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The River Door

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  • April 17, 2014
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by Paul Salopek

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King Hussein-Allenby Border Crossing, Jordan, 31°52'43" N 35°32'33" E
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I forget the names of towns without rivers.
A town needs a river to forgive the town.
Whatever river, whatever town—it is much the same.
The cruel things I did I took to the river.
I begged the current: make me better.

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—“The Towns We Know and Leave Behind, The Rivers We Carry With Us,” by Richard Hugo

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Hamoudi holds court with a circle of border taxi drivers. We have reached the last mile of Jordan.

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“Forty-five kilometers,” he informs them coolly, holding up an imperial finger. “Forty-five kilometers in a single day.”

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Hamoudi (far left) and circle of admirers. King Hussein-Allenby Bridge, Jordan. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Hamoudi (far right) with circle of admirers at the King Hussein-Allenby Bridge. Photograph by Paul Salopek

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We gulp cups of water at a roadside kiosk. We chivvy the pack mules Selwa and Mana’ into the bed of a waiting truck. Hamoudi gravely shakes my hand, and takes his leave, rolling away with the animals back to the red-blue cordilleras of the south. Back to Petra. Back to canyons where the Bedouin yet inhabit caves. I hop a taxi to Amman and a week of research and writing.

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Hamoudi Enwaje’ al Bedul: He drank his campfire tea sweet and boiling, like some molten precursor to candy. He steered me like a sled dog when I wandered too far ahead, calling out into the vacuum of the desert in sharp Arabic, “Walk left! . . . No, more left! . . . Right! . . . Straight! . . . Left!” He smoked too much. He ate little. He was tireless.

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At our last camp in the Dead Sea Valley, I asked Hamoudi if he was ill. He had been lagging all day, sometimes by more than a mile. He replied that his favorite niece was dying in a faraway hospital. The news had come that day by cell phone. He had needed to weep alone, so he slowed his step, but that was over now. Across 300 miles of trails in Jordan, I heard not a single complaint from this man.

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Back at the border, a Jordanian guard wagged his finger. Crossing the international bridge on foot was impossible, he said. It was forbidden. I argued. He shrugged. He blamed the Israeli Defense Force. The bridge was a no-man’s-land. For the first time since walking out of Ethiopia, I was forced to board a bus.

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The Jordan River flashed beneath the bridge. I almost missed it. It was mud-colored, maybe two yards across. I might have vaulted it at a run.

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The bus seats were covered in plastic. About 50 morose Palestinians sat in them, whispering. The absence of choice is true freedom. The Sufis say this. In this way, I entered the West Bank.

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DMU Timestamp: April 18, 2014 23:57

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