I don’t really know where to start with Jordan. I lived there for four years as a teacher at an international school and the country holds so many happy memories, so much respect, revealed so many hidden gems: the people I met there, the culture of pride in their acceptance of refugees from the Arab world and the lesser-known attractions of the tourist trail. And then the paradox: Philipino domestic workers (routinely verbally abused out in public) told me that they could be stopped on the street and deported if their employers did not pay the “fines”, or ransom demanded by the police, a symptom of a police force that were paid intermittently and minimally. I heard stories of maids whose employers would take the passports from and lodge in a small cupboard under the stairs. Houses were kept immaculate, but rubbish was thrown carelessly on the streets outside. Speeding or traffic violations could always be amicably agreed for a cash payment. I taught in a school in Amman, married my wife there and my daughter was born in the country. Charles Glass wrote a book called “Tribes With Flags” and that is not a bad summary of the country. The Trans Jordan was created as a buffer zone between the Arab and Israeli worlds, but the land has always, and still belongs to the tribes who have carved out their territories over centuries, forget borders, flags or countries. Make no mistake; “wasta” (who you know in a position of power and influence, often to do with the influential Bedu tribes they belong to) is what this country runs on.
As an expat you meet many people whose wasta you may rely on, and who help you out with a grace and gentility that typifies this wonderful country. It is a country I love and respect. One well-connected and very refined man I met there, ex-special forces from the Jordanian military and from a well-connected tribe, told me to call his number if I was ever stopped by the police (before they took me to the station) and that his family name alone would secure an instant release. He also told me that if any man were to touch his wife, on the thigh for example, he would kill them on the spot, and then search out the rest of his family for similar revenge. She was an air hostess for Royal Jordanian, and he meant it. That was his culture, his honour, his tribe. The director of the school assured me that when he had been joking about the appalling driving in Jordan and how people drive on whichever side of the road suits them at the time, he had been told, “We are a desert people, used to travelling great distances through the wide open spaces. Then you come here with your thin band of tarmac and expect us to drive along that slender ribbon of nothingness. What do you expect? We are just not used to it.” And then there were the two English ladies, support staff at work, who were formerly air hostesses for RJ and ended up marrying hard-drinking party animal pilots – until they got home. Then the mother-in-law took over and they ended up divorced, passports of their children held by the husband (and his family) and now stuck in Jordan, victims of the change in their spouses that took place when hubbie got back to his mother. I do not stand in judgement: sometimes cultures clash. Honour killings by fathers, brothers, or uncles of overly promiscuous daughters are not unknown. And by promiscuous, it could amount to little more than being out alone with a male companion un-chaperoned. And the advice if you knocked down a pedestrian was to go straight to the airport to avoid a ruinous amount of blood-money or a revenge-killing. Unfortunate motorists were sometimes arrested and put in gaol for their own safety. An eye for an eye…
Nowadays a Saudi family sit on the throne, but what a family! Queen Rania is a strident and active campaigner for education, humanitarian projects and development as well as peace in the region. The King’s father was famed for disguising himself as a taxi driver and asking the opinions of his lowly subjects on the government and the way the country was run while he drove them around Amman and was sometimes known to financially augment to high degree random strangers at the roadside. So many things seem to run on wasta. There was the time that the lady-in-waiting tried to get her under-age daughter into the reception class at school. One day a couple of big black cars turned up with gorilla-security-men after school. Queen Rania herself emerged from the black-windowed 4WD and asked to see the head of primary. After a few minutes of polite chit-chat, she politely asked, “How are the plans for the move to the new site going?” The Ministry responsible were putting up barriers, lots of bureaucratic barriers. “I will speak to my minister and see what can be done,” she declared, “now about my friends daughter…”. The lady-in-waiting was a childhood friend of the Queen. Nothing was explicitly struck as a deal. It was all so refined. The head received an extravagant gift shortly thereafter. The child was admitted.
I arrived in Amman the victim of a love affair, waiting to see if the girl I loved would follow. She was married. I thought it was the decent thing to do. And so began a year of bachelorhood and intermittent visits before we both got to know Jordan very well together. When we did finally get married, my soon-to-be wife was eight months pregnant. I found out that if she were to give birth there out of wedlock then the Jordanians would not issue a birth certificate – in which case the British Embassy could not do likewise. This would have been a stateless child. That is how easy it is to lose millennia of British citizenship. Friends told me that they would call in all their wasta to help, but it was not a risk I wanted to take. So I delicately put it to my wife that perhaps her mother would be happier if we were married before she gave birth and that we should fly her and my parents out for a quick wedding, which is what happened. I am amazed at my persuasiveness, which has rarely worked since. So off to the Embassy it was, the second entry into the marriage records. The consul was an incredibly young, but affable chap; the qualities required by the Foreign Office for such a position were in abundant evidence. He was actually a relief-consul on his first posting who we later learnt at the “Brit Club” was so excited by his first posting involving marrying a couple (“Bride – heavily pregnant…” it said on his notes that he carelessly left on a table) that he immediately phoned his dad, all excited. He was young enough to have been my son and could well be an ambassador somewhere in the world by now. So we were wed and all went down to the Dead Sea for the weekend. Someone had provided a wedding cake (wasta) and even some plastic love-birds on the foliage on the terrace of our room overlooking the Dead Sea out towards Israel. It is a short drive down to the Jordan River from there to the Baptism Site, but nowadays the mighty Jordan is little more than a muddy trickle, a few yards wide across to Israel, the sworn enemy of the Arab world, having been dammed further up by the Israelis. Around here, water is power. The Dead Sea is evaporating at an alarming rate because of this. We were astounded when the plastic love birds suddenly came to life. They were actually real doves. It was amazing how they had maintained their statuesque presence for so long.
When I arrived in Amman it was hot: very hot. I never imagined that the lemon trees outside my apartment would be covered in snow come Easter time. The city is high up in elevation and gets a good snowfall most years. Then everything grinds to a halt because the roads are not gritted for this short period. It gets very cold and the school closes because the roads are, quite simply, too dangerous. We all used to love those snow-days and getting sent home from work. It was walkable for me. The downside was having to keep the diesel oil tank topped up, and ensuring that this and the water tank were not pilfered. One night, in my bachelor days, it ran out and I had not the funds to replace it. Only a lucky win at a poker evening kept me warm. It was an amazing night – see my WordPress post “The Sounds of Silence” to get the feeling of walking home in the small hours through the streets of Amman after this jackpot win. For those in the know, it involved a Royal Flush. The staff at school were often off for weekends (Friday and Saturday) and my first experience of lesser-known sites took me to one of the gems of Jordan: Wadi Mujib, above the Dead Sea some 30 k’s south of the Dead Sea Spa resort.
Work in Jordan was easy after teaching in England. There were specialist teachers for PE, swimming, music and library so lots of planning time. We were in school by 7:30, fifteen minutes before the students, whose day finished at one o’clock. I was home by two thirty. On Thursdays (the Friday of the Muslim weekend), I would meet up with my friend and colleague, Steve, for what we assured his wife, Jennifer, was a “wise man’s time” of talking and putting the world to rights over a few beers on one of our balconies. We knew these as “wisings”. In fact, once when some new staff arrived in school a rumour started that the school was really run by a secret society called the “Old Wise Man’s Club”, and you would get nowhere if you weren’t in with them: a good subject of conversation and chuckles for one of our wisings. Other evenings I would jam with my now lifelong friend, Billy, from Kentucky – one of the kindest men I have ever met and also one of the best storytellers. Billy did things with tanks that he couldn’t talk about for the military in places he couldn’t talk about either. Steve and I used to run a competition to see who could arrive at school with the most clashing shirt tie combination, which was soon looked forward to by other staff. When we got bored with that it was a slow change into “cowboy Thursdays” and we became more and more wild western as the weeks progressed. Steve got his sister to send items from Canada and we even acquired some leather whips to hang on our belts from a local Afghan shop. He even planned to get two horses to ride in one day, but it didn’t quite come off sadly. The children spoke with the mid-western twang of international schools and seemed happy and well-behaved. The first weekend trip was to Wadi Mujib with my interesting colleagues. Richard taught Year 1, is incredibly intelligent, a compulsive talker, an expert diver and severely dyslexic. He had worked in Madagascar and survived a coup in the Comoros Islands and could speak with a variety of accents at will when telling stories. He had hooked up with Siobhan, an Irish teacher recently arrived from Dubai. Duaine, who I can hardly understand on account of his very broad Ulster accent, taught English as a foreign language. How does that work? He was there with his partner, Estelle, who taught year 6 and was classroom assistant to Siobhan, whom he referred to as “The Duchess”. International teaching can be a small world and Duaine and Estelle had caught up with the older, wise couple, Kris and Terry with whom they had worked in Thailand. And finally Steve and Jennifer, my good Canadian friends, survivors of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami in Indonesia were there too; we would later catch up after leaving Jordan along with Richard in Jakarta (see my WordPress post “In the Footsteps of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders”). It really is a small world. As a newbie to the international circuit, I had listened, enthralled, to all of their stories way into the small hours down at Aqaba, where we used to stay in a cheap and cheerful hotel which gave teachers at the school special rates. It was called the Alcazar, famed for its inedible breakfasts and was affectionately known as the Alcatraz. We all left for Wadi Mujib at six am in a school minibus one Friday morning in October. Richard talked all the way down to the site, only occasionally interrupted by Duaine’s comments along the lines of, “Hey, Richard, do yous have an off button?”
It is a steep climb up the sand-coloured mountains and this is the last trip of the year. One other group of locals are also taking advantage of the last hike of the season. At the top is a river, which will be prone to flash floods soon, which is why the guided tours stop today. At the river we at taken off towards the left, while the other group took a right. This is where the trouble started. Steve immediately questioned why we were taking this route as we had paid for the longer hike. The guide insists that we had only booked the shorter trip. The guide is coerced into phoning his boss, but remains adamant about the booking. At this point the normally happy-go-lucky Canadian loses it completely, insisting that we are being treated like this because we are foreigners. It was the first and last time I ever saw him lose his cool. Duaine is muttering something about how the four hour trip is plenty enough for him after the climb up, Jennifer is commenting on how Steve’s testosterone must be up this morning, while Terry is watching a water snake swim between his legs in the shallow river.
”That’s it!” Steve yells, “I’m going with the other group – we paid for six hours and that’s what I’m getting.” But the guide for the other group refuses to take Steve with them. In the end, Richard manages to persuade Steve to rejoin the expat group and we head off in thigh-deep water along a narrow, winding gorge. The water is warm and quite fast-flowing. At times you have to check your balance to avoid being knocked over. The gorge is about 6-8 metres wide and twenty or so metres high. Where the river narrows we walk along the stony bank and while in the water our shoes are filling up with pebbles. The cliff faces are an amazing array of red, brown and yellow striped pastel shades. The guide tells us that Steve (and Richard for some unknown reason) are on “The Blacklist” now, while Steve is muttering: “He can’t blacklist me anyway; he doesn’t even know my name.” Duaine is helpfully chanting “Stevey’s on the blacklist, Stevey’s on the blacklist…” and telling everyone how proud Estelle will be of him when we get back because for once it wasn’t him who kicked off. Eventually the Canadian will calm down and apologise to the guide. We come across a snake skin and Jennifer observes that if the skin is here, then the rest of the snake is likely to be around here somewhere too.
After an hour or so of walking downstream, we reach a waterfall and stop here for a lunch break before abseiling down the cascade. Duaine wants to go first – later we found out that this was because he had worked out that it was a good opportunity to photograph colleagues in wet tee-shirts at the bottom. Heather, a secondary teacher, takes it in good spirit, proudly thrusting her torso forward, telling him: “Look, you could hang a coat –hanger on these!” The water is now knee-deep and a huge, house-sized boulder is wedged at an angle, stuck between the cliff faces some fifteen metres above us where it had been flung by an earthquake.
It is another hour’s walk in the river back to the car park. At the end it involved sliding down a natural waterslide in the rock to a deep pool and swimming to the bank. We stop off to eat a delicious meze in Madaba on the way back, famous for its Byzantine mosaics. There were many trips like this to out-of-the way places and other experiences, like the Amarin Bedhouin camp at Little Petra, where you sleep in large traditional tents with curtained-off “rooms”, the steep drive in a truck down to the tented camp in a beautiful valley in Dana Nature reserve and sharing barbequed meals in the large Bedhouin tent-lounge there, swimming in a pool under a waterfall fed by warm water from the earth’s volcanic zones, gazing down to the Sea of Galilee in Israel from the Roman ruins of Umm Qais, and beautiful desert sunsets from a hill overlooking Beit Ali Desert Camp at Wadi Rum. Memories come back of the donkey man collecting rubbish to recycle from the hoppers below my balcony, of knee-deep snow under lemon trees and the sheep being driven into the city for Eid, stopping to graze on busy roundabouts in Amman.
When Kris and Terry left I bought their lovely old car off them. It was a 1973 white Mercedes of hefty steel, and I christened him Baldrick. These cars used to be the taxis in Amman before yellow Japanese models took over. They were always festooned with furry dashboards and Islamic talismans dangling from the driver’s mirror and were usually driven by Palestinians. Baldrick was a cranky old devil and I inherited a close friendship with a local mechanic along with the vehicle. But he saw us through many a trip one way or another and was a popular cult figure at school. OK, his rear doors did occasionally fly open on corners, and his bonnet had the unnerving habit of flipping up unannounced, blocking all view of the road ahead, but I loved him dearly. Once, on the way down to Wadi Rum I was pulled over for a document check by the police. Steve, who was following us in their shiny new lime-green Citroen as chaperone to Balders, calmly drove past whilst texting, “Please tell me Baldrick got stopped for speeding.” Some chance. An Egyptian man would clean Baldrick every week. I never asked him to, but he was happy to be paid for this. Egyptians were looked down on by Jordanians and often had to make a living from their wits, and this was an example of surviving on personal enterprise.
Ramadan was hardest in the summer months when no food, drink nor cigarettes were to be consumed in daylight and this made people very short tempered and lethargic. The security guards at school would spend all day asleep under a tree. Tempers frayed and you had to be careful not to upset people by drinking, eating or smoking too overtly in public. Out of respect we tried to avoid this. The hour before the end of fasting, the Iftar, was the worst: the streets were at first manic with drivers rushing home at breakneck speed for their family meals, half-crazed by lack of food and water or cigarettes, before a deathly hush descended on the entire city and the busy roads became absolutely silent, eerily empty. This, I always maintained, would be the perfect time to commit a robbery, when everyone was at home eating. It was also the only enjoyable time to drive around Amman. The shops which sold alcohol had to close during Ramadan, but a deal was always struck with the owners, whose businesses simply had to cease trading for a month, for furtive home deliveries or meet-ups in car parks to enter their empty, shuttered-up shops via back doors. Our man was affectionately known as “Osama beer-laden”.
After four years in Jordan, most of our friends had moved on, or were about to leave, and the school was finally moving to its new building out along the airport road. This road, amongst all the horrid roads to drive, was one of the worst. It was the beginning of the Desert Highway down to Petra and Aqaba. Arriving once at the airport, our taxi home became stuck in a traffic jam. An ambulance was behind us, siren blaring and lights flashing, but not one car would let it past. This sort of summed up the main problem with driving in the country. The culture was that if you were first to get there, or first to the cake in the staff room, then it was rightfully yours. Everyone accepted that. So you just tried to push in front of the cars gridlocked at roundabouts, or filled your bag with cake for your family in the staffroom and you certainly would not relinquish your right to be ahead of an ambulance, even if it cost some poor soul their life. In short, we didn’t fancy the drive along the highway each morning. Our water tank was being mysteriously emptied every few days and no leak was found; it was time to move on, but not without taking some great memories and feeling a good deal of affection for Jordan, along with the friends we met there. I don’t know if you have periods of your life that you look back on as “golden times”, but this, for me, was one of them.