12 Faces and 12 short stories from the Holy Land

Sand in a Bottle

From his tent, he silently looks at ancient Petra: the camels, the Bedouins, the old buildings, the palm trees. Born in a world of sand, his hands have learned how to use it, transform it, shape it.

He doesn’t talk very much, and he doesn’t really look for tourists’ attention. He stays there knowing that people will eventually approach him, fascinated by his art, while he is doing his magic, an old tradition learned from his ancestors.

“Once you have learned how to do it, you can literally draw anything you want in the sand.”

One can but think on how God shapes us. “For you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Just dust, indeed, so that God can shape us in any way we let Him do it. In the words of Augustine, “the one who created you is also the one who knows what he wants you to be.”

"It Flies!"

One of the most beautiful and breathtaking places on Earth is the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan. Its red, fine, silky sand makes one feel close to infinity: the ancient rock formations, the endless sky, the silence.

Riding our ATV, we eventually approach a Bedouin tent to fly our drone. The sound of the propellers breaks the silence as it takes off the ground. A kid runs out of the tent:

“It flies!” he shouts. And then he runs after the drone. “It flies!"

He just can’t stop looking, running, shouting, sharing his wonder and joy. And I just can’t stop thinking that no matter where we come from, we all experience the same calling: the call of the sky, something calling us higher, something that calls us from above, the deep desire of being more than what we are.

We know, but we often forget, that we are made for flying. Flying over our current circumstances, flying over the spiritual desert we so often experience in life. We are expected to “soar on eagles' wings,” as the prophet Isaiah puts it.

Yes, kid, it flies. And so do we.

A Bedouin Proverb

There is a Bedouin proverb that has been preserved through generations. It goes, more or less, like this:

“If somebody comes to your tent, and he is in need, you have the duty to welcome him, give him shelter where he can rest and sleep, and give him something to eat and drink, but you are not allowed to even ask his name before two weeks time.”

In the generosity of this people and their welcoming ways, this proverb becomes quotidian practice. It bears witness to Abraham’s own hospitality.

"Kajal"

I can’t stop looking at this Bedouin’s eyes while he helps us walk around the rocks of Little Petra.

“Are you wearing makeup?” I ask him.

“It is not makeup,” he replies. “It is Kajal, the Bedouin’s makeup. We use it to protect our eyes from the wind, the sand, and the sun.”

“I see. Is it natural?”

“Of course it is. It is handmade from olive oil and other ingredients. The next time you come here, let me know. I’ll tell my mother to make some for you.”

I feel a little bit embarrassed. We don’t know each other. But I’m getting used to the Bedouin’s ways.

“Oh, that would be great, thank you,” I reply. “How much would it cost me?”

“Oh, no. I don’t want money. When we do something, we do it from the heart. This is our culture.”

The "Fish-Man"

Yazan has spent half of his life in the warm waters of Aqaba, in the Red Sea.

He is a scuba diver and a brilliant amateur photographer with a pretty rare and stunning collection of underwater photographs.

“How deep have you gone into the sea?”

“I went too deep only once. I was young and foolish, and I risked too much. I started diving, and my body was doing OK, so I didn’t stop. But I reached a moment where I was not completely conscious anymore. Thank God I could get out. It happened once. It was a mistake."

One can’t help but think of Moses and his people escaping slavery in these very same waters, with their enslavers at their back. What else could they do, tired and weak as they were, but only pray that God would intervene?

“For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Yazan’s story, and that of Moses, and the view of the Red Sea, invite the visitor to trust God, since “power is perfected in weakness.”

The Farmer

The Old Market of Amman is an explosion of life. While there, my attention was drawn to a vendor. His eyes were sweet and sparkling, his skin wrinkled and damaged by the sun, I guess. His hands had short, dirty nails. He was certainly a farmer, selling his own products.

He proudly showed me a bulb of garlic. His pride surprised me. “Why so proud?” I asked myself. “It’s just garlic!”

Then I remembered the day my grandfather came home, carrying some watermelon seeds with him. He happily said: “I’ve got the seeds! Now I can plant them on my own, since you like them so much!”

And so he did. They eventually grew and were ready to be eaten. Those were not just watermelons. They were the result of the time he spent in giving them water every night, the worry he harbored inside for not doing everything correctly, the pleasure of giving me something he produced with his own hands, the product of his loving wish of making me happy.

The Jordanian farmer and I looked at each other. I smiled at him, he smiled at me, and we understood each other.

Mosaics

Her hands are small and her fingers fast. Not really interested in tourists going back and forth, she keeps working on a new mosaic.

The design is based on one of the hundreds of historical mosaics one can find in Jordan: the ones in the church of St. Stephen, or those of Mount Nebo, or those in St. George’s church in Madaba.

Mosaic is an ancient art Jordanians have always known and loved.

A big mosaic takes weeks. Some can take months, or years. It is done piece by piece, one by one. And as with carpets, craftsmen work on them as in a mirror, or as a photo negative: they only reveal their final design once the work is finished.

Mosaics can be a metaphor for God’s plans. They might take years to be finished, we might not be looking at the whole picture, but we know every little piece is necessary.

The Old Musician

While walking around Petra one can hear some music from afar. Beautiful and nostalgic music, charming but somehow suffering, coming out of an Oud, the Arabic lute. It’s always old people who play.

As it happens in many other cultures, music in Jordan has been a way to say things without actually saying them. Musicians were used as ambassadors to send a message to somebody else. It could have been a message of love, esteem, or a reprimand.

It seems even here music has fallen in value.

These musicians come down from the mountains they live in to Petra every day, to play their instruments. And even if they do collect some money, I don't think this is the main reason that leads them to do it. Tourists sometimes don’t even notice them. They seem to be some sort of a background music, a folkloristic thing.

One can see the disappointment in their eyes, the longing for old times in which music played a major role.

I take a picture.

“Thank you,” I say.

They look at me, without saying a word.

"You Dropped Something"

Petra is one of the New7Wonders of the World. It is only natural people from all over the globe come here. At times, the place can be hectic. One tries to dodge both tourists and locals.

People working here constantly approach you: “Do you want a picture in the most beautiful spot in Petra?” “Do you want to ride a camel?” “Do you want this, do you want that?”

“Avoid eye contact,” the tour guide tells you. One tries to be indifferent and answers “La, Shukran” (“No, thank you,” in Arabic). I didn’t even notice I was probably being rude.

I hear someone telling me “Hey, you’ve lost something!”

It looks as if I have everything with me. He points to the ground, but I don’t understand what he is pointing at. He looks at me in the eye, and says: “It seems you dropped your smile.”

I can’t help but smile. I apologize to him, and he smiles back. His face glows.

“Can I take a picture of you?" I ask.

“Sure!”

Do not avoid eye contact. We all want to be recognized.

The Spindle

When I passed her by, she stretched out her arm, as if calling me.

She reminded me my great-grandmother, an almost 100-year-old southern Italian woman, wearing a piece of black fabric around her head, her eyes almost blind, whom I used to visit when I was a kid.

Old and ill, but so sweet. In my imagination, she was blind because her eyes had seen too much: war, poverty, death. I pitied her.

However, she was full of gratitude, always smiling. That little big woman always surprised me.

This woman in Petra also gave me the impression of being someone who had much to tell. She was spinning an old handmade spindle, and she was so keen to show me how.

I checked my pockets, and didn’t have even one dinar to give her. But she shook her head and said something, quite emphatically, in Arabic.

“She doesn’t want any money.” The guide tells me. “She just wanted to show you the old way of sewing.”

I completely misunderstood this woman: she wasn't there for money. She was there to remind others of something. It is in those memories and in the chance of sharing them with the new generations, where this woman found her happiness, just like my grandmother did.

A Woman in Amman

It’s a very hot day at the beginning of October. The sun is still high in the sky.

I can’t help noticing three women sitting on the ancient steps of Amman's Roman theater: two older women of around the same age, surely friends, and a young girl. Muslims for sure, since they are wearing hijabs.

One of them captures my attention. One of the older women. She looks at me with dark, shiny, meaningful eyes. As a Western woman, I’m attracted by her discretion, her dignity, and her modesty. She has a sweet and profound expression in her face, but she doesn’t say a word.

“Can I take a picture of you?”

She just nods, a little embarrassed but not uncomfortable at all. She looks at me with a degree of curiosity: a young woman carrying cameras and tripods accompanied by a full crew of men.

I tell her: “You’re beautiful.” She smiles, even more embarrassed, but happy.

We were just two women: different, coming from different cultures and different worlds, who recognized something similar in each other. We were alike, but maybe in this similarity we recognized there is something we feel is missing in our own respective cultures. We can learn from each other.

A Bedouin Family

I saw this man was walking in the desert. The wind was shaking his keffiyeh, the sand blowing in the air.

Along with two young boys, he took us for a camel ride at sunset. These Bedouins were enjoying the wind, the sun, and the sand, in a way I can't anymore: deeply and slowly, no rush whatsoever.

“Can I take a picture of you?”

With a gesture, he tells me to wait. Then he calls his sons. One at the right, one at the left. He holds his Tasbih in his hands, Muslim prayer beads. He’s now finally ready to pose.

Bedouins own pretty much nothing. Not even the land they live in. They are practically nomads.

When I asked the father to take a picture of him, the only things he chose to show who he was were his sons and his faith.

I wonder if we are capable of establishing priorities this clearly, if we can describe ourselves by just referring to our faith and the people we love and who love us.