Sandstone and Lightning Storms

[published on behalf of the author, Arthur Ketcham written on his flight back from the Middle East]

Sandstone and Lightning Storms
28 October 2015

When one wakes up in the middle of the night to a clamoring electric storm, it may be natural to sit up and watch the show, especially knowing it’s going to keep you awake regardless. The morning, I awoke this way. The unusual part of my vantage to this storm, was that I was looking out from a wavy red sandstone mouth of a cave, and my Bedouin guide Awad was fast asleep under the opposite wall, dreaming about the lush fields of winter barley this torrent will germinate.

That evening, our group of three Coloradans, four Bedouin young men, and one Bedouin elder had met for dinner, in a cave used during herding seasons. Getting there was an accomplishment in its own right, as our guide’s ancient Toyota pickup braved monsoon rains, crawling up dirt roads, leading us to a point where me continued by walking on stone trails built along cliff wedges. When me got to our cave, we met the other guides who would have dinner with us. When the rains started flooding the first cave, we evacuated to a larger cave close by, carrying all the food, drinks, and sitting blankets which had been brought by donkey before the heavens opened up.

Once we got set up in the new cave, we bantered about the sites and archaeology in Petra we saw earlier that day, then about families, freedom from high tech, and paradoxically the lack of desire to leave home range-lands for the semi-nomadic Bedouin, and the globe-trotting wanderlust on the part of we urban Americans. To quote one, “I left home for nine days once, and I missed Petra more than I could handle.”

Under the magical wavy sandstone ceiling accented with hundreds of year old campfire soot, we regaled each other with stories. The elder, a dark and wrinkled soul, his head covered by a large red-and-white Arabian Kafia held in place by heavy black leather bands, told tales of warfare, pointing up to the scars in the sooty ceiling above our heads, where bullets from across the valley had targeted the caves dwellers, just a couple generations previous. The stone wall covering the opposite entrance of the cave, except for a small portal window, was used as a gunsight by those defenders of these cliffs, against rival tribesmen.

Then came stories of how the previous king promised free infrastructure developments in return for them moving out of their ancient city, inhabited since pre-antiquity, only to fill it with tourists, hotels, and high bills for these “free” infrastructure improvements. That said, they’ve learned to resourcefully hock wares, souvenirs, and mule rides to tourists.

While waiting for dinner to cook, two young Bedouin would call out a melodic chant in their language, and the elder, standing outside by the fire, would call back with a responsive verse.

Our dinner, after an hour of prep and another of cooking, was eaten entirely by hand-and-pita: sliced potatoes, onions, tomatoes, and chicken legs, served with crème fraîche. There were no plates, utensils, tables, or chairs. Just our cross-legged laps, and abundant pita bread.

Though my travel mates went back to their hotel after dinner, I stayed behind with the Bedouin, ready to enjoy the finest Sandstone accommodations this side of Utah. I wouldn’t say I slept well in a cave on a stormy night, but I’m so glad I had the experience!

So what do I make of it all? Well, I have new friends: nomadic goatherds connected by Facebook and WhatsApp. I discovered the wonders of Arab hospitality, and this I will never forget. I look forward to visiting my friends again, insha’Allah.


One thought on “Sandstone and Lightning Storms

  1. You know, like myself, Muhammad was adopted – though by his uncle and as a young man. In my case it was at birth by non-relatives. Muhammad’s uncle who adopted him when he was orphaned was a Bedouin. That word ‘orphan’ has such a feeling for me because I never met my mother and father in life. I feel like there is also a sense of ‘orphanhood’ in our culture and especially in the Ketcham and Merrideth family lines. There is this yearning for home and for mother or father or what have you – a need for healing in the heart of the hearth for many among us and again, when I say this – I feel like it is microcosmic of a syndrome which is generally cultural for America.

    Though I don’t think of myself as an orphan perhaps I am one in some way even if I was never in an orphanage or anything like that. Spiritually though – I have felt some of the dislocaiton in the midst of stories and vacant blanks in historical details of my deceiced parents. Muhamad may have felt some of these things and – being as I have been always interested in all the different religious traditions from around the world, Muhamad’s biography is one that resonated with me. Muhammad seems to be effected by that experience as the Quran contains the word ‘orphan’ 23 times.

    “…. As also concerning the children who are weak and oppressed: that ye stand firm for justice to orphans. There is not a good deed which ye do, but God is well-acquainted therewith.” (4:127)

    But in a sense – the spiritual orphanhood is something to look at. That is something sometimes all people probably feel. How do we all feel about words like mother and father and home? Deep in the heart of a cave among Bedouins, in the flicker of a supernal flame it is also possible to find some sense of brotherhood and family as stories are shared and as differences of experience, of language, of habbit and of ideology seem like so many shadows on the sandstone – lively and enticing only – not a cause for separation. I relate to your experience Arthur in the way you describe it. Regaling stories shared on distant travels in remote reaches among strangers reminds us of our human connection. How easy it is actually – to bind strangers with the glue of things like food and story-telling.


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