Under the Silence of the Jordanian Stars

I HAVE NEVER KNOWN SUCH SILENCE as the Jordanian desert at night. There is literally nothing making those noises we take for granted when we think of quietness; no humming fridge, no faraway birds, no buzzing lights or purring motors. To sleep in the desert is to exist in absolute nothingness, to be absorbed by a black hole and stare in awe at the sudden crispness of the millions of stars ahead, like a blurry-eyed man finding the right prescription glasses.

Our Bedouin host, Nawwaf, sped us to his campsite through the off-road desert in his 20-year-old blue Nissan pickup long after the sun had disappeared. The desert is dangerous at night: it is cold, rocky and sparsely inhabited, but Nawwaf knows these parts well, because he was born here and grew up in the caves here, and now lives alone here, with nothing to focus on but the wild and himself. “I not be lonely,” he assured us later in his stone hut, while we ate and he smoked, staring into the fire. “The desert is my friend. I love the desert.”

Bedouins are traditionally Arabic nomads, but the modern Jordanian ones—at least in the Wadi sands surrounding Petra, the ancient city-cum-tourist attraction carved out of stone—are only semi-wanderers who migrate between houses near Little Petra and caves in the desert. Many caves are small or uninhibited, but some, like Nawwaf’s, have been passed down through his family for generations. The amenities are slight; his looks like a bachelor pad cave, with some quarter-full toilet paper rolls, a gas stove wrapped in foil, spare unwashed blankets in the corner and an old broom, obviously unused, beside crumbs of pita bread and a rotten onion.

He is modest about everything, and generally unambitious. (He writes poems; “Maybe one day I will type it on the computer.”) But his hospitality is unmatchable. He sat us down with a rusty pot of sage tea, and quickly set to work slicing potatoes, onions and tomatoes, garnishing them in splashes of Arabic spices and meatballs and steaming the huge plate for an hour. The only light came from his old cell phone and two fires, one a gas light and the other a metal box of kindle with a pipe leading out the top of the roof.

He served dinner straight out of the giant cooking plate. Neither too oily nor too spicy, it was enough food to feed four people at least, yet he refused to eat at all, leaving V and I to hopelessly attack the dish alone. (This would be repeated the following night when he made an extravagant feast of rice, chicken, salad and yogurt, which was surely large enough to have ended the famine in some small African country.)

Instead of eating, Nawwaf sat behind the crackling fire, smoking and looking out into the darkness. We talked about many things: Middle-Eastern politics, couchsurfing, Bedouin clothes, whiny French tourists. He accumulated a small collection of cigarette butts next to his mattress and spoke with fresh candor.

Some cats, “half-wild,” kept creeping in for food, and Nawwaf glared at them. “Ps ps ps,” he hissed.

“Meow,” one replied.

“Ps ps ps.”

“Meow.”

“Ps ps ps…” And on went the bizarre conversation while we sat in silence.

The next morning, we found the tray of food left outside, licked clean overnight. We took a walk past it in the gray light before the sun made walking a sweaty and lip-cracking endeavour, passing empty caves and occasional shrubbery. We returned to find Nawwaf preparing a breakfast of pita, hummus, goat cheese and scrambled eggs. “You like it here, huh?” he asked, seeing the grins on our faces.

After we finished, we hopped in his truck and rolled down the hill, away from his solitude and towards the semi-modernity of Wadi Musa. Nawwaf glanced at us as he turned a corner. “You walked until here this morning, yes?”

“How did you know?” I asked. V mentioned the footprints we must have left, the only change to a landscape otherwise staunchly unchanged for centuries, and a fleeting one at that. Our guide smiled and kept driving.

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