I sit alone atop a rock formation watching the sun set in the vast desert known as Wadi Rum, listening to the singular sonorous sound of coursing wind, contemplating the obsessive appeal of this wild, meditative place to T.E. Lawrence of Arabia. This is where David Lean chose to set his 1962 "best picture of the year" that won him a total of seven
Academy Awards. King Hussein of Jordan lent an entire brigade of his Arab Legion as extras for the film, so most soldiers were played by real ones. Hussein frequently visited the sets and became fascinated with a young British secretary, Antoinette Gardiner, his second wife in 1962. Their oldest son, Abdullah II, inherited the throne
as King of Jordan in 1999.
Everywhere you travel in Jordan, you encounter pictures of father and son. The father astutely signed a 1994 peace treaty with Israel and Jordan has enjoyed U.S. aid ever since.
Sitting on narrow seats in the truck's open back, a ripped piece of fabric covering our heads, offering slim protection from the beating sun, we ride through sand for two hours, driven by Bedouins. Modern Bedouins maintain camels for show and photographs,
particularly at all of the scenic vistas, but more likely travel in Toyotas these days. True, we did encounter a mother camel in the wild feeding three babies, and we witnessed a few primitive, nomadic tents. In fact, all along the rock formations that I explored, I discover the remnants of group meals, skeletal limbs, probably lamb or goat and carcasses littered about. Sadly, I notice that there's also garbage strewn upon the desert, plastic and a tennis shoe.
This was Lawrence's unorthodox starting point for the heroic Arab drive across the desert to catch the Turks unaware in Aqaba, their guns fixed in the opposite direction towards the sea, a land of bizarre rock formations and sand that ranges from yellow to red, the wind sculpting intricate patterns and dunes.
Tonight, we dine with Bedouins and sleep in their camp, perhaps under the stars. Tents are
lined in a v-shape between two steep walls, composed of dark blankets strung together, inside a coiled mosquito net and a comfortable mattress upon which I choose to sleep, wary to check my shoes for scorpions in the morning.
I am told by my guide, Ibrahim, that even Wadi Rum has experienced weird weather abnormalities lately such as snow a month ago. In the desert, there are no TV antennas, billboards and noise other than wind or other distractions except when we spot a fox den that clearly animates the Bedouins who immediately try to destroy it. There are camel tracks and remarkable hardy green shrubs, seemingly a foil for the omnipresent sand, existential reminders that this is a rigorous, unforgiving locale.
The meal is an elaborate affair. Upon arrival, as usual, we are
greeted with sweet, warm tea. We sit around a large fire that illuminates the night. There is a full moon so no stars. The Bedouins roasted a lamb under the sand, and they make a show of digging it up. We are serenaded by three musicians in Arab garb and after eating, the men begin a dance, content to partner with fellow males at least for several minutes and then they encourage the ladies to join in.
A few smoke apple-flavoured "hubbly-bubblies," the tall glass containers, water filling the base, fueled by hot coals applied at the top. I try a Turkish coffee which looks and tastes like sludge.
Earlier, we viewed the impressive rock formation that gave title to Lawrence's book, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Peter O'Toole
was a great choice to play Lawrence. His angular face and flaming eyes embodied the spiritual antagonism, trying to unite disparate tribes in the pan-Arab revolt, slowly giving way to a madness that emanates not only from war but also from harsh, unforgiving terrain that makes one feel so small.
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Mike Keenan: Wadi Rum scenes - bridge, sand design, sunset, camels, pictograph, tea at Captain's Desert Camp, "hubbly-bubbly", moon above the desert, water hole, 7 pillars of wisdom, head wrap.
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