Thanks to its friendly locals and relaxed vibe, this tiny nation defies travellers' expectations of the Middle East.
Standing at the counter of a tiny take-out eatery in Jordan, I can’t decide what to order. It’s lunchtime, but the heat in this desert country has quashed my appetite. When I hesitate, the smiling man behind the counter hands me a crispy falafel on a serviette and in a commanding voice says: “Eat.”
Since arriving in Jordan, people have been as friendly and welcoming as this man. I’ve never felt unsafe. Yet new security measures imposed on airlines a couple of months before my visit suggested I should feel otherwise. Britain and the US lumped Jordan in with other Middle Eastern countries, requiring passengers flying from certain cities to put large electronics into their checked luggage.
Jordan has been tarnished with a broad brush, even though it’s often been called “the quiet house in a noisy neighbourhood”. Australians certainly seem to see it that way; the number of Aussies who visited Jordan in the first quarter of this year grew by 71 per cent compared to 2016.
Perhaps because of the heightened international focus on security, an incident soon after I arrive takes me by surprise. I’d shared a cab from the Amman airport with another woman and when we reach our small hotel in the city of Madaba the lobby is deserted. It’s well after midnight and we’re not sure what to do. After trying the lobby phone and getting no answer, we look behind the check-in desk and see our names handwritten on a notepad with room numbers beside them. We find our respective keys in one of those old-fashioned boxes on the wall behind the desk and help ourselves. The next morning the manager apologizes profusely; his night staff had fallen asleep in a back office.
But instead of making me uneasy, this hotel’s casual approach to security has had the opposite effect. Jordan seems almost laughably peaceful and relaxed. It’s a feeling I’ll have throughout the week ahead.
Jordan is an Islamic state but it’s known for its tolerance of other religions. About 6 per cent of the population identify as Christian but according to Wafa, our Jordanian guide for the week, “there’s no need to speak about who is a Christian, who is not,” adding that everyone lives together peacefully. Nor, she says, are Muslim women required to cover up, although most do.
Perhaps it’s this easygoing attitude towards religion that gives Jordan its relaxed vibe.
Wafa, a middle-aged woman who wears casual pants and shirts, captures it perfectly one day when we’re driving. Quite out of the blue, she says, “if you want to be happy, you can be”.
We’d been asking about Jordan’s northern neighbour, Syria, and how Jordan has been impacted by the war against ISIS. Wafa explained that many Jordanians and Syrians are related through marriage, and that Syria’s capital, Damascus, “used to be our shopping centre”.
As well as affecting social routines, Jordan is now coping with more than half-a-million Syrian refugees. Which makes Wafa’s mind-over-matter “be happy” comment so surprising, reminding me of something she said a few days earlier. We had spent the morning hiking through the desert of Wadi Rum and we were tired, hot and a little grumpy. “Close your eyes,” Wafa told us. “Do you accept the moment as it is? If you do, you accept life.”
Wafa’s philosophy of living is endearing but after a few days I realise she’s the only local woman I’ve met other than our Dutch-expat tour organiser. And except for one restaurant in Madaba, all the hotels, restaurants and shops we’ve visited have been staffed by men.
Where are all of Jordan’s women? In Aqaba we see a few on the streets and on the beach, always in full-length hijabs, often black. Stopping to talk to them feels intimidating, even as a woman. But I know that fear doesn’t break barriers; it makes them appear bigger. And getting to know people who look different from us is a big part of what travel is all about.
Early one morning, I leave the hotel on my own for a walk before breakfast.
Passing the Sharif Hussein Bin Ali Mosque — named for the man who launched the Arab revolt against Ottoman rule during WW1 — I see two women walking towards me. They’re modestly but fashionably dressed. I stop, show them my camera, and ask if I can take their photo.
They look at each other, then shake their heads “no”. But they’re willing — almost eager — to talk to me. I compliment one of the women on the denim jacket she’s wearing over her long dress and she reacts with mock horror. “This?” she asks, as if it’s some rag. I notice then that she has no eyebrows, or rather, that they’ve been completely plucked and carefully pencilled in.
I tell them where I’m from and what I’m doing here. The woman with the pencilled eyebrows asks if I’m married, and how many children I have. When I ask her how old she is, she wants me to guess. I’m thinking somewhere between 30 and 40 but I would hate to overestimate. “Thirty,” I say, which causes her to laugh exuberantly. “Forty-two,” she replies, delighted.
After walking and talking a little more, we go our separate ways. I didn’t even get their names, but I did get the certainty that we have more in common than I would have first guessed.
Towards the end of my trip, I have another enlightening experience as we wander through Petra. Typically, these ancient ruins bustle with tourists, but on this day it’s unusually quiet. We walk past several tables with souvenirs on display. The odd thing is there’s no one at the tables. No one is selling the goods or even watching over them. When I mention it to a local man at dinner that evening, he doesn’t seem surprised. “It’s safe here,” he says. And I’ve seen enough of Jordan to believe him.
- In2Jordan Travel Agency offers itineraries for groups or individuals. in2jordan.com.
DisclaimerSuzanne Morphet was a guest of the Jordan Tourism Board.
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