by Marilee K. Gloe
One February day I made my way through Jordan’s al-Siq at Petra. Jutting skyward, the granite walls were shades of orange, peach, brown, and beige, whipped into curvatures and sharp edges by the passage of wind and water over time. The magnitude of the walls dwarfed all human presence. The winter air was cool, the sun visible only if you looked all the way up. As the passage ended, the area opened to reveal the place where the ancient Nabetean peoples lived, secreted away, having left their mark where the landscape opened wide: a spectacular carved rock façade now dazzling in the sun.
Curious to climb a long rocky path to the top of the granite mountain, my feet stepped one after the other, scaling a hundred steps upon flattened orange rock. Gradually, the heat of the sun reflecting off the rocks had me shed my cloak and then my sweater. Leaning against the rock, aware that I had made only half the journey, I greedily consumed what remained of my bottled water. No one else was around; not a sound was heard other than an occasional drift of wind. I leaned my head back and considered my options to either continue or descend. It was then that the sound of a young human voice floated mysteriously upon the air, snapping my mind into seeking its source.
The voice sung out. Not a melody, and yet melodic, the voice carried on in a language of antiquity. It floated; it ricocheted, hiding its origin. I climbed the rock now, searching for it. Around a bend, up some more, and then, there she was. A little girl, perhaps six years old, stood alone on a stone bluff; hands clutching a baby doll, she was still as stone. All that moved was her mouth, calling out what I thought was a song but realized might be a prayer.
It was mesmerizing.
Conveyed against the backdrop of the landscape, in the sun and wavy heat, the little voice emptied its purpose out across the rock. It was unrushed, in the way of children who live in the moment.
Without a doubt, for the little girl, mountains were a normal part of her ecology. But whether she might have a cultural association between mountains and prayer, I do not know. Nor do I know whether the place she chose had any special significance for her — or it was just by happenstance that she had stopped to sing there? All I do know is that particular spot a afforded her the freedom to sing.
Just as environment shapes our human biology, making allowances for difficult conditions, so can a listener grasp the interpretation of an unknown language by absorbing its pace, its degree of force, or its softened notes. Here, the human words of a little girl spoken toward rocks eons old seemed to float over edges cut by wind and sand. My ear heard beauty, as if beckoned by a gentle soul. Yet, the same language, if spoken with force or anger, might ricochet over the same rock with jarring sharpness. Here, all the linguistic rules of understanding evaporated. What remained was what I could absorb by sight and sound, and it was the landscape that accentuated my interpretation of intent. Without purposeful thinking, evaluation, or prolonged concentration, the landscape led the recesses of my mind to associate the girl’s sounds to prayer, linking her softened voice with aural images of monks intoning notes of invocation near rocky promontories. It recalled a feeling of peace, akin to the way a child feels when seduced by the cadence of a lullaby, whether sung in the mother’s tongue or a foreign one.
Once she finished, she scampered away, surefooted and swift.
I stood a moment, fixated to my spot. I became very warm, then very hot. I took off my cape, tied it around my waist. I had been careful enough to bring a hat and was grateful I had not left it behind. But oh, was I thirsty. Images of people crossing deserts, lips parched, seeing mirages… these floated across my mind as I realized how ill prepared I had been, feeling like a foolish tourist. There was no one around. I decided to keep going up.
When I finally planted my feet at the mountain’s peak, I presumed someone would be selling something to drink. Surely, the need for water would be anticipated? But alas, the realization set in that there would be no such convenience. I leaned against a stone, dizzy. After nearly an hour’s climb to this point, I had overheated; my palms were hot, and all I could think about was water.
Wearily, I looked up, and there across the way, a wall crevice revealed the narrow opening of a cave. A man stood at the misshapen entry. His patterned white and red scarf, his white tunic and trousers cut a crisp silhouette against the darkness inside. His squinted eyes were penetrating, looking my way. He came closer, signaled me with a wave of his hand, beckoning me to come hither… to enter the cave. I pondered the invitation, concerned whether it was a good idea. A lone woman, entering an unknown place… a cave? With a stranger? I can’t explain, but… he signaled again… and I followed as he turned and went inside.
Immediately, the coolness of the air was an enormous relief. My eyes were slow to adjust. He waved me forward, then slowly, as though not to alarm me, he reached for my elbow and guided me forward.
Inside this rocky place, under a ceiling dark from the soot of fires, lounged several mature men. They leaned against the rug-draped cushions set in random order around the inside, some releasing misty swirls of hookah smoke from their mouths. At once, upon seeing me, they cast their eyes away. Angry-sounding words were barked at the man who had guided me in. Ignoring them, he led me to a cushion and then beckoned me to sit near the wall. The coolness of the stone penetrated my cotton shirt. Surprised by my own weakness, I tried to focus, but my mind acted oddly slow. I felt a weak beat of my heart in my temples. I wanted to lie down, but instead just sat still.
Over a lump of charred wood inside a dilapidated metal frame, the man who welcomed me worked to heat a dented pot. In a few moments, he brought me a small cup, the size for espresso. His dry fingers lifted it near my mouth; then he nodded, as though to say, “Here, drink this.” And I did. And it was a sweet, hot something like tea. It slipped down my throat, reviving me. My eyebrows involuntarily crinkled into an expression of gratitude. No one spoke to me, and I knew to remain quiet. Unsure where else to look, I gazed upon a faded poster of the current Jordanian King that was tacked at an angle on the wall.
I felt better. A lot better. And then he brought me a refill.
Before heading out again, I turned to him and offered the only thing he would accept: my smile.
For the entire journey down the mountain, I reflected upon this happenstance where I understood tradition without comprehending the vocabulary. In this place, a country covered in jutting, unforgiving rock and shifting sand, undulating between extremes of heat and cold, I experienced voices that, like the landscape, ranged from gentle and forgiving, to jarring and brisk. Each granted an opening toward intuitive understanding. Inside the cave, despite the initial harsh-sounding exchange of words, I felt the warm gesture of cultural kindness that sought no compensation as it met a universal human need. Old as the landscape itself, surpassing histories of conflict, riveted into their being was the unaltered custom to honor others with hospitality.
Language is our human call system, the primary way for us to communicate, whether spoken, sung, or written. Linguists and travel writers have talked at length about the disorientation and stress visited upon people when they encounter barriers with others they are unable to comprehend through language. Sometimes the failed attempts are within one’s own language, as when comprehension is affected by dialect or slang; other times they are between different languages, each of which is unknown to the other party. And then there are gestures: frequently animated for emphasis, they offer a non-verbal, universal way to negotiate language barriers. At the cave, a wave of a hand invited me in; with the cup, a nod encouraged me to drink.
All these attempts at comprehension rely on codes of understanding, but what if there is no direct person-to-person exchange involved in a given experience? How does one reach understanding when merely a bystander, distanced from any intended exchange? In the evaluation of differences in landscape and culture, it is often in the children that we find our greatest similarities. The little girl, seen from afar, had an unintentional impact in cultivating my perception of language and place. That’s perhaps where comprehension best comes from immersion: from the impact of the natural or manmade landscape and the way it shapes understanding when language alone offers resistance.
Language, landscape, custom: these three components will forever remain powerfully embedded in my memory.
Marilee K. Gloe has a Master of Arts in Cultural Sustainability. Working with Indigenous cultures, she focuses on cultural capital resources, natural resource preservation, and biodiversity. In the Caribbean she assists in the development of ecologically sustainable small-scale aquaponics to reduce coral reef degradation and ensure food security.
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