“Silence” is a relative word, referring to how quiet a place is compared to other times. Silence in a home still involves the hum of the fridge, the heater, the creaking in the wood, the wind on the windows, and so many other things. Outside, it means the birds still chirping, bugs buzzing, the breeze, a car going by on a distant highway.
But nature showed my brother and I definite silence when I took him to Liwa on his short visit to Abu Dhabi. Liwa is the center of the Empty Quarter, Liwa being the oasis in an the unforgiving terrain of spectacular tawny sand swirls going up and down dunes in what I’ve been told is the world’s largest sand desert. It was just after a holiday, and so no one was traveling–the usual dune hiking was absent as we drove to the most famous and tallest of the dunes. Merheb Dune is sadly surrounded by concession stands and race tracks that minimize its beauty. So we went back and stopped at a spot with no duning tracks. Like I have done for everyone that has come to visit, I wanted my brother to experience the sensation of running up and down a dune, your feet sinking into pockets of hot and cool softness as the sun creates patterns on it. At the top of one dune, we stopped so he could take a picture. And that’s when the silence got to us. We hadn’t grown up with even the pretension of silence inside or outside out home, and as adult both our worlds were noisy, his with rockets and children and mine with a long list of big cities. I don’t think we’d ever heard total silence: not an insect or bird, not a trace of wind, no human noise except the noise that is always in our heads, and even that seemed to quiet down. “What is that?” I asked. “Silence,” he shrugged. “Kind of freaky, huh,” I answered. “Cool, too,” he said. Silence as golden as the sand literally was. We kept waiting for something in nature to make a sound, but nothing did.
I don’t know if there is anywhere else to experience absolute silence. That’s why I was a little saddened the other day to hear about new plans Abu Dhabi has to build several resorts in the area and expand the population over the next few years by 350,000. Perhaps it will help the Bedouins of the area have a better life, but maybe there is an easier way to give them that chance, a quieter way, a way that will not defy the reasons it has been called the Empty Quarter for so long.