The Walls of Rum
"We were riding for Rumm, the northern water of the Beni Atiyeh: A place which stirred my thought, as even the unsentimental Howei-tat had told me it was lovely. The morrow would be new with our entry to it: but very early, while the stars were yet shining, I was roused by Aid, the humble Harithi Sherif accompanying us. He crept to me, and said in a chilled voice, 'Lord, I am gone blind'. I made him lie down, and felt that he shivered as if cold; but all he could tell me was that in the night, waking up, there had been no sight, only pain in his eyes. The sun-blink had burned them out.
"Day was still young as we rode between two great pikes of sandstone to the foot of a long, soft slope poured down from the domed hills in front of us. It was tamarisk-covered: the beginning of the Valley of Rumm, they said. We looked up on the left to a long wall of rock, sheering in like a thousand-foot wave towards the middle of the valley; whose other arc, to the right, was an opposing line of steep, red broken hills. We rode up the slope, crashing our way through the brittle undergrowth.
"As we went, the brushwood grouped itself into thickets whose massed leaves took on a stronger tint of green the purer for their contrasted setting in plots of open sand of a cheerful delicate pink. The ascent became gentle, till the valley was a confined tilted plain. The hills on the right grew taller and sharper, a fair counterpart of the other side which straightened itself to one massive rampart of redness. They drew together until only two miles divided them: and then, towering gradually till their parallel parapets must have been a thousand feet above us, ran forward in an avenue for miles.
"They were not unbroken walls of rock, but were built sectionally, in crags like gigantic buildings, along the two sides of their street. Deep alleys, fifty feet across, divided the crags, whose plans were smoothed by the weather into huge apses and bays, and enriched with surface fretting and fracture, like design. Caverns high up on the precipice were round like windows: others near the foot gaped like doors. Dark stains ran down the shadowed front for hundreds of feet, like accidents of use. The cliffs were striated vertically, in their granular rock; whose main order stood on two hundred feet of broken stone deeper in colour and harder in texture. This plinth did not, like the sandstone, hang in folds like cloth; but chipped itself into loose courses of scree, horizontal as the footings of a wall.
"The crags were capped in nests of domes, less hotly red than the body of the hill; rather grey and shallow. They gave the finishing semblance of Byzantine architecture to this irresistible place: this processional way greater than imagination. The Arab armies would have been lost in the length and breadth of it, and within the walls a squadron of aeroplanes could have wheeled in formation. Our little caravan grew self-conscious, and fell dead quiet, afraid and ashamed to flaunt its smallness in the presence of the stupendous hills.
"Landscapes, in childhood's dream, were so vast and silent. We looked backward through our memory for the prototype up which all men had walked between such walls toward such an open square as that in front where this road seemed to end. Later, when we were often riding inland, my mind used to turn me from the direct road, to clear my senses by a night in Rumm and by the ride down its dawn-lit valley towards the shining plains, or up its valley in the sunset towards that glowing square which my timid anticipation never let me reach. I would say, 'Shall I ride on this time, beyond the Khazail, and know it all?' But in truth I liked Rumm too much."
With this in mind, Amelia and I got a ride in Skip's hired car, an old pickup, along with some other Arab we picked up along the way. “So I'm paying fifty,” said Skip, “they're paying five each, and he's paying nothing—what's the deal? Hey, you like English girls? Very pretty huh? Now he shuts up.”
The car dropped us off at the intersection of the Aqaba highway and the road to Rum, and from there we hitched into the Visitor's Center with a Czech family. (For hitchhiking, no combination of personalities is better than the young, clean-looking couple.) The desert sun and the ramparts described by Lawrence loomed over us, we in an avenue of flattened sand amid a fleet of camels and off-road jeeps, and especially the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the seven-columned formation named for Lawrence's book.
A jeep took us into Rum Village, a town of a few residences and shops, an old police station, and the Rest House, where tents were $4 a night. Amelia and I rented one of these, since Jean had packed his own bivouac, and found a map of the park. To the west, the kilometer high wall of Jebel Rum shaded the valley and ran north to south along its length. Jebel Um Ishrin, just as high, ran parallel to this one to form a great avenue.
We went to Lawrence's spring, and I was like Schleimann going to the Hall of Odysseus—in a castle of memories, all of them imagined; like remembering a childhood event as a photograph. A promontory offered an excellent view. Behind us in the steep gorge, green with wild mint, schoolboys cheered and jeered as mates repelled down a high boulder, and below was the town and the avenue. I told the stories I could remember Lawrence telling better. A cistern collected the water that dripped out of the rocks, and we collected some of the mint that water fed.
Leaving the spring, we walked down the stairs into the village, all the way to its edge, and looked out at the open desert, fortresses of rock receding in the distance. The Bedouin asked us, "You want to ride a camel?" Children stared at us, curious or angry. A girl gave Amelia a plastic heart-shaped trinket, and then retreated to her sanctuary behind a car door, where her sister waited. “Same same but different,” the children say, and, “Cool with no school.”
A 4x4 stopped, and the young driver talked to us. He pointed out his cousin's passing camel, a towering, magnificent beast worth $5000. He himself possessed twenty camels, each worth $1500, but he did not want to marry just yet. He added, slyly, “There are many girls out there. French girls and Polish girls and English girls, and American girls and Australian girls." He drove us back to the camp in the waning light, and I climbed up the great rock that oversees the village. From a sort of promontory, I looked both ways up and down the valley, in the red light of sunset.
As an exercise I wrote my own description of Wadi Rumm, but it is not worthy of being expressed in the same venue as Lawrence's opinion. We will leave it in the notebook and in my mind, where it belongs. The walls stagger my minds eye, like the blue bruise of a bright flash, and I won't forget them.
Amelia and I were starving. Left to our own devices, the only things we had to eat that day, after a small breakfast in Wadi Musa, were a bag of cookies, some sunflower seeds, and presently a single expensive beer, which we shared on the long covered couch that wrapped around a concrete oven at one end of the Rest House. A crazy man in a stained robe stumbled through the camp, collecting things, and our empty stomachs absorbed the beer's good qualities rapidly. Where was Jean? we wondered. Our French friend, who was to visit Petra in the morning, pick up food at noon, and drive it to Wadi Rum in the afternoon, was nowhere to be seen.
Jean did not arrive until after sunset and had bought no food. The deprivation of hunger muted our sense of betrayal, and while Jean set up his camp stove and brought out the bullion cubes and spices and tea herbs he had on him, Amelia and I went to one of the general stores, the Lawrence Market, and bought noodles and vegetables for soup, and eggs and cans of beans, and a jug of guava juice. We cooked it all, except the guava juice, ate it with a starved relish, and afterward made tea with some of Jean's Bulgarian herbs and the fresh mint we had collected.
Other than our party, the Rest House was almost entirely occupied by French rock climbers, who dumped the ropes and harnesses and carabiners of their kit on the cement floor of the pavilion and shared stories over the fires of tiny stoves. Wadi Rum, they said, was one of the best places to climb in the world. You could not climb as high as in some places, but the routes up the jebels had a unique, winding quality to them. At the tops the mountains were fields of domes and mazes of paths known only to the Bedouin, who climbed them barefoot and sure as goats.
These Gallic mountaineers dreamed of someday visiting Yosemite, which they called, reverentially, “The Yoz. Climbers camp there for six months at a time, climbing every day. There is so much to see.” They named routes around Half-Dome, and dreamed up at the star-strewn sky. By then it was late, and we all turned in to sleep.
To-day we rode for hours while the perspectives grew greater and more magnificent in ordered design, till a gap in the cliff-face opened on our right to a new wonder.
—Lawrence of Arabia
Something strange leers and smiles, long face on a recurved neck. Eyes like a hermit's shine with sagacious sobriety and abnegation. The back is fat and humped. Spindly legs support a fat gut and humped back, and twist unnaturally on three joints. The ankles bend softly to sooth the march of wide leathered feet that thud off the sand. Leathery cushions under the arms insulate the hairy stomach against the sun-baked heat of slate and sand. Among these creatures, the men moan and violently refuse to do the work that women silently endure.
We watched these things while we cooked our breakfast: scrambled eggs ("I'm so sick of hard-boiled," said Amelia) and bread with cheese and za'atar. Za'atar is a Syrian blend made of oregano, thyme, marjorum, and sesame seeds in olive oil. That was Saturday and Halloween, though I did not know it, and our only day in Wadi Rumm. We planned to take a long walk and see what we could see without paying for a camel or jeep tour, or for the Bedouin Experience of camping in a desert tent with hordes of French tourists.
Before leaving, we stopped at Ali's Place, a cafe down the village's main avenue. Jean had heard of Ali from several French globe-trotters, who attested to his honesty and kindness. The Bedouin, his face young and kind, offered us tea and brought out piles of notebooks and portfolios full of maps and mountaineering routes, most of them in French. The climbers at the Rest House had recommended some places and spoke of a labyrinth called Zarnoug Al Dahbbeh that went through Jebel Um Ishrin, the rise east of the village. We looked for topographical maps to guide us through.
We three trekked south from the village out through a suburb of laughing children, into the sand—creased by passing jeeps, tiger-striped by the wind, patched with cloud shadows that shifted and flowed. The crazy man of Rum was rolling in the red dust, and he sat up and waved harshly and said something to us. We traced the tracks of birds and lizards and wondered at them. We followed the flat sand of a tire's trail until the desert and its monuments swallowed us, in sun and wind and empty silence. The sand was wide, and distance blued the receding towers in all directions.
Across the wastes we came to two rocky bluffs called Debbat Algewafleh, under the stone fortress of Jebel Khazali. One of these had a sand dune leaned against it, and the other was bare and desiccated by the eternal wind. We climbed the escarpment beneath them and saw suddenly at the top a fleet of jeeps and a throng of French people anxious to climb the dune. From the top of the second hill we watched their struggle, and watched the clouds mingle, and looked to their shape for meaning.
The French demand for originality carries them to the far corners of the world. They are the ones for whom Lonely Planet says, “An out of the way but charming place, rarely frequented by globe-trotters,” and all places so distinguished are full of French people and Francophonic signage. The pathology of uniqueness mounted Jean on his Yamaha for the long trip to Aqaba, and in Aleppo, Skip marked it in his beloved Peugeots.
“Leave it to the French,” he said, “to do things the opposite of everyone else. All cars number their pistons from the back, one, two, three, four, but if you look in the Peugeot—that's Pyu-joe in American, Jon—it numbers them four, three, two, one. They put the whole thing in backwards. On car doors, you push down the plug to lock the door and pull it up to unlock it. It's just the way you do things. But in a French car, you pull the button up to lock it.
“Once I had a problem with the drive belt in one of my cars, and I took it in to get fixed. They called me and said, 'Skip, we've tried tried everything. The engine should be fixed, but we can't get it to cycle.' I thought about it a moment and told them, 'Well, it's French, so put the belt on the opposite way of what you would normally do.' They said, 'Okay,' and called back a few hours later and said, 'Skip, I don't know why it worked, but it worked.'”
Jean liked to think that his trip was original and did not like evidence to the contrary. “When you travel you do not like to run into your own fellow men,” he later said, “because when you travel you get the impression like you are unique. And when you see your fellow men—how do you say? fellow men?—and there are these crowds of French people in Petra and Wadi Rum, you feel like what you are doing is ordinary.”
This is the best way to understand the French.
Amelia's rubber flip-flop broke on the way down our little hill—boldly, they were the only footwear she brought on the trip, though she had since purchased a spare, and they had lasted from Poland to Jordan. She hitched a ride back to the Rest House in exchange for writing her driver's English text messages. Jean and I continued into the black, wet, narrow of the Siq of Jebel Khazali, which ended for us in a wall with a pool beneath it, though we watched a Bedouin climb this damp surface like a spider.
Wadi Al Khishkhasheh looked small but took fifteen minutes to cross, to Jebel Qaber Amra, and beneath it a rock with a rock bridge called Rakehbt Al Wadak that provided good photo opportunities and a satisfying place from which to urinate. North of that we entered a wadi between three mountains. A soft vroom-vroom came from over the hill, and a boy followed, pushing a wheelbarrow to a satellite phone lodged for good reception at the end of a pole planted in the sand.
Past that farmstead we and through a fence and a field full of camel dung, we came to a high red sand dune leaned drunkenly against one of the mountains. The climb exhausted us. We ran down the other side in a snaking trail, and stopped short at the top of an unexpected cliff. Below us, an amphitheater of stone tumbled down 500 meters into Wadi Um Ishrin and the road home. We swore as we stared at it, and then picked a path down as carefully as we could. The sun was setting, and the descent went steeply down the crumbling slate face.
The sun was setting when we reached the wadi, and it was too late to attempt the labyrinth. We instead followed the trains of jeeps that smoked across the sand, back around the south tip of Jebel Um Ishrin, called Traif Al Maragh. A lone Bedouin on a high and mighty camel passed us by. He whipped his camel with a rod until the beast stopped and leaned back its head, roaring at the vicious master, to his embarrassment before the watching foreigners, but a few heavy blows had it back in its paces.
"I kind of wish we could stay another day," I said, marveling at rock and sand and sky, "but Amelia wants to get to Aqaba. Maybe she's seen all this before in Australia."
“She's a beach girl,” said Jean.
“Well I'm a desert man,” I said. “A man of the wastes. A full moon rambler. Dune camper. Midnight gambler.”
“I like to pee off high places.”
The magnificent castles of cliffs stretched on into a suggestion. The sunset polished the clouds gold.
“You know,” said Jean, “I don't really think I'm here. It's so surreal.”
“Lawrence said it was like a memory of a childhood dream of desert. It's how a desert is supposed to be.”
A line of camels passed with a jeep driving them. When the herd was sure to find home, the driver offered us a ride into town, and we jostled in the back across the waves of the sea of sand. In truth, I liked Rumm too much.