Where everything from highways to folkways to a family feast expands a visitor's horizons
AMMAN — The grueling mile-and-a-quarter climb to the monastery at the top of Petra has the expected spectacular views around every bend. And then there are the unexpected diversions. Wherever there is shade, Bedouins from the area’s nomadic tribes sit on blankets, selling jewelry and crafts. You can buy water or hot tea (cups are casually wiped between guests).
Casual in a different way are the donkeys, lurching and heaving themselves up and up the stone steps of this ancient path to almost the precipice. Bedouins lead the rugged animals and visitors hang on for dear life, some becoming so frightened they dismount.
Petra, a 2,000-year-old city carved out of pink stone, is one of the wonders of the world. The Nabataeans, who ran the trade routes and protected the caravans on them, built the city (you need to be energetic to traverse it, so this was quite a feat). Everyone who comes to Jordan goes to Petra, some woefully unprepared for the long walks and stone paths. The sun beats down even before summer begins, and you see travelers with their shirts wrapped around their heads, their feet so blistered they are hobbling.
Some travelers come here only to go to Petra, but they are missing the rest of this country and its breathtaking desert vistas, its canyons and an cient roads, its Byzantine and classical structures.
Jordanians are friendly and quite appreciative of tourists. Tourism is one of the country’s biggest industries, due in part to Queen Noor, the American who was married to the late King Hussein and was a popular figure here for 35 years. And many Jordanians themselves are new or second-generation immigrants, including from Palestine (more than half the population), who came in waves. Once the biblical land of Edom, Moab, and Ammon, once part of the Ottoman Empire, once ruled by Britain, the country became independent in 1946 as the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan and is largely Muslim. Unlike its oil-rich neighbors Saudi Arabia and Iraq, Jordan has no reserves so its modern cities show no signs of ostentatious wealth.
We travel for 10 days without much of an itinerary. We fly into Amman and find a nearby town almost untouched by tourists, hospitality that defines Middle Eastern graciousness, and outstanding food. We also meet Mohammad Barbarawi, 31, the driver sent to the airport by our hotel, who studied hospitality at a university in Damascus. We like him at once and hire him to drive us during our stay. Eventually we meet his friends and his large family, enjoy his mother’s extraordinary cooking, and learn about Jordan from its residents.
Osama Sowwan, 26, a friend of Barbarawi’s, spent a decade in North Carolina and is fluent in English. Barbarawi is learning, so when Sowwan is around, he translates complicated things. We teach Barbarawi some slang. First expression: back-seat driver. A week later, a car going 90 on the highway almost skims Barbarawi’s car and I blurt a loud “Eeeek!’’ He points to me and announces, “Back-side driver.’’ We laugh until it hurts.
Barbarawi takes us from Amman to Petra along the desert highway. On the way out of the city, we pass the US Embassy behind bunkers, sharpshooters poised on top of Army trucks. Signs on the highway point one way to the Iraqi border, another to the Syrian border. Israel is within view from the Dead Sea. Egypt is to the southwest, Saudi Arabia to the east.
Urban life stops (almost 80 percent of Jordan’s 6.4 million people are urbanized) and endless miles of sand blown into magnificent, wavy patterns begin. Nomadic Bedouin tents in the sand, tiny cities of multicolored rugs strung on poles, are sometimes draped with plastic tarps. Later, Barbarawi stops at an elaborate roadside stall where we find Bedouin rugs, quilt-like patchworks of heavy wools in golden hues, warm tans, rosy tones, bright citruses, and ruddy browns. The colors of the sand.
Without warning, a Bedouin shepherd with a flock of long-haired sheep and goats crosses the highway. Trucks and cars come to a screeching halt. Wearing jeans and a kaffiyeh, the traditional male head covering, the shepherd is poised with a cigarette in one hand, cellphone in the other, guiding his flock over the hot asphalt.
Pickup trucks loaded with sheep fly by. Barbarawi tells us that Bedouins cook their meat for hours in a fire in the ground. They make their own cheese from sheep and goats’ milk and trade for rice.
Barbarawi takes us to see the Crusader Castle in Karak, from which you can look down and survey what must have been a vast empire. When it’s time for lunch one day, he and Sowwan find a bakery and buy half a kilo of warm pita, which we eat with salted nuts, oranges, and dates.
In Amman, which is built on seven hills, the National Archeological Museum is a sprawling place with early artifacts, including some Dead Sea Scrolls. The Old City boasts a gold souk, many tiny jewelry shops, men smoking outside on patio chairs. One night, we dine at an ordinary kebab house where we’re the only tourists. At the next table, three men playing backgammon are smoking the water pipe called a nagileh. Lamb kebabs seem to take an especially long time. When they come, we see that the salad is freshly made, the meat probably freshly cut, the bread made to order.
In neighboring Madaba, an ancient Christian city with Eastern Orthodox churches, the earliest known map of Palestine is set in mosaics on the floor of St. George’s Church, every tile chip a piece of the large puzzle. From Madaba it is a pleasant drive to the Dead Sea. There you can go to the public beach or luxuriate in the splendor of the Movenpick Resort & Spa, where you pay a fee to spend the day and use it as a debit card at one of the five restaurants. The sea itself is startling: Imagine a body of water bluer than any beautiful sky you have ever seen, tinted with just enough green to make it mesmerizing.
We head for Salt, which is on the old road that once led to Jerusalem. It has no hotels and few restaurants, and almost no women visible on the streets. Narrow streets high above the center were built by the Ottomans, and this is one of the most important concentrations of original Ottoman architecture remaining. At lunch, we find Al Salam restaurant, which makes hundreds of rotisserie chickens, served with grilled tomatoes, pickles, eggplant spread, and hummus. Everyone in town stops here, some to eat, many to take out, everyone to watch the amazing display of golden birds in rows.
Promotional photographs of Petra often show a building called the Treasury, but really a Nabataean tomb. It’s the first edifice you come to after walking through the Siq, the canyon-like entryway between walls of rosy stones formed by an earthquake. Scenes in the 1989 film “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’’ were shot here. Even with thousands of foreign visitors, the place is too magnificent to feel like
The grand, columned monastery at the top dwarfs the hundreds of people standing awestruck in front of it. Across, an oasis: an outdoor cafe. Three stylish Lebanese sisters who were ahead of us on the trek up have collapsed on a rug in a shaded area, lighted cigarettes, and opened their cells to check messages and phone home.
Afterward, in a gift shop in the town of Petra, where local women sell their own crafts, the shopkeeper tells us her name is Om Ala. Ala, she says, is her oldest son; the Arabic custom is to take his name.
That night, we meet Om Mohammad, the mother of our driver. The family lives with several adult children, including Barbarawi, on a hilltop in Amman, from which at night you can see the lights of Jerusalem, he says. Fatma “Layla’’ Barbarawi, an Egyptian-born beauty, met her Palestinian husband, Adel, a mechanical engineer, when he studied in Egypt. She has on a long black dress, an abaya, with a white chardor, her only jewelry thick gold bangles. He has just come from the mosque and wears a dishdasha, the traditional ankle-length garment.
Layla Barbarawi has prepared a feast for 20 (we are about eight), including the traditional mansaf, a well-cooked lamb and rice dish served with yogurt; juicy finger-sized grape leaves; kusa squash stuffed with savory meat; an Arabic salad with lots of parsley and lemon; homemade cured green olives with chopped lemon; small roast chickens.
Layla does not sit at the table during dinner. Her husband and oldest son serve. Our plates have forks and spoons beside them. “We eat entirely with our hands,’’ explains Sowwan. “But now people use a spoon.’’ Mohammad Barbarawi splits a chicken in half and out spill golden wheat berries, delicious with poultry juices.
After dinner, Layla joins us on the front patio, where we sit under a grape arbor not yet in bloom. In the summer it’s a cool spot to spend evenings, Adel Barbarawi tells us. His English has a British accent and he traveled extensively for his engineering job; he’s a distinguished and imposing man.
Mohammad brings tea made with mint from the garden. We’re high over the city and the lights in Amman twinkle below. “Look,’’ says his father, pointing west to a bright spot in the distance. “That’s Palestine.’’
Sheryl Julian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.