Remona Aly
Monday 23 August 2021 The Guardian

Sleepless in the Sahara

Hot summer nights: ‘In the insomnia of the Sahara, I faced my demons’

It was a never-ending, sleepless night in the Sahara that gave me the space I needed to reassess one of my biggest anxieties.

I was in my 20s when a friend and I settled on a trip to Morocco in the height of summer in 2007. I was desperate for a break from the stresses of a job where I was in over my head.

In addition to a week in touristy Marrakech, we threw in a wild card with a cheap night in the desert. We set off in a rickety old minivan that felt like it was held together with string and sticky tape. It was 34C and there was no air-conditioning.

After hours of splashing our pulse points with water to keep cool, we finally reached the edge of the desert, where our next mounts were a couple of fragrant camels. We passed a wall painted with the words “52 days to Timbuktu”, but thankfully our caravan lasted just two hours – which was more than enough swaying, sweating and sliding on our saddles – before our tent came into view.

The sun lowered over us, disappearing like a lover into the night, but the lonely desert held on to the warmth it left behind. It was time to pray. My friend and I made our ablutions economically using a small bottle of water. We faced Mecca amid the sand dunes, beginning to feel the embrace of tranquillity.

After a feast of chicken couscous, which had a conflict of interest with one of our party, our Berber hosts reclined beneath the star-flecked sky, speaking to each other in their native tongue and to us in French. They suggested I sink my foot deep into the sand to feel “la chaleur”. As I pushed my foot into the grains, folding its hidden heat around my skin, a weird but welcome feeling came over me that made sense only later that night.

I slept all of 40 minutes before I was woken by the barks of wild dogs in the distance and, closer in, the retching of the poor guy whose dinner had disagreed with him.

Quiet came again. But I couldn’t sleep. My brain whirred with all the random and existential thoughts that go through your mind at night. Does the human body really need so much sleep? Do our souls weigh 21g? Are pickled onion Monster Munch better than Space Raiders? When will my colleagues realise I am a total fake?

The previous year, I had landed the role of deputy editor at a Muslim lifestyle magazine, despite having zero experience in print media. The editor saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. I started the job in a blur of excitement and nerves. But, at every planning meeting, I hated how the doubts crept in.

Out here, in the insomnia of a hot desert night, I faced my demons. I had never said it out loud to myself before. Impostor. I contemplated that moment of sinking my foot in the sand. It was as if I was burying and also unearthing a revelation. Surrounded by the wide, open silence, sand and stillness, it was almost Qur’anic: a realisation of all the barriers I had built for myself – and how I was to get through them.

I still struggle with confidence, thinking I am not good, clever or talented enough, often unable to shake that fraudulent feeling. But that desert night was an “Aha!” moment to which I still go back, to turn doubt into a bridge, a stepping stone, not a stick to beat myself with or a weight to pull me down. Doubt is perfectly reasonable, and entirely human, and best serves me when it is followed by possibility and belief. It is going from saying: “Can I do this?” to knowing not only that I can, but that I just did.

As the dawn began to summon the return of the sun, I was the first at a breakfast table laden with mint tea, bread and honey. I smiled: finally, I had my breakthrough.