“what’s your name?” i asked the young boy sitting casually on his mule, the glittering red sandstone city all around us.
his eyes sparkled as he grinned at my question; his had a scuffed look, his skin was tanned; a couple of his front teeth were missing, why did that seem to add to the smile? he must have been about eleven, maybe twelve. he lounged there in his fading blue clothes on his black mule, a worn saddle cover with streaks of red slung over it.
“musaa,” he replied laconically.
i still remember thinking, you never know where you’ll meet moses around here.
the sun shone down from a clear sky, at thirty odd degrees north of the equator, the rays lit up colours differently. everything felt more intense, saturated. musaa is moses in arabic.
it must have been my fourth or fifth month in jordan, during a six-month stay there almost eighteen years ago. a series of unlikely and seemingly unlinked events had brought me to this part of the world. i knew nothing about jordan when i accepted the offer to work at an ad agency in amman. can you come for a year, i’d been asked over dinner with some friends. without thinking, i’d replied: no, but for six months i think i can manage. i’d returned home that night with an assignment in an unknown land.
jordan, somewhere near israel, lebanon, syria. somewhere there toward the west, but they called it the middle east. somewhere where suddenly i had to go.
the excitement had hit me the next morning as i woke up. a buoyant, gravity free, expanding sensation. a keen expectancy. along with it a burst of unrestrained joy. this feeling i’d not known before. i almost had to sit down to contain it, calm it down somehow.
does the feeling you bring to an idea, an event, a voyage, colour it in some way? there was something charged and never ordinary about every moment of those six months. i’m not exaggerating. even now when i take my mind to that time, a particular sensation, an energy, floats in, my thoughts rush to catch it…
it was four thirty in the morning when i landed at queen alia international airport, amman. the sun was already up. end june, summer. the first time i saw olive trees: they lined the road, their green muted and cool; grape vines languidly entwined on trellises here and there, under them people huddled over little glasses of coffee. i would always ask for tea, and be treated to hot sweet shay nana, mint tea. blue skies, tawny jerusalem stone facades, geraniums in red and pink, purple pansies, bunches of multi-coloured phlox, pretty white flowers. in spring, i was told, deep red wild poppies cover the slopes of the brown rolling hills, but i’d just missed them: and i wouldn’t be here when spring came again.
the very first morning, walking along the gentle gradient of the road in front of my home in um udaina, i’d noticed that flowers here stood out more than usual. it might have been because the rest of the city was practically monochromatic – almost all the buildings were a warm shade of some brown, made of limestone referred to as jerusalem stone – and against that perhaps colours tend to look more pronounced. or maybe it was due to the sunlight at that latitude, that time of year. or both.
as i said, i knew nothing about the country. i’d heard of king hussain of jordan, even seen him on television, but did i have any idea where this place actually was? i of course had never heard of petra.
which is where moses was fixing me with a stare and gently laughing at me. i think he was. another tourist asking silly questions.
in a way it was good i’d not heard of petra before. an ancient city, carved out of rose coloured sandstone cliffs and rocks, thousands of years ago, by bedouins who became rich collecting “tax” from the caravans that passed through their land along a prized trade route connecting this hemisphere and that… over time, as they got more into the trade these nomads of millennia grew so wealthy that they decided to settle down and built for themselves this magnificent stone metropolis… it was a tale of romance and adventure; and i am glad i heard the name petra sitting among the olive trees, possibly near an amphitheatre, or sipping shay nana under a grapevine.
i mention amphitheatre for there are plenty of them in jordan. scattered about, wherever the greeks and romans built cities post conquest of this land. the greeks named amman philadelphia. they were in petra too, so you have the familiar arcs of a theatre here, and i distinctly remember a massive room which was once a church.
i was in petra with a group of colleagues who’d become good friends. elderly parents of a colleague and i were sitting near the “treasury” waiting for the others who’d gone to climb to the top of a hill where lay an ancient cistern or well… or something. i was not ready for so much adventure. moses was parked nearby, hoping to earn a few jds, take a tourist for a mule ride. or maybe he had just appeared there miraculously to make me think about all sorts of things.
it was the nabataeans who’d made petra, and wasn’t moses’s wife nabataean?
i hear the approach to petra has become more tourist friendly; cars and jeeps can ferry you across. this was not the case when we’d gone though. you either took a horse as the swiss traveller johann ludwig burckhardt who found petra in 1812 did; or you walked along the dim, narrow, winding gorge called al siq, a little more than a kilometre long and at times no more than three metres wide, till you reached the sudden opening out into the city, your first view of the khazneh or treasury. there rose the resplendent pillars and arches, that aura of a sacred place, in hues of the sun.
my photographs have faded. they don’t show you the many colours of the rock face along al siq. and elsewhere. it’s not merely red or pink, there are large swathes of burgundy, claret, sunset orange, ochre, slate, blush, onion pink, fawn, rosewood, magenta… the colours run into each other, dancing across striations and grooves of rocks that have seen many summers. i carry that sense of a splash of unbounded colour in my mind.
the year i went to jordan, jordanians had just lost their much loved king hussain. i heard stories about abdullah, i saw princes at a discotheque, i saw roman ruins and qasrs, chariot wheel marks on paved stones in jerash; i sat in an s500 mercedes and was told by the owner how his first wife was killed by her brothers, it was honour killing, he kept the car in her memory; i worked with palestinians, churkasians, lebanese, jordanians; i stood on a hill from where you could see the golan and the galilee; i went to israel by myself one early morning in a taxi, then bus, then share taxi, across the allenby bridge and the river jordan; i slept on the sand under the stars in wadi rum where once peter o’toole had ridden his camel as lawrence of arabia; i was astonished by the miles of beautiful roads the little not too wealthy country had; i was welcomed and warmly accepted, and blithely betrayed too but only once. the skies remained gorgeously blue. the marhaba, keef halak, humdullilah never lost their ring. the grapes ripened and grew sweet. moses smiled.
in mount nebo i picked up a couple of stones from the place where they say moses sat and looked at jerusalem, a land he’d lead his people to, but he wouldn’t ever enter.
that picture of musaa had my thoughts racing merrily, wonder where he is today; maybe still in petra, getting amused by tourists to his lovely land.
down al siq, then that first glimpse, and it’s the treasury. petra comes from the greek word for stone. now that i think of it, does the hindi patthar and the bengali pathor also meaning stone, have some relationship with the greek word. wiki says, the nabataeans called their stone city raqmu and in arabic it is al-batra.
took the shots with a basic point and shoot camera. the colours, the sharpness, all messed up yet they’re precious. my daughter who was born a couple of years after my trip, looked wise as only a sixteen year old can look and said i should post these on instagram, she did ask me though why i was wearing a pink hat. good question.