FRIENDSHIP & PIETY IN PETRA
I’d be lying if I said certain elements of this trip haven’t given me pause, whether it be flying into places with historical instability or recent political unrest, or the unique and confusing array of entry forms that are now required for every country these days. Perhaps being one of 60 standing-room-only passengers crammed into a 45-person bus at the height of Covid, or getting on a plane with four knuckleheads wearing matching, full-on hazmat suits…
But I’ve also been asked by family and friends if there have been any times in these first few months when I have felt unsafe or in danger. To that, my answer is no, not directly anyway. But to date, fewer destinations have raised those questions more than Turkey and Jordan.
Turkish and American relations are currently at a low point, with the Turks recently accusing the US of meddling in its internal affairs, the U.S.’ arming of Kurdish forces in 2015, and allegations of US involvement in an attempted coup against its government a year later. Add to that the recent news of Turkish citizens publicly protesting against their own government for a flailing economy and a severe lack of resources, and I can see why some thought it wasn’t the best time for a guy like me to be walking Istanbul’s streets and going to tourist attractions and asking where I might find a local Irish pub.
Relations with Jordan, in contrast, have been very strong for decades, though when seen through the lens of American public perception, Jordan suffers for its location in the Middle East, sharing borders with Syria, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the West Bank, not to mention a 92% Muslim population, which by itself scares the hell out of white Christian America.
The funny thing is, while I can say that I’ve been treated exceptionally well everywhere I’ve been to date (excepting, of course, by Pascal-the-Connard), I have not been treated better anywhere than when I was in Turkey.
That is, until I arrived in Jordan.
Sure, it might have started poorly, with my getting grifted by a taxi driver, and later by some evil little Bedouin children. But as it relates the former, it was 4:30 in the morning, and I’d been traveling nonstop since 10AM the prior day. A 90-minute shuttle to a two hour bus, followed by three plane rides that would drop me at Queen Alia Airport in Amman at 2AM had me entirely out of sorts. Two hours later I would climb into a decrepit little shuttle bus, trying to get to Amman’s North Station to catch a 6:30AM Jett Bus, the only one of the day that would take me the four hours to my final destination, the ancient City of Petra. I would doze off in my seat, only to be wakened a short time later, our shuttle having pulled over to the side of a dark, rainy highway. Two dimly lit men stood outside the open side door, one of them explaining to a bleary me in broken English that the bus to Petra no longer ran from North Station, but from South Station, where they would drop me if I came with them in one of their taxis. How they knew where I was going, and why we’d stopped, I never discovered.
Now, I know what you’re thinking – and you’d be right – this is how every international kidnapping episode of Blacklist or Homeland begins. And sure, what was very likely about to happen to me was also as predictable as what happens to those buxom blonds who insist on searching every room in those horror movie houses instead of simply leaving the goddamn place altogether. But I was 18 hours into traveling, roused from delirious sleep, and as a result found myself thinking, “Well isn’t this incredibly weird and hard-to-explain development so very, very kind.”
Only later would it occur to me that none of the Arabic-speaking, Jordanian passengers crammed into that shuttle bus knew my name, who I was, where I came from, or where I was going. And if my photo appeared on tv the next day, nary a one would recognize me in the least. As fortune would have it, however, this was Jordan and not Iraq, people, so the taxi driver did in fact deliver me to the Jett Bus station, as promised. After all, he didn’t want my ransom, just the contents of my wallet.
I knew the station would be closed at that hour, but I hadn’t quite considered exactly how closed. There was no lobby. In fact, there was no door, a steel roll-down gate locked in its place. The street where we stopped looked like something out of what I assume a derelict section of Detroit might (apologies, Detroit). No open shops, stores, or late-night coffee joints, security gates locked in place everywhere I looked, graffiti all around, and very little lighting.
In the ensuing exchange of 7 dinar for my taxi ride, my driver initiated what I like to call “The Paper Moon,” a favorite movie from which my brothers and I occasionally reenact a grifting scene for cheap laughs, and to which I now, ironically, was about to fall victim. He began by asking for a fifty, saying he would give me forty-three in return, which to even the most unobservant sucker is a bursting-red, flaming-red, red-flag. It generally means you’re about to do more than one exchange of bills, the grifter confusing you with rookie math and slight-of-hand until it is far too late and he or she has absconded with far more of your funds than intended.
It didn’t help that I hadn’t even had time to figure out the denominations of the monopoly money I now held, the Jordan Dinar, of which I assume my driver was also well aware.
Right about now, far above our Earthly confines, Dad’s mouth has likely gone agape, and I can hear him saying “Do…Not…Tell…Me…”
In my defense, this is exactly the kind of stuff Dad’s been helping me avoid throughout this little adventure of mine, so in fairness to, well, me, if I let my guard down, it’s only because he’s had my back all along. Until, suddenly, he didn’t. So yeah, I’m sort of blaming him for this.
[I would like to take this moment to note that I’ve been getting better at shortening the written word of my blogs, in deference to my attention-deficient reader-friends, so to those of you who are wondering when the hell I’ll get to the point, let me say that I feel like I’ve earned this one. I do, however, completely understand if you skip ahead to the pictures – just do me a favor and don’t skip the part about my dear friend Mohammed. I’ll give it a bold headline so you’ll know where to stop scrolling. That said, there are two Mohammeds… no, wait… THREE Mohammeds…
Anyway, long story shortened ever-so-slightly, by the time it was over I would be left alone on a dark, cold, rainy Amman city street at 4:30 in the morning, nothing lighted but a nearby hospital with locked front doors, me with my wallet anywhere from fifty-seven to a hundred-fifty-seven dollars lighter. Truth be told, in all the confusion, I never exactly figured it out.
After walking a block in every direction, unsuccessful in my search for a safe haven in the form of a coffee shop or an all-night mini-mart, I returned to the hospital where I would spend twenty minutes or so pacing back and forth in its lighted front vestibule, too cold to sit even though I needed the rest. The location offered a couple additional benefits. For one, I could see the bus station down the road, so I’d know when it opened. And two, in the event something did go wrong in this sketchy part of town, I might recoup some of my losses by skipping an expensive ambulance ride and simply knocking on the glass and crawling my way in.
I would eventually sneak my way into the hospital by following smoke-break employees through a door they failed to lock behind them, and take a seat in an empty waiting room. I cupped a hand to my brow and held my phone out, pretending to be reading while I really just closed my eyes for a few minutes of sleep, suddenly feeling like I was once again back in Mrs. Kevorkian’s French class at Classical High School.
At 6AM, the Jett Bus lobby opened, and thirty minutes later I began my four hour journey to Petra, followed by a one-mile uphill hike to my hotel, my tired body laden with two backpacks in the midday Jordanian sun. I declined offer after offer from both official and unofficial taxi drivers throughout my climb, still bitter about my experience in Amman. I would arrive at my hotel after 1PM, more than 27 hours after my travels began. I would collapse on my bed, dozing off with the nagging thought that maybe those who questioned my coming to a place like Jordan had a point after all, that maybe I’d gone a country too far.
When you’ve seen the mindblowing sites of Petra, and been driven through the red desert sands of Wadi Rum, it might be difficult for people to believe that the human experience here was at least on par with those marvels. But it’s true, and it’s real.
It had actually begun before the grifting, at passport control, still en route to Amman, when a Jordanian named Mohammed struck up a conversation after we’d shared what in retrospect was an unwise laugh over the miserable mood of one of the security personnel. Mohammed is the oldest brother of three, and was returning from a trip to see relatives in Cyprus. He is trying to find a country with a decent enough economy where he can find a job (“I can do many things,” he answered vaguely, when I asked what kind of work he does), and then he will send for his brothers. He is considering the UK, telling me that he feels he would not be welcome in the US, a frank and sad statement, made worse by the fact that not long before that comment he’d also said, “You are a guest of my country, Peter. Therefore, you are my guest. Take my number in the event you need anything at all during your visit.”
Later he would answer, “We spend the day with family,” in response to my question about if and how he celebrates the coming holiday, before adding, “You are welcome to spend Christmas with my family.”
This from a man to whom an hour before I was a complete stranger, a man looking for work for himself and his brothers, a man who wouldn’t even consider coming to America, The Land of Opportunity, because he wouldn’t be welcome in our country.
My Petra Princes Hotel host was also named Mohammed, and I simply don’t have the space to give him his deserved praise. Never mind treating me like a brother and a son, Mohammed is one of the kindest men I’ve ever met in my life, and his thoughtfulness didn’t take long to show itself. Mohammed had taken his wife to Amman the day upon my arrival, and was not back in time to greet me when I finally stumbled through his door, hot, sweaty and so very tired. But he’d instructed his daughters to welcome me, get me checked in, and allow me time to rest, correctly anticipating my weary condition. He also called while I was checking in, apologizing for his delay and saying he would stop by my room to properly introduce himself upon his return. At the time, I thought little of the gesture.
Mohammed is a retired military Major, a businessman, husband, and father of five girls. Two boys died very young – The Will of God, he explained. He lives with strict adherence to the Quran, the teachings of which I am embarrassed to admit I am quite ignorant, despite having an amazing nephew from Afghanistan, Sattar, who could likely answer any question I might have had up to now.
Mohammed’s past business ventures include opening a school for the underprivileged children of Wadi Musa, from where he says 95% of his former students have gone on to successful careers. Due to a combination of lack of government support, taxes levied after promises that none would be (an amazing story starring the King of Jordan himself), and Mohammed’s “shortcoming” of giving needy students free tuition, he would be forced to close the school after many years. He would open two cultural centers, schools that teach Jordanian history and culture. He quite literally took a hands-on role in building the three-story hotel in which I stayed, meeting a stunning three month project plan by doing things like picking up a trowel and teaching himself how to build stairs when one worker didn’t show up on time, studying how others installed windows to do the same when time grew short, acquiescing to the professionals only to inspect and approve the quality of his finished work (they more-than-approved). He bought damaged furniture in bulk and learned to repair and refinish it all in a nearby garage, resulting in the fine tables and chairs on which I and my fellow guests would dine each morning and evening. When he discovered that families in a nearby town were suffering from lack of food and clothing in the cold winter months, Mohammed took the initiative to organize food and clothing drives, borrowed buses, and delivered multiple loads of donated supplies to those families in need for 9 straight years, oftentimes delivering it to the town’s mosque for more respectful distribution.
“Give with the right hand, but hold the left hand behind your back,” he told me, symbolizing anonymity for both giver and receiver.
Mohammed is up at 4:30 each morning to prepare for prayer. He is often still at the hotel at midnight, his generosity (and energy for the same) extending well beyond me and his neighbors near and far. He sits with every guest to plan custom routes through the massive area of Petra. He sits with guests who are moving on forever, heading to places far from his hotel and Wadi Musa, editing their itineraries to allow them to see everything on their list while ensuring extra time for proper rest and nutrition. He’s brought friends from other countries to work for him in Jordan in order to help them save for marriage and family, and in fact most of his business acquaintances have been friends and neighbors he’s sought to help. He buys nothing, nor gets rid of anything, that doesn’t somehow, in some way, benefit another or end up recycled for future use, all with the hope of making for a better Wadi Musa, a better Jordan, and a better world, and he does it all as a quiet demonstration of the teachings of the Quran.
When I expressed interest in seeing Wadi Rum, he not only arranged for my wonderful Bedouin guide, Salamah, he drove me there himself, 90 minutes each way, leaving the hotel to his daughters to watch over. He even joined me on the tour, each of us exchanging our appreciation for the landscape, taking photos and videos of one another for future days when our memories fade.
Along the drive we talked in detail about his upbringing, his military experience, his daughters, and even how he met and courted his wife in traditional Muslim fashion, a process which is, in every step, way, and manner, hilariously not for me. He answered every question I had about Islam, the Quran, and his beliefs, without ever once trying to convert.
“Everyone is born Muslim,” he said, as close to an attempt at conversion as he would make. “No matter what people believe or do in life, if they accept Allah in the end, and ask for forgiveness for anything they might have done wrong in the past, all will be forgiven, and they will be welcomed into Paradise.”
I would stay an extra night at Petra Princes Hotel. Mohammed would of course arrange for all of my transportation the following morning, the shuttle and my ride from the hotel to its departure point, and provide instructions on how to get from the drop-off to the airport itself. Later, he would check in to make sure I arrived safely at Queen Alia Airport, bound, ultimately, for the continent of Africa.
If you’ve made it all the way through this post, thank you. It was long, but Jordan – and Mohammed – deserved it. My treatment there was beyond anything I’ve experienced to date, and I made a very real friend for life, in one of the most unexpected places. Mohammed and I – and all my fellow guests – have been in touch since, and I hope to remain so for the rest of our lives. I also hope to return some day to Wadi Musa, but not for Petra or Wadi Rum – as amazing as they are, and with so much more of them still to see – but no, if I ever return to Jordan, it will be to see my dear friend and new Brother, Mohammed.
بارك الله فيكم جميعا