiarity, going inland and north. Early that morning our caravan of SUVs had made its way from the city’s coastal edge, out of winding streets onto the freeway, past the malls and the huge, gleaming Grand Mosque—where the enormous, unfathomable carpet had boggled my mind as much as the fact that every word of the Qur’an is inscribed on its walls, in tile, wood or stone. Our group had walked its corridors a few days before, women from Nepal and Finland, Palestine and Tanzania, Myanmar and the eastern and western U.S. We were Muslims, Christians, Hindus; women of all ages, of experiences as vastly different as the places we call home. We were just getting to know each other, and now we were all driving into the mountains.
Going from the sea to the mountains in Oman doesn’t feel like much of a landscape shift. There are craggy outcrops right there at the sea’s edge, and high, bone-dry hills threaded throughout greater Muscat, traversed by roads and highways that eliminated what was once a two day’s journey between settlements separated by a few miles. As we drove north, it felt like those same hills but higher, red and gray and unforgiving. They loomed as we made our first gas station pit-toilet break, the rising and sun and heat raising every highwayside scent you can imagine, human and inhuman. Still, we returned to continue the journey in air-conditioned backseats, shielded from the sun and the dust and clutching frosty liters of cheap bottled water—all the conveniences of modern life in an arid land.
I’d begun a chronological read of the Bible this past summer with the virtuous intention that I’d devote ten quiet minutes to the text every day. New York, of course, doesn’t always give you ten quiet minutes every day. I was in desperate need of a catch up. And so the small leather-bound ESV that I’d bought for myself after the 2016 American election, unsure of what was moving me to do so, was now my traveling companion.
It was, in a way, a lucky place to be reading the end of the Pentateuch. The landscape of the wandering Israelites seemed to unfold around me. It took coming to Oman to realize that the valleys of the Bible were not the green, mist-shrouded havens I’d learned to picture from felt tapestries in church parish halls. They were wadis, dry riverbeds that flooded once a year with rain, or ran with a trickle welling through the rock below.
In the desert, life seizes on water. Enclaves of green in the dry vastness show the hidden sources. Plants wield spines or succulent leaves, protecting their stores. In Oman an ancient irrigation system called a falaj taps water from wadis or underground sources, channeling it by gravity alone into towns and onto farmland—and to mosques where it will provide ablution to worshippers. Water finds life; life finds water.
Our desert highway journey became a rocky ascent. Oman’s mountains showcase some of the rawest geology in the world: the exposed, upthrown crust of ancient oceans, or vast, cracked fields that looked like volcanic outflow frozen in time. Once we’d ascended fully, it was time to walk in the canyon, as the early-setting sun thankfully cast its gold on the face opposite us. We hiked in the cool, sharing dates and spitting the pits over the sides. Telling stories from back home, helping each other over rocks and down slopes.
At the end, we were told, we would find an old village carved into the canyon’s hollow. We knew it was coming by its green: the scrubby growth clinging to the rockface gave way to grass and trees.
Walking down in the hollow, I felt a splash on my face; the source, from the rock above, seeping into all this life. One single drop at a time.
When the sun fell, back at the resort where we were staying, we settled around a firepit. The schedule said we were going to have theological discussions, compare scriptures, draw solemn conclusions. We were a little too tired, a little too disoriented. Instead, like other wanderers who have found water in the desert, we sang by the fireside.
Then Israel sang this song: "Spring up, O well! Sing to it!