National Geographic

Sami’s World

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 21°29'31" N, 39°11'25" E

We are eating fresh yoghurt and sweet sesame paste atop an antique carpet. The carpet is in a house, and the house is made of coral block. It is about 130 years old. It has 106 rooms. A staircase as wide as a street, built of stone, scalloped with wear, spirals up into the house’s dim interior. Camels once climbed it. The kitchen was on the fourth floor. The camels carried the ingredients.

“Did you know that Eva was buried in Jeddah?”

This is my host, Sami Nawar. Sami is the director of Al Balad, Jeddah’s famous historic district. He’s a compact, friendly, indefatigable man with a 1,001 plans, schemes, projects, ideas. “This is the only city on Earth with this claim,” Sami says. “Jeddah can be pronounced ‘jaddah.’ In Arabic this means grandmother. This is the city of humanity’s grandmother.”

I tell Sami I know. Earlier, I had gone looking for Eve’s grave.

According to the Koran, Eve alighted on a mountaintop near Jeddah after Allah exiled her from Paradise for eating the forbidden fruit. (Adam was exiled to another peak, nearer Mecca, where he spent 40 days and nights weeping in remorse.)

In 1853 the British explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton visited Eve’s purported tomb disguised as a Muslim pilgrim. The prickly Englishman measured the length of the sepulcher with his footsteps. It was laid out in the shape of a vast reclining body: a minor marvel of the medieval world dating back at least since the 10th century. “Our first parent measured a hundred and twenty paces from head to waist, and eighty from waist to heel,” Burton wrote, adding dismissively that, given such anatomy, “she must have presented the appearance of a duck.”

But at the modern “Tomb of Eve Cemetery” in Old Jeddah, I found no mausoleum, no shrine, only a sterile burial ground with simple concrete headstones. The Yemeni gravedigger was fed up with strangers asking for Eve’s grave. “Eve’s grave, Eve’s grave, Eves’ grave!” he said. He shook his head wearily. He doubted that such a tomb ever existed. He gave me a cold bottle of water in consolation.

Accounts differ as to the forgotten monument’s fate. A 1928 article in TIME magazine suggests that that Eve’s grave was demolished by religious authorities who feared it would lead Muslim faithful astray—into shirq, idolatry. Other sources report that the landmark vanished beneath urban development projects in the 1940s.

The shadow of a construction crane falls across a rebuilt gateway to Old Jeddah -- the lifelong conservation project of Sami Nawar. Photograph by Paul Salopek

The shadow of a construction crane falls across a rebuilt gateway to Old Jeddah— the lifelong conservation project of Sami Nawar. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Sami Nawar holds up his hands. He doesn’t know. Nor does he care. He cannot worry about what is gone. He has spent too many years of his life cajoling, pleading, arguing—safeguarding what yet remains of Old Jeddah, a candidate UN World Heritage site. A remnant world of coral-block mosques. Of old merchants’ houses that lean akimbo over wriggling alleyways, casting watery blue shadows. Of souks that still teem with cart men hawking pyramids of golden dates from Qassim province, oranges from Egypt, bark from the incense trees of Yemen. Modern-day Saudi Arabia has lost so much of its memory beneath sleek highways, parking lots, subdivisions, hotels, malls. When I ask Sami how he’s accomplished this miracle—preserving a square kilometer of remembering—he just laughs.

Old Jeddah. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Old Jeddah. Photograph by Paul Salopek

He tells me this story:

When he was a young boy—perhaps 12—he played soccer in the mazy lanes of his childhood home, Old Jeddah. He and his playmates often kicked the ball under the high windows of Maha, the pretty daughter of a rich Lebanese merchant. “I was small and ugly and poor,” says Sami. “I had nothing to impress her with.” Until, one day—that is—when he encountered a pamphleteer. His sole ware: How to Learn English in One Week. Here was Sami’s chance. Many Lebanese knew English. He pored through the booklet’s meager pages. He studied and practiced the strange letters. And with a charcoal stick, he scratched out a gigantic message on the street below the forbidding high windows:

M

A

H

A

“The only thing it did was make her father very angry,” Sami says laughing.

Yet this is no story of frustration—it is tale of endurance. A parable of how we rescue home, la querencia, the lost places we love. With empty tombs. With historic districts. With stories over tea. Eventually, Sami learned his English. He drove a taxi in Jeddah, hunting Western fares to practice the language. This led, many years later, to a civil engineering degree in Sacramento, California.

“Will you share this story of Maha?” Sami says anxiously. “My wife will complain.”

He is serving us a goodbye breakfast. We sit on a rug in the famed Nasseem House, a museum. I walk north today into the Levant: at least 700 miles along desert trails into the land of Nabataea.

“You were just a little boy,” I say. “It was a long time ago.”

“Time,” Sami reminds me, “is relative.” He smiles. It is a smile that says: We float in a river of time, yet time pools also within us. That each of us inhabits an Old Town. It is the smile of one who knows.

There are 35 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Lorna
    June 24, 2013

    I especially love the personal stories people seem to able to share so easily with Paul…you must have a gift for making others feel comfortable with you.

    • Paul Salopek
      July 12, 2013

      The small, quiet stories, when woven tightly together, can reveal bigger panoramas of the world than sprawling policy pieces. This has been my experience, anyway. Thanks, Lorna.

  2. barbara
    June 24, 2013

    these posts literally lift me off my chair, and carry me to where you are. i hear the sounds, inhale the distant perfumes. i read you to be carried away, enlightened. i read you to learn the power of storytelling. i read you to trip upon beautiful snippets of poetry (“scalloped with wear”). i read you to be resurrected from the humdrum of the everyday. blessings.

    • Paul Salopek
      July 12, 2013

      Yes, and ideally the task is to write well even of the humdrum, like Raymond Carver. Shukran, Barbara.

  3. Adam
    June 24, 2013

    Being able travel 21,000 miles through human history has to be one of the most exciting adventures for you. The historic anecdotes of the people, your photos of the sites and you narrative transport the reader to your side. Stay safe!

  4. Deb
    June 24, 2013

    I love to hear of travels I likely will never take…I will take others but these… These are stories and places unique to your journey which intrigues and enthralls… Thank you for the lift!

  5. chefbrucewest
    June 25, 2013

    I can really feel the place and the people. Thanks Paul.

  6. Don Belt
    June 25, 2013

    Wonderful work, Paul, as always. Please add me to the Sami Nawar fan club.

    • Paul Salopek
      August 3, 2013

      Thanks, Don. See you along the desert trail, insh’allah.

  7. Peter Beck
    June 25, 2013

    Following your travels with much interest. As a previous poster observed, you have a natural rapport with people- a great asset. Your travels are increasing the understanding of other people and their cultures, which has the benefit of increasing the possibility of a more peaceful planet. Thank you for that.

  8. Arlene Hulten
    June 25, 2013

    I look forward to your stories along the path you are traveling – thank you for your insight.

  9. Linda Hoernke
    June 25, 2013

    Thank you again for an insight into the history & culture of the people you travel with and meet~~

  10. Evan in Beijing
    June 26, 2013

    Habibi,
    How are Fares and Seema holding up? The four-legged versions, I mean?
    Cheers,
    E

    • Paul Salopek
      August 3, 2013

      Well, if I were feasting on alfalfa and a bucket of grain every day, I wouldn’t find much occasion to complain. Good luck with the new posting, Evan. D.C. is as foreign as any place I’ve covered.

  11. Beatriz Mallory
    June 26, 2013

    “La querencia”. Bello. In the Caribbean we also use the term “el terruño”. Especially those in exile with strong longing for a fistful of soil from a lost home. Thank you again for your elegant snapshots.

    • Paul Salopek
      July 12, 2013

      I need to start compiling a lexicon of longing, a dictionary of exile. It would have the bitter mixed with the sweet as Brodsky shows.

    • Paul Salopek
      July 12, 2013

      I need to start compiling a dictionary of longing, a lexicon of exile. It would have the bitter mixed with the sweet, as Brodsky shows.

  12. Gary Boivin
    June 26, 2013

    I knew that Jeddah would prove fascinating enough for your team to devote 2 weeks to a month, navigating its narrow Old Quarter. Now, you will be once more with the beloved wanderers, the Bedouin. Godspeed!

  13. Carl Mario Nudi
    June 26, 2013

    Thank you for the wonderful post. I’ve added Old Jeddah to my list of places I have to visit.

  14. HikerBob
    June 28, 2013

    Thank you once again for a fascinating post on a part of the world as strange to this one as the landscape of the moon.

  15. Phyllis
    June 28, 2013

    Loved the street sounds in the video. Makes me feel I’m there! Also like the way Sami describes his religion with the emphasis on education.

  16. John Pint
    July 1, 2013

    Congratulations on your fine reports and your great project. After bypassing Medina, I think you will be walking along the western edge of Harrat Khaybar Lava Field, where I spent time exploring a number of lava tubes. Here we found 4,000-year-old human skulls lying on the floor of Umm Jirsan, the longest cave we mapped in Saudi Arabia (http://www.saudicaves.com/jirsan/index.htm). The magnificent Khaybar Dam should be right along your way. Just think, we calculate there are 400 kilometers of unexplored lava caves in Harrat Khaybar –surely used for shelter by our ancestors–and archaeologists have yet to begin looking at them. John Pint

    • Paul Salopek
      August 4, 2013

      Looking into it right now, John, thanks to you. I’ll keep you posted of my progress. I raise my sombrero to all my fellow Tapatíos.

  17. Venky Rao
    July 5, 2013

    I just love reading your posts. Thank you very much for sharing with all of us.

    The language you utilize is so eloquent that I can literally feel the scene being described; the bustle of the souk, the mingled scent of a dozen spices wafting across the shops, the vibrant, warm colors of a variety of dates, the various headgear worn by the men etc. It brought back great memories of a few months I spent in Kuwait.

    It’s so nice to read about Sami and his constant perseverance to preserve a slice of history. People like him are rare. So much history has been lost in my home city of Bangalore, India, thanks to unrelenting construction projects.

    I wish you a safe journey ahead.

  18. Paul
    July 6, 2013

    I hope that he can preserve a lot of the old city. I worked in Jeddah in 1970. I have some wonderful old pictures and great memories.

  19. Elizabeth M. Brazill
    July 27, 2013

    Greetings from a relatively new Old Town. Alexandria, Virginia was founded in 1728. George Washington sold produce from Mount Vernon at our Market Square. Robert E. Lee lived in a large brick home just a few blocks away. I am awed by your undertaking and the centuries iof human history you are opening up to those who are with you in spirit on your walk through ancient human history. Thank you.

  20. Beatriz Mallory
    August 2, 2013

    For your “lexicon of longing”, indispensable on the list is the beautiful Portuguese word “saudade”. A complex tangle of longing, nostalgia, desire of what one has had to leave behind – it simply doesn’t translate. Yet I believe our antecedents whose path you follow must have felt it with every step.

  21. Desmond Lee
    November 10, 2013

    Greetings Mr. Salopek. I represent the Humanities in Spanish 7-2 class from the Washington International School. Recently, my class started a new unit on Islam. The posts about your adventures in the Arabian Peninsula were interesting to me because of all the geographical, religious, and historical connections between our discoveries and yours. Thank you, and I wish you success in your subsequent endeavors. Peace out. :) :) :):) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :)

    • Paul Salopek
      November 16, 2013

      Thanks for participating in the walk in such a thoughtful way, Desmond. It’s great to hear that you and your classmates are sharing the experience this way.

  22. Juanjo Sánchez-Bayo
    February 15, 2014

    Mr. Salopek, thanks for teaching us so much. As a member of NG I recently discovered Out Of Eden Walk and now I follow every day, both recent and ancient entries from the start of the adventure. I have to say that’s the most interesting adventure ever seen on the Internet. It teaches me a lot and is a very entertaining read. I admire. Projects like yours help make people and the world a little better. Thank you again from Spain

  23. Brian Henderson
    April 11, 2014

    I’ve just learned of your journey, and am currently reading your old dispatches at a rate of one a day to catch up (going slowly but not quite walking I’m afraid). But when I read this piece this morning and saw that Sami earned his degree in Sacramento, CA, which is my hometown, it made me feel a for a moment a very personal connection to your journey. And suddenly Jeddah, a city I’d never heard of in a country I’ve never been to, became both real and connected to me in a way that only the relationship of a guest and his host can. So, as you walk and continue to write, I hope you remember and appreciate that you are not only reconnecting all of us with the footsteps of our ancestors, but also with those whom we share this world with and travel alongside of today. Thank you, for your journey.

  24. shianna
    May 9, 2014

    how long did you stay?

  25. traudel
    July 18, 2014

    It is good to know Mr. Sami is still following his project. I got to know him while living in Jeddah ten years ago. We learned so much from him. I admire him for trying to preserve the old city of Jeddah.

  26. ilya
    October 30, 2014

    They have alot of food

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