If I doubted you before, I must apologize now. I judged you by the opening couple of pages and now, as I look out across the golden hills of Tafileh, I see just how wrong I was. There’s no constant rumble of cars here. No horns, no screech of brakes. Not even the sound of the megaphone call to prayer. Just birdsong: roosters crowing at the dawn, sparrows chittering away in the scrub and that oh-so African call of the mourning dove. And this isn’t even Africa.
We were supposed to be waking up in Dana Biosphere Nature Reserve this morning. For all intents and purposes, we might as well be. I’ve seen more kinds of birds in the last five minutes than in the last three weeks in this country; from my post on the edge of a rise just in front of the house, I can see finches, wheatears, larks and doves in abandon. There’s even a rather gorgeous sandy-coloured shrike that keeps coming over for a look-in; I’m not sure what she is, but I’ll bet she wouldn’t be averse to a breakfast of one of the little scorpions I’ve seen lazing about. Oh, and here come the bulbuls, like the coda to the symphony. I’m in seventh heaven. Forgive me the nature nausea for this slice of paradise, as I intend to get very drunk on it.
A little back-story; I have some explaining to do. After all that sirri-mirri at the police station yesterday, we hurried back to the flat to grab our bags and hit the road. Five of us – Andrew, Andreas, Kate, MacKenzie and I – decided to spend a night or two at Dana, a nature reserve in the mountains to the south. Most everyone else had an afternoon spent lounging at the Dead Sea on their minds, and I don’t blame them for even a second. We got to the bus station in time for the second-to-last bus for Tafileh alright, but it was pretty packed, so the driver put us on the next. This turn of fate, and having the ever-resourceful Kate Brocklesby with us (read about her experience here), contrived to produce the miracle sitting before us, and I’m not talking about the kettle of piping-hot tea (although I could, and at length). During the three-hour bus ride out of Amman, where we all had ample opportunity to practise our Arabic, Kate got practically ‘shotgunned’ by a group of young women who were keen to try their English, one in especial, Nancy. I don’t know how, but as we pulled into Tafileh and braced ourselves for a tough search for an ongoing minibus to Dana after dark (there are no places to stay in this town), Kate told me that we had an invitation for dinner from her new friends. I’d also had a streak of luck with the driver who had arranged a very cheap minibus for us, but sometimes you just have to decide between two good offers and, after a few seconds’ thought, the answer seemed pretty obvious.
That’s how we ended up sitting around the garden a few hours after sundown, discussing animal noises with the hookah bubbling away in the background. I’d imitated owls, doves, monkeys and gazelles before the night was up. I haven’t had a more entertaining evening in ages. Nancy, the oldest daughter of the family and an aspiring tour guide, served us tea and coffee before treating us to a feast of a dinner: bread, labneh, tomatoes, olives, cheese, and even an omelette or three. But, at last, no hummus. I could have cried for the beauty of this change in repertoire. Seven they were in total: three daughters between nineteen and thirty, two younger children aged five and ten, the mother-in-law and the father of the house. For the first time, a very woman-orientated homestay. And a homestay it was too, for when they learned of our plans they offered to put us up for the night and even help us on our way the next day. How could we say no? How could anyone say no? Even if I did have to serve as Andrew’s flak-shield/reverse wingman for the first half of the night. Year Abroad Leaderboards aside, an unexpected marriage proposal would be a very awkward, not to mention inconvenient affair (mudhik, just kidding!).
Nancy said her sisters thought me wasīm, which apparently means handsome (but don’t ask me why, as I haven’t shaved properly in weeks and have this weird DiCaprio goatee going on). Worse, I’ve been selected as the ‘most beloved one’ (whatever that means) because of – would you believe it – my blue eyes, my nose (arrrrghhhh) and the fact that I look like “both a boy and a man at the same time.” As Andrew put it, I was “complimented and emasculated in one sentence.” As for why I took the fire, I don’t know, but I suspect it may or may not have something to do with Andrew breaking ranks and talking volubly about his girlfriend; the final line of defense. They, at least, are beautiful people as far as I’m concerned, inside and out. White-hearts, as a woman in Morocco once put it to me. Here’s that true Arab spirit I’ve been searching for for so long. As ever, you simply need to put a few miles between yourself and the capital. Tafileh may be the butt of many a yokel joke in Amman, but I’d back this place over the capital any day. I had the chance to meditate last night – much to our hosts’ amusement – beneath a canopy of stars in a silky-black sky and I feel so much the better for it. Here is a family I will try to remember in case I should return; such silver generosity is hard to come by and I should like to repay the favour some day, as I promised myself with dear Abd el-Rahman Rajji, the Berber. My faith in this country and its people has been restored and not before time, too.
All my love,