In David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” Prince Feisal looks piercingly at T.E. Lawrence and asks him: “Are you one of those desert-loving Englishmen, Colonel Lawrence? What do you love about the desert? There is nothing in the desert!”
Standing in the middle of a sea of sand, in the national preserve that is Wadi Rum, I came up with a few answers to Feisal. Not to sound like Christopher Robin — but Nothing is precisely what one loves about the desert. Feisal, perhaps, had not had much experience in bustling cities or in sprawling suburbs, where the great press of humanity can be felt. But here! I stood still and looked around. There was no wind, and no trees either, for the wind to make noise in. The silence was almost terrifying — a sign of the place’s isolation, of the deep solitude offered by such landscape. Here you can imagine God talking to Moses. Or Gabriel talking to Muhammad. Whatever conversation there was, it registered as a slight, small distraction from the yawning chasm of existence, and our miniscule place in the cosmos.
The sand underfoot was fine and slightly red in color; about five-hundred yards to our south there rose up a thousand-foot sandstone cliff, whose sides were almost sheer, and collapsing in constant rock slides into the valley floor. Because it was not yet seven in the morning, the sun at our backs cast long shadows on the plain ahead of us, making half of the valley a dark, cold place, and half burning bright and quickly warming.
We had an hour or so until our predicament became worrisome. We could have used Feisal now, or anyone with a camel, because my guide, a nineteen-year-old Bedouin by the name of `Oudi, had forgotten to gas-up the 1950’s era Land Cruiser before leaving. He would have called his grandfather, but his cell phone battery was dead. As it was, we were in the middle of nowhere, with nothing.
I offered `Oudi some bottled water, for which he seemed grateful. He frowned as he looked out over the desert, and the way home, as if he had never contemplated it without the aid of a jeep, or as if asking himself how he could have forgotten to gas-up. Maybe, I thought to myself, these modern Bedouin have a thing or two to learn about the desert. So `Oudi and I began walking.
He had driven like a maniac on the way out here, ignoring my complaints, throwing the fifty-year-old vehicle into curves that almost had us on two wheels. There were no roads, after all, so `Oudi followed old 4x4 tracks, which were quite plentiful, and where there were none, he ploughed new furrows. We had driven like this for some twenty minutes. I estimated we had been going about 30–40 miles an hour most of the way, giving us a walk of 10–15 miles home. But the sand was thick — like walking on a beach — and before long it would be very hot. We were in for a hard day.
I had driven down from Amman the day before, keen to get into the desert. The road to Wadi Rum (Rum as they call it, the Arabic for “Roman”) is known as the Desert Highway — appropriately enough — and consistent with Feisal’s ideas about deserts, it affords little to look at. There are some potash mines (Jordan’s main export) and a few small towns. At Ma’an you branch off from the Desert Highway and go…into the desert, on a smaller road, thirty odd miles until you arrive at Rum. The scenery off the highway begins to grow increasingly dramatic and spectacular as you approach the village itself, changing from flat, arid scrub, to mountainous outcroppings and sculpted dunes of varying different shades of red and yellow.
Rum is really a Bedouin settlement. But these Bedouin are mostly done with their wandering days; tourism and some subsistence agriculture form the basis of life here. The town consists of a few blocks of dusty one-story concrete dwellings. There is a government guesthouse, a couple of train carriages functioning as an information booth — in remembrance, perhaps, of the railway built by the Turks, made famous by Lawrence’s tendency to blow it up — and one or two basic shops. What is formidable about the place, however, is its situation, lying at the foot of two opposing 3000-foot mountains rising steeply into the sky on either side of the valley, making all puny humans consider their insignificance in their presence. Tents were the only lodging option here, the guesthouse itself reserved for the restaurant and, it appeared, several of its staff. I was the only guest, and forty-nine ancient army tents sat empty in the evening breeze.
Rum was the center of Feisal’s Arab Revolt, and David Lean set much of his movie in and around the wadi. There is little left of Lawrence here, however. A spring, known as Lawrence’s Spring (he wrote about it in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom), is referred to by locals as, ‘Ein ash-Shalallah. I decided to walk up to the spring before dinner, keen to explore the place that had so bowled-over my compatriot nearly a century before, and so headed out of town and past several small farmsteads with goats and chickens in abundance. I soon started scrambling over loose rocks and then larger boulders, gaining height quickly. I passed a Bedouin man who appeared to be following a brightly-dressed Bedouin woman, at some distance. He grinned at me and asked: “Shallallah?”
“Shallalah,” I responded, returning the grin, as if we were both in on some exhilarating secret. After about twenty-five minutes I had reached what I took to be the spring in question, but it seemed to have dried up, and instead of the crystal clear pool I had been expecting, there was a muddy swamp. Water seeped out of some rocks and then went underground again. Disappointed, I climbed a little higher and reached a ledge from which I could look out over the valley, and took in a breathtaking view, south and east towards Saudi Arabia — the border was only a few miles away — and the mountains and plains which stretched to the far horizons.
Back at the guesthouse an hour later a gracious waiter brought me a plate of lamb kebabs, taboule and hummus with a side of French Fries. It was the best meal I had experienced thus far in Jordan — fresh, simple and tasty. As the only guest, I was invited to play backgammon with the waiter and a small group of men who had obscure job descriptions at the guesthouse. Several glasses of sweet tea later, I crept back to my tent to get some sleep before `Oudi’s 5 AM wake up call to catch the sunrise at the Rock Bridge.
I had initially wanted to shoulder my pack and walk into the wadi, avoiding polluting it more than necessary with motor vehicles. I had paid my entrance fee upon arrival at the preserve. `Oudi had been the only employee to hand and he had taken my money. Later, he had persuaded me that the best things were not walking distance — my evening stroll had showed me a little of how challenging the sand was to walk on — so I had hired `Oudi to take me to the Rock Bridge and Barrah Siq, a canyon of some renown about 20 kilometers into the preserve. I figured these things would take up the morning, then I could plan an afternoon excursion on foot.
`Oudi resembled one of the Bedouin youth photographed by Wilfred Thesiger in the 1950’s, in somewhat homoerotic poses with guns. He had chiseled features and jet-black hair and was lean as a mountain goat. But the 5 AM wake up call did not seem to agree with him and he was incommunicative and bleary-eyed as he hurled the jeep through the desert, knowing that the sun would crest at any minute, and that he was in danger of missing that tourist “ahhh” moment. I was more interested in staying alive. I’d seen sunrises before. `Oudi did not care. I was going to see this one, even if it killed me.
We did, in fact, make it to the corner of the valley in time. Rounding the end of one of the giant mountains, which stood like headlands in the desert ocean, we turned east and saw the bloody ball of the sun rising over the jagged mountain top some five miles away, filling the valley with its colors like a volcano of light. We sat awestruck (at least I did, `Oudi could have been asleep behind his dark glasses), as the valley came to life, like the first day on earth.
`Oudi lit a cigarette and ordered me to get out and take some photographs, and then he sat smoking while I wandered around for a few minutes and snapped what I could of the remarkable change taking place in the surrounding valley — all manner of purples and reds as light hit sand and rock, and shadows receded. When I returned to the jeep, `Oudi was knocking sand out of the fuel filter. We continued into the preserve, passing ancient rock formations, Nabatean and Chaldean graffiti, along with some Arabic script hacked into the cliffs. The wind had sculpted sand into curving dunes in some places, and featureless flats in others. And it had sandblasted much of the rock and eroded it into fantastic shapes.
I had left `Oudi for an hour, to wander up the canyon of Barraq Siq, a challenging scramble into rail-thin squeezes, and precipitous drops, that looked like it went on forever. The sides of the canyon had been washed smooth by eons of rain, much like the canyon I had seen at Petra, but much narrower. When I emerged from the canyon it was to find `Oudi with the hood open again. This time he had several components in his hands and was looking confused.
“It won’t start,” he said. After several minutes he concluded he must have been out of gas, although his fuel gauge had stopped working sometime in the Nineties, before he had even earned his license, possibly even before he was out of diapers.
The sun bore down on us, building in heat, bouncing off the sand. I felt miniscule, looking up at the mountains above us on either side. I had a small backpack, carrying two 20 ounce bottles of water, a camera, and an apple. `Oudi had a T-shirt that said “Madonna,” his sweatpants and a pair of sunglasses, a dead cell phone and flip-flops. With an unbroken line of sight to the end of the valley where we would turn north, the distance looked enormous, and the sand underfoot gave way as we tried to get traction on it. I began to think that the desert would swallow us.
After forty-five minutes of this, as we stumbled along the floor of the valley, a ringing noise came from `Oudi’s sweatpants. He looked surprised, pulled out his cell-phone, and looked at it as if he had never seen it before. It was his grandfather, he told me as he hung up. He would be here in half an hour. Thank god for cell phone batteries habit of coming back from the dead.
Considering it unnecessary to expend any more energy, `Oudi promptly sat down where he stood. I sat too, and we listened to the occasional groan from the wind passing through some canyon in the hills. In the sky a bird of prey circled. `Oudi, staring at the horizon looking like a Calvin Klein model, told me he would like to go to America. Soon enough we spotted, in the far distance, the white speck of his grandfather’s pickup. When it arrived, a wizened old Bedouin man stepped out wearing a white Gelabaya and a red headscarf. He berated `Oudi for several seconds, in a good-natured way, then gestured for me to get into the truck. Back at the canyon several minutes later, `Oudi was filling his jeep from a jerry can, under the watchful eye of his grandfather, and we were on our way, driving at break-neck speed back to Rum.
Part of me was disappointed to have been rescued in so anti-climatic a way. I was rising to the challenge of a classic, parched struggle through deadly desert. I had imagined a return not unlike Peter O’Toole’s, when he stumbles into the Cairo Officer’s club having walked from Aqaba, across the Sinai, his face dusty, his hair matted, and orders water. As we neared the town, I remembered the Islamic saying, attributed to the Prophet: Trust in God. But tether your camel first. Perhaps they should print that at the gates of the preserve — for the benefit of guides.