There is the kind of travel for which you are celebrated in advance. “Nice,” say friends if you tell them about your plans for France, about your eye on Argentina or Japan. “Wish you’d let us tag along.”
But before a recent long-anticipated trip, my wife, Kathy, and I heard this instead: “Why there?” “Why now?” “Aren’t you afraid?”
We’d booked a week in Jordan. Nothing more. Nothing less. We knew about the civil war in Syria next door. And we had no illusions about the region: a box of blue-tip matches that can go up at any time.
But, well, Jordan has the ancient city of Petra, one of the world’s great sights. Not to mention its moderate politics, its peace treaty with Israel (since 1994), and a tradition of treating visitors from all sorts of backgrounds like kings.
A friend who had been there warned us not to show a special interest in rugs or mosaics in a Jordanian home. “How come?” we wondered. “They will want to give them to you,” he explained. “Right there. Right then.”
In fact, the first word we hear in Amman — we are still at the airport — is a simple “welcome.” We will hear it again and again.
“You are American,” confirms our hotel driver. “Good, very good.” His name is Motasem Rababah. “Well, welcome to Switzerland,” he says with a laugh. “We are a bit like them. This is a noisy neighborhood. But Jordan is a quiet house.”
Officially called the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the country emerged out of the post-World War I division of the Middle East by Britain and France. The current monarch, Abdullah, maintains close ties with the U.S., following in the footsteps of his father, King Hussein, who died in 1999 after ruling for 46 years.
During our first days here, connections to the West pop up in unexpected ways.
A block from our Amman hotel is, we are told, the world’s largest Starbucks. “Oh, yes, oh, yes,” insists a local when I question this. “And you must have a reservation to get in!” Sure enough, when we peer in, the space looks large enough to hold several coffee shops and lines are discouragingly long.
Some women in Amman wear no headscarf. You can sometimes feel that you are in Paris, maybe Milan. As subtly as she can, my wife points out a woman who happens to be covered but who has a different identity if you let your eyes dip down. Her tunic is a pop-art print: Warhol-bright images of Marilyn Monroe.
Our tour guide is named Omar Namruga, and he rolls his Rs. He has a Scottish accent. “I hope you don’t mind,” he says. “When I learned English, my teacher was from the Highlands. He was a heavy drinker.”
Among the things Omar explains as he walks us around the ruins at the Amman Citadel, one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited places, is that Jordan and Scotland are a little bit alike. “Tribes, clans!” he shouts, startling an old man who is resting on a chunk of stone. “The power of extended families!”
We pass an interpretive display here that gives us another shock of recognition. This may be the Middle East, but according to the sign and map, we are, at this moment, shuffling through the remains of Ancient Philadelphia.
“Philadelphia?” I ask.
“Correct!” says Omar. “Named so by Greek Macedonians! This city, Philadelphia as you say, is part of the Nabatean kingdom until maybe 100 A.D. Then, of course, all comes under Roman control.”
Awe of ancient cities
When we reach the city of Jerash, it’s hard for Kathy and me to find comparisons to what we’re seeing. Hidden for centuries under sand, Jerash (once called Gerasa) was one of the great provincial Roman cities. Hearing that it’s “well preserved” doesn’t prepare us for getting lost in a forest of columns and towers, for markets that give way to marble-paved plazas, which lead to mighty gates.
Petra, the ancient city carved from stone by the Nabataeans, says things to your eye and camera that the rest of you has to catch up on later. Its rose-to-orange canyons, not-yet-crumbled ruins, and blue-black sky are so strong that they stare down guidebooks and history. You’re on a cinema set, you think. Now you just have to direct. Do you climb up to the high parts? Do you just stand and stare?
Whenever we are on the road, Omar tells us stories from the Bible — he doesn’t read them, he has them memorized, more or less — and hands back mandarin oranges that come from a tree in his yard. When we stop at Mount Nebo, the mountain where Moses first sighted the Holy Land, Omar, who is a Muslim, gives an almost royal greeting to a robed Franciscan from the monastery there.
“I called him Abouna,” explains Omar shyly. “It means Father in Arabic.”
Kathy and I start wondering when the “fear” part will come in, if at all. During the flight from Paris to Amman, we’d felt authentic jitters when flight attendants announced that the plane was passing through Iraqi airspace and that rules required that “all passengers stay buckled in.” But the only sign we see of the Syrian war is a line of refugees at that country’s embassy in Jordan.
One afternoon there are cars with blaring loudspeakers circling and circling a town that we are touring. The noise is insistent. It echoes off walls and minarets. Election? I think. Religious quarrel? Revolution? Maybe we should get back to the hotel.
When I tell Omar about this, he just stares. He grasps my arm, the way a friend would.
It is a noisy neighborhood, I think, remembering Motasem Rababah.
But it doesn’t sound like Switzerland.
This is a moment when Omar almost hugs me in a mix of laughter and reassurance.
“These cars,” he says, waving his hand at one that happens to be visible, blocks away, and at the sand-colored streets of the town. “These cars, that shout and shout and make everything rattle …
“They are selling vegetables.”
Peter Mandel is an author of books for children including "Jackhammer Sam" and "Zoo Ah-Choooo." He lives in Providence, R.I.