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Divinity is Here

The Desert of Wadi Rum, Jordan

By Namit Arora | Dec 2001



(This travel essay appeared in Slow Trains Literary Journal, Volume IV, Issue 2, Fall 04 and in Words and Pictures Magazine, Issue 5, Fall 06.)

    Have Bedouin, will travel. I am in the village of Rum in south Jordan, all signed-up for two days in the desert. The clincher was the Bedouin honcho's sell job:  "I have open jeep, my man show you more desert, cook chicken on thee fi-yer, sleep in Bedu tent, bonfi-yer, night on sand dune, shooting star ..." The other option-a daytrip into the desert plus the amenities of a government Rest House in the village-would leave out a few spectacular sights, not to mention the night on the dunes. I had no second thoughts.

    It is a crisp and clear morning in early March, 2001. My 6 A.M. minibus from Petra brought four other tourists: two young couples, one Irish, other Italian. The choice is apparently not easy for them. Both options are similarly priced; the hesitation I suspect comes from a fear of the unknown, or perhaps something more mundane, like lack of toilets in the desert. I exhort them to go for it, partly to lower my own cost. The couples congregate, weigh the pros and cons, while I get the friendly honcho to tie my red & white kaffiyeh. "Just like Lawrence," he jokes, placing the ekal, "hot shai for everyone!" I visit a village store across the street and stock up on essentials: water, biscuits, dates.

    When I return I learn that both couples have signed up too. The honcho rattles out orders to provide for a party of five. I have time to look around the village of Rum, set against the sheer sandstone jebel Rum, the highest peak in Jordan. Here live the Bedouin of the Huweitat tribe, who claim descent from the Prophet Muhammad. In November 1918, TE Lawrence wrote about the Huweitat in The Times:

Once in September, 1917, an Arab party marched out of Aqaba with explosives to Rum [to blow up the Turkish Hejaz train]  ... At Rum we collected a raiding party of Huweitat. Though the very pick of the fighting men of Arabia, they were the most cranky, quarrelsome collection imaginable. In six days there had to be settled 14 private feuds, 12 assaults with weapons, four camel-thefts, one marriage portion, two evil eyes, and a bewitchment.

    Michael Asher noted in his biography of Lawrence, The Uncrowned King of Arabia, "Of all the Bedu, none were so jealous of their personal integrity as the Huweitat-Lawrence wrote that every fourth or fifth man considered himself a Sheikh."

    All Bedouin were once nomads (bedu means nomad) and referred to themselves as 'arab. The Bedouins were the people who, in the words of Caliph Umar, "furnished Islam with its raw material." They once had the vast empty interior of the Arabian Peninsula to themselves and led a fiercely independent existence shaped by the harsh environment, living by raising sheep, goats, camels, and skirmishing often with rival tribes. Even today, they enjoy a special relationship with the Hashemite royal family of Jordan, which also claims descent from the Prophet-the combat unit of the Jordanian army only admits the Bedouin.

The Bedouin's disposition ranges from that of a frail poet lamenting the departure of his loved ones on the endless roaming trail, to the fierce nature of a defiant warrior. He has become another element of the desert landscape with its extremities. (excerpt from a local tourist brochure)

    Times have certainly changed; like the Huweitat of this village, the vast majority of Bedouin are now settled. They live in brick houses, rely on running water, convenience stores and TV; they drive pickup trucks and jeeps. Nearly 5,000 inhabit the Wadi Rum area. Instead of veils, women wear facial tattoos-a tradition, as is hospitality.

    Not only settled, the Bedouin are also learning the ways of the Western tourist. On the main highway, I saw a billboard for a Bedouin Meditation Camp, where one can apparently "enjoy the sound of silence." I can't help but chuckle: O White Man, come to the Bedu with your spiritual void, and bring your Visa.

    By the time I return, our party is ready to go. We have before us a battered jeep; in the open back are two wooden benches not nailed to the floor. Our driver is Ali; he looks trusty and reliable, forty-something perhaps, with a dark, weather-beaten face. Is that a faint smile beneath his glossy mustache? I learn that he speaks no English, so I pull out my Arabic phrasebook. We toss our packs in, seat ourselves on the wooden benches, and set off.

    Within an hour, we enter the majestic theater of Wadi Rum: haunting moonscapes, with hues of red and brown that change all day, twisted sandstone cliffs in a sea of fine sand; from high above they must resemble boils from a horrible disease. A series of valleys (Wadi means valley), each about a mile wide, that run north-south for scores of miles, Wadi Rum has been inhabited for at least three millennia. In the many crevices and alcoves that dot the desert there are Thamudic, Safaitic, Nabataean, Greek, and Arabic inscriptions on rock-hunting scenes, religious symbols, the whimsical sketch of a traveler-caravans once passed through, laden with spices, frankincense and myrrh. Of the few hardy plants that survive, the Bedouin use some for medicinal purposes. Following the rare torrent, seeds that may have lain dormant for years turn the desert into a sea of flowers.

    Much of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia was filmed here. In a private letter, Lawrence wrote, "Of [Wadi] Rum, one said Numen inest [Divinity is here] ... [it is] magically haunted ... vast and echoing and God-like." Michael Asher described Wadi Rum as

... one of the most spectacular sights in the whole of Arabia: a maze of sandstone whose continual process of evolution [is] so clearly visible that the vast boulevards and buttresses of red rock appear to be part of a living organism ... [Lawrence kept returning to these] great bastions of rock, skewered and scrolled and fissured and wrinkled by salt and sand and wind into shapes that no delirious mind could invent-delirium tremens embodied in rock and stone: the landscape of the unconscious mind.

    Paulo, the Italian, notes with chagrin that Ali drives like an Italian. Except here, the sand shifts beneath, our benches slide above, and the jeep moves in the middle; so we rudely bump into each other. Realizing little can be done about it, a gay sense of humor has emerged. Our jeep often gets stuck on dunes; tires whirl in situ, Ali reverses, changes track; at times, we jump out and push. The itinerary calls for visiting a dozen or so spots-rock formations, springs, vista points, with names like Barrah Siq, Jebel Faishiyya, Rakahbt al-Wadak, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Jebel Khazali, Umm Sabatah. We spot a camel caravan, a few tents in the distance; those moving black dots are sheep among pale yellow shrubs-do they envy their kind in Wales or New Zealand?

    At each spot, I part company with my fellow tourists. They attempt to climb every rock or cliff that can be climbed. With limited time, one must choose. So with Ali's help, I scout the crevices for inscriptions, or walk up picture-perfect dunes, study the hues, and quietly commune with the desert. How to engrave this landscape in memory, to vividly inhabit it later at will? The sun is now overhead, it is getting hot but my kaffiyeh keeps me cool, prevents sunburn. I see Ali gather dried stalks for firewood. Soon, we stop for lunch in the shady recess of a cliff. Ali lights a fire, makes a syrupy shai with wild sage, pours it in small glasses. He warms flatbread on the embers. The Irish produce tomato & cucumber sandwiches, the Italians slice cheese & salami, I fetch my biscuits & dates. Ali also eats: yogurt, flatbread, a raw onion. While others rest, I go out for a walk.

    Why does nature captivate so? There is evidently no morality or wisdom in the natural world. Nature does not grieve in our sorrows; it could not care less. It is a blind, impersonal, instinctive unfolding of life and matter, "a constant striving, without purpose and without respite." As Seneca said, "Nature does not bestow virtue; to be good is an art." Yet, nature mirrors our inner selves, increments self-knowledge, and initiates wonder and joy. Thoreau said, "We need the tonic of wildness—to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe, to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest." Or as John Muir put it, "I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in."

§

    I entered Jordan a week ago in a shared taxi from Damascus. I have since traveled to the Roman ruins of Jerash, the capital Amman, the desolate castles of Abbasid Caliphs in the eastern desert, with their un-Islamic frescos of dancing girls and musicians, and Wadi Mousa and Petra, the lost city of the Nabataeans. After Wadi Rum, I plan to go to Aqaba, then travel north along the Dead Sea coast to end my journey in Amman.

    Jordan feels more dynamic than Syria-King Hussein injected competition in the economy years ago. New investment, opportunities, and efficiency boosted per capita income; in came global consumer goods and services, Internet cafes, hotels and resorts, world cuisines, McDonald's and MTV. At Jerash's chaotic bus station, a man in uniform accosted me, "Hello Sir, I am tourist police. I am at your service. How can I help you today?" But Jordan-with its influx of Palestinian refugees, and its scant social welfare, safety nets, and market regulations-also saw rising disparity, falling tolerance, growing support for radical Islam, more beggars, hustlers, con artists, criminals, drug abuse. King Hussein probably had no choice, but will this social engineering by diktat, however well-meaning, prove to be a zero-sum game, or worse? Or will advancing issues clearly outnumber declining ones in the long run-the Promised Land of Economic Globalization?

 

    Two days earlier, on the bus from Amman to Petra, I met Mohammad, 27, and Zayed, 29. Muhammad wore jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, a moustache and a two-day stubble on his square face. Zayed was dressed in "business-casual" attire and had a slim, clean-shaven face. Both spoke a halting English. I initially mistook them for old friends but they had just met on the bus. Muhammad sat closer to me across the isle so we started talking. He was going to the town of Al Shobak to interview for a teaching job at a government college. He had spent eight years in Baghdad, 1990-98, returning after an MSc in mathematics from Baghdad University. His master's thesis was titled, "On the Equiconvergence Theorem of Eigen Function Expansion Associated with Ordinary Differential Equations of Third Order." The last major work on this topic, he claimed, was done in 1907. But of second order only, he pointed out.

    I mentioned two famous mathematicians of early Islam: Omar Khayyam and Alhazen. His face lit up; he also knew of al-Farabi, al-Beruni, and Avicenna. "Indians very strong in mathematics," Muhammad said, looking at me admiringly. He knew that zero and the decimal system originated in India. I told him that the earliest epigraphic evidence of zero has been found in a central Indian city called Gwalior-for all practical purposes, the birthplace of zero. He responded with a blank stare-why did I offer this odd factoid? I didn't tell him that I grew up in Gwalior, or that the best response to my factoid so far has been, "Thank you for nothing!"

    He was born close to the river Jordan near the Syrian border. For two years since his return from Baghdad, he has lived with his family in Irbid, unemployed. He had a few interviews but nothing worked out-too many applicants; unemployment is a major problem in Jordan. I asked if he liked to teach. He shrugged, he is clearly not enthused about it-it might bring in 70 JD ($100) per week, not enough to live on; even cigarettes would be a luxury-both Muhammad and Zayed got off to smoke at longer stops. "Travel not possible," he said with a laugh. He had fond memories of Baghdad-inexpensive, nice people, culture and history. "But much suffering now," he said, "because of America." He admired Saddam Hussein for being the only Arab leader to stand up to America and Israel. The two have ganged-up to divide and conquer the Arabs, economically and politically. What is needed, he said, is Arab unity.

    He is not religious, does not visit a mosque, but believes in a supreme being whose form we do not know. How about me? Do I believe in God? He may exist, I said, but I cannot be sure, nobody thus far has proved his existence-will the notion of proof resonate with him? But there must be a supreme being, he argued, how else to explain the logic of science? He struggled to express his thoughts in English, then gave up; he was not going to change my non-committal stance. Silently, I recited Protagoras, "I know nothing about the gods, either they are or they are not, or what are their shapes. For many things make certain knowledge impossible-the obscurity of the theme and the shortness of human life."

    A bit later, he inquired why I was still unmarried at thirty-three. I raised my right hand, palm facing in, and said, Insha'allah-the definitive response to such questions. He remained curious: How much money did I make in America? Did I have an American girlfriend? How could I possibly like traveling alone? The landscape around the Desert Highway was, as one might expect, stark and sterile; almost eighty percent of Jordan is barren desert.

    Zayed did a Ph.D in biology from a university in Dagestan, southwestern Russia, where he spent nine years. "Very beautiful place," he said, "in the Greater Caucasus Range." As I recall now, he translated the title of his dissertation as "Lipid Composition Change in the Brain and Blood in case of Hypothermia and Self-heating." It turns out, he was going to the same college as Muhammad to interview for another teaching job. Also unemployed for two years, he too lived with family. There were many Indian students at his university in Dagestan. That surprised me; were middle-class Indians that desperate to escape India?

    Zayed had quietly listened to Muhammad admire Saddam Hussein. I then enquired about his own views. "Just like Hitler," he chuckled, "someone should murder him." Around then, the driver turned up the music and it became difficult to converse. Besides, they probably preferred a respite from exerting themselves in English for so long.

    They got off on a dusty street and lit cigarettes. It was their first visit to Al Shobak and they knew no one. Two years of unemployment must have taken a toll. They both wore anxious expressions of young men at the start of their careers. I wished them luck, and tried to imagine their near-term lives if they got hired at the government college. An MSc in mathematics and a Ph.D in biology eking out a meager living in a dull town at the edge of the desert, in a one-room tenement dwelling, with little attachment to their profession, teaching uninterested students, yearning for female companionship, smoking their lungs out.

§

    In late afternoon, we arrive on a plateau overlooking a vast plain punctuated by sandstone cliffs. The 270° view is stunning—a landscape to rival any of Dali's creations (minus the fluid timepiece). We will camp here tonight. A lone black rectangular tent, held up by a series of poles, stands sloping down. Worn out carpets cover the floor; the end opposite the entrance is piled with quilts and pillows. In the middle is a square brick firepit. It looks cozy. The tent's thick fabric is made of goat-hair—it shrinks when wet, keeping rain from seeping in; when dry the reverse happens—a ventilating effect. Traditionally, a part of the tent called haram is for women, the rest for men and guests. Ali unloads the supplies, lights a fire, makes shai, goes to the far end of the tent, lies face down, and sleeps.

    The couples stay near the tent. I climb down the plateau and walk a mile or so to the center of the grand theater. A mild breeze is blowing, it is utterly desolate. My mind is lucid; I am happy and calm. What a marvel that a chance consciousness should bestow such beauty upon things that do not care a hoot about it. I squat, dig my heels in, lie on my back, sift the warm sand through my fingers, then go rolling in it. Know it well my dear; to this you will return for the great oblivion—from earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

    The wind picks up a while later; low clouds come rushing in. In the distance I see gusts of sand—what a dramatic turn in the weather! The wind gets stronger; yes, a sandstorm is coming. The sand blows higher, visibility drops, the reliefs fade from view. I stand up but there is no refuge. I am excited: a real sandstorm! Sand is now blowing in sheets and vortices; I am enveloped in it, breathing it; I can't see beyond a few feet; a furious, howling gust suddenly rises, swirls, charges in like a locomotive and knocks me down. I stay on my knees and elbows, all curled up, getting stung by high velocity sand. The temperature has suddenly dropped. It rages on for several minutes. Then just as quickly as it came, the sandstorm wanes, the wind slows, and it starts to pour. Minutes later, the rain stops and the clouds begin to recede. The sun is about to set; I must return to the tent. Though all muddied up, I am thrilled to the bone.

    The two couples are inside, somewhat shaken up. They do not share my exultation. With Ali, they hung on to the poles during the sandstorm, and with partial success tried to close the gaps from where sand poured in. Ali lights a fire, makes shai; we all gather around, warm ourselves and chat. Ali silently listens, smiles at times, smokes; it is hard to say how much he comprehends. He has a quiet dignity; he is polite and courteous but never servile. With a jelabiyya like his, I could have kept out much of the sand. The Irish, Seamus and Fíona, mid-twenties—some might even say a sweet couple—are bright, voluble, full of plans. Seamus is an artist; his next project is a seven-foot bronze sculpture of their hero Brian Boru; Fíona is a teacher. When I say Gaelic, she corrects me, "We say Irish." Ali lights a wicker-lamp, hangs it on a pole and steps out. The Italians from Milano, Paulo and Elena, are thirty-something; he is a management consultant; she works for a publishing house. They have fond memories of San Francisco.

    I peek outside and notice a clear sky and smoke rising from a pit oven. Ali is fixing dinner. Forty-five minutes later we are ready to eat. We gather around and watch Ali extract small pieces wrapped in tin foil. The tent has a stack of china plates and plastic forks. We are all ridiculously hungry and eat in silence: baked potatoes, chicken, onions, flatbread, yogurt. The Irish have butter, the Italians have salt. Life is even better after hot shai. Then Ali does the dishes—six plates and six glasses—using techniques best described as Bedouin and The Art of Water Conservation: Swipe the plates with a paper napkin first, then soak a kerchief-sized cloth in a bowl of water. Hold a soiled plate over the bowl and wipe it with the cloth, receive the water etc. running down in the bowl; recycle it for the next plate; repeat till done, stack plates in corner of tent. The couples are watching intently. Even the dim light cannot conceal the thoughts crossing their minds.

    After dinner we go out on the dunes behind the tent. We carry quilts, wrap ourselves, and lie on the sand—a clear night, half moon, zillions of stars. Ali points towards Aqaba, Petra, Saudi Arabia, shooting stars. An hour or so later the couples return to the tent, leaving Ali and me on the dunes. It is deafeningly silent. The massifs have turned into looming shadows in the moonlight. Then Ali, too, rises to leave. Alas, his personal history will remain opaque to me. He drags his quilt behind him on the sand like a wedding train, holding it at the shoulder—a silhouette receding slowly. Halfway down the dune Ali starts to sing. He has a deep, low, husky voice. It is a plaintive song that echoes long after he is gone.


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