In early spring, here in the Rub 'al Khali, Gabriel swings his goad over the humped backs of swollen clouds. They roar like angry camels and thunder toward the fields of the fellahin. At night, I dream of grass so green it speaks. But at noon, even the dry chatter of djinn leaves the wadis. The sun lowers its bucket, though my body is the only well for miles. A dropped stone calls back from the bottom with the voice of a starving locust: Make it your wish, habibi, and the rain will walk over the dry hills of your eyes on tiptoes as the poppies weave themselves into a robe to mantle the broad shoulders of the desert. The words uncoil like smoke from a smothered fire, rising leisurely out of me as though to mark where a castaway has come aground at last. And yet I have not spoken. My voice limps on old bones, its legs too dry and brittle to leap like a barking locust into song. But I imagine what was said or might be said by some collective throat about the plowman loving best the raw, turned earth, or the caliph longing for his desert lodge, where ghoulem whisper like the wind at prayer, and poppies bow their gaudy heads toward Mecca, each one mumbling a different word for dust.
Amman sprawls, sun-struck, on seven hills, like a latter-day Rome, only less so. It was, in fact, once Roman, as the ruined theater downtown attests, but today the grown children of sheikhs drive herds of camel-colored Mercedes down the steep wadis. These castoffs of the rich Gulf nations bellow in the narrow streets of the souk, where the voices of gold and silver merchants buzz in their beehive shops. The cries of muezzins from a dozen mosques buzz likewise on the outer hills, blunting their stings against the double- glazing of the wealthy. A water peddler hawks the sweat of his brow in a neighborhood frosted with roses. How wild, how strange it all seems, as exotic as a rose thrown in the face of a thirsty man.