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TRAVEL TALES

Jordan
Six Marathons in the Desert: Part 2

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  • Six Marathons in the Desert - Part 2

 

Marathon 4: Liaisons

I wake up to another beautiful day to run, not a cloud in the sky. I am doubly lucky: the wind is tame.

We have breakfast by a tourist campsite near Diseh, so that Yousef can catch up with some business acquaintances. For me, it is an opportunity to have a luxurious meal. As I sip my mint tea, two Bedouins start talking loudly in my face. I don't understand and I feel threatened. Later, my friends will explain that they were joking about my hurt feet. It is difficult to understand what is going on when you are among strangers, it is easy to feel lonely as an outsider. Dealing with diversity is an arduous task, beyond the romanticism of opening up as a flower, blossoming thanks to new prospects in life.

My experience as an expatriate is to see all the time judgment and non-acceptance towards what is different. Lawrence had a tough job. He was the liaison officer for the British Expeditionary Force headquartered in Cairo, to the Arab army in Heijaz. Alone. he had to display cultural and religious literacy, linguistic skills, geographical knowledge and, most of all, the ability to build mutual trust and respect amid foreigners who viewed him with suspicion, to say the least. His integration become a personal struggle between ultimate loyalty and proximate loyalty, which left Lawrence with a sense of guilt once his time in Arabia was over.

His resolve of fully integrating himself into the Bedouin life goes beyond adaptation to customs. It pushes Lawrence to apply new judgment when he is faced with ethical dilemmas, such as when he realized that one of his men, Gasim, was lost and left behind in the desert. What to do called for different answers based on which cultural approach he would choose. The choice is not difficult when the stake is what to eat; it is different when your actions impact someone's life:

I looked weakly at my trudging men, and wondered for a moment if I could change with one, sending him back on my camel to the rescue. My shirking the duty would be understood, because I was a foreigner: but that was precisely the plea I did not dare set up, while I yet presumed to help these Arabs in their own revolt. It was hard, anyway, for a stranger to influence another people's national movement, and doubly hard for a Christian and a sedentary person to sway Moslem nomads. I should make it impossible for myself if I claimed, simultaneously, the privileges of both societies.

So, without saying anything, I turned my unwilling camel round, and forced her, grunting and moaning for her camel friends, back past the long line of men, and past the baggage into the emptiness behind. My temper was very unheroic, for I was furious with my other servants, with my own play-acting as a Bedouin, and most of all with Gasim, a gap-toothed, grumbling fellow, skrimshank in all our marches, bad-tempered, suspicious, brutal, a man whose engagement I regretted, and of whom I had promised to rid myself as soon as we reached a discharging-place. It seemed absurd that I should peril my weight in the Arab adventure for a single worthless man.

When Lawrence managed to rejoined the party, after having saved Gasim, he was not saluted as a hero, as it happens in the movie Lawrence of Arabia. Instead,

Auda pulled his beard and grumbled that had he been present I would never have gone back. Gasim was transferred with insults to a better rider's saddle-pad, and we ambled forward together. Auda pointed to the wretched hunched-up figure and denounced me, 'For that thing, not worth a camel's price . . .' Nesib was vexed with me, for perilling the lives of Auda and myself on a whim. It was clear to him that I reckoned they would come back for me. Nasir was shocked at his ungenerous outlook, and Auda was glad to rub into a townsman the paradox of tribe and city; the collective responsibility and group-brotherhood of the desert, contrasted with the isolation and competitive living of the crowded districts.

How the cultural experience impacted him?

In my case, the effort for these years to live in the dress of Arabs, and to imitate their mental foundation, quitted me of my English self, and let me look at the West and its conventions with new eyes: they destroyed it all for me. At the same time I could not sincerely take on the Arab skin: it was an affectation only. Easily was a man made an infidel, but hardly might he be converted to another faith. I had dropped one form and not taken on the other, and was become like Mohammed's coffin in our legend, with a resultant feeling of intense loneliness in life, and a contempt, not for other men, but for all they do. Such detachment came at times to a man exhausted by prolonged physical effort and isolation. His body plodded on mechanically, while his reasonable mind left him, and from without looked down critically on him, wondering what that futile lumber did and why. Sometimes these selves would converse in the void; and then madness was very near, as I believe it would be near the man who could see things through the veils at once of two customs, two educations, two environments.

There are a lot of myth and hyperbole behind what Lawrence did, how important his role was, how real his influence with the Arabs. Whatever happened, I admire him for his out-of-the-ordinary capacity for adaptation in the face of diversity, during two months of hardship in the desert, during the war, alone. He adapted, he let go of his biases to learn local wisdom. It was not an issue of politically correctness, but an issue of survival. Ultimately, he was successful in his role beyond expectation and published what he learned in a military bulletin dated 20 August 1917, meant to help beginners dispatched to Arab Armies to work effectively with them: i.e. to be of influence in a diverse context where you have no authority.

After a few kilometres of running on a dry lake I reach a camel-drome. I stop and stand on the edge of the 5 km ring, in the middle of a even bigger lake of nothingness, with just a stand in the distance, in front of the finish line. The camel and its crew are practicing. I see them in the distance and they are fast approaching us. Camels are fast animals, much faster than horses, and a cavalry battalion would not stand a chance if facing a charging enemy on galloping camels, which Lawrence described vividly at the battle of Aba el Lissan.

Nasir screamed at me, 'Come on', with his bloody mouth; and we plunged our camels madly over the hill, and down towards the head of the fleeing enemy. The slope was not too steep for a camel-gallop, but steep enough to make their pace terrific, and their course uncontrollable: yet the Arabs were able to extend to right and left and to shoot into the Turkish brown. The Turks had been too bound up in the terror of Auda's furious charge against their rear to notice us as we came over the eastward slope: so we also took them by surprise and in the flank; and a charge of ridden camels going nearly thirty miles an hour was irresistible.

The beautiful silhouette of the camel is approaching. Two cars are speeding beside him in a cloud of dust. They start honking and shouting: Himshi! Himshi! Get lost. Nothing should stand between them and their precious camels. Riders in camel competitions used to be children but too many of them got injured. The camels ride without a jokey and they are equipped with a transmitter in their ears and a whip tied to their arses. Trainers follow their beast closely and shout encouragement to the camel via radio and use the mechanical whip as needed. This morning it is just one camel, two cars, and myself in a five kilometer ring. They make a big issue of it. I imagine with a smile the chaos of the races, where several would drive in the dirt road at 80km/k to incite their camels and fight for positions against the other cars… more entertaining than the camel race itself.

 

Camel racing is a serious business for both prestige and money in Arabia. In the last race, the sheik of Diseh won a pick-up car, but most of all he gained the admiration of the people of southern Jordan. Even more serious is the importance of the camels for the people of the desert. The camel is the difference between life and death, and the Bedouins care about their camels beyond themselves. Thesiger explains the constant care his companions had for their animals.

Twenty waterless days was the very limit that camels would stand, traveling for long hours across heavy sands; and they would only do this if they found grazing. Should we find grazing? It is the continuing problem which faces the Bedu. If we did not find it, the camels would collapse and that would be the end of us all. It is not hunger nor is it thirst that frightens the Bedu; they maintain that riding they can survive in cold weather for seven days without food or water. It is the possible collapse of their camels which haunts them. If this happens, death is certain."

The camels are fundamental for the Bedu not only for transportation, but also to sustain their livelihood. Lawrence noted:

The economic life of the desert was based on the supply of camels, which were best bred on the rigorous upland pastures with their strong nutritive thorns. By this industry the Bedouins lived; and it in turn moulded their life, apportioned the tribal areas, and kept the clans revolving through their route of spring, summer and winter pasturages, as the herds cropped the scanty growths of each in turn.

I leave the race track behind to enter Wadi Rum, as Lawrence did with admiration and awe. He described what is set to be my running playground for the next two days:

Day was still young as we rode between two great pikes of sandstone to the foot of a long, soft slope poured down from the domed hills in front of us. It was tamarisk-covered: the beginning of the Valley of Rumm, they said. We looked up on the left to a long wall of rock, sheering in like a thousand-foot wave towards the middle of the valley; whose other arc, to the right, was an opposing line of steep, red broken hills. We rode up the slope, crashing our way through the brittle undergrowth.

The ascent became gentle, till THE valley was a confined tilted plain. The hills on the right grew taller and sharper, a fair counterpart of the other side which straightened itself to one massive rampart of redness. They drew together until only two miles divided them: and then, towering gradually till their parallel parapets must have been a thousand feet above us, ran forward in an avenue for miles.

They were not unbroken walls of rock, but were built sectionally, in crags like gigantic buildings, along the two sides of their street. Deep alleys, fifty feet across, divided the crags, whose plans were smoothed by the weather into huge apses and bays, and enriched with surface fretting and fracture, like design. Caverns high up on the precipice were round like windows: others near the foot gaped like doors. Dark stains ran down the shadowed front for hundreds of feet, like accidents of use. The cliffs were striated vertically, in their granular rock; whose main order stood on two hundred feet of broken stone deeper in colour and harder in texture. This plinth did not, like the sandstone, hang in folds like cloth; but chipped itself into loose courses of scree, horizontal as the footings of a wall.

The crags were capped in nests of domes, less hotly red than the body of the hill; rather grey and shallow. They gave the finishing semblance of Byzantine architecture to this irresistible place: this processional way greater than imagination. The Arab armies would have been lost in the length and breadth of it, and within the walls a squadron of aeroplanes could have wheeled in formation. Our little caravan grew self-conscious, and fell dead quiet, afraid and ashamed to flaunt its smallness in the presence of the stupendous hills.

Six Marathons in the Desert: Part 2

Lawrence entered Wadi Rum only after capturing Aqaba. In more than one year of wandering in Transjordan and Heijaz he spent only 5 days, on different journeys, in Rum. However Wadi Rum has become the main theatre of Lawrence's adventure in the western mind. First, the Lawrence of Arabia movie shoot most of his scene here. Then the Jordan tourism industry thought Lawrence as a good dress to package Rum and sell it to tourists, who now come in droves to Lawrence's well, Lawrence's waterfall and other invented landmarks. Yousef finds it funny that he can rewrite history to his advantage and make his clients happy. People who heard of the Arab Revolt and Lawrence only from the movie swallow the Rum-Lawrence fantasy to quench their thirst for stories whose significance escapes them .

I enter Rum through the Barrah Canyon: the dramatic vertical cliff hide the sun, it is freezing in here. The canyon is beautiful, but I am cold and the sand is deep and my run is little more than a walk. Survival experts tell us that those who live are the ones that are able to see the beauty of the environment they are in, even during extreme duress. The roaring ocean, the forests you lost yourself into, the high mountains. The key to survive them is to connect with them, see the beauty of nature even in its wildest manifestation. Instead of fighting against it, to accept it and adapt. I am not in a survival scenario but this mindset is useful to let me stop focusing on my miseries and fully enjoy the majestic place I am in.

For the whole day I zig zag among the granite and sandstone massifs of Rum and its sand dunes, with ever-changing hues of red, pink and brown, depending on the time of the day. A total immersion in nature at its best. An inner journey which brings me to a day-long state of peace and joy until I finish today's marathon near a cluster of five Bedouin tents.

Tonight, I will sleep in one of them, as the guest of a local family, some of Yousef’s relatives. The tent is dark brown, made with goat hair, traditionally woven by the women. Across the dark cloth, there is a decorative white line of camel hair, a modest but highly artistic touch. The tent is supported by ropes and wooden poles. It is empty inside but for a fireplace surrounded by rugs with cushions where I am asked to sit. This is the men’s quarter, where they eat, talk, sleep and receive guests. Behind the curtain is the forbidden area: the women's quarters and the kitchen. Outside are the the containers to store food and water, the enclosure for the goats, while the camels are free to roam around.

I am staying in Hamdan Lafi's tent. She is in her eighties. She refuses to leave the tent for the house in the village just outside Rum that her son owns. She lived her life alongside her husband here, in a tent, moving with the season. For his memory, and to preserve Bedouin traditions, she doesn’t want to leave. She comes near the fire and lights it with confident motions, as she has done daily for all her life. Coffee is served: an important ceremonial act of the Bedu when people get together. When we finish our coffee, she brings a large bowl of Libbah: bread, goat yoghurt, and goat butter. We help ourselves from the common bowl with our right hands. It is delicious. I am reminded of the feasts enjoyed by Lawrence when his traveling party was hosted by the tribes they encountered. In the most appropriate desert hospitality, they went out their way to organize banquets as sumptious as they could, despite the environment of deprivation:

This load was set down on the soil of the cleared space between us, where it steamed hotly, while a procession of minor helpers bore small cauldrons and copper vats in which the cooking had been done. From them, with much-bruised bowls of enamelled iron, they ladled out over the main dish all the inside and outside of the sheep; little bits of yellow intestine, the white tail-cushion of fat, brown muscles and meat and bristly skin, all swimming in the liquid butter and grease of the seething. The bystanders watched anxiously, muttering satisfactions when a very juicy scrap plopped out. The fat was scalding. Every now and then a man would drop his baler with an exclamation, and plunge his burnt fingers, not reluctantly, in his mouth to cool them: but they persevered till at last their scooping rang loudly on the bottoms of the pots; and, with a gesture of triumph, they fished out the intact livers from their hiding place in the gravy and topped the yawning jaws with them.

Read "Uluru: Rock your life"

We devour our Libbah quickly and in silence, as Lawrence did:

At top speed we twisted, tore, cut and stuffed: never speaking, since conversation would insult a meal's quality; though it was proper to smile thanks when an intimate guest passed a select fragment, or when Mohammed el Dheilan gravely handed over a huge barren bone with a blessing.

Yussuf is nostalgic. The Bedouin life is mythical for the now-urban Arab. Most have abandoned the nomad ways for the dreams that the city promises, either in Arabia or in the West. The majority of them will end up as unskilled labour, in misery, with the malaise of a past lost for nothing. The Bedu life is still regarded with admiration, it is considered a superior way of life, despite the hardship. Lawrence is straightforward:

"Bedouin ways were hard, even for those brought up in them and for strangers terrible: a death in life."

Bedouin society was characterized by a fierce loyalty to family, clan and tribe, and a rigid code of honor which included hospitality and generosity. Fame or shame travels far in the desert. Hence, surprisingly rigid conventions are observed in a place that exudes freedom at every corner. The Bedu were first and foremost nomads, this marked and modeled their character. In Lawrence’s words:

So we see clans, born in the highlands of Yemen, thrust by stronger clans into the desert, where, unwillingly, they became nomad to keep themselves alive. We see them wandering, every year moving a little further north or a little further east as chance has sent them down one or other of the well-roads of the wilderness, till finally this pressure drives them from the desert again into the sown, with the like unwillingness of their first shrinking experiment in nomad life. This was the circulation which kept vigour in the Semitic body. There were few, if indeed there was a single northern Semite, whose ancestors had not at some dark age passed through the desert. The mark of nomadism, that most deep and biting social discipline, was on each of them in his degree.

And how did the desert marked the Bedu?

The Bedouin of the desert, born and grown up in it, had embraced with all his soul this nakedness too harsh for volunteers, for the reason, felt but inarticulate, that there he found himself indubitably free. He lost material ties, comforts, all superfluities and other complications to achieve a personal liberty which haunted starvation and death. He saw no virtue in poverty herself: he enjoyed the little vices and luxuries--coffee, fresh water, women--which he could still preserve. In his life he had air and winds, sun and light, open spaces and a great emptiness. There was no human effort, no fecundity in Nature: just the heaven above and the unspotted earth beneath.

Thesinger saw in the Bedouin way of life as the antidote to modernity, which he despised. He had difficulties at the beginning of his journey to adapt to a camp life of no privacy, being seen as a gold mine because of being English, drinking brackish water and eating bread full of sand. But he overcame his prejudices, and absorbed this traditional way of life of which he particularly esteemed its generosity and loyalty. His description of the Bedu is full of fondness:

All that is best in the Arabs has come to them from the desert: their deep religious instinct, which has found expression in Islam; their sense of fellowship, which binds them as members of one faith; their pride of race; their generosity and sense of hospitality; their dignity and the regard which they have for the dignity of others as fellow human beings; their humour, their courage and patience, the language which they speak and their passionate love of poetry. These people still valued leisure and courtesy and conversation. They did not live their lives at second hand, dependent on cinemas and wireless."

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Six Marathons in the Desert: Part 2
Marathon 5: Arabs

I leave Hamdan Lafi's tent as the sun lights with a brilliant orange the cliff of Jebel um Ishrin.

I am running south through ever-changing rock formations towards Saudi Arabia, to the remote valley of Wadi Saabit, where the local Zalabia tribe graze their herds. The towering Jebel un Adaami, the highest peak in Jordan, remains indifferent to my passing.

The time has come for me to find a way out of the desert. I turn east by northeast on my way out of Rum and a westerly wind rises. It is a cold wind that forces me to put on new layers of clothing. The sands give way to the harsh-looking Aqaba Mountains of granite and basalt. I follow a long valley, gradually ascending. The inspirational colours of Rum are gone, leaving only the monotonous grey and brown. Yousef is waiting for me at the end of the valley, on a cliff majestically looking down at Aldhaiqah and its red sands. He shows me the direction I should take, down a steep goat path that ends in a narrow wadi below, which eventually leads to Aldhaiqah. He just realizes that his jeep cannot follow the route so he will have to take the long way back to Rum and drive around the range.

“See you there somewhere,” he says.

Alone again, I start my descent.

I notice many bullets on the path, used by the Jordanian army on their military exercises and my mind flies to Lawrence. The last days before entering Aqaba, Lawrence and his party fought an Ottoman battalion to win a strategic pass between Batra and Aba el Lissan. Exhausted by the hot sun and by hours of fighting without results, Lawrence provoked Auda commenting that his men:

[...]shoot a lot and hit a little. Auda, almost pale with rage, and trembling, tore his head-cloth off and threw it on the ground beside me. Then he ran back up the hill like a madman, shouting to the men in his dreadful strained and rustling voice.

Few moments after he saw

[...] fifty horsemen coming down the last slope into the main valley like a run-away, at full gallop, shooting from the saddle. As we watched, two or three went down, but the rest thundered forward at marvellous speed, and the Turkish infantry, huddled together under the cliff ready to cut their desperate way out towards Maan, in the first dusk began to sway in and out, and finally broke before the rush, adding their flight to Auda's charge. Nasir screamed at me, 'Come on', with his bloody mouth; and we plunged our camels madly over the hill, and down towards the head of the fleeing enemy. The slope was not too steep for a camel-gallop, but steep enough to make their pace terrific, and their course uncontrollable: yet the Arabs were able to extend to right and left and to shoot into the Turkish brown. The Turks had been too bound up in the terror of Auda's furious charge against their rear to notice us as we came over the eastward slope: so we also took them by surprise and in the flank; and a charge of ridden camels going nearly thirty miles an hour was irresistible.

Yousef arrives when I am just at the end of my daily marathon. My feet hurt but my muscles are not sore. I think I found Clive's mystical pace. I feel that I could go on and on. I could reach Medina or Mecca if I wish. The pace to run endlessly is a mental state of the relentless mind. Just as we accept and get along with waking up every morning and go to a confined office for the whole day, the mind accepts that we have to run every day.

When I started running after I left the corporate world, running 5km was a challenge, and for my first half marathon, my wife and her sister flew from Hong kong to Shanghai to witness the event. Those were real achievements. With baby steps, I conquered one distance after another. What was difficult become habit, so I had to add a few miles here and there, to get out of my comfort zone again. Today I discover the ultimate distance: there are no boundaries, running is limitless, we have forgotten what we are capable of. This notion is revolutionary to me, like the discovery that the earth is round and not flat. It destroyed a fundamental truth, opening up possibilities. I can run for days on end. I discover that I can do what I did not even know I could.

We find a place for our last camp. The first thing that Yousef does, as he did every night, is to kneel, dig a hole, find some dry wood, light the fire and put the kettle on it to boil water for tea. He flattens the sand around the fire, lays down the mats and the sleeping bags and starts preparing dinner: rice with chicken, with the usual appetizer of hummus and tomatoes. Waleed looks for more wood for the night. We are very well protected tonight in a narrow canyon, and as I lay down I have a 45-degree view of the sky in between the cliffs. The sky turns pink and gradually gives way to darkness.

After we eat I ask Yousef:

“What do you think about me running here?”

The three of us feel joyful, as tonight is our last night in the desert and tomorrow we will finish with the pleasure of knowing have accomplished what we set out to do. What does he see when a westerner comes to his desert, to run alone for 6 days, for 250km? He is a tour guide, a very good one. He brings client after client around Petra and Rum, he tries to guess what they might want and provides it to them. Running adventure is a market niche for him, where he wants to excel. But what does he thinks of me running it, and the other runners that will come after me.

 

He and his people have long lost the authenticity of the desert, so he justifies my run rather than condemning it as utterly useless.

“What are you running away from?” he asks.

What am I running away from? I ask myself. The cracking fire makes shades on the rocks and the sky is now populated by innumerable stars. I am running away from a culture in which 8 hours of work is a paradigm. It creates tensions, depressions, the sensation of missing out on life’s opportunities, feeling submissive and frustrated. We no longer have the time to do what we care for, to broaden our universe of experiences, knowledge and love. And we justify it as the pursuit of security, of wealth and social status which we believe will eventually make us happy. I care about running, I care about nature, I care of visiting inspiring places, I care about achievements that are close to my heart. Is this why I am running? I am not running away. I am running because it is a spiritual exercise, which ultimately leads to a better life. Why would someone want to be a better person? In a passage of Margarie Yourcenaur's masterpiece Memoirs of Hadrian, the Emperor reflects:

Life is atrocious, we know. But precisely because I expect little of the human condition, man’s periods of felicity, his partial progress, his efforts to begin over again and to continue, all seem to me like so many prodigies which nearly compensate for the monstrous mass of ills and defeats, of indifference and error. Catastrophe and ruin will come; disorder will triumph, but order will too, from time to time. . . . Some few men will think and work and feel as we have done, and I venture to count upon such continuators, placed irregularly throughout the centuries, and upon this kind of intermittent immortality.

Inspired by predecessors like Hadrian, Lawrence, Doughty, Thesinger, I am trying to be a continuator in Hadrian's sense, through my unordinary acts, travels and encounters.

I put some Arabian Music in on the speakers of my iPhone. Tonight is not an evening for introspective reflection in silence, but for talking, I spent days and nights with these two men and the intimacy allows for more candid conversations. I showed them my collection of Arab music, they become very serious, like Italians when you talk about food. They dismiss as rubbish one of my favorite songs from a compilation of Claude Challe, but their faces light up when I play Umm Kulthum and Fairouz.

“Kalthoum is Kukas al-shrq, the east moon, you should listen to her at night, thinking about your love which is far away. Fairuz, is for the morning, we call her Q'hoat Al-Sabah, the morning coffee to start the day with the right mood. This is all about love, Andrea, we feel comfortable in their voices,” Yousef tells me with passion, while Waleed nods along.

Ragaa'ouni a'einaik el Ayam illi rahou. Your eyes took me back to my days that are gone. A'alamouni andam a'ala El-Madhi wi gerahou. They taught me to regret the past and its wounds.

Illi shouftouh kabli ma tshoufak a'inaih. Whatever I saw before my eyes saw you was a wasted life. omry dhayea' yehsibouh izay a'alaya? How could they consider that part of my life?

Inta omry illi ibtada b'nourak sabahouh. With your light, the dawn of my life started. Ad eyh min omry kablak ray w a'ada? How much of my life before you was lost? Ya habibi ad eyh min omry raah. It is a wasted past, my love.

The Arabic language has a word specific for what is happening: Tarab, reaching ecstasy through music. Radio Cairo brought Tarab when it broadcasted classical arabic music across the Middle East in the fifties, sixties and seventies. Today, the legacy of Tarab continues on the cassettes and pirated CDs you can buy at every corner in every Middle Eastern town.

 

Six Marathons in the Desert: Part 2

I have been trying during the whole trip to come up with a list of six adjectives that best describe the character of the Arabs based on my experience. Tonight, I get the opportunity to ask Yousef and Waleed what adjectives they would use:

“Community. Arabs are tough, and quiet. They always lie. Glory is important to us, it drives our action.”

“What about religion.” I ask him?

“Religion is too complex, leave it alone,” says Yousef. “And women as well, we do not talk about them.”

“What about honor? Ah, honor, we don't have it anymore. We lost our honor running after money and is getting worse and worse. The new generations don't have much problem with it because they did not experience the former glory of the Arab, the Bedu. Us and the older generation feel bad about it.”

Adonis, the greatest Arab living poet, wrote in Arabic for the Arabs, and moved away from a literature focused on traditionalism and nationalism towards one of rediscovery of the self, against the tribe and the Umma. He though that ''we live in a culture that doesn't leave space for questions, it knows all the answers in advance. Even God has nothing left to say!''

Religion has ceased to be a culture and become a mythology. Everyone pretends that God told them his last words.

Rather than a return of the purity of desert life, which is no more, he advocates for a ''revolution of subjectivity'' to free the Arabs from their tradition.

"There is no more culture in the Arab world,'' he says. ''It's finished. Culturally speaking, we are a part of Western culture, but only as consumers, not as creators,” and this brought in Arabia empty consumerism, radical islam, fraudulent elections.

I see melancholy in Yousef and many of Arabs I met. Melancholy for the purity that they lost. They are romantic in this sense too.

"Although modernity f@#ked us, we still want it, it is good but we pay a price too heavy for it.”

I have the impression that the Arabs carry a sense of inferiority for they current place in the world, especially towards the West, which strides to the role they see for themselves. But they retain their wholeheartedness, their hospitality, their laziness, which is not idleness but an opportunity to dream. In my notes I end up with the following six adjectives to describe the Arabs:

Ikwan, brotherhood, the sense of loyalty to family and clan; Azamah, glory; Shurafa, honor; Iman, devotion; Karam, generosity; Sha'eri, romantic.

After one hour of lively discussion, my two companions agree that the list is representative of the Arab soul. For all its complexity, religion plays a pivotal role not just through its institutions and clerics but within the self of each Arab himself. Hence my choice of the adjective: Iman, devotion. Lawrence says in his diary:

The Bedouin could not look for God within him: he was too sure that he was within God. He could not conceive anything which was or was not God, Who alone was great; yet there was a homeliness, an everyday-ness of this climatic Arab God, who was their eating and their fighting and their lusting, the commonest of their thoughts, their familiar resource and companion, in a way impossible to those whose God is so wistfully veiled from them by despair of their carnal unworthiness of Him and by the decorum of formal worship. Arabs felt no incongruity in bringing God into the weaknesses and appetites of their least creditable causes. He was the most familiar of their words; and indeed we lost much eloquence when making Him the shortest and ugliest of our monosyllables.

Read "Sudan: Camping with the Ancients"

Beyond religion, how did Lawrence see the Arab?

In the very outset, at the first meeting with them, was found a universal clearness or hardness of belief, almost mathematical in its limitation, and repellent in its unsympathetic form. Semites had no half-tones in their register of vision. They were a people of primary colours, or rather of black and white, who saw the world always in contour. They were a dogmatic people, despising doubt, our modern crown of thorns. They did not understand our metaphysical difficulties, our introspective questionings. They knew only truth and untruth, belief and unbelief, without our hesitating retinue of finer shades.

This people was black and white, not only in vision, but by inmost furnishing: black and white not merely in clarity, but in apposition. Their thoughts were at ease only in extremes. They inhabited superlatives by choice. Sometimes inconsistents seemed to possess them at once in joint sway; but they never compromised: they pursued the logic of several incompatible opinions to absurd ends, without perceiving the incongruity. With cool head and tranquil judgement, imperturbably unconscious of the flight, they oscillated from asymptote to asymptote.

They were a people of spasms, of upheavals, of ideas, the race of the individual genius. Their movements were the more shocking by contrast with the quietude of every day, their great men greater by contrast with the humanity of their mob. Their convictions were by instinct, their activities intuitional. Their largest manufacture was of creeds: almost they were monopolists of revealed religions. Three of these efforts had endured among them: two of the three had also borne export (in modified forms) to non-Semitic peoples. Christianity, translated into the diverse spirits of Greek and Latin and Teutonic tongues, had conquered Europe and America. Islam in various transformations was subjecting Africa and parts of Asia. These were Semitic successes. Their failures they kept to themselves. The fringes of their deserts were strewn with broken faiths.

The night is passing fast, the fire is gone, leaving behind a few incandescent embers. Waleed and Yousef are asleep. As I think back to our conversation, the moon appears in the segment of the sky which I can see through the cliffs. I take in the moment, savouring the taste of a little bit more of this vast world.

Six Marathons in the Desert: Part 2
Marathon 6: Finish Line

Today I will capture Aqaba.

The last marathon does not scare me, after what I have achieved so far. Perception changes, and we forget how high obstacles looked like when we first approached a challenge. Today I will just run, no walk-and-run routine, I will just go as fast as I can. I want my last marathon to be the fastest.

I leave camp and follow a large wadi, heavy with soft sand that bears the tracks of pick-up trucks. They make my run unstable. After 20 km I am out of the desert and I approach a small gate which opens to a paved road. Yousef and Waleed are there, watching my desire for Aquaba, like the local tribes watched Lawrence, Auda and his men leaving for the final battle. As I pass by, without stopping, I cry out to them: "to Aqaba!" with my arms pointing forward, like the cry of a general to their troops. Yousef jumps into the mood and replies immediately "to Aqaba, Insha'Allah! To Aqaba!" raising his hands towards the sky and letting all his playfulness loose with Bedouin war cries. Waleed, does not want to be left out, so he starts screaming as well. I am euphoric of my charge to Aqaba, and I could imagine those men feeling the excitement when, just almost one hundred years ago, Auda set the troops in motion on the morning they were to reach Aqaba. I can imagine Yousef, discharging his pistol in the air, followed by an eager Waleed.

Gripped by euphoria, I keep going, passing a police checkpoint and entering Wadi Itm in the middle of the Aqaba mountains. The desert becomes a sandy track and then a small paved road, then a two lane highway. The shoulders are large and I am not too bothered by the cars and trucks speeding by, on the contrary, I feel motivated by their cheerful honking. Now Waleed and Yousef are following me with their jeep and every road sign with a milestone indicating Aqaba, they approach me and scream "to Aqaba, to Aqaba!" and I play along, happily.

 

The road descends and I pick up my pace, like the warriors on their camels slowly getting more and more anxious to engage in battle, their walk picking up tempo, turning into a slow trot, barely reining the animals in, waiting for Auda to give the order to attack. At every bend, my anxiousness increases, I feel my feet as the trotting of a camel, ready to be launched, waiting for Aqaba to come into sight. Finally she appears, crowned by the blue water behind her. The feeling of joy I had so far is quickly replaced by excitement as I finally launch the charge for the city.

I finish the 42.2km just inside Aqaba but some km shy of its beach, but it does not matter. This is where I will finish: on a undescriptive road in the outskirt of town surrounded by road constructions on one side and a shabby looking mall on the other. Yousef wants me to finish at the Jordan flagpole at the beach. This is the tallest flagpole in the world, the landmark of Aqaba. I couldn't care less of artificial stages to pretend that what I have done is different. I am content with it. My Garmin says 42.2 in 4h20m, that's all there is to it. No prettiness, no crowds celebrating.

For Lawrence it was a similar anticlimax:

We wandered into the shadowed grove of palms, at the very break of the splashing waves, and there sat down to watch our men streaming past as lines of flushed vacant faces without message for us. For months Akaba had been the horizon of our minds, the goal: we had had no thought, we had refused thought, of anything beside. Now, in achievement, we were a little despising the entities which had spent their extremest effort on an object whose attainment changed nothing radical either in mind or body.

In the blank light of victory we could scarcely identify ourselves. We spoke with surprise, sat emptily, fingered upon our white skirts; doubtful if we could understand or learn whom we were. Others' noise was a dreamlike unreality, a singing in ears drowned deep in water. Against the astonishment of this unasked-for continued life we did not know how to turn our gift to account. Especially for me was it hard, because though my sight was sharp, I never saw men's features: always I peered beyond, imagining for myself a spirit-reality of this or that: and to-day each man owned his desire so utterly that he was fulfilled in it, and became meaningless.

I jump into the car and ask Yousef to go to the best place in town to eat Falafel. Sandy, my parents and those close friends who were following my GPS signal send me messages of congratulations. Now is over. The satisfaction of arrival is that, as Lawrence put it: "We did what we set out to do, and have the satisfaction of that knowledge."

More travel stories

Six Marathons in the Desert: Part 2

I don't feel there is anything to brag about having run 250km, many people run for far longer distances in far more dangerous places. It’s the process. Its is about how I did it, about connecting with the culture and the nature, about being prepared to face what I was about to encounter, to try to understand myself more deeply. It was an exercise in thinking, feeling, living, and therein lies my achievement.

The great Douglas Tompkins, founder of The North Face, commented about how people are climbing Everest today:

[...]they pay $80,000 and have sherpas put all the ladders in place, and 8,000 feet of fixed ropes. You get to a camp and you don’t even have to lay out your sleeping bag, and it’s already laid out with a little chocolate mint on the top. The whole purpose of climbing Everest is to effect some sort of spiritual and physical gain; but if you compromise the process, [then] you’re an asshole when you start out and you’re an asshole when you get back.”

My spiritual exercise has been completed, it is time to move on to another one, where I will carry something from this adventure with me. Thesiger concludes his foreword of Arabia Deserta by saying:

No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have within him the yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can hope to match.

I reach my hotel and look over at the Gulf and the ships at bay, thinking of the British ships arriving here and opening a supply line to the forces in Transjordan and Palestine. On the other side of the bay I can see the lights of Eilat, in Israel, the new adventure that awaits me, not running, but cooking and eating. I call the Concierge and cancel the two nights I booked here in Aqaba. I will be leaving tomorrow morning. Now that I arrived, it is time to move on.

I finally part with Lawrence as well, and he concludes:

Rebellion was the gravest step which political men could take, and the success or failure of the Arab revolt was a gamble too hazardous for prophecy. Yet, for once, fortune favoured the bold player, and the Arab epic tossed up its stormy road from birth through weakness, pain and doubt, to red victory. It was the just end to an adventure which had dared so much, but after the victory there came a slow time of disillusion, and then a night in which the fighting men found that all their hopes had failed them. Now, at last, may there have come to them the white peace of the end, in the knowledge that they achieved a deathless thing, a lucent inspiration to the children of their race.

 

Six Marathons in the Desert: Part 2

When to go:

In general, Spring and Autumn are the best seasons to travel in the Middle East. Jordan is no exception. During these seasons you will pleasant days that are not too hot, so you can hike and enjoy nature. Early Spring and late Autumn can get nippy in the evenings, so pack accordingly. Jordan can get quite cold during Winter and Summer is very, very hot. The advantage of travelling during the hottest days is that you can get some sites - such as Petra - almost to yourself.

How to get there:

There are no direct flights from Hong Kong to Jordan, but Emirates connects Dubai with Amman, the layover is short (~2hrs) and flights are relatively cheap. From Amman you can hire tours to Petra to suit every taste, since it is one of the most popular destinations withing Jordan. If you plan to travel in the desert, hiring a professional guide is highly advisable.

Visa and paperwork:

You need a visa to enter Jordan. Most nationalities can obtain it at any port of entry, upon arrival in Jordan. However, there are some restricted nationalities that need to secure the visa prior to travel. You can check here to make sure.

What else to do in Jordan:

Petra and the Dead Sea are obvious choices. However, Jordan has something for every taste. You can design your trip tailored towards culture, history, spirituality, and even a beach getaway. A fantastic way to experience the region is to extend your trip to Israel. Click to discover the Treasures of the Nabateans in Jordan and see our itineraries in Israel.

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