A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece titled “Heaven in the Jungle” about the archaeological digs along the east bank of the Jordan River. According to a great deal of expert opinion, these include the very spot where John the Baptist met and baptized Jesus. I omitted one observation that fairly obsessed me throughout my brief tour of the place: it looks just like the wetlands in the Phoenix Zoo.
Between the tamarisks and the reeds and the palms, bearded with dead fronds, the resemblance really is uncanny, though not quite complete. Anyone approaching the Phoenix wetlands will be assaulted by a fetid jungle smell. As far as my nose knows, the Jordan’s a lot cleaner. Maybe the odor of sanctity perfumes it enough to neutralize rot’s natural bouquet. Or maybe the difference lies in the respective populations. Whereas the Phoenix wetlands is a habitat for a variety of tropical animals, the most exotic wildlife you’ll encounter in the Jordan are Russian pilgrims.
This is a quibble – given a cold, a bad case of hay fever, or a couple of cigarettes, you’ll never know the difference. The more salient and shocking point is that vast parts of the Holy Land have lookalikes in my own home state. Petra is basically Sedona, minus the energy vortexes and plus a few Nabatean tomb facades. Bleary eyes could easily mistake the Ma’in hot springs, where we lunched the day before returning home, for any number of resorts in Oro Valley, just north of Tucson. We locals say that the Metro Phoenix area is built in the Valley of the Sun; Bedouins call Wadi Rum the Valley of the Moon.
It was, in fact, at Wadi Rum that our tour guided pointed to a humped, red-rock butte and asked, “Doesn’t that look just like a camel stretched out on its stomach?” I had to bite my tongue to keep from answering, “Gee, maybe they should call it…Camelback Mountain?”
Please understand — my goal here is not to domesticate Jordan to the point where it loses its mystique. Old Town Scottsdale isn’t quite old enough to have Greek columns and amphitheaters growing between the Sugar Bowl and the Pink Pony. Moses did not glimpse the Promised Land from the apex of Dinosaur Mountain at Gold Canyon Golf Resort. Elijah was not waiting in Papago Park when the whirlwind got hold of him. Not even Mormons believe these things.
It’s not even that seeing everyday sights reflected in the Land of the Bible has sanctified my neighborhood for me. No, these moments of recognition have simply confirmed what I knew already: that magic infects this landscape. Outsiders shudder at stories of our heat. My smart-alecky New York friends turn up their noses at our shortage of good public schools and vegetable samosas. By my reckoning, all of that is a small price to pay for the privilege of living in the midst of such divine weirdness.
Sky Harbor International Airport sits in the flattest part of the Valley, surrounded by mountains. When I first arrived, by plane, from Manhattan and childhood, those mountains were the first sights to greet me. I spent all of freshman orientation week chewing over their color: they were red. To my mind, this was contra naturam. Mountains were supposed to be brown or green, depending on the season. Red was the color your eyes turned when the pollen from those trees triggered your allergies. Even weirder, light green, the color of the snot that clogged your nose in the same moments, now belonged – in a decidedly more wholesome shade – to succulent plants with succulent names, like ocotillo, cholla, and palo verde.The following spring, when the agaves bloomed (to no ill effect on my health), it was like walking through a landscape imagined by Dr. Seuss. When it comes to prophets and ancient ruins, Jordan may beat Phoenix hollow. But Phoenix, unlike Jordan, has saguaro cacti. Driving a little further south along I-10, you’ll see organ-pipe cacti. To the believer, both stand as proof that God, like John Lennon, kept one tripped-out sketchbook.
In Turkey, I dreamed of that landscape. That might count as grounds for being ruled incompetent. Shaded by pine and chestnut trees, built over fault-line hills, towered over by snow-capped Uludağ – Olympus, to the ancient Mysians – Bursa Province squirts mythic valence from every square foot. It is Homer in a hijab. But all the spreading foliage made me as claustrophobic as the crowding low-rise apartment buildings. “Hey, people,” I felt like saying, “Hey, trees. I love you, but can’t you all, you know, just back it up a little?”
Conventional wisdom has it that the emptiness of deserts is what attracts prophets, visionaries, and other disreputable types. Of prophets, T.E. Lawrence writes: “Their profound reaction from matter led them to preach bareness, renunciation, poverty, and the atmosphere of this invention stifled the minds of the desert pitilessly.”
The minds Lawrence has in mind belonged to the Arabic-speaking inhabitants of Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia, and the Arabian peninsula. (Arab historians have given him a good going-over for calling their grandfathers’ minds “stifled.”) But living in 21st-century Phoenix isn’t quite the same deal as being a first-century AD prophet or an early 20th-century Bedouin. In this engineered blending of the desert with the sown, we practice a kind of renunciation lite. We may be shy beaches, museums, or public transportation, but we do have AC, green lawns, the Tempe Town Lake, along with rank and file of palms imported from Baghdad, Mexico, and the Canary Islands. We also have an awful lot of swimming pools.
In return, we receive a kind of revelation lite. Last week, I moved back into my old apartment complex. My old apartment, a 30-second ramble from the pool and the weight room, had been taken. The management stuck me all the way in the back, by the spiked fence that supposedly keeps out intruders. My view consists, largely, of Loop 202. It is not a place to inflame the mind or senses. But at dusk this evening, rolling my swivel chair out onto the porch for a smoke, I saw the peak of Camelback rising beyond the freeway. On my face I felt the warm breeze, like breath. “Oh, well,” I thought. “I guess matter isn’t everything.”