Week 56 - Christmas in Jordan

Jordan looks on the map like a skinny student in a cagoule carrying a massive rucksack. The thought bubble above his head is the Sea of Galilee and his toes dip into the Red Sea. His rucksack is the Eastern desert. Jordan, officially The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, also appears to be standing in a very crowded railway carriage, with Iraq and Syria to the North, and Saudi Arabia and Egypt to the south; not forgetting Palestine, Israel and nearby Lebanon. Our guide described Jordan as a quiet family with noisy neighbours. A young country, only created in 1946, it was fashioned out of the land that gave us ancient history. The Middle East gave us our first ancient cities, some of our earliest cattle and possibly some of our crucial domestic crops - the evocatively named Fertile Crescent. Without wanting to drift into an area of expertise where I have none, the land Jordan occupies could not be more suffused with antiquity.

Today Jordan has become a safe haven, a sanctuary. At its birth in 1946, the state had a population of 400,000, of which a quarter were nomads. Today, the population is in excess of 6 million. The near absolute rule of kings Hussein and now Abdullah II have fashioned a tolerant, stable and broadly secular state, which is a magnet to the wars and religious refugees of the region. Most incomers live in the North around Amman, but Aqaba in the south is a thriving busy port and business centre.

We arrived in Jordan late at night and in darkness found ourselves at our hotel amid clouds of cigarette smoke. It is amazing how used to the smoke -free world I am. Around midnight, sitting in the lobby, eating hummus with warm pitta bread and drinking Turkish medium sweet coffee (an exquisite drink made from finely ground coffee flavoured with rosewater and cardamom, which delivers caffeine, exotic flavour and a mouthful of grit at the bottom of every cup) amidst a haze of blue grey smoke, we were immersed from the start in a sense of truly being somewhere else. I forget how familiar the countries I visit for work are. Here in Jordan, I am really abroad, and that fact is even more stimulating than the coffee.

We have two noble guardians, our guide Sohaib and our coach driver Ismael. Sohaib is 28, wears faded jeans, a faded blue baseball cap, is trendily unshaven and has a keen, lively expression. A cigarette perches permanently on his lower lip. He proudly and with a broad smile informs me that 85% of the population smokes. I can't help asking whether he worries about cancer, and his repost is that we live in perilous times - cancer is just not at the top of the worry list. He travels in Europe during the summer and takes tourists around his own country from September to May. His parents moved to Jordan and he was born here, studied hard and got the travel bug. He works in order to feed his wanderlust. I wonder whether he has nomad genes, but I don't ask.

Ismael is in his 60s and is not tall. He loves the little bus in which he drives us about; the windows gleam as does the body, not a scratch on any part. He is similarly immaculate, in bright white shirt and dark tank top, his neatly cut hair somehow echoed by his crisply pressed trousers. He smiles. He bestows a benign aura. With Ismael at the wheel, nothing bad could happen. Jordan's roads seem to combine carpet-like smoothness with winding awkward narrowness in equal measure. The country has got an extreme case of speed bumps. Some road transport guru has proclaimed that every road should have randomly placed expressions of this so-called 'traffic calming' method; they are even on the motorways! But Ismael navigates these with a sort of 6th sense. They appear without warning and though we bounce, we do so with as little disturbance as is possible. With these two conducting u,s we are transported and educated wonderfully.

The biblical sites of Jordan jostle for prominence with the Roman, the Byzantine, the Nabatean, the Crusader, the Mamluk, the Abbasid, etc. The country is crammed full of places to see and from which to learn. We are only here for a week and it is impossible to see it all. The most famous sites are broadly covered but the overriding sense is that we are having a cultural appetiser. Just being here is the most powerful memory in the making. We are duly impressed by the cultural riches, but the country and its people are the greatest daily pleasure. Everyone is helpful, obliging and charming. We bought a pair of sunglasses, with a young boy no more than 10 years old was as our salesman. He begun by putting his hand on my shoulder, and, as he was about 4ft tall and I am 6, that was a stretch to start with. He shook my hand vigorously: "my friend, how can I help you?" We negotiated and made a purchase, all accomplished with smiles and good humour. I would have happily paid the asking price just for the joy of the encounter. However I did haggle and though I definitely overpaid, I was thrilled to hand over my cash in the end. Drinking coffee or the equally delicious immersion of lemon juice sweetened and heaped with finely chopped fresh mint is not in the guide book. Beside the road, we eat freshly-grilled meat wrapped in flatbread, the meat juices softening and flavouring the bread, surrounded by tea-drinking card players, all smoking, and many using water pipes. These are experiences that you cannot quantify in terms of how much they broaden and enlighten. Along the roads we see garden centres where the trees and shrubs are nurtured in recycled olive oil tins, these colourful boxes providing a beautiful contrast to the grey-green plants.

From the coach we look out at the tiers of white block-like houses that populate the cities and towns and feel we could be in any age. In the towns, there are many shops that are simply boxes with a metal grille at the front that is pulled down when they close. At many of the Roman sites, the cardos, or shopping streets, have shops which operated in exactly the same way. I keep feeling a strange ripple of time as if nothing has actually changed for 2000 years. At one site there was a trader seated, calling out to visitors offering 'memory cards, cameras, and batteries'. His little wooden folding stand and his whole demeanour was totally timeless. As he sat in a Roman forum I found it hard seeing him as being of our age, rather that of the surrounding monuments ,yet his offering could not have been more contemporary.

Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day merge together. As we stand in front of the Temple of Artemis at Jerash, the question is 'what day is it?' Is it Tuesday? Is it Christmas Eve? If the hotels know, they remorselessly play Michael Bublé singing 'White Christmas' counterpointed with Arabic music. The contrast eloquently expresses the peculiarity of our situation. There is a Christmas tree in the restaurant as we tuck in to our Fattoush, a chopped salad of tomatoes and lettuce with crunchy pieces of deep fried pitta bread, made sharp with lemon juice and sumac; followed by freshly grilled Red and King Fish, whose deaths I decreed as they swam in a nearby tank. We have Father Christmas placemats, but there it ends. There are a few Christians in Jordan - after all this is where it all began. The guide book helpfully points out that there have been Christians in Jordan, 'since the crucifixion' but today they represent less than 10% of the population.

Yesterday we went to Wadi Rum, a desert valley. We arrived and were transferred to ancient rusty open-backed 4x4 trucks, each with bench seats upholstered in local Bedouin fabric, in which we drove off onto the hard stony sand. Quickly we forgot the visitor centre and moved in total silence amid a strange family of giant rocks. This was the bottom of the ocean and the giants are harder stones that have been left, surviving millions of years as the sands and time wear everything else away. They look like battered survivors too, each wind-blown and soft. We stopped beside the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the mountain that resembles a cluster of columns which gave the title to T. E. Lawrence's memoir of the Arab revolt, written in 1922. Later we saw a rough carving of Lawrence done in 1917 as he rushed through on his way to Damascus. Not surprisingly, the film 'Lawrence of Arabia' was filmed here. For us it felt as if we were in a magnificent cathedral. The reverential hush pervaded and we all felt like being quiet. The sand dunes whispered in the wind and the only interruption was the grind of truculent gears and the strange bellowing of camels. We drank tea in a Bedouin tent and reflected on the last week. Here we are in the desert, capturing in microcosm the history of this nation from its pre-history through to today, via the residue of the Arab revolt. There is an inspiring energy to this nation. At every site we visit, new aspects are being discovered and revealed. The population is growing and, though the economy is fragile, there is construction everywhere. Many buildings are topped with steel tendrils that reach up to the sky, optimistically waiting for a further storey when time or money allows. This is a physical manifestation of this country's hope for the future. I am inspired by my visit and feel humbled by the achievement of nation-building that we have been privileged to witness.

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