Visions from the Rock
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
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.’