Crescent moon

By Karin Zeitvogel

His name meant ‘moon’ in Arabic. Hilal. Crescent moon. He was a young Bedouin, a man-child with eyes of translucent amber and skin as smooth as the sandstone aqueducts leading to Petra, Jordan’s wonder of the world, that have been burnished by the ceaseless passage of water.

His eyes twinkled like stars in the night sky, borrowing light from the sun. When Hilal spoke, his words carried the wisdom of his people and a contentment that comes from living close to nature, in league with the sky and the open spaces of the desert; the wind that bounces off ragged hillsides painted in the bright oranges and reds of the Jordanian desert.

Hilal was 24 and had been working for 12 years. He started out leading tourists on donkey rides down sandy trails and into the history and the spectacular beauty of Petra. His schooling had been minimal, and yet his English was embellished with wit and colloquialisms most students who study in classrooms never pick up.

“You want to go for a camel ride?” Hilal asked me.

“I’ve been asked a dozen times and no, I don’t,” I replied.

“Why not? Live a little,” he insisted. His eyes flashed. He knew he’d impressed me with the deft turn of phrase.

Many years previous, I told the moon-boy with sparkling eyes, I accepted an offer to ride a camel. My steed was the youngest of the herd, and we were at the tail-end of a convoy of camels that was supposed to head out into the desert for a bonfire and festivities. A tourist thing.  Well, my camel must have been stung by something because before we had even done three camel-paces, it began bucking furiously, doing its best to throw me. I clung fast, suppressed a desire to shout out “Yee haaaaaaa” and managed to stay on.

It’s a long way down from a camel’s hump, I had thought, vowing to cut short my camel-riding and rodeo career.

“Where did that happen? Egypt?” Hilal asked in all earnestness, holding me tighter with his eyes than I had held that camel with every muscle in my thighs.

“Tunisia,” I said. “In the desert near Tozeur.”

North African camels were different to the ones in Jordan, Hilal said, still trying to convince me to live a little and ride a camel. But I still refused to clamber on board one of the ships of the desert, who to me had become shits of the desert after the episode in Tunisia.

I had met Hilal in one of the meeting rooms carved into the mountains at Petra. Not the Treasury, made famous by the Indiana Jones movie, but a smaller, less noticeable niche that was further down the main path, past a dozen camels waiting for a victim, then up some sandstone steps worn down by the passage of time and tourists.

“Before Indiana Jones, we had maybe 100 tourists here a year. Now we have thousands,” Hilal said.

His eyes twinkled a little too much and I sensed exaggeration.

Crescent Moon wandered over me with his eyes of amber. And then, as he had done with his offer of a camel ride, he awakened another bad memory by blurting out another question.

“How old are you?”

The question took me by surprise and, like the question about whether I wanted to ride a nice Jordanian camel, took me back to when another young man had asked me the same question, but without the sparkle that I saw in Hilal’s eyes.

“How old are you?” asked the captain, whose name meant nothing as poetic as crescent moon. His name meant ‘famed warrior.’

His deep dark eyes sometimes hid a world of agony that had stained his life since he had spent time as an anonymous warrior in Iraq. He had left his spirit in the sands of the Iraqi desert, he told me once. His life after Iraq was governed by flashbacks, nightmares, mood swings, and a sackful of medications for everything from post-traumatic stress disorder to irritable bowel syndrome.

My famed warrior’s eyes flashed aggression as he asked his question, not the twinkling joy I saw in Hilal’s.

His words dripped with judgment, with accusation. I felt a bead of sweat sneak down my back on the muggy New York night, and I gave the same answer to him at two in the morning as I gave Hilal in the shade of the cool niche in the hills at Petra.

“How old do you think I am?” I said, saying quietly under my breath to the warrior with the angry eyes: I thought you knew. To Hilal, I only replied to the question with my own question.

The crescent moon over Brooklyn bathed me in its light, slipping in through a curtainless kitchen window as the captain stalked up and down and stormed: “Don’t play games with me” and “Why should I know?” I held him with my eyes but he looked firmly away from me, out the window and into the night.

In Petra, Hilal’s amber eyes walked all over me, pausing to reflect on my lips, the tip of my nose, my eyes, before sliding through my hair and down the side of my neck, over my shoulders and triceps to my wrists and the ends of my fingers..

“Thirty,” Hilal said after studying me carefully.

“I guess you are 30,” he said. His eyes twinkled. Mine probably did too.

In the mugginess of New York a few weeks earlier, the famed warrior refused to hazard a guess. I told him.

“Fifty,” I said.

“Fifty.” He threw the number back at me, flung it through the night like a sick man spitting out a bitter pill. He still refused to look at me.

“And you think it’s reasonable to have a relationship with a guy who’s 35?”

Of course I think it’s reasonable, I said. If not, I wouldn’t be here, wouldn’t have made the 200-mile trip to New York from Washington to be with you when you were in pain after being attacked on the subway; to comfort you on Memorial Day, when you were remembering fallen warrior friends; to lie with you in bed and hold you and breathe in your scent and feel your flesh beneath my fingertips and lips. To spend the first week of the summer with you, to go to Coney Island with you, to hatch crazy plots for life with you. To give you, as you said to me so many times, so much to think and dream of. To give you hope as certain as the waxing and waning moon.

It wasn’t reasonable, said the captain. I was betraying his dream of having a family. He had shared that dream with me when we met, he recalled, and I said that I recalled too and without any effort to punctuate my reply I can still have babies.

“I can’t imagine a woman of 60 as the mother of a 10-year-old,” he said.

“The woman who has my children will be much younger than me,” he added.

Then he grabbed me by the ankle and pulled me into the bedroom.


In the cool cavern at Petra, Hilal upped the ante.

“35?” he said.

“You’ll never guess,” I said. “People who know me can’t guess.”

My fingers found the zip of my handbag, slid it open and entered it carefully to feel for my passport. In the Middle East, you always carry an ID. Just in case. I slipped it out of the bag and handed it, open to the picture page, to Hilal.

His eyes drifted down the page and settled on the line where it said: January 11, 1958. The sparkle grew brighter. Hilal’s lips parted. His eyes met mine, a smile creased his face and he looked back at the line where it said January 11, 1958.

“Fifty?”he said, addressing himself more to a couple of Russian tourists who had wandered into the cool sanctuary than to me.

“She’s very good,” said Hilal. “Fifty. I don’t believe you,” he told the passport.

“But you know, to us Bedouin, age is only a number. No more than that. It makes no difference. What makes a difference is you, who you are.”

The Russian tourists who had strayed into our cool niche to escape the noon-day sun asked Hilal, the crescent moon, to guide them in the direction of the monastery. Hilal pointed down the hill and off into the distance, and the Russian couple set off.

“You speak Russian, too?” I asked him.

“No,” he answered. “I don’t really like Russians. I only know how to say do zvidania – goodbye.”

Hilal was wise beyond his years and his education. His insight, the pearls of wisdom he had picked up from a lifetime of nights spent under the stars, of tourists led down dusty trails, of days spent arm in arm with history and humanity, had made of the young Bedouin with the amber eyes a wiser soul than most Ivy League alumni – including the famed warrior in Brooklyn.

There’s someone I wish you could meet, I said to Hilal as we took our goodbyes. Someone I wish you could tell that age is just a number, not a condemnation or a sell-by date.

I headed back down the steps of sandstone carved in the hillside and buffed bald by the soles of tourist hordes brought to Petra by Indiana Jones. Standing by the cool niche carved into the sandstone mountain behind me, Hilal blessed me with one last smile that reflected the light of a million suns.

I spotted a daytime crescent moon in the sky as I headed down the hill behind the Russians.  Hilal scrambled to catch up to me, a little out of breath.

“I don’t really like Russians, so I don’t learn their language. But I like you. I can see you are a good person. And that’s what matters.”

And his eyes twinkled at me one last time as he said: “And you’re really good for your age. You sure you don’t want to go for a camel ride?”

Karin Zeitvogel is a correspondent for Agence France-Presse, based in Washington DC. An American citizen, she has also worked for AFP in Poland and France, and on short-term missions in the Baltic states, Cyprus and Greece.

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