Photographer Wayne Eastep learned to fit in anywhere while traveling the globe for clients such as National Geographic, Nikon and Mobil Oil; but there’s nowhere he feels more at home than in the yurt in the back yard of his Sarasota residence.
After earning a master’s in divinity, Eastep considered a career as a professor. “But I decided I would rather experience the world than teach about it,” he says. Reflective and curious, he loved photographing other cultures but felt especially drawn to a nomadic Bedouin tribe called Al Murrah.
“Their way of life and unbroken bloodline go back 5,000 years,” he says. “I knew there was something I could learn from them.” In 1982, he took advantage of a stint as the official photographer for the diplomatic headquarters of Saudi Arabia to meet the tribe’s head sheik and ask to document their lifestyle.
After a series of meetings, the sheik consented—on two conditions. “You must live with us and live as we do,” he said. “And you must learn the language.” Wayne and his wife Patti spent three months back at home immersing themselves in the Arabic language, then returned to Saudi Arabia, where for four months, they ate, slept and traveled with the tribe. The two were officially adopted by the Al Murrah, and their lives have been entwined ever since. Eastep has returned more than 30 times, often spending a month at a time with the tribe.
The couple collaborated on a book about the Bedouins, from whom they say they learned life-changing lessons—the importance of family, the power of community, the transcendent unity of the physical, social and spiritual realms. And those lessons are exemplified in the yurt, which they purchased after watching Kazakh nomads spend a day erecting it. The yurt is furnished with authentic, colorful tapestries and blankets, all made from natural materials and dyes. The pelt of a wolf—a totemic figure in the tribe’s mythology—hangs on a wall. Resting on the earth and opening to the sky, it’s rooted in history and spans multiple dimensions.
A group of friends who call themselves “the Yurtsers” helps the Easteps erect it in the fall, and they enjoy it until Florida’s wet, steamy summers force them to take it down. They like to hold dinner parties there, and it has hosted meditation groups, musicians playing Kazakhstan songs for children adopted from Central Asia and recently, 20 chanting Sufis.
But most of all, the Easteps treasure escaping from everyday stress by entering the quiet space. “It’s astonishing how peaceful and grounded you feel once you’re in here,” Patti says. But the design, with its ventilation opening at the top, also nudges them to “keep an eye on the sky,” says Wayne, to ponder “the big questions” and the deep connections between ourselves, our ancestors and the divine.