About three hours south of Amman, amid steep red-and-white sandstone cliffs, is a 125-square-mile nature reserve called Dana, one of the undiscovered treasures of Jordan. These days, Jordan is better known for being caught between Israel and the Palestinian territories and another hard place, Iraq, but up here, as I sit before an early-morning fire and admire the view of pistachio and pomegranate trees on the mountainside, all that feels very far away. I'm drinking mint tea with Jihad al-Hamaidah, a 26-year-old bedouin who has the hearty laugh of a Shakespearean comic, speaks with an English accent he picked up from watching the BBC, and runs the guesthouse at Dana while studying archaeology at a local university. As we watch a silvery mist fill the wadi below, where Jihad's tribe still tends to its camels, sheep, and goats, he explains that he spends a few days a week down there with his family, and the rest here at the guesthouse, commuting to school.
The bedouin are considered the guardians of Arab virtues—muruwwa, or manliness, loyalty, courage, and generosity—as well as the caretakers of the land's historical memory. For centuries, when the seasons changed, or the grazing grew thin, or another, larger tribe pushed them out, they simply moved with their animals to wherever they wanted. But various forces, from the obvious (international borders) to the subtle (the demands of the modern global economy), are altering that. I ask Jihad if he thinks the bedouin's pastoral way of life is threatened. "To me, being a bedouin isn't just about your herds," he replies. "It's about freedom, absolute freedom to choose how you want to live. My dream is to get my Ph.D.—maybe in the States, maybe Italy—and come back here. I want to have both my books and my herds."
Books and herds. In a way, that desire to reconcile seemingly incongruous realities defines Jordan itself. It's a relatively safe and stable Arab country, one of the United States' closest allies in this part of the world, but also a place that could easily be swept up in events along its borders. It's a moderate Muslim state presided over by a family that traces its roots to the origins of Islam, a fact that has made the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan hated by Islamist extremists like Osama Bin Laden and native son Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. And it's a crossroads, where Islam and Christendom clashed during the Crusades, and where the vestiges of history have taught many that the promise of holy grails and martyrdom are not worth these two civilizations squaring off again. In the literal and figurative middle of the Middle East, Jordan's fate could portend the region's future. The question is: Which way will it go?
Although neighboring Iraq and Saudi Arabia are oil-rich, Jordan's most valuable resource is its 5 million people, 95 percent of whom are literate, and half of whom are under the age of 25. The archaeological record of the area dates so far back that scholars believe this may be where man first discovered that round dwellings were less efficient than four-walled ones, but the nation itself is young, only a little more than half a century old. Transjordan, as it used to be called, was part of a British mandate that had been carved out of the former Ottoman Empire after World War I; it won full independence from Britain in 1946. The kingdom's center of power, Amman, is today one of the Arab world's least glamorous capitals, but with its hilly topography and burgeoning art and design scene, it's something like an Arab San Francisco.
In Amman, my friend Ali leads me to a small outdoor café where we drink a few cups of tea and discuss the great issues of the day: the war in Iraq, Osama Bin Laden, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—and smoking. A native of the city in his thirties who lived in New Jersey for a few years, Ali is relieved to find an American who smokes. We're going to be spending many days together, and we both agree it would be hell to be stuck in a car for hours at a time with a nonsmoker.
Ali takes me to the Citadel, now a mosaic of ruins from different periods in the history of the capital. Roman artifacts compose one layer of the site, which also contains remnants from the first Muslim Arab dynasty, the Umayyads. Ali points out Amman's original seven hills, including the one we're standing on, which affords a perfect view of the city—mostly a collection of modest two- or three-story houses, everything seemingly cut from the chalky limestone that gives Amman the nickname al-hamama al-bayda', or the "white pigeon."
Unlike other Arab capitals, Amman has no great architectural tradition, no world-famous mosques like the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus or Sultan Hassan in Cairo. Once the early Muslim state moved its capital from Damascus to Baghdad in the eighth century, Amman fell off the main trade route for several hundred years, including the period during which much significant Islamic architecture was built by the Abbasid dynasty.
If it was once one of the Islamic empire's cultural backwaters, Amman is now mounting a challenge to Beirut as the Arab style capital. Among the young people I meet here are Razan, a 24-year-old photographer, and Alaa, a new-wave electronic musician, who take me to Books at Café, a combination bookstore, gallery, and restaurant-bar, where a crowd dressed in shades of New York black and Parisian gray lounge on large, colorful chairs that look like props from a Star Trek set. The room is full of smoke and chatter, most of it conducted in the region's upper-middle-class patois, a combination of Arabic and English. Almost everyone speaks English in Amman, except for our half-Panamanian waiter, who brings us some wine.
Alaa and Razan have just come back from Algiers, where, Alaa says, the music scene is much better than Amman's: "Jordan has good folk music, but no contemporary popular music that compares to Algerian rai." It's a typical urban refrain in the Arab world: some city is always better than the one you're in. Algiers is better than Amman; Cairo is better than Algiers; Beirut is better than Cairo—but you can't find work in Beirut. Razan explains this "life is elsewhere" phenomenon: "It's because young Arabs feel stuck in their societies. There's very little room in any Arab city. Sometimes you have economic space, a better chance to make a living, but no social or political space."
In fact, in Jordan, as elsewhere in the Middle East, this is what liberalization looks like now: since no one has qualms about making more money, economic reforms (free trade, deregulated markets) come before other ones. Politicians explain that social reforms frighten conservative religious groups, and political liberalization would give those same voices too much power. Those justifications are true, but the fact remains that the state has an interest in controlling the tempo of change.