Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

Sleeping With the Bedouins… (part 11-a) by Robert M. Katzman

Filed under: Bewilderment,Friendship & Compassion,Israel,Jewish Themes,Travel — Bob at 9:33 am on Sunday, December 3, 2017

Sleeping With The Bedouins (part 11-a)

By Robert M. Katzman © December 1, 2017


Bedouins, originally badawi in Arabic, are nomadic borderless Arabs of the desert.


I had been to Jordan before, with Rick Munden, in May 2000, where he and I both had bad problems with our feet at the end of our nine days in Israel. We were on our way to Petra, also known at one time as the Rose City because of the color of the mountains, which is now a world famous destination of a Nabataean civilization buried under the red sand for about 2000 years. Originally a bustling Arab community on the Silk Road to China located in a Roman province, it has incredible temples carved into the soft stone, Roman columns everywhere standing up and lying around like giant carved chips that fell off of a Las Vegas poker game table, a coliseum-like curved and stepped mass of seats facing whatever was entertaining them.


The most famous image representing the “lost city” to the general public is of a very intricate open doorway with carvings on both sides and mostly above it. I had assumed it was an interesting but small part of the Roman Empire and was stunned to discover it was vast, a town carved into towering surrounding mountains, the size of a large town, about one hundred square miles and considered as founded as far back as the 5th century.


When the Romans changed the heavily traveled Silk Road from Petra to Damascus, just like a modern American interstate being routed past your busy prosperous Kansas town to another route, eventually the town dries up and is abandoned. In the Nabataeans case, the people who lived and worked there simply drifted into history and were absorbed into other places with all kinds of Arabs. Gone. The drifting sands relentlessly flowed into every part of their abandoned home, and year after year probably accelerated by periodic sand storms, the town disappeared.


The mystery of what happened to the fabled town and the people who lived there became legendary to archeologists and historians all over the world, for century after century. No one knew where it was. Like a masked man robbing a bank, jumping on his mighty steed and galloped away, only the tantalizing legend of its existence remained.


Came Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (1784 –1817) was a Swiss traveller, geographer and orientalist. He is best known for rediscovering the ruins of the ancient Nabataean city of Petra in 1912 in Jordan. How? The entrancing and enticing story I first read about him when I was a child I the Fifties and never forgot, was that he alone came up with the key way to pinpoint where the magical place was so it could be excavated. Being Swiss, whose people even today because of their central position in Western Europe, commonly speak French, German, Italian, English and less well known, their original ancient Latin Romance language known as Romansch.


But Johann probably spoke most of those languages but also he learned Arabic, perhaps because of the area of the world he wanted to research and somehow it occurred to him to ask some of the Bedouins riding by on their majestic camels going from oasis to oasis. In effect he is supposed to have asked,


“Hey guys, have you ever heard about this buried city known as Petra? I really want to find it.”


As it happens, the Bedouins did know because unlike the Nabataeans who drifted into Time, they never left. From generation to generation, Bedouins in the area told their children about the buried town as one more legend passed down to them. No one had ever thought to ask any of them before. They had been in an area called by many names but one of them was the Fertile Crescent because of the two major rivers, Tigris and Euphrates, made life possible there.


Also Mesopotamia. Part of the first big empire, Assyria, and before World War One, part of the great Turkish Ottoman Empire. Names didn’t matter to the enduring nomadic Bedouins. They lived apart from unfolding history. Armies conquering the area century after century never saw the few camel-riding, goat herding tribal Bedouins as a threat. They remained ignored until Johan learned their secret.


One of the Bedouins pointed to a specific area and told Johan exactly where it was. I imagine the guy was stunned. But as fate has it, he died two years later of dysentery, at the age of thirty-three. Same age as Alexander the Great. But not before he managed to write and send to England 800 volumes about his discovery. Petra is located more specifically in southwestern present-day Jordan about 85 miles north of the Israeli city of Eilat, located at the very southern tip of Israel, and about the same distance from the Jordanian city of Aqaba, across the Red Sea from Eilat. Petra is a few miles east of the peaceful border between Jordan and Israel.


That’s romantic story I never forgot.


It is easy in this present day with internet resources like Wikipedia and many other collections of history to investigate far more than what I just wrote, but this isn’t a textbook. It’s a twisting and turning story about a long ago evolving friendship encompassing my being pre-adolescent to my being a grandfather of five now; present-day heartbreak; coincidentally shared serious foot pain and my absolute wonder at actually going to see this magical Jordanian treasure. Twice.


The story of Rick Munden winds around my entire life beginning in 6th grade in Chicago in 1961 when we were both eleven years old. That unexpected relationship between two very different people from completely different backgrounds influenced decades of my life, even if Rick and Mary, his love and his wife, were on the opposite side of the world. Like mysterious forces assigned me to him beyond our comprehension.


In this book, I will be telling his story parallel to my own, ending in 2017—fifty-six years after we first met—when I went to Israel the second, and last time, with my wife Joy’s ashes to fulfill a promise I made to Joy shortly before she died. Keeping my promises turned out to be more difficult at the age of sixty-seven and alone, than when Rick and I first went to Israel together when we were both fifty.


I went with him because he asked me to go in 1999, just like how he initiated several other parts of my life.


This part of our story is limited to Petra. A dusty sandy slice of our shared history.


When Rick and I drove south through the totally barren desert of southern Israel, the Negev, in our rickety rented car, I was initially surprised by the size of the place because I imagined in 2000 that it was some formerly small former location of a Kibbutz, or a place where 19th Century Jews from Europe established combination farm/defensive villages with a few dozen people to protect their borders, which evolved into modern times. That idea of mine was based on pictures I saw in old books in my South Side of Chicago Hebrew School (1958 to 1963), Rodfei Sholom or Chadash. Like a dusty frontier town in the old American west.


Well, it was a glitzy neon Miami Beach-type place with rows of very tall tourist hotels facing the Red Sea, then new and exotic internet-cafes, bars, lots of different ethnic restaurants of and even a small three-story limited access shopping center guarded by a group of Israeli soldiers with big guns and walkie-talkies. That included women soldiers, also armed, many years before America allowed women to be on the possible front lines of urban warfare. Israel, the size of New Jersey with a small population needed all the soldiers it could get to protect their long borders, and their gender was no obstacle to serving in their army, the IDF or the Israeli Defense Forces. Israel has had six wars in its short history. It had to win all the wars because there is no room to retreat in the long, skinny arrowhead shaped country.


We had reservation in a high rise named The American Hotel for the night before our morning adventure of crossing the border into Jordan. There was a kind of concierge person in the polished empty ground floor, a svelte, beautiful, blonde Russian-speaking woman sitting at a desk surrounded by nothing. After getting our key, finding our room and settling in, we took the elevator down to the first floor lobby to speak to Natasha.


I spoke first, asking her a question, but sometimes I have a post-transplant reconstruction problem with my diction and it was soon obvious that Natasha didn’t understand my question. Also, she was somewhat distracting because her shimmering dress looking like it was painted on her. She responded by dragging out what appeared to us to be a large phone book. With her limited English, it took us a moment to realize what she imagined the two middle-aged Americans standing in front of her wanted.


Natasha, it seemed, thought we were requesting, um, some female company in our room. Her expression and tone of voice told me this was not a rare request and she was indifferent to the request, which probably resulted in her receiving tips to encourage her fulfill tourist’s requests. Rick looked at me and smiled. I was a little confused because of the size of that book she dragged out. I was thinking that any possible variation in sexual desires was available in that empty lobby in the southern part of The Promised Land. But I couldn’t figure out how there could be that many options, enough of them to fill the many pages of her phone book. Maybe clowns and monkeys could be requested, if wanted. Or camels and dates. Somewhat later it dawned on me that it was very likely that Natasha was on the menu. There was something about her that seemed numb to me.


Rick and I swiftly corrected her incorrect assumption about what we actually wanted, a way to travel to Petra and not rentable sex. She looked at us, a little annoyed and bored, putting the big book back in her bottom drawer and then opened her top drawer and produced a single sheet of paper. Her fingers were long and thin, like a piano players, with blood-red nail polish on her ten nails. So yes, seventeen years later, she was quite memorable.


Natasha told us what the trip would cost us, how it worked: Drive to the Israeli side of the border, park our car, go through the well-guarded Israeli customs and security procedure, then when admitted go through the chain link fence to the equally militarized Jordanian side of the border. Next, go through their security, but we were cautioned by the Israeli officials not to try to bring any food or water with us, because the Jordanian merchants and restaurant owners on our route where we periodically would stop at and hopefully shop for trinket and souvenirs, were very annoyed that the Americans never bought any local food. In fact, they were insulted.


Now, to Rick, this was nothing. He was already a veteran of earlier travels to Afghanistan and nearby places and accustomed to a range of central Asian cuisines. He could probably survive on cactus and desert scorpions, for all I knew.






I already wrote about the KFC or Katzman Food Curse in part 4 of this narrative, but I had never eaten in any American Middle-Eastern style restaurant, had no idea what sorts of spices were commonly used and was the flip-side of Rick Munden’s cast iron stomach. Food poisoning on business trips twice in my own country (New York City gift show, San Antonio book fair) and a devastating 2 AM allergic response to a feather pillow in Uppsala, Sweden while visiting a friend had only honed my senses even sharper to both past and present dangers and anticipated ones. I wasn’t going to get food poisoning in Jordan. They couldn’t force me to eat. And I didn’t.


Except for water, deliberately purchased locally in front of the stern armed soldiers at the security checkpoint, I never ate anything for the twelve or so hours we were in Jordan. Rick? He ate whatever he wanted, wherever.


On our long journey to Petra, when we stopped at a small Jordanian village buffet near a place where the biblical Moses supposedly hit the rock with his wooden staff to produce gushing water for the hundreds of thousands of thirsty Israelites, and anyone could look at the still trickling water coming from a rock thousands of years later—for a small fee, of course—Rick went boldly inside of the restaurant, while I stayed alone on the large bus.


I had more than one problem with the situation.


Besides my stubborn determination to get through this trip without being killed by local food, the story about Moses had always rubbed me the wrong way.


For one thing, this little tourist attraction was such an obviously ridiculously phony depiction of what was a legendary miracle in the first place because to slack the thirst of hundreds of thousands of people Moses would have had to smack a rock the size of Gibraltar with his study wooden staff and not some puny desert pebble. And after that, there would have had to be such an overwhelming rush of pure drinkable water bursting forth from that rock that it would create a river miles long for the Israelites to get immediate access to it from two sides of the rock. There is no record of a temporary Euphrates or Nile in the Jordanian desert, and after the Chosen Mob moved on, there was no longer any need for the miracle to keep gushing. The point of the incident was to reinforce the Exodus people’s faith in their new invisible God, no matter what.


And here is what sticks in my craw about the whole incident: So Moses is under just a little pressure to stop his floating population of thirsty people, asks god for assistance, God tells him to speak to the rock—not hit the rock, but tell the rock—to produce water. But poor Moses, distracted, antagonized, overwhelmed and sorry he ever accepted the job offer of leading all these bitching, moaning and unappreciative former slaves to The Promised Land in the first place, forgets that little detail about speaking to and not hitting the rock, and smacks that sucker hard with his stout wooden staff to get things going.


A mistake.


Consequently, a big mistake.


When the Israelites eventually conquered Canaan under Moses’ general and replacement Joshua and ejected all of the local population after half a century of stumbling through the Sinai, Moses was forbidden by God to enter the fabled land of Milk and Honey. He was, generously, allowed to peek at it from a hill high enough to see it, and then die.




Because he hit that damned rock and didn’t speak to it.


He mistakenly didn’t follow the Company line.


He acted, well, human, which one assumes to be somewhat less than perfect, or at least less perfect than the Earth’s Creator.


So the Ten Plagues producer, pillar of fire maker, splitting of the Red Sea facilitator, sender of the Angel-of-Death, supplier of endless manna for the masses from heaven, destroyer of the entire pursuing Egyptian chariot driving army by drowning Architect, the Lot into a Pillar of Salt and so many other impossible to imagine, or sometimes, believe, was also besides being a self-described “jealous God” was a petty God who while expecting lowly humans to “do unto others with a kind and forgiving heart” decided that He, and Moses, were exempt from that particular edict.


Don’t hit the rock, talk to it. How many people would remember something as bizarre as that walking in Moses’ worn sandals?

Not the cynical Chicago boy remaining on the bus.


So Moses and others after him ended up successfully spreading monotheism all over the Earth, replacing all the millions of idols because God didn’t want any graven images distracting humanity from Him, even though He was an idea and not imaginable to ordinary people. God, being God, knew this would happen.


When Moses was a newborn baby floating in the Nile River in that woven basket to be later adopted by the Pharaoh’s kind daughter Bithiah, and wasn’t even named Moses yet at that time, God knew Moses would mess up in the desert with the rock.


So why pick Moses in the first place if it was clear he was capable of doing that?


Why pick a guy who had speech problems to lead a zillion people?


Why pick a guy capable of murdering an Egyptian guard, when one of the later inscribed Ten Commandments, by Him, as something people shouldn’t do?


Why pick a guy with self-proclaim social insecurity problems to be God’s point man in establishing a new world religious philosophy?


And frankly, why pick a guy who talked to burning bushes alone in a mountain cavern?


I resented the whole unfair situation and will bring it up later, though now only seventeen years later, but hopefully still much later and see what God’s perspective was at the time.


Eons ago to me, but a speck of time to the Master of the Universe.


So yeah, I stayed on that bus melting in the Jordanian desert heat, simmering. Even young punks in a South Side of Chicago grammar school playground knew something about fair play. And stacking the deck, too.


And Rick, the reason I was melting in that bus in the first place, he was inside the restaurant surveying that buffet, crunching on edible rocks for all I knew.

(to be continued…)

Driving in the Dark: Lost in Israel (part 1) https://www.differentslants.com/?p=3736

Bob in Israel: A Crusader Castle; The Tunisian Synagogue (part 2) https://www.differentslants.com/?p=3748

Joy’s Ashes in Israel: An Independent Woman (part 3) https://www.differentslants.com/?p=3761

Marsha Michael, Who Solved My Problems in Israel (part 4) https://www.differentslants.com/?p=3771

Tel Aviv, Israeli radio and Unexpected Art (part 5) https://www.differentslants.com/?p=3796

Vad Yashem: Killing Millions of Children (part 6) https://www.differentslants.com/?p=3811

Chicago man Watches Death of Samurais in Israel (part 7)//www.differentslants.com/?p=3846

Traveling Alone, Traveling Together (part 8) //www.differentslants.co/?p=3865

An American Jew’s Bold New Plan for a Sane, Peaceful and Prosperous State of Palestine (part 9) //www.differentslants.co/?p=3887

David’s Star in Israel (part 10) //www.differentslants.co/?p=3907

Sleeping With the Bedouins (part 11-a) https://www.differentslants.com/?p=3962

Pleading with Fate in Jerusalem (part 12) https://www.differentslants.com/?p=3980

Contact: robertmkatzman@gmail.com

Comments below, are welcome. Thank you.


Comment by scott

December 3, 2017 @ 9:46 am

At this time my ADHD is making it impossible to give what seems a good story, a good read. I will ery in a few days because I do enjoy your ability to tell a story. I’ll try again soon because this is history I do not know.
Thanks and I’ll come back

Comment by bruce

December 3, 2017 @ 10:08 am

yeah, but did you manage to find Natasha again?

Comment by Don Larson

December 3, 2017 @ 11:35 am


Another great story.

Here is one of my art images regarding Moses.


Comment by Charlie Newman

December 3, 2017 @ 5:51 pm

I find myself in the same position as Scott…my ADHD is tearing up any chance I have to give this a coherent read.
Drives me bnerk.
Love what I read before my brain wandered off tho…

Comment by Jim Payne

December 3, 2017 @ 7:36 pm

I enjoy your colorful descriptions of the places you visit going beyond just what you see. And I enjoy your colorful presentation of your own thoughts. You are an excellent writer.

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