Cycling to the Arab world

October 15, 2023

A conversation with photographer Kamran Ali, who has cycled around the world

Cycling to the Arab world


he News on Sunday: What was your cycling expedition to the Arab world like?

Kamran Ali: In December last year, I started a bicycle journey across Oman to the UAE and Saudi Arabia. In June, I concluded my travel across Makkah, Medina and Jeddah. I plan to resume my travels in October, starting from Ethiopia and ride into South Africa.

I was not expecting the kind of incredible hospitality I came across in Saudi Arabia, Bedouin and Arab alike. While I was on the road, people would stop to offer me water and food. They would check on me; they would invite me over; they would even offer me money. Sometimes, they would pay for my meals. The kind of hospitality I experienced in Saudi Arabia, I have never experienced in any other part of the globe where I have cycled. In addition, it has a rich culture and an amazingly beautiful and stunning desert landscape. I cycled my way through the Empty Quarter for more than 400 kilometres for a week.

On the other hand, Oman had a rugged landscape along the coastline. What I found distinguishing about the Omanis was their politeness and remarkable etiquette.

TNS: How did you manage to take top-angle views of the Holy Ka’aba?

KA: As you know, drone flying and heavy-duty cameras are not allowed in the Harem, so the only option is to take pictures of the Ka’aba from the top floors of the Clock Tower. The museum with an open view was closed when I visited. I asked around and luckily, I found someone who agreed to take me to the top-most floor, which belonged to a prince who was not there. Just below the clock, I had the entire Floor# 68 to myself. I had the freedom to choose the best room with a direct view – central composition between the two minarets – where I spent two days for a few hours to take pictures. I ended up spending a good eight hours experimenting with exposure, time lapse and compositions, making top-angle views of the Ka’aba.

TNS: I am sure there must be a plethora of strange and outrageous phenomena to reckon with during your travels. Can you share some?

What I found distinguishing about the Omanis was their politeness and remarkable etiquette.

KA: There’ve been quite a few incidents that can be recounted, but the one that stands out took place when I was cycling through the United States. I was in Utah beyond the Salt Lake City at a place called the Monument Valley, where there are two national parks called the Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. I went to the latter to a spot called the Mesa Arch, known for its sunrise. I went there two hours before sunrise, parked my bicycle and reached the spot hiking. I set up my camera and busied myself taking pictures of the stars. Suddenly, I felt a stone drop on the floor behind me. That happened at least twice after the first incident. It was pitch dark. There was no vegetation around, no wild animal, no human being in sight. There was no wind either. I became curious. The moment I would turn around and look behind me, the sound would stop. I turned on my flashlight and heard somebody yelling at me. About 30-40 metres away, I saw a figure behind a boulder. It was a white, ghost-like figure. Before I could make out what it was, I saw the figure bend, partially hiding behind the rock on four legs. I yelled back, “Stop scaring me. I am only taking pictures.” I left my camera and ran towards it with the light on. When I got there, there was nothing – no sound, no place to escape to or hide. It was a huge plateau dotted with tiny shrubs. I returned to my camera and, after one and a half hours ahead, saw two lights. Two photographers came there. I asked them if they had seen anyone along that trail. To this day I wonder what it was. Was somebody throwing stones at me, trying to shoo me away?

One day, I was recounting this incident to someone in San Diego. We were in the living room; the television was playing flashing random wallpapers on standby. I was narrating the incident to my host’s family when the family said: “Can you show us a picture of that spot?” Before I could show them a picture, a snap shot of that spot randomly popped up on the television screen. It left me speechless.

The interviewer is an art critic based in Islamabad

Cycling to the Arab world