This is the third part of a four part series on Petra. Although this story can be read independently, it might make sense to read the first two parts first. The first two parts can be found by simply scrolling down to the entries of a few weeks ago.
Petra Part III
Wadi Musa, Jordan; February 2013
I meet the “other” on the mountaintop near the sacred building. It’s a friendly meeting and he seems a nice guy. Somewhat surprisingly, he makes an effort to recruit me to his cause. I say no, of course, and continue on my way. Who is the devil in this story?
Another day begins at dawn. After a bright and early breakfast, I take the first shuttle to the Petra entrance. It’s the third and final day of my Petra pilgrimage and once again I am one of the first visitors to reach the Siq. By now, of course, I should be expecting it, but I am still amazed by the transformative powers of that mile long crack in the earth. Perhaps the closeness of the canyon walls distorts the energy field and that somehow warps my brainwaves. I don’t know how it happens. But the passageway does indeed lead me to the other side.
Just like the previous days, I stop at the Bedouin café in front of “The Treasury” and have myself a fine cup of Turkish coffee. I swear… that building… THE TREASURY… really puts people power in perspective. They did it without power tools over 2000 years ago. A hammer, a chisel, and lots of enthusiasm; what fun; it makes me excited for the coming season of stonework. I can hardly wait to get my hands on a big pile of rocks… Not today though. Today I have a different objective. Today I am going on a quest. I’m going to hike to the tomb of the prophet on the mountaintop in the distance.
After my cup of coffee, I set out walking. I have a vague sense of direction but no specific plan. The mountain with the tomb is generally south. Based on the info I gathered yesterday and my non-topographical map, it seems as if the main trail loops north first and goes past the museum and major buildings before connecting with the southern trail to the tomb. But it also appears that there is a possible short cut that involves following the side trail to the place of high sacrifice and then cutting across a “no man’s land” (blank spot on the map) to reach the main trail in the southern valley. I decide to try the short cut.
On the side trail I have to go up and over that small mountain again. Along the way, I see the friendly Bedouin ladies with their offers of tea and trinkets. Surprisingly, they all seem to remember me from two days before. The flirtatious one with the tobacco up on the top is even kind enough to point out my destination when I tell her where I want to go (Haroun’s tomb). She directs my eyes so I can see a pointy mountain on the other side of the valley that has a strange bright white spot on it. That’s right; the light on the distant mountain is calling out to me. The other great benefit of this short cut is that I get to see those far-out, picture-perfect, hidden temples and hideaways that are carved into the mountainside again. Seriously, it’s one of the best parts of the whole Petra complex. Nestled in a nook of the mountains on the backside of the high sacrifice place, it’s like a small little carved out wonderland of temples, dwellings and connecting stairways. It’s definitely worth a second visit. As a matter of fact, I could probably spend a whole day there just hanging out and dreaming up stories. It feels like the setting for an ancient myth.
Not surprisingly, I find a Bedouin encampment nearby and I stop for a cup of tea. Through a fascinating exercise of human communication, I attempt to ascertain whether my plan to cross the “no man’s land” and connect with the main trail to Haroun’s tomb is a good one. They don’t speak English and I don’t speak Arabic but with my brochure map as a reference and several dramatic gestures, an understanding is reached. Yes it is possible but it is somewhat complicated with many ups and downs and several obstacles to get around. But if I keep heading in that direction (they point) I will eventually connect with the main trail to Haroun’s tomb. They wish me luck on my journey.
They are correct about the complicated nature of the terrain. The unusual landscape is not like any other landscape that I have ever tried to traverse. It’s like a small chasm or canyon filled with giant boulders. Sometimes I have to scale boulders and then make my way by hopping from one to another. Sometimes I am down between the boulders making my way through what seems an infinite maze of intersecting stone passageways. But make my way I do, slowly but surely, in the right general direction.
The incredible thing about this area I call the ‘no man’s land’ is that there are in fact people living in it. I see a bunch of caves and carved out dwellings in the canyon walls that are obviously occupied. There are clothes and cook stoves and rugs and various random objects. I don’t see many people though. Its midmorning now so maybe the cave dwellers are out working somewhere. The children are probably at school in town. I see a few barking dogs but none that are vicious. I keep my distance from the caves that look occupied because I don’t want to trespass or offend in any way. I do see a couple of empty caves that I stop in for a rest. I imagine what it must be like to live here. Hmm… an atmospheric neighborhood with good accommodations… I can’t help but wonder about the practicalities though.
I do encounter a few people; three to be exact. They are all friendly but slightly surprised and concerned by my presence. They wonder what I am doing so far away from the main trails at Petra. Am I lost? When I point towards the distant mountain destination and say the name “Haroun,” however, they all seem to understand and open right up. The first person I meet is a man about my age. He rescues me from a barking dog and then leads me through a maze of giant boulders for several hundred yards to make sure I find the best way. He takes my leave with a shake of the hand and a big smile. He seems absolutely thrilled by the fact that he had a chance to help me. The second person I meet is also a man, a bit younger. He comes out of a cave as I am passing and invites me in for a tea. I turn down his offer on account of the long journey ahead. He too insists on accompanying me a short distance to make sure I go the right way. Again, it kind of seems as if the act of simply helping me really makes his day. The last person I see in the “no man’s land” is an older woman. She is very polite and modest but also can hardly contain her joy for the chance to help me. I ask for directions and she insists on leading me for several hundred yards to connect with the main trail for the tomb. I can hardly explain the good feeling my morning’s walk has inspired. It never ceases to amaze me how nice humans can sometimes be. Here I am a stranger and these people treat me like a rock star. It’s enough to give a person faith in humanity.
On the main trail now, I can see a mountain ahead that I think is the destination. There are no more people around and no more Bedouin encampments. The landscape is barren, dry and rocky… it seems almost lunar. That’s right; I am a solo wanderer making my way across the world. How good it feels to be alive at this moment. I can’t possibly explain it in words. In my mind’s eye, I see images of smiling Bedouins… smiling Muslims…offering me tea, shaking my hand, expressing joy and kindness in a language I don’t understand. What have I ever done to deserve such kindness? I breathe in the fresh air and look around at the barren but beautiful landscape. The mountain top destination towers above like a god looking down. The realization hits me like a bolt from the heavens. I have done nothing to deserve their kindness. Kindness is just their natural way.
It’s crazy, you know, I live in the United States. And the mass media there constantly projects an image of Islam and Muslims that is rather scary. The image is on the news shows, it’s in the movies and it’s on television. Indeed, the image is so dominant it is very hard not to believe it. If you are American, you may even have had a few nightmares. Terrorist savages who are so obsessed with their primitive religious beliefs that they will chop off your head if you don’t believe. They want to take over the world and impose their strict authoritarian shariah law. We should be afraid. Some of them are even lurking in our community; pretending to be one of us. But deep down they are terrorists waiting for a chance to strike out at all the unbelieving “infidels.”
My personal experience with Islam is, however, very different than this image that is constantly projected upon my consciousness. I’m not claiming to be an expert or anything like that. I’ve never studied the Koran or Islamic theology or even taken any courses on the subject. But in my various wanderings around the world, I have traveled in ten different predominantly Muslim countries and several others with large Muslim populations. When I say travel, I mean with a tent, a backpack, a low budget and a fair amount of time. All together, I think it adds up to about fifteen months I have spent among Muslims. During that time, I have never once been threatened or harassed or insulted because of my non-belief in Islam. Indeed, I have consistently been treated with kindness and generosity. My image of Islam is thus an image of friendly social people who are always inviting me into their homes and shops to offer me cups of tea. That’s why, when the mass media back home is always contradicting my own personal experience, I find it slightly disturbing. It’s nice to have a morning like this one at Petra that so clearly and definitely confirms my version of reality.
The truth is; I have never even once met an Islamic terrorist. In my various travels, I have met hundreds if not thousands of individual Muslims. Some encounters were brief and some were intense and involved. Sure, many if not most of the Muslims I’ve met were very against a thing they call “America.” “The Great Satan” is a common expression and some even like to shout “Death to America.” But, as has been explained to me many many times, there is very big difference between “Death to America!” and “Death to Americans.” To these people, the word America is not associated with a constitutional government and a freedom loving people. Instead, “America” is an invading and occupying military force and the accompanying corporations that want to own and control their land and resources. To understand their reality best, it helps to look at a map of the Islamic countries in the Middle East and add a red dot or peg for every U.S. military base or installation. Then try to imagine all the death and destruction that has been unleashed on the region in the last fifty years. From their perspective or world view, “America” is a like a semi-mythological monster or “evil” that is waging war upon their homeland and causing all the destruction and bloodshed. They like to talk about the latest atrocities committed by “America” (drone strikes, torture, night raids, white phosophorous cluster bombs, etc. etc.) and debate and discuss among themselves about ways to stop America. Nevertheless, despite the animated and enthusiastic opinions, I have never met a single Muslim who supported the “tactic” of killing civilians in order to terrorize America into defeat. Indeed, they all say that such a “tactic” is un-Islamic. I don’t doubt that terrorists and terrorist sympathizers exist. We have crazy psychos that shoot up schools in the states too. I just think that real “terrorists” are exceptionally rare. And the only thing the multi-trillion dollar war on terrorism accomplishes is it makes the story or cultural understanding of this thing called “America” that much scarier and more horrifying.
But anyway, I digress. I digress a lot and now I am lost. All that thinking and daydreaming has led me astray. The trail did branch to the left and to the right a few times back there. I must have taken a wrong turn. I tried to stick with the main trail. There were even a few stone cairns to mark the way. The trail has been circling towards the backside of the big mountain and I thought for certain it would start zig-zagging upwards towards the summit and tomb soon. But now the trail heads down towards a distant valley and the way up is too steep to climb. This can’t be the right way. I wonder if this is even the correct mountain. Maybe the tomb is somewhere else altogether. I definitely don’t want to go down in that valley. I’d never make it back to Petra before dark. But wow, it sure is some valley; like a smaller psychedelic version of the Grand Canyon. When getting lost in this world leads to a vision like this, getting lost is wonderful thing. I wonder if I can possibly capture it in a photograph.
I turn around after photos and head back the way I came. Hopefully, I’ll still have time to find the trail to the tomb. A short while later I come across a Bedouin man walking towards me. He smiles and nods hello. I stop and ask directions. “Where is Haroun?” He doesn’t speak English but he recognizes the word “Haroun”. He points towards the mountain top. Well good, at least I have the right mountain. “Is there a trail?” He turns away to step off the trail and starts scrambling up the side of the mountain. He turns back to wave and indicate I should follow him. It’s quite a scramble on a steep bank with loose crumbling stone. I’m wondering if he plans to guide me all the way there. It looks like a long, hard, difficult climb to the top. But that is not his plan. We climb upwards about 200 meters until we reach a clear trail that is cut into the hillside. He smiles brightly as he points it out to me. I try to offer him a few dinars for his assistance but he refuses. He just bows politely and heads back down the hill.
On the right path again, I slowly but surely make my way towards the summit. The trail is not steep now because of long zigs and zags but the upward progression is continuous. The view is beyond spectacular as the multi-colored valley or Wadi spreads out all around me. I see no humans and no animals now and only a few patches of random plant life. It’s a rock world, a barren world but oh so beautiful in its expansiveness. Wow. Amazing; that’s all I can say. How much further to the top?
Up towards the summit, the trail gets steep again, very steep. It’s almost like rock climbing and a little bit scary. A slip up here would not end nicely. But I manage to pull myself up and over the ledge to find myself on a wide flat grass-covered plateau. It’s a few hundred meters across and the trail winds its way through the middle of it and then curves right towards a final smaller rocky peak. I walk the trail and reach the final small peak which contains the tomb and a small mosque. It is both amazing and incredible.
I’m a big fan of holy places and this particular peak, jutting towards the sky like an expression of belief would probably be considered a holy and sacred place even without a famous body buried here. The tomb and accompanying mosque are nicely built structures made from readily available mountainside materials. Perhaps not as spectacular as the Nabatean masterpieces of Petra proper, but an impressive display of form, function and the incorporation of human creativity into a natural landscape nonetheless. I especially like the winding staircase that is hand chiseled into the rock and the very round dome shape of the mosque. I’m not so sure about the bright white color on the dome but that is what made it visible to me from across the valley at the altar of high sacrifice. Hmm; I wonder if I can see the high sacrifice place from here. The views of the whole valley are rather fantastic and there are also some pretty cool rock formations that look like giant sculptures. All in all, I have to say that it is a perfect place to embrace the glory of being alive.
I spend about a half hour hanging out on top. I eat the boxed lunch from the hostel, drink some water, enjoy the view and soak up the atmosphere. My whole time there, I think I am alone. But then, as I start descending again, I notice a cave on a small landing that is tucked into a crevasse of the peak. A young man emerges from the cave as I walk towards it. He doesn’t smile but he looks right at me. I do smile in the friendliest possible way and walk closer to greet him politely. “Hello,” I say, “I don’t speak Arabic. Do you speak any English?”
“Yes,” he says, “I speak some English.” But he still doesn’t smile. As a matter of fact, he has almost no expression; a stone face. He doesn’t seem angry but he doesn’t seem happy either.
“I hope I’m not trespassing,” I say hesitantly. ”I meant no offense. I only came to see the tomb.”
“All pilgrims are welcome here,” he says. “Would you like some tea?”
“Uh, uh, pilgrim? Yeah sure, that is indeed what I am; a pilgrim. And tea sounds great.”
“Tea inside; welcome; welcome; follow me.” He turns around and goes back inside the cave. I duck my head under the low entryway and follow him.
The cave is surprisingly comfortable. Two well placed window holes allow a fair amount of sunlight to stream in. Two of the walls have benches carved into them and the benches meet in one corner. In the opposite corner, smoldering coals from a small fire send tiny wisps of smoke towards one of the windows. The combination of shadow, light and smoke is outrageously atmospheric. As the young Arab man dressed in Bedouin robes walks to the fire and reaches down to grab a tea pot from the coals, I take a seat on one of the carved out wall benches. I have the strange sensation that I have walked onto a movie set or entered a dream. The world around me seems very unreal.
“My name Mohamed,” says the young man as he hands me my tea. He is still not smiling; but not frowning either. He’s very hard to read and the obscure lighting doesn’t help. But a creepy sensation lurks in the background of my consciousness. Something seems off. “And what is your name,” he says?
“My name is Patrick,” I answer as I take the tea.
“Patrick?” he says with an emphasis on the question mark. He turns away with his cup of tea and moves a few feet distant to sit on the stone bench cut into the other wall. “So you are not a Muslim?” he says.
“No,” I say, “I am not a Muslim. But I am very curious to learn about Islam. That is, in fact, one of the reasons I am here.”
“Are you Christian,” he says, “are you crusader?”
“No,” I say, “I am not a Christian either and I am definitely not a crusader.”
The scene right now unfolding is absolutely classic; me and Mohamed sitting kitty corner in a cave on top of a sacred mountain. A smoldering fire is in the opposite corner and sunlight shines through holes to mingle with the smoke and darkness. It is the perfect setting for a profound philosophical discussion. I can hardly believe these crazy things really happen to me. Could my brain be making it up?
“Not Christian, not Muslim,” he says, “what is your religion?”
Now that right there is a tough question; really puts a guy on the spot. But I have been asked this many times on my travels so now I have a sort of answer I use for just these circumstances. I take a sip of tea before I speak. “I believe in all religions,” I tell the young man. “For me, at least, there is no doubt that all humans are children of the same god. The name that your culture gives to this god is Allah. But god is a strange phenomena and difficult to understand. Communication between god and humans tends to be ambiguous and a bit overwhelming. Different cultures around the world use different stories or myths or even mathematical formulas to try and explain this strange phenomena and I happen to be a person who is interested in all those stories, myths and explanations. That’s why I am curious to learn about Islam and the Koran. Generally speaking, all the religious stories, formulas and metaphors that I have studied thus far are built upon the same basic foundation. And that foundation is simply that “god” wants humans to be kind to one another. I don’t know very much about Islam yet, but I’m guessing if I do explore its stories and explanations and history, I will find the same principle of kindness at its foundation as well.”
“There is no God but Allah,” says Mohamed, “and Mohamed was his final prophet.”
“Yeah, I know,” I say, “and as long as Allah and Mohamed teach kindness, I’m all in favor of them.”
“So what is your country?’ says Mohamed to change the topic.
I’m sensing a hint of hostility in his tone so I attempt another diplomatic answer. I don’t exactly lie, I just prevaricate. “Truthfully,” I tell him, “I don’t believe in nation states as an organizing principle so philosophically speaking, I don’t really have a country.”
“You have vague religion and you don’t believe in nation states,” says Mohamed. “You are very strange man. Maybe you are looking for place to belong. Maybe you want to join our Caliphate.”
“Your Caliphate?” I say. “I didn’t realize there was a Caliphate around here. I thought Jordan was a Kingdom… a nation state.”
“You are correct,” says Mohamed, “there is no Caliphate now. The last one was destroyed by the Western powers in the First World War. Since that time my people have suffered beneath the boot of Western imposed nation states. Israel is the worst of them but Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar are no different. They are all the same. They are all corrupt puppet governments that slavishly serve their Imperial masters. Their rule has brought nothing but war and torture; poverty and misery. But a new day is rising. A new Caliphate is being established. A call has gone out to believers around the world. They are gathering at a central location near the Syria/Iraq border. That imperial border will be the first border to be smashed and its destruction will be ground zero for the emergence of a New Caliphate.”
“Wow,” I say, “that is some plan.”
“Yes,” he says, “but it is more than a plan. It is prophecy and it will come to pass.” The blank expression on his face still has not changed. I don’t believe he has even sipped his tea. His words are clear and understandable but very monotone. He sits on the other stone bench and stares straight ahead as the words come forth from his mouth. “And once the new Caliphate is established and its rule proves to be just and holy and consistent with shariah law as outlined in the Koran, believing Muslims will come from around the world to join. The Caliphate will grow outward from its center at ground zero and more and more borders of the imperialist nation states will be smashed. It may take some time but the end result is inevitable. All the nation states of the entire region will be abolished and an Islamic Paradise ruled by a single central Caliphate will arise in their place.”
“I’m with you against the nation states Mohamed,” I say, “they have been a bad deal from the get go. I’m just not so sure about the Caliphate and shariah. Are you talking jihad here? Is that what you are getting at?”
“Yes,” he says, “I am talking jihad. America will oppose our Caliphate. They will bomb, invade, occupy and destroy once again. The only way to defeat America is to attack them. That is jihad. Our paradise will not be possible until the imperialist invaders are ejected from our homelands. It is a cause I am prepared to die for. And you should too. You are against their nation states, you should join our Caliphate. I’m telling you, all you have to do is submit to the will of Allah and everything will make sense.”
“It is certainly an interesting possibility,” I say. I stand up and reach my empty tea cup to Mohamed. “But I don’t think so. I’m against the violence. You know; the killing of innocents. What some people call terrorism.”
“There are no innocents from America,” says Mohamed. “They all pay taxes to support their war machines. And their war machines murder millions of Muslims. They are all guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.” He repeats the word several times with great emphasis. He sounds like he is trying to convince himself.
“Oh Mohamed,” I say empathetically as I reach into my pocket and pull out a few dinars. “For your own sake, you have to learn to forgive them. Believe me; they know not what they do. And besides, the jihad of kindness works way better than the jihad of violence.”
“The jihad of kindness,” repeats Mohamed with a scoff. But then, I swear, for the first time in our entire conversation, he cracks a slight smile. “You sound like my father,” he says. “He calls it jihad of the mind. He’s afraid I’ll become a martyr.”
“Martyrdom is bad for your health,” I say. “And you can’t blame a father for being worried about his son.”
“You must be old,” says Mohamed, “all you old people are afraid of death.”
Now I laugh. “You’re right. I am old. And I am afraid of death. It’s only natural.” I hand over a couple of dinars. “Thanks for the tea.”
“You’re welcome,” he says as he takes the dinars and smiles. Yes, he is definitely smiling now. “And have a very nice day,” he adds.
“Imshallah,” I answer as I turn around and exit the cave.
Outside, the bright sunshine hits me like a slap in the head. I have to blink my eyes several times to adjust to the intensity. I move quickly away from the cave and hurry down the carved out steps to the main plateau. I glance back to see if he is following me… or watching me. Am I paranoid? No. Yes. Maybe. Did I just meet a terrorist or future terrorist or potential terrorist? I’m not sure. I don’t know. I consider the issue as I make my way across the plateau. Truthfully, the young man seemed more troubled than dangerous. His big dream for the future is certainly doomed. A single Caliphate… in the whole Middle East…. Yeah right; not a chance. The more I think about it, the more I feel sorry for him. Obviously, he is more of a threat to himself than anyone else. By the time I reach the edge of the plateau and start climbing down the steep part of the trail, I’m not afraid of Mohamed at all. As a matter of fact, now I am wondering if there was some way I could have helped ease his troubled soul.
It takes about three hours to descend the mountain and walk back to the main Petra complex. Along the way, I stop for tea at two different Bedouin camps. I also see the group of kids from the day before again and it is a joyous reunion. My faith in the goodness and kindness of Bedouins is re-enforced and re-affirmed. But I can’t help but think about young Mohamed in the cave. How can a culture so loving and kind produce a young man who is so angry and confused?
I still have about three hours of sunlight left on my last day here at Petra. I’ve seen it all; every building, every museum and maybe even every cave. I’m now drinking another cup of coffee at Ali’s scenic café in the side canyon near the museum. I could call it quits and head back to the hostel or linger here sipping warm beverages until sunset. It’s been a full day already. I don’t need to do more. But sometimes I just can’t help myself. The mountaintop “Monastery” that I saw on my first day at Petra is, perhaps, the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen in the whole wide world. Sure, it requires a couple mile hike up a mountain to get there and yes I’m already exhausted from the long hike to the tomb. But I know I could be there for sunset. It’s the perfect finale for my Petra Pilgrimage. So, of course, I have to go…
To be continued…
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