Experiencing the Middle East: Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Egypt – part 4
by John Massaro
THE ANCIENT CITY of Petra is Jordan’s crowning glory. In the fourth century B.C. an obscure tribe, the Nabataeans, and after them the Romans, carved temples, palaces and tombs from the indigenous pink sandstone; the city was unknown to the West until the Swiss explorer, Jacob Burckhardt penetrated its veil of secrecy in 1812. I had purposely saved the best for last, but getting there was yet another hassle. The desk man at the Aqaba Hotel told me to go to the taxi station; to get there I hailed one of those suspicious Mercedes-Benz taxis that didn’t have meters, and I could have written the script before I opened the door.
“How much to go to the taxi station?”
“No, two JD.”
“Alright, two JD, 500 fils.”
“Two JD. Yes or no?”
The driver smiled and sighed. “Alright, get in.”
At the station I was told that no sheruts went to Petra, only a “special bus.” This showed up empty a half-hour later and brought me directly to the Holiday Inn, which was next door to the Aqaba Hotel! There was a group of affluent Germans – businessmen and their families – making a day trip to Petra, and there was an English guy too. A man who worked at the Holiday Inn said to me, “You must give the driver eight JD.”
“Oh, come on,” I said. “That’s what it costs to go all the way to Amman.”
He spoke to the driver in Arabic, then turned to me. “Alright, five JD. This is the lowest price he takes. Is that alright?”
“No, it’s not alright, but I guess I have no choice, right?” Bastards. I was getting so tired of these Arab games.
The English guy told me he was on an organized tour. The rest of his group had a free day in Aqaba, but he had enjoyed Petra so much that he wanted to spend another day there. His tour had already visited Jerusalem.
“Did you enjoy it there?” I asked him.
“It was wonderful. I could’ve stayed there for a month.”
“I was there four years ago and I felt the same way. In fact, I’m going back there next week. Did you take the Allenby Bridge across?”
“Yes, we did.”
“Was it pretty easy? Any problems?”
“The Israelis were terrible. You would’ve thought I was carrying a bomb, the way they searched my bags. And we were leaving the country! I don’t get it. They even made me point my camera at the ceiling and shoot some film, like it might have been a hand grenade. It turned me against them a hundred percent. When I get back to London I’m going to write a letter of protest to their embassy, telling them what goes on there.”
We arrived in Petra and I went to eat lunch in the dining room of the Petra Guest House, where I booked a room for two nights. There was a group of forty American tourists waiting in line to be served; they were from the Carolinas, probably on a Christian Zionist “Holy Land” tour, and had just arrived from Amman. I got on the end of the line, behind a woman whose name tag read Marjorie Carter. A Jordanian man rushed over and said, “You are not with this group!” I acknowledged that I wasn’t, and would pay for the meal. It was obviously prepared with American tastes in mind, and hard to resist: fried chicken, potato salad, tossed greens and lemonade.
“So what have you visited on your tour?” I asked Marjorie.
“Oh, let’s see. We flew to Egypt first and saw the Pyramids and then we went to Jerusalem for two days. I think we stay here in Jordan for two days, then we fly to Rome and after that we visit Venus.”
“Venice,” Pat Thomas corrected her.
“That’s an awful lot to see in two weeks. Do you feel like you’re rushing things a bit?”
“Oh, well, Ed over there, he’s our guide and he’s been running this tour for twelve years. He knows all the right places to go.”
The right places to go! Well, I suppose it’s better to be a package tourist than to never leave home. After lunch, they drew numbers to see what horses they would ride through the Siq Gorge, a narrow trail that runs for a mile through towering, massive red rock until it abruptly ends, facing the beautifully preserved treasury building, Petra’s crown jewel. I preferred to walk, but an Arab boy riding a white horse came up alongside me. “Come, I take you to the treasury,” he said.
“No thanks, I want to walk.”
“You must be crazy. What is your country?”
“The American people I like, but you I do not like.”
“Why don’t you like me, just because I don’t want to ride on your horse?”
“No, because there is something wrong in your head.”
“Okay, fine. Now leave me alone.”
I walked among the American tourist cavalry as they milled around on their horses before heading out. “Gee, this one’s got a mind of his own. How’s yours, Lily?” I started walking and was wondering if tourists from other countries say the same kind of inane things, when I heard “Hey!” and a white horse galloped past me. The Arab boy smiled back and waved: he had a customer in the saddle.
Near the end of the hike, part of the treasury’s facade appears through the jagged rock, and then, in a moment of pure magic, you are facing the entire structure. A woman said, “I wanna go inside that thang.” But there’s more to Petra, and after the American group left – their bus went back to Amman, after a brief outdoor lecture – I had the place to myself. I was looking at the tombs when a boy approached me and said, “You want to visit museum?” He brought me to a cave with a light bulb hanging overhead. It was the first museum I ever visited where the curator, the boy’s father, tried to sell me the exhibits. None of them were noteworthy except for an old Roman coin showing a man and a woman copulating, but I didn’t buy it. Nor did I want to spend the night in this dark, tiny “hotel,” the boy’s next offer, even after his father produced a scrapbook of letters from travelers raving about the experience of sleeping there. So many pests! Now he was pestering me about a dagger that faintly interested me. What he didn’t know, of course, was that I’d already bought one in Syria, and one was enough. I might’ve bought this one for a gift, but I really didn’t care, so I could have some fun with him. He quoted me in dollars, starting at sixty.
“Fifteen,” I said. He acted like I was out of my mind. He came down in increments, fifty-five, then fifty, and on and on. I never budged from fifteen. Then he offered his absolute lowest price: thirty. This way of life was starting to wear me down: I walked out the door. When I was almost out of earshot, I heard, “OKAY, FIFTEEN! COME BACK!” I muttered two famous words and kept walking.
There weren’t nearly enough visitors to justify the number of merchants lining the trail selling postcards, trinkets and soft drinks. Beyond the obelisk tomb it was deserted and I walked another mile to the monastery, where I climbed out onto the urn, a hundred feet above the ground, stepping as close to the edge as I dared. Across from here was another small “museum,” which I entered. Nobody was around. It was filled with pottery, daggers and swords. I could’ve walked out of there a one-man army. Two boys, perched like snipers high on a rock, must’ve been watching me closely. I didn’t know they were there until I started walking back and heard, “What have you taken from my shop?” I looked up, shading my eyes, and yelled that I hadn’t taken anything. He yelled back that I was going the wrong way, and pointed to another trail that was right below them. I believed him because I’ve always been directionally challenged and easily get lost without a map. Then spit fell on the ground, just missing me. “Hey!” I yelled. “Don’t you do that again!” I was worried that he was deliberately trying to get me lost, but his directions proved correct.
I left Petra early Friday morning, hoping to hitchhike to Amman on the Kings Highway. I got a lift from a caretaker to Wadi Musa, the town nearest Petra on the main road. From there it was a series of short rides in private cars where I was usually overcharged, then in Shaubak a free ride in the back of a dump truck, cement dust swirling in my hair and eyes. A beverage truck with other riders, including two Filipinos who worked at the cement factory, brought me to Tefilah where I ate lunch and watched men in their robes and kafiyehs leaving services at a mosque, the quintessential Arab scene. I didn’t like being stared at toting my pack so I walked a mile north of this small town and stuck my thumb out. There was hardly any traffic, Friday being the day of rest in the Islamic countries, but I didn’t mind.
I gave up for a while and laid down in the grass by the side of the road. It was warm and very windy, which was turning my face and arms red. It didn’t matter if I got a ride because I could easily walk back to Tefilah, spend the night there and get a sherut to Amman the next day. It was one of those rare moments of personal peace to cherish, a mood I have experienced only on the road, where freedom, solitude and the joy of discovery converge in perfect harmony. A shepherd led his flock across a field on the other side of the road, their tinkling bells sounding lovely as they contended with the rushing wind. I gazed at that man and his goats; it was a scene that hadn’t changed in a thousand years. But this tranquility was deceiving; just twenty miles away lay the violently seized territory of an invading tribe which had brought so much misery to this part of the world, and may yet plunge it into an apocalyptic bloodbath. But for the time being, it was so peaceful where I lay, and the bells so sweet to listen to, I seriously thought about spending the night in that spot.
An hour later I got the itch to move on and landed a short ride in the back of a small cargo truck with three tethered goats for company before getting a long, free ride all the way to Amman in a Land Rover with four geologists who worked for the government. That was a lucky one! I checked into my old standby, the Sunrise, and went to the market. By now I believed that every Arab would try to cheat me, so when a fruit peddler demanded one dinar for three pears that he had put in a plastic bag I handed them back. He grabbed the bag angrily and slapped me in the chest. “Hey, what’s wrong with you!” I said. He cursed at me and flung his arm again, but this time he missed. Later, I asked the friendly receptionist at the hotel if that was a fair price, and he said it was about right. So I was wrong; I wasn’t being cheated. But all I did was hand him back his silly pears. Was that any reason for him to act like that? Not that he struck me hard, but that was the only time in all my travels that anyone ever hit me in anger.
My brief visit to Jordan was salvaged by the annual Jerash Festival, which had replaced the famous Baalbeck Festival in Lebanon three years earlier when war and chaos engulfed that tragic land. There were arts and crafts, good food, reveling crowds, visiting dignitaries, television cameras and many performances in the open-air Roman amphitheatre.
Everyone’s favorite seemed to be the Iraqi Folk Troupe; the women, in dazzling folk dress, put on a provocative dance, gyrating their hips while pretending to plant seeds. It was supposed to be a ritual heralding the arrival of spring, but it had another meaning for the large audience, nearly all men, who howled and whistled their approval. I got the impression that Jordan and Iraq were very close, even though, since the 1967 war Jordan has lain low militarily and maintained a separate fragile peace with Israel. The dapper Royal Jordanian Army band was on hand, as was a group of young Palestinian boys who performed some inspiring folk dances. America had sent a jazz group from Chicago, and a classical ensemble called Young Strings in Action. It was a pleasure listening to them and imagining how thrilled they were to be playing in an Arab country. Surely they would grow up immune to the media brainrot that paints most Arabs as primitive haters of America. I ran into Walter, who was with a beautiful young blonde woman I guessed to be his daughter, but he introduced her as his wife; he hadn’t done bad for himself, the old boy. He was disappointed to hear that my experiences in Jordan had been less than inspiring at times, but I reassured him that the festival was all I could ask for on my last full day in the country.
(to be continued)
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Source: End the Shots