Don’t go, they said. It could be dangerous, they said. But as we crossed the border into Jordan just a few days ago, I felt nothing but peace and awe. Photos of the royal family adorned the wall of the visa office, and a fellow traveler told us the Queen of Jordan is considered the most beautiful woman in the Middle East. From that moment on, we were transported into another world. Full of ruins, Bedouin campsites, and an ancient past still whispering through the cobblestone streets.
We had our own apprehensions about making the journey to Petra, but my sister Hadley was visiting and this was at the top of her bucket list. We were concerned if it was safe, especially for the girls, and we worried if the drive through the countryside would be too much for them. Coming from Israel, as well, we had plenty of Israelis tell us they would never go there, or never be able to. As Americans, we worried how we would be perceived. My sister was told to pretend she was Canadian if anyone asked.
At our first stop, though, we stepped out of the van to walk through the ruins of Jarash, an ancient city influenced by Roman conquerors and trade routes that turned to dust long ago. We were told Jordan is 95% Muslim, and judging from the headscarves and traditional dress surrounding us, our tour guide was right. The first time a young Jordanian girl looked at us and said, “Hello”, I felt slightly uneasy. As if they were either making fun of us, or potentially going to take advantage of a tourist. By the third and fourth time, we realized they were simply curious. Tourism has dropped 70% in Jordan since the “situation” (as our tour guide called it) in Syria began, so I imagine they don’t see many outsiders these days.
These kids are learning English in school, with very few native English speakers walking their streets. And of course as tall, blonde women with kids dressed in Western-style shirts and shorts we undoubtedly stood out. Soon a pair of girls asked us to take a selfie with them. They oohed and aahed over Issa and her light hair and eyes. They asked her name; they told us Cora was beautiful. One grabbed my hand and said, “Nice to meet you” with a giggle.
In the theater of Jarash a cluster of schoolgirls started dancing with us, and I realized that this moment, this is a more impactful form of foreign relations than any peace treaty. Meeting someone from another world face to face, seeing that they smile just the same and love music just the same, it drives home the message that we are all one. At the end of the day, we are all humans, and the boundaries of countries should never divide us. Perhaps my favorite moment of our time in Jarash was hearing a young girl behind us say, “Do you think they can understand us?” As I instinctively turned around hearing English, her eyes widened and she exclaimed, “Oh they can! How cool!” As if we were aliens walking the Earth right before her eyes. But, at least from our perspective, their world had become a little less alien. It felt like home.
That night, after a day full of driving and discovering, we wound through the desolate desert with only the headlights of our van to guide our driver. In the distance, we spotted flickering lights dotting the hills, and realized we had arrived at our room and board for the evening: a Bedouin campground with men who resembled Captain Jack Sparrow milling about preparing dinner, serving tea, and handing out the Wifi password before the electricity was shut off at midnight. It was surreal to say the least, which is a word I used frequently during our time in Jordan. This clash of modern and antiquated, the harsh reality of poverty and the growing independence of a Muslim country defying the odds. Women can get an education, dress as they please, and yet driving the streets of small towns late at night there were only men out and about. Millions of refugees have immigrated and now call Jordan home, and yet you hear no cries of deporting them because they’re only sending their worst. Lessons in humanity and finding a way to survive against the odds abound in Jordan.
The next day, after a simple but satisfying breakfast with the Bedouins, we made our way to the grand finale: Petra. The Lost City, one of the 7 Wonders of the Modern World, it’s easy to see why it continues to enthrall people to this day. On par with the pyraminds of Egypt, all you can do is sit and wonder how a civilization was able to accomplish so much with so little. Our journey began with a wandering walk through the Siq, the canyon that was the only way to access the city centuries ago, and the reason the ruins remained hidden from modern eyes for so long. At long last, we spotted a sliver of light at the end, opening into a massive gorge where the famous Treasury still stands for all to see. Imagine being a weary traveler, leaving your caravan of camels behind and stumbling onto this scene. How magnificent it must have all been, how awe-inspiring. I feel certain it must have felt incredibly extravagant, because it absolutely maintains that aura even today.
I’m not sure how much the girls will remember of this trip, and I’m certain Issa won’t have any recollection. Intermittently I squatted down to their level to ask what they thought, but they were mostly entertained by the dirt to play in and donkeys to pet. Issa and I rode one poor burro all the way to the top to take in the majesty of the Monastery, a larger but less ornate version of the Treasury. All the way, I kept imagining the mothers who must have raised their babies here in this harsh climate. I asked our guide, Mahmoud, if he had any children. Three, he replied, two girls and one boy. His oldest girl was five, just like Cora. The government in Jordan has asked his Bedouin people to start settling down, to send their children to school and give up the nomadic lifestyle. He owns three donkeys, and makes the trek up the mountains of Petra multiple times a day for a meager salary.
And yet, he was happy. Almost everyone we encountered in Jordan was. When Orlando’s knees wouldn’t let him make it to the top of the mountain, one guide laughingly told me as I passed him on the way down, “Your husband is waiting for you at the restaurant!” When our guide told us the city of Amman was formerly called Philadelphia, he made sure to give the Americans in the group a hard time for stealing their name. But above all, they were happy to have us there. They were excited to share their national dessert, kanafeh, which was a delightfully strange combination of cheese, sweet pastry, and pistachios.
Our guide asked us at the end of our trip to tell the story of our time there. Spread the word, he asked, if you enjoyed your stay and learning about the culture of Jordan. And so, here I am. Telling you that we can only the measure the worth of a country by the hearts of its inhabitants. Jordan, I am happy to tell you, is transformative and transcendent. I wish I could properly describe how life-altering it is to feel like you are experiencing something entirely new, entirely different from what your life experience has been to that point. I imagine it’s the same way Mahmoud would feel if he and his five-year-old daughter were walking the streets of Times Square. I can only hope that he would have as warm a welcome.