“Come With Me to My Mother’s Cave, for Tea”

Have you ever met anyone who lives in a cave? I’ve met two.

In January of this year, when I was touring through Jordan courtesy of the Jordan Tourism Board, I spent one day exploring the ancient wonder that is Petra. It was after I’d climbed back down the 800 steps which lead up to the towering Monastery that I saw a very good-looking guy sitting off the side of the trail, someone I’d noticed earlier as he’d led a woman astride a donkey up to the Monastery. His name was Odah, he said now, pronouncing it Audi, like the automobile. He was Bedouin he told me, as was his friend Ibrahim who sat with him, draped in a sort of rug/coat, a somewhat common sight in Middle Eastern winters.

Audi and Ibrahim, two Beduoin men I met in Petra

Upon their invitation, I climbed over the low wall which separated us, sat down with them and watched as they passed a shisha pipe back and forth, each of them taking long yet quick puffs before handing it to the other. Would you like to have tea with me and my mother? Odah asked me as they smoked, in a voice as gentle as a breeze. Sure, I replied. Okay, come with me, he said, standing up. Where? I asked. To my mother’s cave, he replied. Your mother’s cave? What do you mean, her cave? Odah held out his hand. I will take you to my mother’s cave. Please, get on the donkey.

I was a little concerned about being led up a mountain by a man I didn’t know, but curiosity shoved aside caution and I climbed atop Odah’s donkey. He grabbed its rope and began leading us up a trail on a jerky, swaying, sometimes faltering journey. I slid sideways a few times as the donkey leaned to negotiate rock-strewn curves in the trail, at which time Odah placed his hand gently on my leg to help steady me.

After about 15 minutes I saw a woman in a colorful head scarf outside a curved opening in one of the cliff’s walls, with a small girl riding a donkey around in circles outside. That is my mother, Odah said. Oh, my gosh, I thought, his mother really actually does live in a cave.

Audi arriving at Basma's cave in Petra, Jordan

Odah halted the donkey, I climbed off and entered the rounded opening in the cliff. This was indeed a cave, and I stood looking around in wonder at Odah’s mothers few belongings – a rug on the floor, a few bottles, a couple of plastic bins and other small items. The little cave didn’t exactly appear to be a home, but this woman did seem to have laid claim to it. Her name is Basma, Odah told me.

Basma, a woman who lives in a cave in Petra

Come outside, Odah said, and we will have tea. Basma was already building a fire just outside the cave’s entrance. The girl riding the little donkey around the entrance had disappeared, and Odah, Basma and I sat alone, the mother and son piling small sticks under a black kettle which was heating on the fire before us.

A black kettle with Beduoin tea, brewing on a fire outside Basma's cave

You see my dog? Odah asked, pointing to a white, short haired dog with pointy ears running around off in the distance. His father was a wolf, he said. Are you sure? I asked. Yes, I am sure. This man Odah seemed such a mellow spirit, with a gentle calm I have never experienced in another person. Where do you live, anyway? I asked. Over there, he said, stretching out his arm and pointing to the left. My cave is about ten minutes from here.

You live in a cave too? I gasped. Yes, he said. It’s a good life. It’s quiet, it’s peaceful. I have everything I need. He lit a shisha pipe and let me join him in inhaling its apple-flavored smoke as I marveled internally about these cave people with whom I was having afternoon tea.

Audi smoking shisha outside Basma's cave

Actually, I said to Odah, my guide told me people don’t live in these caves anymore. These words seemed to make the otherwise very peaceful Odah a little angry. He is lying, he said, his gentle voice turned strong. People have lived in caves here for many years. Your guide knows this. I wanted to believe him. Indeed, here I was, outside a cave smoking shisha and drinking tea with two Bedouin people who claimed to be cave dwellers. They must be telling the truth, I decided.

Much too soon I said I must leave, as I knew my guide, who’d been waiting for me since I began the climb up to the Monastery, would likely be worried because I’d been gone for so long. It’s not hard to walk back down. I’ll show you the way, Odah said. Shuk ran, I said to Basma, thanking her for her hospitality. Ma’asalama. Good-bye.

Basma and me outside her cave in Petra, Jordan

We left Basma and Odah’s donkey behind and began the journey down, Odah taking my hand to help me over the loose, slippery rocks. After we said good-bye at the bottom, I stood watching him climbing back up the mountain when he stopped, turned and looked back down at me. I like you, he said, his soft voice carrying easily over the rocks. I like you too, I said loudly so he would be sure to hear. Thrilled that this very cute Bedouin had said that, no matter what his definition of like might be, I turned and began to hurry back to my guide, as Odah climbed up the mountain to his cave and a world previously unimaginable to me.

My trip to Jordan was sponsored by the Jordan Tourism Board, but all opinions are honestly my own.

16 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Wow, what a great story! Thanks for sharing! I will be in Jordan in April and am sooo excited.

  2. Sabina says:

    Thank you, Susan! This was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.

  3. Arab/Muslim hospitality is wonderful. What a great experience you had! I lived in Palestine for almost two years and the people were lovely.

    As late as the 1950s people in southern Armenia still lived in caves. I saw the caves and they seemed to me just about inaccessible, which was for protection I was told.

  4. Sabina says:

    The hospitality I find in the Arab world is just unparalleled. I love it. I’ve been told by more than one very reliable source that people aren’t living in caves in Petra anymore, at least not full time. I do think Odah and Basma live there some of the time, though, and maybe would move in full time if they could. I loved my time with them!!

  5. Gray says:

    Wow, what a fantastic experience, Sabina! Very cool.

  6. Sabina says:

    One of the coolest in my life, Gray:)

  7. jan says:

    What a wonderful experience. Maybe your guide really thought the caves were uninhabited, or maybe he felt it was not dignified enough so he said they didn’t.

  8. Sabina says:

    It really was, Jan. I’m thinking those who dwell in the caves do so only part time and maybe illegally and that’s the reason for the discrepancy in what my guide told me versus what I found on my own.

  9. Steve says:

    This would be such a great experience. I’ve seen some people living in some odd places, but I can’t say that I know anyone who lives in a cave. I’ve been to many caves before too, but I’m pretty sure no one lived there.

    That’s great that they would invite you in like that and share in some tea. You have to love hospitality like that.

  10. Sabina says:

    Steve, it was the most interesting Arab hospitality experience ever!

  11. This is fascinating, and I love how he said, I have everything I need. So different from the capitalist standpoint. I wonder how they warm up in winter.

  12. Atef says:

    in Petra their is around 20 families lives in caves

  13. Sabina says:

    Ayelet – I know! We really don’t need as much as we think we do. Maybe in the winter they move back into town.

  14. Sabina says:

    That is so cool! Thank you for letting me know, Atef.

  15. Nick says:

    I was in Petra on the 23rd May 2012 (second visit) on my own this time and bumped into some young men having tea and following a sit down (and tea) was invited by one to be shown some carvings and parts of Petra I had not seen before. All three said they were cave dwellers in Petra and that there were about 20 families living there. I was fortunate enough to be invited to see one of their homes and it was truely lovely. The hospitality of these young men was delightful and not at all threatening. I hope to meet up with my guide when I go back in September to be shown more of the hidden beauties of Petra. It was one of the highlights of this trip and I am so grateful that I took the opportunity to get to know them better.

  16. Sabina says:

    Hi Nick – that is an incredible story! I too found the cave dwellers I met in Petra to be hospitable and not at all threatening. I hope you’ll be able to find these people again when you return in September. I’m sure they’ll remember you. I’d like to go back to Petra myself and see more of the cave life.

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