From a distance, he appears as a white dot. As we climb closer, he gets bigger, and the white dot turns into the outline of a man perched on a ledge. His feet dangle off it, and he wears a white robe with a white and red tasseled turban of sorts wrapped around his head. He’s got what looks like slippers on his feet. As we climb the final few steps, we see his brown skin and the lines through it. His eyes crinkle at their edges as he smiles our way. He makes his living off people like us, tourists who come from across the globe to see the ancient city cut into the rocks. Petra. But before tourists ever came with their dollars, Bedouin filled Petra. They lived off the land and from their animal herds. Today, the Bedouin still live in Petra, in far fewer numbers, but most do not inhabit the caves as they once did. They sleep in modern tents, the kind American campers use, or housing the Jordanian government built for them. They make their living from the industry Petra generates not by doing anything but simply by being the historic, remarkable place that it is. People need to lead the horses on which tourists’ ride, to give them tours, to lead them on camels so that they can take pictures that they will go home and show friends, to sell them souvenirs. The Bedouin are happy to oblige. Not only do they make their money from this, money they use to feed their families, but they enjoy it, too. They believe that blessings follow guests, and to turn someone away is unthinkable — not an option. Guests are from God. The old ways for them are fading, though. Few sleep as all Bedouin once did on summer nights: under the stars, stretched out on a bedroll placed on a rock somewhere.
“Welcome!” the man says to us. He’s short, thin and dark as all the people here seem to be in this ancient city where the ghosts of something great, the Nabataeans, roam in their old capital city. But he has a swagger, too. He’s proud to show us this place, the monastery. He’s the only one here. At his urging, we move toward the tables. On them, spread out across multiple tables, are the goods he tries to sell us — Petra souvenirs and stuffed camels and plastic bracelets and necklaces. A generator keeps the small refrigerator filled with cans of pop and water cold. Those too are for sale, along with a small rack chips and popcorn are clipped to. Down below tables fill parts of Petra where the natives sell their goods all day. From a nice-looking Bedouin who knew little English but said it so enthusiastically (and wrongly) that I found it sweet I bought a small turtle with brilliant swirls of color through it. The man told me proudly that it’s made from the rocks there, “all natural.” I picked it up, examined it and knew I had to have it. It wasn’t tacky, like some of the other things. It was cool—really cool—because it was in a way like holding a little piece of Petra itself. So I paid my 10 dinars for the rock, giving my money to the now even happier man with the dark and beautiful eyes and tucked it into my bag. My dad was just as happy receiving it as I was discovering it.
But up by the monastery, it’s just this one man, who looks almost old but moves quickly, and his tables. It seems strange that here, a place that’s even remote by Petra standards, a place you have to hike to, is a business man. It looks incongruent. From this vantage point, Petra is spread out in a sweeping view, something you can take in as a panorama. And it’s incredible. The golden brown desert under the almost-setting sun, the smattering of ink-black holes in the rock ledges where the caves were cut for tombs and later used as homes. I sadly thought, as I always think in moments such as this, that I’d probably never be back, that my brain and heart better wrap themselves around this moment, absorb it the best they can and remember it always. A cool evening breeze blows past us all up here, a welcome relief from the hot sun we felt at midday. The sky’s taking on a different color now as the sun begins to set, and the sound ebbs from Petra as the tourists ebb away, too. The hoof beats on the packed ground from the horses pulling carts filled with tourists sound more distant and infrequent. The stillness feels palpable now, as if these great rocks breathe a sigh of relief once everyone’s gone home for the day. Petra, I realize, is returning to the place it once was for hundreds of years. And because we’re laggers, and got a late start to our day, we get to see it change. A blessing I never could have foreseen.