Tea Time in the Desert

On a warm winter day in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, several friends and I descended from a cloud-shrouded Ottoman village, walking down a valley towards a distant haze of desert. This was the first descent in what would prove to be a three-day trek through expansive deserts, high mountains, and scarce water with no trails, towns, or facilities between us and our destination. Only occasional Bedouin families populated the space between. Had I been familiar with Bedouin people and culture at the time, I would have known that this was quite possibly one of the safest walks on the planet, and that I would never be short of tea.

The Ottoman village disappeared behind us, while the valley opened with warm sun and the repetitive crunch of our feet on gravel. A breeze undulated over rock and grass, rolling from the desert with the scent of cypress and junipers. After some time, a sweet sound began riding the tip of the wind, faint and elusive, like a thought tickling the horizons of your mind or a word that can’t quite form on your tongue. The sound was musical, rising and falling with the wind, dissipating in the vast space.

The sound gained clarity as we continued our gradual descent, each step adding a sliver of tone to the wind. Finally, buffeted by a particularly strong gust, the notes came together in the melody of a flute, spinning the moving the air into emotions of love and joy in solitude. And solitude it was. We could see no one before us or behind us in this expansive valley. It felt biblical. I thought that I might understand how so many ancient religious figures spoke to angels in this corner of the world.

Several miles further and we found the earthly source of the flute music: a man in a black cloak surrounded by sheep on the bank of a stream. We stopped walking and watched him for several moments, flute music washing over us from perhaps a quarter mile away. Eventually, the shepherd noticed our presence and stood, waving both arms and shouting with a large smile. One of my friends spoke a smattering of Arabic but could not understand what he said.

He stopped shouting and held up an old fire-blackened pot of tea. My friend translated, but I could have guessed. “He’s inviting us over for tea!”

We were forced to decline the shepherd’s offer because we still had a great distance to cover before the sun set, but the scene stuck with me. This man was alone in a remote valley with nothing but a flute and sheep for company, yet he carried a pot of tea so that, in the rare case that anyone came wandering by, he could build a quick fire and offer them a warm cup of tea. Even in this remote location people were assuming the best of each other and opening themselves to strangers and foreigners.

If we accepted every invitation for tea in the Kingdom of Jordan we could hardly have walked a mile. So, we reluctantly left the shepherd with his flock, flute, and his pot of tea, while promising ourselves that we would save time for tea in the desert.

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