Choose Your Friends
"My grandfather is buried up on that mountain," says Suleiman, pointing to a crumbled outcropping that almost seems oil painted on the sky, glowing white-hot in the unfettered sun.
The rounded granite mountain makes an epic gravestone, and I listen to the young man's stories as we start our steep descent down the dry and gravelly trail. The day is new and Suleiman is eager to please, feeding me welcome anecdotes about his Bedouin family, as well as a lovely natural history quips, first pointing to this one skittish sunbird, having me sniff an oleander flower, which kills lice on goats, and then stopping at an airy overlook to see if we can spot any active rock hyraxes.
We have only just met, shaking hands an hour before, but I find myself performing as well—hiking in long strides, head held high, pivoting quickly on the trail and doing my best to show that I am not too old to be doing this, that I am still lithe and nimble on my feet, and that I can keep up with this younger man.
All good guides are trained to assess their client’s ability and accommodate them, and I want Suleiman to know that I got this—I can hike 14 miles in 90° heat, no problem. Meanwhile, he wants me to know that rock hyrax blood is especially good for treating asthma.
“My grandmother had asthma, but then my father made her drink the blood of a rock hyrax and her asthma just stopped!” His story makes up for the lack of visible rock hyraxes in the vicinity, and I do not tell him that I have already seen thousands of the animals before—in Africa. The deep cleft in Jordan’s topography represents an extra bit of the Great Rift Valley that runs the length of Africa—a kind of natural highway that flooded Jordan with exotic wildlife like giraffes, hyenas, and lions.
Today, only the hyenas remain, and Suleiman stops to show me their distinct tracks in the sand—they resemble a dog’s paw print, only bigger. On the days he is not guiding, Suleiman is shepherding his family’s flock of a hundred-plus goats, leading them into the hidden areas of green that pop up in the desert. “The hyenas and wolves come at night and can kill four or five sheep, so fast.”
My questions never stop, and for the next hour we discuss the economy of goats—how much each is worth, how to judge their readiness for slaughter, how the herd grows and wanes with the seasons and rain, as well as the intricate protocol of goat-giving, for weddings and funerals, or as alms for the poor.
We continue tiptoeing down the steep switchback, slipping with each step, as if we are skiing down a mountain of loose stones. Small yellow flowers paint the drab slopes, and in the dead silence of mid-day, I catch the faraway strain of a song in a minor key. Somewhere, perhaps another mile down the trail, a shepherd is singing to his flock, interrupted periodically with the rudest, loudest, most horrific screams—like some tortured monster calling out in pain.
“What animal is that?” I ask Suleiman.
“The shepherds,” he explains, “They yell like that to scare away the wolves and hyenas.” Thus the shepherds calm their animals with lullabies, following in the same breath with screams in the wind to frighten away the invisible carnivores—singing and screaming, all day long.
We reach the singing shepherds by lunchtime—two boys, young teenagers, waving to us from the flat streambed of a dried-up wadi. Their donkeys are feeding in the shade of an overgrown pistachio tree, and we join them, escaping the hottest sun of the day. With a bit of flint and a few scraps of dry pistachio branches, Suleiman conjures up a small and aromatic fire for tea.
“These are my friends,” he explains, introducing me to each one. The boys smile when they hear their names and together, sitting on the ground, we share a loaf of bread, tearing and chewing quietly. Afterwards, the four of us sip the hot brown tea from the glasses that Suleiman has carried all this way, until another shepherd arrives.
“That is why you must always have extra glasses,” says Suleiman forthrightly, handing his friend a glass of tea. “It’s like we say, ‘Earth is pregnant and born with people every moment’.”
“Yes—” I agree, searching my mind for some Hallmark equivalent, though I fail to think of anything that compares to this beautiful sentiment—that the Earth is alive with the possibility of new friends and that we must always be ready for them.
“I like it when friends show up,” I offer, reflecting on the modern-day equivalent of faraway friends texting me and messaging me on Facebook in the middle of the night.
"Friends are very important,” Suleiman agrees. “It’s like we say in Arabic—Arafik gabl attarik—‘Choose your friends before you choose where to go’.”
“Ha! I always say the same thing—it’s not where you travel that matters, but who you travel with!”
“Yes!” Suleiman translates to his friends, then turns back to me. “We have so many things like this. We say aljar gabil adar—‘Chose your neighbor before you choose where to live’.” I nod thoughtfully, soaking up this wisdom and remembering the many good neighbors I have back home in the city, along with the few bad apples I have known in the past.
“We also say, ‘Choose uncles for your children’—it means when you are looking for a wife, you don’t just pick her. You are choosing the whole family—brothers are important, too.”
For the next hour, we discuss the family and marriage protocols of his tribe. His older brothers are married with children and Suleiman is already an uncle many times over. He is only 18, but when the time is right, and with his father’s help, he will get married. He has a much older brother, he says, who has been stung seven times by a scorpion, but the poison had no effect.
“When we are babies, when they find a scorpion, they burn it on a fire, then crush it and mix the ash with our mother’s milk. They feed it to us—this way, when we are older, the scorpion does not kill us.” Such is the elaborate vaccination process for Bedouin babies. I try to explain our own vaccines in America, and booster shots, then answer no when he asks if scorpion bite is a required vaccine in Washington, DC.
After these few hours together, Suleiman is more relaxed and open with me, confessing why exactly it is that we are taking such a languorous break under the pistachio tree.
“The fact is, I did not expect you to make it this far so quickly, so I made us stop here for a few hours. We are almost at the end of the trail already, but you walked very fast, so I thought, we can make a stop here for a while.” I am pleased that we made good time—14 miles in about 5 hours, though now I worry that I rushed too quickly. There is so much to see in the desert.
An hour later, we arrive at Suleiman’s village with an entourage of shepherds and barefoot children—along with many hundreds of goats following behind as the amazing desert sky begins to fade from blue to lavender. We pass the black wool tents of the community and Suleiman tells me the names of each family and where they move their tents in summer and winter.
“In a few days will move our tent to this place,” Suleiman points to a sheltered ridge on the left of the trail—a bare spot of Earth, framed by dry scrub and small stones. These are actual nomads—real nomads who move with the rain and sun, shifting their home to fit nature, rather than shifting nature to fit their homes.
The next morning, Suleiman takes me to his family tent, instructing me on all the right ways to approach a Bedouin home:
“Always clear your throat—it is polite to announce yourself. Always come from where the men are staying; that is—the right side of the tent. If you don’t know where the right side is, just look for the camels. The camels are always on the men’s side.”
The Bedouin home is a gendered space of two distinct halves, and I am only welcome on the male side of the tent. I remove my shoes, and after greeting Suleiman’s father, Abu Khalil, I take my place on an embroidered cushion, lying prone and propped up on one elbow, the same as my host.
Abu Khalil has a great grey beard and a grooved face that resembles the terrain around Feynan. He is dressed in a chocolate brown dishdasha, his head covered in clean white clothe.
I am not the first tourist to visit his tent—in fact, having coffee with Abu Khalil already has a half-dozen write-ups on TripAdvisor—but like all good hosts, Abu Khalil makes me feel like I am the most important guest ever to enter his home. Step by step, he shows me how he makes coffee—first roasting the Arabica beans over the fire, filling the tent with a smell that Starbucks will never accomplish in a thousand years of R&D. Then he grinds the roasted beans by hand, sending a willow of coffee-scented smoke skyward. Next comes the green cardamom, crushed by hand with mortar and pestle, hitting my nose with another pleasant punch of spice.
Abu Khalil takes the first taste—“to make sure it’s good," says Suleiman. “You should make coffee good, because if not they will judge you. It’s like we say, ‘Make it good or don’t do it at all’.
By now, Suleiman knows that I will ask him for the literal Arabic phrase, so he gives it to me without having to ask.
“We say, ‘If you feed, feed well,” and also, ‘If you hit, make it hurt’. It means, do something one hundred percent—all the way. I think to teach Suleiman the English verbiage “half-ass”, but I refrain—now is not the time and Abu Khalil’s coffee is anything but half-assed. The respected elder pours me a small cup, barely a thimble-full, but the aroma is bold and transcendent.