Babylon & Beyond

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JORDAN: Bedouins, prophets and a pope

May 10, 2009 |  9:19 am

Pope Benedict XVI Bedouin tents were tugged tight against the wind, and camels, unbridled, sat in fields and tall grass. An image from the Bible, or perhaps the Koran, unchanged, except for the paved road, the hum of cars and the yellow and white flags for the pope, who to the Bedouins was the leader of a tribe less ancient than their own.

So many prophets have walked these hills: John the Baptist ate honey and grasshoppers and cleansed souls in the River Jordan; Moses glimpsed the Promised Land from Mount Nebo; others -- forgotten revolutionaries, madmen and mystics -- mixed the divine with warnings of the apocalypse. Jesus was crucified across the border.

And now Benedict XVI, dressed in starched white vestments, his hair the color of salt, was coming to bless the foundation for the University of Madaba. The Bedouins did not know this; their world is less grand. They lighted their fires, let the entourage and commotion pass – flying colors and flashing lights in the distance.

But there was Atef Kawar, the contractor on the 500,000-square-meter university construction site. A stout man in a pinstriped shirt, the breeze making a ruckus in his hair, Kawar slipped into a gazebo, where the roar of Dust Busters scoured the seats for the papal audience. An architect’s model of the university sat under glass. When the campus is finished in a few years, these grazing lands and wheat fields will be changed.

Man is splendid in his audacity to bend the land to fit his dreams. Kawar knows this, yet as much as he is a man of brick, stone and mortar, he has no need for a church.

“I am a Catholic, occasionally,” he said. “I don’t go to church. I don’t pray in a building. I told my priest this and he said, ‘Why don’t you come to church more often?’ What to do there? I pray in my heart.”

He left the gazebo and went to his workers, who were putting up a banner for the pope, while beyond gusts rattled Bedouin tents and children darted along the tree-line at the edge of the fields that rolled and stretched to the far-away hills.

— Jeffrey Fleishman in Madaba, Jordan

Full coverage: Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

Photo: Pope Benedict XVI. Credit: Reuters