What is this Jordanian woman doing? Having chips? cooling down in the shade? people watching? daydreaming? It might look like she is doing all of the above, but you have to be there to understand what she is really doing.
If she climbed the hill on foot, she might be thinking about alternate routes to get down to the valley without falling; if she made it up there on a donkey, she might be wondering what she would do if her beast were to break a limb. Either way, climbing down the mountain is the least of her problems. She lives in a nearby village, where every day she has to walk to a well to fetch water; where life is hard, where all she sees as soon as she opens her eyes are rocks and sand, sand and rocks. But she gets up anyway, makes bread and tea for her family and herself, wraps in a cloth bag the trinkets she sells to tourists in Petra, and rides the donkey up the cliff, all the way to this very spot, where a bag of chips is all there is to eat under the shade of a squalid tree.
A woman and her donkey stand halfway up The Monastery, Petra’s most awe-inspiring monument and also one of the most taxing to reach. This square building, carved from a chunk of rose-colored mountain, sits on the rocky cliff nearly an hour’s climb from the gorge. The climb takes your breath away, both figuratively and physically. It's a daunting hike of more than 700 nearly vertical feet, broken by patches of about 800 ancient steps.
Along the processional way up, there are plenty of places to rest, including a holy spring, a shrine, a ceremonial dining room, and this cool ledge overlooking a deep ravine below: this woman's work place. While hikers stop at this enchanted mossy grotto to take in the views and catch their breath, the woman gets to work offering donkey rides to the summit, “Air-condition taxi, mister?”
Does she know that she is working right where the biblical Nabateans lived more than 2000 years ago? Does she know that the archaeological authorities want to shut her business down because the donkeys' hooves are degrading the sandstone steps on the route up? Maybe she does, maybe she doesn't. I don't think she cares. From where she works, she has stupendous views over the entire Petra basin and the Wadi Araba. And in the afternoon, the sun moves around enough to hit the facade of the mountain full-on before plunging into the horizon, leaving the basin suspended in a twilight moment. And I'm sure, at this moment, everything else seems unimportant.
If you want water, she has it. If you need a power bar, she can sell you one. If you feel like buying a souvenir, she has plenty of them. But nothing will be rush-delivered. You'll have to wait until she comes down from this multicolored rock--the only large semi-flat surface around--and makes it back to the little stall with the Jordanian flags you saw on your way up, all full of beautiful trinkets and no one to buy them from. It's not that she doesn't care. It's not that she doesn't want to make a sale. It's that she trusts humans, that she doesn't need her eyes on her business when The Almighty oversees everything from up there, she tells me when I ask her if she isn't afraid that tourists may help themselves to some souvenirs. And there is this other reason for her not to be at the stall: she needs to do business on her phone and that multicolored rock up there, far away from her stand, is the only place where she gets a decent signal.
The climb to the High Place of Sacrifice is steep and tricky, but an unmissable part of a visit to Petra. It's a dramatic walk, rewarded with superb views into the ravine of the beautiful Wadi al-Mahfur, and the deep-cut corridors the Nabatean engineers sliced through the rock.
I knew we were reaching the top when we spotted two prominent obelisks, both over 18 feet-high, which supposedly represent Dushara and al-Uzza, the Nabatean deities. The obelisks, despite being solid, were not placed there; instead, the entire side of the mountain-top was leveled to leave them exposed and erect. Consequently, the place is known as the Phallus of Mercy, a place visited by barren women praying for fertility.
Other than the obelisks, the other sign that we were nearing the top was her voice. A woman chanted in Arabic and whistled stridently, sending her high pitch intonations down the cliff. She was up there, walking around the platform--used in biblical times as the venue for religious ceremonies-- oriented towards an altar, on which it is believed stood a table of offerings.
As soon as we reached the top, she grabbed my hand and led me from corner to corner of the summit. She looked rough. Her leathery skin seemed like life and the lives of others have left their mark on her face, and her hands were thick with callosities. She looked a little bit crazy, a little bit dangerous, a great deal like she was not the woman I wanted to be left alone with at the edge of a cliff. She showed me the altar and gave me the slash-throat sign, letting me know without words what it was for. She chanted some some more, whistled louder, and showed me everything there was to see up there. At some point, we held hands as we admired the vastness of Petra’s mountain terrain and from there, she pointed at the tomb of Aaron atop Jabal Haroun, in clear sight in the distance.
I don't know what she wanted from me. She didn't ask for money or water (I had neither). She just sang and whistled as she showed me around as if this mountain top were her own house. Before I started the descent she instructed me to sit next to her by the sacrificial altar. She showed me a picture of a man, caressed his face on the torn paper, and using body language told me he was dead. The hard edges of her contours softened. We sat there in silence and from there we saw the city of Petra standing in a broad valley down below. She put the picture of her deceased husband away and whistled some more.
I want to talk about the other Arabs. The ones you don’t hear about in the news. The ordinary people living ordinary lives. The real Arabs who don’t make it to CNN because violence doesn't suit their lifestyle.
Picture this: We were in Jordan, somewhere around Petra. It was 90 degrees; hot and dry as hell. We didn't have enough water with us, or a map of the area, or working cell phones, because, apparently, all these little precautions were too mainstream for us, savvy travelers. So we went down the road less traveled, not in a mean 4x4, as sensible people would have done, but in our soccer mom’s rental van. A van. And everything would have been fantastic had it not been because my husband spotted something in the middle of nowhere and before he could finish the ominous “I wonder what that is,” I said, “let’s find out.”
We left the paved road and two yards into the desert, our van got stuck. How bad could it be? I mean, we were a few feet away from the road; all we had to do was wave down the next car. Except, as I said, we were in the middle of nowhere, and hadn't seen a soul in miles. None. With each passing minute, the wheels of our super van sank deeper into the desert. We hand-shoveled a foot and a half of soft sand from underneath the back wheel, but by the time we finish wiping the sweat off our foreheads, the wheel had sunk deeper and its right counterpart had started to go south too. We were stuffed. Thirsty and worried.
It was noon. The sun at its zenith.
A beat up car stopped by and two beduin men came to our rescue. I swear I saw wings sticking out of the back of their white tunics. They rolled up their sleeves and dishdashas and got to work, but try as they might, we remained stuck. Now we had two Jordanian beduins, which in the USA would be the equivalent of two good ol’ rednecks, and a Scotsman, hand-shoveling sand, looking for shrubs, rocks, anything they could find in the desert.
And me? Where was I? Inside the air-conditioned van, of course.
A good hour went by and these two men had run out of tricks. At this point, anyone else would have said, Sorry pal, I don't know what else to do, but not these two. They would not give up. To no avail. The three men squatted quietly by the van and exchanged apologetic smiles. The awkward moment was interrupted by the sound of an approaching vehicle. A group of beduin men (in the cabin) and their families (in the back of their pickup truck) stopped by. The men sent their wives and children to take shelter under the thin shade of a squalid tree—the only tree in many miles—and they got to work.
Now we had, not two dumbfounded Jordanian men scratching their heads, but five, all of whom insisted in driving the van back and forward despite the obvious fact that none of them had ever driven an automatic. Had I spoken Arabic I would have told them that if they wanted to drive the van in reverse, it was highly recommended to put the car in R rather than D, especially when my husband was pushing the front of the car with all his might.
They tried to haul the van using ropes--both of which snapped--, they pushed, they rocked the vehicle sideways, they went underneath it and looked for options, determined to get the stupid tourists out of trouble, all of this while their families simmered on the side of the road.
When they unstuck the van, there was a loud celebration, cheers and smiles, a few Thank Gods, Alhamdulillah, and manly victorious handshakes. My husband ran to the van and got all the Jordanian Dinars we had on us, with the intention of sharing the cash evenly among the five men. But they wouldn't take the money, or our water. They said that God was watching and that He would reward them. That’s all they wanted. To do the right thing and be rewarded, not with the silly offerings of two naive tourists, but with heavenly favors.
The wives and children got back in the bed of the pickup, the husbands went back inside the cabin, the two other men climbed into their beat up car and they all drove off leaving behind a cloud of sand.