Souq and Desert (Lebanon, Syria and Jordan)



An old bus with Jordanian plates, some passengers with a lot of luggage (as prices seemed to be higher in Jordan than in Syria), a mid-aged French couple, two Japanese young men, a German girl that had studied Arabic and we set off. Unlike the one on Syria and Lebanon, the guidebook on Jordan I had bought proved to be full of mistakes and to lack a lot of directions, beginning with the bus station in Amman, going on with mistaking the left for the right, a church for a Roman column way and the East for the West. Such matters, however, were to push me into a more direct and intense contact with the local people, which proved to be, just like in Syria, helpful, friendly and always eager to meet or talk to the obvious stranger.

Once arrived in a remote bus station in Amman, a handful of taxi drivers approached the few yawning foreigners, asking whether they needed a ride here or there, while most of the locals had been waited by relatives or friends. I started walking, enjoying the cool evening breeze. It was 8 PM on a Friday and most shops or offices were closed, while streets looked rather deserted. Only a few soldiers were guarding a barricaded building with official looks. Rare cars, mostly taxis, would break the silence every now and then. The city spread on several hills and many buildings only had two - three floors, providing the place with a more relaxed and quiet (at that moment and only apparently) atmosphere. After wondering through the city for a while, after going up a hill just to get down again, I found my hotel and went for a good night's sleep. Quiet that was.

Waking up rather early and starting towards Jerash, I did not have a chance to see Amman in depth at that time. Just like Palmyra in Syria, but lacking its great location in the desert, Jerash had a few very elegant pieces of decoration, while the town around it seemed to be more like a fortification than like a community developed in contemporary times. After being told by a couple of drivers that there was no bus to Irbid (and being offered a ride which bore a price tag), I found a helpful soul which showed me to the bus station (which was in the opposite part of the town than specified in the guidebook) and I got on a seemingly non-existent bus. I met a young man which lived in Umm Quais; he wanted to tell me a lot of things about his town while showing me to the right bus. In the end of the ride, he refused to let me pay for my ride and made a detour to show me to the entrance to the archaeological site. More than the site itself with its beautiful black and white (i.e. granite and limestone) Muslim village, views were superb, towards the Sea of Galilee, Golan Heights, a corner of Syria and a great blue sky above them all. The Roman site itself was like fallen asleep, with a large part of it yet to be excavated and cleared; however, for that very reason, it was enjoyable.

Time passed by and I still had to change three minibuses to get back to Amman. I was to find the city crowded with cars and people. The central streets were full of sound and light. There was no real souq in Amman, mostly because the once grand Roman city had afterwards turned into a village and it had redeveloped only in the 20th century. However there was no need for a souq either: one could buy or sell anything in the very streets of the city. The Oriental beat of music could be heard all along the main avenues, merchants would call for customers, selling them all, from cheese or socks, to vacuum cleaners or water pipes. The young would wander around, shout at each other, sing or enjoy a handful of pistachio, while the elder would chat, play backgammon, watch the young with a somehow regretful smile, or simply sip some strong coffee from a plastic cup. All sorts of vehicles would rush here and there, while crossing the street in central Amman at 9 PM proved to be at least just as difficult or easy (usually depending on the country one had come from / traveled to before) as it was at noon. In the hotel I was staying at, located in a side street, one could still very well hear (or rather listen to) the sound of downtown Amman, and for once I enjoyed this very much, as it was nothing but the proof that the city was alive and the way a 21st century souq looks, tastes and sounds like.

As I started a bit later than the day before, the city had woken up before me and all the rush had already begun by the time I got out. Everything was still there, except for that fantastic music the night before. Only somewhere, at a distance, someone had turned a radio on and there was some music playing, hence keeping the spirit alive. The local citadel was located on a hilltop and it provided fine views towards the forest of shorter or higher concrete buildings. However the time to go had come and I got on a minibus to Madaba, a town which bore the fame of the mosaics discovered in churches or residences of the area. These ones were beautiful through their being simple and straight-forward, however the many tourist-focused mosaics on sale everywhere in the streets of this town gave one a strange feeling. The town lived on, respectively for tourism, and only by going down / around the main road I could get back to real life, enjoying a felafel and buying some oranges from a man with a great smily face. Going to Mount Nebo, instead of seeing the Promised Land, all there I could see was a thick cloud of smog through which one could hardly think of noticing Jordan Valley and a corner of the Dead Sea. Back in Madaba, I settled in a guesthouse away from the tourist trade centre of the town. Tourism was too industrious, too much of a business concept in Jordan and, even though back in university I had learnt that this is "the way" to success in this sector, I did not like this for myself as a traveler. However, Jordanians were thankfully among the warmest and friendliest people I had met (if one could ever generalize nation-wise), and this made the whole trip much better for me.

In the morning, while having an early breakfast, I met two other tourists staying in the same guesthouse: two retired ladies from Denmark, which had also come from Syria: "after hearing so much about poverty, this and that about Syria, it is interesting to actually go there and see for oneself, to have a personal experience". It started raining and I had to go. I took a minibus followed by a van across the impressive (especially with the black, thick clouds above) Wadi Mujib, then another minibus and I eventually reached Karak and its castle in a pouring rain. Even though I am not too fond of museums, the local archaeological gallery was warm and dry, therefore providing great shelter from the elements. After visiting the castle in a pouring rain, soak wet, getting on the "only minibus out", I reached Tafila, where I was given a piece of news even better than the weather outside: "bus to Ma'an tomorrow at 7; today taxi to Wadi Musa, 15 JD". Asking for a hotel, I was directed to the only one in town, which was located half a kilometer to the South according to a police officer, respectively two kilometers to the North, according to some other local people. The good piece of news was tat in both cases they said it was on the main road. The bad piece of news was that the hotel had been closed down. Asking here and there, a young boy showed me to a building located a few blocks away from the main road: it was more like a basic, poor inn for the merchants that would come with business at the local market. In the evening I had a walk up the hill providing great views towards the neighbouring area, with steep, barren slopes, winding roads and a pine forest at a distance.

Early the next day I took a minibus to Ma'an, followed by a taxi driver's "there is no bus to Wadi Musa, only taxis", followed by his "1 JD to the bus station, but no bus, believe me", followed by my "put the meter on and let us see", followed by 0.65 JD to the bus station, no tip granted and a bus to a university near the city where I got a connection to Wadi Musa not even 5 minutes later, with a helpful student that offered me a tea during the short wait. Dropping my "heavy" stuff in a hotel, I started to Petra. It would be both useless and actually impossible to even attempt to describe Petra, for one has to see for himself / herself this place in order to understand ts being simply stunning, simply superb. There were hundreds of tourists walking around, making the whole Nabatean site look like inhabited once again by a colourful, multiethnic crowd. The only rather sad side of the picture was granted by the former Bedouins, ancient inhabitants of the place, most of them removed from their original "houses" (i.e. caves, Nabatean tombs and temples) to a modern village, respectively nowadays trying hard to survive by selling souvenirs along tourist trails, or offering people a donkey, cart or camel ride. The day passed by with magnificent views and a great weather. After watching the sun sinking over the rocky ridges, I went down and ended the day with a welcome narghile and a chai at a simple coffee shop, watching the street pass by and listening to some loud music coming from a TV set inside, where some people were playing cards. The wind blew strongly all night and it continued to do so in the morning too, stirring the dust and making many tourists stay inside. I started towards Jebel Harum, just to see the other side of the coin: there were still (only a few) Bedouins living in "houses" carved in the sandstone walls, or in old graves, going with their goats up the hills. Slowly - slowly the government was to move them all to the new village though. For the time being though, happy children would run after me, greeting me. After a while, I reached the top of the Jebel and the shrine there, providing a superb view to the neighbourhood. Probably because of the relatively bad weather, there were only two other people over there: a French mountain guide and his German wife. We went down together and we were to go to Wadi Rum the following day.

Rum is yet another place I would not dare describe. There is nothing in this world like the desert and one cannot get into its atmosphere until reaching it. Only in the middle of that stillness one could see there are moments in his or her lifetime which are simply touching, but that it does take a long way and a long time to get to these moments. Only there, in the wadi, far away from anything, where all there could be seen and felt was the sun, respectively its reflection on rocks and sand dunes, there where one could only hear the dim wind once in a long while, I could "see" the reason and the source of the noise and crowd of the souq in Aleppo, Damascus or Tehran. Only the lack of life can generate such a boom of life, such a music, such an intense movement of things and people, such an appetite for being alive...

After wandering across Wadi Rum for two days with Selim and his beige Toyota from the 70s, after hiking sandstone cliffs, building a fire out of very precious dry bushes, after spending a couple of nights in a Bedouin tent, and nevertheless after taking a moment to "breathe" while walking barefoot through the desert, the time to go had come. I briefly crossed Aqaba without enjoying it at all, with its crowd heading to the beach, its fancy shops and "cute" scapes. It had a strong touch of being artificial and built to please. I got a bus to Amman and, after having a final walk though the city, I took the midnight bus to the airport, before my 5 hour journey to Bucharest: a few Romanians working in Jordan and going back home, a few Jordanians working or studying in Romania, a whole family which had gone to Baghdad to welcome their son returning home after a long time of serving in Iraq... After the stop over in Cairo, the plane would be packed with people and a lot of hand luggage which could hardly fit in the shelves above the seats. People would run along the plane trying to find space for their luggage, they would talk loudly, make jokes, just to eventually fall asleep and be quiet. After a glass of half dry (as always with Romanian wines) red Murfatlar for breakfast, I was getting home. There were -3C in Bucharest and it was Sunday, a foggy and wet one. However there was nobody to offer the traveler a cup of hot black tea like the railway station chief in Deir-ez Zur.




Nabateans created a city out of the desert. Bedouins created a culture around it, leading caravans across it. Tour operators created a business around the desert by selling packages involving the heritage provided by the two above. Looking at it this way, the desert is no longer an arid topic lacking any substance, but it rather has a diverse potential, it is at times a source of inspiration and a purpose...