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July 26, 2013

DESERT. You are in a taxi. The heavy air presses down on your skin, which threatens to melt down in pools on the smoke-seared seats. The driver, Mahmoud, loves Shakira, and he asks, Do you love Shakira? You have no opinion on Shakira, so he takes that as a yes and “hips don’t lie rips from the speakers by your head; you are sitting in the back. Your friend Michael sits up front and makes small talk. He speaks Arabic better than you. He’s better at speaking generally, even in English.

You put the window down and Mahmoud looks a bit startled, then concedes, rolling down the others as well. Wind thunders through the cab, kicking up old dust and memories. You lean out the window, just enough to drown out the music—

You are cutting through the desert. The road, so layered in dirt, may not even be paved here, but you’re too far from anything to feel danger. There are no other cars to wreck, no laws to break. Only sand and yellow sky spanning for miles.

Inflated by the wind, your hair puffs up, and dust nestles in your scalp. You’ve been in northern Jordan for seven weeks now, almost eight, studying Arabic at a university squished between the rushing Jordan River and the legendary Golan Heights, both of which you’ve seen by now. You’ve finished touring, and you’ve arrived at your last free weekend of the summer. You have final exams next week, and the section for al-qu’ahd, grammar, is going to kill you.

Your first night in Jordan, you just had to get used to the heat; you had to learn to sweat. There was no need for blankets, not until the early morning when, for a quick hour or two, a breezy cool dethroned the heat and coated everything in shivers. But at the first peek of sunlight, heat ruled again. In those first few weeks, when the roof was still open, you watched the sunrise often. You lived in a dorm, where, for cultural reasons, a divider separated the guys from the girls. In the mornings, if you timed it right, you could meet the girls on the roof and catch the hazy orange ball lifting slowly over Iraq in the east, while Israel, to the west, remained dark. And it was prohibited, all of it—being on the roof, sneaking in unchaperoned rendezvous with the ladies, wearing pajamas in the open—but it was the closest you got to home. As the heat settled back onto your skin, as the bugs came out of hiding, as Katie played Daft Punk’s newest album, it was like you didn’t have to be students. You didn’t have to have goals. You didn’t have to be inquisitive representatives of America abroad. There were no roles to play. You just existed.

The taxi draws towards a long brick wall rising from the desert floor. You wonder why you are here. You wonder why you aren’t studying for finals. You wonder what compelled you to come to this hospital, to study this language, to leave your family this summer. You do not know. Mahmoud stops the car and you each put forward ten dinars. He smiles.

You climb out of the cab, plant your feet in the dust. You grab your bag and slam the door on Michael’s finger. He jumps, doubles in pain but doesn’t cuss. He doesn’t say anything. He shakes his hand and looks at you in paled surprise, then frustration. You ask if he’s ok but don’t apologize because what was his finger doing there in the first place? A deep red gash appears at his joint and he sucks at the blood as Mahmoud pulls away. You look at the ground, then apologize, but only halfway. He tells you not to worry about it, but you think he might hold it against you.

And here you are.

You stand before a brick wall in the middle of the desert, and your bag is heavy, and it’s hot, and your shoulders are crumbling canyon walls, and you think, all this time, that you should be studying for finals. You hike up your bag and readjust the aviators on the bridge of your nose. You worry that the people here will think your aviators look goofy. That they won’t have enough time to see past the reflective gold surface. And what would they see, anyway?

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LIFE. You enter through the brick walls and see this place is different. An enclosed 25-acre plot, Annoor Sanatorium for Chest Diseases comprises several hospital-like buildings, as well as houses for the doctors and workers, fields, gardens, and vineyards. You can’t escape the layer of dust that betrays you haven’t left the Middle East but, still, this is different. This is very different.

You find the hospital administrator, Aaron, and he takes you on a tour of the hospital. He is tall and missing a finger. You don’t ask. Instead, he asks about you. He shows you the sprawling vineyards and pulls for you a handful of grapes from a nearby vine. You ask if it’s ok to eat these without paying and he laughs. There’s so many, he says, they couldn’t pay you to eat enough.

In all directions, green.

Green leaves, green vines, green grass. Yes, grass. Great trees twist up from the ground, unfurling canopies of shade through which cool breezes blow. Everywhere you find natural refuges from an abusive sun. You speak up: How is this possible? How can this place exist? You’ve spent too much time in the desert, been too far from life for months, to believe this is real.

He asks if you’d like to speak to one of the patients. Michael does. Aaron leads you through the sanatorium into a roofed porch, down a hallway where a row of columns separates you from a low garden, green and violet. You peek behind each door and see Arabs sleeping under white blankets.

Aaron stops at an open door and knocks. A voice beckons, tefudl. Come on in, if you please. You file into a naturally lit room where a seascape mural has been painted on two walls with wild and rainbow-colored animals. Through the blue light you see a man sitting in a wicker chair by the bed. He is thin and gentle and has one blind eye. You are not sure where to look when he speaks. In the bed you see a boy, and he is laughing. You think he looks about ten years old, but Aaron tells you in English that he is much older than he looks; malnourishment has stunted him. It’s possible, Aaron says, that he is nineteen. You are nineteen.

The man offers seats, so you sit. He offers tea, so you drink. You have learned it is rude to turn down tea-offerings. You take the paper cup in soft hands. You do not know much, or anything, about tuberculosis, and you wonder if you will catch it. You wish you didn’t think that way. The tea is sharp, but not burning, and the cinnamon feels like Christmas slipping down your throat. You wish you were home. You wish it was Christmas. The boy on the bed shifts to his knees and gestures for your sunglasses. Oh no. You hand them over and hope he doesn’t laugh at them. He puts them on and resembles a golden-eyed bug. You hope you don’t look like that. He rolls in laughter.

Michael chats with the father. You listen carefully to their Arabic, understanding most of the exchange, content to listen. You learn that he is from Syria, that he fled to Jordan because of the war. His voice cracks as he talks about his wife, his home, his memories—all that he left behind. What remains, he says, now lies on the bed. You look at the boy. Underneath your shades, he has fallen asleep.

SWEAT. In Aaron’s house, you let Michael take the guest bed since you slammed his finger in the cab door. You flop on the couch, made up with peachy, cotton sheets and some of the softest pillows you’ve felt in weeks. After breakfast the next morning, Aaron takes you into the hospital with the other workers, who gather in a quiet, cerulean office for morning prayers. Across from you, a woman in her late eighties stands, head down. She is white, but her weathered skin has taken on a browned quality from years in the desert. Aaron has told you about her—Aileen, who founded Annoor fifty years ago. She prays with her eyes open.

Afterwards Aaron drives you to a doctor’s house at the far end of the sanatorium. He explains that he will put your able bodies to work. The doctor wants a carport, so you will dig holes along the driveway for the foundational columns. You wonder why he needs a carport; wouldn’t his money be better spent elsewhere? You look at your shoes, sixty dollars of rubber and cloth.

Aaron leaves Michael and you with an Egyptian who shows you where to dig holes. There must be ten by the end of the day, he says, two feet wide, two feet deep. He throws you a shovel and you get to work. You wrench your shovel into the dirt. You never thought your scholarly summer abroad would involve this much sweat, but it’s good, you like it. You like the rhythm of metal on dirt, the thwack of dirt clumps landing in a pile next to the ever-expanding hole. You think about all the hours spent slaving over notebooks and vocab lists and Google Translate. Here, languages are a part of the past. Here, classes don’t exist. There are no pencils, no papers, no tests. There is only dig. You subdue the ground. The earth is yours.

You stop for a moment, drink some water. Water fascinates you. It’s so simple, but somehow sometimes it’s all you ever want. You poke at the blisters bubbling on your palms. You think of your dad, a subcontractor, and you wonder if he’s digging now, too. You remember the time when you were eleven and he brought you to work and made you and your brother dig an eight-foot hole for a light post in northern Virginia. You remember hating that day but laughing about it years later. You go back to work. You remember fishing with him this past May. As if a river might erupt at the bottom of the hole, you swing your shovel harder. You feel the slime of the bait as you hook it on the line and drop it in the water. You dig deeper. You feel the sun warming your skin as you wait for a bite. You feel the river water splashing up, cleansing your feet. You hear Tim McGraw and Taylor Swift from the radio behind you—I can’t live without you I can’t live without you bay-bay. Michael likes country music, too, so you both sing as you dig—I can’t live without you I can’t live without you bay-bay. And this is good. You swing the shovel. You sing. You dig. And this is good.

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OASIS. The holes get dug faster than you thought, and by the end your hands are raw and your knees feel like empty bags and those exams are nothing now because you have conquered the earth.

You jump into the back of Aaron’s pick-up and he drives you back towards the main facility. Endless vineyards fall away around you. The air feels softer now and the breeze is light. You take deep breaths. You put your arms out and feel the wind wrapping itself around you. You look at the endless waves of grapes and remember what Aaron told you yesterday as you were chewing grapes. How is this possible? you asked. How can this place exist?

Aileen, the founder, materializes in your head like wisps from a sandstorm. You see her weathered face looking at the floor, her blue eyes open, her lips echoing prayers in your head. You hear Aaron telling you her story, how the Bedouins call her a’raiisa: angel of the desert. You see her journey: She lives in Australia, and she is young now, kissing her family goodbye; a green backyard unfolds behind them. You see her arrive in Bethlehem, a desert town of dust and dry wood; she ministers to Bedouins. As the sun rises and sets, she loves them well.

It’s the 60s. The desert people have become her family. She senses tremors of the impending war with Israel, so she moves further into the desert, miles from civilization where only nomads and refugees dare. Here she founds Annoor, the light. Now, it’s just a renovated house with a few beds for patients. The sanatorium doesn’t exist. The vineyard doesn’t exist. It’s a house in a desert. Surrounded by patients, she sleeps. She dreams. She hears the voice of God echoing in her head, and he gives her the command. Purchase twenty more acres, he says. She wakes up; she is poor. She has no money for this. She buys twenty more acres anyway.

Here am I, Lord.

Two wells spring up at the edge of the plot, saturating the earth with fresh, clear, pooling blue water, water, water. Life funnels into the hospital, and you see it all sprouting: trees, orchards, fields, gardens. Fresh air. Healing. From the brittle ground it springs up: an oasis in the desert, light in the darkness.