Saturday, 8 June 2013

Heat and dust

This is Salem. He drove us across the desert in southern Jordan in his jeep. Like a laid-back, twinkly-eyed Arab light entertainer, he was something of a character. 

He is Bedouin, and has lived in this sun-baked part of Jordan, Wadi Rum, all his life. Immense granite and sandstone mountains, like islands in a bone dry sea, rise up from the desert floor. They take many different forms, from sheer vertical flanks to curved, bulging rocks filled with craggy ravines, weathered by sea water and wind over the millenia. 

Lawrence of Arabia was filmed in Wadi Rum – indeed it was one of TE Lawrence's favourite places. The midday heat is so intense it's hard to describe: it melts your scalp and sears your soles. 

You stumble across rock carvings, many by nomadic Thamudic tribes, who predate the Romans. Like most graffiti, it is not deeply meaningful – just simple, stylised images of humans, animals, symbols and footprints (see below). 

In the early 1990s Salem and his fellow desert dwellers formed co-operatives to organise tourism in the area, and with the proceeds built a small town of squat, humous-coloured houses where they now live, instead of tents, so their children can go to school (he never did). Are they better off? "He laughs. "Not happier! But I'm glad my children will have an education." His eldest daughter teaches him English. 

He was a first-rate storyteller. He once accompanied a group of Japanese into the desert for a two-day camp. They spoke no English. They drew him a picture of a camel with a man on top, and the following morning Salem fixed them up with a ride each, tapped his watch, held up three fingers and waved them off. 

Three hours later, there was no sign of them. After five he began to panic. By nightfall, he was starting to wonder if they had accidently wandered across the Saudi Arabian border. At dawn he set off with a local policeman and finally found them, relaxing at a Bedouin camp, wondering what all the fuss was about. 

Then there was the time a pair of Italian honeymooners setting up camp for the night had a bust-up after the man confessed to having recently slept with his new wife's best friend. His timing couldn't have been worse. "She was so angry I had to find her a separate tent to sleep in." Understandably. "These people..." he tails off, shaking his head in bafflement.