Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Rock and the High Place

I thought this was beautiful. That's all.

Petra is billed as the rose red city. For 'red', read cream, butterscotch, peach, pink and maroon, and umpteen shades in between as the sun passes.

And then there's this - layers of vivid colour hidden away from the ferocious sun. Did you ever think that sun can fade rock?

As soon as we emerged from the Siq we were accosted by two or three boys aged maybe eight or nine, offering postcard concertinas, jewellery, and rock samples that looked like Viennese Fancies and Battenburg slices. With the British tourist's discomfort about bargaining and expectation of rip-off (sad) I didn't want the jewellery or cards; nor did I want to encourage a trade based on vandalising Petra, 5cm³ at a time.

Well I bought a necklace later, and without bargaining - it was not expensive, and the black-clad and burqa-ed woman in her 50s who was selling it was working in full sun for the privilege. As for the rock slices, I stopped at a stall set almost at the summit of the High Place (where Abraham would have sacrificed Isaac) to catch my breath and admire. Up on the top (proper blog another day) I stepped over a discreet inch-deep, foot-square, mini-quarry. The source of the Battenburg. Going down I gave in to tempatation: yup, just beneath the surface of this responsible eco-tourist, there's just tourist.

I was maybe two fils short of the low asking price, and the cheerful young woman had no change for my tourist notes so I was going to leave it; but she insisted I choose any piece I liked, because I obviously so liked, and so desired, one of those pieces; and I found myself in a strange topsy-turvy situation where not to buy this little thing for an embarrassing pittance would have been to reject the kindness of this gracious, laughing person. So I bought, and we were both happy in our 'bargain' and our encounter with each other, and it's an experience of unexpected generosity that stays with me.

Back in Dubai I bought a copy of Alan Keohane's excellent Bedouin, Nomads of the Desert, and learnt that the boys and women we met were Bedu who live in Petra, their right to do so recognised by law. This might not sound remarkable, but Petra is literally an ancient ruin, only open to the public until sunset. No tourist spotlights, no son et lumière in the eroded amphitheatre, no modern buildings or utilities. The Bedu live in caves: generations have been born there and continue to scrape a living through selling jewellery and postcards to tourists.

Here's a photo of home, sweet home, taken from the High Place. Cosy, hm?

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