The Gift of Silence… I love London, with its thrumming streets and endless activity, but I’m too easily over-stimulated. My attempts to gather my thoughts about my next book were dampened, perhaps flattened, as I was drawn into living with London’s lovely noise and high energy every day. When I had the opportunity to go to Jordan, I took it. And it was in Jordan’s southern desert – Wadi Rum – that I found the deep silence and peace I realized was missing, and was the reason I couldn’t settle into the new work.
Wadi Rum is a misshapen desert landscape, nicknamed the Valley of the Moon for its towering, lunar-like rock formations and wind-swept dunes. It’s a place of Bedouins with their goats, of snakes and scorpions and shy mountain creatures hiding within the landforms, of falcons, kestrels and eagle owls wheeling overhead with dramatic soundless swoops. Wadi Rum is where T.E. Lawrence fought in the Arab Revolt of 1917 and was romanticized as Lawrence of Arabia.
In my time exploring Wadi Rum, clambering about in the chiselled canyons and trekking up violently hewn hills, I noticed that the Bedouin guides spoke to each other in soft tones, barely above a whisper. I watched little boys passing with their herds of rustling, plodding goats, singing in low, melodic voices that floated thinly in the still air. There was sometimes the steady barking of a dog, its voice muted by distance and space as though it, too, did not want to destroy the serene aura of the mountainous desert.
The absolute silence came at night. I’ve slept in other remote places: on the unforgiving ice amidst hooting penguin rookeries in the Antarctic, in a Borneo rain forest shrilling with huge insects and the screeching of nocturnal animals, in a ger in Outer Mongolia, with the pounding hooves of passing wild horses. The closest I’ve come to absolute silence was in the Moroccan Sahara, but free-roaming camels constantly wandered by our enclosure, snuffling and hissing, nosing at our tent flaps with loud groans, sounding dangerous, although surely merely curious. It’s hard to find complete silence, even in isolation.
But in Wadi Rum, in the sudden biting cold as the sun disappeared, I sat outside my tent, feeling the absolute stillness that came with the darkness. Eventually I lay on my back on the hard sand – hoping the resident snakes and camel spiders and scorpions were elsewhere – and looked at the wonder of the stars that spread like a thick blanket over the desert. I know it’s a cliché, and impossibly banal to say I felt part of the universe that night. But I can’t think of any other way to describe feeling alone and yet at the same time part of something very large. I heard the stars pulsing. But then I realized it wasn’t the stars drumming with a faint rhythm, but my own heartbeat. When had I last quieted myself long enough to hear my own heart, or even thought about its steady, reliable beat?
From Wadi Rum I would move on to the rosy glory of Petra, and eventually make my way into the chaos of Amman. But in that cold night, lying under the stars, the images and voices came to me – the shape of the story I had been waiting for – and I knew that I’d finally found what I’d left home hoping to uncover.