Neighbors: Across Shifting Sands
At a few minutes after 6 in the morning our vehicle was the first at the border crossing. We had only a few days, my friend Zvika and I, and we were going to make the most of them.
We shared a love of the outdoors and ever so often would take time from work—Zvika from the fields of his kibbutz, I from my department at the university—to hike the hills and valleys of Israel, seeking out the hidden places that remain where rare flowers are found in the spring and wolf and hyena might be encountered with the falling of night. Now, there was a new opportunity: the deserts across the Jordan River. A peace treaty had been signed with the Kingdom of Jordan and the borders were open. Zvika had borrowed a small van from the kibbutz, and we traveled fast on the night-deserted highways, from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, down the Arava—the stretch of the Great Rift Valley between Israel and Jordan—and, a few miles north of Eilat, onto the side road that leads to the border crossing.
Arriving at the Israeli post, we were handed a booklet of cautionary instructions for tourists: Do not advertise your Israeli or Jewish identity; do not speak Hebrew loudly in public places; avoid remote areas unless you are with an organized group; do not hike or travel in the desert, especially not after dark or near a border with another Arab country. I read my booklet assiduously; there were more admonitions than I had expected. Zvika threw his into the back of the van and laughed. He is a child survivor of the Holocaust, he had served in the crack Palmah brigade during the War of Independence, and he will regard a risk only when it is upon him. “S’mokh alai,” he said—rely on me, there won’t be any problems. Veteran Israelis say s’mokh alai when things aren’t at all certain but we’ll bulldoze our way through anyhow.
Beyond the Israeli post there is a strip of no-man’s land and then the Jordanian position. A mechanic removed the license plates from our van and attached Jordanian plates. Currency exchange, payments, entry permits, and we were in Jordan.
“Have a good time,” an officer waved us on.
Skirting the port of Aqaba, we chose the inland route—the King’s Highway up to Petra, the wondrous Nabatean city hewn from cliffs of red sandstone more than 20 centuries ago. But there were throngs of people on guided tours, a babel of tongues; Zvika had heard of a smaller, isolated version of the city, about five or six miles to the north, and we decided to head for “Little Petra.” We asked for directions, but no one seemed to know, tour guides and policemen pointing vaguely one way and the other.
We found ourselves on dirt paths, crisscrossing a slanting ridge for hours. Bedouin shepherds with their flocks were friendly, but when we did succeed in making ourselves understood they proved to be no better informed. I suggested we call it quits; it was getting late and we had made reservations at an inn in Taybe, some distance south of Petra. “Oh, no,” Zvika said, “we will find Little Petra, no question.” Eventually we did. No other tourists were in sight. We walked the narrow canyon, explored the caves and chambers hollowed out from its walls and started back for Taybe. “Good,” I said, “we’ll make it just before dark.” That made no impression on Zvika. “What’s the hurry? They’ll keep the reservations. What we need now is a good strong cup of coffee.”
We halted on a high plateau, the path edging an abrupt valley. The day’s last colors were playing out on the summits to the west; behind us the plateau rose to a farther escarpment. The land was tilled, but the soil so poor that each stalk of wheat stood out in the thin, wind-blasted rows—how much ground does it take, I wondered, to yield grain sufficient for a single pita. Tracks led from the path to Bedouin encampments, the black tents silhouetted in the flicker of campfires.
Zvika lit a small Primus stove and opened a box of crackers. As we waited for the water to come to boil, a truck drove up from one of the encampments. Two men stepped out. “Salaam,” they called. “Where are you from?”
“We are from Israel,” Zvika said.
“Ah, Israel! We have family in the Negev. Welcome.” The sky had become a palette of stars. We sat together with the Bedouin, sharing scalding black coffee, talking little. Then we shook hands and continued to the inn in Taybe.
Thirty-five miles north of Petra, the Nature Reserve of Wadi Dana spreads over a savage terrain of mountains and canyons. Cliffs plunge from peaks more than 4,000 feet high to the water courses—baked dry most of the year—that drop to the flatlands of the Arava. Like barbicans on guard at the walls of a dark medieval fortress, columns of granite rise from the floor of the ravines. It is a forbidding wilderness, vertiginous to the observer on first beholding.
We arrived at the reserve toward evening, driving slowly from Taybe along the heights of the rift. Perched on a promontory that juts out over the great wadi there is a guesthouse for visitors and scientists who come to study the region’s flora and fauna. But we had not called in advance and we found the place deserted. Repeated knocking on the door proving futile, we were about to leave when a man, dressed only in shorts, appeared from an adjoining cabin. “I am sorry,” he said in good English. “We have no guests this week and we did not know of your coming. Everything is closed now.”
“Thanks anyway,” Zvika said, and to me, in Hebrew, “We’ll have to turn around and find a room in Petra.”
I must have looked dejected, the prospect of retracing a long way on rutted roads not very appealing. The man seemed to have noticed my look for he hesitated and softened. “Too bad you didn’t let us know. It is a long way back to Petra in the dark. You do have food with you, yes?”
“We have coffee and biscuits and some cheese,” Zvika said. “We’ll manage all right.”
“You come from Israel?” the man asked—it was more of a statement than a question. “Tell you what. I cannot make you a meal, the kitchen is shut, but I will have a boy from the village bring some pita. You can sleep in one of our rooms. I will find you bedding and turn on the water.” The village, no more than a few dozen stone huts clinging to an adjacent outcropping of rock, is accessible only by a circuitous track around a deep crevasse.
An hour later, a teenaged boy turned up on a donkey. The boy was a deaf mute. A big smile on his face, he unloaded dishes of tehina and hummus, black olives and salads, a platter heaped with fried potatoes and an enormous omelet. How such a meal could have been produced so quickly at the desolate village I could not imagine. The promise of bread transformed to this—in the manner of Abraham, my Bedouin forefather, I thought. The boy motioned us to the lounge and set a table.
“I have called my friends in town. They will come to greet you,” our host announced when we had finished. The town, Qadessiya, straddles the highway where a rough path branches off to Dana.
The friends who came were all Bedouin, like most of southern Jordan’s population, but they did not wear the flowing robes one associates with the desert people.
These men were not the nomadic tribesmen of legend; they were a biologist, an engineer, a teacher, others involved with programs sponsored by the reserve, and they arrived in pressed slacks and open shirts.
“We come to welcome you to Dana,” the biologist pronounced the formal greeting. We sat until late on a porch overlooking the wilderness. Someone had brought sweet cakes and a basket of fruit, someone prepared coffee. We talked. They had all been to college, had a knowledge of English. The talk glided over many topics—the biodiversity of Dana, ecology and endangered species, life in the impoverished villages—but it always veered back to one.
The biologist was speaking of the rift’s desert lands, of their dormant fertility. Abruptly he shifted: “As a naturalist, I say to you, together we could make the desert bloom, you and we! If there were real peace between our countries.”
The others took up his words.
“Yes, with a real peace!”
“More than what we have now, much more, working together…”
“Does Israel not want that, a real peace?”
“We are sitting here, together, like brothers. Why not our countries?”
“You are strong! Why are you afraid of the Arabs?”
And so it went, whatever the topic. Peace. True peace. Why not? Why not?
I tried to explain. Surely we want the peace you are talking about. No less than you. Both our countries must work at that. It will take time. Yes, we are strong today, but we are so small you can barely see us on the map, a strip on the edge of the Arab world, exposed on all sides. We cannot let our guard down. But we try. Evenings like this are important, a start…
Evenings like this—on that there was no disagreement.
In the morning, other visitors. “You cannot know Wadi Dana by looking at it from up here,” one of the younger men said. “I will be your guide. An easy walk.”
The easy walk was four hours on a trail that threaded on the brink of the canyon. The trail was steep and narrow. We walked in single file, Zvika, younger and more agile than I, in the lead; our guide behind me, ready to offer assistance. I had passed my 70th birthday.
I do not relish finding myself on a thin ledge above an abyss, and the bleached surface of the trail danced before my eyes in the glare of mid-day. Fissures broke the trail in places, and the guide reached out his hand to steady my leap over each void. A crazy thought flashed through my mind: The man wouldn’t have to push, he needed only to relax his grip on my arm at one of the gaps, and there would be one Jew less. A moment later, shocked at myself: My God, is this what we have come to?
When we made the final ascent to the village, on safe ground now, he shook my hand. “We did that all right, did we not?” he asked. “Next time you come we shall camp in the wadi and do some climbing!”
I have not had the chance to test myself on a real climb at Dana. The intifada of Al-Aksa broke out and now it is not advisable to cross into an Arab country.
Wadi Ram. An expanse of desert flanked on either side by a range of sharp, cragged hills, it lies to the east and slightly north of Aqaba, not far from the boundary line that divides the desert between Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Traveling south on the King’s Highway, it was close to noon when we reached the turnoff to the wadi and discovered we were
out of gas. “Not to worry,” Zvika said. “We’ll find some.” And we did. There was a small, shabby Bedouin settlement ahead and Zvika persuaded the owner of the store—a one room shack—to part with two jerry cans of fuel. In another half-hour’s drive the path ended at the face of a cliff; a few tents and a stand selling soft drinks sheltered in the cover of some palm and acacia trees. Bedouin were there with a Land Rover, offering the occasional tourist an excursion farther into the remote desert. “Oh, no,” Zvika politely countered the offer. “We’ll do that on our own.” The Bedouin were skeptical. “You can easily lose your way here,” one said. Zvika assured him: “We won’t, we have a compass.” “Do you have front-wheel drive?” the man asked. “The sand is very soft.” “No problem,” Zvika was firm; finishing his drink, he stepped into the van and started the engine. The van did not have four-wheel drive and I protested. “Why take a chance getting stuck, out in nowhere? Let’s go with them for a couple of hours, they are not asking much!” Zvika put the van into gear. “S’mokh alai,” he said.
We made not bad progress for one or two miles, skidding every so often on the loose sand. Zvika declared it was time for coffee. We stopped, sat on the sparse strip of shade cast by the vehicle under the zenith sun and boiled water. In the staggering heat I felt myself gripped, seized and obliterated by the desert’s fierce, numinous splendor. Nothing broke the endless latitudes of sand but the dot of ourselves and the grotesque formations of gray-black rock that rear high from the desert’s floor, like gargoyles mocking human pretensions from the cliffs of a cathedral. The buttes of the far-off ridges shimmered and swayed, red, roseate, purple and lilac, amorphous, unreal.
The sand was powder-fine here, and the wheels of the van settled into the softness; when we were ready to go on they slipped and spun, gaining no hold. Zvika revved the motor; I pushed from the rear; Zvika tried swinging the wheels to right and left. The vehicle sank deeper with each effort. We gathered stunted desert brush and placed the twigs so as to provide traction. To no avail. Neither were the sheets of corrugated cardboard we ripped from boxes of gear and supplies. “Now we must dig,” Zvika said as the right rear wheel was disappearing from sight. We dug until our hands were raw and bloody, and it was like scooping out a hole on the beach only to see it fill at once with sand sliding down from the rim.
We gave up. Taking turns, we stood waving our shirts high in the air, perhaps someone out there would spot us. Hours went by. The shadows on the hills lengthened.
It was midafternoon when a dark speck appeared on the horizon. “A car,” Zvika cried triumphantly. “I told you we’d be all right!” A mirage, I thought. But as the speck grew larger it materialized into a ramshackle jeep, driven by a Bedouin in ragged clothing. “I saw you and I came,” the man said. “Why are you stuck? What is your trouble?”
“The car does not have four-wheel drive, that’s the trouble,” I replied. The man stared at me, dumbfounded, then at Zvika. Then he pointed a finger at his head. “You are crazy,” he mumbled, as if the gesture required explanation. Handing us a grimy bottle of water, he ordered: “Drink! People die in the desert.” His words of English—picked up from tourists, he told us later—were interspersed with Arabic, but he made himself quite clear. “You must drink,” he repeated.
“Odeh,” the Bedouin introduced himself. He took a thick braided rope from his jeep and fastened an end to each vehicle. With some effort he managed to tow us out of the trap. “I take you to my camp. You are my guests,” he said, kindly now. “You follow me. I know the sand.” We fell in close behind his jeep, angling back and forth over the sands until, after an hour, we came to his encampment. I had lost all sense of direction, unable to keep a landmark before me, the strange scattered rock formations among which we weaved merging into an image of colossal monuments strewn over a vast flatness.
As Odeh’s camp came into view, I felt a sense of relief—a shelter from the pitiless sun, a human habitation in the midst of the harsh outcroppings of granite and basalt. It didn’t matter that the encampment was a single makeshift tent, untrimmed poles supporting the canopy and sidings of coarse dark-brown cloth, the fabric threadbare, large tears ripping through. One side of the tent was entirely open. In the center of the sand floor a circle of stones was arranged around the remnants of a fire, coals still glowing. The furnishings consisted of small mats and a poor rug thrown near the fire site, mattresses, a storage crate and a few basic cooking utensils. Outside, a donkey and a camel were tethered to pegs driven into the sand. This was his summer home, our host explained, he also had a cabin in the village.
“I have guests from Israel,” Odeh said as we entered and, pointing to an attractive young woman, “my wife.” She smiled shyly. Bending over the fire and adding twigs, she blew the coals to flame. While water heated in a brass kettle she baked pitas on a curved sheet of metal set over the fire.
We will leave after you have eaten,” Odeh announced. A little girl incongruously dressed in a ruffled white frock and her younger brother wearing a neat blue-and-white suit crouched on the floor staring at us, fascinated by the strangers. Warily, they accepted a chocolate bar and cookies that Zvika held out. In a corner, silent, unmoving, her wizened face elaborately tattooed, an old woman sat upright on a blanket. “Mother,” Odeh informed us—his, his wife’s? He didn’t say.
We left as daylight waned, following Odeh in his jeep. At the settlement where we had bought fuel in the morning we parted. Odeh refused payment. “It is a gift for your wife,” I insisted.
“All right, then,” he said. “I am looking for a second wife. The money will go to…” He didn’t find the word and I helped him. “The bride price, you mean?”
“Yes, it is for that.” He wrote a few words in Arabic on a slip of paper and handed it to me. “It says ‘Odeh. Wadi Ram,’” he explained. “Everyone knows Odeh in the desert. You will come back, yes? We will go far and camp. No money, you are my friends.”
Zvika and I drove on to Aqaba and across the border back home. “You know,” Zvika said, “we will come back.”
Perhaps, if this intifada will ever end.