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October 2018, vol 14 no 3

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David Cobb,

In Moses' Footsteps

All week I have been observing English lessons in Jordanian schools. My farewell to Amman is to visit the melancholy sidings where wagons, looking like donkey-stables on wheels, made of unvarnished planks, have rotted some 70 years or more, abandoned there as the Turkish Empire receded before the Arab Rising and El Orens (otherwise Lawrence of Arabia.)

drawn curtains
across the sentry's peephole
spiders' webs

Nowadays no passenger train runs southwards from Amman. Each day, soon after dawn, I must bargain with a different taxi driver to transport me on the next stage of my journey down the King's Highway to the Gulf of Aqaba. Each evening make notes, in the form of haiku, to separate where I am now from where I was before.

call to prayer
the janitor sets his mop
in line with Mecca

Madaba. On the blackboard Salwa has chalked a motto for the day, "If you eat an apple a day, keep the doctor away." On a beach by the Dead Sea, teachers from her school invite me to sit down on the sand and share their picnic.

Mount Nebo. Where Moses, going in the opposite direction, is recorded as glimpsing the distant Promised Land. A rug dealer, sizing me up as the sort of foreigner whose taste in Bedouin rugs will run to woven pictures of the Flintstones, shrugs when I opt for one with the traditional folk pattern of triangles that ward off the Evil Eye. Almost refuses to barter.

street football
an empty stone coffin
as the goal

Kerak. I visit the eponymous crac where the Christian oppressor deflowered Muslim girls. Saladin, after its capture, took revenge, defenestrating the villain with his own hands.

shadow of a scimitar
I put an extra blanket
on the bed

Tafileh. Coming into view as a crescent-shaped escarpment winds down into the town. Here El Orens vomited as snowflakes fell on the enemy's blood. The local school supervisor checks whether I eat fish. Yes, with a silent prayer it will not be a very bony one, given the need to dismember it with a single hand. On the lunch table a silver salver laden with almost a shoal of fish. I tuck my left hand into my belt and eat my fill.

After we men have eaten, the wife who cooked the fish joins us for coffee. With several children tugging at her apron. Already plump with another expectation. Some wording on a tin gives rise to a topic of conversation: the human race's obsession with weight. "250 grams when packed, amount variable after opening due to atmospheric conditions."

her baby weighed
first on kitchen scales
then on her knee

Perhaps it was Moses got the obsession started? In Exodus he lays down that an omer is the tenth part of an ephah.

Come the last day of the week, lessons finish early because of Friday prayers. My guide for this final day has planned an open-air feast within the grounds of Shaubak's ruined crac. My task, to gather driftwood and help build a fire. Meanwhile he climbs onto a rock, flings his arms wide and recites the whole of "The Solitary Reaper." Says he learnt it by heart when at school.

Behold her, single in the field,
Yon solitary Highland lass!
Reaping and singing to herself.
Stop here, or gently pass.

Cue for an Australian backpacker to emerge from behind a stone wall and help us make some sense of the mass of provisions. Still plenty left for other mouths to fill.

dead centre
of the kite's circling flight
its eye

All week there have been lessons with the same moral: "Be patient, Providence will somehow get you out of the mess you're in!" It did so, didn't it, when a jeep full of soldiers stopped and with their bare hands made up for the taxi driver's lack of a jack, when we were stuck with a flat tire on the highest mountain pass the Highway passes through. Now, left by the roadside for a bus to take me to Petra, a bus that I am now told no longer operates, something will turn up.

both high and low
the goat lets the sparrow
search for ticks