‘You are clearly not Jordanian. Where are you from?’ I had just boarded a bus in
Irbid, heading south toward Amman. I was hot and tired and the ordeal of getting
to Amman was not yet over. Moreover, as a Jewish Israeli traveling solo,
answering such a simple question was anything but making small talk, especially
after recent events (flotillas, rockets etc.).
In a perfect world, or,
failing that, a perfect Middle East, the ride from Jerusalem to Amman would
take, say, no more than an hour, including a toilet break. As it were, the only
break relevant to the ride I took was a possible nervous breakdown.
reason is simple: Holders of Israeli passports are not allowed to use the
shortest route across the Allenby Bridge, the alternative to which is a
nightmare in a furnace.
One bus took me from my Jerusalem flat to the
Central Bus Station; a second to Beit She’an in the Jordan Valley. From there I
was lucky to hitch two rides to the border. Upon crossing the border, a two-hour
affair, a greedy taxi operator would not let me share a private taxi to Amman
(“You need special bermit from tourist bolice [sic]”; utter nonsense), forcing
me to take a private taxi to a nearby backwater, from where I took the third bus
of the day to the major city of Irbid. A fourth bus, which I never would have
found if it wasn’t for a kind stranger, took me across the sprawling, baking
city, to where, sweating profusely and chewing on a 20-cent felafel sandwich, I
boarded a bus to – I couldn’t believe it – Amman itself.
And here it was,
not yet settled comfortably in my seat, that I was asked by my friendly
traveling companion where I was from. Curious other passengers lent their ears.
It was a delicate situation.
“Canada,” I lied.
“I also am not
Jordanian,” said the young man, “I am a Palestinian, from Jerusalem. Have you
been there?” I looked out the window at the semi-arid hills of northern Jordan,
strewn haphazardly with oh-so-familiar houses, olive trees and trash. “I have
been there,” I answered, “once. I would very much like to come back.”
depressing pessimistic monologue ensued as we traveled south, concerning the
chances for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Upon arriving at
Amman’s northern bus depot, the young man told me I was very welcome to contact
him during my next visit to Jerusalem and that he would gladly help me with any
questions or problems I might encounter. He gave me his card. He seemed sincere.
I felt terrible, and it wasn’t the felafel.
We said our good-byes. A
friendly Jordanian directed me to a service taxi which took me downtown and even
paid for my fare. I crashed on my hotel bed nine and a half hours after leaving
home. If I were to climb to one of the top floors of the Jordan Gate business
center on the capital’s western outskirts, I could easily make out the Jerusalem
skyline, which was, as the crow flies, not even 100 kilometers away.
WAS not my first time in Jordan’s sprawling capital.
all-too-short visit prompted me to return for a few days, to the utter
bemusement of even the Jordanian border officials.
Proud as they were of
their country and its capital, they just couldn’t get their heads around a sane
person intending to spend four nights in Amman alone, and during an extreme heat
wave at that.
Hearing I was a tour guide and suspecting I was there for
illegally guiding people in Jordan without the compulsory Jordanian guide to
accompany me, they were reluctant to let me in.
Just try us, they
repeatedly warned me, you’ll never be allowed into Jordan again.
I was, soaked in sweat and raw excitement, and I set out to reacquaint myself
with this metropolis. Amman was, like the rest of the world that day, gearing up
for the World Cup final. Spain was playing Holland and every coffee shop and
restaurant deserving of the name had a giant screen out and a crowd of
nargilasmoking and beer-drinking patrons. The semipedestrianized and upgraded
Rainbow Street in the upscale Jabbal Amman district was throbbing with human
traffic. Young men and women, dressed in purple, were selling tickets for the
Amman Arts Festival at the renovated citadel overlooking the city.
sun had set by now, its very last rays casting a softer light. A slight breeze
toyed with the enormous Jordanian flag, hoisted on the world’s tallest
freestanding flagpole. The sheer size of the flag made it seem to flap in slow
motion. All around, crowded neighborhoods covered the hills and valleys on which
the city is built (originally seven, today more than 17) like a brown and gray
blanket: a truly magnificent sight.
Walking back to the downtown area, I
stepped into a grocer’s and bought another bottle of chilled mineral water.
“Where you are from?” asked the proprietor upon hearing my non-American and
non-European accent when speaking Arabic. A few young men were standing there,
also expecting my answer. I judged the situation but then thought, aw, to hell
with it. “Min Kuds al-Gharbiya,”
I said, from west Jerusalem. A wide smile
appeared on the shop owner’s face. “You are welcome in Jordan,” he
The shop owner’s reaction might have been little more than common
courtesy. Over the next few days, when confronted with the same question and
having said I was an Israeli, the common reaction would be different.
partner would at once wipe off his smile, become correct and businesslike, and
awkwardly look away. The small talk would come to an abrupt, unnatural
This saddened me, but that’s all it came to. I never once
experienced aggression, verbal or otherwise. Here was a clash of two titanic
forces: Arab resentment toward Israel on the one hand, and Arab hospitality on
the other. When made to clash, they seemed to do little more than cancel one
When people I came across – whether Jordanians, Palestinians or
Iraqis – were left in the dark as to my nationality, the abundance of niceties
and smiles bordered on the ridiculous. Arab culture is known for its excessive
emphasis on kind words and gestures. I thought about why this is so. This was –
and to some extent, still is – a desert society. In the desert’s extreme
environment, one would need to rely on the kindness of strangers supplying
water, food or even ample shade to save one’s life. The lesson learned was
simple: What goes around comes around. As a tribal, clan-affiliated society
adhering to a strict code of honor, one misplaced word could be taken as a
serious affront and get you in serious trouble. Another lesson learned: Be extra
forthcoming, just in case. Little wonder Arabs make great, high-ranking
diplomats, heading major NGOs and engaging in international mediation
IT WAS ALREADY late as I walked the grungy, sweltering streets
of downtown Amman. Even at 11 at night, the air was warm and still. I bought a
bag of peeled prickly pears and hung around. The streets were nearly
Everywhere people were glued to the screens. The signs of three
adjacent bottom-end hotels caught my eye: the Cairo, the Damascus and the
Beirut. Yet the people on the sidewalk out front, scruffy and long-faced, were
more likely from Baghdad. They were Iraqi refugees, sitting amid piles of
curious knickknacks, mostly of Saddam Hussein memorabilia and quaint brass
According to a statistic I came across, Iraqi refugees made up no
less than 20 percent of greater Amman’s 2.5 million population. What began as a
trickle following the 1991 Gulf War became an unstoppable influx after the 2003
American invasion of Iraq, the toppling of Saddam and the ensuing anarchy. The
better-off refugees came first, causing prices in Amman to soar. They were
followed by the poorer Iraqi refugees, who now sell Saddam key rings and
struggle to survive. Think about the Palestinian areas of Jerusalem times
God-knows-howmuch, and you get a pretty good image of what Amman is like. From
the swankiest condos in upscale north Jerusalem’s Beit Hanina neighborhood to
the trendiest hangouts around Salah ed-Din Street to the worst sidestreets of
the Shuafat refugee camp, east Jerusalem is probably what Amman used to look
like a few decades back, and Amman might be what the east Jerusalem-
Ramallah-A-Ram-El Bireh conurbation will look like in a few decades: a
confusing, enticing mixture of poverty and urbane sophistication, ancient
monuments and shiny, ultramodern towers, goat paths and flyovers.
modern city it’s barely a century old, but lying at a pivotal crossroads,
between Damascus and Mecca, the West Bank and Baghdad, and hosting scores of
Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, meant a fast, almost unchecked growth. In the
early 1920s it was a hamlet; today it’s bigger than greater Tel
Elias, a Jordanian friend, took me for ice cream in the chic
district of Abdoun, just off the fourth circle (one of nine huge roundabouts, or
circles, all on the same main road, along which the bulk of Amman is
concentrated, from Jabbal Amman to the furthermost western outskirts).
was past midnight, yet throngs of people were about: driving fancy cars, pulling
stunts on bikes and roller blades, packing the outdoor cafes. This is what Amman
is all about, indeed – what every good city is all about: vibrant street life,
human activity everywhere, the glorious buzz and bustle.
AFTER A morning
spent sightseeing (truth be told, as conventional sightseeing goes, a half day
in Amman is really all you need), I stopped for cheap mint tea, sweet and
delicious, served in a disposable plastic cup by a tousled hawker. I sat myself
down on the sidewalk by the southern end of Al-Kuraish Street, probably the
capital’s liveliest, crudest and most down-to-earth setting, nestled among Iraqi
refugees hawking their cluttered, well, everything, bursting with rough vitality
and poverty and despair. I was transfixed by these people, who came to Jordan
with nothing, straddled on the dirty pavement, selling useless, worthless junk
in the lowest and poorest part of their haven city.
Then, quite by
chance, and not a block away, I was invited for strong Arab coffee on the
veranda in the “Duke’s Diwan,” Amman’s oldest house, wedged in but standing
proud between the stately Arab Bank and a gray office block. The high-ceilinged,
arched-windowed town house was turned into an impromptu, eclectic museum,
displaying nothing in particular but a motley assortment of sketches, old
black-and-whites and news clips pertaining to old Amman. I sat with the old
caretaker, sipping the coffee, surveying the commotion on the street below. Upon
leaving, I scribbled in the guest book, “If this area be the heart of Amman,
this house be its soul.”
Two hours later, a tantalizingly beautiful young
woman welcomed me to the cutting-edge Wild Jordan eco-tourism center in Jabbal
Amman. I told her about the ordeal of getting to Amman from Jerusalem. She
reminded me that, technical difficulties notwithstanding, I was still free to
visit her country, but she has no chance of coming to mine, if only because the
Israelis would never give her a visa.
Walking back toward downtown from a
visit to the landmark King Abdullah Mosque, I passed taxi and bus agencies with
touts beckoning to me (“Beirut? Damascus? Cheap!”), and lunched on kufta –
skewered lamb drenched in tehina sauce and covered in roasted tomatoes and thin
slices of potato. I tried to concentrate on my copy of T.E. Lawrence’s Seven
Pillars of Wisdom, but in the din and oppressive heat of downtown Amman it was
hopeless. I quenched my thirst with freshly squeezed sugarcane juice at one of
numerous fruit stalls. Amman may be short on world-class attractions, but it is
a pure culinary delight.
While trying to read an ad pasted to the window
of the Baptist Center and formulated in the sophisticated fusha – literary
Arabic – an old Christian lady passing by came up to me and gave me a fiery,
impromptu scolding for not believing in Jesus. A lame, crooked-tooth man stood
to listen and then intervened in my favor, but the old woman drove him off.
“Some people cannot see others minding their business without pushing their nose
in,” she grumbled, rather ironically, as she herself was doing just
Curiously, a local bookshop had a biography of poet Haim Nahman
Bialik on display. The walls of another dimly lit shop belonging to an old,
sad-looking Armenian were filled with black-and-whites, from T.E. Lawrence’s
collection, of the late Emir Abdullah, great-grandfather of current king
Abdullah II, surveying his troops on the hills which later became Amman’s choked
This reminded me of something. I hopped into a taxi and sped
off east toward the old, historical train station of the Hejaz Railway. Still
Amman’s only station, an antiquated locomotive just pulled in, hauling four
wood-paneled cars taken straight out of a Hollywood western.
were laid by the Germans, who designed the landmark railway for the Ottoman
Sultan Abdul Hamid at the very beginning of the 20th century.
A rail yard
employee forbade me from taking any pictures but was reluctantly willing to take
me close to the historic cars. Seeing my enthusiasm, he relaxed a bit and even
offered me a bunch of sour-sweet grapes straight off the vine that shaded the
stationmaster’s office. Later he also let me take pictures, and was even
offering to rotate the huge, heavy, turntable used to revolve the locomotives
In its heyday, the train took the multitudes of Muslim worshipers
south to Mecca, with offshoots of the line calling at different stations in
Eretz Yisrael/Palestine. One could travel by rail from Mecca to Damascus to
Istanbul and the whole European continent. And then came Lawrence, the famed
British officer who masterminded the Arab Revolt, and one romantic legend
seriously damaged another. Under him, the line was blown up in several points,
rendering it defunct. Extremely slow and untrustworthy, hardly anyone today uses
what is left of this once historic feat of rail engineering.
On my last
evening I was sitting with Elias and Leila, another acquaintance I made during
my visit, smoking a lemon-mint nargila at a busy downtown cafe, listening to the
oud player singing in the corner. On the walls were photos of the Lebanese
singing legend Fairuz. Leila told me that listening to her is what every Arab
does first thing in the morning. Every Arab, from Morocco to the Gulf, every
morning, no exception.
Surely, another case of Arab amplification, I
thought. “You’re exaggerating,” I said, slowly releasing sweet smoke
simultaneously from my mouth and nostrils.
said Elias. “That’s true.”
A sudden chill ran down my spine. I was
practically home, not 100 kilometers from my house, a Bratislavan in Vienna if
you like, but I might as well have been on the moon. I was overcome by the
confused thrill of belonging and not-belonging at the same time. From outside
came the call of the muezzin for the late-evening prayer. The oud player stopped
his playing for the duration of this age-old chant. Less than 24 hours later I
was home, half a world away.