A Love Letter to the Desert


CC: Rob Maroni

Caves in the Petra Archeological Site. “The caves that pockmark the mountainsides, inhabited for millennia, are now mostly empty.”

Maya Maroni, Contributor

“You really love the desert?” Hadi asked quizzically, wrapping his head around the idea after I went on about the landscapes of Jordan, my childhood, once again. The greens of my summer in Lebanon flashed by. Joyously shaped fig leaves dangling at the river’s edge. Young Cercis siliquastrum, a Judas tree, towering playfully. Air punctuated with pine. Blooming spanish broom. Mountains rolling out with oak. 

“Yeah, I do.”


We raced, Mira and I, up the mountain, shrieking with laughter as we weaved around the hulking stone. It wasn’t a real competition though, my sister has always been the more fearless climber. At a shelf in the rock we stopped, surveying our surroundings from a newfound height. I ran my hands over the rough sandstone as if it was I who was swirling together its reds, purples, and oranges. Across from us, not far but not within throwing distance, the same melting red rock formed an imposing cliff. Out to our left the wadi – valley – opened up to well trodden orange sand, stone buildings and some merchant tents just out of sight. We had found ourselves a new throne. 

And then the call to dinner. So we clambered down the way we came, toward the bleating goats.

Manal welcomed us inside with affectionate kisses and her bright smile. 

Yalla, sit, sit.” 

Greeting her brothers, I lowered myself onto the carpeted floor next to Manal. A few minutes later, her mother brought out a steaming platter of rice and chicken, the single heaping dish which we would all eat from. My mouth watered at the scents of cardamom, clove, and cumin that danced from the dish. It was my first time staying with Manal in Petra, one of Jordan’s most visited archeological sites. Most of the people living in Wadi Musa – the large valley which holds Petra’s main attractions – were forced to relocate to a village in the mountains above, to protect the historical site and make way for tourists. The caves that pockmark the mountainsides, inhabited for millennia, are now mostly empty. 

Manal’s family is one of the few that were allowed to remain, and they now rely on these tourists to make a living. Without any windows, the room’s gently curved walls were dimly lit by just two bare lightbulbs. This room was the largest I had seen, the family gathering place and a space to receive guests. One of Manal’s brothers had kindly given up his room next door, carved into the sandstone cliff, for us to sleep in that night. 

Tfadhali,” Manal’s mother said, referring to the food – go ahead. 

The way she yelled at rogue donkeys, voice rasping, cigarette dangling from her lips, made me nervous. But I think the language barrier confounded this – I didn’t speak Arabic. The wrinkles around her eyes were kind, and her meals lengthily and lovingly prepared. Throughout dinner, I longed to hear her stories of the generation before. What must life have been like here before her donkeys became tourist shuttles? Between handfuls of rice, in proud smiling Arabic, she said, “My goats are the strongest. The strongest goats come from here in Petra.” I took her words to be true. Just look how the goats’ hooves clatter across the steepest mountainside, I thought. We laughed at the idea that Mira and I were just like the goats, at home in the rocky desert. 

We still spent a lot of time hiking and camping around Jordan in those days. In the spring we often went north towards Iraq and Syria, where the rolling hills held soft grass and wildflowers between small oak groves. And in the fall we would go South to Wadi Rum, where great mountains of sandstone rise out of the expansive desert. In between, we would drive an hour to the Dead Sea to hike through one of the wadis that feeds it, one that water still trickles through. 

From the side of the road, Mira and I would scamper forward to follow the water up, darting past the initial black pipes and litter, quickly abandoning our shoes to walk barefoot in the shallow stream. It was always us who led the group, pushing forward with happy fervour. Stopping only to climb the tallest rocks and splash in the deepest pools. Around the stream, crackling green poked through the beige, rocky earth. Sometimes, where the water welled slightly deeper, or burst through the wadi’s walls, a palm or an oleander would grow. 

There’s a real beauty in the desert, however dry and lifeless it can seem. It is where the sun, life’s energy, is so strong that life’s blood, water, is scarce. The two forces that bestow life upon this planet are in a constant dance. As water’s surface glimmers in the sun, an attraction forms, so great that water is pulled up towards the sky. It is this almost fatal attraction that drives life in the desert. Life has learned when water is devoted to the sun, and when to the earth. 

“Look! A frog!” Mira bounced in excitement, crouching in the shade of a hefty boulder. 

The large stone, twice my height, would have been placed here by a rushing flash flood. Jordan is a vast landscape of varied deserts, brown ones, white ones, red, and black ones too. Like this wadi, many of them have water to thank for their current shapes. Flowing water forms grooves in the landscape, which become gathering places for the many life forms there. Where water is not visible to us, the scattering of plant life alludes to it, as trees and shrubs draw water up from deep inside the earth and hold it there for others. Increasingly though, the landscape is being leached of water, in the process of ‘desertification’, fertile land sucked dry. Many miles of horizon are brown with raw earth, eroding, and a layer of dust. Picnicking in Azraq,  we would chase glimmering mirages of lakes in the distance, riding our bikes across the miles of cracked clay that were once wetland. They call it “mismanagement,” the way Azraq’s wetland was pumped nearly dry; the way the Dead Sea shrinks each year, not enough water flowing through the Jordan river and other surrounding wadis to feed it; the way hills are now permanently beige from overgrazing, too many goats eating too many of the plants that hold water in place. 

Perhaps this is why Hadi struggled to imagine my deep love for the desert, associating the landscapes with ‘desertification.’ But a true desert is coursing with water, life flowing through its veins. Even in Wadi Rum, where sand can blow across the landscape for miles, and where I have seen liquid water only once, it is there. After hours of playing in the dunes, Mira and I would sit and burrow our hands deep into the sand. The grains we met were cool with moisture, a sharp contrast to the blanket of red radiating in the sun.

Most life there emerges at nightfall, once the scorching sun has relented and water can evade evaporation. In the darkness, water droplets condense on the leaves of plants and feed the insects and small mammals that emerge. The bedouin, like Manal’s family, who live in southern Jordan, in Wadi Rum and Petra and beyond, once followed the water. They know which wadis always run with rain water in the winter. They knew, some still do, which plants to dig beneath to find small underground streams. 

Since statehood, when the Europeans drew borders across the land, Jordan’s landscapes have been bled dry. Much of the water scarcity in Jordan is caused by the same force that drives Bedouin out of caves or tents and into concrete buildings. Water can be scarce in the desert, so the largely nomadic peoples learned to listen to the landscape, traveling across the vast horizon in search of new water and allowing the land to replenish itself upon their departure. Today, however, privatization, arbitrary borders, and new laws make it difficult to sustain this lifestyle. Industrialization and capitalism have brought on the commodification of land, abstracting it, detaching it from the lives inherent to it. Water’s “mismanagement” is really an act of forgetting, and one of uprooting. Forgetting the ways of life that existed before colonization and forgetting the knowledge that is so deeply rooted in the landscape.

From our house in Amman, the arid land folded out in front of us, down and across far away. Mostly it was just space, sky and dust between us and the scorched hills that seemed to go on forever. In the afternoons Mira and I used to wait in excitement for the goat herds to pass. I suppose we were quite like them back then, undeterred by thorny thickets or the beating sun, skipping through the crispy grass and criss-crossing steep banks of eroding hillside. 

How many hours we must have spent, playing in the wide plunging valley just across the street, climbing olive and the few struggling pine trees, building secret forts in the canopied oaks. The sight of a herd, slowly traversing the landscape, was always a happy one. The thought of a life spent wandering the hills.