I Snuck Into A Cave In Petra To Eat The Food Of Bedouin Ancestors

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“Everything,” the weathered man said, gesturing across the expanse of red and purple rock, “used to be ours.”

Leaning against a whitewashed stone fence high above the city, I gazed out into the valley of sandstone. The sun hung over a distant cliff, its slow descent not yet perceivable, as if it too were waiting its turn to speak.

The man’s name was Shekim; he was a Bedouin camel driver living on the outskirts of Petra, Jordan. I had arrived days earlier in Petra from the archaeological excavation that first led me to the Middle East. The stories I had heard of Petra inspired images of nomadic desert dwellers, of an ancient treasure hidden from most of the world for thousands of years.

Within minutes of my arrival, I met Gasem, a camel trekking guide and a direct descendant of the desert dwellers I had heard so much about. High upon a pair of camels, we wandered through the city and out into the desert mountains.  

“You like tea?” he asked after several hours of climbing uphill.

When I responded affirmatively, he grunted and said, “We see my family. Drink tea. OK?”

Arriving at his house, I had barely touched the ground when Gasem’s three-year-old son, Achem, climbed on top of the camel, giggling uncontrollably. Gasem’s two wives were sitting on the ground in the shade and breast-feeding their babies, unfazed by my arrival. They jostled the infants around a bit to pour me a cup of tea, then resumed their positions without fuss. Once Gasem had hugged each child and retrieved his wayward son from the camel’s back, we joined his older children in hand-harvesting wheat and pulling water from an underground well.

It was then that Gasem invited me to stay with him and his family. I could think of no better way to experience Petra than with the direct descendants of its founders. The next day, I wandered through the old, empty city, exploring the sandstone facades of great buildings and caves carved into the sides of the cliffs. At dusk, Gasem and I rode his camels to the white city, high above the ancient one, where the Bedouin now lived.

There, I met Gasem’s brother, Shekim, at the whitewashed fence overlooking the historic valley. “When I was a child,” he told me. “We lived in Petra. Everything was better. Our homes were not hot. They are hot here. And we live far away. We want to live like our ancestors.” His voice was tinged by a deep yet quiet sadness.

“Why do you live here then?” I asked, looking back in confusion at the white house that Shekim shared with Gasem’s family. I had imagined that the prospect of more comfortable living conditions had brought about the transition from caves to free-standing houses.

“The government made us. They only care about tourism and money. They built these houses and make us live here. We cannot live in Petra. We cannot live in the house of our father.”

Only then did I realize how barren Petra must appear to those who knew it as it once was: a functional, living city. Now, it existed for tourists. During the day, the only citizens who trekked down into the city proper from their white city atop the cliff were those trying to secure a few dollars from the visiting tourists. The rest worked in fields far from their ancestral home.

The shift in perception was jarring. I stared at Shekim, hoping to catch his eye to offer a word of apology, but his stare was transfixed on the landscape before him.

“Come! We go now!” bellowed Gasem from inside his home.

Shekim turned to me with a grin crawling across his face. “It is OK, Blaine. Tonight, we break the law.”

Earlier that day, I had been told that the entire family would be sneaking into the city proper, back to their father’s “house” for the night. That evening, we mounted the camels and trekked around the city’s boundaries as the sun slid behind the horizon. By the time we reached the cave, stars already filled the night sky. Far away from air and light pollution, I felt for the first time what it was like to be bathed in moonlight.

Around the cave’s entrance, the children chased each other and the women chatted as they prepared dinner. Gasem entertained the youngest ones with his sitar.

“Tonight, old traditional Arabic food,” Gasem explained to me. The fare was simple; his wives served mansaf, a white, oily mixture with bits of soaked bread floating throughout, and flat, unleavened bread called shrek, which was used to pick up food from the communal dish.

“It is the food of our ancestors,” Shekim informed me. “We still eat it many times.” After the meal, Achem crept into Gasem’s lap and his father resumed playing his sitar. This time, however, everyone sat in quiet reverence as he sang in a deep baritone voice that echoed through the night. When he paused, the silences flowed naturally, as though they were notes of their own. Shekim and I leaned back against a large rock jutting up behind us.

“This is what it was before,” he said to me. “This is what it should be.”

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