It was in a half an hour revision break a few weeks ago that I finally decided to fly out to the Middle East to meet up with a friend, currently studying Arabic, and spend a month making our way through Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey.
I was allowed all of half an hour to sample the limited delights of the capital, Amman, before we were on a distinctly sweaty bus heading for Wadi Musa, the base from which one can explore the ancient city of Petra, probably best known for its inclusion in the finale to the third Indiana Jones trilogy.
Two years ago a chap, apparently from a town in Iraq that is a hotbed for Al-Quaeda, shot up a tourist attraction in Amman, resulting in the death of a Briton and a plummet in the popularity of Jordan for a certain type of tourist. Unfortunately, that type of tourist, besocked and besandalled, seem to be back. However they did not seem so keen on trekking up to the more hard to reach sights, so we found ourselves at some points wandering alone past enormous facades that opened into to caves carved out of the rock faces. The scale of some of these rock carvings need to be seen to be believed and it is understandable why the Bedouin strived for so long to keep it secret.
Whilst it may be spectacular for the sweaty white man, there is in fact a deeper impact of tourism in Petra. The caves used to be inhabited by Bedouin, some of whom had lived there for countless generations. Yet they have been forced to vacate their caves and, whilst some have moved into the lucrative tourism industry, it is a world away from their former existence. No more is this apparent than in the awe inspiring Wadi Rum, home to TE Lawrence during the Arab Revolt. The Bedouin camps are now just places for tourist to base themselves (us included) and to pay a premium for an “authentic” experience.
The increasing influence of the west in Jordanian life can give rise to some rather bizarre scenarios, whether it be a Bedouin inviting us to play “Need for Speed: UNDERGROUND” on his playstation or having shisha with a seemingly cool youth whose ringtone is a latest hit from Miley Cyrus. Yet Jordan still holds on to its most attractive character trait, that being the friendliness of the Jordanian people, whose enthusiasm to help seems limitless, even when they are not selling anything (or, for my female companions, offering marriage proposals).
Jordan is an island of calm in an otherwise turbulent area- whilst one may frolic in the dead sea before topping up the tan (next to the bizarre sight of women in burkah swimsuits), the view on the other side of the water is not so pretty. Jordan borders both Israel and the West Bank, and it is estimated that a third of Jordan’s six million inhabitants are Palestinian refugees. Add to that the refugees of the current conflict in Iraq (which some estimates put upwards of 700,000), and it is clear how important Jordan is as a safe haven within the Middle East. Our taxi driver in Jerash was a Palestinian refugee who left in 1967 and has never been back. Moving to Jordan has allowed him to earn a living and he even has even managed to send his son to study in the UK on a scholarship. Not all refugees are so lucky. Whilst the largest refugee camp, north of Amman, is made of bricks and concrete, we are told by our driver that some are little more that tents of tarpaulin, and have been so since he first came to Jordan.
Whilst the surrounding countries may look at Jordan with suspicion for its relationship with the UK and its dialogue with Israel, the provisions that she has made for her arab neighbours, with little international help, cannot be underestimated. Both as a tourist destination and as a political study, Jordan is fascinating,and it is with the hope of imminent return that we head north into Syria for the next leg of our journey.