I finally feel the need to break my blogging silence with a new post about my trip to Jordan with Aaron, Nora, and Marian. Besides short trips to Palestine, last week was my first time properly out of Middle East-lite, as Aaron calls it. Crossing into Jordan was fairly painless, and the cab ride from the Beit She’an border crossing down to Salt made it all worthwhile. Jordan is various shades of tan with a bit of green, comprised entirely of rolling hills, spotted with camels, goats, and sheep. I’m used to the suburbs, so I couldn’t take it in fast enough. As we arrived into town, I became enamored by the people- women in hijab and men with keffiyehs, shepherds, shopkeepers, kids plating in strange places.
Salt was an incredible city with a great panorama and long history. We stayed in a house on the fringe of the city which offered a lot of peace and quiet, but we also had the opportunity to see downtown Salt, which was bustling with activity. We walked through a huge market and were surprised by shopkeepers saying “welcome to Jordan!” instead of goading us into buying their goods.
It’s important for me to mention this off the bat: there’s no question Israelis are some of the warmest people you could wish to meet, but they’re a nut you have to crack. (That’s why they’re called sabras! Prickly on the outside, mushy on the inside.) Jordanians, on the other hand, are warm from the start. They all have easy smiles and want to offer whatever they have- a place to sleep, a ride anywhere, a cup of tea, a meal, a nice conversation, you name it. Case in point: I was invited to two weddings while in Jordan. I had zero unsavory interactions with anyone. Rather, I felt unworthy of the incredible friendliness and hospitality I was receiving. The father of our host family took us on a walk through his neighborhood in Salt where we eventually came to one of his family member’s houses. They were having a family party, where I had the privilege of sitting with the grandmother, the matriarch of the family and the queen of her domain. She didn’t speak a word of English but she was so proud to point out her many children, and their many grandchildren. One particular man had recently returned from Saudi Arabia as a hajj, and he had brought with him zamzam water. This holy water comes from Abraham’s well in Mecca, and the well itself is the holiest place in the world for all Muslims; to drink from it is the utmost achievement one can attain. He poured us generous glasses, and my eyes watered by the significance of the gesture.
Amman is not what I thought it would be, mainly because I was warned so prudently about going, and any fears I had were unfounded. This city is everything I wish Haifa were- it had all the right kinds of American fast food places with none of the wrong ones, along with everything you’d (well, I’d) want a city to have- history, culture, hip bars, gelato, etc. Again, everything from the landscape to the buildings was a shade of tan, which was mesmerizing. On our first visit to Amman, we visited the citadel built by Romans, back when the city was called Philadelphia. Our hosts took us to a fancy restaurant where we must have had over a dozen courses, when all was counted up. We finished it off with shisha, tea, and melon, and I realized I could definitely get used to this kind of lifestyle.
On our next trip to Amman, we stayed with a friend of Nora’s friend, an incredibly cool dude named Daniel who took great care of us, even though I had become sick and miserable at this point. We were all pretty tired at this point in our trip, but we mustered up the strength to visit a popular restaurant in town, then a bar where the clientele seemed to be Jordan’s young hipsters. We were also graced with the company of one of Marian’s old friends from a program in Amman, who returned once again as a freshly appointed diplomat. He was hilarious.
We arrived in Petra early the next afternoon, rested a bit, and explored the town of Wadi Mousa to scout out a good place to have dinner, which we found. We had planned to visit Petra at night- it’s much less expensive and supposed to be beautiful, as the path to the Treasury is entirely lit with candles. But for the first time in what seemed like forever, it rained. We had planned to go four-wheeling in Wadi Rum the next day, but I didn’t want to come so close just to miss Petra, so Nora and I set out early the next morning. It was more exercise than I got in a month, and entirely worth it. One has to walk a long while before reaching the Treasury, but after turning the corner and finally seeing it, it was breathtaking.
Nora and I made friends with a couple of friendly Bedouin guides who made us tea and told us a bit about their lives. We caught up with one of the guides later, who showed us some of the best views in Petra. He had very little patience for my fear of heights, which I only discovered I had that day. He was jumping onto small peaks of things with ease while I stayed back on all fours hugging large rocks and sweating profusely. To Nora’s credit, she is completely fearless. The guide gave us a good idea of the history of the Nabataeans who had built Petra, and brought an element of modernity to it by showing us the cave he resides in, where in 2013 he essentially lives like a Nabataean.
We negotiated good donkey prices and rode them up a mountain to the monastery. Mine I named (of course) Dominic, and he was a true Italian Christmas donkey as he took it really easy, taking many breaks and getting sidetracked by almost everything. At one point, the stubborn thing stopped and refused to go further, and a crowd began to form, watching my predicament. I assumed they were looking at something else, but when Dominic finally decided we could go, they all applauded and continued on their way. We were supposed to have a guide with us but I think he either didn’t care what we did or we outpaced him, so we lost the guy from the start. The monastery was incredible and Nora and I spent a long time basking in the sight. We impressed ourselves by climbing a couple more nearby peaks, then we headed back to the hotel, exhausted. The next morning, we started our trek back to Haifa, an all-day endeavor that took us back up through Amman, across the Allenby border crossing, through the West Bank and Jerusalem, and finally onto Haifa. We woke up at 6 and arrived in Haifa just before midnight.
I didn’t want people to know off the bat that I’m Jewish. No shame, but I wanted to feel the temperature first and hear real opinions. When people asked where we were coming from, we said Haifa instead of Israel (Israel being awkward to say around likely Palestinian-Jordanians, and Haifa being known as a cool mixed city.) A few times we were asked if we preferred “Israel” or “Palestine,” but we laughed, shrugged, said “both,” and that diffused the situation. Many (most?) Jordanians have Palestinian roots, so everyone is at least a little political, but everyone was extremely respectful, and when they did find out I’m Jewish, they were excited and wanted to hear my thoughts on things. So I never once felt uncomfortable or out of place (well, only out of place for being an obvious Westerner) I made a pal out of a Turkish-Jordanian who told me I was the first Jew he had ever met. This was when I was really sick, so hopefully he didn’t think all Jews were miserable and sickly, but I think I gave a decent impression. (Again touching on hospitality, he took it upon himself to arrange our transportation for the next day, haggle a good price, then invited us to dinner with his family, which we regrettably couldn’t make.)
My parents had been opposed to me traveling anywhere north of Petra, which would have ruled out the first 75% of my trip. I can only think of about two times in my life when I disobeyed my parents not to be a mischievous brat but because I really felt that I had a more complete view from where I was standing. They were relieved when I called after returning in one piece to Israel, which brought a chuckle. We were dropped off from the border crossing to Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem, which was seeing some protest activity for Nakba Day. I had forgotten it was Nakba Day until that morning, but I was pretty excited to see some action. When we went through Damascus Gate the first time, the demonstrations were tame, and we eventually meandered to the Educational Bookshop to read, have a coffee, and pass some time. We were sitting outside for only a few minutes when a giant hullaballoo erupted through our street- Palestinians were demonstrating in masse, but even more astounding was the IDF chasing them down on horseback. One of the horses jumped onto the sidewalk where we were sitting and nearly knocked a woman down and gave us a real scare. I got it all on camera, but I lowered my camera for the worst of the horse incident because I was looking for the door behind me to jump back into. Later, we were wandering down Via Dolorosa to get a bite to eat, when some shouting behind us caused me to turn around and just about dive into the wall- several police in riot gear were speedily marching Palestinian teens to the police station, as cameramen from whichever news sources documented. I most definitely ruined their shots, standing in between the scene and the cameras, going “Hey you guys, what’s goin–” Later, we read that several Palestinians were arrested for throwing rocks, and a few on both sides were injured. We did see someone being loaded onto an ambulance. So I had to laugh when my parents breathed a sigh of relief hearing I was finally back home, when I felt I had left the serenity of the Jordanian desert for the Wild West of East Jerusalem. Of course, the place and the day presented different circumstances than usual, but it was a jolt to my senses nonetheless.
I’m writing now from the Camel restaurant on the beach in Haifa. Some Israeli mom is yelling “yalla!” at her kid, and there’s labane on my menu. The differences between where I was yesterday and where I am today makes the region interesting, but what makes it more interesting are the similarities. My examples are only a half joke, but there is truly so much value in both cultures which I wonder if both groups truly appreciate. Working at Mitvim, a think tank focusing on Israel’s relationship with other nations in the region, my mind keeps returning to one thought: the Arab world has so much beauty and adventure to offer, it would be a shame for Israel to waste even one more minute in conflict.