Sparks hissed from the fire where we clustered beneath the stars. The group fell silent, waiting for Hussein to finish his story. He sat cross-legged, wearing the traditional thawb and keffiyeh, his deep eyes lined with kohl.
“My darling,” he said, fixing his eyes on the girl in front of him. “Forget the astronomer. Come with me. I’ll show you the stars in the day.”
She blushed before bursting out laughing; everyone else just joined in.
In the darkness of Jordan’s desert, our stargazing appointment slid further and further away as we turned our senses instead to the serious task of making Arabic coffee.
First the coffee beans are roast over an open fire in a glinting bronze mehmas. They’re then ground with a rhythmic, sombre beat inside a grinding cylinder.
“You hear this at weddings – and funerals too,” whispered the daytime astronomer, otherwise known as Hussein, the joke teller, and general manager at the Feynan Eco Lodge.
Feynan’s causing quite a stir in these parts, not only for its green credentials (which stretch beyond the ruse of saving money by not washing your towels every day) but also for its integration with local people. Both issues, while laudable, attract controversy from outside sources, not least of all from me.
The first person I meet in Feynan is Nabil Tarazi, the Managing Director based in Amman. Alas for him, he introduced the concept to a rather tired and cynical hack. Me. I’ve heard a lot of fluff – and dreary fluff at that – on the subject of sustainable ecotourism and I hadn’t realised just how jaded I’d become until now.
Yes, all their staff were local, other than he himself who hailed from Palestine.
No, the interactions with the locals weren’t staged. They wouldn’t ask for money, you couldn’t book them, and if they were busy then they’d say they didn’t have the time.
Why do they bother? Because it’s their project and their future, they want it to succeed.
Hmm. (From me, this time.)
Back to Nabil: we can all see what happens now with short term projects. Short term gain. Money now, a place to live and an education lost forever. We want to develop something more than that.
We use candles for lighting, except for the bathrooms, which are powered by solar panels. We’re not connected to utilities.
Local women collect the leftover wax and create new candles in the morning.
We don’t serve meat because the electricity required for refrigeration is too high – and it’s not a daily part of local diets. Also, eating meat isn’t environmentally efficient.
We collect leftovers and compost them to use for fertiliser.
You’ll find ceramic bottles for water in your room (created by the local women’s cooperative.) We’re working on creating plastic, sealable, refillable bottles for you to take away on hikes.
I ease up a little. He continues.
This site used to be a camp site for archaeologists* – that’s why we chose it. The infrastructure’s already here, the environment is already damaged. We’re trying to build something better, something sustainable.
As it turns out, humans have been on this patch of dry scrub desert (officially called the Dana Nature Reserve) for more than 11 000 years. The Romans used to mine copper here, and when Christianity swept across their empire, they responded by creating some of Christianity’s first martyrs through working them to death. Their graves remain here today.
So, too do the remnants of the mines – mossy coloured copper deposits clinging to exposed gnarly rock. Gaping deep holes in the ground where the mine shafts used to be.
Besides the tunnels, a few plants grow. A scratchy acacia here, a minty coloured plant there. Mohammed, our guide, breaks some branches off, crushing them against a rock with a machine-gun action.
“Bedouin soap,” he says, reaching for some water. He rubs his palms together, turning not only plant mush into lather but my world weariness into childlike joy.
Later, we visit the Bedouin tents, a mile or so from the main lodge. The term “Bedouin” I struggle to understand. It derives from the Arabic for people of the desert, referring to the tribes that roamed across the Middle East before today’s national boundaries were drawn in the 20th century. Some are nomadic, some semi-settled, some permanently so.
It seems that you don’t call the cosmopolitan city folk of Amman by the name of Bedouin, so it’s not a widespread term. I ask a few questions, make little progress, worry that I’m veering too close into political incorrectness and withdraw a little. After all, does it matter that much?
Huddled in what seems to me to be an impenetrable inky black darkness that only the others can navigate, the Bedouins, for want of a better word, invite us in. Three women stretch and pound dough between their hands, spinning it flat across the domed metal that rests on the fire to make bread for dinner.
The woman to my left hands me a piece.
I love the taste of this flat, stretchy bread, pockmarked with charcoal spots and smoothed at the edge to make a floppy, tasty circle. Children poke their heads around the door and then scurry off again, laughing, and we stroll back towards the lodge feeling nearly blind without the streetlights.
By the time we sit down for coffee and stargazing, the vague hint of grey on the twilight stroll seems like a luxury compared to this empty, photonless existence. The Bedouins stride ahead on the loose shale, while I stumble around with anxiety.
I may not be able to see, but I can still hear. I can hear dogs barking and donkeys braying. I hear my feet stumble across the rocks and the pounding of my heart in my temples at the anticipation of a broken ankle. I feel blindfolded.
The Bedouins are fine. It has to make me stop and wonder. Just how much light pollution must seep into my normal life?
Eventually we sit down, the fire lights, the coffee beans are roasted, and then ground, and then boiled with chopped cardamom.*
This Arabic coffee is sensuous yet thin, rich in spice and pulse-racingly strong. Apparently, the etiquette is for the host to take the first cupful to make sure it isn’t burnt. Then the guest to the right takes a turn. You’re allowed up to three cupfuls before you need to shake the cup in the air to signal that you’ve politely had enough.
The cup seems more like a thimble – and we’ve enough coffee to last us for hours.
Then again, the stars have been there for more than four billion years. It doesn’t seem rude to make them wait a few hours longer. It would seem rude to rush the coffee.
Disclosure: I visited Jordan as a guest of Visit Jordan. All words, pictures, video clips, ideas, ramblings, entertainment and whatever else you may find here are my own. As usual.
*The original article said archaelogical site and pistachio at these points.
Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on www.insidethetravellab.com