Divinity is Here
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, the 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,
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
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'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
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 inquired 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.
©2004 by Namit Arora