“As-salaamu Alaykum!” we called in greeting, wishing peace upon the small figure sitting on the large rock ahead.
“Walaykum as-salaam,” he responded, deftly deflecting the peace back upon us and pairing it with a bemused twist of his eyebrows.
“We’re walking to the other side of this wadi. Do you know any good paths?”
Silence. Then, with a loose gesture to the left, “If you walk that way for about half an hour, you’ll find the road.”
“Thanks, but we don’t want the road. How have other people gotten across?”
“They take the road.”
“But before the road was there?”
He shrugged, stood, bestowed another measure of peace upon us, and strode off.
Mark, the coordinator of this scouting trip along the Jordan Trail, shook his head. “Modernization has effectively erased these trails from local memory,” he lamented.
Though I instinctively sympathized with this implied nostalgia for times past, part of me wondered if I was right to do so. If we’re traveling through these regions to better understand the modern Middle East, I thought, maybe we have to start by acknowledging its modernity – not by clinging to some artificial, romanticized sense of the ancient. Maybe – I still couldn’t help sighing – we have to give this region the dignity of realizing that times have changed?
A few hours passed, and we were making progress down the steep bank of the wadi. Then we reached the edge of what appeared to be an entirely sheer cliff face. The group fanned out, seeking any small footpath lying unseen between the rocks. After a solid half an hour of exploration, Amjad called out: “Donkey poop!” We rushed over and crowded excitedly around the droppings. If local shepherds had gotten their animals to this point, there must be a trail nearby! We laughed at Amjad’s unexpected exclamation and continued forward, winding down the narrow path that did indeed exist. I continued to chuckle as we went, feeling my earlier angst subside. Maybe times haven’t really changed so drastically.
The next day, we wandered across a Bedouin man sitting outside his tent. We greeted him, peace was exchanged, he offered us tea, and we began to chat. He was eager to share his stories with us: Stories of the many summer months he’d spent alone in his tent. Stories of fabled gold hidden in the hillside. Stories of magical maps. And other stories that sounded less like something from Aladdin: Stories of the various business endeavors he’d undertaken while spending the winter months in town. Stories of his adventures serving in the military. Stories of the colorful characters he’d met studying in university. I listened to his tales with a smile, shaking my head.
I may still catch myself trying to confine the region to a series of either/or dichotomies: the past or the present. Antiquity or modernity. But its people know better.