Thursday, 15 July 2010
At one stage we crested the brow of a hill and the Wadi Mujib opened out before us, about 1300 metres deep, a small version of the Grand Canyon. There was a slow winding descent and a winding slow slimb through its grandeur. We stopped at Madaba to see the ancient mosaic map on the floor of St George's (what else?) Orthodox church. We had a look at the magnificent Crusader castle at Kerak and arrived here, at Wadi Mussa (the Spring of Moses) around 5 pm.
We checked into our smallish but comfortable Arabian hotel, took a dip in the pool, and gathered on the roof terrace at 7pm for dinner. Us Europeans, dining as we do at the quaint time of 7 or 8 are bound to get a good table because we beat the Arabs to the smorgasboard by at least an hour. People here breakfast around 7, lunch - the main meal of the day- about 2 and dine about 9. Work and sleep fill the hours between.
Evenings are conducted in a very civilised fashion. Men gather for conversation (personal, and maybe some business), and perhaps to share a shisha and a cool drink between the office and home. Then around 9 the family gathers: men women and astonishingly well behaved children. All sit together as a nuclear unit or with friends or members of an extended family. The meal follows a well rehearsed pattern. First is salad, falafel, hummous, fresh flat bread, spices. Then meat dishes, usually lamb or beef but never, obviously, pork. Then there are sweets which are to European expectations mild and understated, usually centred on large plates of sliced melon, with jellies perhaps honey cake and a bland but refreshing junket. If someone told me I would have to eat Arabian cuisine every day for the rest of my life I would heartily thank them.
Then, after dinner, there is thick sweet coffee and shisha. Shisha is the traditional water pipe, shared by all adult members of the party, with smoke enjoyed for its flavour and aroma rather than for the buzz of nicotine, which it lacks anyway. Shisha is blended to give various flavours: apple, lemon, mint and so forth and in a culture with strong injunctions against alcohol, fills the same niche as wine in European cuisine.
So we sit. The familes begin to gather around us just as we finish and they are far too polite to stare. The waiters are attentive and the sun begins to sink behind the mountains of Petra to the West. Our food has been, as usual, delicious, and our pipe tonight is lemon and mint, which is regarded as more of a men's flavour than one for women; in any case Bridget doesn't like it as much as usual. As the sun sinks, the call to prayer sounds from the nearby mosque and is taken up by the other 4 mosques in town. Echoing, intertwining across what seems like a vast space in the twilight, there is a haunting, eerily beautiful challenge which no one in town can ignore:
God is greater than any description.
There is no deity but God and Muhummad is a messenger of God.
Make haste toward prayer.
Make haste towards success.
Prayer is better than sleep.
God is the greatest!
There is no deity but God,
The families pause their conversations. Within the hour the devout among them will respond but for now there are the gifts of God to share: fine food and shisha and shared words and each other