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Jordan an Oasis of Splendors

The Washington Times, Sunday, December 27, 1998
By Judith Kreiner

Jordan? Isn’t that a little risky with things the way they are these days? To tell the truth, I wondered myself when British Mediterranean Airway invited me to spend a few days in the Middle East. But the trip included the opportunity to visit Petra, one of those magical places that calls to the adventurer in me. I did not know what I would find, but I did know that I would go.

What I found is a development country populated with pleasant, dignified people who feel an intellectual link to the United States, and a country where you can drink the water and eat the food with impunity. It is a place where you can walk the streets and drive the roads in safety, a place where history stretches from the dawn of humanity right into today in one flawless piece.

Petra, of course, stands out. This rose-red city alone would be worth a trip to Jordan. We spent about five hours there and barely scratched the surface. Someone with an interest in history and archeology could spend several days (or a lifetime) studying this fascinating site.

Petra is but one such place in a country that lays claim to at least 10,000 archaeological sites, everything form stone age caves to crusaders’ castles.

We actually were on the spot when the Jordanian authorities announced the discovery of Bethany over Jordan, where the bible says John Baptized Jesus. The community’s water-collection system speaks to a highly sophisticated understanding of engineering. It is remarkable what people can achieve with the most basic materials and a lot of thought.

Literally within a stone’s throw of Bethany is the valley that local tradition holds is where ravens fed the Prophet Elijah. It is a beautiful spot, a hidden oasis that even today holds a serene attraction. Sheep and goats grazed the lush grass as the herdsman rested and watched from the shade of a tough thorn tree. As we stood on a terrace in Bethany, it was like having a window into our shared history, a look at a scene that could have come from the bible.

Amman, the capital, on the other hand, is a modern city with modern amenities, including first-class hotels. The service, on the other hand, is strictly old-fashioned, which means that every employee considers himself your host and is willing to go that extra distance to be certain you are pleased. Need to send a fax? Plug in a computer? No problem.

The accommodations I remember best, however, were elsewhere. The sun was setting as we pulled into Taybet Zaman, a hotel and resort within about 20 minutes from Petra and a perfect place to prepare for the Petra experience. Taybet Zaman is the restoration of a traditional village with timeless charm and all the modern conveniences. British Airways gave it the ‘Tourism for Tomorrow Award’ in 1996 and Green Globe cited it in 1997 and again this year.

I gave it a heartfelt “Wow!”

With a porter bringing my luggage and a hostess as my guide, I walked a narrow street polished by the soles of countless shoes over the ages to a wooden door opening off a small courtyard. Inside were stone walls and a bed covered with a lush spread. Richly colored, locally woven rugs spotted the stone floors. I was tempted to rub the lamp to see if I could call up a genie instead of a three-way light bulb.

A well-equipped bathroom was tucked discreetly in the background. Feeling as if I slipped into “The thousand and one nights,” I slid into sleep.

The next morning the rising sun struck the village walls and turned them to gold as I walked, fascinated, through this living artifact. The marginally wider main street-this town was made for walking-is a marketplace, as it was 100, perhaps 1,000, years ago. Today the offerings cater to the tourist in need of film and classy souvenirs, but the intent is unmistakably the same.

Breakfast was served in an inn that looked like a Hollywood set for an adventure film. Indiana Jones would have been right at home. Ali Baba would have been right at home. I was in transports of delight. I wanted to run around yelling, “It’s real! It’s real!” And the next night we camped with Bedouins at Wadi Rum.

Wadi Rum is one of this world’s more spectacular sites. “Wadi” indicates a dry riverbed, a place that floods in the rare event of a heavy rainfall. Wadis are the roadways of limestone deserts, winding through the labyrinthine outcroppings of harder rock.

Wadi Rum is a devil’s playground of incredibly colored limestone bluff’s and blowing sand that served as the backdrop for much of the filming of “Lawrence of Arabia.”

We were welcomed guests as we drove into the camp and parked near the traditional black tent of the Bedouins. One side of the huge (30 feet? 40 feet?) Tent had folded onto the roof and low tables with cushions had been set up inside. Rugs kept the sand at bay.

We were provided with elaborately embroidered robes and given individual, military-style tents in which to store our luggage, clean up and change. Those who wished could sleep in the individual tents. Others could choose to sleep in the traditional communal style in the main tent.

As we shed our shoes and settled into our spots, our hosts unearthed a huge covered pot that had been roasting on buried coals for much of the day. Inside was savory lamb prepared as the Bedouins have been cooking it for ... well, forever.

As the night deepened and we finished our lamb and the accompanying traditional dishes, a figure obscured in black veiling suddenly appeared on the rug in front of us. To the slap of drums, the wailing of flutes and the snap of the oud, the woman slowly, sensuously shed the veiling and segued into the dance that entices men-but only another woman understands.

The performance-vulgarrly called “belly dancing” in the West-is a celebration of what it is to be woman, the object of lust, the source of love, the wellspring of life, warmth, comfort and tenderness. Our dancer in her black and silver spoke of them all in dance that seemingly has not changed significantly since it was first described more than 2,000 years ago.

Then, with a whirl, she was gone, her costume and flowing hair blending into the blackness of the desert night. After a thunderous round of applause, whistles and catcalls, we settled down to a night of traditional music and funny songs that reduced the Arab speakers among us to hysterical laughter. Any idiosyncrasy is fair game to the singer and any Peccadillo is open to description in a telling verse. It reminded me of an evening many years ago ‘Over the Hill” in Nassau where a calypso musician had entertained a similar group in a similar way. Odd, what links us human beings.

When we first arrived in Jordan, I was uneasy to find that our group would be accompanied everywhere by a member of the tourist police. What was it that they did not want us to see, I immediately asked myself, as I eyed our armed guard.

He turned out to be a pleasant young man whose only job was to keep us from carrying away the incredible antiquities that are everywhere in Jordan. He also zipped us through roadblocks and checkpoints set up to secure the border between Israel and Jordan from possible terrorism. The assumption, incidentally, is that the terrorists will be from and the target will be Israel. Jordan seems intent on keeping the border very, very quiet.

I was very glad to know about the tourist police during my one and only mishap in Jordan. I never did find out whether it was something I said, but the tour left Petra without me. I arrived back at welcome center to find no guide, no group and no bus. I’ve had some odd experiences on my travels, but this is the first time I’ve ever been left behind.

The tourist police plied me with peppermint tea and almost overwhelming hospitality as they hunted for the tour-in the middle of the desert-and made arrangements to ferry me to a place where I could rejoin it. They even walked me to a nearby hotel where a taxi waited and confirmed that the driver knew where I was to go-and that the police knew exactly who he was. I was impressed. The U.S. park service could not have done it better.

Thus, a bad experience was turned into a pleasant memory. It is only one of many I carried away from Jordan:

The stars in splendor arching over the desert. The mark of a passing snake in the desert dust. A rock formation looking like melted wax. An oasis hidden in the rock where graffiti speak of thousands of years of travelers stopping for its comfort. Lunch on a rooftop under an arbor with casual conversation in the noon heat. Mosaics. Rugs. Embroidery. Laughter shared with a local guide. A running horse with its tail arched high enough to catch a falling cloak. Wild camels cropping rough shrubs. A wandering herd of sheep. Rock turning colors in the shifting sun. Floating like an inner tube in the Dead Sea and a mad dash for the showers when the salt-laden water splashed in my eyes.

In the brief time I was in Jordan, I sampled only a few of its delights. I want to go back. There are crusader castles and stone age caves I haven’t seen. There are fruits that weren’t in season when I lunched. There are rugs I haven’t bought. And once again I want to ride over the desert sands a horse with an arching tail.