You know that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where they find the Holy Grail in this Temple carved into a rock in a huge moon-shaped gully? Well that’s Petra and I’ve been here once before for all of two hours and ever since, I’ve dreamed of coming back. In 2006, I came to Petra for a short tour with Jordan’s most promising young artists. We only scratched the surface on that trip and spent most of our time holed up in a four-star hotel drinking far too much of the local brew, Arak. The best part of that trip was meeting Anees, the coolest Jordanian ever. Anees Maani is Jordan’s best young sculptor. He has long wiry black hair with a splash of grey right in the middle, blue eyes and his favorite phrase is “Ta –dah!” His largest sculptures reside in the park outside Jordan’s National Gallery of Fine Arts and there are many more within. He draws his inspiration for his art from Petra and has visited and camped out in Petra too many times to count. When I met Anees in 2006 and wandered briefly around Petra, I knew I’d have to come back with his as my guide to this ancient land.
For this trip, I’ve emailed Anees to ask if he’d mind spending a few days in Petra with my friend Kathy and me. Anees is not exactly email-friendly, so my planning conversations with him are vague. He tells me, “Hey I got married since I saw you last, do you mind if I bring my wife Karma?” I tell him it would be bad Karma not to. Just as I’m about to walk out the door for the Atlanta airport I get an email from Anees, “By the way, bring a sleeping bag and some fire starters.” I suspect we’re in for an adventure.
Amman is a mere hour hop from Beirut by plane, just 135 miles if you were to drive it. A Jaguar from the Four Seasons is waiting for us at the airport and our driver promptly hands us a menu and suggests we order ahead to have anything we want delivered to our room. Kathy pipes up, “Do you have Almaza beer here?” Sadly, we’re in the land of Coors, Heineken and no local beer. We barely have time to down a cocktail in our plush hotel digs when my good friend, Frances Abouzeid, calls. “Where are you? I’ve been by the hotel and you weren’t there!” Indeed, I’m in Jordan, where gatherings happen as spontaneously as you arrive. Frances barks, “Meet me at Bistro One, you remember the place!” and hangs up the phone. Frances is American of Lebanese decent and an old chum of my husband. He originally met her in 1995 when he did a profile of George Soros. At the time, Frances worked for Soros and arranged for David to tour Budapest, Prague and London with the billionaire. Later, they connected again in Serbia after the war. Since then, they’ve been fast friends at various points around the globe, mostly Lebanon. You’d think I’d be suspicious when David is non-stop chumming around with a girl named Frances on his frequent trips to Lebanon over the years, but you’ve never met Frances. Frances is larger than life – a beehive of energy and connections. She knows everyone and could have been the basis for the connector character in Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point. She loves my husband and has taken him under her wing. I tell Kathy, we’ll have no idea what to expect at our dinner with Frances and she’s game, as long as there’s a cold beer and somebody new to meet. You can take Kathy anywhere because she’ll start up a conversation with anyone.
At Bistro One, we find a large table full of Middle Eastern mayors and others in town for a conference Frances organized. We’re lucky to be seated next to a trendy Egyptian artist named Abdallah who does all sorts of street art programs. His English isn’t great, but he keeps us in a steady supply of cigarettes. Oh, did I mention that Kathy and I have taken up smoking? At the dinner, I run in to Rama Ishaq. I met Rama three years ago when she took me into the rural area to see a program designed to introduce women in the village to the idea of stopping violence against women. The women, all veiled in black chadors, sat around a small room for a discussion and lecture. One of Jordan’s few female doctors gave a PowerPoint presentation designed to enlighten these women. A photo of a battered, bruised woman flashed on the screen which prompted the veiled women to ask, “What did she do to deserve this? Did she provoke her husband? Had she behaved poorly?” There was nothing in these women’s consciousness to allow them to think any differently about abuse. I ask Rama if things have changed. She looks at me, resigned, “Hardly.” When you are around Frances, you always meet this fascinating assortment of NGO types and committed individuals. We wrap up the night early to be ready for Anees to pick us up at the crack of dawn.
We ditch our bags in the hotel storage and cram our Petra camping gear into an Adidas bag and Kathy’s North Face backpack. We’re not quite sure what to bring. All we know is that we’re to spend three days and two nights with Karma and Anees somewhere in and around Petra. Kathy and I quickly determine that when you travel with Anees you’re on a “need-to-know basis.” We sit outside the Four Seasons with multiple doormen prancing about our paltry bags, offering to help. There’s no sign of Anees and when he finally shows up with his wild hair and dusty Isuzu 4 x 4, I’m sure the elaborate Four Seasons security gave him a hard time.
When I was a child, I had a favorite doll called Chatty Cathy and my travel companion is a perfect replica. She climbs in the car and immediately charms Karma and Anees who tend toward the more reflective artist types. It’s a three-hour drive from Amman to Petra and Kathy talks the whole way while I snooze. Kathy is a serious globetrotter, she’s been down the Nile and hiked the Grand Canyon. She has more stamps in her passport than anyone I know but despite that I suspect that our trip to Petra with Anees and Karma will be an adventure for her.
We arrive in Petra and are barely inside the gates when it becomes apparent that Anees is no ordinary guide. We’re immediately greeted by young Bedouin men hawking their donkeys, “Air conditioned ride!” until they spot Anees and the sales pitch stops. Anees knows everyone in Petra and we stop and talk to Bedouins as often as we stop to admire the scenery. The standard greeting involves a hearty handshake and pat. However, for those he knows well, it’s the standard handshake, pat, and then they lean in close and give him multiple short pecks on one cheek (“To save time we only do one cheek” Anees explains).
The entire arrival at Petra seems staged to create suspense. You enter the gates and then walk through this dramatic rosy colored gorge called “the siq” which is really two enormous rock faces split in half a gazillion years ago by tectonic forces. Petra is deservedly one of the Seven Wonders of the World, it’s this enormous city established in the 6th century BC by the Nabataens. The Nabataens were these super businessmen who lorded over a commercial empire that extended all the way into Syria. The siq twists and turns and gets narrower and narrower. Along the way, Anees points out carvings and tombs in the rock. He explains that the Nabataens were really true minimalists. They carved simple rectangular features to represent their Gods– yet their buildings were intricate and ornamental. Suddenly, we catch a glimpse through the rocks of the Treasury and it’s simply spellbinding to have wandered all this way and suddenly come across this elaborate structure carved out of stone. It’s not a building as much as it is a “carved away” if there were such a word. This is the premiere photo opp for Petra with camels conveniently perched outside the entrance for the perfect shot. Anees promises us our camel opportunities are yet to come.
We wander along the “street of facades” towards the center of the city which is completely unreal because you look out upon hillside after hillside of tombs and structures carved into the rock. We have to stop often to visit all of Anees’s Bedouin friends. Along the way we meet a boy with a camel who offers us a ride. This gives Kathy the opportunity to strike up a conversation. What’s the name of your camel?” she asks. He pats his camel head lovingly and says “Michael Jackson.” Three days later, we’ll learn of the death of the real Michael Jackson. We stop at one of Anees’s favorite stands owned by his friend Atallah Abu Thibo, called The Flintstone Shop. When I tell Atallah I was here once before with Anees he is overjoyed and asks me to remind him what I bought. Anees tells me that Bedouins never forget a face. Atallah tells us something we will hear from numerous Bedouins that day, “I was born here, in that cave in the hills.” Any Petra Bedouin born before 1984 most likely was born right here in the ruins. After that, out of concern for the buildings, the Jordanian government relocated them to the neighboring town. Anees says the transition hasn’t been smooth. “Before they were worried about their camels. Now it’s their cable connection.” There is no hard sale and we poke around the shop and I leave with an intricately carved knife for my son and two necklaces. When we are about to leave, Atallah tells me to pick a gift to put in my bag. Throughout the course of the day, stopping for tea at various Bedouin shops, I notice Anees has to fight with his pals to get them to accept payment. They are enormously generous which is not something you expect to find at such a popular tourist site.
We walk and walk and see this huge theater (also not built, but carved out of rock) and this entire village area with huge columns that archaeologists from Brown University are excavating. There’s more here than we could explore in a week and yet only a fraction (like 1/20th!) of Petra has been uncovered.
We walk up a hillside to this place called the Urn Tomb where one of the Nabataen kings was buried. Somewhere along the line, the Tomb was converted into a church, so I find a quiet moment to pray and try to still my mind. Kathy as usual finds a moment to try to climb a mountaintop and scare me to death. On the way down, we stop at a roadside shop, where an old Bedouin man has laid out all his wares. He has on display old tuna cans, several soles of shoes and what appear to be ancient treasures. When we ask if these are antiques, he replies tartly, ‘Sure, they were made yesterday, in Taiwan.” I admire a goat horn and he gives it to me.
We stop for tea and potato chips and cigarettes frequently but don’t actually eat until about three in the afternoon. We are dusty and hot and pile our plates with a variety of Jordanian dishes (hummous, salad, fish stew) even though there are flies hovering over the buffet. We still have the long climb to the Monastery in front of us and we hope to get there for sundown. The Monastery is about an hour trek up 800 steps above the city. I am tired and cranky and tell Kathy I’m going to count every step and she tells me to shut up and makes me lose my count. On the way up, we encounter many “unofficial” shops mostly owned by women and girls and you wonder how much these women can make on trinkets we’ve already seen multiple times. The little Bedouin girls are stunningly beautiful and one follows us around offering to tie our scarves “Bedouin style” for us. The Monastery is another one of these incredible structures that makes you wonder about the architect. I mean, did he sit there for days staring at this big rock and say, “Hey, I think I’ll carve this huge 150 foot tall building with three columns and an urn on top out of that rock!” I also can’t help but imagining what happened if they cut off too much of one rock or got one measurement wrong. At the top, we sit with Anees’s friends at the Monastery café. They have Anees’ artwork in their shop and serve us Red Bull which goes down perfectly after our long climb. Kathy wanders off and we still have one more hike to go in Petra. We don’t see her anywhere and one of the café owners tells us exactly where she is. Anees later tells us, “They watch every single person and see the route they take.” Later, when we are headed down the mountain, following Anees and Karma, we take a wrong turn and a Bedouin yells out, “Wrong way! To the left.”
We wander up another mountain above the Monastery to Sacrifice View. From here you can look across hills and mountains and see forever. In the distance is the High Place of Sacrifice where the ritual killing of animals took place. We sit there, quietly as the day stills below us. We head down the mountain and walk for what seems like miles to find much of Petra shut down. Are we the last tourists inside the gates? We had planned on taking a camel back to the entrance and while we spot plenty of camels lounging, their owners are nowhere to be found.
Meanwhile, we’re desperate for a beer and we’re in a Muslim country. We finally make it to our car and start driving around the actual town center of Petra stopping at little shops to buy food and finally find a restaurant that will sell us cold Heinekens. We slurp them up in the car. Anees and Karma haven’t exactly been forthcoming about our evening plans so when we head out of the city onto smaller and smaller roads, Kathy reminds me “ We’re on a need-to-know basis.” After driving for miles, up and down hills, through tiny villages, Anees abruptly turns off into what might be construed as a dirt road. It’s past 10 pm and we drive down this dusty path in the desert for at least half an hour, passing Bedouin tents and the occasional Bedouin compound. Anees offers up assuredly, “Remember I told you the Bedouins watch everything you do? Now they know we are here so if we don’t come out, they’ll come looking for us.” I’m hardly reassured. The road is looking more like a desert with a cliff on one side and I’m glad Kathy is in the front seat. I forego offers of more beer to try to keep my wits about me. I wasn’t scared on my visits with Hamas and Hezbollah but I’m now beginning to wonder if I’m going to be lost in one of the many Wadis of Jordan, never to be found. Finally, after driving through terrain that has not changed one bit, Anees announces, “Here we are.”
Anees gets out and squats down and immediately starts a small fire. Karma picks up larger rocks and moves them away from the campground, “In case there are scorpions,” she explains. I stumble around and am basically incoherent and Kathy keeps chattering and drinking beer. We are covered in dust on a rocky patch in the desert and the stars are blazing and I know I have to try to stay awake for this experience. Karma hands us a thin straw mat and that’s where I put my sleeping bag and crawl in and doze off. There is not a sound in the desert save for Kathy and Anees’s voices and Karma quietly chopping tomatoes, potatoes and garlic. She opens a large tin can and I hear Kathy ask, “What’s that?” to which Karma replies, “Meat.” Karma puts all the ingredients onto a gerry rigged foil platter which eventually Anees wraps up into a cocoon of foil and puts on the coals. I drift in and out of sleep while Anees and Karma talk about their lives, their art and some of the challenges they have faced along the way. Kathy keeps peppering them with questions and then she leans over to me and says, “This is my favorite time of the day, around the campfire. This is when you learn everything there is to know.” At midnight, they rouse me and tell me dinner is ready. I sit up and with a glass of red wine in one hand and pita in the other, scoop up the most delicious tomato stew I’ve ever tasted. We’ve walked over most of Petra this day and we’re sleepy and starved and completely sated by the scenery. We eat and talk and smoke a cigarette and fall off to sleep under the stars. At some point, a flash of light awakens me. It’s the sun coming up over the desert and I realize we are perched on the edge of a cliff. I keep my eyes open as long as possible to try to take it all in but doze off, dreaming of rose-colored structures carved in stone and sleepy camels.