Saturday, October 27, 2007

In the Land of 40-Year Strolls

We fly into the vast devil of the Mid East with this first: a gorgeous verdant beach with the gorgeous Med right there and filled with tiny flawless empty islands, something you couldn’t help but call perfect if you didn’t know you were about 100 miles north of Beirut and risking being shot to shit, flying really crooked from Istanbul so as to not go over that city or any of the others, or Israel at all, because, well…. The first stunning thing is the way the coast is flawless green perfect until the mountains top out and come down their eastern side as nothing but dirt, and pour nothing but dirt on everything else we pass. It’s striking the way from the air mountains are more imposing that they are when you look up at their interminable height. On the other side it’s a vast enough desert to wander in for forty years without seeing the same thing twice, assuming you’re from the desert and can tell red empty hateful desert from pink hateful empty desert, from crimson empty desert, hateful. Inexplicably, over this mass of oblivion, big farms show their faces, nothing at all like the flyover-state farms I’ve seen getting from Albuquerque to the new York or Atlanta or wherever. These are farms by shards, clearly demarked from the air, but by what logic I cannot ascertain. The fields curls and bend and cut into one another. This is west Texas without surveyors, the Wild West when lines of longitude were as mythical as Atlantis (and my poet friend tells me, ‘They lost Atlantis when it got up and moved from the vast Pacific to this mad desert, who can blame them,’ because we’re trying, at his behest, to confuse tourists, calling the whole thing the ‘Trail of Tears,’ where Jesus wept, et c) After seeing a dozen monochromatic cities and pillars of smoke from nowhere and roads that take 90 degree turns in the middle of endless sand flats, I have to think that there’s an order here, some governing force, that is just, simply, different. Stones are piled throughout the desert at what I can only describe as random (clearly not random), like something you would look for if you were the last one out to a deep New Mexican campout and had nothing else to guide you, but these, honestly, seem to have guided 6,000 years’ worth of pilgrims without being taken down. I can see Moses nudging the topmost stones centimeters at a time, coaxing them to balance, knowing all God’s people are relying on these, and they still stand, next to the coincidental chucked off stones of some Bedouin sheepherder who just happens to have the god of coincidental balance on his side. There is some order here, in farms and pastures and even stones, that I cannot guess at. We go to Amman, the capital of Jordan, which is a lot like Istanbul except it is the most boring place in the history of the world. We drink a special mid-east drink, “Not found in Europe or Egypt,” despite the fact that the bottle itself sez it comes straight from ancient Egyptian secrets, and that it is called “Arak” which sounds suspiciously like “Raki,” the official special drink of Turkey (tastes exactly the same, PS), which itself tastes exactly like Ouzo and Grappa, and all the other official special drinks of Mediterranean countries (shh!). Men shout cordially at one another across small rooftop tables. They take off their shoe before they cross their legs. You can’t buy an apple without haggling over the price. (You do get to wash it off right there in the store, though, gratis). Everyone seems very comfortable with this. There is clearly some order here in the kisses and mad traffic and screwy backward writing, something that facilitates society, but it escapes me. All this left me seeing random arrangements I assume must be patterns I just can’t understand, desert djinn, madnesses, appreciating the cosmopolitan nonstop zazz of Istanbul, seeing it in contrast to the pick and choose accommodated by the distance/connection with the west that lets Amman have AC and good roads and a fairly minor amount of anti-Semitism (not to mention ancient decrepit old men with flawless English somehow, working at convenience stores) with none of the madness and conflict and just straight rigmarole of Istanbul, the middle-child of the world, forced to choose and choose fast, and now! The past-as-future, secularism-as-religion Istanbul, so goddamn alive it’s ugly Istanbul, the constantly thinking itself still the most important city in the world Istanbul, to the detriment of just how startling a city it is the world right now…Istanbul. In any event we had a bad night in Amman then missed the bus to Petra by ten minutes (poets and clocks, those eternal enemies) and had to take one of the group taxis that apparently compose the world east of Paris. We slept hungover in this little utility van until around 11 waiting for it to fill up, despite the fact we got to it at around 7, then hightailed it to Petra at long last. Petra is maybe most famous now because of a massive push by the Jordanian government to have it placed on the new list of the seven wonders of the world that Americans don’t care about. (Since then it has been voted, indeed, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.) Other than that, the fa├žade of the most impressive building was the face put on the resting place of the Holy Grail by Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas and Co. in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. So gobs of tourists walk or ride a camel a mile or so down these inconceivable holy canyons to this holy grail of photo ops, then turn around. Us, we climbed some hideous mountain to the other side, and had a world of ruins absolutely and completely to ourselves. It was the anti-Disneyland, we posed on tumbled columns like Greek Gods ourselves, we read English graffiti on the walls of holy holes for the widows of fallen soldiers, we were alone in an ancient, forgotten city, shunned even by the tourists that patronized the accessible half of it, alone outside of time, and for all our talk, beyond words. We took pictures, we wrote words in the sand, we talked self-consciously about Ozimandus (sp?) and reeled from hunger and dehydration and real pure ecstasy, giving candy bars to little gypsy babies that wandered up trying to sell random rocks, the only other people on this side at all, apparently belonging to the tables of necklaces and souvenirs left unattended everywhere, paying something like $3 for a can of coke when we got back to those kids’ well-stocked, refrigerated hovels, (me at least) really, completely happy, taking pictures like mad, gone crazy with heat, thinking that Petra, Jordan, with its vastness, its single-color tonality, its big, New Mexican skies (sans stars, I would later find out, too low) is one of the most photogenic patches on this wart of God we call earth. From there we ran down to the Saudi border, mainly to risk kidnapping, and hit up what they call in Jordan the Gulf of Aquaba, though the Egyptians, Saudis, and Israelis probably all have different names for it. Went scuba diving there, unlicensed, saw a massive octopus, held a seahorse, saw a shipwreck from below and noticed that my air hose was leaking and, ps, I have no idea how to actually scuba dive, and no talent for the thing at all besides stupid fearlessness, and just watch my barometer instead of anything else because some sixth-grade scientist inside of me sez that’s wise. It was amazing. Back that night to Amman, no quick look at the Promised Land, no look at the salt pillars of the Dead Sea, just a quick disappointed look at some worthless scraps of Dead Sea Scrolls in Aquaba, a long bus ride back north, where thousands of people line the freeway having picnics according to some pattern I cannot discern. Sitting in the desert’s weekend night beside the road eating something they must have cooked at home, considering it an escape (I imagine) for reasons I can’t even really guess at. We hoof it out to some castles in the desert that make no sense at all (no pattern I can discern) before hitting our 4 am flight. We meet exactly one person in Jordan who can’t speak English. Not a wit of trouble. Watch something about a Jew boy struggling through Nazi Germany for something ,on TV, remarking about obvious things, impressed. Every single taxi driver we find gives us a colossal parody of American, saying, “AWL-right, HAY-re YA go,” and HAWV-fan,” and, for some reason, “Sayonara,” with big, long, drawn-out American ‘A’s. There's no doubt some real guiding pattern to this place. We fly back over Lebanon from madmen farms to desert to verdant beaches, without any restoration of familiarity. And it doesn't go away, this feeling that the cleanliness and orderly beauty of that London and the familiar ease of America are actually not necessarily better than the chaos of arbitrary order laying over these desert expanses. Nor does the trepidation about the intents of certain Muslim nations. You don't leave Jordan in a blind multi-culti bliss-out, no more than you leave it with a jingoistic hatred of ragheads, you just leave it confused, all too aware of the flexibility of the order that governs life. Or something like that.


Matt Mullenix said...

Philip that was wonderful but exhausting! Mission accomplished!

"These are farms by shards, clearly demarked from the air, but by what logic I cannot ascertain."

One of the world's great sentences...

pluvialis said...

Kerouac meets Robert Byron.

Steve Bodio said...

"Kerouac meets Robert Byron"--! THAT is a compliment-- and earned.

Anonymous said...


Who said travel broadens the mind?- Maybe George B and Tony B should have done the trip before enmbarking on their adventure?- super obseration ( and sensitivity ) !


Reid Farmer said...

"Kerouac meets Robert Byron"--! THAT is a compliment-- and earned.

Amen! "On the Road to Oxiana" perhaps?