Mary Frances Coady

Desert Hospitality

I’m sitting on the hotel step with today’s scripture readings in front of me when Salah, the Bedouin guide, arrives.  It’s Sunday, and there are no churches in the town of Wadi Mousa, in southern Jordan.   These readings are the nearest I’ll get to Mass today.  Salah is taking me on a day’s tour of the Wadi Rum, the vast area of mountains and sand that runs between Aqaba and the ancient city of Petra.  He wears a traditional male Bedouin garb: red and white keffiyeh, wound around the crown of his head, and a long black garment with loose fitting white trousers underneath.  He sports a thick black moustache.

We start off in a four-wheel-drive Toyota.  Soon Salah pulls in at a roadside establishment and gets out, explaining, “Bread for lunch.”  Shortly before, he has uttered a wet sneeze into his hand, and something lurches inside when I realize that this hand will hold the bread I’ll be eating.  It won’t come in cellophane. As I grope through my fanny pack for hand sanitizer, he returns, swinging a plastic bag with a round flat bread inside.  Before tossing it in the back seat he tears off a chunk, breaks it into two and passes one piece to me through the driver’s window.  The bread is still warm, and it’s crusty and chewy.  “Not made in bakery,” he says.  “Made in fire.  In the ground.”  My day has begun with the breaking of the bread after all, and if there was ever a eucharistic moment outside the Eucharist itself, this is it.

 My day has begun with the breaking of the bread after all

The car turns abruptly from the four-lane Desert Highway and heads right into a sand dune.  Far ahead are misty blue mountains, and nearer, mounds of jumbled rocks looking like giant rubble.  This is Wadi Rum, a twelve-kilometer-square expanse of jagged rock and sand.  It is also the ancient route over which caravans of camels carried spices from the east through the Negev Desert to the port of Gaza. Salah, who was born in a cave near Petra, now makes a living as a tour guide in this stretch of land.

The car shakes us across ridges and bounces us up and down dimpled sand dunes.  Midway through the morning we stop for tea.  In the cool shadow of a mountain, Salah sets down three rocks, in the center of which he places dried bush branches and lights a fire.  Cross-legged and unhurried, he pours water from a bottle into a small black pot, which he balances on the rocks.  When it boils he adds tea leaves and sugar.  “That’s how our father teach us to make the tea,” he tells me.  The sweetened drink is tasty and refreshing.  He brings another hunk of bread, which he sets on one of the rocks.  When it becomes crisp, he breaks it and hands a piece to me.  Only afterward do I realize that here, in the silent beauty of the desert, I haven’t given hand sanitizer a thought.

Like a bouncing ball, we continue across the ridges and up and down the dunes.  Salah stops the car at the side of a mountain and points out white etchings, thousands of years old, depicting camels and horses.  At another stop, where some camel men are awaiting tourists, he encourages me to take a ride.  All I can offer is a five-dollar bill.  After my jaunt astride the camel, he says, “For this ride you make the man a living.”

Lunch takes place in an open cave, and the rock hangs over us like an awning. Salah again makes a fire and then brings out food.  He spears onions and tomatoes and sets them over the rocks that contain the flames.  He pulls a lethal-looking knife from its scabbard and cuts chicken into slices, then places them to cook inside a wire basket.  With a deft hand he cuts up tomato and cucumber, pours tahina, squeezes lemon juice.  I ask Salah how he knows his way around the immense barrenness of this land.  “By the mountain,” he replies.

More than once during this day as we jiggety-jog through the sand, among the craggy rocks, I am reminded of the three strangers to whom Abraham extended hospitality in his tent in just such a milieu.  And as I sit beside this Bedouin man, so proud of his tribe, I think of the Word made flesh, who in similar terrain as this, not far away, pitched his tent among us.

—published in Commonweal, September 27, 2013