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Chapter XIV: Petra

Petra, Jordan

The ancient city of Petra is hidden in a red rock basin, carved out by extinct ravines and intricately sculpted by the Nabateans. Our bus spiraled down into the more modern town that encircled the ancient city. It was a sleepy assemblage of dilapidated homes, hostels, and tourist shops.

The bus dropped us off at a poorly marked building which was our hostel. We ascended a flight of outdoor stairs to find two men lounging and smoking on a terrace. One of them was extremely tall and the other seemed a bit slow. The tall one received us congenially and showed us into a living-room style lobby, which was filled with moth-eaten carpets and couches, and occupied by two older men who were also smoking. After checking us in, our host invited us to sit and have tea. As we finished our tea, he inquired in English about our plans for a ride home tomorrow. “I have a van, if you are interested,” he offered. We replied that we might be. He then turned to the other two men and they debated in Arabic how much he should charge us. Apparently, the standard was forty-five dinar, but he was confident he could get away with charging us sixty. As I listened, I wilted in remembering the trials of yesterday. I was not looking to get scammed again. “We can pay you thirty dinar,” I interrupted in Arabic.

“You speak Arabic?” our host exclaimed, quite flustered.

“I understand better than I speak,” I replied. He was clearly embarrassed, which made me feel for him, though it also gave me more confidence. “We were offered thirty by another driver.” This, of course, was not true. He turned to the old men, who both nodded.

“Okay! Thirty dinar is fine.” He seemed genuinely happy with this arrangement, shaking both of our hands. I was glad to have secured us a deal, though I felt a bit guilty for scamming him. Although I didn’t consider thirty dinar something to be excited about, from the looks of this hostel, he could really use it.

The slow man showed us up some patchy stairs to our room, grunting unintelligibly. He had a bad limp, and I wondered whether he was mentally or just physically disabled. Once alone in our room, we took a reluctant look around. “I’ve seen worse,” Tyrone declared. But I hadn’t. Not ever. I was quite certain that this place had never been cleaned, at least not in my lifetime. The beds were covered in mismatched sheets and children’s blankets, and each one was topped with a single yellowed pillow. The curtains were ratty sheets with some sort of Anime cartoon character printed on them, and the bathroom was a biohazard - stocked with a hairy bar of soap, a used hairbrush, and a crusty toilet.

We were more than ready to drop off our bags and head to Petra, which was only a short walk down the hill from the hostel. The Petra entrance was definitely the nicest part of town. There was a collection of shops with a theme park aesthetic and a fancy hotel built only a few feet away. However once inside the park itself, we were bombarded by a plethora of animal transportation options, including horses, donkeys, camels, and incredibly speedy horse-drawn buggies. The handlers of these animals were, generally speaking, a rough lot. Many of them had long hair and wore black kohl around their eyes, and they would ride up alongside tourists and solicit their animal relentlessly until they were either accepted or forcefully denied. We soon learned that if we denied them assertively in Arabic, they were more likely to leave us alone.

The road to Petra was a narrow, snaking canyon formed from rusty orange rock. There were aqueducts cut into the sides, which must have made a marvelous sound of abundant prosperity as ancient travelers approached the city. Every few minutes, a horse and buggy would whiz past, hooves clicking on solid rock. Otherwise, the air was completely still and there was perpetual shade, creating the illusion of being indoors, if one did not look up to see the vivid strip of blue sky. This long, narrow passage opened up into a broad organic square, and we were immediately in the presence of the famous Treasury, which was instantly recognizable from the many photos and films it had been featured in. It was much bigger in person, and the vast, virgin rock that surrounded it made the feat of carving such a perfectly classical piece of architecture out of such a solid face seem that much more admirable and ambitious. What a wonder it must have been, a thousand years ago, to emerge from that shady passage into the golden light of civilization, with its clean lines and precise geometry defying the natural elements.

Staggered in front of the Treasury, there were more camels and donkeys, some of which were elaborately decorated and posing for photos. There were also “soldiers” dressed in ancient Nabatean costume with shiny helmets, and there were a number of local Bedouins sitting atop the foundations watching the tourists. Amidst it all, there was a man in a suit staring solemnly at the Treasury. I paused to take one of the best photos that I have ever taken.

After watching the sun submerge behind the crimson-colored peaks, we descended back down the path. We reached the bottom to find that that there were very few people around, and those who remained were leaving as we were, since the park was officially closed. One of them was a plump blonde girl who was hastily huffing and puffing her way through the sand. A man on a camel was trailing her closely, imploring unremittingly from his high mount that she would accept a ride. The girl (an American) kept repeating ‘no’ between heavy breaths, and it seemed that she was growing exhausted from trying to shake him. Emboldened by my male companion, I told the man in Arabic to leave her alone. He looked utterly shocked and halted his camel without another word. The girl thanked me warmly and said she would be fine now.

We continued on, past the ruins of an amphitheater and nearing the Treasury. There was a stretch during which we saw no one at all, as it seemed most of the animal handlers had gone home for the day. However, near a crop of ruined columns, we saw a young man on a donkey riding alongside another lone girl. I did not like the tone of voice in which he was pleading with her, almost mocking, and the girl was starting to cry. Something inside me snapped and my blood grew hot. “Khalas!” I erupted, pointing furiously at the man, arriving at the girl’s side, Tyrone trailing cautiously behind. It became clear right away that this man was not going to react as the previous one did. In fact, he exploded.

“How dare you?!!” he raged in English. “How dare you speak to me in that way, you whore?!!” He was leaning down off of his donkey to get close to my face, his kohl-rimmed eyes accentuating his ire, the likes of which I had never seen. In that moment, I was sure he could do anything. I grabbed both Tyrone and the girl by the shoulders and began walking briskly. He remained right at our side. “This is my job!” he hissed, intolerably close to my ear. “You have no right to speak to me like that, stupid bitch! I will spit in your face!!!” I continued walking, staring dead ahead, refusing to look at him or let my face betray the fact I was regretting my decision to interfere, horribly. “Do you hear me?!! I will SPIT IN YOUR FACE!!!” I took a swig from my water bottle, sticking to my tactic and praying that it was the right one. I believed wholeheartedly that he would, in fact, spit in my face, and I was genuinely afraid that he was about to get off the donkey. Tyrone stayed beside me in solidarity, but his expression was one of utter discomfort nearing panic. I was not sure if he would be of much help if push came to shove. The girl, however, had found her voice and was cussing him out steadily, without much effect. It was me he wanted, and I prayed with all my might that I would not have to fight this donkey man.

It felt like forever, but it was probably more like two minutes. We walked in silence (except for the girl), while Donkey Man seethed and raved. We walked past a gaggle of the Nabatean soldiers, who snickered, but did nothing. We walked and walked, and I wanted to cry, but I was gambling that, since he had yet to attack me physically, his objective was to draw out my weakness so he could revel in it. I resolved not to give it to him. We pushed on as he exhausted every single English curse word he knew- one, two, three times. And then he was gone.

There was a collective release of breath. “Wow, I thought he was never going to stop!” the girl exclaimed, shaking with adrenaline.

“Yeah me, too!” I replied. “Look - I’m so sorry for starting that.” And I was. “I thought I was helping - but I just made it worse.”

“No! Thank you for doing that! That guy had been following me forever! I didn’t know what to do.” A smile of relief broke across her face, and I regretted my decision a little less.

“You did really well,” Tyrone praised me as we arrived at the Treasury, taking one last look. “I can’t believe how calm you were.”

“Thanks,” I said. “And thanks for sticking by me.” He had, after all, and I was proud of him, too.

“I could really use a bath and a glass of wine,” he groaned.

“Yeah, me too.”

We found the wine at a nearby hotel, the Movenpick, elegant and palatial, with its bubbling fountains, striped silks, and oriental lamps. It was one of the nicest hotels I had ever been in, the kind which I could never afford. Although maybe, in Jordan, I could; but even if I were willing to cough up a pretty penny for a room here, Tyrone certainly wouldn’t be. He was right, though. We were student travelers, and we would have to stick it out.

Nonetheless, we were feeling quite “posh” (as Tyrone would put it) lounging on velveteen settees, being waited on by dapper servers in white uniforms beneath an intricate, gold-plated ceiling. It felt safe here, like nothing bad could ever happen, and no one was looking at me or wanting anything from me. For the first time today, I could relax and let the wine melt away my ragged nerves.

After one glass spent delightedly listening to an older American man’s attempt to woo two rich girls with fantastical tales of his travels (without much success), we decided to fulfill the bath portion of our plan by seeking out a nearby hammam that had been recommended on the travel sites. This hammam, which was located just up the street from the hotel, was completely different from the one I had visited in Istanbul. The front room was small and lined with cushions, and there was absolutely no one around except for a young man who had just left his dinner to welcome us. He was muscularly lean with sharp eyes, and spoke very little English. I tried to scan the back rooms for any sign of a female attendant. In my limited experience, the standard hammam either had separate hours for men and women, or had separate wings. I asked him if women were separate, and he confirmed that they were. “We get many married couples,” he said, indicating that Tyrone and I were one of them, though whether or not he actually believed this was unclear. We went along with it as we had for the duration of the trip, waiting as “man and wife” while he went to get the steam ready.

He came back dressed in black swim trunks with a towel draped over his shoulder. “It is ready. Follow me.” He guided us through an intensely humid corridor into the changing rooms, where we stripped to our underwear. “Are you ready?” he called from outside. Tyrone answered ‘yes’ and exited his changing room, leaving me alone. There was still no sign of a female attendant. I felt a twinge in my stomach, but I quelled it by repeating to myself that this place was recommended on the travel sites. And, like he said, they got couples all the time….

“Are you ready?” He had come back and now it was my turn to follow him. I stepped out of my changing room and followed his voice to a frosted door, which I opened, and was met by a surge of dense steam, his hand reaching out from within it. “Take my hand,” he instructed, and I did, plunging into the steam behind him. He led me down another corridor, and all I could see was his faint figure ahead of me, guiding me deeper and deeper into the murk. The steam filled my every crevasse and coated my lungs with heat when I inhaled. Breathing was difficult, but also invigorating. I realized that this man could be leading me anywhere at all, and I would never know it. This was surely another adventure, perhaps more treacherous, but there was no going back now. A small part of me delighted in having to trust this stranger so entirely, quite literally following him into the dark.

We arrived at the genesis of the steam, a room, the size of which I could not determine, and I knew only of Tyrone’s presence from his voice greeting me from somewhere inside. The man led me over to a hot slab, upon which Tyrone was lying, and I lay down beside him. The man said to relax and he would be back in a few minutes.

“Ugh, this feels amazing,” groaned Tyrone. And it did. The slab was hot, just in the realm of being tolerable, and the steam was like a cocoon of soft heat that made me feel light-headed, as if I was floating in a giant womb. After a bit, the man came back and took Tyrone into another room, where he was most likely getting washed and scrubbed. I was left alone again to worry faintly about the situation. The feeling in my stomach was still there, but the lethargy from the heat made me woozy and relaxed to the point of paralysis. So, I thought a weak prayer and let the steam take me.

The man came back, and when he did, I was on the edge of unconsciousness. I took his hand again and he led me into another smaller room where there was another hot slab and a fountain of cool water. The steam was thinned out enough that I could breathe easier, though my head still spun and I could still see very little. I heard him close a door behind us, and I wondered where Tyrone was.

He sat me down on a ledge and scrubbed me with a rough cloth, as the old woman had in Istanbul. But this was different, because his hands, though gentle, were strong and roaming. He did not touch me anywhere unseemly, but he ventured very close, and a shock coursed through me each time he did, which fed the growing twinge in my gut. “Relax!” he said softly, with a smile. He must have felt me tensing up, so I smiled back and tried to let him support my arm as he held it, scrubbing. It was steadily becoming my nature to be distrustful of men (Jordanian men in particular) and I wanted to be able to trust again. He seemed like a nice person, I told myself. He had a pleasant face and touch.

He finished scrubbing and led me to the hot slab. I laid down on my stomach and found that this slab was hotter than the previous one, almost painfully so. He poured buckets of cool water from the fountain over me, which quelled the heat enough to tolerate. He began to lather me with soap, massaging as he did, and allowed myself to be lulled into a state of torpor. “Um - excuse me,” the man interjected, startling me, “can you please take your -” (he pointed at my sports bra) “off?” He asked in a manner that sounded professional, and it was true that it was difficult to wash my back without getting soap on my bra. But would he ask an Arab woman to do this?

“Uh, yeah - sure.” I sat up and turned away from him, pulling my bra over my head and handing it back for him to take. I hid myself with my arms and lay back down, breasts flattened against the hot slab. I was not able to return to that place of careless repose, mainly because my breasts were burning, but also because I had a feeling of absolute certainty the second I handed the man my bra that I had given away far more than I could currently fathom; that I had been carefully led onto a slippery slope that I may not be able to conquer…. “Turn over, please,” he instructed. I rolled over onto my back and lay like a mummy, arms crossed over my chest in an iron grip. My eyes were adamantly closed but I could feel his gaze and the touch of his hands, which began to feel corrosive and caustic against my raw, sensitive skin. My imagination was running wild, and every movement he made, every graze of his fingers felt like a violation. I wanted it to end…. “Stand up, please,” he instructed me. I did. He handed me back my bra and I turned away to put it back on. I felt cautiously better now that it was on, but I couldn’t look him in the eye. He put his hands lightly on my shoulders and turned me around to face the wall. He shampooed my hair, massaging my rigid shoulders as the soap dripped down over my closed eyes, my mouth, and my body. I waited for him to rinse, but he was still kneading my shoulders so slowly that he was scarcely moving at all. And then I felt it: something firm pressing into my low back, right above my underwear.

It took me a moment to realize what it was, but when I did, my breath caught in my throat and I struggled for air as the soap coated my whole face. This was not my imagination - this was real - and I was utterly helpless. Seconds and seconds went by, and he was still there, increasing his pressure surely but ever so slightly. I played possum, frozen like a soggy statue. I was afraid that, if I moved, it would launch the scenario in my head into motion - the one in which I would pull away and try to hit him, or try to run for the door, and the man would rape me in the puddles on the stone floor while my eyes burn and I’m blind as a bat. So, I remained still as if my life depended on it - as I believed it did. But with the same barely-there motion that he used to increase his pressure against me, I adjusted myself to relieve it. And we resided in this limbo for an eternity, his breathing, slow and heavy on my neck, and my heart beating like a rabbit’s, pounding with such rapid fury that I had to believe he could hear it. These were the only sounds, except for the prayers that I screamed in my head: Please, God, let him let me go.

Suddenly, he was gone - somewhere else in the room, filling a bucket with water. Still frozen, I heard him approach behind, and a cascade of cool water was cast down upon my head like a sublime baptism. One, two, three more buckets, and I immerged gasping and trembling and able to see again.

“All finished,” said the voice behind me, and frankly, I don’t remember him leading me back to the changing rooms. All I remember is pressing my head against the wall of the shower, half thanking God for salvation, half wondering if I should be thanking Him yet. I wanted to stay in the shower forever. I had been thoroughly cleaned, but I needed to wash the fear off me, the frailty. But I was also afraid he would come back. This was his domain, and he was everywhere.

I forced myself out of the shower, breathing deeply to slow my heart as I pulled on my jeans and my favorite mustard turtleneck. I wondered if it would still be my favorite after this - or maybe I would forget what I wore. I didn’t. I wear it now as I write.

I found Tyrone and the man chatting in the front room. The man looked like the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland, lounging on his side atop the cushions, swathed in a robe, and smoking Hookah.

“There you are!” exclaimed Tyrone jovially upon seeing me. “Ready to go?” I nodded. I wondered if the emotion erupting inside of me could be seen through my face. Tyrone grinned at me and turned to thank the man. Apparently not. “That was wonderful!” he gushed. I said nothing.

I forced myself to look him in the eye before leaving - I wanted him to really see me and know that he had gotten nothing from me. Nothing at all. His eyes, in return, were impassive and, if anything, verging on flirtatious. Unsatisfied, I turned to leave him and this place forever. As I did, a sad, quiet thought crossed my mind: God had not let me go - he had. And maybe, here, he had done nothing wrong....

“I feel so relaxed, don’t you?” Tyrone continued to rave about his first time in a hammam as we made our way down a dimly-lit street lined with tourist shops, though we were the only tourists. The shopkeepers’ catcalls, though I’d grown accustomed to them, felt menacing and hostile tonight. I pulled my scarf over my head and wrapped it tightly to hide every strand of damp hair. “Are you OK?” Tyrone asked, finally noticing my prolonged silence.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” I replied, not looking at him. There was a heavy pause.

“.... Did he…?” Tyrone asked, his voice dripping with dread.

“Almost.” I finally looked at him. “But he didn’t. I’m fine.” There was a longer, heavier pause.

“Let’s get you another glass of wine.”

I woke up the next morning to the sound of a muezzin so primal and hauntingly beautiful that it rattled my very bones. The window was open and the voice filled the room, reverberating off the walls and filling my core with such sweet ache that I didn’t care to think about anything else, especially the events of last night, until it was over.

We had slept in our respective beds on top of the blankets, covering the dirty pillows with articles of clothing and our bodies with jackets. It didn’t take long to gather our things and meet our host downstairs, who was all ready and waiting to drive us to the border. I remembered how he had found us very late last night, making our way up the steep hill to his hostel, and he had pulled up next to us in a van. We were too tired to question how on earth he had found us, and gladly hopped in. It was only this morning that it occurred to me that perhaps he had been concerned about us and had spent the night circling the town. That was nice of him...

The drive to the border was free of any incidents. I spent it staring out the window at the rain pelting the thirsty desert sand - a rare thing to see. Hazem had told me that it could even snow in the desert, maybe once a year.

The rain stopped before we reached the border. We paid our host what we agreed upon, which he was happy to receive, and proceeded back through “No Man’s Land”, though this time it felt less magical. We cleared a barrage of Israeli security, and finally emerged into Eilat. I could have kissed the ground. The tacky hotels, the mainstream strip malls, the solid attempt at a Boston Irish pub - I greeted it all with exultation. In truth, a Walmart would have tipped me over the edge of euphoria.... I had been defeated by the East. For the first time, I yearned for home.


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