Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Call Of The Red Desert

Three years ago I traveled in Jordan and happened to have an unforgettable cup of tea in a Bedouin tent near Petra. That trip inspired a short story which won first prize in the fiction category of Moondance Film Festival last year. As it is too long for a blog, I am posting an excerpt here, just to give you a flavor of the unique Bedouin culture, the red desert, and the black sage tea.

Zeina al-Husseini watched the early sunrise over the pink mountains of Petra from the kitchen window of her new apartment. The sunrays danced on the rifts and fissures that crossed the mountains like wrinkles cut the skin of her old face. She had watched the sunrise for many springs, while shepherding goats as a little girl, while cradling her many children in her arms, yet not with a single grandchild of her own. Petra, the ancient Jordanian city, was now a world heritage site opened to mass tourism. Two years ago, the Jordanian government moved the Dulles, Zeina’s Bedouin tribe, from the rocks and sands they inhabited for hundreds of years into new houses with running water and flush toilets.

Zeina fixed her black hatla, the traditional Arabic headscarf that covered her forehead as well as the chin, and left the window. Behind her, a tea kettle boiled on a stove fueled by a rusty gas tank. Zeina removed the lid and smelled the brew – a mixture of sage, cardamom seeds, cinnamon sticks and sugar. She tossed in a handful of black tea, replaced the lid and let the kettle simmer to blend the spices into aromatic Arabic tea. From the outside came a sound of a car engine, still rare in the Dulle’s world of donkeys and camels, and Zeina harried for the door, brushing the sage crumbs off her long black robe. Her dry lips parted in a soft smile as she reached for the latch.

“Yamma!” Khaleed, her youngest son, exclaimed as he stepped in and gave her a long gentle hug. “Mother! I missed you, I haven’t seen you for such a long time!”

Three daughters and two sons bore Zeina before her husband passed away from a night’s chill at the age of thirty, but the dysentery took three of them and the fourth one left and never came back. Khaleed, her favorite, had moved to Amman to study at the University years ago. Now he worked at the Ministry of Ecology and Agriculture paying visits to his mother once a year on a good year.

She hugged him back and studied him intensely, noticing a few lines on his face and a few strands of grey in his hair, contemplating the same question as always. “Aimtah, ibn, aimtah? When, son? When will I stop watching my neighbors’ grandchildren to watch my own?”  The last few visits she stopped asking. His answer was always the same. The Jordanian women weren’t interested in a man who spent his days travelling the desert, taking water samples from the Oasis of Azraq and planting trees on the barren plains of the Dead Sea Valley. They weren’t interested in a modest government salary. A modern Jordanian bride expected her husband to come with a house, a car and money to spend on a dowry – a price paid to her family for taking her away. And of course, for keeping herself chaste and pure until the wedding day.

“I’ve just made tea,” Zeina said instead of asking her question. “Have some.”

“Your tea is always great, yamma,” Khaleed said tenderly. “It turns tastier just like you look younger every time you make it.”

“Don’t flatter me,” Zeina said as she poured tea into two glass cups and tossed in fresh mint leaves. She had her own touch to the ancient Bedouin recipe designed to reduce the body temperature in the desert heat. “My old woodstove made good tea. I used to leave my pot inside with the coals to simmer for an hour. This gas jet is good for nothing. If I boil the pot even for thirty minutes, the tea comes out burnt and bitter.”

“Maybe you just need a new pot. I’ll get you one.”

Zeina shook her head as she brought a dish of dates and dried figs to the table. “My pot is fine. The stove is not.”

Khaleed sipped his tea and took a date.

“Why don’t you answer the cell phone I got for you?” Khaleed asked as he chewed. “It would be nice to call and talk to you once in a while. I had to call the Mohammad family to let you know I was coming.”

“Your cell phone fell asleep two days after you left and wouldn’t wake up,” Zeina said indignantly. “I lived without it for eighty years, why do I need it now?”

“Did you charge it? Did you plug it in with that wire it came with?”

Zeina gave him a blank stare. Khaleed couldn’t help a chuckle.

“You have to feed your phone, yamma, just like you do a camel. You feed it once, it lasts for two or three days.”

“A camel can go for weeks without food,” Zeina retorted. “I’d rather have my camel and sheep back than the silly black thing with more buttons than I’ve seen moons. The children are skilled with buttons nowadays. They talk on the phones while they sell postcards to tourists. Right where I used to take my herd to graze. There’s no place to graze anymore so everyone’s losing their stock. I lost mine last year, remember?” 

Jordan overgrazing, deforestation and bad agricultural practices was a big problem the government was trying to solve. Khaleed’s department worked hard on replanting trees, replenishing water reservoirs and reseeding pastures. Rebuilding the desert took time, but the old tribes had no patience. Khaleed had tried to explain it to his mother many times, but she refused to listen. An old saying stated the young and the old were the same – they listened to thy words, but couldn’t hear.

Khaleed poured himself more tea.

“You still have Dhabu the donkey, yamma?”

“Dhabu died three moons ago. If he hadn’t, I would’ve packed my pots and rode him to Wadi Rum, to move with cousin Mustafa.”

“May Allah’s blessing be with you! Wadi Rum is a three day ride! You can’t ride a donkey for three days at your age. And what would you do at uncle Mustafa’s? You have a new apartment with running water and a gas stove. He still lives in a tent woven from goat hair, sleeps on the rugs and cooks his lamb in a sandpit fire.”

Zeina closed her eyes drawing images of Wadi Rum in her mind. Wadi Rum was the famous red-sand desert, with granite Siqs, the deep sharp fissures created by the earth crust pressures thousands of years ago, the moon-like landscape and whistling wind. Finally she answered. . 

“I’d herd the sheep and goats in the Siqs. I’d watch Mustafa’s grandchildren play and grow. I’d meet the sun every morning on the red rocks and bath in the rays before they get hot. I’d listen to the birds and stare at the night stars from his house of hair. It’s better than getting old in a house of running water.” 

“Why would you want to sleep on the rugs when you have a bed? And as to the birds, you can still listen to them in Petra.”

“You wouldn’t hear a donkey braying in Petra,” Zeina said. “Five hundred thousand tourists have trumped over my city this year, or so the teachers told the children at school. The kids speak English better than Arabic for they talk to strangers more than they play with each other. The children offer camel rides to the tourists so that families can buy canned food instead of fresh meat. I still have the deed signed by King Abdullah the First which states this land belongs to the Dulle tribe. I want my desert back and if the cursed tourists won’t leave, I will.”

They sat quietly together like two camels, the ultimate desert creatures who knew the quarrel was as useless as whirling dust balls. Why argue? The desert had been here a thousand year ago and it would be here a thousand years from now.

Finally, Khaleed spoke again.

“Yamma, why don’t you come with me to Amman? There’s no place there for goats, but there are places for you to watch the sunrise. I meant to ask you to come, that’s why I drove here. Come for a few days and decide if you want to stay.”

Zeina slowly ate a date and poured herself another cup of tea.

“A strange place it must be,” she murmured. “All the roads and no sand, all the cars and no animals. What would I do there, ibn? Can I watch the sunrise dancing on the rocks? Are there cliffs? What color are they?”

“There are no cliffs, but there are hills. There’s an old citadel and the old Roman ruins that are being excavated right next to my apartment. You’ll watch the entire city bath in sunrays from the top of the citadel. And if you don’t feel like walking, you can greet the sun from my terrace. I live on the eighth floor and the entire city will lie down below at your feet. I can see the palace where King Abdullah and Queen Ranya live from my terrace. I’ll show it to you. I’ll take you over to see it.”

Zeina mulled over his speech. The possibility of seeing the king and the queen, even from far away, was tempting.

“People say Queen Ranya doesn’t wear hatla, she said.

Khaleed nodded. “Queen Ranya has very western ways. She doesn’t cover her hair.”

Zeina shook her head in amazement and then suddenly frowned.

“I can’t travel to Amman! I don’t have Dhabu!”

“You’d have to ride with me in the car,” Khaleed told her tenderly. “I know it’s closed in and you can’t see the sky, but you don’t have to cover up from the sand and the wind. Plus, it’s air-conditioned. You can get used to it, just try one more time.”

Zeina gave it another thought and made a decision.

“Let me put on my obaya, and pack my herbs,” she told Khaleed. “I shall see for myself whether Queen Ranya doesn’t cover her hair.”


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