Heavy water rolled gently towards my toes, over thick layers of caked salt, like rock candy, which had sunk to the seafloor. I stepped gingerly forward, avoiding the sharp edges of broken salt, and the water got quickly deeper, along a slip-sliding slope. Soon, I was in disorienting suspension, legs kicking the air, laughing at my own attempts to swim.
Israel was across the water; its dry, sinuous hills rose quickly past brown gravel beaches, identical to the small, Jordanian owned stretch of equally course sand behind me, where Claire lazed beneath a hexagonal wooden umbrella, with only her legs extending into the weak winter sun. The Dead Sea was Yam ha-Mavet there and al-Bahr al-Mayyit here; the Hebrew and Arabic words for death also resembled each other closely.
This stretch of water must be patrolled, I thought. Israel must protect itself: two thirds of Jordan’s population were dispossessed Palestinians. And Jordan must remember 1967, when it lost half of Jerusalem and half of the Dead Sea in a swift six day war. Did they use boats? Did the boats have to be adapted, made heavier to counteract this sea’s absurd buoyancy, with engines hardened against such salty corrosion?
The Dead Sea is so called because it supports no life (other than small numbers of very hardy bacteria). It is a geographic anomaly: at 418m below sea level, the beach I had just left was the world’s lowest dry point; the rubbery water I was now jumping up and down in – to measure how much of my legs emerged – was the world’s second saltiest, after an unheard of lake in Djibouti. According to my guidebook, “the Dead Sea has 20 times more bromine, 15 times more magnesium and 10 times more iodine” than ocean water. “Bromine, a component of many sedatives, relaxes the nerves; magnesium counteracts skin allergies and clears bronchial passages; iodine, which is essential to good health, has a beneficial effect on thyroid functions.” And, because the Dead Sea is so far below sea level, atmospheric pressure is much higher, there is less ultraviolet radiation in the sunlight, and less irritating pollens in the air – which is good for respiratory problems, and skin diseases like psoriasis, which benefit from time in the sun.
“Do you believe this… this water has medical benefits?” asked a man with a bushy, salt encrusted moustache and long white patches – more salt – running down his cheeks and neck.
“It’s supposed to,” I replied. “Do you?”
The man’s bottom lip went out, grasping at his salty moustache. He shrugged, and asked where I was from.
I told him; he looked surprised.
“The supervisor at my hospital is from South Africa, but you sound different to her – your accent is different.”
The remark was familiar: after two years in England I flatten less vowels and roll fewer ‘r’s than many South Africans. I ignored it, not wanting to repeat tired explanations. “Where is your hospital?”
“In Melbourne, but I’m from Iraq. I am a doctor.”
“Oh,” I said, not sure which aspect of his answer I wanted to pursue first. “And as a doctor, you don’t believe the Dead Sea has medical benefits?”
“We have a lot of problems with traditional medicine in Australia. People, especially Chinese people, go for these treatments first, and only come to us afterwards. Sometimes it is too late.”
“Only Chinese people?”
“Also Arabs.” The man laughed. “And Italians – a lot like Arabs, Italians.”
Two men with identical moustaches – obviously the doctor’s companions – bobbed past, chanting “Bush! Bush! We love George Bush!” and fumbling a silver camera. Their fuzzy, self-conscious pronunciation – Boosh! Boosh! We luf Jhoj Boosh! – gave the words an awful quality: the men seemed insincere, even coached. They started to giggle.
“He is my brother,” said the doctor, pointing, “the other one is my cousin. They think you are from England.”
“Bleh! Bleh! We luf Tonny Bleh!” they continued. More giggles destabilised them; they slipped and rolled on the water’s hard, oily surface, trying to protect the camera with extended arms.
“They don’t speak English,” the doctor continued, “but they are grateful to Bush and Blair. We are Shiis from Basra, in the south, and things are much better for us now. Saddam was Sunni – he preferred the Sunnis. People say he did not, that at least the religion was not so divided under Saddam, but that is not true. These men are both pharmacists. Before they earned $3 a month, now they earn $700. Before they could not travel, now we are here.”
I was surprised. Images of jubilant Iraqis toppling large, carefully sculpted Saddams and burning his oily portraits had long ago been replaced, in my mind, by exhausted and unpopular American soldiers patrolling unruly streets, in a country sliding quickly towards a particularly violent chaos. I expected to find overt support for the “War on Terror” just over the water, in Israel, but not anywhere else in the Middle East, and particularly not from Iraqis. I said as much.
“Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia all liked Saddam, because he was Sunni. They are scared, these kings and dictators. In five or ten years there will be real democracy in Iraq, and they are scared of a democracy in the Middle East.”
“So why,” I asked “is there such violent opposition to America’s presence in Iraq? You have to feel quite strongly about something to commit suicide for it.”
“The people who explode themselves, even in Iraq, are from Palestine.” The doctor stopped, turned, and shouted in Arabic to his companions, who had by now drifted far past us. “You must be careful of these people. There are many here – most of the taxi drivers are from Palestine.” His Iraqi accent could apparently be distinguished, and taxi drivers, amongst others, often tried to cheat him.
“Why just Palestinians?” I asked, unsure that Jordanian (or any nationality’s) taxi drivers were more honest.
“The Palestinians have suffered very much, this is why they act this way,” said the doctor, as if in closing. He summoned his brother and cousin with one arm, shook my hand with the other, and got out.
I lay on my back, submerged my ears, and floated silently atop the warm amniotic solution, moving only occasionally, to splash water too salty to swallow, or allow into my eyes, over the exposed parts of my face. I was near the end of Skinny Legs and All, by Tom Robbins. The book approaches its conclusion with a revelation-inducing belly dance, performed in a crowded bar by a veil dropping 16-year-old named Salome. The cliché shattering prose, and the last of seven revelations, which arrive with each fall of Salome’s veils, returned to me:
Consider the anatomy of the Middle East, said the inner voice. Hasn’t it been called the Fertile Crescent, the primordial uterus from which the human race emerged? Well, look at it today, consider it now. Of all the places on the planet, it is the most feverish, hot, pain-racked, tense, dilated, bloody, traumatised, stretched to the point of ripping. Remind you of something? The ‘trouble’ is nothing but natal contractions. The world is in labour, and the Middle East, quite obviously, is the vagina out of which, if it doesn’t abort, the new order of humanity must be born. The labour is difficult and long, and it may get worse before the vagitus is heard, but don’t despair over the Middle East: something great, something wondrous, something completely unimaginable is there aborning.
I got out, felt my body’s familiar weight, and dawdled in the sun. Before long I could strip the salt from my skin and shake it from my hair; swimming shorts hung stiffly from my itching hips, like an over-starched collar, and my cheeks burned. I found a shower, rinsed, and wrung out my shorts.
The taxi driver who had brought us to the beach from a bus stop in Suweimeh, about an hour from Amman, returned at five to collect us. He made predictable small talk – had we had enjoyed our day, were we enjoying Jordan – and the predictable offer to drive us all the way back to Amman. He stopped, we paid him; when Claire opened the door to get out, he glanced at us warmly in the rear view mirror and said, “You stay my village, my house tonight. Tomorrow you come back, take bus.”
I stumbled through the start of an apologetic thanks. Claire lifted our bottle of mineral water into view and started to tap it. “We don’t have our things: no clothes, no toothbrush, no water,” she said – but we felt unadventurous and rude. We had been given the opportunity to stay with a family, in a village off the beaten track, and been too lazy, awkward and afraid to take it. I mumbled a final thank you, we got out of the taxi, and, after watching the man drive away, discovered that there were no more buses to Amman.
Ragtag groups were being assembled, to split the cost of a minibus to the city. From across the road, a man with sharp, darting eyes below a dishevelled keffiyeh approached us. “Amman?” he asked. “Yes,” we said, and he ushered us to an almost full vehicle, suggesting we pay the driver twelve Jordanian Dinars – which we did, despite suspecting that the charge included our sharp eyed assistant’s fare.
After Aleppo and Damascus, Amman was ordinary and unromantic; its Roman ruins seemed improbable. Downtown, boys dressed like rappers sold pirated DVDs for a pittance, and balding men with beefy hands pressed ground meat into long kebabs. Concrete buildings lined every street; small square windows marked their few identical floors, heavy clusters of Arabic signage gave life to their stillborn walls.
The remains of ancient Philadelphia hid behind this dull grey modernity. An earthquake, and neglect, have destroyed the traces of Amman’s less significant medieval past. Bereft of this transitional space, the ruins of antiquity are often indistinct from new but already decrepit modern buildings, put up to quickly accommodate successive waves of refugees from Palestine, Kuwait and Iraq.
The Cliff Hotel, up a long flight of dirty stairs, had a framed picture of the Dome of the Rock at its entrance. It was run by an emaciated Palestinian, who looked at you blearily through dirty spectacles, and often fell asleep on a couch in the communal sitting room.
We had spent our first night in the city at the Palace Hotel, a relative haven of clean rooms and happy service. It was attached to an internet café, where I had watched the owner explain his webcams to a patient American. “You can listen and see the person, and talk. It is amazing, the future. I think soon there will be another thing that changes our lives,” he said, before leaving the room. On his way out he paused to ask the American, “How is your president, George bin Laden, Bush bin Laden?” and burst into a malicious laugh.
But the Palace Hotel’s rooms were 12JD per night (the Jordanian Dinar’s value is equal, roughly, to the British Pound’s), and the Cliff Hotel’s only 7JD. Once again, The Budget made a difficult decision for us.
We arranged our Indian visas in Amman. At the embassy, a smiling lady wearing a royal blue sari waved away our armfuls of photocopied paper and issued two six month, multiple entry visas. As we left, skipping back to a waiting taxi, she asked my height. The question normally exhausts me, but this woman in the foreign clothes of a country I would soon visit made the question sound fresh, and I answered in both feet and metres.
Our taxi driver, Mohammed, had wedged himself and his prayer mat between the car and a wall. We were nearly on top of him before we realised he was praying, and dashed back across the road, to stand and wait at a respectful distance, with the meter running.
Mohammed was Jordanian. He had lived in America, and chatted in easy English as we passed the Grand Hyatt, where a suicide bomber killed nine people in 2006 (on 9 November, or 09/11). Bombs were simultaneously detonated at the Radisson SAS and Days Inn, also by suicide bombers. The death toll reached 60, 115 people were injured. “39 CIA and Mossad agents also died in the attack,” said Mohammed, “but their names have not been disclosed.” I asked who he thought was responsible. “They say al Qaeda did it, but I don’t believe it. The bomb at the Radisson exploded at a wedding party: it killed the bride’s father, and the groom’s. It’s just a name al Qaeda, someone to blame.” Mohammed shuffled through his pockets for a cigarette. He offered me one: they were long, with a thick strip of gold paper wrapped just above the filter. I accepted. “The police caught one of them. A woman, the wife of the man who bombed the Radisson. She says her bomb didn’t work, that she couldn’t make it detonate. I think she got scared.”
“Where was she from?” I asked.
“Iraq. They all came from Iraq.” Mohammed hooted at an indecisive pedestrian, flicked some ash from his window and navigated us through a large traffic circle. “The American invasion was organised from Amman, and the Iraqis are angry. Many Jordanians are also angry.”
We were passing the Royal Palace when Mohammed, looking at Claire in his rear view mirror, told her she looked just like Jordan’s Queen. “She is American,” he added. “You have the same eyes, and pale skin.” Queen Noor, we were told, had converted to Islam before marrying the present king’s father, Hussein. King Hussein’s fourth wife, she had kept the title “Queen” because she was only his eldest son’s stepmother, and could not adopt the more staid “Queen Mother” after her husband’s death.
“Does she wear a veil?” I asked.
“No,” said Mohammed.
A few days before, Claire and I, searching for a view of the city that included it’s Roman amphitheatre, had found ourselves in dusty backstreets. At a dead end, we turned to find a small boy at our feet, trying to communicate. The boy’s mother stood completely veiled at the entrance to her nearby home – only her timid eyes were visible – and had appointed the child as her emissary. We could not decipher his gestures, he was too young, and the mother’s veil hid her motives; she would be impossible to befriend. We left without the view, pursued by a gaggle of dirty children screaming “Photo!”, who had cornered us at the next dead end.
“I think veils stifle women,” I said to Mohammed. “It prevents them from being complete people.”
“A woman is not obligated to cover her face. It is her choice. The only time a woman should cover her face is if she is so beautiful that her face alone could lead men to…”
“Sexual thought?” I suggested.
“Yes, sexual thoughts.”
“Are the thoughts alone a sin?”
“No, the thoughts are not a sin.”
A little to the south of Abdoun Circle, where Amman is moneyed and brash, we found “The Big Fella”. It was an opulent but otherwise perfectly imitated Irish pub. Whiskey bottles sat on mirrored shelves beneath tall Gothic arches. Through them idle Guinness taps were reflected, and the much harder working spouts of local brew. These were attached to a bar of strikingly dark wood; struts of the same wood formed a banister around the overlooking second floor, and filled the enormous venue with a forest of tables and chairs. “The Big Fella” was empty, but we didn’t mind; Claire and I could add to our collection of unusually located Irish pubs.
In Abdoun, we were supposed to find the Middle East at its most progressive. Our guidebook gushed over the area, calling Western Amman – of which Abdoun formed an important part – “the preserve of leafy residential districts, trendy cafés and bars, impressive contemporary art galleries and young men and women openly walking arm in arm.”
On the circle, below a fluorescent sign glowing “White Shark” in blue and white, we discovered a second bar. Doormen accepted our coats and admitted us into a poky room, full of colourful lights, loudly wailed music and fish tanks. Thick scrawls of blue eyeliner marked the barwoman’s face – she was feeding olives to a middle aged, bespectacled man. He opened his mouth; she extended her hand slowly towards it. He edged forward, his tongue stiffening; she dropped the olive onto it, and watched him chew with teasing, contemptuous eyes.
I ordered two beers, which arrived with bar snacks. At a nearby table, two men shared a bottle of Johnny Walker and a bucket of ice. The drinks were poured by young women in low-cut jeans; they stood beside the men’s puffy armchairs and danced, when required, or sat on laps. Upstairs, outside the toilets, an attendant stood squarely between the ladies and gents, offering fragrances and a towel; blocking a thin, dark passage which might, I thought, lead to private rooms.
We drank our beers, and asked uncertainly for the bill. It came to 30JD. We emerged gasping into empty streets, got into a lonely taxi, and bargained hard.
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