Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Wadi Rum: Angels and Djinns

Everyone sleeps in here except for the bus drivers and the imams, who all wake up brutally early.

So it was pre-dawn in Wadi Musa, the village outside Petra, and the call to prayer went out from the mosque next to our hostel. Billy and I woke up, grabbed our bags, and stumbled to the lobby. The manager was still asleep, and while I hated to wake him - it was cold in the dark - we had to settle our bill before heading out. The only other traveller heading out with us was an Algerian soccer coach out of Marseilles. His English was close to non-existent, but we managed to have a good conversation the night before through a mix of French, Arabic, and pidgin English. Or rather, we got on for about thirty minutes before my brain exploded from the effort & I had to excuse myself & head to bed.

The bus was a run-down Mercedes diesel, the kind that seem to never die & somehow manage to cross deserts and mountains throughout the world. The rest of the passengers were local Bedouin, who would get on at a dusty crossroads, and exit again at impossibly small mud brick villages lost in the middle of a seemingly endless desert. We had left the rugged terrain of Petra behind - it's on the northern end of the Rift Valley out of Africa - and entered a world of white dusty sand, blue skies, and distant horizons.

After about an hour the bus turned off the main Desert Highway and we entered the Wadi Rum Wilderness Reserve. It was a world apart. Rum Village was a small settlement on a red sandy plain, bracketed by towering red-rock outcroppings. The closest place I've seen to it is the Navajo lands in Arizona, although without the valleys and canyons.

Aodeh, who organized our trip, met us at the visitors' center and drove us to the village to meet our guide and our camels.

Our guide was Eli, a 15 year old boy who had been raised in the desert. Our camels were creatures from another world. Tatooine, maybe. Eli and Aodeh stuggled to put the bridles on, and the camels roared and screamed and grunted and made these ... sounds ... that started deep in their gullet, rumbled up their necks, and ended with their tongues swelling up like ballons, shooting out of their mouths, and almost choking the poor things. If Chewbacca gave birth to Alien then maybe the labor would sound as horrible.

I tried to help (as if I knew what I was doing, but why not?). Aodeh warned me to be careful. You must be stronger than the camel. Pause. Because if you aren't he can kill you.

The camels, mind you, did have some cause to complain. The first step in bridling them is to grab them by the nose and shove your fist up it's nostril to secure your grip.

I left that part to the Bedouin.

And yet, for all their screams, the camels had soft, delicate, almost feminine eyes. My girl kitty has eyes like this. They were beautiful in repose, and graceful when striding across the sands. I liked mine from the get-go, although the love was, at times, unrequited.

We finally had the critters all geared up, and walked them to the end of the road, where we mounted them and rode into the wilderness.

I've read that people find this the most beautiful desert in the world. T.E. Lawrence camped here six times and felt something godlike in the spaces between the rocks and dunes. And prophets and messengers (rasul) have been recieving their visions here since the beginning of recorded history (and inflicting their visions on the rest of us).

So what did I feel and see? It certainly was beautiful. I adjusted to life on camel-back pretty quickly. It took a few hours, but by the second afternoon I was comfortable and felt that I could ride for days. The first morning we focused on the main "sights." We stopped at a temporary camp to look at jewelry, climbed some outcroppings and rock bridges, delved deep into a narrow siq in the rocks, and climbed one dune. Eli was great in the desert, but definitely was a bit new to dealing with Westerners on his own. I think he had been told this is what tourists like, and expected us to go along with what he had been told. So, we would stop by a large red dune that had blown up against the cliffs. We would dismount (and though our camels were peaceful and loving while walking they go quite pissy when we made then kneel), and Eli would tell us, ok. Climb the dune. We'd ask what was at the top. He'd tell us, you climb the dune, you take picture, then you run down the dune, ok?

So, Ok, we'd oblige, and climb whatever he told us to climb. He was a cute kid, and we didn't want to disappoint.

We saw other tourists throughout the day, small groups doing desert tours in jeep 4x4's. There were never a lot, but just enough to make it feel that we weren't quite in a wilderness (though we definitley were). We stopped for lunch, tea, and a siesta at his second mother's camp (His father had two wives. One stayed in the village with the children so that they could go to school. One stayed in the desert with the sheep and goats. And I know it's wrong, but I actually thought that it was a rather clever system). This, now, was not a tourist site. His mother's camp was a series of long goat-hair tents, with the main one divided into three compartments by woven rugs. The left compartment was empty while we were there, the middle on was where the fire was and where we ate and napped, and the far one was a dung-strewn pen for the sheep and goats at night. The animals were all out grazing, leaving only a one-day old goat behind, bleating for milk.

We had our tea, and shared our lunch with some of the younger kids who looked hungry. We napped, as best we could with the flies and heat, and then saddled up and rode off again.

The wind picked up later in the afternoon, and we had to cover up to protect our faces from the blowing sand and the cold. Billy had bought a Bedu scarf - smart puppy - but I had to make do with a soccer jersey (Team Palestine) and my jacket. We finally rode into the lee of an outcropping, and settled into camp as the sun went down.

And, finally, here in the desert, we had some genuinely good food!

It was also now, finally, with the sun going down, the covered women leading their flocks across the wadi back to the camps, and the tourists all back in town, that I had a feel for the spaces and the silences of the desert. The next morning we had a slow breakfast, and rode off again - this time going deeper into the desert, far from the tourists, and into what felt like a true wilderness. Eli's father, Iid (sp?), guided us in the morning, and Eli joined us in the afternoon when his school was finished.

That night Eli went back to the village. Aodeh rode out to the camp, and we spent half the night talking around the fire about angels and djinns, Gabriel and the prophets and the quran. He was a true believer, close to being fundamentalist (shooting stars weren't dust, but djinn dying). The quran was the perfect revelation of god's word, and so no more prophets would be needed. And the Bedu version was the one true version, and they followed it faithfully - all other interpretations were madhab (I need to check on the spelling), or variations and heresies.

And oddly, from him, in the place, I could understand it. In the rest of the world all the Old Testament teachings seem anachronistic - the best use I've found for Leviticus is to piss off fundementalists (Ha ha! You ate pork and you're wife showed her hair! You're going to hell!!!) But here, in this place, and at it's source, and in a culture that hasn't changed much since the books were written and the prophets still wandering in from the wilderness, it's all a bit more comprehensible.

We're in `Aqaba now, a port town on the Red Sea. More on this later - but it's a great town. Most tourists seem to skip it, or spend all their time diving (and the reef, 5 meters off shore, is fantastic! The best I've seen, perhaps. And ... Dolan, Chris, if you're reading this prepare to drool ... the new environmental minister for `Aqaba was banned all development from within 100 meters of the high tide line). There must be something about salt water that slows people down ... this is most definitely still Arabia, but it's a mellow, laid-back Arabia. In Amman the markets and souks were a bit overwhelming, and all we could do was wander in and look on. Here I've had no problem bargaining, chatting with store owners, and taking part in the life rather than just watching and taking pictures.

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