When Othman had phoned and told him about his sisters
disappearance, he had sounded weaker than Nayir had ever heard him. Id
give my blood, he stammered, if that would help find her. In the long silence
that followed, Nayir knew he was crying; hed heard the choke in his voice.
Othman had never asked for anything before. Nayir said he would assist.
For many years he had taken the Shrawi men to the desert. In
fact, hed taken dozens of families just like the Shrawis, and they were all the
same: rich and pompous, desperate to prove that they hadnt lost their
Bedouin birthright even though for most of them the countrys 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 didnt mount a camel until someone told him how to get off. He didnt get
sunburn. He didnt 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
shed 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 shed 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 wasnt 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 Interiors 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 wouldnt even look at Noufs
picture, claiming that they didnt 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 wasnt as frequent as people supposed, and
as far as Nayir knew, no Saudi girl had ever eloped to the desert.
The Shrawis asked Nayir to focus his search on one area of the
desert, with radii extending outward from As Sulayyil. They stationed other
search parties to the north and northwest, and one to the southwest. He
would have liked more liberty to expand his operations at his own discretion,
but as it was, he was hemmed in by strangers who seldom bothered to
communicate with him. So he ignored the rules. Two days into it, he ordered
his men to follow their instincts even if it took them into neighboring territory.
If Nouf was still out there, her chances of survival decreased with every hour
of daylight. This was no time to be formal, as if the search were a wedding
dinner and the guests should be seated on their cushions just so.
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