by Tyler Townsend
A memoir of Jordan.
The vast majority of the area located around Queen Alia International Airport consists of rolling sand hills and sparse trees, which give next to no shade. The sun in mid-June is a murderous fiend. The locals, who are obviously acclimated to the desert weather, wear long-sleeve shirts and even sweaters despite the one hundred degree heat. By the time I get in the cab outside the terminal I am fairly certain I could win a wet tee shirt contest. The sweat comes almost instantly. So does the knowledge that I am 6,361 nautical miles away from home. I am now in The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
As our Toyota Corolla pulled into the parking lot of the Five Star Amman Marriott Hotel, two well-dressed Arab men stopped us with mirrors on the end of long metal sticks. I soon learned that this was a security procedure: these men were checking for bombs. They searched underneath the car, in the trunk, and under the hood. Our driver, who spoke about six words in English (“hello”, “in”, “yes”, “no”, “hotel”, and “out”) gave a friendly smile to one of the guards, who unfortunately did not return the gesture. As soon as our little car got the O.K. from the guards, we proceeded on towards the entrance. This was a hotel equipped not only with valet parking, but with its own security checkpoint just through the main entrance. As expected (at least by me) the process was incident free and the front desk employees were more than accommodating. More than likely because they knew we were Americans. As we would certainly learn later, this was definitely the case.
That night, while nursing a cold Stella Artois in the lobby/dining area, I witnessed to my fascination a rather rambunctious Jordanian wedding reception. Most aspects, such as the bride’s white dress, the groom’s black suit, and the roaring of laughter and dancing were quite normal. The Highland bagpipes were not. At least in my eyes. Come to find out, after casually asking our server, the addition of the bagpipes was common in Jordan for certain ceremonies, wedding receptions being one of them. I was entranced with the celebration. After coming back to the United States I still tell people that no one parties on the level of the Jordanians. And this was only the first night in country.
I remember having a sharp ping of dread going down the jet way at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. I was warned by numerous family members of the dangers of going to the Middle East during these tumultuous times. Waiting in the gatehouse for boarding to begin, I looked around at the other passengers that would be joining me on the 13-hour flight across the world. Most were Middle Easterners. Very few were 22-year-old white males. Walking down the jet way during boarding, I had a single thought: well, no going back now. I remember having this same thought as the Boeing 767-400 gracefully lifted its landing gear from the runway. Just like that, we were on our way.
My traveling companion and I, each having flight benefits with our job, sat in Business Class at the very front of the plane. This perk more than justified working a very physically demanding job. Our 13-hour flight came complete with three meals, free drinks, a semi-prone seat, free TV and movies, and a nice little gift bag courtesy of the airline. After settling down in my seat, I got around to starting a conversation with the passenger sitting next to me. I do not recall her name, but she was a rather pretty Syrian national flying into Amman and taking a car across the Syrian border to the north. I remember being stunned by her immaculate English. Apparently, she was returning to the home of her parents after living in the U.S. for many years. She never did tell me why she was going back. I honestly was not interested in her life story as much as her dark, exotic looks. She did, however, try to teach me some quick Arabic before landing, mostly greetings and simple phrases. I regret that I have completely forgotten all of the Arabic I learned (it was long gone even before we disembarked the plane). Passing through Jordanian customs was a piece of cake, even if the customs officer used four pages of my Passport for stamps. Officially in country, we decided, and with no hesitation whatsoever, to make a solid attempt at keeping the lowest profile imaginable.
After only a few hours of sleep (my sleep cycle was seriously out of whack) we awoke and started planning our first whole day. The hotel had quieted down tremendously since the previous night’s partying and there was a distinct feeling of recuperation throughout the lobby. It was back to business as usual. The front desk graciously called for us a taxi after we decided to do a little sightseeing around town. Google offered some great ideas and we thought it wise not to argue with it. A few miles down the road stood the ruins of a roughly 1,900-year-old Roman temple and amphitheater, situated in what was called The Amman Citadel. The Citadel sat upon a large hill overlooking central Amman. The vast city sprawled like nothing I had ever seen before or have since. There were no high rises; almost every structure in the city was the same height. The rolling landscape added an element of flow to the city, giving it life as some giant wavy organism. The many minarets of the mosques stood out beautifully. From their spires came the sweet and soothing prayer songs five times a day. I gleefully think of the minarets as the glue that held the enormous city intact, uniting the people of Amman in five brief stretches of time.
After playing the part of the tourist for an hour or so at The Citadel, we decided to try our luck with a guided tour of the amphitheater. In this regard, we were indeed blessed. Our guide, an elderly Jordanian man with an overly thick wool sweater and scraggly beard, also knew about six words of English. His vocabulary consisted of “gold” (pointing to the displays in the glass cases of the museum section), “Bedouin”, and “Roman”, among others. But what a friendly man. It was obvious he commanded respect from his fellow tour guides; a practice adhered by most Arab men and their elders.
Next on our list of things to do: shop for souvenirs. There just so happened to be a nice little marketplace right outside the amphitheater so we decided to start there. What I wanted most was a keffiyeh, the ceremonial and everyday red and white-checkered headwear worn by most adult males. Not to wear myself, of course. Just as I was paying with my exchanged Jordanian dinar, prayer began. Out of the nearest minaret came a man’s voice reciting passages from the Qur’an. Immediately, about half of the people in the marketplace unfolded their personal mats and began prostrating in the appropriate direction right there in the street without any regard for privacy or shame. These same citizens, devout Muslims all, were prepared for this, as they are every day of their lives. They carried their mats with them at all times. Nothing could get in their way of worship.
Moments like these are common in the Middle East and elsewhere where Islam is practiced in earnest. Seeing it for the first time is sobering. There is a profound unity among the people. Previous quarrels or arguments are put aside for a brief moment of peace and reverence. It was enough for my soul to stand and watch, and finally I understood why Islam is known as the Religion of Peace. With the prayer over, the people rolled up their mats and continued their activities in the marketplace and across the massive city, patiently waiting for the next session.
Of course, there were times of fear. We spent the next few hours wandering the streets of Amman, not really knowing where to go or what else to see. By mistake, we ventured into a residential area. There were some children kicking a ball around as adults stood and watched us make our way down the street. I’m not sure if they were more confused or insulted by our presence, but it did not take us long to get the hint.
Not long after, we were spit on from a moving car. Collected, we let it happen. This was not the time or the place to make a scene or become offended. What could we do? Together we decided it was time to head back to the hotel. We had seen enough of the streets.
Flying back home on the very same 767-400 that brought us to Jordan, my mind was full of questions—and answers. I would forever be changed by my brief stay in Amman, both culturally and spiritually. No longer could I sit idly by and continue down the tunnel of ignorance like so many of my fellow citizens. The world had struck a mighty blow to my conscience. Was Amman the most beautiful place I’d ever seen? No, not physically. But there was an inherent loveliness to the place. I witnessed no violence, no malevolence toward us Westerners (apart from the spitting of course) and felt no real threat to my wellbeing. What there was in abundance was respect. The citizens of Amman all had a certain veneration for each other. In short, it was an entirely different world. That 767-400 was now taking me back to mine, and my one hope was to bring back a small piece of that inspiration I found on the streets of Amman.
Category: Fiction, Memoir, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student