Cheek to the dust.
Face away to breathe.
The call to prayer begins down below, from the one-room mosque by the tree in the valley. But as usual with children, the reality of the moment has overtaken us. What I thought was the point of coming here has been shown not to be so.
The smoke makes me blink. Woody. I can taste it as I breathe, to blow. It reminds me in an instant of times in tents, staring into embers while pinching handles of hot tea glasses, and of the aromatic woodsmoke that still clings to a plastic rainjacket I brought here once, to Jordan.
I love that jacket, for the way it smells.
Cheek to the dust again.
Suleiman leans in to blow, too.
You have an ancient name, Isaac. “He who laughs” – that’s what it means, in the odd, biblical way that doesn’t look like it could possibly make sense. Your mother chose it. Your mother is very wise. I think she understood you before you were born. You laugh, my son. You laugh a great deal.
We came here, to Feynan, because I wanted to show my kids the desert.
When I was eleven, my dad stopped the car; I don’t remember why. I was already walled in by adolescent confusion and expectation. It was a long drive, in a strange holiday.
I opened the back door and got out; I don’t remember why. Through the layers of created memory I can, though, still recall the shock of the desert. It was big, bigger than I could understand. Folded mountains. My mum, the day before, or the day after, said the desert looked like a rumpled tablecloth. I remember not understanding that. It looked like mountains to me. I don’t think I was adult enough to hold mountains and dining room in my head at the same time.
My mum and dad – they’re indoors people, with tablecloths.
I didn’t know that then, but it made me see the desert mountains as they did, as TV, as unrelated to my inner self.
The sun was inexplicably hot. It had never been that hot before.
And then my dad turned off the engine. Maybe I asked him to.
Utterly silent. The light. The emptiness. Quiet. Implacably unreadable, the landscape. Not that I realised I couldn’t read it, an eleven-year-old boy from English suburbia, there in a layby.
But the silence. Sound has always meant more to me than vision. Anyone can see anything. But it takes somebody special to hear, to really hear. I was special.
It was the silence of the desert, that’s what changed me. Even me.
So thank you, dad, for stopping the car, and for turning off the engine. As so often with children, what you think is the main point is nothing. It’s what just happens, unconsciously, that defines the decades.
Now I’ve got kids, and I wanted to show them the desert. We went last year, and they played in the burning sand, under a furnace sun, muffled in the enormous silence. Left alone, mostly. They say they still remember it, but maybe they don’t. That’s OK. Maybe they’ll remember a feeling of light, or heat.
I’m lucky to know Feynan, and luckier to be able to return here with people I love. It’s a long way, two hours’ drive from anywhere, and then another half-an-hour off the road in a screeching wreck of a pickup that has Isaac’s sister asking where the seatbelts are and why she isn’t on her booster seat.
At the lodge Suleiman shakes our hand, we let the walls wrap us in the sound of hot stone, we climb the scorpion slopes across the stream-bed to fill our pockets with stripy sweetstones, Isaac calls them, then we walk out at sunset.
Every day they do this, the lodge guides, take whoever’s staying and walk twenty minutes to a nearby ridge to watch the sunset.
Coming here from outside, you’d think it was the lodge – a beautifully evoked desert hotel, praised by every starry-eyed travel writer lucky enough to make it here – that has changed this place forever. Candle-lit, solar-powered, environmentally conscious, set around a shaded courtyard, with every room bedecked in Syrian silks and every meal healthy and organic, Feynan Eco Lodge – or, rather, the skill of Nabil Tarazi, director of the small company that runs it – has single-handedly put Jordan on the global map of experiential wilderness tourism.
But the lodge is only the latest catalyst, and it’s been here longer than you might imagine. It was designed twenty-odd years ago by the rootsy Jordanian architect Ammar Khammash to be a dig house for the archaeologists who spend months at a time in this ancient place. The archaeologists have since moved elsewhere – but that’s why the bathrooms are so unexpectedly Spartan: the lodge is a luxury hotel retrofitted into a working building for dusty academics.
The archaeologists came here because of the mines. Before tourism Feynan was known, if at all, for supplying the Roman Empire with copper, then as now an essential commodity. Its splintered hills formed a vast, scorching penal colony where Christians and other criminals broke rocks, spirits and bones in what must have seemed a limitless place of heat and terrible, memory-less death.
Hopeful dreamers wonder whether, in an earlier age, these were also King Solomon’s mines. And earlier still, a hundred centuries earlier, Feynan – secreted in a topographical fold where the water of perpetually-flowing streams pouring down from the mountain heights is caught before draining away into the great alluvial fan of the desert plains below – was one of the places where our hunter-gatherer ancestors put stones on top of stones to make houses and chose to live together for the very first time.
Feynan vibrates with ghosts.
Now, it is semi-nomadic families who live here, mostly from a tribe – the Azazmeh – that was split asunder by the Middle East wars of 1948. When a border was drawn for the first time defining Israel, many Azazmeh were trapped behind it. They suffered – and continue to suffer – persecution under the Israelis, concentrated onto tiny parcels of land around the city of Beer Sheba. Many were expelled, including to Jordan. Their arrival marked the start of our own generations of change in Feynan.
As the Rashaydeh tribe jockeyed to absorb the Azazmeh newcomers in their midst, the Jordanian government arrived from the capital to quarry at Feynan, seeking mineral wealth. Archaeologists took an interest – wherever you go in the Middle East, you’ll find that British historians have been there before you – and then so did Jordanian environmentalists, halting the quarrying and throwing an invisible border around Feynan, calling it part of a protected nature reserve linked to Dana, a hamlet looking down from the watered mountain heights.
Nothing here is as it was. Many people still farm, but fewer than before. Feynan is where wolves come out of the corrugated canyons to steal people’s sheep and goats. It is where men stay up all night, patrolling in velvet solitude, to keep hyenas off the watermelon fields. I have sat in Azazmeh tents in Feynan and had patriarchs describe their journeys to Beer Sheba, telling me how much better off their cousins are over there, how much richer. (And I have also seen the Azazmeh around Beer Sheba, living in grinding poverty under the stench of a chemical factory, their houses demolished, lacking electricity, water or civil rights.)
So the lodge – which employs Azazmeh men as guides and cooks, Azazmeh women as bakers and craftsworkers, and Rashaydeh greybeards as drivers – has indeed transformed Feynan, but it is only the newest celebrant amid three generations of continuous change here.
The place sings with newness. You feel the hundred centuries as a hand in the small of your back, strong enough to lean on, light enough to support your next step. I don’t know anywhere like it.
It’s a twenty-minute walk to the sunset point, on a stony path above a stony riverbed, beside stony hills. Suleiman, who is lithe and clear-eyed, walking with the cat-like self-possession of the bedouin, points out his family’s tent – long and low, of black goat’s hair, in a hollow by the path – and I remember that I drank coffee with his father the time before last, two or three years ago, when his father told me he was worried that none of his children would want to live in a tent anymore.
We walk between the only buildings of significance in Feynan, almost the only buildings of any kind: the mosque and the school, opposite each other. One of the tangle-haired kids boots a hopelessly flat ball to Isaac. It’s a characteristically disarming gesture of unexpected warmth and friendship in a strange place. Isaac’s not much good at football but he responds, of course, and they share a kick-around.
The world’s a playground.
On the ridge, Isaac, I didn’t know.
While the others clustered together, I talked to Suleiman as he made a little fire between the rocks and set about brewing tea. Was that when you had the idea?
When you asked me how to make fire with sticks, I didn’t know where your question came from. I told you a bit about rubbing between your palms, and how long and hard you have to rub to generate enough heat for a spark, and how you have to gather fluff and dry kindling first, and how I’ve never done it, but how you could use, yes, that stick looks about right.
I saw you go off and rub the stick on a rock between your palms, but then Suleiman pointed over to the place where you can see the sunset through the branches of an acacia tree, and I thought you might like that, so we went off that way. You were more interested in jumping from rock to rock and we all pretty much ignored the sunset, and when we came back Suleiman had finished making tea, and the fire was out, and it was only at that point, when you came to me distraught, with tears in your eyes, saying there was no fire but you wanted to make fire, that I properly understood.
The others were drinking their tea.
Suleiman helped us bring a few rocks together to make a little hearth, and he gingerly flicked over one of the still-glowing sticks from the tea fire, and then we gathered tiny bits of kindling – which wasn’t dry enough, really – and piled some on top of the fire-stick. Then he and you and your sister and me took turns.
Cheek to the dust.
Face away to breathe.
It took a long time, because the kindling was bad. The call to prayer came and went, and we still blew. I wasn’t sure it would catch, and neither was Suleiman.
But then it caught, and a flame appeared, and you loved it.
When I had the idea for us to come to Jordan, I thought we would do that walk to the ridge above Feynan so we could feel the glassy clink of the desert stones and think about a dry place. So we could see the sunset and think about light and dark. So we could hear the call to prayer – that haunting call to prayer, from the imam with the beautiful voice in that tiny mosque, the voice that brought someone to tears the last time I stood on that ridge and heard it – and I thought maybe I would try and tell you what the call to prayer is about.
I was prepared for all of those.
But instead you made fire up there, Isaac. Fire.
It was the best thing ever.
And if you don’t remember, that’s OK too. We’ll go back to Feynan. Deserts matter, I reckon.