Good morning! As we have no contributing diarist today, we’ll have an open forum.
Our long-time regulars Brecht and Aravir suggested the following topic: Which book or poem made you visit—or wish to visit—a place far away?
Of course this question is much too long to cram into the title space allowed by the dailykos diary format, so I shortened it a bit. You needn’t have actually visited the place—only desired intensely to visit it because of something you read. So have some breakfast and tell us about your faraway place!
Breakfast today features rich, delicious Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee with heavy cream and demerara sugar, along with Braided Lemon Loaf (recipe kindly provided by Something the Dog Said). I made two loaves, so there's plenty! Slather a slice with butter and strawberry jam, undo the ornate hatch below, and follow me into the salon.
Sometimes a book or poem awakens a strong desire to go to a place that’s far, far away. As a child I read a poem that spoke of “the land of mosque and minaret”: unfortunately, both title and author escape my memory now. However, after I grew up it was John William Burgon’s sonnet, the ending couplet of which is familiar to almost everyone, that fired my imagination:
Match me such marvel save in Eastern climeHow I longed to see that “rose-red city, half as old as time” for myself!
A rose-red city, half as old as time.
Years passed; the family exchequer began to put on weight once the kids were out of college; it also happened that we accrued some vacation time. So it was that one day my husband and I packed clothes suitable for a desert climate and set off to visit the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
Our path to Petra was made easier by the fact that my husband knew the wife of an American embassy employee in Amman. Learning that we were to visit Jordan, she invited us to stay at their house for a night. On the evening of our arrival we were eating sandwiches in their living room when M., the embassy employee, answered the telephone. As he spoke in rapid Arabic to the person on the other end of the line, I deduced he was talking to a possible guide for our journey. I heard the words effendi (in Jordan, an honorific meaning a man of high social or educational standing), al-batra (Petra—the Arabic language does not contain the letter “P”), and basrah (tomorrow). My knowledge of Arabic at that time could have fit comfortably into a contact lens, but it did include those three words.
The next morning a smiling middle-aged man named Abu Yusuf (the Father of Joseph) showed up with a little van to drive us to Petra, where we would stay overnight. As we drove through the bleak yellowish-tan landscape I stared out the window at the Bedu, visible at a distance through the shimmering heat haze, with their black robes, their tents, their sheep and goats, and thought, “This must have looked the same 2,000 years ago.”
One of the reasons I wanted to visit Petra was to soak up the atmosphere for a novel I planned to write. At the time I was well into the first book, Iron and Scarlet, about the unlikely comradeship between a Roman centurion and a warrior of the Brigantes. In the sequel, to be called Explorator, the centurion would have left cold, misty Britannia for a career as a Roman Army scout in sunny Syria and the Arabian desert.
It was mid-afternoon when we reached Petra. The town itself consisted of the same yellowish-tan, flat-roofed houses we’d been seeing on our journey from Amman; some of the tiny backyards cut into the steep hillside even had mules tied up in them. After we’d checked into our hotel, Abu Yusuf drove us to the beginning of The Siq and left us there. We would make our own way back to the hotel.
The Siq is a narrow gorge between high walls of rock.
My husband and I were venturing uncertainly along the pathway when we were hailed by two young men. One of them, accurately divining my husband’s former nationality, called out, “You rent my horses to visit Petra, yes? You Englishman, you born on horseback, no problem, yes?”
My London-born-and-bred Dearly Beloved blinked and said, “Er, not exactly.”
However, the Horsemaster, as we came to refer to him, wasn’t having that. Keeping up a nonstop stream of chatter, he urged us onto the horses, which fortunately seemed to think a pace of one inch per minute was the correct pace for walking through The Siq. Even two old fuddy-duddies like ourselves could not be frightened by such transportation. Although the path through The Siq is only about a mile long, we were not left to enjoy it in quiet contemplation--the Horsemaster kept up a long, bitter lament about the steep decline in tourism because of the constant tension between Israel and Jordan.
As you near the end of The Siq, you catch a glimpse—and then, as you emerge from The Siq, the full glory of al-khazneh, the Treasury, comes into view.Who’d have thought this ancient city, buried for centuries in the sand, would one day dazzle the human eye again? As we sat awestruck on our horses my eye fell on old Abdullah, standing in the space in front of the Treasury with two camels. Correctly interpreting the look of intense longing on my face, he came forward and offered to rent them to us.
My camel was named El Aurens (the Arabic pronunciation of “Lawrence”), Dearly Beloved’s camel Shahan. They didn’t appear to be sneering: legend says that the camel sneers because humankind knows only ninety-nine names for Allah, but the camel knows the hundredth and therefore feels superior. Getting on a camel is one thing—not so bad. But when said camel obeys the camel-master and rises to its feet, one freaks out: camels are so high up! However, all was well as Abdullah led us around the various sites of interest and we swayed on our camels behind him. No wonder they call camels “ships of the desert”—being on one is very like walking on the deck of a ship at sea. It’s hard on the derrière, though, unless the saddle is well padded. We were the only tourists that afternoon, so no wonder the Horsemaster was perturbed.
After our little tour ended we dismounted from the camels, hobbled off to our waiting horses, and made our way to the Turkish Baths of Petra. (For more information about Petra, please read Ojibwa’s wonderful diary here.)
After leaving the “rose-red city” we stayed a few days longer at a hotel in Amman so we could tour the Roman amphitheatre in the middle of town. We also made day trips to the Dead Sea and the town of Jerash, another site buried in the desert sand for centuries until it was rediscovered. Known to the Romans as Gerasa, it still boasts colonnaded streets on which the marks of chariot wheels can be seen, public squares, and a hippodrome where chariot races are held even now.
As far as a poem can be said to have changed my life…well, that visit to Petra and the rest of Jordan certainly changed mine. However, that’s another diary for another day.
It took us two days to get out of Amman, but finally we boarded a flight to Frankfurt at 4:00 a.m., then waited for the noon flight from Frankfurt to Washington, DC. Arriving home exhausted on Sunday, we spent Monday catching up on sleep and doing errands so we could go back to work Tuesday morning.
And so we did—Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001.