Following in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia
My discovery of the real Jordan
I’ve noticed that when I mention how my love of travel has taken me to 75 countries, the inevitable question arises: “Which place was your favorite?” I struggle to find an appropriate answer because my years of memorable travel experiences don’t lend themselves to a simple, abbreviated reply, except when I reflect on my trip to Jordan, which stands out as an extraordinary cultural experience that has never been rivalled since.
Before telling the tale of Jordan, I must digress to properly set the stage: the year was 1977 and I was 25, unencumbered, and thanks to my newly earned Accounting degree, Bell Helicopter hired me, along with thousands of other Americans, to live in Iran and teach the Shah’s military how to manage their prodigious helicopter fleet. After a life-changing year and a half in Iran, my stay was abruptly curtailed when the Iranian Revolution erupted in late 1978 and forced us expats to leave post haste.
With no reason to rush back to the USA, I pocketed my company’s expensive airline voucher and set off on an unscripted journey of discovery around the Middle East, with stops in Turkey, Greece, Israel, Egypt, Syria and eventually, Jordan. I went to Jordan on a whim, after a random conversation with another traveler in Cairo: “You should go to Jordan. It’s safe, there’s lots to see there, and the flight only costs $50.” These offhand comments were enough to persuade me to buy a one-way ticket from Cairo to Amman, Jordan’s capital, where I relished my magic carpet ride into the fascinating and unforgettable world of Jordanian culture and history.
Why was I traveling like this? One day, while riding my bike through suffocating smog to reach my college classes, I resolved to see the world thoroughly and then work, rather than the other way around. Armed with that determination and an unquenchable thirst for adventure and freedom, I set forth on what I call “the river of real life” whose unseen but powerful currents carried me to intriguing foreign places and deep inner spaces, where my imagination could bloom and best of all, I could savor sporadic, but profound feelings of exhilaration.
Upon my arrival in Amman, I boarded a downtown bus to look for lodging, and my first impressions were shaped by the city’s wide, clean streets lined with two-story, cream-colored buildings, constructed of chiseled stone blocks such as I had seldom seen in California. I promptly found a nice and reasonably priced hotel, deposited my belongings, and set out to explore the city.
As I wandered among the lunchtime crowd, I turned to an Arab man walking nearby and asked him for directions to the post office. My first lesson in Arab hospitality transpired as he insisted on leading me all the way there. After mailing my letters, I was surprised to find my Arab “friend” still waiting for me. In his broken English, Abdul Fatah introduced himself and inquired: “Where are you from? Where are you going? Who are you traveling with?” I can still remember his look of surprise when I explained that I was traveling alone around the Middle East, and I had just arrived in Jordan to see the country. He immediately responded, “You must come stay with our family. We can come pick you up this afternoon. It is not right for you to stay alone in that hotel. You are a guest in our country.”
Since traveling alone requires a constant reliance on common sense, prudence and a strong dose of intuition, I replied that I didn’t feel comfortable going away with a stranger but I would think about it. He said that he would return to my hotel at 4pm with his uncle, Ibrahim, who could drive us, if I agreed, to their home in As Salt, an ancient city mentioned in the Old Testament.
Facing such an unusual dilemma, I instinctively decided that “when in doubt, ask”, so I presented my friend’s proposal to my hotel manager who unhesitatingly endorsed the idea, saying “You do not have to worry. This is our custom.” Needing still more validation, I found a policeman nearby and asked him the same question, to which he replied: “It is safe. This is our custom.” Based on this reassuring feedback, I decided to accept Abdul Fatah’s offer.
At around 4pm a car stopped in front of my hotel and Abdul Fatah strode into the lobby, helped me carry my few belongings to the car, and introduced me to his uncle, Ibrahim, a local merchant who sold traditional Arab headdresses (called keffiyeh) in his downtown shop.
A half hour later we reached As Salt, a small town tucked among rocky hills about 35 kilometers west of the capital. Ibrahim’s modest, single story, hillside home, like all the homes I saw nearby, consisted of a common area for eating on cushions on the floor adjacent to the small kitchen, a small bathroom with no shower or bathtub (I bathed in a big metal tub carried to the courtyard with warm buckets of water poured over me), a couple of bedrooms including a private room for me, a visitor’s room by the entry furnished with a dozen or so chairs for guests, and an austere courtyard hidden from the street by a plain concrete block wall.
Shortly after our arrival, Ibrahim (the family patriarch and owner of the house) presented my new housemates: Ibrahim’s wife and five young children, his brother, Awad, an English teacher, and of course Abdul Fatah, his nephew. Their next door neighbor, Ahmed, who was a frequent visitor, greeted me warmly and encouraged me to visit his home often for tea and insightful conversations about life in Jordan. Thus began my unforgettable month-long stay in As Salt.
The longer that I remained immersed in the traditional lifestyle of my Arab family, the more my sense of time changed, as I noticed while re-reading a letter to my parents: “Date: unknown—Tues or Wed, Feb 13 or 14, 1979”.
What I remember most about my stay with these generous and kind Jordanian friends was the incredible amount of socializing that characterized their society. Every day a different family friend or relative—and there were many—insisted on meeting this new American visitor, and hosting us for lunch or dinner, followed invariably by a tea or coffee-based social session in the chair-filled visitor’s room. I didn’t drink coffee but I enjoyed watching as the host brought out his family’s traditional, highly decorated coffee pot with its distinctive curved spout from which strong, Arab coffee was poured with great ceremony into each guest’s small demitasse cup. When finished, the guest would decline any further refills by holding his empty cup in the air and wiggling it back and forth. No women ever presented themselves during our social visits; this was clearly a male-oriented culture.
The only downside to this unique experience was the constant attention I received; personal time became a rarity. Occasionally I would excuse myself so I could spend a half hour alone in my room, writing letters and reflecting on the incredible good fortune that had allowed me to experience this never-to-be-repeated cultural immersion. Whenever I tried to offer my hosts money for my expenses, they always frowned and said, “You are our guest. There is no thanks for duty.”
From time to time I needed to hit the road to take a brief break from the incessant socializing, and to see as much as possible of Jordan. I quickly learned that hitch hiking around the country was an acceptable and safe means of getting around, so I would take a bus or taxi to the edge of town, stand by the highway, and within minutes a car would lurch to a halt in order to pick me up. More often than not, the driver would invite me to dinner and to stay in his home, which I accepted a couple of times. Jordanian hospitality spoiled me.
During my stay I managed to visit most of the must-see places in Jordan: the Roman ruins of Jerash, the castles at Kerak and Asraq, the Dead Sea, the Red Sea port city Aqaba, the fabled pink city Petra (that my mother had told me about when I was child), and Wadi Rum, the desert staging point for Lawrence of Arabia’s WWI attack on Turkish-held Aqaba (my mother was a Lawrence scholar, so this place held extra meaning for me).
Unquestionably the most surprising event during my As Salt stay happened when I returned from my weeklong tour of Syria. When I had said goodbye to my “Jordanian family”, my somewhat nerdy friend Awad had no contact with any women outside the family, yet one week later, when I returned, he was married! Here is my narrative about this remarkable turn of events:
It doesn’t seem possible, but my Jordanian friend insists that he is now married. I look carefully into Awad’s dark eyes, magnified by the thick lenses of his black framed glasses, to see if he’s joking but I only see sincerity and joyfulness. I am astonished because exactly one week ago, when I left my Arab hosts’ home for a tour of nearby Syria, Awad did not know anyone to date, much less marry. How did so much happen so fast? Gushing with newfound love, he explains in rather rough English that just after I left, he and his neighbor, Ahmed, went down to the local market where he caught sight of a girl who so captivated him, even from a distance, that he was compelled to find out who she was and where she and her family lived.
Following Jordanian custom, he and Ahmed made an appointment the next day to visit her family. The two-hour visit involved polite conversation over demitasse cups filled with pungent black coffee, while the prospective spouses sat at opposite ends of the visiting room, glancing furtively at each other, envisioning a life together mere hours after their first encounter. Three more home visits and a successful dowry negotiation sealed the deal, and the happy couple was promptly married.
My look of surprise does not dampen Awad’s enthusiasm for the magic that has changed his life: “She is the most wonderful woman, and beautiful woman, ever. I love her so much. I am so happy.” She is not here, however, so I have to settle for a small black and white photo of a dark haired, unsmiling, somewhat plain girl. I congratulate Awad on his good fortune.
I am sitting in my bedroom, recalling the beaches, deserts, ancient ruins and unbelievably generous people I’ve encountered here, when Awad breaks my reverie to invite me, for the umpteenth time this week, to a meal with some relatives. Each day I feel surprised, and a bit embarrassed, to be the recipient of so much attention and hospitality. Yesterday we ate dinner twice because they couldn’t refuse both invitations.
Eventually the time comes, after a month that exceeded all expectations, when I am ready to move on. By a stroke of luck, I have been able to drink deeply from the well of Jordanian hospitality. After the turmoil of the Iranian Revolution, I feel spiritually and physically rejuvenated. Never before or since have I felt like such an honored guest. The magic of the road, like Awad’s marriage, has filled me with an aliveness that I am grateful for.
Doug Hansen is a travel writer, photographer and lecturer based in Carlsbad, CA. See more at www.HansenTravel.org.
This story was submitted to Bestway Tours & Safaris which specializes in Jordan tours.