Exploring Jordan

Exploring Jordan

Zubin Shroff
Zubin Shroff
It's a land of great beauty and even greater history, where ancient ruins, medieval castles, and age-old trading towns mark a landscape of vast deserts, rolling hills, and dramatic mountains. It's also, to use the words of its king, a country at the heart of "a tough neighborhood." Lee Smith reports from Jordan, a place that may well define the future of the Arab world.

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.

King Abdullah II, Jordan's 42-year-old monarch, is one of the Arab leaders most actively championing reform. Although he agrees that economic liberalization must come first, he sees it as part of a comprehensive package that's applicable through- out the Middle East. "If we set the pace for democratic, political, social, and economic reform, then we're not only doing something for our people, we're doing something for the whole region," the king tells me.

Frankly, I'm a little surprised to be sitting with the king in the palace living room, surrounded by pictures of his father, King Hussein, and his great-grandfather, King Abdullah I. But he is affable, and at a time when Jordan needs friends (and tourist dollars) the king is eager to promote a friendly image.

Abdullah is a career military man and an accomplished athlete who had to give up some of his more extreme pursuits, such as parachuting, when he ascended to the throne. It turns out that he and I attended rival high schools, and he's still smarting over not placing as well as he wanted to in the New England wrestling championships. That kind of competitiveness is important in a king, especially one whose government has been targeted by extremist groups as an "apostate regime."

Osama Bin Laden and other radical Islamists think that Arab states like Jordan are illegitimate, partly because of their alliances with the United States. "You're not actually the target," the king says. "We are. The problem is that Islam has been hijacked by the loud minority, by the extremists, and we are coming out of our dark ages. If you look at history—the Spanish Inquisition, England before Cromwell—you see that Europe developed after these upheavals and episodes of religious extremism. Maybe sometimes it takes the shock of extremism to propel a new era of renaissance."

Many Jordanians have taken a firm stand against extremism. Weeks after a local terrorist cell was caught by the authorities, Abdullah's wife, Queen Rania, led a 150,000-person march in which participants burned photographs of Bin Laden and al-Zarqawi. It's not surprising that the royal family should take it personally, nor is it a coincidence that organizations including Al Qaeda are hostile to the Hashemite court. The Bani Hashem are part of the prophet Muhammad's family tree and therefore representatives of the Muslim faith. "We project the moderate Islamic way that the overwhelming majority of Muslims feel," the king says. "And as we come from the direct line of the Prophet, I think we know what we're talking about."

Ever since Abdullah's great-grandfather came to rule as the first leader of independent Jordan, it's been thought that the Hashemites' reign is precarious. Indeed, Abdullah I was assassinated by a Palestinian extremist, and there were numerous attempts on the life of Hussein—one of the most beloved heads of state in the modern Middle East. The region is, as King Abdullah II says, "a tough neighborhood," but Jordan is one of the few countries in it that has been blessed with good leadership, a tradition Jordanians expect to see continued.

Ali and I drive north of Amman into the countryside, a landscape of hills planted with olive groves, vineyards, and cypress trees that looks like Tuscany. When we stop for a pack of sheep crossing the road I remember that these sheep are counting their last days. At the end of the week is Eid al-Adha, a feast commemorating Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, and thousands of the animals will be slaughtered, cooked, and shared among the population, including the poor, who seldom eat meat during the rest of the year.

God has made so many demands on faith here, in the cradle of three monotheistic religions, that people should have turned hard. Instead, the trials of history seem to have made Jordanians willing to believe that the countless eruptions of the extraordinary—prophets, mad kings, miracles—are just a part of the world's regular cycles. The sheep are tended to be slaughtered. There is birth and death. Peace and war.

We head to Ajlun, which is home to a medieval Islamic castle built by a nephew of the great Saladin, who was famous for turning back the Crusaders and is still a model for ambitious Muslim leaders—usually the bad ones. As we walk through the damp stone living quarters where Muslim knights were compelled to wait out winter during sieges, Ali points out apertures from which Ajlun's inhabitants used to pour boiling oil on attackers. Islamic castles like Ajlun, of course, were meant to defend Muslim territories against further incursions, while Jordan's Crusader castles, like Karak in the central highlands, were built as outposts to reach deeper into the lands of Islam.

Ajlun (though not the castle itself) served as a battleground as recently as 1970, when a Palestinian uprising threatened King Hussein's reign. Although Jordan is the only Arab country to have granted refugees of the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars and their offspring full citizenship, Palestinian radicals were frustrated with Hussein's moderation and unwillingness to continue the fight against Israel. When they turned against him, Jordan's army, known as the region's crack fighting force, put them down quickly and harshly.

Today there's little open hostility between Palestinians, who make up 43 percent of the country's population, and the various original inhabitants, including the bedouin, of the region that came to be known as Jordan. The Jordanians have traditionally dominated the government, military, and police, while Palestinians have been more active in the private sector. As one Palestinian journalist told me, his people are now something of a liberalizing force in the country. "Without land, we had to go get educations and learn how to succeed in business," he explained. "We've lived all over and come back here. The delicate trick is to keep the Palestinians and Jordanians in balance."

The site of Umm Qais is a short drive from Ajlun. Ali and I walk through the Roman and Byzantine ruins here and stop to take in the view. Israel is in front of us, Jordan mostly behind, and roughly 10 miles to the north is the Golan Heights. The Golan is a hotly contested piece of property, of course, that Syria has wanted to regain from Israel ever since losing it in the 1967 war. King Hussein had hesitated to enter the conflict, and when he did, Jordan's loss was dearer than the Golan was to Syria. Losing Jerusalem, where the third-holiest shrine in Islam is located, was symbolic, but having to give up the most important part of its share of the Holy Land has cost Jordan considerable tourism income over the years.

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.

Spring and fall are the best times to visit Jordan; summer is woefully hot. Royal Jordanian Airlines (www.rja.com.jo) flies direct to Amman from Chicago, New York, and Detroit. For information on tours and guides, contact the Jordan Tourism Board (877/733-5673; www.seejordan.org).

Dana Guest House
Simple but comfortable rooms at the nature reserve. DOUBLES FROM $65. 962-3/227-0497; www.rscn.org.jo

Four Seasons Hotel Amman
The capital's newest and most luxurious hotel. DOUBLES FROM $265. 800/819-5053 OR 962-6/550-5555; www.fourseasons.com

Mövenpick Resort Aqaba
Currently the best place to stay in this Red Sea port. DOUBLES FROM $100. 800/344-6835 OR 962-3/203-4020; www.moevenpick-hotels.com

Beit Ali Desert Camp
Tented living at Wadi Rum. DOUBLES FROM $33. 962-3/202-2626; www.desertexplorer.net

Mövenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea
A re-created bedouin village with a fine spa, at one of the country's major sites. DOUBLES FROM $106. 800/344-6835 OR 962-5/356-1111; www.moevenpick-hotels.com

Books at Café
Popular Amman hangout. LUNCH FOR TWO $10. JABAL AMMAN, FIRST CIRCLE; 962-6/465-0457

Fakhr El-Din
One of the capital's top restaurants, serving Lebanese cuisine. DINNER FOR TWO $50. JABAL AMMAN, SECOND CIRCLE; 962-6/465-2399

Royal Yacht Club
Stylish eating in Aqaba. DINNER FOR TWO $56. KING HUSSEIN ST.; 962-3/202-2404

Haret Jdoudnah
Perhaps the country's best food, worth a detour to the small city of Madaba. DINNER FOR TWO $30. KING TALAL ST.; 962-5/324-8650

Excellent contemporary art gallery in Amman. JABAL WEIBDEH; 962-6/463-1969

Royal Diving Club
Can set up snorkeling and diving in the Red Sea at Aqaba. KING HUSSEIN ST.; 962-3/201-7035

In addition to the Islamic Ajlun in the north, there are two important Crusader castles in the south, Karak and Shobak, both accessible from the historic King's Highway.

Biblical sites
All within easy reach of one another: Bethany on the Jordan, the Dead Sea, and Mount Nebo (there's an interesting church at the top of the mountain).

Roman ruins
The Citadel and a theater in Amman are worth visiting, but Jordan's most notable site is Jarash, one of the region's most intact Roman cities.

By far the country's most famous site, the ancient Nabataean metropolis is a wonder. It demands a whole day to be appreciated fully.

Explore More

More from T+L