Wadi Rum


Out of the canyon nearing Wadi Musa. More cars, like the camping area around Slickrock before the BLM started containing things. Familiar but not expected here. Friday night, conceptually like our Saturday since a day off, families camped out on the sandstone with spreads of food, three foot high speakers, teens kicking the futbol around with the younger boys, older teens smoking with their uncles and fathers, women in groups laughing. Like Mexico or the 4th of July. Again timed it, well, not wrong, but, anyway, ill for riding in the light. 5:15 sunset leaves too few hours for civilized lunches or sitting for tea, thus gloves and puff jacket and headlamp. Alien, incomprehensible industry and majesty of Petra tomorrow.

* * *

Now into Wadi Rum, Lawrence of Arabia fame, lofting rock, arches, red gold shadowed crags against swelling dunes. Essential wind and landscape.

Sitting in the tent with Eido and Mohamed, Beduins. Another arrives, introduces himself, Zedan asks where I am from. “So your English is good?” I confirm that I have some practice. He deadpans, “I speak English like a French person: not very bad but not good.” We laugh. They make fun of my American accent imitating another recent visitor with an exaggerated square, overclear diction, “Hell-oh. I am Day-Vid from Cal-uh-forn-ya!” When they say they haven’t met many brits either, I realize that mostly they’ve ever spoken english with people for whom it is not their native language, Continental tourists, this strange pseudo lingua franca that I foolishly take for granted.

Later, the boys are howling heartily in mirth. I ask whether the joke can be translated. Eido, gamely, “There is this man. He is going hunting far away on a camel. You know, camel?” I nod. “But he smokes a drug first to go hunting. He goes five kilometers and then falls off his camel and goes to sleep.” I sit impassively as they study my reaction. “My English not good.” I assume he means he can’t translate the rest of the joke. Mohamed says, “you see, some things are very funny in Arabic, but not in English. This must be true in English when you make it into French or Spanish, yes?” I say, “of course,” waiting for them to continue with the joke. Oh, I see, that evidently was the joke.

Jordan postcard

Hilly, cosmopolitan, prosperous young hip lively Amman. One of my students, home on winter break, at a cafe overlooking the city. Reflecting on politics and history in the pan Arab world, on growing up Jordanian and Palestinian, sometimes we laugh, sometimes we shake our heads grimly, I learn a great deal, we shake hands saying goodbye until another context next semester. Trafficwise, an unexpectedly easy morning highway exit out of urbania, to a 25 mile descent from 2,500 feet to the Dead Sea, minus 1,385 feet. Requisite float otherworldly high on the water, lofted by the dense salinity. Busloads of tourists to visit what is believed to be John’s site for the baptism of Jesus of Nazareth on the Jordan River.

Another day, climb back to the top of mount Nebo from the lowest dry point on Earth, grinding desert hours on switchbacks, could be Sonora or Western Colorado but for the turbaned shepherds, camels, olive trees. But for the story of Moses surveying the promised land though going no further. Soldier checkpoints 50 cal on a humvee and their purple grey black camo is curious, look over passport, kids themselves gleeful at the imagined bicycle journey.

Days riding in familiar comforting landscapes, canyons. Demanding, constant climbing waves of road to hilltop villages with green fluorescent lit mosques and concrete homes, fortified by snickers bars or flat bread. Ascending from a deep ravine, Sammy calls out from his enormous bedouin tent to offer a cup of coffee, retired from the Jordanian air force, had spent time in Texas and Arizona being trained, now he huddles behind his flight jacket and ready sense of humor. One of the ubiquitous white pickup trucks pulls up with three of his friends who chortle in Arabic as Sammy translates the particularly funny anecdotes. The coffee is splendid and they’re all enthusiastic that I might camp there with them but instead I press on seemingly ever upwards.

Jordan postcard

Recurrent hills the approach to Amman, misty chill descents, overheating on the twenty minute climbs. I’m wobbly struggling to unzip and remove a sleeve on a heavy pitch, a pickup truck coughs alongside, the elderly driver imploring me to stop. We trade kindnesses. “Joseph, are you Muslim?” “No.” “Why not?” “Perhaps someday, insha’allah,” I say diplomatically. “No, it must be now! to have no fear and to have hope in your heart. There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is the prophet of God. Repeat it with me, will you?” Momentarily weightless between honesty and politeness, it’s unusual to encounter such brazen evangelism, with Christians I would be more incisive, here now I am sweating chest heaving and it is the timing that impresses. It should be clear to this well meaning person that I am in no way right at this instant seeking spiritual guidance, pedaling motion arcing into fatigue and elusive rhythm, it should be obvious but that the moment is so remote says something about how modern faiths get a substantial foothold precisely in their abstraction from local contextual conditions of geography or fauna, religious practice becomes something portable half in ideas rather than actions in a specific place or material framework. Still struck by this as we part on agreeable terms, gifted clementines in my pack.

Proximity to the city and the traffic is vectorless bedlam, a series of poor route finding choices and the advice of traffic police leads to a dark tunnel where every rider internal warning claxon goes off, gutter and wall to the right, speeding trucks left, roaring diesel fog, and I not so much will to calm but just blankly wait for it.

Emerge into clear streets downtown skyscrapers mosques Burger Kings boutique clothing peach sunset.

Syria postcard

Maybe I had envisioned Damascus as in steady but essentially incomplete contemplation into the modern world. Instead a thoroughly contemporary cosmopolitan organized orchestral harmony even in the old city, timbres of gracious confidence at having left any underlying manic chaos behind. Churlish of me to feel disappointment at the absence of street pandemonium. Much more in the foreground should be the poise and elegance with which Damascus has embraced its history but has also moved forward to a more complete and mature settledness with this century. It is convenient to think here that a place with as much continuous practice with urban civilization as any in the world might be quite good at it by now.

Wonderful Syria. Not a place to visit for landscapes — the grueling yellow stony kilometers in between gain no purchase on my affection — but the people, the cities, the history, the archeological sites. Kindness and openness, culturally not trying to be something other than what it is, not looking elsewhere for a way, having so palpably already found an exquisite one. Taxi drivers wave without irony to billboards with their young president. Sure, Facebook and many corners of the Internet are blocked, but the NYT isn’t. I have firm convictions about equality and justice, but the presence of so many women in veil, makeup, tight jeans and stilettos reminds me that everything is always more complicated than editorial page politics imply.

* * *

A post office worker, a world capitals savant, is mercilessly quizzing me on the US State capitals, I’m doing passably well though he tisks at my, “wait! Um, Wilmington?” I’m woeful when we move to the rest of the world, he’s relentless like we’re on a timed game show, Bhutan? Sierra Leone? French Guyana? Costa Rica? “San Jose!” I blurt out triumphantly, earning me a pitying look of encouragement, Georgia, the Asian one? Maldives? There’s a lull, I acknowledge his prowess and decide to let him show off a bit by quizzing him back, he’s a veritable almanac, answering without hesitation. He seems bored in his complete knowledge. “British Columbia?” I randomly unhopefully probe. Pause. He frowns. “Colombia, no, British Columbia,” he’s biding time. I mask my surprise with friendly glee, “Yeah, you know, British Columbia. Canada.” His frown grows deeper, “Bah, Canada. No, no Canada. Pfft. Next one!” I howl with laughter, he has no idea why but can’t help joining in.

Syria postcard

My knife, acquired three years ago in Nepal in trade for a down jacket, now dull and stupid. I queue at the sharpener stall in the souk, five men working scissors, blades of all shapes, only sounds humming and metal wailing. An old bespectacled man wordlessly accepts it, inspects it, hands it to another at a wheel, ninety seconds. Back to the first who ministers to it with oil and stone, two minutes, back to me with one hand while reaching for another with the other, and they continue their seamless flow of coordinated skilled activity. I give a teenager what hardly amounts to a US dollar, he gives me back over half in change. I had placed the knife into movement naturally organized at every fractal level of resolution, like an eddy in a river or a pocket of  interthreading smoke from fires in close proximity, and it emerged better than it was, than it ever was.

Syria postcard

Off-white gravel horizon with tan peaks far away, the fall rise fall of the road, never dramatic, presaged by a sentinel line of power line poles. The main highway, two lanes no shoulder buses heavy trucks military jeeps, and sometimes the old road next to it mostly empty but prone to disappearances or disrepair. Haven’t been able to keep food down or in for a couple of days now, so pedaling in a trancey delirium, the ache of movement in an exaggerated torpor at least no more than that of laying in bed. Periodically snapped back into a caret of attention by dogs in trios or packs rasping barks into the dryness in full pursuit, nor am I much afraid of them since they cower at the show of throwing stones; I laugh out loud at myself when I’m waving at a sweet friendly family greeting me from the front of their home and switch to pantomiming rock hurling at (their?) menacing hounds snarling at my panniers and switch back to waving.

A jeep slows down. Soldiers. I grab the passenger door and encourage them to keep driving. We thereafter have a lovely chat. Earlier: dense traffic, a driver in a shiny new car rolls down his electric window to call out, “welcome Syria, welcome.” Much later: Hassan rides alongside on his motorcycle, he is wearing the white and red checked Bedouin head covering, I say I am from the yoo ess ay and he says incredulously, “Roo see uh?” I chuckle, we clear that up, he seems relieved, and then explains that Syria is not like Iran or Iraq, that I can sleep with my wife here if I want to. Earlier: The strap holding my bottle in the big carrier breaks so I am on the lookout for something to replace it with. In a shop I spot a bag of balloons, and point at one. The old man reacts with equanimity as he sells me cans of cola and one pink balloon.

The last two hours before Palmyra in misty breath darkness, easier to ride the dirt by fingertip feel on the bars and scan the ground with covert retreating glances, the way that with some stars you can’t see them by looking straight on only when you glance away. A difficult 164k day.

Syria postcard

Aleppo. Unable fluently to read the social divisions any more than the Arabic script, so only superficialities: the Christian neighborhoods, fewer veils, shops closed on Sunday, more jeans. Seamless transition to Muslim streets, but now more hijab, though not conservative as these things go, some women in makeup, faces framed in black fabric, men in jalabas but many in stylish leather coats, too. And then, mere alleys away, the rhythmic footfalls of murmuring or calling out crowds in a packed souk labyrinth, perhaps not the uncompromised mayhem of Fez, but also not the hard sell of attention on the outsiders, so one can look at the wares without risking a lengthy extraction. There’s an entire camel’s head and neck hanging from a butcher’s hook and then later piles of blocks of aged olive oil soap, spices, fruit, Turkish coffee. Both groups, Christians and Muslims, moving with a confidence, a relaxed intheworldness, reasonable prosperity, Kia’s Honda’s, about their business, tourists a fair oddity but the locals are too sophisticated to treat us as if we’re from another planet.

The Maronite Catholic mass last night was lovely with Christmas season cheer, understood not a word but all of the shapes of the sociality were imprinted on me as a young child, so like listening to a well-known song with the words in another tongue and a few melodies reworked. The mosque is a contrastive perplexity, southwestwardly oriented carpets, bodies moving so differently that the conscious sensation will elude me, but even in blindness I can see community, solemnity, elevation. Woken every morning by the call to prayer, more stylized and artful than I’ve ever heard before.

Aleppo is a revelation, rising almost modestly to its rival-to-Damascus claim of being the oldest continuously occupied city in the world. Vigor palpable, many well-come!’s with a default assumption that I’m French to lead to raised eyebrows when I say “USA, America” handshake and generous smiles. “Well-come.”