Among the world’s many tourism destinations, not more than a handful may be said to live up to the hospitality industry’s old dictum of “treat visitors as you would treat guests in your own home”. And it tells us a lot about the human condition that Jordan, a young and in many ways improbable country saddled with more than its fair share of economic and political problems, is one of them.
Sitting on the periphery of Europe, a stone’s throw from the Mediterranean Sea, and graced with a striking variety of attractions, Jordan is the perfect getaway. For a small and easily navigable place, the array of its historical sites alone is mind-boggling – pristine Roman and Biblical monuments; stunning Ottoman and WWI artefacts; locations captured in Indiana Jones movies. The many layers of the country’s history are matched by the diversity of its minorities: Christian, Bedouine (bedu), Armenian, Assyrian, Druze, Circassian, Chechen and others.
Yet many first-time visitors from the West are cautious, arriving on half-hearted, two-day stopovers, clutching detailed itineraries and confining themselves to the bland security of international hotel chains, package tours and professional guides. Their behaviour is easy to understand: This is, after all, a place sandwiched between the West Bank and Iraq, and therefore forever caught in a metaphorical crossfire. It is also ‘a country in search of a nation’, with a majority-Palestinian population that has been displaced twice over, and may well harbour resentment of Western interference. Not to mention the local people’s hardship that comes with living in a desert that yields neither water nor oil.
But after a day in the capital Amman, the harsh reality you found in history books and news headlines couldn’t be further from your mind. Relaxing at coffee shops and observing the locals in different settings – from the crowded old town in the vicinity of the ancient Roman amphitheatre to the upscale, leafy lanes of the gentrified Shmeisani district – whatever concerns you may have had earlier suddenly feel preposterous.
Granted, low-income countries are often tempted to treat affluent foreign visitors as cash cows. In other markets overrun by mass tourism – Egypt, Thailand – many a kind gesture is followed by “My cousin has a shop; you must come have a look.” Not in Jordan. Show any sign of confusion over directions, and someone will approach you with a sincere “Do you need help?”, and leave you with their phone number should you get lost or encounter any sort of trouble.
The kindness is not random, or limited to well-meaning individuals. Across the Middle East, Jordanian retail assistants are easy to spot: possessed of limitless patience, they will keep up their good humour as you try on the fiftieth pair of jeans or sunglasses. Once a transaction has been made, it is not unusual for them to sit you down on a plush sofa, make you a cappuccino and chat for a few minutes about life, work, family and such. It is the human touch at its very best – an asset that money can’t buy and international shopping festivals modelled on the Great Singapore Sale can hardly compete with.
The first impressions become even more impressive once you learn that the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict left Jordan with minimal agricultural land and virtually no sources of drinking water. Where hotels in other countries present guests with laminated leaflets on environmental protection as a noble manifestation of corporate social responsibility, Jordan gets away with a less abstract yet honest “Save Our Water”. But perhaps the country is blessed in ways that don’t meet the Western eye – for if you walk into any restaurant, within minutes your table will disappear under a deluge of salads, vegetables, herbs, and exotic pastries.
Some of the warmth and generosity one experiences in Jordan comes from age-old Arabian and especially Bedouine traditions of sharing food, drink and company with visitors. In fact, across the Arab world, even when food is sold and money changes hands, often the real significance is one of “people being fed [through God’s bounty]”. As an Arab colleague of mine pointed out: “If you want to sell food, you must provide good food – and serve it with a smile.”
On my next trip, I may give the Marriotts and Intercontinentals a miss. Instead, I will plant myself next to a desert track and wait – no watch, no schedule, no timetable. I know by now that sooner or later, a battle-scarred, bread-shaped bus will show up. Before I can see it, I will hear the harmonica chords of bedu songs blasting through its sound system, stirring and wailing from miles away. Then the bus arrives – grinning villagers, cigarette smoke billowing through the windows, piles of fried chicken on everyone’s lap. My halting Arabic won’t be a problem – against all odds, a bespectacled, somewhat studious yet unfailingly polite young passenger will materialize and come to my rescue with fluent English. I will find out where the driver is heading, pay the fare in a few tiny coins, and hop on. The destination is unimportant: like no other country, the land immortalized in the tales of Lawrence of Arabia still offers – nay, demands of – its visitors spontaneity and a sense of adventure, all the while providing the luxury of a remarkably safe and pleasant environment.