Somewhere in the Wadi Rum Desert
There are few things as badass as riding a camel through the desert. I had grown up riding horses and mule packing in the Sierra Nevadas, but this was unlike anything I had ever experienced. Before getting on the camel, the handler taps it with a rod to make it lie down, which is a spectacle within itself. At this point, the camel seems like the very last creature any reasonable human being would want to ride, as it opens its mouth displaying an abundance of blocky teeth and screams throatily as if it were dying, spraying spit everywhere. If it really doesn't like you, it can spit at you more deliberately or kick you with its incredibly long legs. When first encountering this animal, one has to appreciate the great courage (or perhaps inebriation) of the first person who decided to ride it.
I patted my camel warily before getting on, though I couldn't tell if he enjoyed the attention or if he hated it. He flashed me some ominous side-eye, so I scrambled hastily on top of him where his spit and kicks could not reach me. I was very thankful for my previous riding experience as the handler told me to "hold on" and he tapped the camel again, this time signaling him to rise to his feet. As the camel first unfurls his back legs, the rider is pitched at a forty-five-degree angle, and could quite easily somersault right over its neck, as some tourists do, if they don't lean back to adjust their center of gravity. As the two front legs come up, the full height of the camel is realized, with the ample padding of the blankets and saddle on the hump enhancing it even further.
The handler, who wore only an airy white gown and sandals, began leading our two camels, which were tied together, on foot, and we slowly progressed out of the dusty village into the wide desert.
The camel had a slow, lurching gait that felt like a machine rolling beneath me. We had been traveling for a half hour in this manner with no end in sight; only the expanse of orange sand stretching through a valley of Martian formations. Although the air was cool, there were no clouds in the sky and the sun was beating down on us and radiating back up from the sand. There was a feeling of tremendous exposure, and I wrapped my scarf around my head to shield my face. It became very clear why the Bedouins wore headscarves, as I couldn't imagine surviving here without one. Our guide, however, did not wear a headscarf, though he did not seem affected as he plodded steadily ahead in his well-worn flip-flops. He had spoken to us a few times to offer to take a picture or to tell us something about a particular rock formation, but he only spoke Arabic and had a very bad speech impediment, which made understanding him nearly impossible. Nonetheless, I appreciated his upbeat demeanor and tooth-impaired smile.
It was easy to understand the Bedouins' deep love for this land. It had been theirs for thousands of years, and yet it still continued to satisfy their economic and human needs in a modern age. Fairly recently, they had become incredibly rich when one of them decided to open up their way of life to tourists. Still, they preferred to live much like they always had, and returned to this land even when they had the means to live elsewhere in relative luxury. One young man we had met back in the village had traveled all over the world and spoke three languages. Nonetheless, he was here now and seemed content with his station.
I found that, towards the guests at least, the Bedouins were open-minded and well-versed in dealing with any culture. I was nervous, at first, as to how I would be treated as a female, but it became clear very quickly that they regarded a Western woman as they would a man. They also had a strong sense of humor and a confidence that made them attractive. Too attractive, apparently, to some. As I had learned before coming here, one of my classmates, a very blonde American girl named Jennifer, had come here on vacation and fallen for a young Bedouin named Ali. They were now engaged, and she had come to Hebrew University to study Arabic so that they could converse more easily. I noted that I had not yet seen a single Bedouin woman, so I assumed that they remained within the houses. I had to admit, I was very intrigued with this pairing and the nature of the future marriage. Thus, I made it a goal to meet Ali while I was here.
At last, we approached a collection of wells, marked by a lone tree at the base of a tall, rocky slope. At the top of the slope, there was another rare tree emerging from the stone, and a trail of green that snaked all the way down, feeding into the wells. It looked almost mystical, a small oasis in a barren landscape of orange. An ancient, holy, life-giving place. "Lawrence's Spring," our guide managed in English.
He tapped our camels to lie down and we gingerly slid off. I patted my trusty camel and Tyrone told me that the word for "camel" in Arabic came from the same root as "beautiful”. "You are, indeed, very handsome," I told my camel. He moaned menacingly in response. Our guide pointed at the tourists who were climbing the up the slope, and indicated that we should do the same.
It was a bit of a climb, treading steep rock while following a narrow pipe outlined with vegetation, but we made it to the top. The other tourists had already gone back down, and we were now the only ones. We approached the tree, which had smooth, white bark and thick branches that fanned out broadly, providing ample shade. We sat on the limbs and admired the abundant leaves, which were fresh green and quivering delicately. I breathed in the smell of chilled water, which could be seen trickling down and pooling in a small cave between the rocks. Stroking the cool bark and listening to the sounds of life that emanated from this place, I looked down at the tiny people below, and then out across the endless desert where rock met sky. I rejoiced in the miracle that was this tree I sat on. I thought about all the people throughout the ages, perhaps Lawrence himself, who had sat in this same place, finding comfort in a refuge overlooking an expanse that seemed devoid of life and as big as the world, thinking the same thoughts. In this moment, I felt connected to all travelers that were and would ever be.
The descent down the mountain was much easier, though I was not in a hurry to leave. When we reached the bottom, we were introduced to our new guide, Hazem. Hazem was about my age, with a boyish face, and spoke very good English. He would be driving us to a few other locations, and then to our camp for the evening. His Toyota truck was tricked out with thick wheels and a bed with inward-facing benches covered by a canopy. We loaded into the bed with some Chinese students who were headed the same way. “Hold on!” Hazem yelled from the driver’s seat. We took off with a jolt and sped into the desert.
We passed some kids with a herd of goats, and I thought about how quickly someone could get lost out here. These mountains formed a maze of gargantuan proportions. If traveling on foot, one wrong turn and a person could probably travel for days before realizing they were lost, which at that point, would be too late.
The first place Hazem took us was a portion of rock upon which ancient Nabataean travelers had carved instructions for navigating what used to be a trade route. There were images of camels and people riding them with spears, intermingled with unrecognizable symbols. We studied the pictures and tried to make out their meaning. As a kid, I wanted to be Indiana Jones, and I was definitely having a moment here. I surveyed the surrounding area, imagining how it must have looked when it was a bustling trade route. I noticed several man-made stacks of small, rounded rocks, ascending in size from top to bottom. "What are those?" I asked Hazem.
"I will show you.” He picked up a baseball-sized rock from the ground and threw it at one of the stacks, knocking it down with a single blow. He picked up another and handed it to me. "Your turn."
Thus, we all spent fifteen minutes throwing rocks at other rocks. Hazem did not hurry us to move on to the next stop in our tour, and we didn’t feel that we needed to be anywhere else. We were thoroughly entertained and perfectly content.
Continuing on, we arrived at the Burdah Bridge, which was a natural bridge about four stories high. It was here that we crossed paths with some classmates who just so happened to choose the same weekend to visit Jordan. It also just so happened that their guide was Ali, Jennifer's fiancé. He was, indeed, devilishly handsome. He wore a black tunic with a checkered headscarf, and had the unmistakable swagger of a "lady's man." Their group was already in the truck and ready to leave, so I decided to ask him: “Are you Jennifer’s fiancé?” Though he was clearly glad to be engaged in this conversation, he seemed confused by my question. I assumed he did not know the word "fiancé." "I'm Jennifer's classmate," I explained. "She told me that you're getting married, and that you're moving to America, and that you’re going to be on that TLC show - ‘90 Day Fiancé’." Still no recognition, and I was beginning to worry that he was the wrong guy, or worse - that the whole thing was a misunderstanding. Finally, he replied, "Ah yes, Jennifer…. Yes, we will be married." He smiled and wiggled his eyebrows. "See you later." With a wink he expertly reversed, turned, and sped into the desert, our classmates whooping in the truck bed as Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" blasted from the speakers. Their music and cheers could still be heard after they disappeared into the sunset. It was now clear that, although our guide and Chinese companions had amicable qualities, we did not get the “cool group”.
Nonetheless, I did feel pretty cool when it was time to break out the snowboards and sand surf down a dune. I was the first to go, and while the others took their turns, Hazem tied my headscarf in the style that the Bedouin men wear it. It felt nice and secure, keeping my head warm in the growing chill and the hair out of my face as the wind from the speeding truck whipped it about wildly. The air was crisp and invigorating within my lungs. I was amazed at how at home I felt here, in this truck, bouncing across a foreign landscape. The people here and my people at home in Copperopolis would probably get along very well. I could picture Hazem and my uncles barbecuing together, hauling chopped wood in their over-sized trucks, hunting deer in the forest. Freedom, independence, and wide-open spaces. And then a thought came to me: that the whole world is divided between country folk and city folk, and that all other perceived differences are easily overcome.
We pulled up to a ruined stone structure and a black and white striped Bedouin tent that was pitched inside an inlet of rock. The tent was washed in chilly, blue shade and had smoke emerging from within, but the stone ruin was still absorbing the heat of the sun. Upon closer inspection, it became clear that it was three walls of a small house, with a natural formation serving as the fourth wall. It was the only manmade architecture we had seen in the desert so far, and it was made out of large cubes stacked in a traditional brick formation. "This was Lawrence's house," said Hazem. It was very small and could have only fit one person comfortably. It was growing colder by the minute, and the smoking tent snuggled up to the side of the mountain looked far more inviting than this house ever could have been.
There were two Bedouin men inside waiting for us. One was crouched over a small fire upon which a kettle of tea was boiling, and his face was like dark leather. He appeared to be the oldest person I had ever seen. I knew he was likely not as old as he looked, but had probably seen more sun and eroding elements than anyone else alive. The other was reclined on the cushions, texting vigorously on his Nokia flip phone. I was astounded that he could get service out here.
The old man smiled and gestured for us to come sit around the fire. There were rugs to sit on, and the heat of the fire was reviving. Hazem handed each of us shot glass-styled tea cups, and the old man steadily poured each of us some very hot, very sweet tea. Hazem began conversing with the old man in Bedouin Arabic, which was very hard to understand. Following carefully, I listened to the old man describe his day, complaining that his tooth was hurting him after visiting the dentist. "I have some Tylenol," I spoke up. It seemed to cheer the old man as Hazem explained to him that we were Arabic students, and we then practiced conversing, with many mistakes and much laughter. Suddenly, the old man gestured for us to be quiet. He appeared to be listening for something. Hazem got up and beckoned us to quietly step outside the tent with him. We did, and watched him scan the tops of the mountains before shaking his head. "He thought he heard an ibex," Hazem explained. The others returned to the tent, but I remained outside with Hazem as he continued to search halfheartedly. "They make a sound like this.” He whistled a chirping sound like a bird. "They are very quiet and very fast. Not easy to kill. "
"How are you able to hit them when they're so high up?" I asked.
"Well," he began with enthusiasm, "we go in a group and we lie down behind a rock. You have to be very patient because we can go for a day without talking. Then, if one shows up, you get one shot to kill it or it will be over. But if you can hit it, it falls from the mountain." He mimed the graceful descent of the ibex with his hands. "You should come with us!" he offered. I found myself wishing that I could stay longer, but I had obligations that would not allow it.
After a bathroom break behind Lawrence’s House, it was time to head to our camp for the evening. We said goodbye to our new friend and piled back into the truck for the last leg of the journey.
Our camp was in a raised alcove of rock that overlooked a sweeping valley edged with crimson mountains, growing hazy and golden in the sunset. It consisted of a very large tent, surrounded by a little village of ten or fifteen smaller tents, as well as a permanent kitchen and bathroom structure. There were other Bedouins here that would be our hosts for the evening, and it was time for Hazem to leave us. We thanked him for a wonderful time, and he promised to come back in the morning to pick us up. Our new Chinese friends went along with him because they were staying in a different camp nearby.
One of our hosts, a handsome young man with sharp-looking facial hair, showed us to the main tent which had mats on the ground with low tables for eating and a cinder-block fireplace. The entire space was filled with oriental rugs and bold Bedouin textiles. Around the hearth there was an assortment of shiny brass pots and dallahs for boiling coffee. However, they were all clean and likely for decorative purposes. They had clearly kept aesthetics in mind while furnishing this place, as it resembled a 19th century painting of the Orient. “We will eat dinner in here soon, but you should go see the sunset first.” Our host led us back out of the tent and pointed us toward the rocks above.
We scaled the rough boulders to a plateau that overlooked the entire valley. It was hard to judge distance out here, because everything was so incredibly massive. We could probably see for miles, though it felt like the whole desert, or the entire world. As the sun dipped down behind the mountains, the haze disappeared, and light became gentle, so that we could see more clearly and further than at any other time of day. Way out in the distance, where the light crested the horizon, I could imagine the earth stretching endlessly into gold, wherever the sun moved to shine, and I felt so very small, and so very content to be so.
The glory of a sunset: a phenomenon which happens every day, and yet we are struck with awe when we care to notice it. And then there were other wonders I rarely noticed, like the chilled air passing steadily through my lungs; the rock radiating beneath me, giving its warmth to my body, and the motionless, primordial, blessed silence. In my life, there have been a few select moments that I have resolved to commit to memory, like a photograph, telling my future self in that moment to never forget. I told myself in this moment to remember that I was alive, I was healthy, and that the world was a marvelous adventure.
I’ll admit that I was rather disillusioned upon returning to the tent to find that there was a boisterous Israeli family, about fifteen strong, currently occupying it. I had been looking forward to an authentic and intimate dinner with our Bedouin hosts. It became rapidly apparent that this was not going to be the reality this evening, nor was it going to be possible to remain aloof and separated from the ruckus that this family brought with them. One of them, a middle-aged man in hiking clothes who I could deduce was the “crazy uncle” of the family, beckoned us over excitedly and began pointing at and naming every single family member, from the smallest child who was about seven years old, to the matriarch, who was at least eighty. He explained to us that it was a family tradition to come here every year to celebrate Hanukkah. He asked us where we were from, and when we told him we were Arabic students, his enthusiasm piqued and he started speaking Arabic like a giddy kid sharing a secret language with his friends. He switched back to English to tell us that his family had been living in the Golan Heights of northern Israel for a over century, alongside their Arab neighbors, and although he was Jewish, he considered himself a Palestinian. He said this with great intensity and purpose, as it seemed to be very important to him that we knew. When the host came in to announce that dinner was ready, all of the men in the family went to stand with the host, chatting and laughing chummily about manly things in Arabic. I was taken aback: it was as if they had known each other for years, and maybe they had…. I was startled to realize how quickly I had internalized the notion that Jews and Arabs were not supposed to talk like that.
As we finished our dinner in a large crescent of cushions facing the hearth, I was warming up to the family and the unapologetic joy which they demonstrated. Even though I couldn’t understand their jokes in Hebrew, I laughed along with them just from watching how they threw their whole bodies into their laughter. Later, the crazy uncle insisted that our host bring out his oud (a kind of guitar) and lead us in some songs. After some coaxing, he left and came back with his oud, followed by an older, impressive-looking Bedouin wearing a pure white tunic and a very long headdress. The way he carried himself, with tall grace, asserted that he held a high position within the tribe. He had brought a drum with him and the two of them sat down beside the hearth. The handsome one asked the family what he should play, and they spouted a wide array of suggestions. He began to play an upbeat folk song, singing in a marvelous, fluid voice, with the older man tapping the drum. The entire family seemed to know the song and was singing along, clapping and snapping fingers zealously. The only words I could make out were “My darling is beautiful, but -”. But what? Nonetheless, the beat was difficult not to dance to and I was swept up in the music.
After a few more songs, I moved closer to Tyrone to see how he was doing. He did not seem to be as enthralled with the music as I was. Instead, he was deep in conversation with a man I had not noticed before. The man was wearing a police-type uniform and did not fit in at all with the family or the Bedouins. I wondered, what was his business here? Tyrone introduced me to his new friend, Muhammad, who nodded toward me briskly and resumed talking. He had sharp eyes that were strikingly light against his dark skin, his voice pleasant and alluringly quiet, forcing us lean in. “I was married before,” he continued, “but she was too young and it did not work. She was like a child. But I was just married again to another woman. She is eighteen - I am forty. It is good to be married to a woman that is younger than you, because when you get old, she will still be young.” I stared at Tyrone with wide eyes and waited for a reciprocating glance, but it never came. He was transfixed. “Marriage is so....stable. It is good for a man to be married. I wish this for you someday, my friend.” He patted Tyrone jovially and pulled out his phone. “Let me show you a picture…. She is home right now, waiting for me in Amman.” He showed us a photo of two heavily made-up eyes peering out from the slit of a black veil.
“Wow, she’s lovely,” Tyrone and I responded in unison.
“Yes, I know,” he gloated. “Are you Christian?” he asked. Tyrone answered, “not really” and I told him “yes”, I had been raised Christian. He looked at me for the first time since being introduced, his eyes flicking from me back to Tyrone, as if he was awestruck by the fact that I had spoken. He then recited a series of Quranic verses that reinforced the oneness of God, and I noticed that he deliberately avoiding looking at me. Every time I made my presence known, he would strike me with a look that I couldn't quite decipher, but made me shiver. Although Tyrone seemed to be enjoying his proselytization experience, I was done with the whole scene and moved back to my original seat.
It was now time to light the menorah that the family had brought with them, and for the first time during the evening, they grew quiet and solemn. There was an aura of hushed reverence in the tent that was heightened by the number of people in it and our close proximity to one another. As one of the mothers lit all seven of the candles, the family sang what I assumed was a “Menorah Lighting Song” and the handsome Bedouin accompanied them on his oud.
The rest of the evening was spent singing Hanukkah songs while we all grew drowsy in the low glow of the coals and the enveloping warmth of the tent. The kids were dozing off in parents’ laps, and they conversed in low voices, planning out how to move them to their beds for the night. A welcome, fuzzy sense of exhaustion was washing over me as well. This had been a long day. My first day in Jordan, first camel ride, first Hanukkah. Looking around the tent at the kind faces smiling back, I realized that I had been so wrong to feel that they were intruding upon our experience, as they had, in fact, had so generously welcomed us into their special tradition.
“You changed your mind?” Tyrone asked me. We were just outside the main tent, beating our shoes together to knock out any potential scorpions.
“Yeah, I think I’m better off sleeping in our tent.” In truth, I had wanted to drift off in the main tent with the comfort of the dying fire and the family spread out on their mats all around me. However Muhammed, upon hearing this plan, was far too eager to collect a sleeping mat for me, placing it in a corner near his own. He had moved light years past managing to look at me - his bright eyes were suddenly trained on me like a cat’s and his wide grin was both appraising and anticipating. It was all I needed to change my mind.
“I quite like our new friend,” Tyrone gushed as we began to feel our way through the heavy darkness toward our tent.
“You mean Muhammed?” I scoffed. “He’s a creep! He couldn’t even look at me. And he was trying to convert us.” Tyrone stopped suddenly and grabbed my shoulders. He leaned in toward me and I could just make out his face. It was practically glowing with excitement.
“I’m pretty sure he’s mukhabarat,” he whispered intensely.
“Like secret police! Jordanian intelligence!”
“Well, it’s not much of a secret if he’s dressed like a cop, is it?” I turned away and resumed my careful trek. I could hear Tyrone trailing close behind. “So you think he’s here to watch that family?”
“Yeah, probably,” he answered. “They are Israeli.”
“You know, our ‘new friend’ probably wouldn’t be so friendly if he knew you were gay.” This statement ended the conversation, in addition to the camel that stood in our way. He was white and glowed like a moon in the weak, yet crystal-clean light of the stars. Some boys from the family had already discovered him and were approaching warily. Although he was free of any tethers, he allowed them to place their hands on his neck and, very briefly, on his face. I moved in slowly to touch him and found that his fleece was pure and pillowy like a lamb’s. He groaned softly - a puff of hot breath on my face - and, satisfied with whatever it was he had come for, disappeared into the gaping darkness.