Childhood Memories from East and West

While my husband, Bishara, and I share many of the same tenets in life, such as “be good to yourself and your fellow man,” we grew up half a world apart under widely differing circumstances.  My life began mid-century near coastal California in John Steinbeck territory – Salinas, California, while Bishara, a native of Lebanon, was introduced to the world by a midwife at his family home in Mafraq, Jordan, in one of the most politically unstable regions on the globe.

As a young family, we moved several times within the San Francisco Bay Area in the span of 12 years, from Salinas to San Jose, Berkeley, Lafayette, and, ultimately, Walnut Creek.  My childhood was spent dashing through sprinklers, romping with neighbor friends and cousins, skiing in Lake Tahoe, and dancing to The Beatles and “The ‘In’ Crowd.”  Annual summer trips to my mom’s indigenous Browning, Montana on Blackfeet Indian tribal land punctuated with blurs of color, buckskin and eagle feathers at Pow Wow ceremonies, as well as treks into adjacent Glacier National Park, became a regular and memorable event.  My first memory at two years old is of my family on the outskirts of tiny Browning maneuvering across railroad tracks to enter the home of my aunt (mom’s elder, and treasured, sister), and feeling both mystified and enchanted to be in the company of my three older cousins.

A world away, Bishara’s older sister, Wedad, 18 years his senior, was getting married and Bishara at four years-old noticed his mother and sister crying while Wedad stood at the alter in a beautiful white lace gown.  A somewhat baffling response in the eyes of a young boy.  Bishara, the youngest of six children, and, as such, often the recipient of sibling drubbings, was sensitive, soulful, and, by his own account, a nerd.  Often left behind by his older siblings on weekends, Bishara felt comfort and fulfillment in the company of his mother, the twosome frequently spending time together in the back courtyard of their stone home beneath the olive and berry trees, chattering away about everything while Bishara peeled mandarin oranges for his kindhearted mother.

Although sweet, shy, and reflective, as the eldest of four children, I took a certain satisfaction in playfully trouncing my three siblings, on occasion, in my younger years.  A kind child who, nonetheless, wanted to establish her natural dominance in the family structure as the first born, I had an innate sense of justice and of not wanting to be taken advantage of by the outside world.  Another early memory reveals me as a five year-old walking the short distance between my grandmother’s modest home in Browning to my aunt’s house down the street, my parents shadowing me in their car.  Within minutes, stones hurtled down at me from the windows of a neighboring home.  Initially taken aback by this onslaught by mischievous kids, I impulsively collected rocks from the street and vigorously lobbed them back at my assailants, to my parents’ unspoken gratification.

Just as my first sibling, and only sister, arrived engulfed in my adoration and constant companionship, Bishara’s nephew, Khaldoun, was born to Wedad when Bishara was just five years-old.  Being relatively close in age and location with Khaldoun growing up in a Jordanian town approximately two hours away by car from Mafraq, Bishara played often with Khaldoun and developed a deep-seated brotherly affection for his first nephew.  Joy-filled visits from Khaldoun left Bishara feeling melancholy and disheartened when Wedad and Khaldoun left at the end of a weekend following days spent engaged in hide and seek, tag, and friendly wrestling.

At around 8 years-old, Bishara said goodbye to his father who was travelling from Mafraq to Tabuk, Saudi Arabia to pursue a long-term employment opportunity; one of Bishara’s saddest days.  A world away my father was travelling home from a short stint in Japan as an Air Force reservist with a surprise gift for me – a two-wheel bike.  As Israeli warplanes bombarded Mafraq a year later during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Bishara and his family hid in a 16 square foot bathroom with Bishara convinced that his mother had corralled them into the tiny quarters, so they could die together in close proximity.  Meanwhile, one of my paramount concerns was learning to ride the bicycle from my Dad, and experiencing challenges  braking while navigating down a steep hill; I sustained a mere knot on my forehead as Dad lunged in front of my bike to minimize the impact of crashing into bike racks at the bottom of the incline.

Bikes and pets are prominent features of American life, and for a short time as a child, we had a German Shepard that would regularly jump our backyard fence, follow me to school and steal the kids’ lunches, or hurdle over other fences and end up in someone’s pool.  While this pooch was ultimately rehoused, Bishara had a menagerie of pets while growing up, unusual in the Arab region, including a monkey, dog, chickens, deer, rabbits, and ducks, all kept in the back courtyard.  As a younger child, Bishara indulged in playing with the rabbits, which were raised along with the chickens, and ducks for later consumption, a fact that now produces misgivings in Bishara.  The monkey, Saada, arrived from Saudi Arabia in a truck, a gift from Bishara’s father to the family, and became a close companion to Bishara.  Bishara taught the monkey how to peel bananas, play catch, and even considered marriage to this attentive and shrewd primate.

Besides appreciating the company of his troupe of animals, Bishara played “cowboys” with neighborhood playmates, index fingers or sticks serving as guns; rolled atop, or inside, truck tires down neighborhood streets; and on the weekend attacked kids from rival blocks with stones.  Bishara was skilled at this latter pursuit, being a good aim, and a daring collaborator by zig-zagging between incoming rocks when assailing his opponents.

Summer visits to Ein Eible in Bishara’s native Lebanon to see his relatives were particularly happy days.  Bishara spent time with his grandfather, and once a week borrowed his donkey to go to the family farm and fields to pick figs and grapes, which Bishara brought home in baskets.  Bishara also took walks through the town with his brothers or alone, expressly admiring the beautiful young town girls.  The special times in my life also included occasions spent with extended family, in particular, British and Montana cousins, and my German grandmother, Oma, my father’s mother who eventually became a full-time resident of a nearby California city.  In the summertime, my siblings and I spent many a weekend at Oma’s apartment complex with an interior courtyard containing a pool, palm trees, and amiable neighbors.  Oma had a beautiful accent, wonderful spirit, and was colorful in dress and outlook.  Outfitted in a red flowered bathing suit and gold fringed bathing cap, Oma danced with my siblings and me, in turn, in the shallow end of her apartment pool.  And pool dancing was always followed by sweet iced coffee with milk and ice cream on top, served poolside.  Oma taught me the love of life and travel.

An emphasis on diversity and the broader world were not only apparent in my grandmother’s worldview and everyday life, but in the actions of my father.  I was most excited, when as an elementary school student, my Dad organized having a Kenyan man from Berkeley’s International Student Center come and speak to my class.  Attired in traditional garb, the young Kenyan man gave a fascinating and eye-opening presentation on life in Kenya.

In our prepubescent years, Bishara and I both felt our own budding romances.  At around age 10, Bruce, a classmate, regularly selected me as a square dancing partner in PE, a secret thrill, as this was the first time I was noticed by a boy.  This freckle-faced chap had the gumption to present me with a ring before our relocation from one Bay Area town to another.  In my young mind, I was mightily impressed with the courage and straightforwardness of this boy.  Bishara’s introduction to “puppy love” was quite different.  Living in a more restrictive society where genders were often separated, Bishara and his friends were reduced to jotting down love notes on bits of paper, which were crumpled and hurled at their particular love interest.  Bishara was in serious trouble when someone complained about him and his buddies following a group of girls to school, with the boys ultimately being arrested and taken to the police department for interrogation.  The police officers ultimately took pity on the boys following the arrival of their parents.

Little did I know that 15 years later I would meet, and develop an intimate relationship with, a near-felon, nor did Bishara realize he would rendezvous with a western woman and the “American Dream.”

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Pic of Bishara

Wonders of Spain: Andalusia

Spain, although a common destination and residence for retired Brits, due primarily to proximity and economical lifestyle, is barely on the radar for vacationing Americans.  Preferring instead the glitz and glamour of Paris, Prague’s medieval origins and design, and the charm of Rome and Venice, American travel to Europe tends to focus on the time-tested, conventional locations.

In the late 1990s, my husband and I were fortunate to travel to Spain, spending time in the north, Madrid and festive Barcelona, as well as the Andalusian region in the south, including the Mediterranean city of Malaga, captivating and historically rich Granada, and the Flamenco municipal of Seville.  More recently the draw to Spain was reconnecting with expatriate British friends from the Gulf region who had retired and relocated to the Costa Blanca (“white coast”) of Spain.  Flying into Madrid airport, and making our way through immigration where we were simply waved through, and baggage claim, I peeked over a glass barrier and contemplated a sunlit cafe below with travellers languishing amongst oversized green potted plants and stylish black and white tiles, sipping café con leches, and knew this would be a satisfying trip.

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Toledo, Spain

Renting the prevailing manual and miniscule economy car at the Avis counter and driving along the cobblestone alleyways of the old walled-in city of Toledo our first afternoon in Spain reinforced the perception that this would be a relaxed holiday.  Spain is more “old world” Europe with a heavy dose of Eastern world influence in the form of Arabic architecture, way of life, and language.  Toledo, itself, is characterized as a “City of Three Cultures, due to the historical blending of peoples from the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish faiths, although the Spanish Inquisition reversed this tolerance for a period of time.  In present day, the Arab impact remains palpable in this medieval town, with the Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz, formerly a mosque, retaining the Moorish style from an ancient time, and the Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo (World Heritage designation) constructed on the site of the Grand Mosque.  Toledo has also been called “the soul of Spain,” and during multiple visits to the Cathedral of Saint Mary, including a self-guided tour and Holy Thursday Mass, and a procession of religious devotion through the narrow streets, a profound sense of connectedness to a deeper and higher spiritual plane claimed me; a particularly poignant time, as our dearest friend would lose her battle to pancreatic cancer during our Toledo visit.  The loss of our treasured friend colored much of the remainder of our trip.

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Cathedral of St. Mary of Toledo

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St. Mary’s Cathedral

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Devotional Procession

Our stay at Toledo’s Hotel Santa Isabel – small, clean, inexpensive, and comfortable – located in the heart of the old district, and bordering a convent and the majestic Cathedral of Saint Mary buttressed the theme of an uncomplicated foray through the Iberian Peninsula.  Most everything is on a smaller scale in Toledo, and much of greater Spain with thin roads, diminutive shops and eateries, however, a significant fundamental, and seemingly unconscious, emphasis on living fully is pervasive.

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Hotel Santa Isabel (Toledo, Spain)

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Hotel’s Rooftop Terrace View (St. Mary’s Cathedral on left)

Breakfast, our first morning, saw us sampling our first café con leche of the trip along with freshly squeezed orange juice, hearty apples, kiwis, and traditional ham and cheese on bread; a server with gruff edges and intentions to ensure we were satisfied guests, at the ready.

Trips to the neighboring convent where craftsmen worked earnestly at shaping classically embellished  Spanish jewelry, the “feet washing” ceremony at St. Mary’s Cathedral on Thursday evening, and animated family-owned cafes cramped along slender stony streets cast a light and sublime tone over our Toledo visit.

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Alleyways of Toledo

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Our drive from Toledo to Costa Blanco, Spain’s Mediterranean coast, highly populated with transplanted English and Europeans, ushered us through a small town just outside Toledo where we were approached by a cheery, wobbly patron in a pub who had imbibed one too many, but who was nonetheless only too happy to assist this funny-speaking lost couple with directions to the city of Valencia by way of Tomelloso.  An impromptu Good Friday lunch along the way allowed us to “people watch” the smartly dressed town residents savoring substantial meals and family and friends.

A stopover in Javea, a medium-sized town on the Mediterranean within the province of Alicante, abounding with contemporary cafes and fashionable retail establishments found us meeting up with our long-time British friends.  Rekindling our expatriate friendship and connection to Spain developed so many years before, we wholly appreciated drives along the coastline and through the lush and granite topped Alicante Mountains, including the beautiful homes perched along hillsides near Moraira, reminding us of Sausalito, California; the loud and raucous street festival adjacent to the Javean Catholic church that carries strong ties to the townspeople; and unfettered open air seaside dancing with all ages entertained by a lone singer crooning Spanish tunes.

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Javea, Spain

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Street Market of Javea

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Moraira, Spain

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Alicante Mountains

From the pleasing and slow-paced lifestyle of Costa Blanca, we drove nearly four and a half hours in a southerly direction to reach the celebrated Andalusian city of Granada where Bishara spent a transformative several months in his late teens fleeing the civil war in Lebanon.  Although we were told the popular Pájaro Loco (“Crazy Bird”) bar frequented by Bishara and his Spanish compatriots in those early days had closed some years ago, we thoroughly enjoyed this aesthetic Moorish city set alongside the striking Sierra Nevada Mountains.  Our accommodations, Five Senses, modern and moderately priced, was just steps away from  a square holding the historic and imposing Catedral Granada, Placeta de Castillejos and Plaza Isabel La Catolica.  Wandering further along stone alleys, we entered the Albayzin district steeped in a Medieval Arab past, and encountered colorful ceramic dishware and ornamented lanterns in Arabic-themed shops and sedu-style seating filled with sheesha smoking clientele lolling in comfy cafes.

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Granada, Spain (Albayzin District)

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Alhambra Palace

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Granada

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Our visit to Andalusia granted us the delight of binging on Gazpacho soup originating in the region, and observing the dedication and professionalism of Spanish waiters at established eateries.  We were struck by a particular visit to Carmela restaurant, near our hotel, where the chaos of a filled restaurant rocking with conversation, laughter, and special food requests was met with utter aplomb, efficiency, and cordiality by devoted waiters apparently more on a career track than filling a provisional employment need.  Even off highway dining spots, linked to service stations, are many and varied, with white tablecloths, cloth napkins and formally attired waiters available at higher-end venues, the occasional chess players and spectators huddled at a corner table.

Continuing through Andalusia for the remainder of our holiday, we made our way to Cadiz via diverse and urban Malaga, birthplace of Pablo Picasso, on the Costa del Sol.  Cadiz, set on the Atlantic Ocean and within close proximity of the Strait of Gilbraltor, is an enchanting labyrinth of slim passageways corralling extensive small and inviting shops and cafes.  Thankfully, we happened upon the reasonably priced Francia y Paris hotel in the charming, and out of the way, Plaza San Francisco.  After the best night’s sleep of our trip, we yearned for our staple veggie omelets rather than the customary and caloric hams, cheeses, and bread.  A nearby restaurant in a large square managed by two men whose informality suggested familial ties pointed out their pre-cooked eggs with potatoes, quiche-style.  Close enough for our tastes, we sat on bar stools at a small round table enjoying our eggs, café con leches, freshly squeezed orange juice, and “local color” as the proprietors and diners chattered away, non-stop, with watchful side glances in our direction likely viewing us as an oddity in this homespun domicile.

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Malaga, Spain

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Cadiz, Spain

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Cadiz

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Monument to the Constitution of 1812 (Cadiz)

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The highlight of our time in Cadiz was attending a Flamenco performance, endemic to Andalusia, at Cava Bar, a spartan and intimate saloon filled to the brim.  A tapas meal of fresh ham, pork, bread and olives nicely complemented the soulful guitar strumming, vocal harmony, and choral outbursts that accompanied the provocative tapping and angular movements of the vibrant and deliberate dancers.

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Flamenco Dancing in Cadiz

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Following our rejuvenating time in Cadiz, we drove the short hour and a half distance through plush rolling hills to exquisite Seville.  If for just a few hours, we soaked up the treats of Seville by horse-drawn carriage –  Cathedral of Seville, Giralda Bell Tower, Torre del Oro, Maria Luisa Park, Plaza de Espana, and small bars with singing Spaniards on our way to Cordoba, the former medieval Islamic capital of Spain.

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Seville, Spain

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Seville Cathedral

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Seville

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Plaza de Espana (Seville)

Cordoba was an unanticipated delight.  A stopover our first morning at a hair salon demonstrated, again, the strong sense of community evident throughout Spain when we met a Cordoban middle-aged lady with her adult daughter having her hair done, and restive rescue dog, all engaging in freewheeling warm and familiar banter with the stylists and other customers – more like the setting of a family home than a salon.  Bishara, of course, took the opportunity to declare how much we loved Spain; the lady proudly declared, “Cordoba is the best city in Spain.”

From the hair salon, we continued to the Guadalquivir River, and past the outdoor cafes stuffed with locals and tourists relishing food, drink, and chuckles, and stopped in the old sector at the site of the magnificent Mezquita de Cordoba (Cathedral-Mosque of Cordoba) dating back to 711 AD, an impressive structure containing resplendent candy caned arcades atop marble pillars, intricately carved mosaics, and the ornate mihrab with chapels ensconced throughout.

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Cordoba, Spain

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Courtyard of Cathedral-Mosque of Cordoba

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Cathedral-Mosque (Cordoba)

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Uncalculated meanderings along the winding paths of Cordoba brought us to prevalent and historic garden courtyards tucked away behind street shops that accommodated appealing cafes and a bounty of greenery and vivid flowers.  A visit to Los Patios, a garden courtyard cafe near the Great Mosque permitted us to not only partake in a deliciously cheesy pizza, but to also view a procession of women attired in elaborate traditional garb of the region escorted by a solemn black-clad marching band on horns and drums.  The cortege was punctuated with breaks of unrestrained revelry – dancing, singing, and drinking – in public squares.  Mesmerized by this cultural exhibition, we succumbed to the spirit of the festivities and swayed and hummed in rapport with our Spanish cohorts.

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Los Patios (Cordoba)

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Traditional Procession (Cordoba, Spain)

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The following day, we reluctantly returned to Madrid for our flight home after a delightful brush with Spanish and Andalusian culture, history, and society, vowing to return in the not-too-distant future.

 

Deserts of the East and West

My first view of the Arabian Desert emerged through the window of our plane as we approached the Riyadh airport.  It was mid-February 2000, and my husband, Bishara, and I were travelling from Washington, DC with several small American firms exploring joint venture possibilities with Saudi companies.  My heart and mind were open to a life enriching adventure, the gleaming beige panorama holding the promise of a new, intriguing, chapter in our lives, away from what had become a chaotic, impersonal, and routine existence in Washington, DC.  The stretch of luminous sand transmuted, assimilating a smattering of cream colored concrete homes with flat roofs, and eventually looming glass-draped skyscrapers as we advanced to the landing strip.

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Arabian Desert

Having secured employment as the Management & Financial Reporting Supervisor at esteemed King Faisal Specialist Hospital, a 1,500 bed, 8,000 employee medical complex in the Kingdom’s capital, subsequent to months of missteps and travails, my first days in Riyadh were preoccupied with the tedious tasks of completing interminable paperwork and trotting back and forth to Family Medicine for requisite shots and medical tests.  My zeal for living in this unconventional locale waning under the weight of the bureaucratic challenge and palpable disinterest of my new boss, I oscillated between questioning if we had made the right move while finalizing hefty drifts of administrative forms, and reflections of a simpler, more definitive time in the U.S. among family and friends.

Wrestling with guilt surrounding my insistence the previous year over pursuing a life in the Arabian Peninsula, my mind wandered to recollections of Bishara drumming on his tablah and teaching our DC friends my nouveau form of belly dancing on weekends; “map-less” prolonged drives into the scenic countryside of West Virginia, pups cradled in my arms, heads popping out the car window; and tender Thanksgiving visits to family, aroma trails of baking turkey and stuffing floating through the house.  Reaching further back, my thoughts rested on childhood trips on California coastal highways and cross-country drives inaugurated with the stark deserts and canyon lands of the southwest.

Adolescent memories of the Grand Canyon, Painted Desert, and Four Corners, while daubed with a sense of novelty, were somewhat muted due to the austerity and stillness of the landscape.  Years later, as a young adult, the harshness and desolation of America’s desert buttes and mesas acquired an ethereal quality; an appreciation for these exceptional formations, spawned over millions, and billions, of years, by nature’s slow yet relentless forces of rivers, wind, rain, sedimentation, and ice.  When visiting Bryce Canyon, Zion Park, and the Grand Canyon, joined together by the effects of weather, tectonic activity, and water to form the “Grand Staircase,” I connected to the earliest times of earth’s creation through the Vishnu Basement rocks of the Grand Canyon and the Claron Formation rock layer that shapes the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon.

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Grand Canyon

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Hoodoos of Bryce Canyon

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Zion Park

Halfway around the globe, the Arab Peninsula is girdled by its own geological design, the Arabian Desert, dominated largely by Rub’al-Khali (“Empty Quarter” located in southeast Saudi Arabia), the largest uninterrupted sand field in the world.  Although fortified by tectonic plates and sedimentation in its evolution, the desert and dunes of the Arab states are often aligned with a cultural sentiment, roaming sheepherders and tents, and, unfortunately, recently a more sinister perspective, rather than as a topographical curiosity.  Before arriving in the Arab Gulf in late 2000, I, along with many of my western family and friends, envisioned an abundance of camels, goats, sand, and Bedouins, not the glittering high-rise towers that litter downtown Riyadh and Doha, and other urban centers of the region.

Following intense workweeks fixated on financial reports at King Faisal Hospital, Wednesday afternoons were filled with anticipatory gratification at the prospect of piling into our green jeep the next morning, the weekend, our boom box loaded with popular Arabic music (Nancy Ajram and Said Murad), mixed mezzah contribution in the backseat, and pups positioned on my lap.  Heeding the instructions of a fellow expatriate, excursion director for the day, we and a convoy of several other cars met at the appointed location, conveyed our cursory greetings, and drove, single file, to an awaiting exploit in the quiescent desert.

One of our first destinations, “Edge of the World,” required a roughly two hour drive outside Riyadh, and was so named due to the precipitous drop following a continuous stony plateau etched with tread markings, Salt Bush,  and Bedouins tending to goats and sheep. Hiking on the escarpments of the crimson cliffs was followed by a picnic; quilted blankets, barbecue grills filled with sizzling shish kabob and complemented with tabouli, hommous, and brownies atop portable tables forming a convivial patchwork under the shade of a sweeping acacia tree.  An exquisite sunset rounded out the evening.  Skewed expectations and the singularity of the experience shared with other nascent residents buttressed the enchantment of the event.

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Road to “Edge of the World”

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Bedouin

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“Edge of the World” (Outside of Riyadh)

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Expatriate “Picnic-time”

Expeditions to nearby “Red Sands,” a broad expanse of rose desert rippled with dunes, provided an ample sand-surfing playground for children, pups, and adults alike, and “Hidden Valley,” bearing an uncanny resemblance to Monument Valley, site of several U.S. western movies, allowed for cave exploration, fossil finds, and belly dancing led by Bishara’s tablah playing under wide-fanned trees.  Bedouin hospitality, fortuitously, crept into one of our more auspicious trips to Hidden Valley.  After traversing craggy rock contours, and indulging in Kentucky Fried chicken and an amiable exchange between chummy expatriates, a haggard figure in a worn tunic and ghuttra approached – arms waving and incoherent words spilling.  Bishara, a Lebanese native, recognized the Bedouin dialect.  The man needed help with moving his pickup truck, which had stalled out some distance away in the desert.  Bishara and one of our friends followed the man to the disabled truck, aided in moving the truck to the man’s Bedouin tent village where the two interlopers incited a certain level of interest, and as a gesture of his gratitude, the man invited us all to a camel feast, which would require sacrificing prized and valuable livestock.  Although we had to forgo this magnanimous offering due to an early workday the following morning, the essence of Bedouin generosity had left its trace.

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“Red Sands”

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“Hidden Valley”

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Belly dancing in “Hidden Valley”

Sometimes daytime jaunts transformed into overnight camping trips.  A bagpipe sunset serenade by a fellow expat accompanied by simmering kafta, steak, and baked potatoes; late night debates around a fire pit; sleeping under the stars – pups at our feet; and early morning conversation over tea, coffee, and scrambled eggs à la Bishara.  A powerful fusion of amity, creature comforts, and tranquility.

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Breakfast in the desert.

Our most memorable Qatar desert escapade was through invitation by a Qatari family who graciously arranged for a day in the desert at their family farm.  A caravan of four cars, ours and three family cars with two drivers and four housemaids, ferried us the nearly two hours outside of Doha in a southerly direction.  An hour on the highway, and the balance of the journey on a makeshift sandy, stony roadway, and we arrived at a remote span of desert suffused with penned goats and sheep, an open tent designated for the men with a grill prominently displayed out front and a closed four-flapped tent for the women.  Additional family members arrived during a farm tour by my young friend, Sherifa; several brothers of the patriarch, as well as two sisters, and their families.  Following introductions, the matriarch guided me by the arm to the women’s tent where the housemaids had placed swaths of plastic sheets along the floor overlaid with colorful carpets and platters and trays of rice and lamb, hommous, babaganoush, stuffed grape leaves, macaroni, salad with tomato and onion.  As a guest, I was encouraged to eat first and well; I opted to dip into the communal dish of rice and lamb with my right hand, the traditional way.  Our meal was chased by a wild ride through the desert to the outdoor toilet, tunes streaming on a cell phone while women dangled out car windows singing and balanced precariously on running boards.  Khaleeji music coupled with reassuring dance lessons, and proffers of roasted chestnuts and corn concluded the nighttime revelry.

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Men’s Tent (Qatar Farm)

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Women’s Tent

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Feast in women’s tent.

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Roasted chestnuts and corn.

Desert visits have become spiritual undertakings for me: the canyons and mesas of the southwest U.S. filling me with wonder at the immense prospect of time, regeneration, and Earth’s beginnings; and the vast sand masses of the Gulf region providing replenishment through moments of fellowship, community, and self-discovery.

Wonders of Jordan: Wadi Rum

An abundance of fine red sand amid limestone ridges, the land of Lawrence of Arabia’s escapades during the Arab Revolt in the early 1900s, and filming location of the recently released, “The Martian” with Matt Damon, Wadi Rum is a luminous and celebrated desert plain in southern Jordan.

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Wadi Rum

Although a Lebanese native through bloodline, my husband, Bishara, was born and spent his formative years in north Jordan.  We share an enduring love for, and fascination with, Jordan, and have visited family and explored this historically rich country on many occasions.

One of our more inspiring trips to Jordan combined visits to Bishara’s family and childhood friends in conjunction with excursions to Jerash, Madaba (home to mosaic churches), Mount Nebo, Petra, Aqaba, and Wadi Rum.  Our journey to Wadi Rum was our final sightseeing destination within Jordan before our flight home to the Arabian Gulf.  My imaginings of Wadi Rum included a vast sweeping desert landscape, desolate and beguiling, the stuff of epic movies with battles on horseback and political intrigue.

The reality was not so very different.  Following a captivating venture to the ancient Nabatean city of Petra, and a stopover in the Red Sea town of Aqaba on Jordan’s southern border where we enjoyed sheesha and Turkish coffee on the beach, Bishara and I reached Bait Ali Camp, an accommodation fashioned in the Bedouin style, in the Wadi Rum valley.

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Aqaba, Jordan

Drawn to the simplicity of the Bedouin lifestyle and culture, I appreciate the lack of frills, the humble, natural lifestyle, as well as the value placed on unbridled hospitality and generosity.  While in Petra, Bishara and I encountered the ever-present Bedouin, and while some were singularly zealous in selling their wares, the customary undercurrent of altruism, with offerings of tea brewed on aged portable stoves, was indisputable.  Or invitations to visit a nearby family home, as was the case when we met Rose, a 20-something Bedouin who magnanimously invited us to meet her family in nearby Umm Sayhoon village.  The family had virtually nothing, merely concrete walls and floors and not a stitch of furniture to call home, yet they insisted we join them in a feast of lamb and trimmings, which would have required the slaughter of one of their prized sheeps.  We declined, as we were both tired after a long day, and felt we could not appropriately repay this considerable gesture.  We did, however, receive cups of delicious fresh mint tea steeped in a kettle on a portable cooker on the floor.  I was perplexed when Rose’s mother whispered in her daughter’s ear, and Rose disappeared for a few moments into the adjoining room, only to reappear with timeworn Nabatean coins and a hand crafted beaded necklace, which Rose’s mother presented to Bishara and me.  Water welling in my eyes, my visceral reaction was to decline this unsparing expression of generosity.  Her arm outstretched defying my impulsive response, Rose’s mother gently pushed the gifts in our direction.  I could barely blurt out “thank you, shukran, habeeptie.”

Jordanian society operates from an organic essence, the people warm and friendly, the pace slow, and the day-to-day existence transparent and uncluttered with the “heaviness” of life experienced in more affluent and developed countries.  And because it is a relatively small nation, the social connections and affiliations are well-developed and oftentimes quite sturdy.  As we checked into the Bait Ali Camp, our accommodations in the heart of Wadi Rum, Bishara discovered by happenstance that the receptionist, manager of the establishment, was the friend of a Jordanian acquaintance from northern Jordan.  Social ties did not impede the common practice of “drumming up business” experienced at tourist locales throughout the region, especially for  ancillary services, as a youngish male hotel associate and the manager persistently pressed us to take the accommodation’s quad bikes to tour Wadi Rum the following day.  Matching the duos sense of determination, Bishara resolutely countered with our intention to rent a four-wheel drive vehicle with a guide from the nearby visitor’s center in the morning.  Thwarted, the manager made an offhanded remark to the younger man in Arabic.  Bishara leaned in and whispered that the manager informed his staff member he had tried to garner business for the younger man, but we would not budge.

As we drove to our room, following our check-in, the Bedouin lifestyle was palpable in the form of lodging with tents and grotto-like dwellings scattered about the premises.  Initially startled to be confronted with an exceedingly compact stone compartment with a simple wooden front door, I wondered how I would sleep that night.  The interior of our accommodation (“small chalet with fan”) was indubitably austere with twin beds atop wood platforms, one on each side of the room, and nary a couple feet in between.  A similarly meager, although clean and functional restroom, completed the space.

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Our Accommodation at Bait Ali Camp (Wadi Rum)

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Bait Ali Camp

After unpacking and freshening up, Bishara and I headed for the large circular tented dining area, which provided both indoor and outdoor seating.  While most patrons were seated outside the tent at wooden picnic tables presumably enjoying the crisp November evening temperatures, Bishara and I, desert dwellers of the sweltering Arabian Peninsula for quite some years, chose the indoor seating, which better suited our adapted core temperature.  Before being called to the buffet tables, I took advantage of the quiet time, and resumed reading Married to a Bedouin by Marguerite van Geldermalsen, a non-fiction account relating the shared cave-dwelling life (from the early 1970s through the mid-1980s) of New Zealander Marguerite and her Bedouin husband, Ali amidst the relics and rubble of Petra.  A bold voice announcing the buffet was open disrupted my musings surrounding Marguerite and her remarkable spirit and life, and found me and Bishara queuing up with other guests to partake in a lavish dinner of mezzah-type selections, including olive oil laden hommous, tabouli, fattoush, labneh, and mounds of chicken and rice.

Ambling back to our room after dinner, an attentive receptionist inquired if we would like to accompany him on a short trek to view the stars of the desert sky; we declined maintaining we were tuckered out after trudging through wondrous Petra the day before, although we were fairly certain the stroll would not be complimentary.  Arriving at our room, we asked for additional blankets and pillows to mitigate the raw nighttime air, as heaters were not part of this unpretentious domain, and in short order I was in a deep slumber swaddled in cozy quilted coverings.  We awoke to the morning light squinting through our curtained window, and I remarked to Bishara that I had the soundest most peaceful sleep I could remember.

Following an al fresco breakfast of babaganoush, hommous, olives, labneh, za’atar (thyme soaked in olive oil), magdoose (pickled eggplant), goat cheese, fried eggs, pita bread, and freshly brewed coffee in an Arab styled gazebo, we mounted the stairs alongside the reception building and a nearby sandstone dome, makeshift viewing points, to survey the Bait Ali Camp grounds and limitless maroon sand drifts and august granite forms.  We traversed the various majless layouts on the property, accepted cumin tea from the manager for Bishara’s slightly unsettled stomach, and received a request to join a sheesha and sweet mint tea respite at the Camp later in the afternoon, before departing for the Wadi Rum Visitor’s Center.

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Grounds of Bait Ali Camp

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Majless (Bait Ali Camp)

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The area encompassing the Visitor’s Center flaunted a chaotic scene; Bedouins in street clothes or worn thobes and ghuttras haphazardly wrapped around heads, all scuttling about, competing to make the sale – to drive anticipative vacationers through the Wadi Rum basin.  We even encountered a shop owner claiming that her brother could drive us through the UNESCO protected area.

We serendipitously located the Visitor’s Center and ticket office, as we sought to avoid the clusters of solicitors.  Selecting the one hour tour, which could be extended to two, with a driver and four wheel drive vehicle, the slight man decked out in a fitted brown leisure suit stationed behind the ticket counter provided us with a map along with instructions on meeting our driver in the tiny town of Wadi Rum.  We began our Saharan expedition thankful we hired a closed truck, as many of the conveyances rambling along the maroon sands had open air backseats filled with patrons protected by facemasks.

Perched on metal bench seats opposite each other in the back of the truck, we sailed along the flaming coral sea of sand peppered with stately sandstone shapes before stopping at a Nabataean temple where our guide provided a brief synopsis on the origins and likely function of the sanctuary in ancient times.  We advanced along the boundless serene rose lake, tourists on camelback and brown Bedouin tents dabbing the horizon, until we reached spots with particularly exquisite panoramic vistas where we would stop, and ingest the precious scenery, sensing a singular connection with the creation of this incredible valley through the effects of rainwater and sand storms some 500 million years ago.  Further into the plain, we ascended soft sand dunes and solid granite abutments only to be greeted by more extraordinary settings, and were ceremoniously invited to traditional mint tea in a red carpeted Bedouin majless.

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Site of Nabataean Temple (Wadi Rum)

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“Tea time” in Wadi Rum Majless

We wished we had allotted more time for Wadi Rum, however, found it imperative to travel to northern Jordan to visit Bishara’s childhood friends and family before returning to the Arab Gulf.  Our four hour drive along the length of Jordan was filled with reflections of our awe-inspiring adventure in Wadi Rum and Bishara’s nostalgic recollections of his former life in Jordan, all accompanied to the music of Fares Karam.