The Eye Of The Storm

3rd October 2014

Clare Finney on the disconcerting, yet eye-opening experience of holidaying in a country surrounded by crisis on all sides…

It couldn’t be thunder. There wasn’t a cloud in sight. The air was breathless, and the birds were still chirruping. Gazing out from the heights of Um Quais – an ancient Nabatean settlement in the north of Jordan – we tried desperately to pretend the intermittent, growling roar, that ricocheted across the valley from the neighbouring land of Syria was not what we already knew it to be.

“Bombs from Dera’a,” said a passing guide casually, when he saw us listening, then saw our faces. “Nothing to worry about – you are safe here.” It wasn’t ourselves we were thinking about, we answered. Der’a is 40 miles away, and we can hear the bombs here?

The guide shrugged helplessly and moved onwards. They are used to war in Jordan. Used to the sights, the sounds and the victims of conflicts played out across the Middle East for decades. To their left sits Palestine, and its arch-rival Israel. To the north, Syria, at war with itself, and to the right, Iraq over which the sword of Damocles looms. Lebanon is a skip away. Jordan isn’t at war herself, of course, nor is she likely to be: she has the support of the West and a powerful, united army. But she is surrounded by it, and the effect that this has had on her tourist trade is clear to be seen.

“It is terrible. Terrible!” cried the taxi driver, within moments of picking us up from Amman airport. We’d arrived in the middle of the night on a Sunday, but no one was asleep. It was Ramadan, an Islamic festival of all day fasting and all night feasting that extends for a month of the year, and it was feeding time: the atmosphere was electric. So when in response to a polite question about how he was enjoying the festival, our driver said “terrible” we were somewhat surprised.

“It is the tourism,” the driver continued. “We can’t afford to close all our restaurants in the day time. We can’t afford to only open tourist sites at 10am and close them at 3pm.” This is typical of Ramadan. Those who fast from sun-up to sun-down cannot possibly work full days, and for most restaurants opening is pointless – yet with visitor numbers still reeling from the Arab uprisings, not to mention Iraq and Syria, those in the tourist industry fear for their livelihoods should foreign money be dissuaded or foreigners’ time go to waste.

We continued driving. Pavements either side of the road thronged with people smoking, eating, and shopping. Blooming rings of shisha smoke and wafts of roasting lamb perfumed the air. It didn’t look – or smell – like a country surrounded by war on all sides, and for that we were grateful: we were, after all, on holiday. Yet it would be hard, and hard-hearted, to travel to Jordan and turn a totally blind eye to her neighbours’ tragic state of affairs.

Their legacy is everywhere: in the refugee camps that pepper the landscape – some, the Palestinian, so old that they are almost townships now; in the refusal, among most Jordanian Palestinians to refer to any part of the Israel-Palestinian territories as ‘Israel’; in the mood of the tourist workers. “Why does the western media refer to us always as the Middle East,” one lamented. “We’re Jordan. One of 24 countries in the region.” Such ignorance, he claimed, helps perpetuate the myth that Jordan is an unstable land, liable at any time to turn dangerous, when in truth now is really a good time to go.

Take Petra for example: lost city of ancient tombs, temples and – in a normal year – 25,000 tourists a day in high season. When I went 12 years ago we queued to get in. When we reached the point described in our guide book as ‘breathtaking’ – where at the end of the Siq, a long narrow gorge, Petra’s treasury ‘announces itself with deliberate drama through a lightening bold shaped opening’ – we couldn’t see it for the hoards of hawkers, horses (“want a ride, pretty lady?”) and snap-happy tour groups. My expectations were managed, therefore, on our return visit this year.

We got up early, flexed our queuing muscles and steadied ourselves for the expected onslaught. “I thought you said it was busy here," said my friend, as we entered the Siq with disconcerting ease. Her words echoed around the empty canyon: we approached the treasury with barely a soul in sight, bar the inevitable postcard pedlars and opportunists (“Want a ride, pretty lady?") and the initial view was spectacular. Yet while the buildings were beautiful – carvings of unfathomable scale etched out of rock of dazzling hues, each detail illuminated – it’d take a heart stonier than them to ignore the plight of the poor creatures standing by.

Horses with bones showing, ill-fed by owners who are once again struggling to pay for feed for them. Donkeys weighed down by obese westerners whose custom the owners, in happier days when they could afford to care, would have turned away. Today Petra boasts only five thousand tourists – on a good day. "No tourists, no money,” said one owner, sadly. “We don’t eat much ourselves, and we hate the animals suffering.” Once farming nomads, it is tourism the Bedouin tribes now depend on and which increasingly is letting them down.

Of course, this is not the reason to go there. No one wants pity tourism. Jordan, for all its gripes, is a proud country and anxious to share its delights with visitors. Though small, it is disproportionately blessed with history and great natural beauty: the Dead Sea, the desert, Aquaba’s coral reefs and Petra should be on any travelling bucket list, and the people fall over themselves to welcome you. They are saddened, but by no means no less proud for being in the eye of an military storm.

In fact, they are more so in some respects. In a region renowned for war, they are a force of peace and stability. They are a safe haven, not only for refugees, of whom they’ve absorbed more than their fair share, but for journalists too. Heaven knows how many more war crimes would be committed were it not for the bright lights of the world’s news wires shining into the shadows surrounding Jordan – and the majority are these are based here in the country’s capital, Amman.

“Everyone’s a journalist here,” laughed the Dutch owner of our hostel there, herself a journalist when she’s not hostessing. Rumours and leads mingle with the smoke of the city’s coffee and shisha bars. Stories are easy: each day brings a fresh wave of people from the front line, be they fellow hacks, aid workers, or civilians fleeing the fighting and seeking to settle here. As a result, one obvious, if not officially recognised, feature of Amman is its diversity, enticingly evident in the city’s array of food.

Take Lebanon for example, ‘home of fine dining’ in the Middle East, as even the Jordanians will tell you. Though they’re slow to admit it, there’s not many Jordanians will turn down a table at the fancy Fakhr el-Din, one of numerous Lebanese eateries. There you’ll find every kind of veg, served any which way: mashed eggplant with pomegranate, grape leaves stuffed with rice and mint, filo pasty and spinach… to name just some of the first course offerings. Iraqi food, meanwhile, is more meat-centred and Kurdish dishes focus on shredded chicken or beef, served with vegetables and rice or stuffed between two cornmeal flatbreads with pine nuts. Unlike other cuisines however, they appear to be popular with the Iraqi population and tourists alone.

As for the Syrians – well, where to start? Businesses have been moving here ever since the violence started three years ago. Before that, Jordanians were regular visitors to Damascus, lured by its dining and covetable design stores. Now the tables have turned – or rather, come to Amman. Most beloved is Bakdash, opened in 2013, where a uniquely Syrian ice cream is made to an age-old recipe to give refugees a taste of home here. Everything from the ingredients and staff to the interiors is designed to conjure up a sense of the original 19th century parlour in Damascus – the equivalent of Betty’s Tea Rooms in Yorkshire for Syrians – and even the ice cream itself was initially driven over each day from the parent branch until it became too dangerous to do so recently.

Now the ice cream is made on site, overseen by two Bakdash veterans, of course, who supervise mixing and serving. Boiled milk, sugar, vanilla flour, and salt are pummelled, frozen then crowned with pistachios, the way it has been for nearly 130 years in Syria. Appearing each morning in heaps of sparkling ice-white, Bakdash feels like a manna, though Damascus is no heaven right now. Rather, for Syrians, it’s a glint of familiarity amidst the turmoil. Enjoying it as tourists, we should give thanks that this is the closest we’ll get to really tasting their world.

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