Monday, February 23, 2009

Desert Virtuoso

All text and images in this post copyright (c) John Zada and John Bell 2009

Ask Retired Colonel Ahmed al-Mestakawy - a man so obviously the product of a certain destiny - the “hows” and “whys” of it all, and he’ll just grin and shrug his shoulders in a gesture of amused bewilderment.

“At one moment you are moving in one direction, the next moment you are somewhere else entirely,” says the 56 year-old native of Alexandria. “How or why I got to where I am today, I have no idea.”

Al-Mestakawy is talking about his lifelong love-affair with the desert, which began without warning, when, after graduating officer school in 1977, it was decided that out of all the possible roads for a military man in Egypt, his should be with the Border Intelligence Forces along the Libyan frontier.

For 18 years al-Mestakawy, became the most feared and respected border patrol officer in Egypt’s Western Desert – one of the most treacherous and inhospitable regions on earth. It is an area known, among a few other things, for its smugglers and drug traffickers who risk life and limb moving their illicit cargo across well worn paths in the no man’s land between Libya and the Nile.

For al-Mestakawy, spectacular drug busts, surveillance missions and border skirmishes, some of which come straight out of fiction, all paled in comparison to his one true love - the desert. A man of action, he took the opportunity during his time in the army to learn the desert’s deepest secrets from three semi-legendary masters - all close friends - who would impart their entire lexicons of knowldge to him:

Samir Lama, an eccentric Egyptian-Jewish cinema actor and desert enthusiast, today regarded as one of the great contemporary Egyptian Western Desert explorers, fine tuned al-Mestakawy’s desert driving skills, and instilled in him a thirst for desert exploration. Suleiman Silmy, a Red Sea Bedouin tracker and soldier, imparted knowledge about camels, flora, tracking, and desert survival. Ghenewa Abu Balooza, a Bedouin guide and camel caravaneer from Sidi Abdel Rahman taught al-Mestakawy about principles and conduct in the desert.

“All these men today live inside of me,” he says. “They taught me everything there is to know about the desert. They live in my heart.”

But his life’s path would continue to meander. After turning down - with difficulty - consecutive work offers which he refers to as “the three big crossroads”, including a career as a diplomat, a political intelligence officer, and an army general, al-Mestakawy decided in the mid-1990's to pursue his dream of becoming a desert guide. Since then, in addition to organizing trips into the desert, he has helped plan and has partaken in desert race rallies, and has discovered a cave with prehistoric rock art – one of the largest in Africa - that was recently named after him.

“In retrospect, it was one of the best decisions that I ever made,” he says. “Had I not taken this path, I would probably now be a general. And generals do NOT go on patrols and travel into the desert.”

Today, al-Mestakawy works full-time as the co-owner and manager of Zarzora Expeditions, an Egyptian outfitter that takes travelers by jeep to the furthest reaches of the Western Desert. Here al-Mestakawy combines and employs all of his various skills and talents culled from three decades of desert work.

“The desert is like his bride,” says al-Mestakawy’s business partner and desert conservationist, Wael Abed. ”Getting to see him in action is like watching him in a beautiful and passionate dance with her. He is brilliant at what he does.”

And he is a pleasure to watch. Decked out in army fatigues, a beige keffiyah and Bolle’ sunglases, he can predict the weather simply by looking at the glare of the morning sun, can read tracks in the sand and tell you who or what made them, and can plot a course and drive through dune fields so menacing that they would overturn or swallow any other vehicle - all the while managing a crack team of driver-mechanic-cooks that preside over every aspect of the trip. His commanding physical presence and primal instinct for survival are softened by his French educated, gentlemanly manner reminiscent of characters from old Egyptian cinema.

“The desert is my home, my second home,” he says. “It’s the place where I found myself and discovered who I am.”

Al-Mestakawy’s website is

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