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.

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