Moving Forward, Looking Back: A Connecticut Yankee in King Abdullah's Court
Updated 11:34 am, Tuesday, September 30, 2014
As-salaam alaikum, Fairfielders, from Amman, Jordan.
My 16th-floor hotel window affords me an unobstructed view of a city dominated by blocky white stone buildings as far as the eye can see. At the right time of day it looks like sugar cubes have been spilled over the hills. At street level, they are three- to five-story residences, not deviating much from the basic cube shape.
The hotel itself, standing with several skyscrapers near the city center, is decidedly western in its amenities. Except for the Arabic signage and the men in white robes and keffiyehs eating French toast at the next breakfast table, you'd never know you were in the Middle East.
English is spoken widely by the exceedingly friendly Jordanians. Wi-fi is everywhere. Downtown Amman is vibrant and fascinating, complete with a huge Roman amphitheater.
I know what you're thinking -- what on earth am I doing in the Middle East, especially these days? I am here, in support of my Syrian friends back home, to be part of a one-week medical mission visiting some of the communities and camps that shelter over 600,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan alone. Another two and a half million Syrians have fled to other countries in the area. These desperate and shell-shocked people have been accepted in neighboring countries despite the significant pressure they place on these small nations. Parallels are difficult, but consider how the United States has dealt with 60,000 similarly desperate children from Central America.
I came to Jordan five days early to see some of the natural and archaeological wonders in this country. A travel agency specializing in Middle East tourism set up a tour with my own car and driver. This was a bit of a luxury, but well worth it. I strongly recommend not driving in the Middle East unless you have NASCAR experience.
I left the driving to Habis, a jocular and knowledgeable Jordanian who was happy to answer all my questions. I never felt a moment of anxiety anywhere, and if you like the food at Safita or Layla's, you will be in heaven here.
Here are the highlights of my pre-mission trip:
The Dead Sea: Yep, it's true, you float like a cork. I took a pass at slathering myself with Dead Sea mud, very popular for skin rejuvenation. The scene is spa-like, but certainly fun for a day.
Wadi Rum: As you drive south through fairly featureless desert, you come over a rise, and suddenly you enter Wadi Rum, home to some of the most stunning desert landscapes on earth. I was on location for "Lawrence of Arabia," and as sensational as that classic film was, there is no comparison to being here. The thing to do is a four-hour jeep ride through the desert, becoming completely transfixed by the surreal land masses in this immense desert. As the sun drops and shadows lengthen, the light changes and the desert takes on a whole new personality. I even stopped in for a visit at T.E. Lawrence's cave, but he wasn't home.
I spent the night at a Bedouin camp. Sleeping accommodations were much cushier than expected: a carpeted tent, a foam-mattress cot and sparkling clean WC's. Hey, no Wi-fi! The Bedouins compensated with a feast fit for a sheik and Bedouin dances. Sadly for them, the hostilities in the Middle East have hurt their tourism; I was the sole guest.
Petra: Quite simply one of the few most amazing places on earth. The powerful and ingenious Nabataeans (why didn't we learn about them in school?) literally carved this magnificent city into sandstone cliffs, the entrance to which is through a narrow, mile-long, spectacular gorge, As-Siq, with dazzling geologic formations almost 300 feet overhead. If As-Siq was all there was to see, it would have been well worth the trip. But then As-Siq yields to one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring structures mankind has ever created: Al-Khazneh (Treasury), an architectural and engineering masterpiece carved into a rose-colored sandstone cliff. Over 2000 years old, it's incredibly well-preserved.
But at this point you've only scratched the surface of Petra. Down the valley, the rest of the city awaits you, with its tombs, amphitheaters, and places of worship carved into the cliffs. Part of the city is Roman, the Romans having conquered Petra in the early modern era. Petra requires an entire day, if not more, and there is a lot of walking, including your choice of three rather challenging stairway ascents to see more structures or take in amazing views.
Jerash: North of Amman, the Romans created an important trading city here. This is about as good as it gets for Roman architecture, the main features being a huge arch, a hippodrome (think Ben-Hur), an astounding colonnaded oval forum, temples to Artemis and Zeus, and two amphitheaters. You have never seen so many columns in one place, ever.
Yes, parts of the Middle East are dangerous, but not Jordan. What a fascinating country. But Jordan is now home to hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have had their lives stripped away.
As I write this, I have finished my fourth day of the mission. It would take another thousand words to describe the conditions under which I provided medical care to children, and the stories these families carry with them are heartbreaking. I will never forget what I have seen here, and the people who work so tirelessly to help them.
NEXT WEEK: Examining and treating Syrian refugee children under primitive conditions in a make-shift clinic.
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears periodically. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.