The Petra Experience

Some chances in life don’t knock on your door every day, like having the chance to meet a renowned author and get to sit with them for an couple of hours, learning and perhaps just generally chatting. Well, how much more if you were to stay at the same place with 3 literally icons, get to see them every day, any time of day, have them read some of your work and give you honest feedback? I’d say it’s quite priceless, a fact I was fully aware of during the week I spent in Petra for the Booker Foundation and Abdul Hameed Shoman workshop for writers.

If you’re familiar with the Booker writing workshop you’ll probably know it’s usually held in Abu Dhabi. However, this time in cooperation with Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation it was brought to Jordan, and more specifically to the magical city of Petra, which I’ll get to later in this post, but first let’s talk about the workshop, the reason were isolated in a hotel in Petra for 8 days.

We were 10 writers, 5 from Jordan and 5 from other Arab countries. Our mentors were Ibrahim Nasrallah, renowned Jordanian/Palestinian author, best known for his series That chronicles  the history of Palestine, Sahar Khalifeh, reputable Palestinian and feminist author, and renowned literally critic Dr. Abdullah Ibrahim from Iraq, author of the 4000-page Arabic narrative encyclopedia.

It was hard not to feel humbled, even belittled, by the vast knowledge and experience shared by the 3 mentors. Yet, it didn’t take us much time to drop the self-consciousness and have it so effortlessly replaced by genuine affinity. Their modesty, openness and willingness to share knowledge and to teach was just admirable. I must say I was particularly intimidated by Ms. Sahar Khalifeh, as the image I had of her was that of the fighter, the rebel, but what I saw was an exceptionally warm and loving human being, which goes to break the stereotype of the staunch, rigid feminist. I just fell in love with her. Mr. Ibrahim Nasrallah, whom I’ve previously met at book fairs, was his same inviting, modest self, sharing with us all kinds of stories and literally expertise. As for Dr. Abdullah Ibrahim, I regret to say I hadn’t known him before, but I was just blown away by the amount of knowledge he possessed. You could listen to him for hours.

Above all, I think the most important was the creative atmosphere we got to indulge in, away from work and the mundane concerns of daily life, talking about writing all day, at breakfast, lunch, dinner and in between. even having those chats in the ancient city of Petra, which is another story unto itself.

Our first trip to the Nabatean city was by night. We took the “Petra at night” tour where Bedouins played the Rababa and told stories to the crowds, with candles all over the place, starting from the entrance of the Siq. Some people might tell you it’s overrrated, and I must admit it felt a bit overpriced but I think it’s what you make of it. I personally enjoyed it, brushing aside the feeling that the Bedouins were internally mocking us as the naive tourists who would pay 17 JDs to listen to some Rababa.  but for me it wasn’t about that. It was about in the presence of these magnificent ruins, this mystery that was carved in rock thousands of year ago, imaging the people who were in this same spot 3,000 years ago, with the same stars above their heads. I detached from the group as soon as the show started, sat in silence, trying to think of anything in an attempt to clear my mind of it, but I just couldn’t, and for some reason my tears flowed out. So, if you ask me, it was worth every penny. And walking through the Siq at night on candle light is not to be missed.

On Friday morning we went to see Petra by day. We set out quite early so we got to enjoy a serene walk in the Siq, taking in the marvelous colors and rock formations. As we approached the massive treasury, which is the first thing you encounter as you reach the end of the Siq, I wondered how that Swiss explorer felt when he first came here and beheld that unique view. I wonder if he realized the size of his discovery. Literally as well as figuratively. It’s mind-boggling when you think that despite the immensity of that city, only 20% of it has been discovered so far.

And then came the donkeys. I was having trouble with my shoes pressing on my little toe, and I couldn’t imagine walking another 1000 Km, mostly uphill, to reach the Monastery. So, we hire 2 donkeys, my friend and I. It was my first time riding a donkey. I’ve ridden horses, camels, but donkeys? And I must say they are not only more agile than I imagined but also surprisingly adventurous. I mean, there would be a several-meter drop to its right and it would choose to walk on the edge, which is why I refused to go downstairs on donkey-back, I could handle the sore toe for the way down.

Once you successfully reach the Monastery it hits you that it’s basically another Treasury. Which is funny, but it also goes to show that it’s all about the journey, not the destination. The views on the way up are just breath-taking.

However, the people of Petra remain the best thing about it. All the way there will be women chatting you up, some even insisting you stop for some tea, and let me tell you this, it’s the best tea you will ever have anywhere. If you’re scrupulous, however, you might have a little problem with the hygiene standards, as the tea is offered in glass cups which are only rinsed with water, so I guess to fully enjoy the experience you just need to suck it up and not think about how many people drank from that same cup. Actually I was a bit baffled, reading a book about Petra not too long ago, that despite the searing temperatures, Bedouins drank a lot of hot tea. When I asked them they said that tea quenched thirst better than water, and I could attest to that from experience now as I didn’t mind having the hot, sweet tea at all despite the hot July weather.

Another thing has baffled me in that book, Married to a Bedouin, as throughout the book I couldn’t wrap my mind about the fact that a Western woman, so used to all the comforts of urban life, chose to give it all up and come live under such primitive conditions. I couldn’t even believe that it was all for love. But I’ll tell you what, everything is Petra sets you up to fall in love. I didn’t, which was a bit disappointing, but given the circumstances and the lack of eligible candidates it was understandable. Even my Bedouin guide turned out to be married. A very nice family  by the way. His wife’s nephew, a small 10-year old boy, rode with me on the donkey and he told us a story with his Bedouin dialect which we couldn’t quite understand, but we did understand the key part of it where he said that some girl rode a donkey, it capsized, and she broke her back. That wasn’t a very reassuring story to hear with the donkeys on the edge of the stairs.

On the way back, the guides offered to take us back through an alternative route. I was intrigued as I didn’t know there was another way to access Petra other than the Siq. So, we said yes, and despite the complete absence of shade in the noon sun, we both agreed it was the best decision we took throughout the trip. The rocky mountains looked mesmerizingly beautiful, and it was all ours, there was nobody else to disturb the tranquility of the scene. Well, that was exactly why I also thought “What are we thinking, being out here with two strangers, on a road where hardly anyone passes, and then being taken to the hotel by a pick-up car that also winded through long, empty streets?” But I didn’t take these thoughts seriously after all, for there was something reassuring about these people, something that made you trust them. They might have told us it was a shortcut, which it clearly wasn’t, not even remotely, but I’ll tell you, I’d trust these guys with my life.

Back to the workshop, like Petra, what made it all the better were the people themselves. All the participants were friendly and there was a general harmony in the group. There wasn’t someone you wanted to avoid or didn’t talk to the entire week, which would be expected in workshops, but that wasn’t the case here.

I came back from Petra with mixed emotions which took some time to sink in, but once they did the most amazing thing happened. I felt like I was recharged with the old creative energy I had when I wrote my first book. Once again, everything else took a back seat and I was thinking about writing all the time. I might have been daunted at first, for knowledge is a burden. I realized there was so much to learn that I started to think I didn’t know how to write, and that’s a scary idea; scary because writing it the one thing I think I can’t live without and that gives my  life its distinctive taste. But again, when I had time to catch my breath and reflect on everything, I realized I had the ability. All I need is the knowledge, and you never stop learning, so all there was to do was to keep writing and learning at the same time, and employ the things I learned to be a better writer.

I also came back with a sense of responsibility. You see, I know there were other writers who deserved to be there more than I did, I was just exceptionally lucky. Now, to make sure I was worthy of that opportunity, I have to produce the kind of work that befits it, which is all the more motivation to keep writing and learning.