Palmyra, Petra and the Islamic State
Almost forty years ago, I, Mats, Stefan, Hasse and Boris travelled through Europe, Turkey, Syria and Lebanon; a great, tumultuous journey. When I remember that trip it is like I directed the beam of a flashlight towards the corners of a dark room. In the inky darkness a bygone world is lit up. My memories might be utterly distorted, but they appear as clear and sharp. I'm amazed at how precise and defined they can be. After all, it is far back in time. I have a feeling as if I stood and watched a wide field. I have a dog with me:
- Retrieve! I order him.
The dog runs out into the memory terrain and wagging his tail returns with a memory in his mouth. First, I look with astonishment at his find. Yes! It is from Palmyra. Palmyra - since the twenty-third of May this year it is in the power of the IS maniacs.
Like so much else these strange people undertake it hurts down deep inside of me when I thinking about those murderers and Palmyra. How can such creatures with joy and conviction behead innocent people, or mow them down with machine guns in Baghdad, Beirut, Mosul and Paris - cut off the threads of life for young people who barely have begun to live? These mighty warriors of the Lord, these incomprehensible fanatics who high up in the sky rip unsuspecting tourists to pieces, defile and rape young girls, lacerate and hurt them for life.Try to explain their God to me, I doubt if you can. How might anyone honestly believe in a divine creature who rewards torturers and murderers after their death?
Who do IS warriors believe they are serving? What is their God like? Possibly it might be Iblis, The Despairing One, who will meet them after death, because if there was a life after this one, such murderers and rapists ought indeed despair about the possibility of mercy. Or perhaps they meet Shaitan, The Accuser, for accused they have to be. Look their victims deep into their eyes and in their own darkened souls experience how hatred and despair of people whose lives they have destroyed burns and tears them to pieces. For they can hardly meet with Allah; for which of His ninety-nine names could be applied to any of those wretches - the Merciful, the Beneficent, the Infinitely Good, the One Who Blesses, the Source of Peace, the Eternally Forgiving One, the Most Just of All, the Giver of Shame, His Friend´s Support ...? Choose any of God's names you may fancy and apply it to anyone of those wretches, calling themselves Da´ish´s Mujahideen. Does the name fit? Hardly. Would the God who created us all in His image display any benevolence to such criminals? Give them rewards?
Palmyra? As I remember it, we and the museum wardens were the only ones out there in the desert heat. We were amazed, overwhelmed. We had not expected anything like that. Zenobia´s fabled kingdom was opening up before us, like a vast mirage in the centre of the desert. We were there without knowing why we had been granted the favour of experiencing something as strange as that. Alone we stumbled under arches, between soaring pillars and down into tomb shafts. In the museum we watched mysterious, unveiled, two thousand year old Arab ladies, where custodians in every room, after having ensured that their colleagues were not in the vicinity, from their deep pockets took out Roman coins, cylinder seals and other curiosities which they claimed to be several thousand years old as well – they probably were.
Are those magnificent busts still there? Probably not. I assume they have been smashed by IS. After they had stormed into the ancient city, a world heritage site belonging to the entire humanity, the leader of the IS-horde inside Palmyra, Abu Laith al-Saoudy, declared magnanimously:
Concerning the historic city we will preserve it and it will not be harmed, God willing. What we will do is break the idols that infidels used to worship. The historic buildings will not be touched and we will not bring bulldozers to destroy them like some people think.
I assume he has kept his promise to destroy the "idols", in any case, we know that a sculpture of a lion outside entrance to the museum has been smashed to pieces, how it looks inside no one seems to know outside of Palmyra. However, we know that the promise to protect the world heritage was a brazen lie – the tombs of two Muslim saints were blown up, followed by the large Temple of Bel from 32 AD, which had been one of the world´s best preserved Roman-Syrian monuments, now gone forever. It was quickly followed suite by the equally unique and unusually elegant temple of Baal Shamin, dedicated to a Phoenician divinity. And why would you trust a madman who does not have any concern for neither culture nor human lives? A week after Abu Laith al-Saoudys pack of murderers had occupied Palmyra it became known in Homs that 90 people were executed in the small town, including eleven children.
In late June, IS staged and filmed an unusually brutal performance at Palmyra´s amphitheatre. Beaten and humiliated twenty-five Government soldiers were paraded in front of the packed grandstand before they were forced to kneel in a row on the stage. Then a group of young boys, all under fifteen years of age, solemnly came marching in. They were all dressed in identical sand-coloured uniforms and rust-coloured bandannas. Each one placed himself behind a kneeling soldier, raised a handgun and fired it simultaneously with the other youngsters against the head of the condemned man in front of him. Then they marched out in silence while the soldiers' bloody bodies remained on the stage. What demented director is able to collect twenty-five young boys and make them perform such a well-orchestrated abomination?
The destruction and slaughter continues unabated. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova has expressed her "great distress" over the destruction of Palmyra, but points out that the act "cannot wipe out 4,500 years of history." Aha … and what does that mean? Nothing special I guess. I assume it is possible to wipe out history in several different manners, chipping away a little piece at a time so to speak, among other actions by blowing up ancient monuments and coming up with nonsensical statements. What comfort can be found in an assurance that 4500 years of history cannot disappear? What does time consist of? It is a highly elusive concept. A temple or any other a work of art, exists until it is destroyed. An explosive device and then it is gone. Lost for ever.
I do not remember how long I and my comrades were out there in the shimmering heat. We had arrived by regular bus and before we went back, we ate supper in a shady oasis, where small brooks rippled through an intricately landscaped canal system, in which the water regularly was forced to change direction. It was Ramadan, but as in so many other places in Syria the restaurant owner offered us cold beer. It was called Al-Shark and brewed in Aleppo, richer in taste than the Barada we got in Damascus. I should not have taken that beer. We had barely finished eating when the bus honked, we quickly gulped down the beer and rushed towards the bus.
It was a long drive to Homs. As we arrived last of all the only places left were in the back where the air was heavy and stuffy. In front of us, the aisle was packed with passengers and bundles. When some kind of highway patrol appeared along the way someone made a sign, and the people standing in the aisle crouched down so the cops would not be able to see that the bus was overloaded, a strange precaution since the policemen must have known it was the case.
Time passed, the heat vibrated, the bus was shaking, sweat broke out on my brow and hours of pain and suffering began. My comrades were also tormented the heat, but contrary to me they had had the wits to visit the toilet before departing. My agony was increasing with every minute. I could not possibly squeeze myself between my fellow- passengers and trip over their bundles and baskets and if I against all odds managed to make my way to the driver, I would have to explain to him why I demanded a break and if I succeeded with that I had to relieve myself on the flat stone plain, in full sight of all passengers. Something that was definitely out of the question.
I had to endure the agony and after two hours the lights of Homs glimmered in the distance, but the desert journey was not over yet, it lasted for another eternity. Nevertheless, everything comes to an end. The bus slowed down and finally stopped, passengers and luggage were budged out into the night and finally it was our turn to breathe fresh air. The comrades had also been suffering during the last leg of the journey, but nowhere near as bad as I had. They left relieved the smelly urinal, but I was left alone. Outside the bus was honking. I had got the cramps! I limped out, waved desperately to my friends and was left alone in the dark night of Homs, while they continued their journey towards Damascus. I stood in the road and saw the bus disappear in a cloud of dust, not knowing how I was going to spend the night.
Mats and Stefan had been teasing Hasse and me after we had started to dress in burnous, something we praised as an excellent garment since we could walk around naked in the desert heat, without anyone noticing it. Furthermore, the air fanned nicely around our legs when we walked.
The burnous once again proved itself to be well adapted to local conditions. The cramps allowed me to, only at long intervals, free myself from a few drops of liquid, meaning that I occasionally discreetly distanced myself from the crowd, leaned slightly forward and released some drops, an activity I devoted more than an hour to - until I finally was fit enough to find a lift down to Damascus. The night was now so far advanced that the buses had stopped running south. Oddly enough, I received a lift with some shepherds and spent the trip down to Damascus in the company of a bleating and smelling bunch of sheep. In the early morning I found my way to the hotel and my slightly worried comrades.
Why did I tell such a ridiculous story in connection with the tragedy in Syria? Maybe it is an intent to make it intelligible for myself that places I have been to, where I have experienced mundane, and occasionally somewhat ridiculous incidents, where I have had a good time and met good-hearted and nice people, that such places have been turned into incomprehensible infernos. Like when I a few minutes ago turned on the TV and saw how a hotel in Bamako had been stormed by a group of fanatical terrorists. The times I ended up in that town I lived at Hotel Azalaï Salam, that in those days was an elegant place down by the Niger River, in the foyer a man used to play the kora, Mali's twelve-stringed harp. However, one night I ended up at Radisson Blu, which was more luxurious, but a rather boring place. It was there that twenty-two people were killed during a terrorist attack. I who enjoyed working in Mali and found most people I met there so sympathetic.
When I recently wrote about the beer in Palmyra came memories of Aleppo, along with Damascus probably the world's oldest continuously inhabited city. Aleppo was our first meeting with Syria. We got there late at night after a long palaver at the border, where people had been unusually irritable and upset since it was Ramadan, dusk had fallen and everyone wanted to come home and eat. What delayed travellers and customs officers was a Bohemian crystal chandelier that someone refused to pay duty on and the episode had degenerated into a public quarrel. I do not remember how we found a rather wretched room in a large tenement house with galleries encircling an enclosed courtyard.
Aleppo was lively, exotic and exciting. We wandered around in the city, visiting the citadel, which lay isolated on a rock in the middle of the town. We walked in the Souq, visited the museum where ancient deities stood stiffly on the backs of bulls and lions - Baal, Hadad and Astarte. We came to the old mosque, saw churches and synagogues and crumbling Ottoman wooden houses, many with lavishly carved second floors shooting out over lively streets. Everything seemed to be quite depilated and run-down, but the food was great and people friendly. Already at that time we found English speaking café guests talking politics and considering themselves as separated from the power clique in Damascus. They hated the Assad family and wanted a "liberated" Aleppo.
Now, mosques and churches are demolished. The Syrian army remains in the western parts of the city while various rebel forces are controlling the eastern section, between them lies a devastated No Man's Land. The huge Al-Medina Souq the ancient bazaar which was part of the World Heritage is now ruined and so are parts of the large Aleppo mosque. Most of the Ottoman houses have been burned down. Here in Rome I know a Finnish lady who with her husband once bought an Ottoman house in Aleppo and for several years they invested their savings in its restoration. They hired a Turkish architect to oversee the meticulous refurbishment, it had to be as genuine as possible. The house was completed, but was destroyed in the fierce fighting in the summer of 2012.
Fanatical jihad fighters mingled with democratically motivated resistance fighters, while government forces mercilessly bombarded residential neighbourhoods, where soldiers and militia fought from house to house. More than 13 000 people have been killed in the city, many of them small children. Looting and destruction everywhere, hunger and disease, while fanatics in the "liberated areas" are carrying out arbitrary executions, trying to impose their own versions of sharia law, government troops are from their quarters tormenting other defenceless persons.
We could not have imagined what would happen in Aleppo long after we had left. We did not know anything about the devil's seed germinating under the ground, to eventually sprout in irrational violence and fanaticism. An upsetting image is however still with me. During one of the first evenings in Aleppo, I saw a man in his thirties, he sat in the light from a lamppost. On the ground in front of him was an empty tin plate. He sat in a wooden box on wheels and the pull cord winded around the plate. He had no legs and beneath his box was a puddle of urine. His face was dark and the chin covered with stubble, the whites of his eyes shone in the dim light while he intensely looked at me.
A couple of years ago, when the suffering was taking off in earnest in Syria and people poured over the borders into Jordan, I was in Amman. One day I went with a taxi down to Petra and Wadi Rum. Occasionally, we followed the legendary Hejaz Railway track where it ran straight through the desert, once it went all the way down to Medina, but now it turns westward north of the village of Barqat Al Mudawwarah, just north of the Saudi Arabian border.
Along a particularly desolate stretch of the railway, I asked the taxi driver to make a stop so I could take a picture. T.H. Lawrence claimed that he and his Arab guerrillas during the First World War blew up no less 79 bridges along the Hejaz track and I remember the magnificent scenes in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, when Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif with sweeping cloaks rode on proud camels across picturesque sand dunes.
In his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom Lawrence describes how he and his men lay hidden on a hill above the village of Mudawwarah, watching how a Turkish train pulled by two locomotives approached in the valley down below and how they detonated an explosive charge placed under a bridge:
…… As I watched, our machine-guns chattered out over my head, and the long rows of Turks on the carriage roofs rolled over, and were swept off the top like bales of cotton before the furious shower of bullets which stormed along the roofs and splashed clouds of yellow chips from the planking.
….his second shot fell just by the trucks in the deep hollow below the bridge where the Turks were taking refuge. It made a shambles of the place. The survivors of the group broke out in a panic across the desert, throwing away their rifles and equipment as they ran. This was the opportunity of the Lewis gunners. The survivors of the group broke out in a panic across the desert, throwing away their rifles and equipment as they ran. This was the opportunity of the Lewis gunners. The sergeant grimly traversed with drum after drum, till the open sand was littered with bodies.
… The bridge was gone; and into its gap was fallen the front waggon, which had been filled with sick. The smash had killed all but three or four and had rolled dead and dying into a bleeding heap against the splintered end. One of those yet alive deliriously cried out the word typhus.
…The valley was a weird sight. The Arabs, gone raving mad, were rushing about at top speed bareheaded and half-naked, screaming, shooting into the air, clawing one another nail and fist, while they burst open trucks and staggered back and forward with immense bales, which they ripped by the rail-side, and tossed through, smashing what they did not want. The train had been packed with refugees and sick men, volunteers for boat-service on the Euphrates, and families of Turkish officers returning to Damascus.
… Seeing me tolerably unemployed, the women rushed, and caught at me with howls for mercy. I assured them that all was going well: but they would not get away till some husbands delivered me. These knocked their wives off and seized my feet in a very agony of terror of instant death. A Turk so broken down was a nasty spectacle: I kicked them off as well as I could with bare feet, and finally broke free.
… one, in English, begged for a doctor for his wounds. We had none: not that it mattered, for he was mortally hurt and dying. I told them the Turks would return in an hour and care for them. But he was dead before that, as were most of the others, because some dispute broke out between them and my own bodyguard, and one of them fired a pistol shot at young Rahail. My infuriated men cut them down, all but two or three, before I could return to interfere.
There are several similar nasty scenes in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, just as coldly told. The worst is when Lawrence and his companions attack a contingent of retreating Turkish troops, who during their retreat had massacred the inhabitants of several villages. Shocked and upset Lawrence had order his men that no mercy should be given. All four thousand Turks were slaughtered and not even those who gave themselves in without a fight were spared: “We turned our Hotchkiss [machine gun] on the prisoners,” he noted in his battlefield report, “and made an end of them.” Lawrence was even more explicit about his actions in Seven Pillars of Wisdom: “In a madness born of the horror of Tafas we killed and killed, even blowing in the heads of the fallen and of the animals, as though their death and running blood could slake our agony.”
While I was looking down the track of the Hejaz Railway the taxi driver appeared at my side. He spoke excellent English and on our way back to the car we talked about Lawrence of Arabia. Just like me he had seen the movie several times and he liked it a lot, perhaps mostly due to Omar Sharif and the fact that it had been shot in Wadi Rum, an area he knew quite well since he was born and raised not far from there. I wondered if it was a town or a village he came from and it turned out that he had been born in Ma'an, located southeast of Petra. It is one of the remaining train stations by the Hejaz Railway.
- Ma'an is the district capital and it has a fine university, he noted with pride.
- Did you go there?
- Yes, I studied English there. After my graduation I moved to Amman.
- You speak very good English.
- Do you really think so? he lit up by the praise and added:
- I work a lot with foreigners.
Then he shook his shoulders and gazed up at the sky:
- Everything will be destroyed.
According to the driver, whose name I unfortunately have forgotten, his hometown was filled with religious fanatics
- Some of my old friends and neighbours have been infected, perhaps the religious plague is worse there than in any other place in Jordan.
We had returned to the car and continued our drive through the flat desert landscape. The friendly driver claimed that every day he pondered about what could happen to his Ma'an. Earlier during our journey he had interestedly asked me a lot of questions about Sweden, but now it was his turn to talk about his country and the concerns he had about its future:
- You see what's happening in Syria. It will get worse. In this country, we say that nothing will happen to us. Here we have the Americans and we trust our king.
He laughed, went silent and did not say anything for a few minutes. I was silent as well, while I wondered what he would say next.
- Bah, all that misplaced optimism does not at all apply to me. I am worried. Very worried. Just look at Ma'an. Young people down there do not have any hope at all. Politicians are corrupt, the police are corrupt. The Government must help the youngsters living down there, if the authorities continue as they do now and just send police and security people, everything will turn sour, become worse and worse. Very bad.
He sighed, he was not particular old himself, not more than thirty years of age.
- I'm fine, but those who run around in the streets of Ma'an have no job. They become cocky if someone cares about them. Adolescents are like that. Do not think otherwise.
- What attracts them?
He gave me a quick glance:
- Young people want something to do, be admired, make money. That's what they want. Someone to care about them. They drift, do drugs, but if someone were to place a Kalashnikov into their hands and tell them they're better than everyone else, that they represent God on earth, then they would become overjoyed. I'm not saying it's alright, just telling the truth.
- Are you not worried?
- You know ... there has always been trouble.
- How come?
- You have seen Lawrence of Arabia. In the desert there has always been groups that made war on each other. Islam or Umma, Palestinians and Jordanians, Salafi or Wahhabi, all that become unimportant when it comes around to your clan. Your family is always closest to you. Out in the desert your family is above everything else. When I went to school and college townspeople were bantering the Bedouins, who quarrelled among themselves. Everyone knew who was who, where we belonged. When I was a kid they sent the military down there. The State has never liked the Bedouins, no one can force them into the fold, to become part of the flock of common sheep. But now the picture is changing. Change comes from the outside. Soon Jordan is burning.
Again he gazed straight ahead. The road now ran through a flat, empty landscape, gravel and rock as far as you could see
- We are talking about the future, but those guys have no future. They do not have it now and they will not get any future either. They are duped, from beginning to end.
Beyond Ma'an lies Saudi Arabia and towering over the flat, barren desert, are the vast highlands of Najd, in whose centre the cauldron once bubbled that would eventually give rise to the bitches´ brew that now seeps in everywhere across the Middle East, perhaps all the world. In a small village in Najd, Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab was born in 1703 as the son of a mufti, a scholar who adhered to the strictest of the Islamic law schools, the Hanbali. Abd al Wahhab studied theology in the port city of Basra and in Medina, where found himself at the same time as Shah Waliullah Dehlawi, from Delhi, who also was born in 1703. Together they studied the writings of the medieval theologian Ibn Taymiyyah who portrayed Islam as almost hopelessly corrupt after the disappearance of the "pious ancestors", Al Salaf. Ibn Taymiyyah stated that it was the duty of every true Muslim to ruthlessly fight all opponents to the true faith; a battle of life and death. A conviction requiring a thorough cleansing of the entire world and it could only take place if the State and Islam became firmly united. Society's mission should be to combat and forbid all evil, and make way for a civilisation entirely devoted to God.
A point of view enthusiastically embraced by Abd al Wahhab and Shah Waliullah, the first spread Ibn Taymiyyah´s message across the Arabian peninsula, while the second brought it to the Indian peninsula. The Indian version soon came to be known as Daobandi and in the mountain regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan it mixed with the traditional lifestyle of the Pashtun people and gave rise to the Taliban movement, Taliban comes from the Arabic talib, student. Fanatical Arab fighters like Bin Laden had quite a lot in common with their Taliban allies when they joined forces to fight against Russians, Americans, Communists and Shiites.
While Shah Waliullah preached in Indian mosques, Abd al Wahhab travelled from city to village in Arabia, often driven away since he angered people by attacking their piety, demanding that the saints´ tombs and mosques erected to honour the memory of devout men and women had to be demolished. The negative tone of his preaching could make people furious, and when Abd al Wahhab inspired and participated in the stoning of an “adulteress” he was driven away from his home village. However, the Emir Muhammad Ibn Sa'ud, leader of a clan in the nearby oasis of Diriyah, present-day Riyadh, recognized the benefits to be gained from joining forces with a staunch preacher like Abd al Wahhab. Ibn Sa'ud invited him to Diriyah and questioned Abd al Wahhab what he might be offering him in exchange for the emir´s protection. The zealot replied: "If you swear me an oath that you will wage jihad to spread Islam at the expense of the infidels, I will make you a leader of righteous Muslims, provided that you let me rule in religious matters." And so it became. In Ibn Taymiyyah´s spirit Abd al Wahhab preached that without a strong leader, and strict rules, Islam would not triumph over the polytheists, to whom he also counted Muslims who did not follow his specific line of thought and practice.
Abd al Wahhab's own brother, Sulayman, asked him: "How many are the pillars of Islam?" "Five." "Then you must be wrong, my dear brother, since according to you Islam has six pillars, the sixth is that you are always right." Sulayman initiated a rebellion against his own brother and his protector Muhammad Ibn Sa'ud, but lost since the adversaries were better disciplined and moreover shared the booty fairly between themselves.
The alliance between the "House of Sa´ud" and the Wahhabis has persisted ever since, but it has been a constant predicament. The austere and authoritarian Wahhabism has survived due to the unwavering support of the Sa´ud family, but within the ranks of the Wahhabi there is a simmering criticism of the ruling family's good living and its friendship with infidel powers, such as England, and now the United States.
When the Saudis have been threatened, they have been able to call up their faithful Wahhabis, for example, the zealous Ikhwan, The Brothers, who selflessly fought for the House of Sa´ud they considered to be the Saudi surrender to English money, modernism and good living. 'Abdelaziz Al Sa'ud however received help from the Wahhabi power elite, as well as the British army and air force, to defeat the disgruntled Wahhabis.
The Saudis both thrive through and are threatened by the Wahhabis. During the pilgrimage month of 1979 the Grand Mosque of Mecca was occupied by a group of armed Salafi, which pious Wahhabis prefer to call themselves. They did it in protest against the "decadent House of Sa´ud", which according to them was not worthy of protecting the Holy City. One again supported by the Wahhabi establishment the House of Sa´ud was able to overcome the crisis, at the cost of at least 5,000 dead insurgents.
It has often been said that the religious repression in Saudi Arabia, with its harsh censorship, public executions and denial of women's rights are concessions to the Wahhabis to secure their centuries-old support to the House of Sa´ud. It has been argued, not least by people from security services and dissident Arabs, that what is believed to be Saudi support to terrorists and extremist parties is an intent to control them, so they are not tempted to attack the Saudi family, whose members are well aware of the fact that many of them are far from being any upright and pious Wahhabis.
It is now more than three years ago I was in Jordan and I fear that the driver was right. At least it would not surprise me if some of the young people down in Ma'an now solidarize with IS, about whom I did not hear anything at the time. It was not until the day before yesterday, after the massacre in Paris, that I recalled the conversation in the car on my way to Petra.
I and the driver had dinner together at a restaurant owned by one of his relatives. They became offended when I wanted to pay. After we had arrived in El-Gi, the village just outside of Petra, the driver told me he would pick me up at six o'clock. After several fascinating hours I entered the deep ravine which between tall, orange rock walls leads into Petra. I turned around to catch a last glimpse of Al Kazneh, the temple that first greets the visitor to Petra.
I took one last picture, looked at my watch and realized that now I must hurry to meet with the driver. Suddenly, blocking my way was a bearded man who ordered me in excellent English:
- Give me the camera!
At first I did not understand what he meant. Did he want rob me in the middle of the tourist flow?
- Give me the camera! he repeated threateningly, adding furiously:
- You took pictures of my wife!
- Your wife?
- Yes, you photographed my wife. On purpose!
He pointed to a black spectre by his side. Someone covered from crown to foot by a niqab.
- Hand over the camera so I can remove the photograph! he shouted at top of his voice.
Now I was furious. Probably my previous conversation with the taxi driver rose up like a genie in my mind. This furious guy was maybe one of those crazy fanatics who in the near future would destroy the beautiful and hospitable Jordan? What kind of person could it be? Someone who spoke an excellent English and covered his wife with stifling black linen in the desert heat and then had the nerve to attack a stranger who inadvertently and unknowingly had shot a photo his Halloween attired spouse.
- Hand over the camera immediately! he shouted once again while people started to gather around us.
- What makes you think you can order me to give my camera to you? Are you mad?
- You should show some respect! he bellowed.
- Respect, for whom? now I was furious and my face certainly bright red.
- For my wife!
- For your wife? Where is she?
I do not know what came over me, probably I was spurred by the presence of the surrounding crowd of tourists, some of whom most likely understood what the excited altercation was about. Without thinking, I shouted at the disagreeable, bearded pipsqueak:
- Do you mean that thing hidden under a veil over there? The way it´s covered up I guess no one can tell whether it´s your wife or a camel!
I did not realize that I was living dangerously and that the Taliban could have thrown himself over me, unless a Jordanian guard and his colleague had not appeared. The colleague went up to the bearded fanatic, while the Jordanian officer turned to me and in English quietly asked what the commotion was all about. As well as I could, I explained what had happened. I could not determine whether the officer agreed with my point of view or not. He asked me to show him the photo I had taken of the veiled woman, something I could not refuse to do, and with trembling hands, I found the picture - there was no veiled lady in front of Al Kazneh. For some reason the officer now got very upset, strode up to the fundamentalist and began to scold him in Arabic, at the same time as he motioned to me to hurry away from the place.
With the blood pounding against my temples, I walked with long, quick strides towards El-Gi where the driver was waiting for me at the entrance to Petra. For some reason I was ashamed of the incident and did not tell him what had happened. Surely I had been thoughtless and foolhardy, but when I think back at the episode I am still angry with the insolent fool. He had covered his wife in niqab so people could not see her - what was then the problem if someone happened to photograph her? How may religion harm the human brain in such an unreasonable manner? It must be as the driver said - some kind of infectious disease that strikes out certain brain functions.
Allen, Charles (2007) God's Terrorists: The Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad. London: Abacus. Baer, Robert (2004) Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude. New York: Three Rivers Press. Lawrence, T. E. (2000) Seven Pillars of Wisdom. London: Penguin Classics. Menoret, Pascal (2010) Arabie: Des routes de l'encens à l'ère du pétrole. Paris: Gallimard.