“Hello, where are you from?”
“Oh, welcome, welcome to Jordan!”
“Would you like to have some tea?”
I cannot pinpoint exactly the first time I dreamt about Jordan. Perhaps it was triggered by an image I saw in a travel magazine: a formidable structure cut into stone by the mysterious Nabataeans of Petra. Maybe it was a scene from “The Martian,” shot on location in the desert of Wadi Rum, that captured my imagination. One thing is certain — the desire to see Jordan intensified after I stumbled upon the writings of T.E. Lawrence, a British officer who played a pivotal role in the Great Arab Revolt of the early twentieth century and whose life served as the base for Hollywood’s “Lawrence of Arabia.”
“By day the hot sun fermented us; and we were dizzied by the beating wind. At night we were stained by dew, and shamed into pettiness by the innumerable silences of stars.”
(T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph)
Searching for the innumerable silences lauded by T.E. Lawrence, I found myself crossing the Israeli-Jordanian border on foot one hot spring morning. Over the course of 10 days, I traveled to Jordan’s cities, valleys, and peaks. I descended to the lowest point on Earth — the Dead Sea — and reached for the Wadi Rum stars. I shook hands with people from all over Jordan and hiked alone on historic trails. A hot cup of tea and a sense of wonder for Jordan’s incredible riches were my two constant companions. This is their story.
Amman: the pulse of the nation
Before we go any further, I have a confession to make. I am attracted to large, messy, loud, disorderly cities, the kind that can be found all over the globe in countries like India or Morocco, Brazil or Uzbekistan. These cities have rich histories that span thousands of years. Although the modern advances often gloss it up with five-star boutique hotels and hipster coffee chains, that ancient history breaks through the contemporary and hangs, palpable, in the air.
Such is Amman. People have lived here for the past 6,000 years among the remnants of Roman, Byzantine, and early Umayyad cultures. Built upon these magnificent ruins, modern Amman is home to four million residents, nearly half of Jordan’s total population. Upon arrival, I climb atop the Citadel at Jabal al-Qal’a, one of the seven hills the city is founded on. The bustling town spreads as far as the eye can see, and the muezzin calls from around a thousand mosques rise up and reverberate in the golden afternoon haze.
Later, I descend into the cacophony of the streets and climb up again to the Roman Theater. When a group of boisterous kids surrounds me, I get front row seats to the show of teenage spirit, rowdy the world over. I have two cups of strong black tea with generous servings of sugar on a friend-of-a-friend’s rooftop near the black and white checkered Abu Darwish mosque. The orange ball of a sun tumbles beneath the horizon.
The fruits of the north
In late spring, northern Jordan becomes a verdant pasture. I leave the traffic-choked city and head north, to a place where tall cypress trees reach for the sun and delicate bright red flowers are scattered across the highlands.
I arrive at Jerash, an ancient metropolis inhabited since the Bronze Age, around noon, when even birds seek refuge from the sun’s glaring rays. I strike up a conversation with Ahmad, a music performer at the imposing Greco-Roman ruin of Gerasa. We don’t speak each other’s language at all, yet Ahmad is excited to meet me. He picks up his mobile phone, utters a few words of Arabic, and hands me the device. “Hello,” I say, slightly dazed. On the other end, a doctor by the name of Mohammad welcomes me into the country and offers his services as translator between me and Ahmad. I explain that I am visiting Jordan, the land of my dreams, for the first time and Ahmad’s face lights up in a smile. Out of nowhere, he pulls out a copper tea kettle and a few worn glass cups. We sit under the monolithic arch of an amphitheater for a cup of bitter black tea, and I start to feel like Alice in my own kind of Wonderland.
Later, Ahmad invites me to visit his home in the hilly village of Orjaan near the town of Ajloun. As I enter the simple dwelling — a two-story cement house with almonds hanging from trees on the roof — I am greeted by the family matriarch whose face is a deep-wrinkled canvas. Her eyes twinkle when a young boy brings out a tray with tea. This time, the invariably sweet, dark infusion is loaded with fresh mint leaves. Little English is spoken while we share round after round of smiles, an international language that has yet to fail me.
Continue on with Part Two — Stars and Everything is Illuminated