More Than Halfway to Somewhere: how exposure to other cultures has shaped our lives

More Than Halfway to Somewhere: how exposure to other cultures has shaped our livesRegister now for this free online session, July 22nd at 3pm UK time.

More Than Halfway to Somewhere: Collected Gems of a World Traveler, by former ICA staff colleague John Burbidge, may look like a collection of travellers’ tales, but probe a little deeper and you could be surprised by what you find.

John was kind enough to allow me to share one of the chapters of the book on my blog in December – Dancing on the Dunes – an excursion in Egypt’s Western Desert.  As I wrote myself for the cover, in this book:

“Burbidge leads you on a whistle-stop world tour of travelers’ tales rich with exotic locations, colourful characters and often extraordinary adventures. These are gems indeed, mined from a life lived as journey and sparkling with compassion and humour!”

See also the three excerpts (pdf) that John has shared as a taster for this session.

Using the book to launch a Zoom discussion, ICA USA Board member Nancy Trask will host this free online event, which will include:

  • John reading extracts from his stories, with a Q&A
  • participants sharing their cross-cultural experiences, and
  • a discussion on how our lives have been changed by living and working in other cultures.

The event is hosted by the ICA Social Research Center as part of its 2021 Global Schedule of Events.  I am pleased to join myself as a co-host.

Participants are encouraged to read the book beforehand. Print and ebook editions are available from Amazon, Apple and numerous other retailers worldwide. For details, visit the book page on John’s website www.wordswallah.com.

Register now for this free online session, July 22nd at 3pm UK time.


See also about mehow I workwho I work with and recommendations & case studies, and please contact me about how we might work together.

The Power of Facilitation – now available!

“Facilitation simply works. It is a critical skill needed in government, civil society, and business, if humanity is to deal with climate chaos, ecocide, racism, fascism, and other challenges. Thank you for this powerful book.”

Robertson Work, author of A Compassionate Civilization, former UNDP policy adviser, New York Professor, New York

Download

We are excited to share with you the Power of Facilitation! #FacPower

The book is a compilation of chapters written by different authors or author teams, designed to promote the power of facilitation.

Each chapter connects key perspectives on specific dimensions of facilitation, organisational and community development with the respective authors’ practice and thinking about our craft. Most of the team are members of the International Association of Facilitators, and many are IAF Certified Professional Facilitators.

The book project is a labour of love for all contributors. Our mission is to promote the power of facilitation worldwide. We are making the book available for free in order to enable and encourage everyone to read it and to share it.

Download

The Power of Facilitation #FacPower

Future editions will include an Epub version soon, and we hope a print version in October for International Facilitation Week 2021. In the meantime we will post each chapter in turn to this blog over the summer.

For news – follow the FacPower blog and connect with us also on TwitterFacebookLinkedIn & YouTube.


See also about me, how I work, who I work with and recommendations & case studies, and please contact me about how we might work together.

Is there a single, universal principle of facilitation? – IAF Belgium webinar recording & slides

Is there a single, universal principle of facilitation?

Thank you again to all those who attended this session yesterday, and especially to IAF Belgium for the invitation.

This session introduces a simple but powerful and versatile model that can be applied as a tool and even as a guiding principle. It can help facilitators to engage and empower their groups with greater confidence and versatility, to better enable them to make the change that they are seeking in the world.

The session is equally suitable for newcomers to facilitation and for experienced facilitators who are new to ICA’s Technology of Participation (ToP) methodology, and those who would like to deepen their understanding of the ToP ‘ORID’ model as a design tool.

The session is adapted from one originally delivered at the 2015 IAF Europe MENA conference in Stockholm, that has since been repeated a number of times both face-to-face and online.


The recording and other outputs follow:


See also about me, how I work, who I work with and recommendations & case studies, and please contact me about how we might work together.

Tired but hopeful after an online Management Team “Away Day”


How can we take time out to reflect, learn and plan together as a team when the COVID19 pandemic prevents us from coming together for an in-person ‘Away Day’, as we once would have done?  What can be achieved by an online ‘Away Day’, and how could that work?

These were among the questions that led the Director of a national public sector educational service to approach me for facilitation of an online Management Team “Away Day” earlier this year.

Context

The Director had written in advance, by way of context:

The service is a business unit of the central government department rather than separate from it. The service is provided by 221 individual providers working across 23 offices nationally.  We are a busy senior management team of 9, always progressing and developing and allowing ourselves little time to think and reflect on the bigger picture. We are hoping to take time together to do that, and to come up with a plan for how to go forward. We started off with the idea that we need an organisational review to look at our function and form and adjust our form to meet our evolving function.

The team had cleared a precious two days in their diaries for their ‘Away Day’ – a Friday and the following Monday, later that month. We quickly agreed to schedule a maximum of two 2-hour online sessions over each of those two days, and turned our attention to how to best spend that time – and any asynchronous time that the team could make available in advance.

Aims

Following further conversation, we agreed that the aims of the ‘Away Days’ were to be broadly as follows:

  • to reflect and learn together on the team’s experience of the unfolding story of development and change of the Service, over time and in context,
  • to develop and agree principles that should be upheld in how the Service is structured to best fulfill its changing functions,
  • to develop and consider models of how those principles might best be applied in a new organizational form,
  • to agree next steps – including perhaps consultation with staff and other stakeholders, and
  • to build shared clarity, confidence, and commitment toward to a new way forward together.

Approach

The approach I proposed drew on the methods of ICA’s Technology of Participation (ToP). Pioneered and refined by ICA in over 50 years of experience worldwide, this is a proven system of methods and tools that can be adapted and applied to help all sorts of groups accomplish a wide variety of tasks together. The core values of the ToP approach, which inform all of my work, are inclusive participation, teamwork and collaboration, individual and group creativity, ownership and action, reflection and learning.

The Focused Conversation method provides a structured, four-level process for effective communication which ensures that everyone in a group has the opportunity to participate.

The Consensus Workshop method is a five-stage process that enables a facilitator to draw out and weave together everybody’s wisdom into a clear and practical consensus.

The Historical Scan method combines elements of these two. It provides a participatory approach for a group to review the past to prepare for the future, to reflect and learn together from their own and each other’s experience of the team and organisation’s change and context.

Tools

We agreed that the sessions would be held in Zoom, for it’s audio, video and chat functions, and use Mural for visual brainstorming and clustering of ideas.

The team used WebEx for their regular online meetings, but they were familiar with Zoom and quick to agree to use that – it was an ‘away’ day they wanted, after all!  They were not familiar with Mural, but the Director was encouraged by a quick demo and quick to agree the advantages of such a visual approach.

Process

The agenda for the two days comprised three 2-hour sessions, two on Friday and one on Monday afternoon, plus asynchronous individual or small group work on Monday morning:

  Friday  Monday 
Morning.

10am–12 noon

Session 1

  • Opening & welcome, introductions & hopes
  • Overview of aims, process & tools
  • Historical Scan – what can we learn from the unfolding story of the Service, over time and in context?
  • Reflection & close
Individual or small group work

Developing models of how those agreed principles might best be applied in a new organizational form for the Service

  • visually in Mural or on paper
  • physically in Lego, playdough or whatever you have to hand!
  • or in a chart, diagram or text.
Afternoon.

2-4pm

Session 2

  • Opening
  • Consensus Workshop – what principles should be upheld in how the Service is structured to best fulfill its changing functions?
  • Your assignment of individual or small group work for Monday afternoon
  • Reflection & close
Session 3

  • Opening
  • Presentation & review of models – reflections & patterns, insights & implications, how can we build on the best of them all?
  • Next steps – commitments & deadlines
  • Reflection & close.

On the Monday before the away days I circulated details of the aims, process and tools to the whole team. I invited them to familiarize themselves with Mural in advance, by watching a short video tutorial and sharing introductions and hopes for the sessions there on digital ‘sticky notes’. I invited them also to bring some brainstorm ideas to our opening session if they could – in answer to the question: “What are some key events and milestones in the unfolding story of the Service and its context, from 2000 to the present (and, as you might anticipate, ahead to 2030)?”

I was joined for the sessions by fellow ICA:UK Associates Orla Cronin (session 1) and Megan Evans (2 & 3). Neither of them was available at short notice for all three sessions, but the three of us were well enough acquainted with each other and the ToP approach that that barely mattered.

How it unfolded

Even for such a relatively small group and simple process as this, it did prove invaluable to have Orla and Megan with me in the sessions to play the role of producer. We certainly could have managed without, but only at the cost of time and attention – both especially precious commodities online. They were both able to alert me to things I hadn’t noticed in the group and its process, even while taking care of the tech so that I and the group could pay attention to the group and its process.

The group took very quickly to both the process and the tools. Giving the group a chance to use the practice Mural in advance was a good idea, as was a second email to encourage them to try it. While one or two found Mural to be something of a distraction to them on occasions, all three small groups chose to present their models on the Mural board in session 3. One group added not just photographs of their models, but lots of additional material as well.

Our impression was that their time for asynchronous working on Monday morning had been very valuable in thinking about the future format of the service. All participants appeared very engaged in the discussions, although perhaps also concerned about the reality of developing new ways of working in a post COVID19 world.

Giving participants enough time in the Consensus Workshop in session 2 to discuss their ideas in groups certainly paid off. Little clarification was needed and discussions were constructive. As they were a small group who knew each other and the organisation very well, the naming stage proceeded remarkably quickly. The participants inputted their ideas directly onto cards pre-loaded onto the Mural with no problems and in the next stages the fact that as facilitators we could see which cards they were moving despite them being in breakout rooms helped us to manage the time well.

All of the sessions could have benefited from more time, and we did extend a couple of them a little in order to end them well. However, we were glad not to have packed more screen time into the two days than we did, and to have allowed for 10 minute breaks with each session.

I learned that sharing shortened bit.ly links to the Mural boards, as a more user-friendly alternative to the very long and cumbersome original Mural links, in fact excluded some whose security settings prevented them from following the links!

What the participants had to say

 


See also about mehow I work and who I work with, and please contact me about how we might work together. Please do not delay before contacting me – the earlier I hear from you, the more chance that I will be able to help and the more helpful I may be able to be.

Register now on Eventbrite for my free facilitation webinars, and for my regularly scheduled ToP facilitation training courses in London and Brussels and now online too.

Facilitating collaboration, breakthrough and transformation – three new publications for 2021

I have been pleased to have the opportunity to contribute endorsements to three forthcoming books recently, and to be able to recommend them all wholeheartedly – see below.

I have been a fan of Adam Kahane’s writing since his 2004 book “Solving Tough Problems: an open way of talking, listening, and creating new realities”, so I was delighted to learn that his latest (forthcoming in August) would focus in particular on his facilitation practice.  For an in-depth preview, I recommend also the series of conversations he recorded with Carol Sherriff CPF|M in her Facilitation Diversely series for International Facilitation Week last year.

I have known Penny Pullan personally for I think at least as long as that, as a fellow IAF member and Certified Professional Facilitator, now also a CPF|Master.  I have widely recommended her 2016 book Virtual Leadership. I particularly appreciate that this next book (forthcoming in July), of our present time, addresses what it takes to ‘make workshops work’ irrespective of whether they are online or face-to-face or both.

I have met Gwen Stirling Wilkie only this past year, through the online meetups of IAF England & Wales. Her new book (published this month) captures beautifully for me something of the journey that so many of us have traveled this past year, as we and are clients have had to take all of our work online.

See Publications for more books and articles for which I have contributed an endorsement, foreword or editorial support, others that I have reviewed in a blog post or on which I have hosted a free facilitation webinar with the author, and some which I have authored or co-authored myself.


From Physical Place to Virtual Space, Gwen Stirling WilkieFrom Physical Place to Virtual Space: How to design and host transformative spaces online

by Gwen Stirling Wilkie (Feb 2021)

This book provides a fascinating insight into the theory and practice of Dialogic OD, and the heartening story of how an initially skeptical facilitator and her client found that they could apply this approach online via Zoom, during the 2020 pandemic, and be delighted with the results as well! Many of the practical tips that Gwen shares here have broader application to other facilitation approaches and platforms as well – a valuable resource.


Making Workshops Work, Penny PullanMaking Workshops Work: Creative Collaboration for Our Time

by Penny Pullan (Jul 2021 forthcoming)

This is a wide-ranging introduction and an invaluable resource for anyone leading any sort of workshop, whether in-person or online or both – it is packed with tips and tools and rich with insightful stories… highly recommended!


Facilitating Breakthrough, Adam KahaneFacilitating Breakthrough: How to Remove Obstacles, Bridge Differences, and Move Forward Together

by Adam Kahane (Aug 2021 forthcoming)

Facilitating Breakthrough is thoughtful, reflective, and inspiring. To achieve breakthrough results on high-stakes challenges, facilitators need to raise their game. This book explains how.


See also about mehow I work and who I work with, and please contact me about how we might work together. Please do not delay before contacting me – the earlier I hear from you, the more chance that I will be able to help and the more helpful I may be able to be.

Register now on Eventbrite for my free facilitation webinars, and for my regularly scheduled ToP facilitation training courses in London and Brussels and now online too.

Reflections on 5 years of chapter leadership with IAF England & Wales

IAF England & Wales 2020 Annual Meeting

Hosting the 2020 online Annual Meeting of IAF England & Wales last month was one of my last acts as chapter Chair before completing my 2 year term at the end of December. I am sharing here the zoom recording of the meeting, and also the 2020 Board report (pdf) that we presented as a Board and Leadership Team.

It is also now just over 5 years since I took over as organiser of the IAF London meetup group, and it will very soon be time this month for the new England & Wales Board (and separately also this month the IAF global Board) to meet again to make plans for the year ahead.

So I thought I would share a little of the story of these 5 years, and a few reflections from my own experience of what I think has worked for us.


In a small way I had supported Julia Goga-Cooke and Martin Farrell in their hosting of the first meetups of IAF England & Wales, in London from November 2013. We met monthly on Thursday evenings in a meeting room near Charing Cross for 2 hours of informal networking and learning exchange. We had groups of up to around 8 or 10, sometimes only one or two (even none!). Nevertheless we attracted a small but loyal band of regular attenders, who came to appreciate our little community greatly.

Join IAF facilitators & friends for regular facilitation meetups in London and elsewhere

When I took over as host in November 2015, I sought to grow the community at first by diversifying the meetups. I continued the London networking and learning meetups in a meeting room every other month, as afternoon sessions of 3-4 hours to encourage and enable people to travel further to attend. I alternated those with bi-monthly evening social meetups in a pub, and added monthly morning networking meetups in a coffee shop.

I found that my meetup.com organiser fee entitled me to 3 meetup groups for the price of one. So I launched new regional groups for the North of England and South West, and invited others to host monthly local coffee meetups near them and to share in hosting of regional networking & learning meetups on a quarterly basis.

Join us in Birmingham for International Facilitation Week, and where you are! #FacWeek

We held our first all-day, all-England & Wales meetup for International Facilitation Week in Birmingham in October 2016, with I think 16 participants.

We made extensive use of twitter and other social media to reach out to others, using the hashtag #IAFmeetup and sharing selfies of every meetup – at least when joined by others!

IAF England & Wales Leadership Team plans the year ahead

As the network grew, I invited meetup hosts and attendees to join me in forming a Leadership Team, and six of us first met for an afternoon of action planning in London in May 2017.

In 2018 we launched the Midlands & East of England group, and six of us stood for election by the chapter membership to form a new chapter Board.

We asked some of our regulars what they have appreciated most about IAF E&W Meetups and why should others be interested, and listed some of their replies on our web page.

Join our monthly facilitation networking & learning meetups, now throughout England & Wales and online!

In 2019 we invited all of our growing community of meetup hosts around the country to form an expanded Leadership Team of around 30, with an online home in Basecamp. In that year’s election we expanded the Board from six to nine. We also launched the Wales meetup group, supported sister groups to launch in Scotland and Ireland, and launched the monthly UK & Ireland online coffee meetup.

The Power and Practice of Facilitation – annual conference programme

For International Facilitation Week in 2019 our national event in Birmingham became a two-day Annual Conference, attended by around 100. We also launched the #IAFpodcast Facilitation Stories that week – an initiative sparked by a conversation at a London meetup earlier that year.

Early 2020 saw a dozen or so attend our first overnight Leadership Team meeting in Birmingham in January, and the launch of IAF England & Wales Hubs to support IAF facilitators and friends to pursue a shared interest together – the first being the Climate Hub. Then of course we took all of our meetups online, and then our October 2020 Annual Conference as well…

The 2020 Board report shared here illustrates something of the experience and outcomes of IAF England & Wales this past year in text and images, and the Annual Meeting recording illustrates the experience and outcomes of many of those involved in their own stories and from their perspectives.


I am enormously proud of what we have become as a community – and not least how that community has innovated and transformed itself, and enabled those involved to innovate and transform their own facilitation practice and businesses, this past year.

I am enormously gratified, also, to be able to step down from my own leadership role with great confidence in the strong, distributed and very facilitative leadership that remains in place. I mean my successor as Chair Helene Jewell, and the newly (re-)elected chapter Board of nine and wider Leadership Team, and also the IAF England & Wales community as a whole as well.

Our IAF England & Wales 2020 plan, like those of previous years, includes a few simple principles that we have developed over the years to capture how we have sought to work together as chapter. For me these reflect much of what has worked for us in terms of chapter leadership over the past 5 years.

  • IAF England & Wales is a not-for-profit unincorporated association, constituted as a Chapter of IAF according to Chapter Bylaws approved by the IAF Board in 2011 and governed by an elected Board of local IAF members

As a chapter of IAF we are guided by the Vision, Mission and Values of IAF and we engage actively with other chapters, and with the Association as a whole, both to learn and to contribute. Our Bylaws are adapted from those of IAF as a whole and our Board structure and roles are adapted from those of the global IAF Board. This has helped us to build alignment.

  • IAF facilitators & friends, our wider network, welcomes everyone with an interest in facilitation in E&W, IAF members and non-members alike. Non-IAF members from among the wider network may be appointed by the E&W Board to the wider IAF E&W Leadership Team.

The greatest value that an Association like IAF can offer its members, in my experience, is the opportunity to exercise leadership in service to others and to the world at large. Thus we have not sought to provide a service to members so much as to build an open community to support members and others to serve each other and the wider world. We have used social media and online platforms as well as face-to-face and virtual meetups to broaden and deepen our connections. This has enabled us to build engagement.

We are a community of facilitators, after all, with a mission to promote and advance the highest professional standards among all those with an interest in facilitation. This has helped us to build credibility.

  • We seek to reflect and also broaden the diversity of the facilitation community

This is perhaps the principle that we have had least success in living up to, as yet, and so perhaps it is the one that is most deserving of greater attention. I believe that such attention is demanded by our Values and Ethics as facilitators and by our Values as an Association, so I am encouraged by the Board’s ongoing committed to this. This will increasingly help us to build our impact.

  • We follow our passion & energy, and those of our community. We lead to inspire more leadership, rather than to gain followers – so we encourage, challenge & support others to lead sessions, to host meetups and to lead in other ways

As facilitators we make it easy for groups to achieve amazing results, so in other leadership roles we make it easy for ourselves and each other to do so as well. Perhaps my greatest source of pride in my leadership of IAF England & Wales is to have had my name taken as short-hand for the experience of finding oneself to have volunteered for a leadership role – in other words, to have been ‘Gilbraithed’! I am prouder still to hear talk among my fellow chapter leaders of doing the same to each other and to others in future, taking their own and each others’ names as short-hand. This has helped us to build our leadership.

  • We manage our finances on a low-cost, low-risk, break-even basis.

In order to make it easy on ourselves and each other as leaders, and to make our community as widely accessible as possible. This has helped us to build our resilience.


This story of IAF England & Wales is a story of IAF as a whole as much as it is a story of the chapter. I believe that the chapter has had some influence on the story of IAF as a whole over these 5 years, but I am quite certain that the reverse is true.

I am proud and gratified also that IAF and its global and regional leadership has provided such an enabling and empowering environment for such a story to unfold in England & Wales, and in a rapidly growing number of other IAF chapters and groups around the world. I think it was well deserved that IAF won the AAE Award for Best Membership Engagement in 2019.

I am excited that the IAF global Board this month will be reviewing a new ‘IAF Scale of Participation’, developed by Marketing Director Jeffer London with inspiration from New Power. This could help to build a global journey of leadership development, in conjunction with the IAF Professional Development Pathway.

IAF Worldwide

Join us in promoting the power of facilitation worldwide!

Everyone with an interest in facilitation is welcome and, while our meetups are largely all online, there will always be an #IAFmeetup near you!


See also about me, how I work, who I work with and recommendations & case studies, and please contact me about how we might work together. Please do not delay before contacting me – the earlier I hear from you, the more chance that I will be able to help and the more helpful I may be able to be.

Register now on Eventbrite also for my regularly scheduled ToP facilitation training sessions, now all online.

Dancing on the Dunes – an excursion in Egypt’s Western Desert

This piece is reprinted with thanks from the new book by my old friend and ICA International colleague John Burbidge, titled “More Than Halfway to Somewhere: Collected Gems of a World Traveler“.

As I wrote for the cover, in this book:

Burbidge leads you on a whistle-stop world tour of travelers’ tales rich with exotic locations, colourful characters and often extraordinary adventures. These are gems indeed, mined from a life lived as journey and sparkling with compassion and humour!

The book is now available, just in time for Christmas, from John’s site wordswallah.com.

I was not involved in the writing of this, but I was very much involved in the adventure. I first visited Bahariya probably in the first of my six years in Egypt with ICA MENA. After befriending Reda (aka ‘Desert Fox’) early on, we led a series of jeep trips together from 1993-95 for groups that I recruited from the lively social network of the Cairo Hash House Harriers

The ‘never-ending book’ that John was editing at the time of this, my last trip in 1996, was “Beyond Prince and Merchant: Citizen Participation and the Rise of Civil Society”. John and I had been corresponding extensively on this as I was writing my own masters dissertation at the time, “Building Civil Society for a Humane and Sustainable Future Toward a Global Role for the Institute of Cultural Affairs in the UK”.


Do not take this trip…

  • if you prefer things to go according to plan
  • if you don’t like sand in your food, hair and underwear
  • if you object to going unwashed for days on end
  • if you’re overly sensitive to heat and sun or local food
  • if you’re not prepared to dig jeeps out of sand, or perhaps wait until dawn to do so
  • if being thrown around in the back of a moving vehicle is not your idea of fun
  • if you’ll be upset when, after three days in the desert, you get back to your oasis hotel to find there’s no water in the bathroom…

This was the disclaimer that trip organizer, Martin Gilbraith, offered those contemplating the five-day excursion in Egypt’s Western Desert following the ICA International 1996 international conference in Cairo. It was enough to turn away most conferees in favor of trips down the Nile or snorkeling in the Red Sea, but for 20 adventurous souls — young and old, men and women from 10 countries — it was just the turn-on we needed.

Were we disappointed? No way. Not only was the disclaimer fulfilled in detail, it was surpassed on several fronts. But the lure of the desert’s ever-changing landscapes, the warm and generous welcome of its inhabitants, and the unputdownable spirit of our Egypt guide team made the disclaimer fade into insignificance.

Before we headed out of Cairo in two minibuses we picked up our last but possibly most important passenger, Reda Abdel Rasoul.

“I am Reda, zee Desert Fox,” exclaimed this vibrant young Egyptian with the most engaging smile and thick black moustache. His exuberance masked the fact that he’d been in Cairo to visit his seriously ill brother and had only just decided to make the trip.

Reda was the local organizer of our desert safari. His slick, photographic business card described him as a ‘histary’ teacher but like a number of other educators in desert oases he turned to tour guiding to supplement his meager income. He lived in Bawiti, the largest town in the Bahariya Oasis with a population of 18,000.

Having a history teacher as our guide was an unexpected and valuable bonus. Egypt’s ancient roots as a land of pharaohs, pyramids and the fertile Nile Valley is well documented but the vast Western Desert that occupies much of the country is less well known. Its harsh terrain is not conducive to human settlement but people have managed to eke out a living there for eons. It’s a place where myth and history have intertwined, such as the puzzling disappearance of the 50,000-man Persian army under Cambyses II, son of Cyrus the Great, in a sandstorm in the 6th century BC. No trace of this massive force has ever been found.

Throughout the 365-kilometer journey to Bahariya our minds were on more immediate things, as Reda patiently answered our endless questions. Why don’t those telegraph poles have wires connecting them? Why are there railway stations in what appears to be nowhere in particular? Where do all those vehicle tracks into the desert lead? What is the Arabic word for…? And more frequently as the hours progressed, how far is it to the nearest rest stop?

The answer to the latter was simple. There is only one stop between Cairo and Bahariya, almost half way. As we entered the cavernous refreshment room we were greeted with ecstatic cries of “Martin! Martin!” Recognizing our British expat leader from many previous trips, the operators of this lonely outpost were effusive in their welcome. Clearly we were in friendly territory. The cold drinks and snacks were delightful, the chance to stretch our legs most welcome, and the toilets were, well…better left to themselves.

Our first clue we were approaching landfall in this endless sea of sand and rock was the police checkpoint near the mining town of Managum, site of Egypt’s main source of iron ore, which is transported to Cairo by rail. Some ore never made it that far, given the number of damaged wagons that littered the tracks along the way. We saw our first vegetation in five hours at Managum when we entered an avenue of oleander bushes and eucalyptus trees so reminiscent of Australia. The entire landscape had a distinctive ‘outback’ feel to it, especially those parts of the land down under that are sandy desert. It increased the sense of connection I’d already begun to feel with this vast, seemingly empty terrain.

Shortly after Managum we drove through a gap in the escarpment and descended into an oasis. For the first time I began to understand what an oasis is. Far from the popularized Hollywood image of a cluster of date palms around a spring and a pond, oases are vast depressions in the desert plateau formed as a result of the combined action of wind, tectonics and water. They are near or at sea level where the massive reserves of underground water flowing north from central Africa come to the surface. The 2,000 square kilometer Bahariya depression is the smallest of the four major oases in the Western Desert. It is surrounded by several tiers of high escarpment which enclose a valley full of hills and mountains, some conical, some mesas, and others folded like the layers of an ancient garment.

One of the most dramatic parts of the Bahariya oasis is the White Desert near Farafara. Entering this area was like walking into a Salvador Dali painting. The numerous bleached, wind-eroded limestone sculptures gave the appearance of a bizarre collection of pieces on a gigantic chessboard. Arriving late afternoon, we were fortunate to experience the White Desert at three of its most enchanting moments — sunset, moonlight, and sunrise. Wandering among this surreal setting, I found a flat-topped piece about waist high and long enough to accommodate my body. I stripped to my underwear, hoisted myself atop the rock, and after checking for scorpions and other creatures, lay down on my towel. As the sun dipped below the horizon, the evening star appeared in a seamless transition. I wanted to capture and hold on to this precious moment but that was not to be. The air temperature quickly dropped, reminding me it was time to get dressed and rejoin the group.

While the days were a test of endurance with long drives in intense heat, the evenings were like a reward for our labors. Our first night in the desert we camped at Bir Ghaba, the Well in the Forest — ‘forest’ being a highly relative term. Situated on the old caravan route to Cairo, this popular well was shrouded in a grove of eucalyptus trees adjacent to a campsite operated by Bawiti’s ironically named Alpenblick (view of the Alps) Hotel. Later that evening when the buzz around the campfire had died down to hushed whispers, I grabbed my towel and swimsuit and headed to the well. It was empty and silent, except for the torrent of water gushing out of the massive pipe at the deep end of the pool. As I lowered myself into the 38°C water, the moon appeared over the horizon in the most star-studded sky I had ever seen. The desert breeze, an ever-present companion, wafted through the trees. As I floated in the highly mineralized water I unloaded the six-day conference I had just come from, the never-ending book I was editing, and the long drive from Cairo.

We had two other opportunities during our trip to explore desert springs and wells. Although there are hundreds scattered throughout the oases, most are known only to locals and used by them for bathing and washing. Although some springs have cool water, many are hot, often severely so. One spring in Dakhla Oasis is said to be able to boil eggs. We tried our own egg boiler in Bahariya Oasis on our last night in the desert. With water at 45°C, Bir Ramla is the hottest spring in the oasis. While most of our group decided to pass, a few daring souls put their toes in the water to test the temperature. Shrieks filled the air. It reminded me of the copper cauldron in which we cooked crabs in when I was a boy. I took a deep breath and sank into the steaming water. While I’ve always handled hot water better than cold, this pushed me to my limits. After the initial shock my body adjusted to the intense heat, but I soon joined the others on the sidelines. I didn’t want to become like the proverbial frog that boils itself to death while gradually adapting to the rising temperature.

Another spring captured my imagination in a totally different way. Known as the Magic Spring, it was identifiable by a lone clump of palm trees in an otherwise barren landscape. Our arrival at the Magic Spring came after a particularly harrowing ordeal. When we arrived at Bahariya, we transferred from our two minibuses into three Toyota jeeps to go on off-road excursions. A fourth jeep was our supply vehicle. On our second afternoon we were behind schedule and keen to arrive at our destination before sunset, so two of the drivers entered into a friendly race. The lead driver tried taking a short cut and strayed off course. As he started to descend a steep dune he lost control of the vehicle. It plummeted down the slope and rolled over before landing on its side. The other jeep arrived at the top of the dune seconds after, and seeing what had happened its driver managed to bring it to an abrupt halt.

A front-seat passenger, our oldest member, suffered cuts and abrasions to his head but others escaped injury. Built to withstand this kind of treatment, the jeeps came through in better shape. I was in the third vehicle, considerably behind the other two. We knew nothing about the accident, but when the faint sound of a horn kept repeating in the distance our driver sensed something was amiss. He entered into an intense discussion in Arabic with his companion but  didn’t divulge anything to the rest of us. When we joined the others and learned what had happened, a dramatic change of mood came over the whole group. After a brief discussion, the Egyptian crew decided to put 19 of us into two vehicles, while the supply truck went ahead to set up camp and the other jeep was retrieved from the bottom of the dune. By now it was pitch dark but remarkably the drivers managed to find the Magic Spring with nothing but headlights, their memory and instinct to guide them.

There was none of the usual singing and dancing that night, although a hearty meal of roast chicken and rice, along with an extra ration of beer, helped raise our spirits. The mood was subdued as we nursed our wounds and reflected on what we’d been through. We had just had a hard lesson in the dangers that lurk just beneath the surface of this beguiling place. As we huddled together under camelhair blankets beneath a blazing sky, the silence of the desert enveloped us. Conversation died away as the last embers of the campfire glowed in the dark. Fennec foxes, hedgehogs and other animals that frequent this place stayed away that night. The Magic Spring cast its spell over us and sleep became our welcome friend.

Most evenings weren’t so restrained. Reminiscent of scenes from the film The English Patient, we would gather after dinner around the campfire, sip mint tea or down a mildly warm beer, and let the show begin — the kind of show in which we were both audience and actor. To loosen us up, our Egyptian friends would ply us with rousing renditions of local folk tunes. The real act began when Mohammed, alias Baghdadi, took centre stage. With black, loose-fitting, drawstring pants and buttocks made for hard seats on long trips in fast-moving vehicles over rough terrain, he demonstrated the art of male belly dancing. Pounding the sand with his bare feet, he could move his middle body in gyrations that would rival those of many a professional female dancer.

Once Mohammed led the way, Reda and others followed. First among the foreigners to shed his European reticence was Cristian Nacht, who in his other life was the president of one of Brazil’s largest steel construction companies. Clad in a flowing gray galabiya, Cristian tossed propriety to the wind, and with his feet and hips in sync, shuffled around the campfire like an old pro. After he’d broken the ice there was barely room to move, as the more timid among us took to the sand and made it sing.

While some found a way to escape this public celebration-cum-humiliation, there was one occasion when this was not possible. It was our last night in the desert before returning to Cairo. We had traveled all afternoon, run out of fuel, and arrived at Bawiti tired, dirty and starving. After freshening up at the Hotel Alpenblick — where the water was running this time — we headed to the home of our host, Mohammed Ahmed el-Bayumi. El Bayumi was the proprietor of one of Bawiti’s most popular restaurants, El Ghash (the Little Donkey). El Bayumi’s reputation extended far beyond Bawiti or Bahariya Oasis. We had been warned that before entering the hallowed halls of his mud-floor establishment, we should be able to count to ten in Arabic or expect a clip over the ears. Should we master that feat we would be prime candidates to marry his sons or daughters, most of whom were in his employ.

But we had not been warned about El Bayumi’s habit of blowing a shrill whistle to command the attention of his customers, like a sergeant-major drilling new recruits. Was this some ancient Bedouin custom or El Bayumi’s way of asserting his dominance over this corralled band of foreigners? We first encountered this practice after our long drive from Cairo when we had lunch at El Ghash. Seated on the floor, we were eating and chatting among ourselves when El Bayumi strode into the room, let forth with his whistle, and asked in brusque Arabic, “Do you like my food?” Under the circumstances there seemed only one possible reply. We all agreed it was terrific.

Although we were now primed to expect the unexpected, none of us quite anticipated what El Bayumi had in store for us on this last night. The feast on the rooftop terrace of his sprawling home was a much grander affair than our earlier restaurant meal, with endless plates of barley soup, vegetable stew, roasted chicken, rice and hummus, along with plentiful supplies of beer. Our Egyptian guides decided it was their last chance to put their captive foreigners through the hoops. One by one, Baghdadi chose each of us to join him on the dance floor and get our bodies moving in time with the Bedouin music booming out of a ghetto blaster. Now and again a donkey would join in the festivities by braying loudly.

Next day as we contemplated our return to Cairo and our different countries, each of us reflected on this five-day excursion into what the Greek historian Herodotus called the ‘Islands of the Blest.’ Indeed, we had been blessed in a number of ways — the rich variety of time-tested landforms, the ever-welcome presence of water in the most surprising places, the engulfing silence of the starry desert nights. Most of all, we had been blessed by the effervescent spirit of our Egyptian colleagues. One experience captured this for me more than all others.

On our second day in the desert, after a quiet lunch in the shady palms of Ain el Ris (Spring of the Source), our convoy headed up the escarpment that marks the southern boundary of Bahariya Oasis. Although dunes cover 40 per cent of the Western Desert, they are not dominant in this oasis. This was our first encounter with these deceptively picturesque but potentially destructive desert landforms.

Of the four vehicles, the one I was in was the Cinderella of the group. Since it lacked a radiator cap, we had to stop frequently to let it cool and refill with water, which it consumed in endless quantities. On this occasion, the other three vehicles had reached the top of the dune and were watching us flail away in the sand. I couldn’t tell whether their intermittent cheers were urging us on or lording it over us. Mahmoud, our driver, would thrust the gears into four-wheel drive, stomp on the accelerator, and let it fly. In Sisyphean style, we would make it almost to the top of the dune, peter out, and roll back down, only to have to repeat it.

At our fourth attempt we made it. Without hesitating Reda grabbed his drum and Mohammed his flute and goaded this motley group of sunburned foreigners into action. “Dance? Did you say dance?” It was Zorba the Greek, Egyptian-style. It was time to rehearse that great Islamic expression, insha’ allah — if God wills it. Clearly, Allah was willing a little celebration.

Some say the people of the Western Desert have a greater sense of humor and a more light-hearted spirit than inhabitants of other parts of Egypt. Those we encountered during these five days certainly possessed that and more. Their willingness to embrace life’s mysteries and intrusions, its highs and lows, its blessings and curses was something to admire and emulate. It has, no doubt, enabled them to survive in unbelievably severe conditions for tens of thousands of years. It is not surprising, perhaps, that several of the world’s religions emerged from places like this. If only a little of their spirit rubbed off on us during our brief encounter with the Western Desert we were so much the richer for it.


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