If We Fly
“IT IS EASIER FOR A CAMEL TO PASS THROUGH the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”
In Jordan, near the small community Wadi Musa, hidden behind the mountain range, there is an ancient city called Petra. Today, the pass to Petra is well marked, because it is a popular historical site; in Biblical times, if you had wanted to travel to Petra, you would have needed a guide to show you how to locate the correct pass between the mountains. The pass was called “the eye of the needle.”
Manel did not live on the mountainside in Petra, but she did spend all her daylight hours there. She was a known entity to the security forces that patrolled the ancient site in Jordan, a scofflaw who drew smiles of admiration from the very authorities who demanded that she stop: stop taking tourists to dangerous sites; stop climbing ancient monuments; stop waving to the tourists below to incite them to follow in her steps; stop investigating untapped archeological phenomena before they were officially documented; just stop. Yet she continued. There are some people you meet and then you leave behind. There are some people who never leave you.
She was sixteen when we met her. She was sitting in the shade, in an alcove carved into the side of the mountain. She was dressed semi-traditionally, her head covered, her dress long enough to barely reveal the tops of a worn pair of sneakers, but her arms were naked, exposed because her sweater was tied around her waist.
We had already climbed for over an hour, and the sun was blazing down. Petra was a kind of pilgrimage for me, a true bucket list event. Though I was asthmatic, arthritic and afraid of heights, I
had decided that nothing was going to keep me from experiencing every highlight of the ancient city. The area of Petra was vast, about fifty square miles. We had bought a seven-day pass, and each day we walked and climbed from early morning until the site closed in the evening. We treated each new site, each artifact, as a station in an immense buffet of experiences. We would follow the map, walk and climb until we reached the designated destination, then we would admire it, comment on it, take pictures of it—in short, devour it—and then leave.
The third day of our trek was dedicated to exploring a site called the High Place, a temple that had been carved into the side of a mountain. The trick was, in order to reach it, you had to climb to a plateau on an adjacent mountain. About ten minutes before we had reached the plateau, we met Manel. She stepped forward, out of the shade of her alcove, and encouraged us, telling us that we were almost there. In perfect English, she said to me, “Would you like to see something that most tourists miss?”
I was wary, because these kinds of offers frequently are the beginning of a financial transaction, but she went on without pause. “Here,” she said, walking to the edge of the mountain, where a boulder blocked our view of the plateau. “You just put your hand here, for balance, and then lean out a bit; then you can see the temple at the top of the mountain.”
I shook my head. “I’m not very good with heights. I don’t think I can lean out like that.”
She laughed. “Take my hand,” she countered, “and if we fly, we fly together.”
I don’t know why I trusted her in that moment; I don’t know how she had intuited how to overcome my fear. I took her challenge and put my white hand into her brown one, Jewish hand into Bedouin hand. I balanced myself on the boulder and leaned out into the nothing. As promised, it was a sight I’d have missed without her instruction. Framed by the boulder and the mountain, I got my first glimpse of the High Place.
It only took a moment to realize that there were so many other opportunities that we might miss without her instruction. We asked her if she would be our guide for the rest of the afternoon, and she agreed instantly. We quickly scaled the final ascent to the plateau, and Manel began to show us her mountain. Oh yes, there was the Temple, and she did let us pause to see it, to explore its inner reaches and to
contemplate its history…but with Manel, there was so much more to that mountain than a photo op.
She encouraged us to explore her mountaintop as though it had more value than the huge temple that everyone saw. Each area of the plateau had a story with a cast of characters. She explained that most of the Bedouin habitués of Petra lived in a village at the bottom of the mountain. They had indigenous rights to “work” the historical site, offering guided tours, donkey rides, camel rides, “horse-drawn taxi” rides through the pass for those too infirm to walk it. They also had the right to beg and to sell knickknacks (most made in China) to the tourists. However, unlike the people who lived in the town below, there were also families who lived on the hilltop year-round, tending herds of goats and living a traditional life with neither plumbing nor electricity. She introduced us to some of these families, we shared mint tea, and she translated our questions and their answers. Then she took us forward to another area on the plateau and showed us artifacts that had not yet been “found” by the archeologists, or catalogued. We peered down into an opening in the ground that promised to be at least a cave but was possibly an ancient dwelling or even another place of worship.
“Down there, at the bottom of this mountain,” she said, “professors, archeologists from Brown University, are digging for another find. I showed them this site, and now they will be coming here next.” As we traversed the area, from time to time we would see other tourists. While they were still out of earshot she would say, “They are French” or “They are German” or Russian, or English. As they approached us, she would greet them in their own language, laugh about the heat, ask them what they had already seen. After I realized what was happening, I asked her how many languages she spoke. Without bragging, she demonstrated her conversational abilities in six languages, and said that she could say hello and chat in four more.
Halfway through the afternoon, after she had determined that my husband, Robert, was comfortable climbing, Manel brought us around to the canteen so that I could have a rest; but there was no rest for Robert. She asked him the same question that she had asked me earlier, “Would you like to see something that most tourists miss?” and they were gone. She led him up a winding path to the left of the temple. I watched with some horror as they ascended the path, and when it terminated about halfway, they continued, picking their
footholds like mountain goats, until they reached the crest of the temple. At the top, they waved to me and then sat down. A security guard appeared from nowhere and followed my gaze to the top of the temple. “Is that Manel?” he demanded.
“Yes, and my husband.”
“She is not supposed to be there, tell her to come down, now!” And then he screamed at her, up the mountain.
She waved again, and then the two of them began their descent. The security guard was waiting for her at the bottom, but she eluded him, grabbed my hand and tugged me towards the path down the mountain. “I want you to meet my mother and see her kiosk,” she said. “I want you to come to my house tomorrow and have supper.”
The next day was like the first two, but somehow anticlimactic. Would she be there for supper? We returned to the bottom of the mountain and discovered, as she had said, that a new dig had been started. When we showed interest, the lead archeologist, a professor from Brown University, invited us in. His workers offered us mint tea, and we sat and chatted about the dig, and about the plateau and its possibilities for further exploration. Eventually, we brought up Manel. He recognized her name instantly. He too had noticed how precocious she was, her interest in archeology and her linguistic agility. With his corroboration of my assessment that she was special, I began to hatch a plan. For years, we had talked about initiating a project that could make a difference in the world. If Manel finished high school, we could provide a scholarship for her to go to university. The professor noted that another girl on the mountain had gone to university and was now a teacher in the local school. The professor agreed it would be a worthwhile project, and proposed a scheme that would place the scholarship in trust with his colleague who lived in Amman. It really could work.
That evening, we went to Manel’s village and ate with her family, upside down chicken and fresh peaches from the tree in the garden. She took us to a wedding, where a sixteen-year-old, like her, was marrying a much older man. We talked about her future, her schooling, her desires. She said that she would like to go to university, but opportunities were small, because her father had taken a second wife and had left this family behind. She was indecisive, admitting that it was tempting, but recognizing that some man, her father or her older brother, would have to approve a plan before it could be initiated.
The following day, we returned to the High Place and walked up her mountain to meet with Manel, her mother and her oldest brother. We explained that we would like to provide a scholarship for Manel to go to university. All she had to do to qualify for it was to finish high school.
Her brother said “No.” Manel was too useful to the family to allow her to spend time away from the mountain. He suggested, instead, that we send the younger brother to school. My disappointment must have been palpable, because she reached out to comfort me. Her brown hand in my white hand. Her Bedouin hand in my Jewish hand. “You have to understand,” she said. “This is my mountain. This is my family. This is who I am.” It was clear then: neither of us would fly. We both had to be all right with that.