Hello Jordan, where waves of refugees have been welcomed as warmly as the visitors who come to see such glorious sights as rose-red Petra. An oasis of peace in a troubled region, the country has its own problems as it struggles to maintain its ancient Bedouin traditions and identity in a modern world that is changing fast.
On a star filled night, far away from the light pollution of modern civilization, I devour handfuls of mansaf, a traditional Bedouin dish of rice, lamb, and spices cooked in the ground, and drink hot cups of sickly sweet tea. I am sitting in the tent of my nomadic Bedouin host in the Jordanian desert of Wadi Rum, the legendary setting of Lawrence of Arabia. The billowing robes and distinctive headwear of the tribesmen, and the snorting camels, bring to life a desert fantasy and the modern world might as well be on another planet.
Okay, yes, a Land Cruiser has followed us on our camels to the campsite and, yes, almost everyone has a mobile phone but the essence of this night on the warm sands has remained unchanged for thousands of years. However, while the desert Bedouin may offer the typical fairytale experience of Jordan, and while Bedouins may be the cultural foundation of the Jordanian nation, their traditional lifestyle and culture are today only one part of the modern Hashemite Kingdom. “Only about 40 per cent of Jordanians can now trace their lineage to the Bedouins,” says Omar Al Kalouti, a Jordanian-American business colleague and now friend. “Today’s Jordan is a mix of peoples and places, where tourism is a mainstay of the economy.”
Formerly known as Transjordan, a name meant to signify that it lay on the East Bank of the Jordan River, Jordan was carved out of former Ottoman colonies by the British after World War I. On the western side of the Jordan River lay what was then known as Palestine and is today known as the Palestinian West Bank and Israel.
Home to a number of ancient ruins
“East Bankers have a dominant Bedouin lineage,” says Omar. “Our West Banker brethren, also known as Palestinians, trace their lineage to a Levantine heritage that is a mash-up of pretty much every civilization to ever pass through the Holy Land, including Canaanites, Romans, European Crusaders, and Arabs.”
The Jordanian capital Amman, formerly known as Philadelphia under Greek rule, fits most people’s image of an Arab or Middle Eastern city. The city vista is of low-rise brown and white limestone and cement buildings spread over several hills, the most notable being the central Jebel Amman. It is dusty and noisy, tempting most visitors to pass straight through on the road to Petra and the country’s more attractive destinations. However, the city is a microcosm of Jordan’s history and identity, and home to a number of ancient ruins.
I spend a day wandering around the Roman amphitheater in the blazing sun and admire the views from the Umayyad Palace at the Amman Citadel, which dates back 7,000 years and much of which remains to be excavated. The Amman Archaeological Museum at the citadel used to house the Ain Ghazal statues, the oldest statues ever made by humans, and some of the Dead Sea Scrolls – both of which have now been moved to the state-of the art Museum of Jordan in the new downtown Ras al-’Ayn area.
“It is amazing to think that most visitors to Jordan miss seeing both these priceless treasures,” says Omar. “When you look at the Ain Ghazal statues, you are seeing something fashioned by our human ancestors perhaps 10,000 years ago.” The statues are hauntingly beautiful, with eyes that stare through the millennia.
Upscale neighborhoods that boast supermalls
I also enjoy an afternoon in the city’s market, filled with the sights, sounds and smells of the region, where Bedouins from the countryside trade and mingle with urbanized Palestinian-Jordanians and the old-guard Jordanian Bedouin elite, from which the Jordanian royal family hails. Around it spreads upscale neighborhoods that boast supermalls, western fast food chains and nightclubs that would not look out of place in Beirut and Tel Aviv.
Omar and I head to a bar in the upscale Abdoun neighborhood. On our way we pass modern cafés and clothing chains, seeing young women with faces caked in make-up, many wearing head scarves but others sporting long, flowing hair and skin-tight jeans. Families crowd ice cream parlors and young men loiter in flashy sports cars, smoking cigarettes and checking out the girls.
The bar itself is very smart. While nightclubs and bars are not new in Amman, their scope and reach are limited. “These bars usually cater to an isolated, generally well off echelon of society who exist outside of the traditional boundaries of the broader Jordanian society,” says Omar. Inside they do not even sell Petra, the local Jordanian beer, so we drink Heinekens as we watch the other patrons. Most are in large groups of friends or even families and tend to stick to themselves. The vibe is more restricted than what can be found a little to the west in neighboring Lebanon and Israel.
Omar takes me to a diwan, a place for both family and guests to mingle, drink coffee and talk. It is a deliberate relic of the old Amman, before the days of Starbucks and a faster pace of life, belonging to Duke Mahmoud Mukheibeh, and is now a space for young Jordanians to learn about their culture and history.
The duke saved this 1920s home from demolition
The duke is a close confidant of King Hussein and was given his title in recognition of his philanthropic work. Lamenting the loss of so much of the old city, the duke saved this 1920s home from demolition and lovingly restored it, filling it with antique treasures, old furniture and faded photographs. “I did not want to lose the soul of the place,” he says as he shows me around.
In 1965, King Hussein brokered a deal with neighboring Saudi Arabia to give up 6,000 km sq. of Jordan’s desert interior in exchange for 12km of Saudi coastline on the Gulf of Aqaba. The idea was to give the Jordanian city of Aqaba room to grow and expand its port. The new coastline also opened up Jordan’s stretch of the Red Sea to scuba diving and beach tourism.
Aqaba sits where the borders of Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia meet and the popular Israeli resort of Eilat is so close that it looks like a suburb of the city. The Red Sea is one of the best dive sites in the world and attracts millions of visitors every year but much of this tourism is concentrated in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Eilat. While the diving may be better in neighboring Egypt or Saudi Arabia (which does not give tourist visas), the dramatic setting of Aqaba, where desert mountains sweep dramatically into crystal blue waters, has become a popular add-on for visitors to Jordan after a few days exploring the arid hinterland in Petra and Wadi Rum.
Serenely hidden away near the center of Amman, the two-story house has airy rooms and balconies that overlook the busy Faisal Street below. Its richness, both inside and out, is a strong contrast to the colorless style of the buildings around. Much of the city has been built in the last 100 years and lacks the wealth of historic relics boasted by neighboring cities such as Damascus – now sadly facing ruin – or Jerusalem.
The most famous knefa bi jebneh in Amman
We sit down and the duke asks if I would like a taste of what is arguably the most famous knefa bi jebneh in Amman. Knefa is an addictive baklava-like dessert made from a dense, honey drenched pastry, with white cheese melted into the middle. Popular all over the former Ottoman Empire, it has its origins in the West Bank city of Nablus and its local popularity soared with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the 1940s and 60s. He orders a basket lowered on a pulley out of one of the windows to a knefa shop directly below on Faisal Street. A minute later, a few steaming plates arrive, which I enjoy while discussing Jordanian culture and identity with him.
“Jordan is a country facing water and resource shortages. As modern Jordanians we have lost touch with our traditional lifestyle, which relied heavily on the land and nature. Now, I am trying to encourage sustainable living among the youth and renew our collective respect for the environment. My lifestyle is self-sustaining, I grow my own vegetables, recycle as much as I can, and minimize my waste,” he says. “But I do not preach. I simply live this way and allow people to observe my lifestyle as an example. People here know me and know what I am about, that is enough. If I force my ways on them they will resist and lose respect for me.”
The rich taste of Jordanian hospitality continues when I am invited to a wedding in the city of Mafraq, an hour north of Amman, where unadulterated Bedouin culture thrives. On arrival, I am greeted by ear splittingly loud Arabic music, courtesy of a live music troupe. About 150 women are gathered to my left, sipping tea and shouting praises at the groom, while a raucous 300-strong crowd of men in traditional dress form a circle to dance a traditional dabke, chanting and shouting in unison. Confetti flies around the room and fireworks and celebratory gunshots pierce the deafening music.
Most of the people here are urbanized Bedouins
The groom is lifted on the shoulders of the men and paraded around, then it is my turn to be carried high as they notice the presence of a foreigner, now an honored guest. Most of the people here are urbanized Bedouins, who have abandoned their traditional nomadic lifestyle generations before but fuse modern day lifestyles with Bedouin tradition.
Taking a break from the mayhem, I sit down with some of the elders who are eating large piles of mansaf. Ibrahim, an uncle of the groom, sits beside me. “What you see here is the real Jordan,” he says. “We Bedouins are the backbone of this country, we created it. All of this celebration you see here is pure Jordanian tradition. Welcome! Welcome!”
On the other end of the country, in the desert mountains of the southwest, Bedouin Jordanians still living the traditional nomadic lifestyle are trying to capitalize on a tourism goldmine. The ancient Nabataean ruins of Petra are the country’s jewel in the crown, made famous onscreen by Indiana Jones and rivaling the ancient cities of Pompeii or Machu Picchu in legend. Carved directly into the pink and orange desert rock, iconic buildings such as the “Treasury” and “Monastery” are among the highlights of a massive site that can take days to explore.
This vast stretch of land, once a city of perhaps 30,000 inhabitants, is still occupied by semi-nomadic Bedouins, but the invasion of tourists from around the world has been a mixed blessing. “The Jordanian government has attempted to regulate and control their lifestyle in order to protect the ruins,” says Omar. “But they also have free rein to sell whatever they can to the millions of visitors that pour into the site every year.” This has provided them with revenue and opportunities that would be otherwise hard to come by in such an isolated part of Jordan.
Known as the Treasury to its cost
Once I have trotted down the narrow Siq on a tired horse, for the obligatory Indian Jones photo opportunity, I enjoy exploring the ruins at leisure, stopping for tea with many of the Bedouin hawking postcards, fossils, jewelry and other souvenirs. Omar points out the many bullet holes around a giant urn carved above the entrance to Al Khazneh, known as the Treasury to its cost.
“Tribesmen shot at it with their rifles, thinking it might split open to reveal the treasure,” he says. Again, I learn that most of this site, like Amman Citadel, has still to be excavated. “Three-quarters of the site is still untouched, still buried.” he says. “There was a big fall in tourism during the Gulf War, but that allowed a lot more work to be done and a whole other layer was discovered, covered by centuries of sand.”
I climb the 800-plus steps to the site of the Monastery, more properly called El-Deir and built in the second century. As I admire its rock-hewn splendor, the words once used to describe Petra come to mind: “A rose-red city half as old as time.” Nearby is the place where Moses is said to have struck water from a rock when the Israelites were dying of thirst in the desert.
From here, I can look out over timeworn mountains to the Promised Land of Israel itself, source of so much turmoil in this region. About 60 per cent of Jordanian citizens have Palestinian heritage or identify as Palestinians, having arrived in two separate waves. The first came during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled the bourgeoning state of Israel.
Jordan has a majority Palestinian reality
They arrived in Jordan as refugees, hoping to shortly return to homes, but remain to this day. The second wave arrived after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, when Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem (which was then under Jordanian control). Since then, Jordan has struggled with having an official Bedouin East Banker identity, but a majority Palestinian reality.
The Dead Sea is a geographic link between Jordan and its Palestinian/Israeli neighbor. Cut in half by the border, the Dead Sea is an extension of the holy Jordan River and the lowest point on earth, at 427m below sea level. Its unusually high salinity makes the water dense enough for swimmers to effortlessly float on its surface and helps make it one of the main tourist destinations in both Jordan and Israel.
At a quiet stretch of the Dead Sea shore, I find a number of families picnicking and smoking water pipes. Much of the shoreline is owned by expensive resort hotels, but this beach is relatively quiet and, more importantly, free. The heat is intense, with the arid desert hills forming a bowl to contain the baking heat. I wade into the Dead Sea up to my waist and then plunge forward but the water sends me bobbing back to the surface at once.
I can float high in the water with no effort, feeling the fierce sun drying the salt on my body and my eyes stinging from the bright light and salt. Within moments of emerging, I am covered in a thick layer of dry salt, but there are no showers to be had. Fortunately, this area has some natural sulfur baths where I can wash off and hopefully benefit from the enriching salts Dead Sea minerals I have heard so much about.
Compared with other Palestinians, we are lucky
Again, the hospitality of Jordanians mean it is only a moment before a man beckons me over and offers tea and a waterpipe. I ask him where he is from and he points across the water. “I am from Palestine,” he says. Khaled Nablusi has spent most of his life in Jordan, coming as a child refugee in 1948 when his family settled in Amman. Amman is where he grew-up and where his own kids were born.
His whole family is now Jordanian citizens but still struggle with their dual Palestinian-Jordanian identity. “We are Palestinian, that is where I am from and that is our culture,” he says. “However we are also citizens of Jordan, and compared with other Palestinians [who lack any citizenship whatsoever] we are lucky to have this.”
With Palestinians making up such a large proportion of the population, Bedouin Jordanians naturally see their presence as a threat to their own distinct culture, which differs in many ways. “Many Palestinians feel like outsiders and still want to return to their homeland,” says Omar. “Even if it is a homeland many of them have never seen. This identity struggle of Palestinian-Jordanians reflects an identity struggle in Jordan as whole.”
Political power in Jordan lies firmly in the hands of Bedouin-Jordanian rulers who have reinforced the idea that Jordan is a nation based on its Bedouin history. However, these rulers hail from a minority that is now ruling over a majority Palestinian-Jordanian population, who have long standing grievances with their lack of serious representation.
These Palestinians will likely remain in Jordan
With no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in sight, these Palestinians will likely remain in Jordan permanently. Maintaining stability and prosperity in Jordan now relies on reexamining what exactly it means to be Jordanian.
However, the grievances don’t stop with the Palestinians. Jordan’s hospitality has been even more strained in recent years when a flood of Iraqi refugees arrived after the U.S. invasion, now joined by large numbers of Syrians fleeing the civil war there.
Back under the desert stars in Wadi Rum, one of our English-educated hosts shares his thoughts on this Jordanian mix. “What makes the identity of these lands are the people, not the rulers. Our nations are new, but our peoples are ancient. Call us Jordanians, call us Palestinians, Syrians or Iraqis, draw as many borders around us as you like, but we know who we are. We live here, we have lived here, and we will continue to live here long after our rulers have vanished, just like the desert itself.”