Desert Night Camps – Feynan Ecolodge
We were in the van for what seemed like hours. Gazing out the window, I noted how the landscape was changing and soon it felt as if civilization was slowly creeping away on our way to Feynan Ecolodge. Dana Biosphere Reserve, in the lands of Jordan’s desert, was vast and diverse. Occasionally, I would see herds of sheep or goats and the shepherds tending to them in their mocked-up desert camp. Then maybe a camel or two and a makeshift tent with their rubble on side of the road.
I had entered nomad’s land.
We finally saw a sign indicating our destination was near. At the “reception” area, there were three Arabs sitting in folding chairs outside, underneath a blowing canopy. Our driver pulled up, spoke to them in Arabic for few minutes and then instructed us to grab our bags and load them into the truck. They would be taking us further out into the desert to a desert camp.
Throwing my bag over my shoulder, I headed towards the two rickety Toyota pickup trucks. They looked as if they had been thru a war zone, covered in dust. As we piled in the back of the truck, I was thinking how surreal it was that here I was in the middle of nowhere in the Arabian Desert with Bedouin men on my way to their desert camp for tea and bread.
Dana Biosphere Reserve
We drove deeper into the desert along a bumpy, partial road, passing a few more sheep with shifting desert landscaping. I now knew why our van wasn’t coming out here as the road was beginning to disappear. The rock formations began to change from jaggedly, red to smooth, pale tan stones.
I kept glancing over at the other American in the back of my truck noting how nervous she was getting. It felt like an out of body experience.
Driving up to the top of the hill, we left our bags in the truck as we got out and followed the two men on foot. The truck drivers were going to take our luggage to the Feynan Ecolodge and the other Bedouin took us to their campsite. It was one single “tent” with a fire inside. Off to the right of the “tent”, they had a large piece of white plastic on the ground surrounded by mats and blankets as a place for us to sit during our ceremonial breaking of the bread and tea.
We stood and watched the egg-yolk sun as it was starting to set low in the sky over the mountains when a male Bedouin motioned us over to show us how our bread would be made.
Lessons in a desert night
That’s when I saw her, covered from head to toe in a niqab (a veil that covers the face showing only the eyes) sitting cross-legged in the dirt inside the tent. She had a tin pan, water and a sack of white flour.
She poured a pile of flour into her pan, added salt and water and started the kneading process. Soon enough she had it rolled into a ball of dough and flattened it out like an extra-thick pizza. Then she laid it on the coals of the fire, having carefully floured it prior so that the sand/dirt would not adhere to the sticky ball of dough. Slowly with a stick, she scraped the coals across it, until it was completely covered. Then eventually, she scraped off those coals, turned it over and did the same thing to the other side. Once done, with a stick she poked it and dropped it back into the same pan.
The male Bedouin then motioned us over to be seated on the mats for the bread and chai tea. At first, there was an air of awkwardness as our two cultures collided: Americans and Jordanian Bedouins were an unusual combination. I could hear the mumblings of the Americans not wanting us to offend them, whispering customs for us all to remember:
“Don’t sit with the soles of your feet facing … (North? The woman?)
“Don’t take photographs of the women Bedouin.” (A direct shot is not allowed.)
“Don’t turn down an offering of the chai tea.”
There was an awkward silence, but then, one by one, he poured us tea with a single herbal leaf. He broke the bread with his hands into big chunks, offering it to each of us.
He excused himself, as he and the other two Bedouin truck drivers went to their mat to say a prayer. There in the desert, they got down on their knees, mumbled a few words in Arabic, and then bowed to their God. Silence had engulfed the group as we watched; we were entranced and fascinated by them. As the deep red sun was slowing dropping below the horizon, I was thinking about how quiet and still it was out in this deafening desert.
I could not hear a single sound. Silence had swallowed us up and I knew this very moment was a life lesson for me. The girl who could not sit in silence had to travel halfway across the world to foreign lands, in the Arabian Desert, in the dark of night, in the presence of Bedouins to sit in silence. Her lesson was to learn how to sit with it, how to “feel” it. In so many ways, I wanted to run, run from it, as silence is so frightening. But I had no choice but to sit there and have it sweep over me. I realized that if I can just sit here in silence, then silence could become a part of me.
They closed up camp and we said our goodbyes:
“Shu ka ran” – Thank you…
“Eslam elikem” – May peace be with you…
And I walked away in the desert night, alone in silence for over a mile to my room in the candle-lit Feynan ecolodge.
I had gotten separated from the group in my own deep thoughts, but could see them up ahead and behind me by cellphone flashlights. Occasionally, I would look up to the hundreds of bright stars in the sky, which would only make me realize what a speck I am in the universe. Once in my bed, in my candlelit room, I felt as though I had crawled into a cocoon of silence. It had enveloped me and I wasn’t sure what to do… so I just listened.
At four AM, I woke up to the faint sound of a dog barking and a harp playing the “call to prayer” in the distance.
This silence, I decided was golden.
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Disclosure: My trip to the Dana National Biosphere and my stay at Feynan Ecohotel was courtesy of the Jordan Tourism Board and Royal Jordanian, but the emotions evoked in me the day I met the nomads of Jordan were all my own. I am still learning how to sit in silence with them.