As I stand on top of the CITADEL in the heart of Amman, my body sore and tired from the forty-five miles we’ve covered in a six-day span, I have managed to amble to the edge of the sandstone walls for a few final photographs. All around me on this sunny Friday (a day of rest in Jordan), children are running kites in a chaotic, playful frenzy, a rainbow of color against the deep indigo-blue sky. In the distance, seven or eight flights of pigeons dance to and fro, spreading their wings and taking a break in the breeze from their home on the rooftops of Amman’s vast cityscape.
A gust of wind sweeps from my right. I raise my camera to capture a final round of shots when suddenly, the call to prayer echoes from every direction, a song that resonates deeply. It reverberates with elegance and grace, a profound melody you don’t just hear with your ears, but feel down in your chest. I find myself instantly in a daze of awe, the camera in my hands lowering slowly back to hang around my neck. All I can do is stare out over Amman as my eyes fill with tears at witnessing something so beautiful, prodigious, special.
“Magic,” I whisper aloud.
And there I stand, overpowered by this magnificent place, until the invitation has finished.
In the months, weeks, and days preceding my Jordan adventure, I was careful to establish that no expectations would follow me there. I received mixed reactions ranging from excitement to hesitation. Looking back now, it pains me to say that the most often asked question I heard prior to leaving was: “Is it safe?” Since I had never traveled to the Middle East, I armed myself with the not-so-naïve understanding that in the territories surrounding Jordan, turmoil had been wreaking havoc for quite some time. Still, I persisted in keeping assumptions at bay.
Until the decades leading up to World War I, most of what is now Jordan was a land with fluid borders, populated with ancient cities in the North — the Levant area — and nomadic tribes in the South. Life changed drastically for those who would become Jordanians in the 20th century... Along with other Allied forces, none other than the infamous T.E. Lawrence was stationed in the Middle East to undermine the Ottoman Turks and if defeated, reward the Arabs with ownership of the lands previously under Ottoman control (the true impact of this entangle deserves its own story). As time went on, a Saudi sheikh came to rule the country, a representative of the line that exists to this day under King Abdullah II. Jordan seems to be a constructed state, one that is, to this day, trying to find its identity amongst its contemporaries. Yet, regardless of the unrest surrounding the country on all sides, Jordan has a clear desire for progress evident in many Jordanians I speak with. This leaves me with a sentiment I don’t feel too often these days.
After I learn more about Jordan, the environment starts to make further sense. The country relies on foreign aid — I am shocked to discover that Jordan is an expensive place to live, with a hard line between those who lack resources and those who own them. There are few natural resources or potable water. There is also no oil mining to speak of, which perhaps provides further clarification as to why Jordan is surrounded by war and yet there is no war on its home soil. Infrastructure is minimal, causing touring to be somewhat difficult and pricey, particularly for a place that is so tourism-centric. Islam is dominant with several other religions, such as Arab Christian Orthodox, present throughout the land.
Few drink. Too many smoke. Goats, sheep, donkeys, horses, feral cats, wild dogs, and camels run array, and so much is lost in translation that you wonder if there is even a foundation of understanding. There isn’t much water and it is a dry, hot, and barren place where chapstick, sunscreen, and deodorant are all musts.
I have never felt so welcomed in a place so foreign to me, a place where a smile, courtesy, and generosity take you further than you could possibly imagine. A place in which you are constantly greeted and embraced, where the food is so good you never want to stop eating, and even the slightest effort at Arabic words makes people smile. The energy is reciprocal. My eagerness to learn, awe at the history, and general happiness at being there affects the Jordanians around me, whether we're drinking tea with the Bedouins in Wadi Rum or walking through the packed, noisy marketplaces in Amman.
Perhaps most importantly, the concept of Jordanian time takes a few days to master.
We communicate this in two particular phrases: “shway, shway,” which loosely translates to “slowly, slowly,” or “a little at a time,” and “ten more minutes,” something we often hear and which in reality means at least another 30 to 90 minutes. However, once you appreciate this, a certain level of comprehension kicks in and you start to grasp that the people of Jordan have their own way of doing things in a manner that Westerners may not be used to. They aren’t worried about the next step and they certainly aren’t dwelling on their previous stumbles — they are more present. Whatever comes in the future will make its way to them eventually, but one thing is for certain: enjoyment of time, or perhaps, life itself, is precious.
My eight days in Jordan were a blur of wonders, launching with a necessary recovery day floating in the strange, oily waters of the Dead Sea, its salinity levels strong enough to leave skin tingling for hours in the aftermath. There was the town of Madaba, one of two Christian towns in Jordan, where we visited the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George to admire the ancient Byzantine mosaic. There was Wadi Mujib, a mesmerizing canyon with cliffs stretching into the distance until they reach the Dead Sea. There was Petra, a kingdom of ruins considered to be one of the great wonders of the world.
And then there was the desert.
Wadi Rum was unlike anything I have ever seen in my life: an endless vista of sand and mountains that, millions of years ago, was completely submerged under the ocean. The excessive amount of iron in the sand and in the mountains provides Wadi Rum’s celebrated red hue. Herds of camels wander the fields of agram, a plant used by the Bedouins to make their own natural soap ('just rub it with your hands and add water').
By the afternoon, the absurdly warm desert day transforms into a windy, cold early evening. Our sunset is foiled by a passing storm, yet, by the time we make it to our Bedouin camp, the night sky has cleared and the later the hour ticks the more stars start to sparkle. The Bedouins hosting us are gracious and welcoming. They cook us zerb, a meal of lamb and chicken slow-roasted underneath the sand for hours, followed by hookah and an astronomical lesson under the starry skies.
At 5am, we scramble out of our tents to ride camels at sunrise for one last look at the desert.
At 5 am, we scramble out of our tents to ride camels at sunrise for one last look at the desert.
Then comes our final destination: Amman. Founded around the 8th century BCE, the place known to many as 'the city of the seven hills' has a rich history. What strikes me about Amman, heavily influenced by the Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Arab cultures over the millennia, are the people. Through every single street, alley, and shop our little troop explores, we are studied but not scrutinized, encouraged to ask questions, try new things. From the bustling marketplace to the peaceful CITADEL, whether we are stuffing our faces with falafel or trudging up and down the hills in search of new sights, every second of it feels like a dream. I walk the roads of this city feeling at home and grateful that I chose to go to Jordan in the first place.
So, what was Jordan to me?
Jordan was coffee with cardamom, milk and a little sugar.
It was the chronicle of Jordan's deep history, with majestic ruins that sent goosebumps down my arms and a past so rich I found myself amazed I knew so little of it before.
It was sunrise and sunset photo shoots, even if it meant nearly getting arrested amongst a herd of camels on the side of the highway to get that one, perfect image.
It was our guides — Mr. Khalid, Salem, Essa, Aboudi — their stories, their cordiality and benevolence, and the knowledge they shared so openly with us.
It was the deep red sand in the desert, laughing under the stars all night, and sitting on mountaintops drinking black tea as the sun went down.
Jordan was the mother on the street who invited me into her home as I took a few pictures of her son.
It was hummus, gallayeh, pita, and sage, and Mr. Khalid always pushing us to eat more than what we could, no matter how many times we refused.
It was restoring my faith in the goodness of others and sparking the notion that a genuine smile will almost always be reciprocated in turn.
It was the bus that became our base camp, and Omar, our absurdly capable driver, who grew to love us in spite of our incessant picture taking and stops along the way.
It was befriending people I will never forget, bonding with others who love traveling as much as I do, and feeling deeply connected to the Bedouin communities of Petra and Wadi Rum.
Jordan became a place I did not want to leave behind.
Our next trip to Jordan starts Apr 11, 2019. Get all the details here.
Whiskey Emerson is the author of West of Hell, the first novel in an epic fiction trilogy that follows the happenings of a wide range of characters in 19th century New York City. She hosts a podcast entitled Legacy: the Artists Behind the Legends, which covers the lives of deceased writers and the events that inspired their works.
When not writing or researching her next project, Whiskey is typically out hiking with her basset hound, Jolene, or in the yoga studio. She is a world traveler, motorcycle enthusiast, skier, and pianist. Visit her website and follow her on Instagram and Facebook.