This is the second story of a four part Petra series. Although this story is independent, it might make sense to read part I first. You can find part I by scrolling down to last week’s story.
Pat’s Petra Pilgrimage; Part II.
Wadi Musa, Jordan; February 2013
On my second day at Petra my plan is to make the long hike. In addition to the ancient Nabatean structures that the Petra complex is famous for, it is also possible to follow a trail that leads from the center of Petra to the tomb or Haroun. I’m a little fuzzy on who exactly Haroun was. I think he was Moses’ brother or something like that; some kind of famous prophet who is holy to all the monotheists (Christians, Jews, and Muslims). I’m not exactly a monotheist but I am a big fan of long walks to holy and sacred places. A tomb? On top of a mountain seven or eight miles away? Sure, that sounds like fun. How do I get there?
That’s the problem really. I don’t know how to get there. The entrance brochure has only a very rough non-topographical map. I don’t really want to dish out extra money for a guide or a camel. I’m hoping to just head in the right general direction and ask people along the way. It is, you might say, a quest. I’m trying to find the holy place… searching for the sacred.
But I get distracted.
I will tell you what; that Siq is an amazing thing. It’s a passageway all right. I can’t really explain the process but it somehow alters my brainwaves. It transforms reality into a kind of fantasy or wonderland. I know it’s a common motif for fairy tales and a frequent plot device for children’s books. Sometimes it’s a wardrobe or a doorway or a secret passage behind a library bookshelf. In this particular case, in my universe, it’s a mile long crack in the earth. I am, quite literally, living in the dream.
Just like yesterday, I stop and have a fine cup of Turkish coffee at the café’ in front of the Treasury. Surprisingly, the friendly Bedouin waiter remembers me and he greets me like an old friend and valued customer. Oddly enough, I feel very at home, sitting here, looking up at the Treasury, drinking my coffee. It feels like a routine that’s been repeated many, many times.
Yesterday, I took the left hand trail and went up towards the place of high sacrifices. Today I’m going straight ahead to see the stadium and the Royal tombs. That’s the only thing I really missed from the main compound yesterday. I did walk by them in the dark on the way out last night. I couldn’t see much though and it didn’t seem very special. I’ll take a quick peek this morning and then head out on the long trail towards the famous prophet’s tomb.
But it happens again. By now I should expect it. But wow, holy shit, mind blown. How can the single archeological site of Petra have so much amazing, incredible, mind bogglingly cool freakin’ stone stuff? First, there’s the stadium; it’s a super psychedelic spiral kind of like a sixties hippie symbol magnified a hundred fold. Cut into the mountain of stratified stone, an eternal sign and a gathering place are combined into one. I stand in the center of the spiral and picture the crowds of the ancient days. I look beyond at the circle of mountains around me. I know, it’s not real, but if feels as if circles of energy are swirling around me. The forces of the universe concentrate on this spot. Wow! My imagination is on overload.
Afterwards, I go to the Royal tombs and they too prove to be way more fun than I possibly could have hoped for. The truth is that the stone around Petra is this really amazing multicolored stratified sandstone that’s fairly easy to work with. I can just imagine those guys, a little over 2000 years ago, hanging out, drinking their tea, watching their goats and then discovering what they had to work with. A kid in a candy store ain’t nothing compared to a stone carving artist in Petra. The place is so beautiful you can sense the joy and enthusiasm of the people who created it. The tombs are elaborate and original and funky and wild. Obviously, the workers had creative agency when they built it. You can see it in the shapes and textures and the whimsical nature of the stone’s expression.
It’s one of those subjects that infinitely fascinate me. Is it possible to surmise the quality of life of a civilization’s inhabitants by wandering among and studying ruins? Within the mythology of the U.S. educational system, it is often taught that the great buildings of ancient history were only possible because of slavery; Egyptian slaves, Mayan slaves, Aztec slaves, Inca slaves. I’m no expert of course. I have no fancy schmancy, high-falutin archaeological degree. But I do work with stone myself as a stone mason and I happen to love what I do very very much. I have also visited a large percentage of the world’s great ancient stone structures on my various travels around the earth. It always strikes me as incongruous or disconnected. I’m supposed to believe that these places were built by suffering slaves but as I walk around them, I’m always thinking about how much fun it would be to build something similar. Suffering…no way. For me, at least, stonework is pure ecstasy. And the tombs of Petra were carved and made by humans who, I imagine, felt the same way. My brothers and comrades from 2000 years ago; I feel their fellowship and their friendship. We are all in this together; joined by the common purpose of using the materials around us to make the world more beautiful.
After my rather lengthy exploration of the details and intricacies of the Royal tombs, I find a Bedouin woman nearby offering tea and selling trinkets. I have myself a cup and sit down for a chat. She only speaks a few words of English, but with smiles and charades she manages to alter my destiny. In other words, she sends me off on but another detour. My plan is to head out on the long hike to Haroun’s tomb after tea so I ask the woman directions. I’m not sure if she understands my question because with great fanfare and enthusiasm, she point and directs me towards a different place, a better place… the place, perhaps, I am meant to go.
My life is weird like that. It just seems to unfold. I plan a course of action but some unexpected variable is always sending me somewhere else. A few minutes later, I find myself on a trail that continues beyond the Royal tombs. I saw this trail on the brochure and I know it leads up a small mountain. But there are no ruins on top and it is in the opposite direction of Haroun’s. There is no reason to go this way except for the insistence of the Bedouin tea woman. As I make my way up the mountain, however, I am overwhelmed by an odd sense of déjà vu’. I feel like I’ve done this many times before.
In many respects, it’s very similar to the trail I walked yesterday up to the altar of high sacrifice. This trail is on the opposite mountain and it is likewise carved into the rocky surface with great mastery and skill. Perhaps that similarity is the reason for the déjà vu’ feeling. About two thirds of the way up, the trail reaches an open cliff with a stone landing built into the mountainside. The view of the valley is world class… Holy Shit! Look at that. You can see directly into the spiraling stadium from here. How cool is that? Mind Blown… totally and completely. The spiral draws you inward. The brain goes round and round. The soul shakes… I swear the thing has a kind of hypnotic effect. This moment alone is worth the price of admission.
A short while later; I reach the top of the mountain. In addition to a spectacular view of the entire Petra valley, there is also a small Bedouin camp. Two men are sitting on rugs beside a fire. One is grandfatherly with a long grey beard and a turban. The other is younger, maybe mid twenties, with a close cut beard and short hair. He looks like a Jordanian version of a hipster. Change his clothes, put him in Brooklyn, he’d fit right in. They are drinking tea and not surprisingly, they offer me a cup.
“My name Mustafa,” says the hipster, “and this is Abdula. You are most welcome here. Sit; join us.”
“My name is Patrick,” I say as I sit down with them by the small fire and take the cup of tea in my hand.
“You come here to see the Treasury?” says Mustafa.
“Yes,” I say enthusiastically, “I saw the Treasury yesterday and today. It is incredible. And I saw the monastery too and the tombs and the stadium and all of it. And it’s all incredible. I think Petra is one of the most incredible places on the whole planet earth.”
The old guy smiles and nods his head knowingly but does not speak. The young guy, Mustafa, answers, “yes, Petra very nice; but you came here, to this mountain, for view of the Treasury.
“I saw the stadium on the way up, but not the Treasury. Can you really see it from here?”
“Yes,” says Mustafa, “but you have to continue on that path over there for another 100 meters to the overlook.” He points to a path beyond his encampment.
“That sounds great,” I say, “I will definitely have to check it out.”
“But there is group there now so maybe you want wait.”
“No hurry, no worry,” I say.
“Maybe you want smoke shisha with us,” says Mustafa.
“You have shisha here?” I ask.
“Yes, I have,” he says, “you want?”
“Sure, why not?”
Mustafa stands up and goes inside the Bedouin tent. It’s a single room with rug or cloth walls. He returns with the hookah or shisha. I, of course, am hoping he will have some weed or other magical substance to put in the pipe but apparently it is only the traditional tobacco. But that’s all right. The ritual of shared shisha smoking with Bedouin men atop a mountain in Petra is sure to be mind altering enough.
Mustafa arranges the tobacco inside the basin of the shisha and uses tongs to take coals from the fire. He adds the coals to the basin and inhales deeply to ignite the tobacco. Once he is sure the tobacco is going good, he passes the shisha to me. “So my friend;“ he says to me, after he exhales the smoke, “what is your country?”
“I’m from the states,” I say, “the U.S., but try not to hold it against me.” I take a deep inhale off the shisha pipe. I can feel the smoke burning pleasantly inside my lungs. I know, I know, it’s poison, it’s bad for me. But I’m willing to suffer the consequences in the interest of cross-cultural communication. Besides, I kinda like the sensation. Shisha smoke may not be good for you, but it sure feels good.
Mustafa laughs at my comment and then says something to Abdula in Arabic. Abdula doesn’t laugh but the corners of his mouth turn up in a smile, his eyes sparkle and he nods approval. Mustafa says to me. “All people welcome here. Any country, any religion.” He smiles mischievously, “even Americans.”
“Thanks,” I say, “I appreciate that. And you speak very good English.” I take a second hit off the shisha; another big beautiful burning inhale and then pass the shisha to the old guy, Abdula.
“Yes,” says Mustafa, “I learn English in school and from television. We learn much about your country from television.”
“But you can’t believe what you see on television,” I say, “most of it is a lie.”
“Of course it’s a lie,” says Mustafa smiling, “but if you watch the lies of Satan, you can figure out what he is up to.” He reaches over towards Abdula to take the shisha and pull it closer to himself.
“Satan?” I say. “The Great Satan. Do you believe that stuff? You think the U.S. is pure evil?”
Mustafa laughs. “Don’t take it personally,” he says, “it’s just a story. I’m not a terrorist and you’re not Satan. We are just a couple of guys sharing a shisha.” He then proceeds to inhale a giant hit off the shisha and blow the smoke towards the sky. I know there is no weed in the pipe, but when he passes it over to me again, he smiles like he is stoned out of his mind.
Our conversation is interrupted at this point because a group of six tourists comes back down the trail and through the camp. Mustafa stands up to greet them. He endeavors to convince them to join us for tea and/or shisha. They are an upper class bunch of older Europeans with preppy clothes and a spiffy guide in a uniform. Perhaps they are offended by the cloud of shisha smoke that engulfs me or my unkempt somewhat chaotic appearance. They choose to not sit down with us. In fact, they rush through the camp without even acknowledging that we are there.
“I hope I didn’t scare away your customers,” I say. I take another hit off the shisha.
“No worries,” says Mustafa as he sits back down on the rug; “many tourists are like that. They want to see the beautiful stone but they are afraid to meet the beautiful people.”
“That’s a shame,” I say, “they don’t know what they are missing. It has been absolutely wonderful to meet both of you.” I pass the shisha over to Abdula and then turn back to Mustafa. “And by the way, how much do I owe you for the tea and shisha?”
“As you wish,” he says as he smiles slyly.
“What do you mean? As I wish? I wish you would tell me the price. It makes me a little crazy. Everywhere I go around here, people are always inviting me into their homes or shops or what have you. They give me tea and sometimes shisha. Sometimes they are trying to sell me stuff but sometimes they seem to be just inviting me. Lots of times, they don’t even speak English. I never know if I’m supposed to give money or how much to give. You speak English. Maybe you can explain it to me. What is the custom here? How much money should I give someone in exchange for a cup of tea and/or a shisha around here?”
Mustafa laughs. He sure laughs a lot for a young hipster Muslim dude. He says something to Abdula in Arabic. Then Abdula laughs as well. Finally, he explains. “It is very funny what you say because we were discussing this exact same thing earlier this morning. But it was in a more philosophical context.”
“What you say is very interesting. It reflects the difference between our respective cultures.”
“The cost of tea and shisha reflects the difference between our cultures?” I ask.
“Yes,” says Mustafa, “very much so. You are American. You believe in capitalism. We are Islamic. We believe in Shariah. Under your capitalism, everything has a price, everyone is your competitor and it is your goal to negotiate the cheapest possible price. How much for tea and shisha? You ask. Under Shariah, hospitality is more important than price. Under Shariah, we are obligated to treat strangers as guests and provide certain basic hospitality such as tea or shisha. If you would like to thank us for our hospitality with a fair monetary contribution, it would be greatly appreciated. But you are certainly under no obligation to do so.”
“Are you telling me that the tea and shisha are free? There is no charge?” I ask.
“Yes,” says Mustafa smiling, “under the rules of your culture, the tea and shisha are free. There is no obligation to pay. If, however, you were a Muslim, who followed Shariah law, you would choose to be fair. You would probably pay me 10, 20 or even 30 dinar for the wonderful and enlightening experience I provide you with here in my home.”
Now it is my turn to laugh. I do appreciate a well-played sales pitch. But I’m on my game today so after I stop laughing, I have a good response for him. “Your theory about the cost of tea and shisha for Americans is very interesting but I think you are confused by something fundamental. Perhaps you learn too much about us from television and you don’t meet many of us in person. It’s true. America is a very capitalist place. But America is also a very democratic place. And democracy is all about fairness just like your Shariah. Yeah, I know our leaders and politicians seem to have forgotten about this lately. They like to project power and exceptionalism and other such nonsense. But if you ever visit the U.S. and meet real average Americans rather than television characters and media personalities, your will find that the essence of America is really more democratic and fair rather than capitalist and competitive. I, at least, am always trying to be fair.” I stand up on my feet and reach into my pocket to pull out a couple of bills. “The other day in Wadi Musa, I went to a café and paid five dinars for a shisha and two dinars for a tea. Since you have such a nice view and the conversation was fun, I’ll throw in an extra three dinar. I think ten dinar is very fair so that is what I will give you.” I reach the ten dinar note out towards Mustafa.
He smiles and accepts the bill. “Ten dinar is very fair,” he says. “You are a very fair man. You would make a good Muslim.”
“Thanks,” I say, “but I don’t think so. For now, at least, I’m going to stick with my own version of polytheistic multi-culturalism. But it sure has been nice talking to you.” I bow my head politely to my new friends and head on down the trail.
I only have to walk about five minutes on a narrow trail and climb down a slightly precarious cliff to reach the spot. And what a spot it is. Indeed, it may very well be the absolute best place on the entire planet earth for a guy like me to sit and have a lunch break. Seriously, I’m above the Siq, sitting on a rocky outcropping that juts out above it. The mile long crack in the earth that I walked through this morning to reach the treasury is now many hundred feet below me. I am looking down at the crowd in front of the Treasury. They can’t see me because I’m too far away with a bird’s eye view. I’m up here in stone heaven. Wow! I sit down on the hot boulder in the warm sun. I eat the boxed lunch I brought from the hostel. I drink some delicious water. Using my sweatshirt from my daypack as a pillow, I lie all the way back on the rocks and relax. How good is this life? I drift off into a siesta in the sunshine.
How long did I sleep? I’m not really sure. It looks like late afternoon when I awake. I guess I won’t be making the long hike to Haroun’s tomb today. Oh well, I have a three day pass so I can make the hike tomorrow.
When I head down the hill, I see Abdula and Mustafa again. They have some more guests sitting around their little fire, drinking tea and passing around a shisha. It is three young Japanese women; an obviously open minded group. I smile and say hello but I don’t sit down to join them. I continue down the mountain towards the main compound.
Of all the archaeological complexes and ancient ruins I have been to visit over the years, Petra is definitely the most lived in. I’m not sure about the organizational or legal structure, but it certainly seems a wonderful set up. Yeah sure, there is the annoying capitalist luxury crap at the very center. But the Bedouin natives still occupy the surrounding hills. Some of them live in caves or dwellings carved into the hillside and some of them live in encampments or compounds. They raise goats and chickens and probably grow vegetables. They’ve lived like this for a thousand years. Now that Petra is a world famous tourist attraction, they supplement their living selling tea and trinkets to tourists. But it definitely doesn’t seem like tourism or tourists are their main concern. In a way, Petra is their passageway or connection to the modern world. At the same time, a visitor or Pilgrim to Petra can find a passageway to the Bedouin world. And that is more or less what I do on this incredible afternoon.
When I first descend from the mountain, I check out a few of the special stone sites around the main complex. They are seriously impressive and everyone should see them. But if I described them in detail now you would probably grow weary of my “oohs” and “ahhs” and “holy shits”. Afterwards, I wander towards the Petra periphery in the general direction of Haroun’s tomb. Maybe I will find some information or directions for tomorrow. Over the next several hours before sunset, I meet three separate Bedouin families. Not surprisingly, they all invite me into their homes and offer me tea. No one speaks much English. I sit around and nod and smile and pose for photos. It never ceases to amaze me the amount of kindness and friendship that can be conveyed between humans with non-verbal communication.
The first family I meet consists of a single mother with three children living in a cave. Are they poor? Are they desperate? I don’t know. They have food and they smile a lot. There’s no electricity but the kids go to the public school in the nearby town of Wadi Musa. The oldest child is almost a teenager and he shows off his English to me. “Hello Mister. How are you? 1,2,3,4,5…” I give the woman five whole dinars for the tea and she is very grateful. But the truth is; I’d live in their cave. Indeed, it’s way better than most of the apartments I have ever lived in. As a matter of fact, I think it’s totally awesome. Nevertheless, many people would probably see them as poor and unfortunate.
The second family I meet is like a textbook example of an encounter with a random Muslim family anywhere in the world. I am walking by their compound on the trail and a middle aged couple comes outside to greet me. I ask about the way to Haroun’s tomb. They don’t speak any English but we manage to communicate effectively anyway. They point to a distant mountain, then point to the setting sun and shake their heads no. “No time today. Tea? No?” With gestures and smiles they invite me inside. I meet the whole family; Grandma, Grandpa, brothers, sisters and an army of kids. I drink tea, smile and repeat my name many many times. It sure is a nice feeling to be treated as an honored guest. And when I try to pay for the tea upon leaving, they refuse to accept my offer.
It’s very late in the day when I meet the gang of miscreant troublemakers. Actually, it’s the most adorable group of young pre-teens you could ever possibly imagine. I am again wandering aimlessly upon the trail when they seem to appear out of nowhere and swarm around me. It is so funny. They hop around and dance in circles with crazy kinetic youthful energy as they pepper me with English phrases. “Hello Mister. How are you? What is your name?” After introductions and photos, they lead me by the hand back to their family’s compound. One more time, I am welcomed into a home and offered a warm and friendly beverage. How good is this life?
It’s after dark by the time I make it back to the Treasury, the Siq and the exit. My second full day at Petra is now complete. I didn’t quite make it to Haroun’s tomb. But that’s okay. I may have discovered the sacred anyway and I still have tomorrow for the long hike.