Driving from the airport, the first thing that strikes you is the poverty. This wasn’t a beautiful, rich country in the Arab world. It is still a beautiful, but it is worn with old refugees from Palestine and new refugees from Syria.
It was underdeveloped, many buildings lay half built. As we drive around the city my friend points to a couple of high-risers. The building look about 40 floors high. He says construction had been abandoned about 10 years ago as architects had forgotten to build in a sewage system into the towers. Years later, the buildings still stand.
It seems like there is no plan for Amman. The city is hard to understand. Roundabouts – or ‘circles’ as they are referred to locally – serve as squares or plazas for directions.
USAID stamps assert themselves on most plaques at tourist attractions. Expats tell me that the US has pumped huge sums of aid to Jordan. Research tells me after Afghanistan and Pakistan, the third highest amount of USAID goes to Jordan.
An American says in conversation: ‘Jordanians are confused about the US. On the one hand they are giving Jordanians all this money, and on the other hand they’re starting all the wars in the Middle East.’ It makes it hard for them to form a single opinion about the US.
I can relate.
On that note, I started feeling cheated by pictures of Queen Rania and can’t help but wonder – this is what she is so proud of? In Pakistan, Visit Jordan ads air on local television. I guess after seeing Incredible India ads in the same vien, I shouldn’t have expected so much.
Don’t get me wrong, Jordan is a beautiful country. But it might not be the powerful, liberal country it makes out to be.
Walking through street markets, souks, for a young woman alone is rare, I’m told. The souks are exactly the lanes you see in Sunday Bazaar, so I feel uneasily at home there. Uneasily because for every 20 men, I see only one woman. In Jordan, by the age of 24 you are assumed to be married. Women, foreign women more perhaps, are shouted at by Jordanian youth frequently. In most cases, they shout haram. It’s hard to grasp that a word with such huge bearing in Islam could be used so frivolously. I can’t say that women are more conservative, because I saw a lot of local Jordanians who were not. There are women who wear the hijab and those who don’t. It’s almost natural diversity within a religion or culture, but I expected more respect from the men.
It was bad enough the man giving me a visa on entry had to ask me why my head was not was not covered if I came from a Muslim family.
Restaurants are buzzing in Amman, especially if you walk downhill from the first and second circles. Jordanians enjoy going out, smoking sheesha through bites of hummus and muttabal. The food is divine. It is safe to say all those falafel places I ate at while studying in England were doing it wrong. This food was perfect. The small servings of hummus-like food reminded me of tapas, but Jordanians enjoy a good barbeque just as much. They don’t skimp out on the meat.
On a braver day, I decided to brace a walking tour through the city alone. Speaking in broken Arabic, only using words like yanni and taqreeban that I find in Urdu, the taxi takes me to one of the best viewpoints in Amman – the Citadel.
The view is a classic 360 across the city, so it makes you understand why the Citadel was built here. Don’t be deceived, Amman is much larger than what the view from the Citadel shows you. It won’t show you the rolling hills where buildings tall and short don’t discriminate between levels, giving you drastically uneven heights.
The Citadel area has a Byzantine church, a Mosque, a temple, a palace and a Roman theatre nearby. It seems hard to place in your head who or what this belonged to. The Roman Temple of Hercules stands next to the Byzantine church, the Umayyad Mosque alongside an Early Bronze Age cave. Walking through the broken Ammonite palace catching views of the sprawling city and a rather large strategically placed Jordanian flag flying in the background gives you an almost perfect explanation of Amman.
An elderly Jordanian tour guide who lives between Amman and Australia strikes a conversation. I suppose I should have expected as much being a lone girl gazing at roman ruins. Again the questions ensue, am I married, a Muslim, alone, working? After explaining my story in two lines, he says he is impressed that I am alone. I wonder if I should have been more afraid walking through alleyways in Amman not knowing where I was headed. Before I can vocalize my thoughts, his group of British tourists scoffs for the free talk he is giving me.
Parting, he tells me to add him on Facebook. I’m still considering it.
I head on to what would become one of my favourite experiences in Amman – a hamam. A hamam is a sort of body massage and cleanse that originated from Turkey. Before you go, ensure you are extremely comfortable with your body. They will ask you to wear nothing but your underwear. Don’t worry, it’s only ladies around. If you feel uncomfortable, I suggest closing your eyes, because the women who work there don’t take no for an answer.
You are first shoved into a steaming sauna that blinds you temporarily. In the midst of your yelps of pain an arm pops through the plastic curtain and hands you a pomegranate juice slushy. Savour this till the end. After the sauna, another sweltering experience in the Jacuzzi, that wasn’t as painful. After your pores are wide open, you lie on a marble slab where you are intensely scrubbed to remove the dirt from your body.
Something as simple as lying on a marble slab will make you feel like you were a wealthy Arab lady back in the day where you had hundreds to tend to your every need. Picture yourself in those times, and not now. I know I’m asking you to connect with the marble beneath you, but it makes you forget the excruciating pain of removing the top three layers of your skin soon enough. After the scrub it’s off to the massage and then to a wooden coal steam room. It works better if you pretend you’re in the old times, trust me.
Walking out of the hammam to Rainbow Street – one of the most Western areas of Amman – is also strange. Roadside cafes and western shops sell you all that you ever wanted to be a young, rich Jordanian.
The ruins that greet you in Jerash are perhaps the second most magnificent you will see in all of Jordan. Arriving in a taxi from Amman, Jerash looks like an average town in an average country. Even walking to the entrance of the Roman ruins heritage site, there is little to prepare you for what lies beyond the gates. It was the grand, largest display of Roman architecture I could possibly lay my eyes on in a single site. It had everything you studied in history class – the grandeur arches, the hippodrome for horses and chariots, the central plaza donned by pillars all around, the grand fountains where you picture roman women perching and hefty stairs leading to grand podiums and platforms.
The most spectacular part was being able to walk on the streets in the grooves that chariot trails left behind centuries ago. Spending 4 hours here felt like a flash. Although the masses of Spanish and American tourists were hard to miss, a sly turn or flight of stairs would bring you to an absolutely serene part of the site.
Few places in the world have the ability to entirely transport you to another world for an extended period of time. Jordan seems to be sprawling with them.
I am temporarily distracted by local tourists. The first group is young, mid-teen girls wearing hijabs asking me how I am and what my name is. It’s clearly to practice English, but I do not particularly look like I am from somewhere where English is a first language. Nor do I look Muslim, I could be from India. We part with smiles, only for another group of young Jordanians hustle me. This time, younger and a mix, each asks me for individual photos of them as well as group shots. They black-veiled mothers scold them to move on.
‘But I can’t give these to you,’ I try to explain. ‘It’s so that you can remember them,’ a passerby says, ‘not for them to get the pictures.’
The day ended early as it was only mid-afternoon, since we started at 7:30am. We decided to head to Ajloun, where a nature reserve sported hikes for the more adventurous to remind themselves that Jordan is more than a desert.
Don’t trust every taxi driver you meet in Jordan. They will tell you yes, they speak English, and yes, they know where a place is, but frequently you find you taxi has stopped yet again to ask directions. It’s strange, he said with such surety he knew exactly where to go. Perhaps it’s cultural, my friend who lives in Amman says. People sometimes don’t want to admit they don’t know something, and think they figure it out on their own. We talk to the taxi driver, and find out doubles as a policeman. Something quite common for police in Jordan, my friend tells me. After a grueling drive, unable to find the reserve, we offload in a family park in Dibeen where barbeques and litter taint the scenery.
It’s a Friday. Jumma. Everything is shut, every Friday. Fridays aren’t so much like Sunday, but more like strikes, bank holidays – hence why we are forging ways with taxi drivers. After a disappointing few hours in the forest only to continuously bump into people asking if I’m married we head out. Wilderness adventure in Jordan strikes out. Better stick to the deserts.
There’s a public transport strike for buses leaving Amman. At the time, rumours of three university students being shot dead were circulating, and a Syrian refugee who now lives in Amman says that tribes from across the country would use public transport to go to the area and start chaos. Just the use of the word tribes triggers my Waziristan sensors, but I somehow can’t picture Jordanian men in anything other than jeans and shirts. I suppose the ‘traditional’ clothing is left to the women.
Finally en route to Petra, the journey seems bland. Flat desert, and sporadic ghosts towns don sides of the roads.
Petra was first ‘sighted’ by western travelers in 1812, by a Swedish man pretending to be a Muslim trader. Claims go as far back to 300 BC of when it was created. For centuries it remained unknown to the evolving world outside. Bedouins, a nomadic race spread all over Arab world, inhabited the built-in-stone structures and lived for years without telling non-natives of the existence of Petra.
Today, one of the wonders of the world, Petra is vastly visited by tourists who demand to know all its secrets, leaving no stone unturned. Before the entrance to Petra, ‘Djinn blocks’ appear alongside the route. I explain that djinns are pretty talked about in Pakistan, but ‘housing’ them in stone blocks is a pretty new concept.
Gazing at the wide set stone hills, you almost miss the narrow opening on the left that takes you into Petra. The entrance is so large, they have it it’s own name – As-Siq. It lasts over 1000m on foot and from the top could only be assumed to be a narrow crevice. A shallow groove in the wall shows a water irrigation system along the entire way in. Heights of the walls reach up to 80m in places. The city wanted to keep itself a secret. And who wouldn’t? The moment you leave the narrow walk, you see the treasury, one of the most famous sites in the world.
Most of the statues are damaged. Local guides say much of Petra was upheaved by earthquakes that hit in old times, but many dwellings remain. Local Bedouins still act as tour guides, giving camel and donkey rides – and it seems they treat their animals worse than we do. The men sport long, curly hair and wear black eyeliner. The rugged, careless style is perfectly reminiscent of pirate icons we see in media today.
Walking through the maze of a city there are many places to see and not see, but one ultimate destination – the Monastery. The city was built by the Nabataeans, described in brochures as a ‘gifted’ Arab tribe from more than 2000 years ago. Being nomadic, the city is said to be influenced from Roman architecture to as far as China.
There are strange sights. This culture is difficult to understand. While not associated with a religion, or none that I was told of, there were places of sacrifice and grand tombs. Sooner or later you realize almost every single building you have seen so far has been a tomb. Royal tombs, Obelisk tombs, Palace Tombs, Roman Solider’s tombs, Urn tombs – there is little explanation at the site provided as to why this civilization was so obsessed with its dead. Perhaps they realised only in death can their people be eternal.
What you see along the way is mostly forgotten up a grueling hike to the Monastery. Everyone says you shouldn’t miss it. The hike is through sand, stones, stairs, with Bedouin women selling you their jewelry for almost any price. If you ignore them, they shout ‘it’s the same way down!’
The monastery, like every other building, had been carved horizontally into a thick stone wall. The precision of the corners and entrances make it hard to think how one would be able to build such grandeur and just as easily desert it. They say Petra was abandoned eventually as trade routes went elsewhere. I can’t seem to imagine why, or how anyone could leave it behind.
Not far from the monastery are viewing points where you can look over the entire valley. My drive to reach the very top wasn’t satisfied until I was only looking down, not up. Another few minutes hiking up to the view points, and you have a spectacular view of the other side of the valley. A Bedouin man points out and says that there is a river with lush green trees below, and that I can see Syria from here.
‘Syria? From the south of Jordan?’ I ask.
‘Yes,’ he replies.
I only believe the first half of his sentence.