JFK International Airport, New York,
The cabbie that drives us to the airport is a Sudanese Muslim.
He is enthusiastic about our mission.
He also tells us that we will like the Syrians and Jordanians, but to
beware of Egyptians because they are all thieves.
Royal Jordanian Airways uses a decrepit wing of the airport.
There we meet the other members of
our group, and our leader,
Dr. Mohammed Bashar Arafat, who everyone calls Bashar.
A Jordanian waiting for the flight is very supportive of our group's goals,
but warns us to avoid Shiites, that they are not true Muslims.
We arrive at Amman airport around 7:30 AM, after a 10 1/2 hour flight.
We then wait for two hours because the Jordanian Embassy in Washington
made an obvious and trivial clerical error on the group visa.
None of the local officials
is willing to honor the visa.
(There are many No Smoking signs, but the immigration officials
are all chain-smoking.)
We finally pay 10 Dinar each (around US$14) and
get to our tour bus.
Although Amman is known for its seven hills, the overall landscape
is flat, a hardscrabble desert.
We have rarely seen cities with so little vegetation.
Our hotel, the Bristol, is quite posh. There are uniformed guards
outside, armed with machine guns. This is where many NGO and diplomatic
That evening we are welcomed to Jordan by
Dr. Mohammed Abu-Hassan, former justice of the Jordanian Supreme Court.
He will give us a lecture when we return to Amman.
That night we go to dinner with Dr. Abu-Hassan's son,
who is himself a prominent lawyer.
We go to a large restaurant called The Windmill, which has a
neon windmill outside, but inside is a large, Bedouin-style tent.
Most of the tables are family-sized, with low chairs beautiful rugs.
Many customers smoke from "hubbly-bubblys", or hookahs.
Even though I am very intolerant of tobacco smoke, I find the flavor
sweet, pleasant, and utterly without any taste or smell of tobacco.
The next day we drive to Petra and spend the afternoon there.
It is an astonishing place.
The rock formations are of multi-colored sandstone, wind-sculpted into
sinuous shapes. We walk down the narrow defile, the Siq, with the canyon
walls towering hundreds of feet above us.
At times we can touch the two walls with both outstretched arms.
We turn a corner and confront "the Treasury",
the best-known building in the complex.
Petra is a large site, with many dwellings and temples cut
directly into the stone,
and even has an amphitheater carved into a stone bluff.
The local Bedouin tribespeople have been hurt by the decline in tourism
after 9/11. Petra used to have 3,000 visitors each day of the high season,
now they get 300 on a good day.
We drive west and enter a fantastic, otherworldly terrain of
deeply-carved wadis (gulches)
descending towards the Dead Sea.
We stop at a military checkpoint, where a soldier tells us
"you are all our guests and we welcome you."
We then follow the coast north.
We are now more than 1,300 feet below sea level.
We stop at a luxury resort and pay a fee to use their beach.
Swimming in the Dead Sea is very odd. You float like a cork, and
it's difficult to stand in chest-deep water because your legs just
bob out from under you to the surface.
If the water touches your lips, eyes, or an open cut, it stings intensely.
North again, stopping at Mt. Nebo.
This is where Moses saw the Holy Land that he would never reach. He is
said to be buried in the valley below us.
On the peak there is a Franciscan monastery and a restored
Byzantine church overlooking the Jordan River valley and Israel.
We reach Amman and stop briefly at the Roman amphitheater.
We are the only tourists there. (In fact, throughout Jordan and Syria we
see no American tourists and very few westerners.)
After our long day's drive,
we arrive at our Amman hotel
at 6:30. With a meeting scheduled (and already delayed) for 7:30,
there is no time to clean up.
Our first meeting is at the hotel itself.
We meet with
a Protocol Officer of the Jordanian Foreign Ministry.
We get a short break to wolf down some food in the hotel
restaurant, and at
9:40 we meet
Dr. Abu-Hassan, an ex-justice of the Jordanian
We finally break up at 11:00.
Our first meeting today is with
Minister of Awqaf (Religious Affairs).
(Awqaf is literally translated "endowment".)
After the meeting we are escorted to the Minister's private office.
He surreptitiously asks Bashar, as we later learn, if we would be offended
by the gift of a Koran.
Learning otherwise, he presents us with beautiful copies, in Arabic, of
In the Middle East, this is a very significant gift.
We head north towards the Syrian border.
The landscape is almost a desert, with rolling low hills.
Seemingly in the middle of nowhere we reach an armed compound,
guard towers and razor wire.
This is Al Al-Bayt University.
We are ushered to the office of
Dr. Salman Al-Bdour,
the president of
We leave and head to the Syrian border. Security is strict, with a
total of 5 checkpoints. But, oddly, the fence at the border only extends
about a quarter-mile into the desert, beyond which there is no
security at all.
At the Jordanian exit station, we are treated very differently than at
Amman airport. We bypass the long lines and are ushered to the
luxurious VIP reception room and are served tea.