Philip Hall

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Visions from the Rock

‘Zenga! Zenga!’

The Arab teach­ers were shout­ing when I ar­rived. They were gath­ered around a screen, read­ing about how Gad­hafi had just been caught and killed.

‘He de­served it. He was ruth­less,’ one of them said in English. Morsi was the new pres­i­dent and a few mem­bers of the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood felt em­bold­ened.

Karim looked at me chal­leng­ingly. ‘In the fi­nal days sperm will rain from the sky and peo­ple will grow from the Earth.’ He looked at me to cal­cu­late the ef­fect he was hav­ing. ‘Those who are don’t be­lieve will suf­fer ter­ri­bly.’

Peter, an older teacher, sit­ting be­hind Karim, stuck his tongue out as if try­ing to catch snowflakes. Mah­moud, like Karim, also from Egypt, said noth­ing. He looked em­bar­rassed.

Later on he gave me a heavy book.

‘Read this, Phil.’ His warm hand held my wrist and he smiled at me. It was an autho­rised his­tory of Is­lam.

That night I read how Abra­ham left Raquel and Ish­mael in the desert on the or­ders of God. How Raquel ran backwards and for­wards look­ing for water. How she prayed to God un­til a gi­ant rock flew down from the sky and pecked a hole in the ground with its gi­ant beak. Water came pour­ing out and the Zam Zam well was born.

I put the book down. I could ac­tu­ally buy Zam Zam water from my lo­cal shop. I did. It tasted flat. Per­haps a lit­tle min­er­a­line, too.

A col­league came in one day with a plas­ter on the back of his neck. ‘Why?’ I asked

‘It’s the Hi­jama. Cup­ping. At first the blood is slow and black and then it runs faster, clear and bright. It is very healthy. It’s rec­om­mended in the Ko­ran.’

I was feel­ing ex­hausted, so, as an ex­per­i­ment, I went to the hospi­tal and did the Hi­jama. A Filipino nurse came in. He at­tached eight vac­uum cups to my back. They were each con­nected to a hose and the hoses joined at a header and at­tached to a pump that was plugged into the wall. He turned it on and I felt my skin stretch up­wards as the vac­uum pres­sure sucked at it. He turned it off af­ter two or three min­utes and re­moved the cups. Then he took a scalpel and slashed at my skin lightly eight times. It felt wet. Blood was trick­ling down my back into my trousers.

The nurse be­gan to panic. ‘Calm down! What’s the mat­ter?’

‘You are a bleeder, Sir.’ He showed me a wodge of cot­ton-wool with a jelly of blood wob­bling on it.

‘It’s al­right,’ I re­as­sured him. ‘Just do what you have to do.’

‘I trained as a nurse and I now I am do­ing this’, he said sadly. ‘Please, Sir. Next time do­nate your blood, it has the same ef­fect.’ The bleed­ing stopped. I was left with eight plas­ters in two rows along my back and two rows on my neck.

In the dough­nut shop two men in long white robes were wait­ing for the cakes they had or­dered for their fam­i­lies.

‘What’s that?’ They knew what it was, but couldn’t quite be­lieve it.

‘I did the Hi­jama,’ I said.

They both smiled. ‘How do you feel now? Do you feel bet­ter? You will sleep so well.’

‘I do feel tired,’ I an­swered, smil­ing back. ‘Have you ever done the Hi­jama?’ I asked Karim. ‘No,’ he said, laugh­ing. ‘It’s rec­om­mended in the Ko­ran,’ I told him. ‘You should do it.’

A dif­fer­ent time when I had flu I tried eat­ing Black Seed, an­other Ko­ranic medicine: a tonic. It is con­sid­ered to be some­thing of a panacea. It did give me some re­lief, but the taste was fright­en­ingly bit­ter. I re­al­ized later that I had been mixing Black Seed hair oil into my yo­ghurt. I had not un­der­stood the la­bel on the bot­tle in Ara­bic.


At the Ye­meni café, with the ad­ja­cent Afghan bak­ery next door con­nected by a small win­dow in the wall, we were sit­ting to­gether eat­ing: foul, kibda, adz, Shakshouka de­jaj and lahm (beans, liver, lentils, eggs, chicken and meat) and drink­ing sweet tea served in pa­per cups. The sub­ject of de­pres­sion came up. Dun­stan is de­pressed.

‘Who wouldn’t be in a place like this? There’s noth­ing to do.’ ‘You are too flip­pant. Don’t you re­alise I suf­fer from clin­i­cal de­pres­sion?’ ‘I’m sorry,’ I said.

Peter ig­nored Dun­stan’s grab for at­ten­tion and re­marked, ‘I have clin­i­cal de­pres­sion too. It is so bad some­times, I close the cur­tains and stay in bed for days in the dark.’

‘When I was young,’ I say, adding to the gen­eral feel­ing of gloom, ‘I was so de­pressed that I used to wear a long black coat and run through the streets

all night’.

Dun­stan looks con­fused.

‘Any bas­tard who isn’t de­pressed with so much suf­fer­ing about is prob­a­bly a psy­chopath,’ I add.

At work the next day, Dun­stan had a pro­posal. He wanted to go on a road trip to Meda’in Saleh. Quickly, Peter in­vited me to go along too.

‘Meda’ in Saleh means the City of Saleh.’

‘Gi­ants built it,’ said Karim.



‘The doors are much too big for nor­mal peo­ple.’

I de­cided to ignore Karim and turned in­stead to Mah­moud.

‘Why is it called Meda’ in Saleh?’

‘Saleh, a prophet who was here in Ara­bia long be­fore the prophet Mo­hammed, peace be upon him, com­manded the peo­ple in that place to aban­don their false idols and fol­low Al­lah. They called them “the ones who wor­shipped the Gods they made them­selves”. When they re­fused to wor­ship Al­lah, he made a liv­ing camel ap­pear from the rock. They still would not be­lieve in Al­lah, so Saleh cursed them. The town where they lived is now named af­ter Saleh.’

We ob­tained spe­cial passes to en­ter the town, hired a big van and set off the fol­low­ing week­end. In the front of the ve­hi­cle, Dun­stan and Peter talked about the hypocrisy of re­li­gion, the stu­pid­ity of re­li­gious peo­ple, and the won­ders of science. This lasted for about forty min­utes un­til I de­cided to in­ter­rupt.

‘Re­li­gion does not op­pose science. It’s a way of un­der­stand­ing our lived

ex­pe­ri­ence. If I were a poet you wouldn’t take me to task be­cause I wasn’t peer reviewed. In­stead, you would ex­am­ine your feel­ings con­cern­ing the poem; whether it moved you or not, whether it felt au­then­tic, its’ orig­i­nal­ity and ex­pres­sive­ness.’

‘And yet re­li­gion makes such strong claims re­gard­ing the real world,’ Dun­stan said and Peter nod­ded in agree­ment.

‘The only real world you will ever see, feel or know is the one you ex­pe­ri­ence,’ I replied. ‘And so much of that is sub­jec­tive and emo­tional. We use re­li­gion, among other things, to un­der­stand our lives and give them mean­ing. It’s es­sen­tial.’

Nei­ther Peter, nor Dun­stan agreed. Dun­stan looked ir­ri­tated.

By eleven o’clock that evening we were in Riyadh and I was driv­ing in a funk; mov­ing through the traf­fic like a tur­tle through a school of tuna. Cars over­took on both sides at high speeds, weav­ing and chang­ing lanes. I cruised along steadily, star­ing straight ahead. Af­ter Riyadh I was ex­hausted. Peter and Dun­stan fin­ished the night drive with­out my help.

Dawn was break­ing when I woke up. There was noth­ing but desert all around us. By early morn­ing the dunes had given gave way to a level plain strewn with small grey shards. And then, af­ter an­other hour, we saw a few out­crops of glow­ing yel­low sand­stone. There were more and more of them and they grew higher and larger, to the height of cliffs, and by the time it felt as if we were driv­ing through a canyon, we had ar­rived at the ho­tel.

Al ‘Ula has a sand­stone es­carp­ment on ei­ther side. From the top of the south­ern es­carp­ment the val­ley of Al ‘Ula looks like a broad strip of green. It fol­lows the path of an un­der­ground river. The dra­matic rock for­ma­tions con­tinue on up to and across the hori­zon to the north un­til they reach Pe­tra. Al ‘Ula has enough water to grow all of its own veg­eta­bles and ce­real crops.

The ho­tel was quite empty. The plan was to spend the whole day look­ing at the ru­ins, to sleep there that night, and then go back to the Eastern Prov­ince

the fol­low­ing morn­ing. Our guide, Ahmed Jaber, came for break­fast. He was a hand­some man in his early thir­ties. He told us he was about to get mar­ried af­ter his fam­ily had made two un­suc­cess­ful ar­range­ments on his be­half.

‘The first time she liked me and I didn’t like her. The sec­ond time I liked her and she didn’t like me. I am thirty-three now. I thought I would never get mar­ried, but then I de­cided I could afford a dowry for a beau­ti­ful Pak­istani wife. Her fam­ily agreed. She agreed. Now, I am look­ing for­ward to be­ing a hus­band and a fa­ther.’

Ahmed had been work­ing with the ar­chae­ol­o­gists. They had dis­cov­ered a small town near the tombs and were ex­ca­vat­ing it.

‘They are dig­ging up a house at the mo­ment.’ He said. ‘They have found a body. It’s a woman, they think.’

‘What about Saleh and the camel?’

‘Pah! This is not science. Science shows us what was re­ally here. Peo­ple tell sto­ries, but they aren’t al­ways true.’

Af­ter break­fast Dun­stan de­cided to con­tinue the ar­gu­ment we started in the car. He was nig­gled by what I had said.

‘Why do you de­fend re­li­gion? You are not re­li­gious. You should be ra­tio­nal.’

‘Bet­ter minds than yours, or mine, have taken re­li­gious ideas se­ri­ously, Dun­stan. I could ask you the same thing. Why is it so im­por­tant to you that re­li­gion be false? Can’t you credit it with the ob­vi­ous use­ful­ness it has? It gives peo­ple a frame­work within which they can live their lives. Science doesn’t do that. It is far too cruel.’

Dun­stan’s eyes widened. ‘How dare you,’ he said, rais­ing his voice. He started trem­bling. ‘I’ve had it with you.’

In the car park Peter said, ‘He’s a sen­si­tive man. Once he felt slighted when

I told him not to be silly be­cause I thought he was wor­ry­ing about some­thing un­nec­es­sar­ily. He didn’t speak to me for a week.’

The tombs had a resinous, musky smell that came from gummy traces on the walls - the co­coons of rock bee­tles. These had been brushed off and swept away when the tombs were opened. The rock ev­ery­where was eroded by the wind into pro­trud­ing, curv­ing shapes. They were so com­plex that with the chang­ing light and shift­ing shad­ows you could imag­ine you saw many things. You could project your imag­i­na­tion onto the rock and see dif­fer­ent crea­tures, even a camel. The Na­bateans had seen a great bird with a hu­man head in the rock and they carved this im­age above many of the tomb en­trances.

The lines of the en­trances were cleanly geo­met­ric. But around them the rock was un­worked; left alone, as if its nat­u­ral form were pre­cious. The tombs were roughly hol­lowed out in­side, and looked like caves. There were chisel marks ev­ery­where. There were long body sized holes in each wall, of­ten one cav­ity was po­si­tioned di­rectly above an­other – like the bunks on a train. Rec­tan­gu­lar holes in the floor were for ser­vants. Peter mea­sured him­self out next to one of the cav­i­ties in the wall, but he was too long for it.

‘They spoke and wrote a mix­ture of lan­guages,’ said Ahmed Jaber. ‘The writ­ing you see above looks like Ara­bic, but it’s not Ara­bic. It’s a com­bi­na­tion of Greek, Ara­maic and the lo­cal di­alect.’

Af­ter vis­it­ing many tombs, we went to the main tem­ple. This was in­side a big crevice be­tween two huge stone hillocks. They had carved a chan­nel for the water be­tween the stone hills.

‘It ran through here,’ Ahmed Jaber said, ‘and when it rained a lot the flow was fierce. They wor­shipped like this. First they went to the water to wash,’ he mimed the ac­tion. ‘Then they prayed to their gods here,’ he spread his arms and legs against the wall, as if pre­par­ing for a po­lice search. ‘Then they went there,’ he pointed at the large square room, cut out of the rock, lined with stone benches.

Like the Na­bateans them­selves, I sud­denly had a vi­sion of the rock.

‘Yes, I see now,’ I said. ‘In a desert the most im­por­tant thing is fer­til­ity and fer­til­ity comes from liq­uid, from water. The tun­nel be­tween the rock hillocks leads to a crevice. The hillocks are round and fem­i­nine. These are fe­male shapes. The room is anal­o­gous to the womb, a place of con­cep­tion and nur­tur­ing. They must have adored a fer­til­ity god­dess here.’

It made sense.

Ahmed Jaber laughed. ‘The peo­ple here con­trolled trade be­cause there was water here and be­cause ev­ery­one go­ing south had to pass through the nar­row val­ley. The Ro­mans came as far as this place in search of frank­in­cense. They killed and dis­persed the peo­ple.’

‘About 100 AD,’ in­ter­jected Peter. ‘Can you see the water chan­nel?’ he asked. We couldn’t.

‘You see that thin curv­ing line com­ing down the side? It’s dis­guised as a nat­u­ral fea­ture.’

Now that he had care­fully pointed it out, we could see it.

‘They col­lected the water when­ever it rained and streamed it into se­cret aquifers cut out of the rock. They hid their water from ev­ery­one.’

We climbed to the top of the high­est sand­stone hill. There were steps that cut er­gonom­i­cally into the stone.

‘There are more than one hun­dred and thirty tombs,’ said Ahmed, as we looked out across.

That night we walked through the town that was held so close be­tween canyon walls. We saw a group of men sat on so­fas out­side a café.

‘Do you know the way to a good restau­rant?’ I called to them.

‘There is a good restau­rant around the cor­ner called Al Mat’aam Buhary,’

they an­swered. ‘En­joy your­selves.’

‘Thanks. We will!’ I shouted back.

We found it, went in­side, and sat at a Formica ta­ble in a cor­ner where we re­laxed af­ter the in­ter­est­ing day we had spent to­gether. I felt it was pos­si­ble now to make peace with Dun­stan and find out what was mak­ing him an­gry.

‘Why are you so sen­si­tive about re­li­gion?’ I asked him.

‘My fa­ther was a drunk. He be­haved as if he hated me. I used to pray to God to pro­tect me from his abu­sive words and oc­ca­sional beat­ings, but he never did. In the end my mother left him, then he got mar­ried again. He be­came a born-again Christian. He never apol­o­gized for his be­hav­iour. In­stead, when­ever I saw him when older he would preach re­li­gion at me. The hypocrisy of it made me sick.’

‘I see,’ I said. ‘I see why you re­act the way you do.’

Karim was fired a month af­ter we got back. He had re­fused to go to work for three days be­cause he claimed his stu­dents had cast a spell on him.

There were no more cries of ‘Zenga! Zenga!’ from the sup­port­ers of the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood be­cause the or­ga­ni­za­tion had been banned.

I looked up the old gods of the Na­bateans. There were three im­por­tant fe­male ones: a trin­ity. There was a young woman, a mid­dle aged woman and an older woman. The most im­por­tant was the youngest: Alia. The in­ter­net told me The Kab­bah, be­fore it was reded­i­cated to Al­lah, was the place where they wor­shipped Alia, the God­dess of fer­til­ity. Per­haps the tem­ple in Meda’in Saleh had been hers.

I opened the book my col­league had given me and turned to the pages where it de­scribed how Mo­hammed de­stroyed all the idols in Mecca:

As he was leav­ing, the prophet, peace be upon him, stopped and called to one of his com­pan­ions, ‘Go back! There is one more idol that needs to be de­stroyed!’ The com­pan­ion set out for Mecca but af­ter only a day, he came back. ‘What hap­pened?’ asked Mo­hammed, ‘why did you come back so soon?’ ‘On the way back I saw a beau­ti­ful Ethiopian woman who came to­wards me,’ was the re­ply. ‘What did you do?’ ‘I cut her in two with my sword.’ ‘Good,’ said Mo­hammed, ‘you have de­stroyed the last idol.’

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