After encountering some friendly border patrol agents and a Sudanese camel herder just a few hundred metres from the border, we decided to turn back north in the direction of al-Azraq. A dust storm was moving into the area, and we thought it wise to keep a healthy distance from the frontier lest we cross it by mistake, and find ourselves in a mess with the authorities. But as we moved north, al-Hazem’s forbidden, twilight-zone feel gave way to an even bleaker, more austere topography of total desert emptiness. The area here was so bereft of landmarks that even Abu’l Shalaan, who drew upon a heretofore reliable inner compass, seemed to lose his bearing at times. But the endless tedium of nothingness was broken as we came upon a spectacular sight. In the distance, dozens of camels suddenly appeared, spread out like ships across the horizon. As we got closer, we discerned two figures that turned out to be their handlers—an older man and a young boy. Abu’l Shalaan drove up to the man, a dust-covered Bedouin shepherd of advanced age, who appeared lost in another reality.
The shepherd’s name was Abu Mutarrad, and he was from the Rwala tribe. He and Abu’l Shalaan exchanged pleasantries—Bedouin small talk, marked by a brief discussion of families and lineages. During a pause in the exchange, Abu Mutarrad asked if he could have the bottle of water he spotted in the back of our vehicle. After taking the bottle, he asked Abu’l Shalaan what the date was. “It’s the 28th,” my guide responded. The shepherd nodded sagaciously, mumbling something inaudible to himself. Then, as if suddenly remembering why he had asked, he added: “Yes, but what month is it?” After telling him, Abu’l Shalaan threw me an amused side-glance. We eventually bid the Bedouin Salaam, and pushed north again towards al-Azraq.
After passing an abandoned oil installation and an astronomical observatory, I asked Abu’l Shalaan why the shepherd had asked about the date. “He has to return to his village at a certain point so that his son could resume school,” he said. “Some of the older desert Bedouin still don’t pay much attention to things like time. In the past, before clocks and watches, there were only the seasons, and cyclical religious observances. This Abu Mutarrad still has one foot in that life. It’s not so common anymore.”
As we neared al-Azraq, groves of olive trees heralded our emergence from the deep desert wilds. The oasis mudflats, dried and cracked from a recent drought, appeared on the outskirts of town, as white clouds with calligraphic edges sailed upon a dry wind blowing across the parched landscape.
Jordan’s Eastern Desert was a crossroads world, living in a timeless continuum of past, present and future. It was also a place lying fallow on the margins of a Middle East, where the tides of change are lapping ever stronger, ahead of some new, unstoppable epoch.
Photo by Caneles