The Road to Mudawarra
My Bedouin friends and I had been planning a trip into the desert for several weeks. We had originally intended to stay "out" for three or four days, but it had been impossible to find a period when all three of us (Attayak Ali, Attayak Aouda and I) were free at the same time. Finally we settled for just one day and night.
We had decided to set off at 8am, in the end we left at 10h15 which was about the best I had hoped for. I didn't ask where we were going - this was their business!
We set off down Ghor al Ajram past Jebel Burdah. I was pleased since I hadn't been this way before. Soon the red sandstone of Wadi Rum gave way to darker cliffs, and the many smaller rock formations to a wide empty valley, with sand dunes heaping up on the northern sides.
As we topped a small ridge, the guys looked at me with anticipation, and I prepared an amazed expression. In fact I didn't need to fake it: before us stretched a green valley, perhaps a kilometer wide and stretching into the distance on either side. There were a great many bushes, most of them higher than my head, and a number of fair sized trees.
"We're on top of the Dissieh aquifer" they said in explanation. What a contrast it was to Wadi Rum!
I found myself feeling a little bit sad. Their descriptions of Wadi Rum twenty years ago when it rained there regularly made it sound very much like this valley. I am always hoping that the rain will come back again, and I can see it like this.
"The trees are thorny ones and the camels like to eat them" explained Attayak Ali. "There don't seem to be any camels around" I commented. "Usually there are a lot of them", he said. "Look at all the camel shit!"
Indeed there was a lot, I hadn't noticed it. A bit later we saw quite a few camels, mostly tucked under the trees and scarcely visible, since they were the same colour as the sand.
I paid a bit more attention to what the men were doing, and realised that at least a quarter of their attention was for the ground. As we wandered around the valley, poking into all the intriguing side valleys, they were looking at the various tracks. They explained that it was "wandering time" for the ibex. "The boys are trying to find a girl that's free..."
They are both pretty good at reading "sign" - I gathered that Attayak Aouda is something of an expert. It was usually he who had the last word in case of a difference of opinion, but there were few of them. There were a great many ibex tracks, sometimes a dozen or more of the mountain goats crossed from one ridge to another, but nothing very recent. "At least three days old" they decided.
They pointed out a place where a camel had fallen down a dune and had to be dragged out of the sand. The marks were perfectly clear, although it had happened four or five years ago. I have seen similar things elsewhere: it is very surprising how tracks in the desert can stay for years, when they are out of the wind.
Although they had originally intended to go farther afield, we spent most of the day exploring the valley, partly because I liked it, and partly because of our late start.
We decided to spend the night nearby, after squabbling a bit about exactly where. Finally we settled on a spot about a mile from a Bedouin family, and - Bedouin manners insisted on it - we invited the head of the family to supper. He arrived at sunset, bringing a contribution of "shrark" (Bedouin bread, thin as French pancakes) and a bottle of camel milk. I was very pleased at this, I am developing a taste for it. The first time I drank it, it seemed thin and uninteresting, but I am getting used to it. Camel milk is supposed to be very healthy, possibly because there must be practically no fat content at all. One never hears of cream or butter from camel milk, although there are numerous stories of people living for weeks on nothing else.
To welcome the hadji, Attayak Ali prepared the coffee while Attayak Aouda stirred the supper.
First you grill the beans and the cardamon. Then you grind them up in a pestle with a mortar. You pour hot water on them and reheat the mixture. Then - you only have to drink it! This coffee is pale in colour, almost the same colour as honey, it is "Arab" coffee, not Turkish. But it is very good!
Note the pestle, mortar and coffee pot in brass that are waiting for Attayak Ali to use. Many older men have a "full set" of coffee pots in brass, all sizes for all occasions. For the moment Attayak contents himself with a medium to small pot - they are very expensive.
Traditionally the head of the family makes the coffee. He should be "clean in heart and body" or the coffee will not be good!
The rock of the mountain was very different from that of Wadi Rum, these were genuine crags. We had settled down in what had seemed a sheltered corner, but during the night the wind got up and I learnt an important lesson : do NOT install your sleeping bag head on to the wind, or it blows directly inside down any tiny crack! I finally got up in the middle of the night to change my position - the Bedouin, of course, had automatically chosen a different direction! They thought it was funny when I complained in the morning - "it was obvious!" they said....
We needed to be back in Rum at 7h30 the next morning. "Wake us at five thirty" they said. (I have the useful knack of being able to wake at any time I really want to - most of the time, anyway).
I duly woke them, but they were unenthusiastic. Attayak Ali finally reached out far enough to light the fire and start the kettle, but Attayak Aouda remained firmly "asleep" until we announced that the tea was ready. He squinted suspiciously through a chink in his blankets, and finally summoned enough energy to get himself upright and over to the fire (to be fair, he had just spent three days guiding climbers in the mountains). We managed to leave only forty minutes later than planned which wasn't too bad.
Attayak Ali pointed out the tracks of a wolf who had headed in the direction of our camp and who had changed his mind. "Was this last night?" I asked, a bit uneasily. "Yes, the tracks weren't here when we arrived. Don't worry, a wolf will not willingly approach a camp or a campfire!"
The sky was a brilliant red - a "shepherd's warning". It wasn't wrong, as daylight arrived, it was clear that it was NOT going to be a fine day. "Perhaps it will rain!" they said hopefully.
But no, there was still no rain in Wadi Rum.
İRuth Caswell 2004