Lee Smith reports from Jordan, a place that may well define the future of the Arab world." name="description">
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Exploring Jordan

For most Westerners, Israel is the Holy Land, and thus many of the Biblical sites still in Jordan's possession—such as Mount Nebo, where Moses saw the Promised Land denied him, and Lot's Cave—are overlooked. Ali believes that despite agreements between Israeli and Jordanian officials to co-market the Holy Land, Israel's cooperation has not been exemplary. At any rate, tourism here has been hurt by more significant factors: the intifada that erupted in September 2000; the 9/11 attacks; the Iraq war. Yet there's been a remarkable turnaround recently, with tourism rebounding almost to pre-2000 levels. In the first half of last year the number of American visitors grew 70 percent over 2003.

The only Americans I see in Jordan, however, are members of a church group visiting Bethany, on the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized. They're from somewhere in Alabama and start laughing when Ali changes from Arabic to English and they hear his New Jersey accent. "A Yankee?"

Bethany, just north of the Dead Sea, is about 30 degrees warmer than up in Ajlun, and its scrub-filled landscape is an equally dramatic contrast. As we walk toward the river—tracing how its course has changed during the almost 2,000 years since Jesus was here—Ali asks me if I feel any sort of religious connection to the place. I'm waiting, I tell him, and a wind rushes through the dry tinder.

With several bad years behind them, Jordanians are guardedly hopeful. The country's most famous sites, Petra and the Dead Sea, will continue to attract visitors and bring in revenue, but its future prospects are tied to the fate of Iraq. If security improves, investors eager to find opportunities there could turn Jordan into the region's major business hub.

Aqaba, located next to Israel and across the Red Sea from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, is Jordan's only port, and is poised to become an international center for commerce and tourism (there's excellent diving, and new resorts are under development). It's one of the king's pet projects, a Special Economic Zone earmarked for deregulated trade that's modeled partly on Dubai but that also harks back to Jordan's own past as a trading center.

After a scenic cruise on the Red Sea, I have dinner at the Royal Yacht Club with Imad Fakhoury, deputy chief commissioner of the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority. The Harvard-educated, 36-year-old Fakhoury is a new breed of Jordanian official. He points out that the economic liberalization taking place here pushes people past narrow political concerns. "For instance," he says, "we're working on a number of joint projects with the Israelis." As neighbors, Jordan and Israel are natural trade partners. Signs of warming relations between the two will certainly ruffle some feathers, but working together could also open up opportunities for both, and help keep the peace.

Our last stop is Wadi Rum, the soul of Jordan, a desert expanse of red sands and high sandstone cliffs that's a traditional bedouin homeland. En route to our camp, Ali and I pass a herd of camels, the youngest dawdling behind and being urged on by a couple of bedouin who wave to us. Ali loves the bedouin, the pure Arabic they speak, using words otherwise found only in the Koran and ancient poems. He tells me how much he envies them—not having to think about money all the time or be consumed with politics. Bedouin politics consists mostly of maintaining relations with neighboring tribes. At a narrow pass Ali points out a small, bare patch of land. "A bedouin graveyard," he says. "The men were killed when they got into a feud with another tribe. This happened recently. The bedouin still go on raids, just like the old Arab heroes."

Our camp, Beit Ali, consists of several tents draped in bedouin rugs and blankets. Our hosts invite us to warm our hands by the fire, and introduce us to the other guests. For hours, a dozen of us—Jordanians, Europeans, and one American—sit around the fire drinking coffee, telling jokes, and arguing politics. Suddenly, I start to feel queasy, and soon I'm outside the tent kneeling and shivering in the cold night. When I return to the tent, ashen-faced, Ali feels responsible. "If only we hadn't got that Egyptian food at Aqaba," he says. The Jordanians immediately start to laugh wildly and slap each other on the back, using the occasion of my illness to rattle off every one-liner about Egyptians and their awful food. I manage to muster a laugh. "You'll feel better tomorrow," Ali says. "Insh'allah," I reply morosely.

I will be fine in the morning, of course, but this vulnerability to chance, the wrong food at the wrong time, makes me think of the precarious nature of the bedouin's existence. Their lives are based on contingency: a mild illness, under adverse conditions, can kill; the wrong weather might decimate a herd and the tribe in turn; an honest accident can lead to a blood feud, cursing generations. To be sure, the bedouin came to believe in a divinity to whom they could entrust their fate, but in their daily lives they had only each other to rely on. They still do. I'm reminded of Jihad's comment up at the reserve in Dana: Being a bedouin isn't just about your herds. It's about freedom, absolute freedom to choose how you want to live.

The bedouin are central to Jordan's history—and their way of life may hold the key to its future as well. There's no way to know if the country can avoid being dragged into the political and social catastrophes surrounding it. But everywhere in Jordan I found people who cherish their liberties enough to want the country to stay out of conflicts and instead chart its own path. Much depends on Americans and Jordanians recognizing that same habit of freedom in each other, and encouraging it. I suspect that this hopeful work won't be done nearly as well by governments as by regular people, who travel across the world to experience similarity and difference, and in turn bring our societies closer together.

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