The Sisters at Petra, Jordan


DSC01345-2 (968 x 1448)When I first meet the American sisters, I wonder why they would ever move here. Everyone in this tiny Jordanian village belongs to the same Bedouin tribe. Everyone except them.

My friend and I sit cross-legged in a shadowy room, our knees flirting with the edge of the crackling fire. Eight others perch around us – all men, save for the two Americans. The sisters don’t wear hijabs; instead, they sport full afros.

Khaled, our new friend and host, sits across from us in his white robes and red-checked keffiyeh. He sucks on a hookah pipe. Smoke seeps from his lips to mingle with that of the fire, while the sisters babble away in Arabic with surprising ease.

A boy approaches with a basin and a jug. One of the sisters nods at me, and I rinse my hands as he pours the water. Dinner is served.
We’re ushered to a space away from the flames, and someone places our cushions on the concrete floor. The sisters collapse onto them with practiced grace, but I struggle to recover the flexibility of my childhood. I shift my legs as pins and needles begin to tingle my feet.
Khaled brings in an enormous round tray, more than 50 cm wide. One of the sisters speaks to us for the first time.
“Mansaf.” She points to the massive heap of rice and poultry, yellowed with odoriferous spices. “This is with chicken, but if you ever come back for a real party, it’ll be lamb.”

She scoops up some rice from the tray. Between handfuls, she gestures toward the man beside her. His face contains as many lines as a spider’s web, and his eyelids droop with age.

“If you’re lucky, Mohammed will make it. There’s nothing as tasty as his lamb mansaf.”

As she repeats herself in Arabic, Mohammed smiles and pushes the tray toward me and my friend. Following custom, we use only our right hands, but as a leftie I struggle to tear off small chunks of chicken, and resign myself to eating mainly rice. Each time I think I’ve had enough, Mohammed grins and urges me to eat more.
When I feel full to the point of bursting, Khaled invites us back to the fire, and pours us tea in shot-sized glasses. Candy-apple sweet. I grasp the rim and turn to a little boy who has come over to greet us. At Khaled’s urging, the boy bends to give me a hesitant kiss on the cheek, an action that’s met by a chorus of chuckles.

As I accept a second cup of tea, I lean in to the sisters and ask the burning question: why here?

Surely it’s a question they’ve heard before. They arrived as travelers three years ago, and never left. Although they work at the nearby tourist site of Petra, they’ve learned Arabic and found a welcome place in this community.

“The answer is easy,” one says. “A simple life shared with beautiful people.”

She pauses to call out to Mohammed, who straddles the threshold of the door. Her teasing tone makes his eyes twinkle.

“I’m telling him he needs to eat more before he leaves,” she explains. “He always says that to us, after all.”

The other sister returns to my question.

“Look,” she says, “we’ve traveled the world over, and the people in Jordan are like nowhere else. So friendly, so hospitable.”

“It’s just one big family, and now they treat us as part of it.”

I nod, and resist further nosiness. I don’t ask if they hope to stay forever, if they plan to marry Bedouin men. I don’t even ask think to ask their names.
Instead, I shift my legs until I finally find a comfortable position. I sit back and gaze into the fire, at the warm light cast on Khaled and his family’s faces. I watch the way these people look at each other, eyes always connecting.

The sisters’ laughter twirls between the low murmurs of the men. The conversation never lulls, and the cellphones I’ve see the Bedouins carry stay hidden in the pockets of their robes. There’s a warmth in this room, a feeling created not just by the fire, but by the genuine interest in human interaction, in spending time with your loved ones.

I realize it’s getting late. My friend and I have somewhere to be, tickets for the touristy “Petra by Night.” But the moment I empty my glass, Khaled raises the kettle in an offering.

I nod. As the sugary amber liquid fills my glass, my friend and I exchange a glance. We see no reason not to linger awhile longer.

About the Author: Ellen Keith is a Canadian freelancer who is currently based in Amsterdam. Between her travels, she’s working on her MFA in creative writing through the University of British Columbia.

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