Friday, June 1, 2012

Alan of Arabia

Thursday, May 24, 2012
The border with Jordan was a 6-minute taxicab ride from our hotel in Eilat. Had we turned right instead of left out of the driveway, we would have been at the Egyptian border a little later. We had already been close to Lebanon and Syria in northern Israel, now Jordan and Egypt, and, about one-half hour driving in Jordan brought us less than two kilometers from Saudi Arabia. This was a geography lesson that I had never had before. The border crossing was totally undramatic. One group of Ecuadorean tourists and some random others, including an American couple and their 27-year old twin sons, were ahead of us. We spent only 5 minutes at the wrong window, sorted it out and entered the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan with warm greetings from our Semitic cousins.

Our driver-guide Wa'el (a relative of Superman?) was waiting for us and we were thrilled and delighted to see his 2011 Hyundai Sonata, all clean and airconditioned, entirely at our disposal. We booked the trip though Jordan Select Tours, may Allah give them long life, based on good Internet reviews and very attractive pricing. Everything short of a few meals was included in their quote, which responded to our itinerary and hotel choices. I kept my fingers crossed, however, until we met Wa'el and his car. Although he is a university graduate in accounting and finance, his command of English and his knowledge of his country's history and attractions make him a very popular guide.

Wa'el drove us through Aqaba, the port city on the Red Sea, just across from Eilat, and then into the interior to Wadi Rum, a huge expanse of desert punctuated by weathered rock formations. Much of "Lawrence of Arabia" was filmed in Wadi Rum where Wa'el turned us over to a Bedouin who drove us around for over two hours in a "Jeep" (really a Toyota pickup truck with two crude benches in the truck bed). The Bedouin, remarkably spry in spite of having two wives and 12 children, pointed out many natural phenomena, rock drawings left by ancient caravan travelers on route from Africa, and a cave where Lawrence reputedly hid from Ottoman pursuers. He stopped to prepare cardamon tea under a shady rock overhang.

This was a far more enjoyable excursion than I imagined.

We rejoined Wa'el at the Bedouin camp, and we proceeded almost 2 hours north to Petra, the city carved out of sheer rock by the Nabateans, about 2,000 years ago. Unasked, he got us an upgrade at the Mövenpick Petra Resort, one of the finest hotels we have ever stayed in. It offers fine design, fine accommodations, fine food and fine service immediately outside the entrance to Petra. That night, we took the Petra night tour, the rugged path to the instantly-recognizable "Treasury" illuminated only by candles. When I saw the ground by daylight, the next day, I marveled at how the 200+ visitors avoided sprains, strains and simple fractures as we blundered along. Even without injury, this experience was less than anticipated, since the walk was unguided, and a simple musical performance and brief introduction to Petra's history awaited us when we sat before the Treasury, a noble's tomb whose grandeur was thought to house gold and other wealth.

Friday, May 25, 2012
Petra is a special place, as vital a destination in evoking the distant past as Pompeii and Xi'An. You can ride in and about much of the site on horseback, camel, donkey and mule cart. The first 1.2 kilometers goes through a very narrow canyon, that is shaded at the beginning and end of the day. Everything else, all day, sits in bright, hot sun. Even the finest physical specimen, naming no names, will occasionally huff and puff when climbing to some elevated vantage point. A thorough exploration would take days, but is more likely to hold the interest of the amateur archeologist than the casual tourist. However, returning each afternoon to the Mövenpick Petra Resort might justify an extended stay.

While we usually seek variety when traveling, tonight, our wedding anniversary, we ate dinner again at Al Saraya Restaurant in the hotel, with a buffet of particular quality and sophistication that eliminated the need to seek any alternative. Near the end of the meal, although it's hard to determine when I am finished with a buffet, a covey of Jordanian waiters approached our table bearing a beautiful cake and singing Happy Birthday until corrected. My young bride still doubts my innocence in arranging this demonstration of intergroup, interfaith and international accord.

Saturday, May 26, 2012
We left early for Amman, Jordan's capital, three or more hours north. On the way, Wa'el took us to Umm Ar-Rasas, the site of some early Christian mosaics, and Madaba, where St. George's Church houses a 6th century Byzantine mosaic map showing Jerusalem and other holy sites. The map, originally 25 by 5 meters, is estimated to have 2,ooo,ooo pieces of colored stone, a remarkable achievement. We made one more stop before entering Amman, at Mt. Nebo, and, for the first time this entire trip, Grandpa Alan got seriously annoyed. It was not Israeli Jews that annoyed me, not Jordanian Muslims that annoyed me, but Italian Catholics, specifically the Order of the Franciscan Friars. They control Mt. Nebo, the closest that Moses got to the Promised Land after 40 years wandering the desert. According to anybody's bible, Moses died on Mt. Nebo and was buried there, overlooking the Jordan Velley and the Dead Sea. Now, it is a tourist destination, charging admission, run by the Franciscans. And, you know what? There is absolutely no use of the I word, the J word or the H word on the premises or in the associated literature. It is "a Christian holy site," no more, no less. Only the restraining presence of my beloved traveling companion stopped me from baptizing the site with some of my own personal holy water.

Wa'el, unaware of my annoyance, nevertheless provided a decent counterbalance, Tawaheen Al-Hawa Restaurant, Tlaa'a Al-Ali Jubilee Circle, in eastern Amman. This is a very large restaurant, where the outdoor portion resembles a Bedouin camp. We ate indoors, at four-foot square wooden tables embedded with three-foot round brass plates. Wa'el, apparently known to management, ordered and further ingratiated himself to me with the lavish spread that ensued. We began with eight "salads," hummus, babaganoush, labana, vegetables and the like with a variant of pita. Accompanying those cold dishes were two types of merguez, the North African sausage, two meat pies, lamb and chicken, and strips of lightly-grilled cheese. Then, the main course, grilled pieces of lamb and chicken, ground beef and parsley sausages, and french fries. At that point, I was ready to devote my life to maintaining peace in the Middle East forever. Total delerium was avoided when only watermelon was served for dessert. The bill came to 32.48 Jordanian Dinars, $45.80, including some non-alcoholic drinks. I'm sure that the cost to Al'an would have been greater without Wa'el.

The patrons at Tawaheen Al-Hawa provided an interesting cross-section of Arab life. At the three nearest tables sat women representing the gamut of public demeanor. A woman dressed in "Western" clothes ate alone, writing in a journal in Arabic -- She wrote right to left using a fine brush. Another table had a family group, probably three generations, with the women wearing scarves covering only their hair. At a third table, occupied Wa'el insisted by Arabs from a Persian Gulf state, were two women totally enveloped in black burqas (burkas, burkhas), although it could have been men underneath, for all you know. One man, wearing a traditional white tunic, sat with them.

Wa'el checked us into the Intercontinental Hotel, where we were upgraded again. Our exposure to Amman was limited to a short nighttime walk through a nearby neighborhood, although I was heartened by one storefront.

Sunday, May 27, 2012
The hotel was loaded with senior Jordanian military types this morning, although my favorite moment was provided by an American soldier who came over to me when he heard my dulcet tones describing how I wanted my eggs prepared. He was from New York and the sound of my voice reminded him of the genuine Land of the Free and Home of the Brave.

Wa'el picked us up early for our last morning in Jordan, visiting Jerash, about 30 miles north of Amman. Jerash is one of the best-preserved Roman sites in the world. It was a city of about 25,000 before the devastating earthquake of 747 led to its abandonment, and eventual disappearance under sand for almost a thousand years. It occupied 800,000 square meters within its walls (nearly 198 acres). Now, you see amphitheaters, colonnaded streets, marketplaces, temples and other buildings amid lots of rubble. As with Pompeii, with which it is often compared, much remains buried. Metaphors anyone?

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