Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Road Well Traveled

I was 100 miles from nowhere. I stood where once Lawrence of Arabia had stood, on the precipice of Al-Azraq Castle, gazing out over the flat desert plains unfolding before my eyes in an endless, tawny carpet. Balancing between the unknown and the known, the familiar and the occult. At my back lay the road to Amman; before me, the winding road to Iraq. The black basalt beneath my feet shimmered in the glare of the sun, and I stepped carefully off the shallow ledge onto firm, if unfamiliar, ground.

A few sun-wearied tourists staggered through the castle grounds, incredulous that such a place could exist in a land unhindered by civilization. I was on the road less traveled. Ducking under the low lintel of a doorway, I entered a ruinous room flooded by sunlight and the dust of centuries. My gaze fell on a black staircase climbing into the azure blue of the open sky above. A staircase to nowhere…

It was 6 am in Petra- Wadi Musa, to be exact. I had spent the previous day clambering among the red rock ruins of the ancient city…the slow descent through the cool, shadowy siq, the soaring walls rippling with shadow and color and sunlight; the first glimpse of the Treasury, and Shahreena’s bewonderment; leaping over boulders to clamber up the steps of the Roman Theatre; traipsing down the winding road into the heart of Petra, surrounded by the weathered pillars and tombs of ancients; exploring into a seldom-visited valley peppered with esoteric pillars and red-veined rock; swaying on donkey-back up to the Monastery, and walking slowly down, bargaining for Bedouin jewelry on the way back; using a restroom in a 2000 year old tomb; trudging back up the siq, wearily, Shahreena dragging with similar fatigue at my side; and a blessed shower back at the hotel.

So, 6 a.m. Shahreena rolls over, looks at me through the dim light of early morn filtering past the faded curtains. “Do you wanna do Wadi Rum today?” I stumbled from bed into the bathroom, flicked on the light, and peered in the mirror. Spontaneity does little for my beauty. A tooth brushing later, and some water splashed on the face, we race down the winding, creaky, and somewhat incongruous staircase, out the lobby, and into a deserted Wadi Musa morning. Only buses roll past, and I peer blearily at the Arabic scrawled across their front.... “Wadi Musa!” Shahreena shouted, and we watch as the only bus that day passes us. But then, sensing our foreign natures, the driver stops, shouts at us, and finds us room among the other sunburned, tired foreigners.

11 a.m. Sweaty, enervated, but victorious, perched on a ledge overlooking Lawrence’s Spring in the vastness of Wadi Rum, hundreds of feet above the red, sandy floor. There is a reason few Bedouins leave the desert; there is a reason why a clear, brilliant day lifts the soul to soar in the heavens among the eagles overhead. There is a captivating magic to the desert, to the tractless sands shifting beneath the jeep, to the wandering camel herds browsing over the sparse vegetation; to the rocky mountains clawing from the sand to unattainable heights; to the smoothness of a red sand dune (although there is not much magic in climbing up it; that involves a lot of cursing, sweating, and a collapse at the top); to the inscrutability of Nabatean runes scrawled on a cave wall; to the whispering silence of sifting sands during the glaring heat of midday; to the natural wonder of a rock bridge carved from the inexorable forces of nature; to the simple pleasure of water, each drop more precious than diamonds under a beating sun.

The thrum of Arab drums and shouting of voices accompanied us through the gates of Jerash, under the triumphant arches and past the hippodrome. In every crevice, along every hillside, crowding in every doorway, the grey Roman ruins blossomed in a riot of springtime color-yellow wildflowers vied for superiority beside vermillion blossoms and deep purple blooms. We gazed, wide-eyed, at the impossible beauty of the desert in spring. I felt small, standing in the shadow of a great Roman pillar, awed by its ability to endure, and the stubborn power of nature to persevere, year after year, and drape the city of Jerash in glory once more.

Their vividness astonished me, as I stood pondering the frescoes on the ceiling above. First brought to life in 800 A.D., they told a story, millennia old, of the first Muslim Caliphs, the Ummayads. They spoke of dancing women, camels, great hunts, pleasures in the baths, singing bears…Al Amra Palace, once a hunting lodge in the Eastern Deserts of Jordan, offers a glimpse into the humanity of early Islam, its frescoes proving what Muslim scholars hesitate to confirm. Concubines and companionship, wealth and wine, dancing and seems the rulers of the world have always enjoyed what propriety forbids.

It is night, in Amman, and, for a few hours, our travels are over. A real meal is simmering on the stove, courtesy of Shahreena (since we all know I would never prepare such a thing. Cooking!? What is this?). Our usual, the potato chip lunch, needs supplementing. One good meal a day, one of potato chips, and whatever breakfast we find available. Such is the price of impulsive and far-flung travel. A small price, when a true friend like Shahreena is by your side, laughing as you hop from one adventure to the next. One Bollywood movie later, and lots of Malaysian curry filling a potato chip-wearied stomach, I curl up in bed, still giddy from the laughter of the evening.

“Americans? Please, take a seat.” The Syrian border guard eyed us suspiciously and waved me towards the familiar set of chairs at the side of the border crossing hall. “How long?” Shahreena asked in her funny Egyptian Arabic. “Maybe one hour, or two, or three, or four…” Or five. We watched as the other people in our taxi, all Arabs, breezed through customs and piled into the car to Damascus. We sat, with our luggage piled around us, and waited, a large bag of snacks at hand to alleviate the frustrations of Syrian bureaucracy. The Swiss, the British, the Iraqis, the Brazilians, all airily sailed through the visa process. We waited. I pulled out an Arabic children’s book, about a kidnapped dolphin, and read it under the bemused eye of Arabs passing through the checkpoint. We waited. After hour three, I rose to ask the official, behind the desk, about the visas. “No word yet from Damascus.” I fluttered my eyelashes, but only slightly, and pondered undoing a button from my shirt. But, really, what’s the point? We waited. After hour four, I asked again. “No news.” “Could you call them? Mumkin?” I pleaded. “I don’t have their number,” he confessed to me. “I am waiting for a call. Perhaps you could try an officer in the station across the hall.” I defiantly munched the last of my potato chips, scarfed down the rest of my Snickers, just for good measure, and looked up hopefully every time the phone rang. We waited. “Americans!” At hour five, we started from our seats, paid the laughably paltry 16 dollar visa fee (most countries pay 50 dollars), and endeavored to find transportation to Damascus. After approaching a few taxi drivers, we found two empty seats, sunk into them, and headed to the one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on earth.

The poor lighting of the bathroom obfuscated much of the drabness of the décor. But something, something moved in the water of the toilet. Hmmmmm…I peered in a little closer and found a rather large cockroach happily swimming his way to me. Flush. Ok, so the Sultan Hotel was not quite fit for a sultan. Perhaps continual habitation has its drawbacks. A stroll through the Hamadiya souq, a thoroughly satisfying 3 dollar meal, and a window shopping tour of Damascus’ mercantile delights later, we were satisfied. I deposited Shahreena at her hotel and spent an enjoyable evening in ex-pat company with several of my American friends living in Damascus.

It came, slowly, roiling over the desert sands with tempestuous arrogance. I glanced up, my finger on the trigger of my camera, capturing the stark beauty of Palmyra. The cheerful blueness of the sky slowly bleached into a dull, ominous shade devoid of any real definition. Flat on my back only moments earlier, staring at the still grand heights of the Roman pillar colonnade, I had noticed nothing. When I had crossed the threshold into the sacred temple of Baal, still colossal after thousands of years, the sun still beat mercilessly against me. “Is that a…sandstorm?” Shahreena asked, at my side, staring at the cloud seething on the horizon. “Go. Fast.” And so we raced through more of Palmyra, laughing nervously as the storm rolled towards us, our awe of ruins somewhat tempered by the knowledge that a vast storm swirling with millions of particles of stinging sand would be imminently upon us. “I want to go, there.” I pointed to a somewhat distant temple, one of the most famous in Palmyra. Standing behind it, photographing it in the dim lighting, I felt the first blast of the storm claw at my skin. I closed my eyes and hugged my camera to me as the first wave passed over. Suddenly, I was inside the storm, and an eerie, glowing light suffused the temple. Cool. During a lull in the sand barrage, I raced towards Shahreena, who had, sensible girl that she is, headed towards the exit whilst I headed further into the desert. We met, and laughed, slightly red-eyed due to the, well, sand...Then the rain came. And we abandoned Palmyra for the dryness of our car, rented out for the day. Safe inside, the storm intensified, battering the desert with gusts of rain and heaving winds and muddy torrents.

I shivered. High in the mountains, surrounded by the lush fields of Syria’s interior, I regretted my obstinacy against packing a jacket. All was fog and dampness, rain and mud, and the stone fortress of the Crac des Chevaliers lay obscured beneath a cloak of opaque whiteness. Instead, we gorged ourselves on our one real meal, and trudged back to the hotel in the fading light of day.

All was forgiven by morn. The fairy tale contours of the castle revealed itself from the hotel windows, a magical structure of turrets and towers, high walls and soaring balustrades. A walk down a country lane, past a cow and herd of sheep, past a tractor parked by the road, past the Arab tourists blaring pop music from their bus, we arrived at the gates. And slipped down the flagstones of the interior, surmounted the surrounding walls, climbed the Princess’ tower, descended down spiraling staircases into darkness, laughed as we discovered the moat (a moat!), and fended off roving bands of school children utterly fascinated by the two foreigners (I once again became a minor celebrity). I have read of the echoing halls of castles, reverberating with the sound of banquets, the bustling corridors, filled with the pitter patter of servants, courtiers, and knights, the inner courtyards bursting with gardens, the outer walls defending the fortress…But it took the Crac, in its remarkable intact state, to visualize the pageantry of the past, an era remembered only by the cold, grey stone walls, silent sentinels.

It stood like a question against the city of Aleppo, a half-ruined tower at the edge of the citadel. Surrounding the fortress sprawled the modern city, a sea of rooftops, minarets, open parks, and the occasional church steeple. Each of these had an identifiable purpose, or at least a place, in the fabric of humanity. But around me lay the rubble of history, fallen pillars, collapsed walls, toppled domes, a lost story. The Citadel was an archaeologist’s dream, and nightmare. Largely unexcavated, but highly trafficked. But I was not interested in contemplating lessons of the past. “Ready for our one meal today?” I asked Shahreena as we wove our way down from the Citadel, through the massive doors, over the ramp, and into the square beyond. “Mmmm…food,” she murmured, and I suspected our bus snack of potato chips had been forgotten. Several large European tourist groups crowded past, eying the Arab masses celebrating Syrian Independence somewhat furtively. Settling into the little café off the square, ordering in smooth Arabic, I knew I was definitely on the road less traveled.

It was huge. The world’s oldest free-standing minaret, dating back from the 9th century, stood proudly erect in the courtyard of the Ummayed mosque in Aleppo. We ducked into the interior of the mosque to find the shrine of Yehiya, our bare feet whispering over the smooth carpet, passing beneath the arched forms of looming white pillars. Garbed in a shapeless grey robe, courtesy of the doorman of the mosque, I watched the activity in front of me for several moments, wondering why I felt suddenly…wrong. “Where are all the women!?” I hissed to Shahreena, who turned to me, rather chagrined, and mouthed, “Oops.” We escaped, unscathed, from the observation of men’s prayer time, rushed onto the warm, intricately patterned marble of the courtyard, and exited the mosque, gaining shoes but losing the hobbit robes.

“Pay. Now.” The hotel proprietor barked at us. I glanced at Shahreena and shrugged. So much for Arab hospitality. We each handed him an equivalent of 10 US dollars and flooded into the late afternoon Damascus sunshine. A morning in Aleppo, a drowsy 4 hour bus ride through the fertile fields of Syria, and arrival in Al-Sham, the original name for the intoxicating city. I towed Shahreena through the winding alleyways of the ancient souq, past stores selling feather boas and ribbon, kitchen utensils and crockery, sexy negligee and bright headscarves. We giggled our way, with the occasional photo and purchasing stop (my scarf collection was sorely lacking in camel hair and silk additions. Cheap, though, Mum, don’t worry), to the Ummayed mosque of Damascus, stunning in its size, age, and sheer grandeur. I sent Shahreena to visit the graves of the Muslim saints while I lingered in the white courtyard, seated on the floor in my requisite hobbit uniform. The gilded mosaics of the Treasury glinted at me as I smiled, leaning back against one of the pillars. In Jordan, in Palmyra, at the Crac, in Aleppo, I saw time without meaning, cities and civilizations abandoned, grand purposes forsaken, forgotten but by the click of a tourist’s camera. But here, here, women and men still washed at the fountain as they had a thousand years ago, children shrieked and raced across the smooth floor, the devout still offered prayers in the direction of Mecca.

My conversion wasn’t nearly as cool, or as divinely inspired, as Paul, St. Paul, from the Bible. In Damascus, on a street called Straight, Saul turned to Paul, and regained his sight, and his devotion. Replace the donkeys with cars, remodel a few of the buildings, and you find me, two thousand years later, watching night settle over Damascus, hearing the honking of cars and the bubble of sheesha pipes, the flurry of life down the street and the clang of shop doors as they close for the day. Here, on a road very much traveled, I find it. Life. Neither extraordinary or revolutionary, just life, unbroken, unharried. There is no severing of the ancient with the modern, just a seamless blending of the two, a continuity of the centuries, millennia, really. And I flow flawlessly into its gentle current.