Most people go on a journey hoping to find themselves. By plunging into a foreign setting and experiencing something altogether new, they aspire to uncover the best and most hidden depths of their souls. When I journeyed to Jordan in March of 2010 I did just that. Only, I didn’t like what I found.
My heart beat with my chest like a war drum, steady, even, and ominous, as I crossed the South border from Israel into Jordan. Technically, I’d been in the Middle East for one week, but it hadn’t registered until that moment. The air in Jordan felt hotter, sandier, and utterly foreign. My husband, Thomas, who served in the Marine Corps and had been to the middle twice before, sat quietly next to me. His face masked some memory he didn’t wish to share. I suddenly felt a marginal sense of guilt at asking him to vacation here.
In the Middle East, border crossing is a strenuous process. It’s not like crossing into Canada where the traveler has only to flash a valid passport at a checkpoint. Our tour group was checked for suspicious persons, while underbelly of the bus was scanned for explosives. We exchanged our Israeli bus, driver, and tour guide for Jordanian ones. In addition, Josef, a Jordanian Tourist Police Officer, was assigned to escort our group during our stay. Whether his presence was for our protection or to monitor our behavior was never made clear. I suspected it was both.
Slowly, we drove across a half-mile stretch of land called a demilitarized zone. On the Jordanian side of the border our bags and passports were screened, which took nearly an hour. Jordanian men of grandfatherly age stared at our group of young men and women while we waited.
A Western Woman, and an infidel, I felt I would desecrate anything I touched. I was raised by educated, independent, confident, and beautiful women. Why then, did I keep my eyes lowered to the ground in the presence of the local men? Why did I wish that my brown curls were covered with a scarf? Why did I wonder if my clothes are too tight, short, or low-cut? Unlike the others, I was unable to laugh, joke, or enjoy myself. I was a second-class citizen trapped in the whiteness of my own skin.
Our first stop was Mount Nebo, which provided a beautiful vista across the border into Israel as far as the Eastern hills of Jerusalem. Our Pastor, Brian, wanted to hold a Bible study. He leant over to Naim, our Jordanian guide, and requested, “When we stop be sure to tell everyone that they’ll need their jackets and Bibles.”
Naim shook his head and waved his hand, “Oh no,” he politely interjected, “One Bible is enough for everyone. Just bring the one Bible.”
Instantly my hackles went up. I wanted to scream, “This is America! You can’t tell me where I can and can’t bring my Bible. One Bible is not possibly enough among forty people!” Although Jordan is one of the most democratic and friendly nations in the Arab world, it is fundamentally Middle Eastern. Jordan operates under different cultural limitations. Nevertheless, Brian insisted, and we all left the bus with our Bibles.
From Mount Nebo it was nearly 3 hours to our hotel. As the sun set, our bus continued down the road. I waited for the driver to pull over for evening prayer. Later, I remembered that not everybody who counts himself as a member of a certain faith strictly adheres to its tenets. Just as not every Catholic makes confession every week, not all Muslims pray at each sundown.
I watched the foreign architecture of mosques and half-finished buildings with rebar poking out the top whiz past me in the fading light. I listened to the worship music our Pastor played on the sound system. Protected in my own version of American Judeo-Christian culture, I was able to relax in my own comfort zone.
We arrived at the Kings Way Inn, the Petra branch of the Golden Tulip hotel chain. The lobby was contemporary, classy, and inviting in a Western sense. However, the staff incorporated Arab accents throughout the space to express an exotic atmosphere. This was largely accomplished through scent. A delightful aroma of honeysuckle, vanilla, and musk perfumed the air. As I took deep breaths of the spicy fragrance, I envisioned cushions and colorful bands of cloth swathing the walls while the smoke from several hookahs hung suspended above my head. Although the lobby was nothing all at like my vision, it was forever branded in my mind as Middle Eastern.
The nation of Jordan approaches capitalism, just as it does democracy, with a heavy Middle Eastern flair. Road weary, many of us felt the pull of our travels through a foreign land, we sat down to our tables to eat our first non-kosher meal in 8 days. We gratefully downed bottle after bottle of water that had been set at our tables. At the end of our meal, the head waiter approached our table with a notepad and pen and asked, “Who may I bill for the water?”
I had taken for granted that in the lush green Western nations of the world water was a cheap commodity. It was expected, in mass quantities, and free of charge. But, in the middle of a desert where wars have been fought over this vital resource, we should have expected the cost. Perhaps, the hotel felt they provided excellent service by anticipating the needs and wishes of their guests. However, I was outraged at being tricked into paying for something I could have gotten for free. That night I exacted my revenge with an extra long shower.
The following morning we explored, under the watchful eyes of Naim and Josef, the amazing Petra National Park. The 150 foot high rock walls, carved by both man and water, created a natural safe haven for the people who dwelt there in centuries past. The city has remained remarkably well-preserved. Happily uneducated Bedouin children frolicked around the landscape, eager to play with any tourist who would speak a few words to them. Men who appeared to have leapt off the screen of Lawrence of Arabia offered camel rides and souvenirs to tourists. It was these strange forms, wearing long tunics and red kufiyya head-cloths, that evoked, without provocation, and alarming distrust within me.
At dinner back in the hotel, I refused to acknowledge any of the staff and turned my water glass upside down. Once in my room, I drank deeply from my own bottle of water I had purchased on the bus.
We departed quietly the next day. As we once again neared the border, I overheard several of my bus mates describing the interesting and unique experiences of visiting Jordan. “The head waiter told me that we are the first American group they have seen in a year. They probably won’t see any more until next year, either.” “I couldn’t believe it. I was walking by some guy’s house and he invited me in for tea. He said that the next time I was in the country I should forget the hotel and stay with them!”
I was amazed and jealous. I hadn’t even come close to an experience of that nature. Insecure, arrogant, and prejudiced, I had looked for any reason to distance myself from this sincere, hospitable people. Rather than loving them, speaking with them, blessing them and representing my own nation in the best light, I chose to cower and fume within my own insecurities.
It made no sense. I was the girl whose childhood friends were predominantly Muslim. I was enlightened, not prejudiced, or so I thought. But, I missed out on something greater: truly experiencing the full and beautiful culture of Jordan. With my own hidden discrimination exposed, and now expunged, my only hope is that someday I can return to this beautiful country and redeem myself.
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