Was picked up at 11:30am in a van, which stopped at the Movenpick to pick up a friendly Canadian couple, Jim and Gail. They were both very talkative, and Jim was quite the comedian. They were a great couple, adventurous, playing off each other, finishing one another’s sentences, the way long-term couples do who share a common language and culture. Everytime Jim spoke he gave a high-pitched laugh and whooped. They were like a loosened up Ned Flanders and his wife from The Simpsons.
We drove into the desert, then left the highway and arrived at a bedouin camp, a collection of goat-hair tents, each with three mattresses, and a communal area with seating in tents around a large stone circle that would be the dancefloor that evening (for Friday night is party night in the desert too). I was met by the manager of the camp, a pleasant fellow, tall and wiry with a grey moustache and kind eyes. He showed me to my tent – 201. I would be alone tonight in the camp, however, so could take any bed I wanted.
We all got into a 4×4 pickup for a tour of the desert. The ride through desert terrain was far from comfortable, but then it’s not to meant to be a picnic. The sun was burning, the air heavy, and the landscape starkly magnificent. I sat in the back, the sandy air in my face, just because I could. We drove around, the amazing landscape and rock formation resembling a Halong Bay without water. Incredible. I scrambled up a steep slope with Jim at one point to get a vista. Jim, despite being in his 50s, was in good shape, and loved hiking, but the soft sandy terrain was proving tough to navigate for him, and even more so for me. Still, we made it. “I’ll get a picture so Gail can say: ‘hey this is what we took when we went to the top’” he laughed. The views from up here were breathtaking, the desert stretching away as far as the eye could see, rocks jutting up here and there, apart from that nothing in the sky or on the ground, seemingly lifeless. Headed down and was driven to a camp, behind which camels lay in wait sleeping. We were given bedouin tea, a sweet black tea, which oiled the wheels of sale from the small bazaar. Jim and Gail bought some bracelets, taking the pressure off me. Jim wanted a camel ride, and he persuaded Gail to saddle up too. Gail was scared of camels, and she got the dominant male of the group, who gave out distressing howls as he was led by a bedouin through the desert. Gail wanted to get off, but Jim encouraged her: “You’re doing good, Gail, real good….wait till we tell the folks back home!” Jim was so positive and jolly, it was impossible not to like him. I could imagine them at home, living in a nice suburb of a city, white picket fences, a tidy garden, friends over for a BBQ, Jim holding court. Nice life, lovely people.
The camel stopped moaning eventually and Gail calmed down and gained confidence. We saw some interesting sites, including Lawrence of Arabia’s house, which is just a collection of bricks way, way out in the desert. Sunset was beautiful, and we went to a spot where we could clamber up rocks way up high, which commanded impressive views of the desert floor, shrinking as darkness fell.
Back at the camp, I ordered a sheesha and a cup of tea, and sat next to a couple of women from Aquaba, one of whose husband, a short fellow with a busy, brisk manner, was the organiser of the Friday night party. She was incredibly flirtatious, probably without meaning to be, in the manner of some Middle Eastern women who are experts at using their smoky eyes to render a man at once powerless and trapped in a lurid fantasy about an impossible forbidden love. Both of them were smoking mini sheesha pipes like chimneys. The flirtatious one, Nora, had 3 kids, 2 boys and a girl. She kept suggesting we travel to Petra together, and perhaps talked a little too much to me, as husband popped over a couple of times to say: “I’m very jealous man,” in a half-joking way, though I noticed a grain of irritation in his tone, so I was pleased when a Lebanese family came to sit on the other side of me, and I got talking to Bashir, a Lebanese student, who was very friendly and spoke good English. He was a good advert for the new Beirut – young, full of energy, creative, enjoys a drink, a dance and a party. He was here with his Aunt, who, in a black veil with a pale face and a big nose and sad eyes, looked like the personification of the long-suffering, grieving, war-torn Beirut of not many years ago. No doubt she’d seen a lot of bad things, but had also seen new beginnings, time and again. Still, she was similarly enthusiastic about Lebanon, and together they practically convinced me to go there.
As we spoke, the outdoor venue began filling up, and Arabic pop was pounding from the speakers, the DJ mixing in a bit of Jordanian, Syrian, Lebanese and Egyptian music to please the multi-national crowd from those countries, along with some from other places around the region, such as Saudi Arabia. In fact, I was the only non-Middle Eastern there, but did my best not to stick out like a sore thumb, smoking my sheesha and drinking my tea, getting rounds of tea in for me and Nora, and chatting away. The ‘dancefloor’ was alive now with men linking arms and dancing away to traditional songs, while the women sat on the outside and watched, pipes in mouths, obscured behind a haze of pleasantly-scented smoke. The women never danced, and when the men sat down, they sat together, separate from the women, like 2 different clubs, like you might see people do at a school disco, except these people were mainly university students. A man would never dance with a woman. There would be no kissing on the dancefloor, no sneaking off into the desert for a quickie. Not in the Middle East, unless it’s a Western woman with an Arab bloke, then the rulebook is thrown out. A Western man trying it on with an Arab woman would no doubt be subjected to punishment for both parties.
Time came for food, my second helping after I had earlier dined with Jim and Gail, who had left to go back to Aquaba. I ate the mix of hummus, bread, salad, pasta and rice with Bashir. A Saudi couple took an interest in me, and, through Michael, we had a conversation. The Saudi woman’s message to me was: ‘It doesn’t matter where we come from, what our religion is, we are all the same, and only want to enjoy’, which I thought a touching thing to say and I totally agreed, cheered by the sweet tea, the fine company, and my good fortune at being here.
The night went on, the men becoming more raucous as the sugary tea and sheesha kicked in. At around 9pm, everyone left, leaving just me, Nora, her kids, and her friend. We smoked and chatted, and one of her kids, Mohammed, came over to chat. A confident young man, he attended an international school in Aquaba, and spoke English really well. He had ambitions to be a race-car driver in the US, and, at 12, he had already driven a Suburu Impreza, and was a very able driver, he claimed. He’d been watching the Aquaba speed trials that morning, and showed me videos of it on his phone. Such a young man, older than his years by far, mature and confident, he would go far, I was sure. He invited me to play keep-ball in the now empty circle with his friends, and so we played a typical training game with 4 on the outside and one in the middle trying to gain possession. I bounded around in my big walking shoes, high on tea… it was fun. Later, when I’d stopped, one of the bedouin took me for a walk just outside the camp into the pitch darkness, where we looked up and I saw once again an amazing display of beautiful stars, closer and brighter than ever, here in the desert. Here I was, miles away from my other civilisation, with the bedouin in the middle of Wadi Rum, gazing silently at the stars. It was a powerful moment, peaceful yet resounding with the power of the universe being exposed, and making me feel rather small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things. I brushed my teeth, bade all farewell, and crept into my tent to sleep alone in the middle of the freezing desert.