Sunday, September 28, 2008

Bedouin Weekend

Rocky mountains framed the brilliance of the setting sun, casting a rosy hue over the powdery desert sand and our white SUV. An eagle flew out of the low scrub brushes to our right, and we three Americans, Kathy, Jess, and I, marveled at the majesty of our nation’s national bird settling down in the sand a few meters away. Ribhe, our Bedouin guide, sat in the passenger’s seat while Kathy adroitly steered the vehicle through the desert sands. “Stop the car,” he murmured, and she rolled to a gentle stop. He reached into the backseat, pulled out a large pistol, grabbed a bullet from the glove compartment, slid out of the car, aimed, and shot the eagle before any of us realized what was happening. He trotted over to the bird, lifted it by its talons, and carried it back to us proudly-clearly this was to be no ordinary weekend. We could not help but marvel at his aim, although the sight of the bird, alive but slowly dying, was somewhat difficult for an American to witness. Ribhe tied the bird by its talons and threw it in the trunk, carrying on our slow journey through Jordan’s most scenic landscape, the spectacular landscape of Wadi Rum. Memories flooded back as we passed by rock bridges and rocky precipices I had climbed on my previous visit 1.5 years ago, and I wondered how nostalgic the visit would be. Nostalgic it was not. Unforgettable…unquestionably.

After a long drive through the desert, we emerged on the far side of Wadi Rum, near the local village. Ribhe had picked us up from Petra earlier that afternoon after a dull bus ride from Amman. Twilight had already faded into night by the time we reached his camp, a cluster of tents, a central area for gatherings, and several other outbuildings lit by lights strung along the cliff walls soaring high above the desert ground. With a sigh of relief, we hopped out of the van and congregated on the mattresses spread around the central circle. Knowing our friends’ penchant for drinking, we had managed (through much arduous searching on Kathy’s part) to find a few bottles of liquor to bring to our host. Perhaps wisely, I abstained from drinking the entire weekend, quite disgusted by the mere thought of horrible vodka mixed with too sweet fruit juice. I actually ended up pouring out the cups Ribhe handed me, much to my advantage. When Ribhe’s staff brought us dinner, we tore into the plate of chicken and rice as if we hadn’t eaten in days, settling back on the mattresses to stare at the stars overhead. When the generator turned off, all of the camp’s lights winked out, and only the heavens and our small fire provided light. Happily, the camp contained a working (i.e. flushing) toilet facility, complete with two Western-style (i.e. seats) toilets and three showers. Unhappily, the toilets quit flushing once the generators stopped running. I wish someone would have mentioned that before…But soon, that was the least of our worries.

Fadii, Kathy’s boyfriend, showed up around 10, and Couch Jess and her new roommate, Jennique, provided further companionship. Perhaps companionship is the improper term-objects of lust might more properly describe our relation to our hosts. Anyway, Jess, who is recovering from illness, went to bed early, and I walked her to her tent. Peeking in, I saw two narrow beds, a small mirror, and a nightstand. I returned to the fire and friends, listening to the particular dialect of Arabic flow between the Bedouins, and attempting to decipher their language. Rebhi’s phone rang, and he instantly transformed from ‘jovial’ host into serious businessman. One of his nephews had been in a minor car accident, and he was without a license. After making a few phone calls, one to the head of police in Aqaba, Rebhi decided to have Fadi take the nephew’s place at the scene of the accident. In Jordan, he explained to us, it isn’t necessarily what’s right or wrong, but who knows the right people. Fadii departed to rescue his cousin, and Kathy fretted. I, meanwhile, began to feel uncomfortable with the attention Rebhi began to show me, particularly when he began stroke my hair. I stood up abruptly. “I’m going to bed. In Jessica’s tent,” I announced. I grabbed my obnoxious, red-flowered bag, dragged it off to tent # 65, removed my contacts, went to the bathroom on a nearby sand dune, and ducked into the tent next to Jess, still fully clothed. I blew out the candle that had mysteriously appeared, and closed my eyes, enjoying the pleasant desert chill from beneath my warm blanket.

I awoke to screams, female screams, that pierced the night with startling urgency. I sat up in the absolute darkness, and heard Couch Jess scream something. I felt utterly blind and consummately vulnerable. The wind shifted past the tent and rustled the canvas flap that served as our door. Every nerve in my body tingled with acute awareness and debilitating fear as I realized something horrible was happening, something or someone was perhaps right outside my tent, watching us…My Jess, my tentmate, whispered softly, “What’s going on?” and I murmured, “I have no idea.” Horrible, wracking sobs filled the air around us, stripping away the thin walls of the tent and exposing us to whatever lurked beyond. “What should we do?” my Jess breathed, but I am ashamed to say I felt paralyzed to do more than sit, and listen, hard, for any sign of what lay beyond the peaked tent roof. We sat there, the two of us, for interminable moments as we wrestled with the very real fear of the unknown, of the suddenly malicious desert that swallowed footsteps and sheltered secrets. The simple beauty of the desert, of its vastness, its emptiness, its singular ability to make one feel insignificant, a mere grain among millions, turned instantly vile, as the same isolation haunted me, and I could not move.

Rebhi’s voice called out through the night. “Jessica, Jessica, are you alright? The staff told me you were dreaming…” Jessica, her voice still fraught with sobs, told him she had woken up to a man lying down next to hear. She pushed him away, and told him khalaas (go away). Instead, he pushed off her blankets and grabbed her ankles. At that point, she told him, she screamed, and the intruder ran away. Rebhi brought her to the central fire, where Kathy and others were sleeping. As he walked past, my Jess poked her head out the door. “Rebhi, what happened?” He stuttered a bit, and then said, “Jess was having a bad dream, and my staff came and told me she was crying. You two can come and join us by the fire.” He wandered off, and Jess came back inside, tying the tent flap on one side as she did so, to at least provide a modicum of protection from what lurked beyond. In reality, our tent was far from isolated, and not that far from the central area. But in the darkness of the night, it felt like we were miles from anywhere…

We lay back down, neither daring to breathe much, and whispered softly back and forth. I clutched my flashlight in my hand, my one weapon, I suppose hoping to blind anyone who entered. At some point, I drifted into an uneasy slumber, because I awoke to light sifting gently through the canvas of our tent. I popped up, checked my cell phone, and realize it was around 9. Jess, too, awoke, and we stumbled outside to the languid heat of morning. The staff brought us tea as we glanced around; well, Jess looked, I squinted, being without correctional lenses. We espied Kathy and Couch Jess on the other side of the circle, and wandered over there. Couch Jess further explained, in understandably bitter tones, what had occurred. After staying around the fire (and drinking) till late, she wandered off into her own tent, and awoke to a man next to her. From there, you know the rest of the story. After a few more cups of tea, the females decided a shower was in order, so several of us used the shower facilities (strangely, the showers worked without the generators), and emerged a bit wetter, fresher, and clearer-headed than before. None of us were in a particularly convivial mood, so we lazed around the shade and pondered our next move. Couch Jess half-wanted to return to Amman, but she decided to wait a few hours. In the meantime, several carloads of Bedouins showed up, as well as a sedan full of two of our Danish friends and one of our Amman Arab friends. Ribhe had promised to take us hunting, but, clearly, he planned to include more than just a few individuals. Then came the even more unwelcome news-if we wished to join them, it would cost us each 40 JD, to cover the cost of petrol, goat, and bullets.

We were also welcome to hang around the camp, at no cost, but the prospect of remaining in the same place, with the ghosts of the previous night hovering so near, did not appeal to many. Finally, we all consented to go, and proceeded to wait several hours as the men packed guns and gear into four SUVs. More Bedouins continued to appear, until our group, all together, numbered around 20. Prominent among the Bedouins was the man we dubbed “No Pants” because he wandered around the camp in a short pair of boxers. Actually, we saw him earlier in a pair of much skimpier blank briefs, so the boxers were an improvement, but still…In addition to the throng of people, a goat mysteriously appeared, who was promptly stuffed into the back of an SUV to await slaughter for our dinner. Poor Jess’ backpack sat in the same trunk space, and the goat took the liberty of pooping and peeing all over her stuff, much to her dismal discovery later that evening. If you haven’t figured it out yet, this goat was very much alive, and observed our antics with the dignified air of, well, a doomed goat. We nicknamed it Zaki.

Eventually, our caravan moved out, and we sped across the desert at occasionally obnoxious speeds, racing up and down dunes and across the hard flats. Jess (my roomie), myself, and Jennique shared one vehicle, driven by Aodeh, owner of the most adorable puppy I have even seen. At 5 weeks old, Sirri3a displays the curiosity of a puppy and the affection of a dog looking for attention. Jennique and I promptly adopted him, and spent the next day and a half playing and cuddling our favorite male of the bunch, which doesn’t say much for the human males of the group, I suppose…

Soon, I realize we had long since left Wadi Rum, had passed through an oasis, and were heading further south, towards Saudi Arabia. Hmmmmm…With the undeniably useful connections of our hosts, we left the borders of Jordan and entered the no-man’s land that lies between Saudi and Jordan. Here, only a few kilometers from Saudi, we set up camp. At some point during the voyage, No Pants became a bit to forward with Couch Jessica, and Kathy promptly stopped our forward progress, got out of her car, and yelled at him. Given the predominance of male influence in Arab, and, particularly, Bedouin, culture, this rather shocked and chastised No Pants, and, to a larger extent, the entire group.

I recognize that a lot of tourists, looking for a vacation fling, sleep with their ‘exotic’ tour guides in Jordan and the Middle East. And, just as I find it difficult to distinguish between creepy Arab man and nice Arab man, so too do they find it difficult to differentiate between sharmoota (slutty) tourist and not-interested-in-sex-with-sleazy-Arab-man foreign woman. I assume the worst in people, especially when traveling. My roommates, particularly Jess, who’s new to the region, is still more trusting and friendly toward strangers. But, if you give them a smile, they’ll take a kiss, and if you give them a kiss…you get the idea. This trip reminded me how drastically foreign our two cultures really are-in the West, male and female friends can share the same room, lots of hugs and touching, without ever feeling anything sexual toward one another. But, for most men in the Middle East, this concept is as foreign as eating dinner with a plate…

Jennique took the opportunity of Kathy’s beratement to talk to Aodeh in the car, explaining to him what I mentioned above. He was a bit quiet for the last part of the ride to camp, but I think he digested the information. We passed a herd of camel ambling along the road, stopped for pictures (alright, so we’re sometimes the stereotypical tourists!) and finally stopped to make camp. With very little fanfare, Rebhi, Aodeh, and a few others dragged Zaki out of the back of the SUV, held him down, and slit its throat with the knife Aodeh always carries in his belt. Crimson blood splattered the ground around the animal, and its legs flailed, weakly, as the life drained from its scruffy body. The men took the body, hung it upside down from a car, and proceeded to peel (literally, the skin just pulled away like an orange peel) away its skin, revealing the innards beneath. They removed the non-edible organs and stuffed them back into the hide, which they later dragged out into the desert for the wild dogs and hyenas to finish. I won’t lie, I was fascinated, but, after watching for awhile, I climbed to the top of the hill backing our campsite to watch the sun set with the rest of the females, minus Jess, who was off shooting guns. It was a beautiful sight, the sun sinking beneath distant hills and throwing the Bedouin camp nearby into bright relief.

Camp life was a bit subdued for a while, as everyone awaited the food and talked quietly in small groups. For the most part, the men stayed on one half, and the women on the other. As Couch Jess put it, it was a bit like a high school dance. Boys on one half of the gym, girls on the other… When the food arrived, we dove in with little decorum, and the segregation lines were crossed in the name of dinner. I actually enjoyed the goat, grilled over the open flame of the desert and with rice to soften the occasionally tough bites of flesh. Poor Zaki…

After dinner, most people sat around the fire, loosening the tension of the day and watching the stars flicker into existence, far in the heavens above. Lights from the nearby city of Tarbooq, in Saudi, cast a green glow over the horizon, and little Bedouin tents glowed softly across the desert plains. It was a scene unlike anything I had ever experience, sleeping in an unnamed territory, so close to Saudi Arabia we could (and did) drive over the border, surrounded by Bedouins, sated with freshly slaughtered goat…

Jennique is half Saudi, on her mother’s side, and her mother always promised to take her, but she passed away before she could fulfill that promise. Aodeh, however, made her dream come true-he honked the car at us, and told us to get in. We barely had the opportunity to grab our purses before we sped off into the trackless desert, making our own road through the rock and sand. “Look,” he said, and Jennique and I peered out at the border marker. We passed it, and entered Saudi through somewhat illegal means, turned of the car engines (we didn’t fancy an encounter with the border police), and sat, quietly, drinking in the land.

Eventually, we returned, dragged mattresses and blankets over to our friends, and burrowed into our little cocoons, giggling and laughing at the absurdity of the situation. Rarely have I seen stars so bright, the Milky Way splashed across the black velvet of night with such brilliance and Jupiter gleaming with the brightness of a large diamond. Shooting stars arced through the night, and I wished upon one. Alas, sleep was difficult to come by, as one of the somewhat drunken Bedouins proceeded to sing, in raucous tones, until 4 am. I slumbered through some of it, but his discordant voice jarred even me from the sweet land of slumber into the somewhat less soothing land of inebriated desert men.

The sun rose magnificently, and Jennique and I took a lovely desert stroll in the clearness of the perfect morning. Camp was soon dismantled, and we roared off to visit a local agricultural area, a verdant swath of green bordered by the arid sand of the desert. It truly was a paradise, with fresh dates, veggies, and fruits growing in neat rows. I plucked dates right from the tree, savoring their tart, sweet flavor, and even climbed halfway up a palm, for the hell of it. Some of the men went off to hunt (birds), and the rest of us waited, somewhat restively, to begin the long journey home.

We returned to Ribhe’s camp, where we ate lunch, and then he offered to drive us to Amman (as long as we paid for gas), which we accepted, and sang “Old McDonald Had a Farm” most of the way home. It was an interesting weekend-at times frightening, marvelous, and awkward, and I’m still processing all that occurred.

Anyway, I need to finish packing for Greece and head off in an hour and a half. Here’s a link to some photos-I think the new ones are on the second page. Thanks!