Petra: "Manal, Reyna, and One Hundred Camels"

Wadi Musa
Candidate for "Wonder of the World"
H.K. of Jordan

May 31, 2007
Salaam Aleycum,

It's 9:00pm here in the dusty Bedouin Village in the dark hills outside Petra. We just finished tea together and I am saying a final goodbye to my friend Manal. We are shaking hands. She is so sweet I want to give her a hug, but that's completely inappropriate. Even a handshake is quite bold for a young Bedouin woman who covers her head and wears the full length clothing of a proper Bedouin woman. Woman? I should say, girl. Manal is seventeen, but "going on thirty-seven."

I met Manal three days ago at the top of a steep hillside in Petra. She and her mother sell trinkets to the tourists. Manal is charming and gracious and worldly-wise and smart. She can speak English with an American accent or a British accent. She speaks Italian, Spanish, French, German, Japanese and a little Korean. And she's gorgeous.

Manal's mother chain smokes cigarettes and pours me a hot tea as we sit on the ground and chat. After about twenty minutes I address her in English and Manal translates. "How much do I have to give you to marry Manal?" I inquire. Mother responds, "One hundred camels." We all had a good laugh. They really laugh when I offer two hundred.

The Bedouins are an intricate part of the Petra experience. They provide the horses and camels and donkeys and horse carts that carry, for a negotiated fee, the tourists who are too hot or too tired or too arthritic to climb around this wonder of the desert world. Or maybe some folks just want to ride around on a camel.

The Bedouins also sell all the "silver" and "camel bone" jewelry and postcards and books and assorted souvenirs. Everything is negotiable. My donkey driver wanted twenty Jordanian dinar for a thirty minute ride up the mountainside to The Monastery (where I first met Manal) and I bargained him down to eight, including waiting time and return.

The other Petra experience of course is Petra itself. Petra means rock and here at Petra, two thousand three hundred years ago, before the Romans arrived, the Arab Nabataens carved their enormous public buildings and theaters, temples and tombs, storerooms and stables directly into the face of the red rose sandstone cliffs.

"From Petra, the Nabataens commanded the trade routes from Damascus to Arabia and great spice, silk and slave caravans passed through, paying taxes and protection money. In a short time, the Nabataens made great advances - they mastered hydraulic engineering, iron production, copper refining, sculpture and stone carving. Archaeologists believe that several earthquakes, including a massive one in 555 CE, forced the inhabitants to abandon the city."*

"You approach Petra through a narrow 1.2km defile known as the Siq. This is not a canyon but rather one mountainous stone block that has been rent apart by tectonic forces. Just as you think there's no end to the Siq, you catch breathtaking glimpses ahead of the most impressive of Petra's sights, the Al-Khazneh (Treasury). Carved out of iron-laden sandstone to serve as a tomb, the Treasury got its name from the misguided local belief that an Egyptian Pharaoh hid his treasure in the top urn. The Greek-style pillars, alcoves and plinths are masterpieces." *

"Further into the site is the 7000 seat theater, elegant royal tombs, a colonnaded street, the elevated Great Temple and the Temple of the Winged Lions. The path turns toward the Al-Habis Museum and the start of the winding path that climbs to the Monastery." *

The climb on the back of my donkey was spectacular and scary. The path is narrow in places and to the right is just air down into the valley below. My driver who walked behind me insisted that "the donkey knows where he is going."

After my chat and "proposal" to Manal, I made the short final climb to the top to visit the Monastery. I returned to see Manal and she made a proposal of her own. First we agreed that she would be my personal guide in Petra the following day. And second, she invited me to dinner at her sister's home in the Bedouin Village that evening.

Dinner is served family style. A huge platter of herbed rice and roasted chicken and vegetables sits on a plastic cloth on the floor of the cement block house. Mama sprinkles diced tomatoes on the rice. We eat with fingers or spoons as we please. Everyone sits on the floor. Papa has provided me with a mat so I am quite comfortable. Kids are all around, digging in to the food and happily coming and going. After tea, at an appropriate moment I say goodnight and drive back through the hills to my hotel in Wadi Musa.

I have to remind myself of this latest "adventure." I am in the barren yet striking hills of southern Jordan. I am the guest of a Bedouin family that, years ago, would have been happy living in a cave in the mountains nearby. (Actually, many of them still prefer the caves. The government moved them out when the tourists started to arrive in large numbers.) My host makes a good living carrying tourists up the hillside on his donkey. The donkey lives just outside the home. All the other camels and horses and donkeys are "parked" outside the homes in the village. And once again, I am an honored guest in a home in the Middle East.

The next day, Manal is an enthusiastic guide. We visit the small hillside museum and the hillside tombs on the opposite hill. Manal takes me up another hill to the home of an elderly man. The home has several large and well-furnished rooms that have been dug into the side of the mountain. The home is surrounded with flowering shrubs, and the view from the front "door" is of a deep valley and the mountains on the other side. My host makes his living carving stone medallions. Some of them are x-rated. Manal averts her eyes.

In Petra, Manal knows all the other vendors and shop keepers. Many of them are her brothers or half-brothers or cousins so I have to be friendly and polite as I refuse their offerings. I did buy one book describing the major archaeological sites in Jordan: Amman, Petra and Jarash. The book has large photos with clear plastic overlays depicting what the editors assume was the original building.**

We leave Petra for a drive through the golden mountains to a campsite and to visit friends working in the hills. (Manal gets a headache. Riding in a car is a rare experience for her.) There are a few kids around and another Bedouin woman tending her flock of goats. Now Manal knows that my original "proposal" is not exactly serious. But, she tells me that the woman we met is available. Reyna is covered in black and she is also exquisite and exotic and has a very big smile.

We all meet again that evening after I made some copies of photos I took of them and the family. Reyna is happy and yes, quite available. (I do think I have to draw the line somewhere. Married to a Muslim woman who tends goats for a living? I don't think so. Yet it is somewhat tempting. I know that I would be well cared for; the food is fresh and nutritious; the scenery is spectacular; the air is clean and dry; and there is Internet nearby.)

I returned to the Bedouin Village on my last evening in Wadi Musa. Everyone is happy to see me once again. But I am not so happy. It will be sad for me to leave this beautiful area and my sincere and generous new friends.

Manal has promised to mail me a photo of herself with her waist length hair uncovered. "In sha' Allah," I will receive it soon.

Ma a salaama,


* "The Middle East." Lonely Planet. 2006.

** "Jordan. Past & Present. Petra, Jerash, Amman." Vision S.r.l. Rome, Italy. 2001.

One of my friends in America asked me to translate the Arabic terms I am using:


  • Wadi Musa. Wadi is valley. Musa is Arabic for Moses.
  • Salaam Aleycum. Hello. Literally, peace be with you.
  • Bedouins. Large extended families or tribes who make their living in the desert.
  • Ma'a salaama. Goodbye.
  • In sha' Allah. G-d willing.

"In sha' Allah" is part of everyday conversation. "See you at ten tomorrow morning, in sha' Allah." Or, "You will get the check tomorrow, in sha' Allah." Get the picture?

When I was with Manal a few young guys asked me if she was my girlfriend. I responded, "in sha' Allah." They roared.

And finally, the airline pilot here first gave his announcement in Arabic. In English he repeated, "Welcome to Air Sinai. The temperature outside is . . . . The duration of the flight is . . . . And we will be arriving in Tel Aviv in fifty minutes, in sha' Allah." I am laughing now, but up there at 25,000 feet? All I can say now is "Baruch ha Shem."


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