Few places in the Arab world can match the allure of Jordan, a land of great beauty and even greater history in the heart of the Middle East
By Jamie James
Photographs by Martin Westlake
When I decided to make the journey to Jordan, a worldly-wise friend cautioned me against being dazzled by the romance of the place. Since the Palestinian-American critic Edward Said published his famous study, Orientalism, 30 years ago, Western travelers have been on their guard to see Asian countries, particularly in the Middle East, as they really are, rather than refracted through the exotic illusions fostered by European artists and storytellers in the colonial era.
I tried to resist, I really did, but in the end I succumbed. In the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, romance covers the ground like a field of poppies, filling the air with heady gusts of perfume. How can a foreign visitor avoid its influence when the self-romancing Jordanians themselves are so hopelessly caught in its spell? The elemental purity of the desert; bold men with flashing eyes and bejeweled scimitars; the silvery laugh of unseen women; dreamlike ruins of vanished civilizations: this is the stuff of everyday life here.
I fell in love with Jordan the moment I set foot there, before I even entered the country officially. Prior to leaving my home in Bali, I made sure that I could get a visa on arrival in Amman, the capital. But when I opened the guide book for the first time on the plane (standard bad procedure for me), I read this sentence: “Be sure to bring cash in U.S. dollars or euros to pay for the visa on arrival, as the cash-dispensing ATMs at the airport are located outside passport control.” Oops. The visa fee is an amazingly friendly, almost token US$14, but the only cash I had on me was Indonesian rupiah, which I seriously doubted would be welcomed.
There was no alternative except to brazen it out at the Queen Alia International Airport. Waiting in line at the visa counter, I was rehearsing my indignant little speech, demanding that they accept my credit card or let me change my rupiahs, when I came face to face with a round young man in uniform. Lifting his mustache in a great smile, he said, “Welcome to Jordan!” with a cheery boom that banished any possibility of trouble. He wanted to know where I was from, where I lived, what I planned to do in Jordan. I expected tea and cakes to be brought out any minute.
When we finally got around to the subject of my visa, and I explained my problem, my new friend sent me to his boss, a courtly, soft-spoken fellow in a gray suit who personally escorted me to the employees’ exit and let me enter the crowded arrivals hall, unaccompanied, to change money and come back for the visa. He must have been breaking a dozen regulations. With a suggestion of a bow, he pointed the way and said, “Welcome to Jordan.” The romance had begun.
The Orientalism that Edward Said warned us against is the tendency to see the modern Middle East through a historical lens, as a quaint relic disconnected from the present, with all its glory in the distant past. The epicenter of Orientalist romance is Petra, an ancient city carved from rose-colored sandstone cliffs in a rift valley south of the Dead Sea. Since its rediscovery in 1812, it has been the subject of countless travel posters and calendars, and the destination of millions of holiday travelers. Petra is one of the most famous places on earth, on a par with Angkor and Karnak as a grand symbol of empire in decline.
To counter the influence of Orientalism, I came armed with facts. The Nabataeans, great merchants of Arabian antiquity, chiseled Petra out of the rock more than 2,000 years ago and made it a stately capital, home to 30,000 people. After the Romans conquered the city, it fell into decline and was gradually reclaimed by the desert. My antiromantic resolve wobbled seriously when I entered Petra in the hush of dawn, emerging from a narrow gorge called the Siq, and saw rising before me the noble facade of the Treasury, the city’s oft-photographed icon. It didn’t help that a pair of camels in full Bedouin regalia were crouching in front of it, a picturesque vision that accentuated the monument’s soaring height.
I reminded myself that the only commerce these camels would be engaged in was the transport of visitors’ bottoms across the vast site. The tourism industry in Jordan, of which Petra is the anchor and the glory, brings in nearly US$1 billion a year—10 percent of the gross national product of this nation of six million people.
After hours of poking around Petra on foot, I was hungry and thirsty and in need of some shade, but in no mood for the tourist buffet. I came to a sign that read: venturing beyond this point without a guide is dangerous. Needless to say I ventured beyond, and soon found myself surrounded by dozens of camels, which proved more disgusting than dangerous. The smelly, irascible beasts were being fed and watered by their jockeys, adolescent boys in jeans and T-shirts with fringed kaffiyeh scarves wrapped in a variety of rakish configurations around their heads. One of them asked me if I wanted a ride; I replied that what I really wanted was a cup of coffee. He flashed a glittering smile and said, “Follow me.”
He scampered past the camels and around the bend, leading me to an inconspicuous artificial cave like a thousand others pocking the sandstone cliffs around Petra. It was carved at the same time as the famous monuments I had been tramping through, but it was completely unornamented and decidedly lacking in artistic interest—literally a hole in the wall. A battered metal door stood ajar; the boy stooped to enter the dark rectangle of the entrance and gave me that smile again, with an inviting crook of his finger.
Feeling like a character in The Arabian Nights, I followed him into a dim, low room fragrant with warm bread and sage tea (Jordan’s wintertime beverage, alternating with mint tea in hot weather). A rugged-looking man with burning black eyes underlined by kohl, his arms covered with blue, crudely drawn tattoos, greeted me affably. He said in good English, “Welcome to my cave, sir.”
His name was Auda, and he was the proprietor of this little workers’ canteen. The boy who had led me here joined two of his friends, who were sitting cross-legged on carpets around an open brazier, eating lunch under a faded portrait of King Abdullah II. The conversation had halted abruptly when I entered, but after I said one of my three words of Arabic and sat down, they smiled and made a place for me in the circle. They were eating sardines and green salad with bread that Auda had warmed over the fire.