Thursday, February 16, 2012

Chasing a revolution


Wadi Rum. Photo: Neeti MehraWadi Rum. Photo: Neeti Mehra

In Jordan's Wadi Rum, retrace the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia and enjoy Bedouin hospitality.Neeti Mehra

Standing on the edge of a precipice, looking ahead at a boundless, rust-coloured world, the words of TE Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, describing the Wadi Rum came rushing back to me — vast, echoing and god-like.

In this timeless wilderness, soft, red dunes of sand billowed into shape, collecting around stumps of brush whose spiky branches yearned towards the sky. Stupendous canyons soared upwards, sculpted by the hand of god. Jordan's Wadi Rum, a valley in stone and dust, is a stunning landscape — a maze of monolithic rockscapes carved by the relentless wind; empty spaces and fiery red sand.

From here the Arab Revolt surged through, leading to the capture of the port city of Aqaba, with the help of Lawrence, a British Officer. Many years later, the Oscar-winning biopic was filmed partly on this soil. Glittering like a russet mirage in the summer sun, it's no wonder that Wadi Rum scrabbled into UNESCO's World Heritage List for its natural beauty and cultural significance earlier this year.

A Bedouin's life

Driving down for a couple of hours from Jordan's capital Amman, I arrived at the perimeter of Wadi Rum. Helping me retrace the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia in the Valley of the Moon, as it is known as, was Atallah, a Bedouin from the Zawaideh Tribe, a Jordanian tribe that settled here centuries ago. During the war against the Ottoman Turks, his forefathers had fought alongside Lawrence. Atallah, a lanky young lad in braces and a fuzzy upper lip, barely 18, stood dwarfed by the Mitsubishi family jeep, barely inspiring confidence in my touristy heart. Clad in a traditional robe or Dish-dash, a bright orange baseball cap replacing the traditional kouffieh, he revved the jeep through Wadi Rum's unforgiving terrain. Churning up dust devils, we lurched through loose sand that enveloped us in a dun-coloured haze.

Covering a swathe of nearly 74,000 hectares of land right next to Saudi Arabia, one wondered why Prince Faisal Bin Hussein and T.E. Lawrence based their headquarters in this seemingly desolate region during the Arab Revolt. And why was this young, strapping British lad fighting a war in the belly of the desert? British interests needed to be protected, said Ibrahim, the guide. Namely, the preservation of their trade routes to India, while keeping the Ottoman Turks gainfully occupied in war in this region, and thus, away from the World War I, a ruse that worked successfully.

From Wadi Rum, Lawrence, with the Arabs, captured the Mameluke Fort in Aqaba, booting the Turks out of the port city. With its sleek boats bobbing on the Red Sea and its hotels, Aqaba, next on our stop, hardly seemed to have been caught in the whorl of the revolution. A proud flag, testament to this event, fluttered gamely in the breeze.

Atallah, meanwhile, steered the truck to a small tented desert camp belonging to his tribe. Carved on a rock face was an image of Lawrence staring back at us. Enjoying Bedouin hospitality, as he had, we sipped on cups of bitter coffee prepared on a mud stove, listening to tales of the film and the tribe's nomadic life in the desert, where no one called any definite place home.

Sunset on the horizon

Driving on, we passed rocky mountainous outcrops of sandstone and granite. Each was distinct, as if a giant chisel had carved them. For miles, the only signs of life were a handful of snoozing wild asses and grazing camels. Sometimes, a tourist vehicle would emerge and disappear in a trail of red dust. Approaching a steep rock shelf, Atallah slowed down the jeep. On the rock walls were Petroglyphs, rock engravings etched centuries ago. Wadi Rum has a staggering combination of 25,000 rock carvings and 20,000 inscriptions, a vocabulary of human evolution in its gorges. The curious drawings high up on the rock surface described a time when more camels roamed the region than men, Ibrahim joked.

As the sun began to set, we climbed onto a rocky plateau, joined by other tourists pouring out of jeeps, phantasms gliding over sand. We watched the sky melt into hues of crimson, with stars taking over the night canvas, as Lawrence had many moons ago in this ancient land.

Our last stop was Captain's Desert Camp, whose billowing tents made from warm goat's hair were home to a nocturnal feast. In the Al-Zarb, an oven one meter deep in the ground, brick coated, vegetables and lamb had been slow roasting for hours. We gorged on delicately spiced meat, scooping it up in lumpen pieces of shrak — freshly baked whole wheat bread, still warm from the hearth, a meal fit for royalty.

By the time we got ready to leave, the desert wind had spiralled into a crescendo. Stepping on a dirt track that would lead us outside Wadi Rum for Aqaba, a sudden gust mussed the tyre tracks and camels hoof prints. Many years ago Lawrence had tread on this very pathway — a trail that changed the course of history.

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