A shade late (sorry about that), this is to say that the new edition of my Rough Guide to Jordan is now out, buyable anywhere in the world as a printed book (yay!) – ask for ISBN 978-14053-89792 – or downloadable as an e-book (boo!) here.
Rough Guides (in fact, the amazing Martin Dunford; how many careers have you launched, Martin?) commissioned me to write the first edition back in 1997. I spent three months in Amman that summer – and then moved to Jordan shortly afterwards. The first edition came out the following year, then another in 2002, then 2006, then 2009. Now 2013.
It’s been a constant 15-year process of updating and refining information, writing and rewriting accounts, expanding and clarifying maps and listings, and – I hope – shedding some light on the country and the region. It’s often been a battle with Rough Guides, but this is my book, and I love it.
And what a privilege to have the chance to travel Jordan in detail, over so many years – a place of spirit, beauty and profound human warmth. Jordan has changed my life. I will never be able to repay my debt of gratitude to this memorable place and its remarkable people.
I’m old-fashioned enough to think travel guides – proper travel guides written to be read, not Top 10s and bitty web content – can help bridge otherwise unbridgeable gaps. I only hope mine does.
But, naturally, there are horrible mistakes in it, and countless things that are already out of date. If you find any, have a look at this update list I’ve started to see if I’ve already picked it up. If not, please drop me a line.
The tears were flowing before I reached the summit: I remember looking up into the blurry blue. I also remember, further back down the trail, when the old, familiar voices started to sing to me about weakness and tiredness and failure – but even then I knew I’d already beaten them. This time I was going to make it. I remember pouring water into my hat and jamming it back on my head. I remember chocolate. I remember the last few steps – steep ones, cut through rock, with a golden crescent floating above, glimpsed through salty lashes.
It was a place out of reach. A place I’d been looking at for twenty years but had never visited. It was high on the mountain-top, and it was deep down inside myself.
So I cried for the views. I cried for my own achievement. I cried for the holy ground I stood on. I cried for my five-year-old son, who wanted to come with me because he thinks all mountains are white and climbing one to play snowballs with his dad would have been the best game ever. I cried because there was no snow. I cried because I was crying.
In truth, I didn’t want to come down. It was renewal. Sitting there, shaded, looking east, I’d unwittingly become a pilgrim.
My journey to the mountain took almost three years. Back in 2010 I realised an anniversary was approaching for Petra, the great 2000-year-old trading capital of the Nabatean people that is now Jordan’s top tourist attraction. I’d been to Petra maybe twenty times, over almost as many years. I’d been there at sunrise, at noon and after dark. I’d studied it, walked it, watched it, hated it and loved it. But the more I revisited, the less I knew it.
After its antique heyday Petra had lain undiscovered for centuries. Baybars, a Mamluk sultan, passed through in 1276, noting in his diary “most marvellous caves, the façades sculptured into the very rock face.”
But for five hundred years after Baybars – nothing. Knowledge of Petra’s whereabouts faded from outside memory. The locals, of course, knew exactly where it was – but they weren’t telling. At that time, the mountainous country between Damascus and the Red Sea was virtually impenetrable to outsiders. Wild, lawless and largely uninhabited, it lay beyond the reach of any government. There were few roads. Only a scattering of isolated settlements broke the rolling landscapes of stony hills and semi-arid plains that led into the vastnesses of the Arabian interior. Few, if any, travellers got through.
It was in that context that Swiss explorer Jean-Louis Burckhardt travelled. A man of extraordinary resourcefulness, Burckhardt had been hired in 1809 by the London ‘Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa’ to find the source of the River Niger. His plan – to get to Cairo, and from there join a caravan bound for the Sahara – hinged on disguising himself as a Muslim: Christians and other outsiders without protection would have been prey for bandits. Burckhardt adopted the persona of “Sheikh Ibrahim”, a merchant from India.
After two years in Syria, perfecting his Arabic and studying Quranic law, 27-year-old “Sheikh Ibrahim” set off for Cairo, keeping his meticulously updated journal hidden beneath flowing robes. On 22nd August 1812, crossing rough hills, he wrote: “I was desirous of visiting Wadi Musa [the Valley of Moses], of the antiquities of which I had heard the country people speak in terms of great admiration.”
Burckhardt, at that stage, had no idea that Wadi Musa – which lay well off his path – held the ruins of Petra. Moreover, it was a dangerous detour. “A person like myself,” he wrote, “without any papers to show who I was, or why I had taken that circuitous route, would have looked very suspicious. I therefore pretended to have made a vow to slaughter a goat in honour of Haroun [Aaron, Moses’s brother and a venerated prophet in Islam], whose tomb I knew was situated at the extremity of the valley. By this stratagem I thought that I should have the means of seeing the valley on my way to the tomb.”
It was a great idea. By playing the Haroun card Burckhardt was able to talk his way past tribal lookouts. Below Wadi Musa his guide led him into a canyon lined with carvings, and on through an ancient city – which Burckhardt describes in close detail, later identifying it as Petra – before reaching the foot of Aaron’s mountain. By then it was already sunset, and too dark to make the climb: they sacrificed a goat in sight of the tomb on the summit and turned back.
Burckhardt eventually made it to Cairo, staying five years, but in 1817 – shortly before his desert caravan was due to depart – he contracted dysentery and died. His diaries, published posthumously, sparked a worldwide resurgence of interest in Petra which continues to this day.
What a life. What an adventure. And the 200th anniversary of his epic discovery was approaching. I hatched a plan. I was going to walk the same route, down the slopes into Petra then over to Mount Aaron (Jabal Haroun in Arabic) – but then do what Burckhardt could not: I was going to climb the mountain.
According to the Old Testament, the Israelites passed through southern Jordan after their forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Aaron died there, and Petra’s highest peak, soaring to 1,330 metres, has long been associated with him.
A millennium later the Nabateans, builders of Petra, who carved shrines to their gods on summits all round the region, cut a stepped processional way up the holy mountain. Ruins of a Byzantine monastery dedicated to Aaron stand on a col near the top. Legend has it that the Prophet Muhammad climbed the peak as a young boy, travelling with his uncle.
In 1338, the ruling sultan had a new shrine to Haroun built on the mountain-top, replacing a pre-existing chapel. The current incarnation – a modest one-room rectangular building, which dates from a 1495 restoration – is clearly visible from all round Petra, high against the sky. Its whitewashed walls are the first to catch the rays of the rising sun. Its low dome crowns Petra’s jagged horizon every evening in silhouette.
Wherever you go in Petra, Haroun is in constant view – but few make the effort to approach him. I laid plans. It would be an event. There would be donkeys. Camels. Friends jostled to join the trip. I knew August would be too hot – Burckhardt was made of tougher stuff – so I fixed a date in cooler February. Emails were sent. Deals done.
Then erratic 21st-century weather patterns intervened. A week before the big day, Jordanian forecasters predicted a cold front, with plunging temperatures and heavy rain. I called everyone I knew. Teeth were sucked. Voices warned of capricious conditions, out in the canyons.
I arrived into bitter cold: who thinks to pack gloves for Jordan? Hoteliers stayed huddled by gas heaters. Guides were stamping feet and cupping hands round lit cigarettes, coughing smoky steam. Snow blocked the high-altitude roads. Thick skies hid Haroun. I cancelled the camels.
All that summer Haroun filled my mind. On anniversary day, 22nd August 2012, I gave a talk about Burckhardt, and showed pictures of the mountain. It was becoming an obsession.
But something inside me had changed. Respect had grown, and a jolly jamboree now seemed wrong. The mountain, too, had grown. Was I biting off more than I could chew? I pondered going alone, so that I could fail in private. But then I worried about losing the way.
I sent some dates to Yamaan Safady, one of Jordan’s best guides. He climbs mountains – almost literally – every day of the week. He’d probably been up Jabal Haroun a dozen times; it would be a stroll in the park, the slowest walk he’d ever done. Would he be willing? Of course, he said, and we arranged to meet on the first day of December.
By seven in the morning, we were alone amongst the canyons. Rather than follow Burckhardt’s route, Yamaan had proposed a back trail he knew, approaching Petra from the north. We drove to the trailhead through silver streets, cockerels competing with the tinkling neck-bells of goats.
Then distractions faded as we started walking beneath a mackerel sky that pointed arrows to the mountain.
“I wonder why those bedouin haven’t moved down to the desert yet.”
Yamaan had spotted a black tent, pitched some distance away. His voice danced for a while between cliffs before plummeting into the ravine.
“Maybe they’re planting winter wheat. Then they’ll move,” he murmured.
There was a juniper tree – a young one, said Yamaan, only four or five hundred years old – and we paused on an outcrop for water and dried apricots. Buttery sunlight melted down the canyon’s pitted old face. Mesmeric views went past the sandstone ridges, bent on their igneous black foundations, an unfathomable thousand metres down to the desert floor and beyond, out to the Holy Land.
“Goats hate them too,” grinned Yamaan. “But crested porcupines dig up one or two. I met some hunters a couple of weeks ago; they said they caught a porcupine as big as a lamb. Look!”
He broke off as an orange flash darted across the cliff-framed sky.
“Tristram’s grackle! Shiny black, but the male has orange patches on his wing.”
When Burckhardt hired a guide for the walk to Jabal Haroun, he paid him with a pair of old horseshoes. Burckhardt, you see, didn’t have Yamaan.
I thought I spied a cairn, silhouetted ahead. Then my jaw fell. As we approached, I realised it was the immense carved urn atop Petra’s largest façade, the Monastery. In twenty years I’d never seen the building from this angle. Wider and taller than the west front of Westminster Abbey, it – like most of Petra – had been carved from solid rock two thousand years ago. Perhaps a royal tomb, or a gathering-place for religious ceremonies, though never a monastery, it defies scale. The doorway alone is taller than a house; the urn I saw towers fifty metres above the ground.
The Monastery is the furthest and highest that most tourists go in Petra. As we descended the main access route – comprising about 750 rock-cut steps – threads of trudgers were puffing their way up.
We came down into Petra from the back, crossing the central Colonnaded Street beside temples, tent cafés and loitering camels. The hubbub was like a service station on the motorway: brief, a little dizzying. It was a relief to walk through and re-establish the rhythm of the journey.
Beyond the Amud Faraoun, a lone column standing on the slopes, we encountered no more tourists. Views opened across undulating country, with the white shrine of Haroun always visible on its distant peak as we skirted the titanic cliffs of Umm al-Biyara, heading south out of Petra.
Past the Snake Monument, a huge block carved by the ancient Nabateans as a coiled serpent, the path descended into Wadi Sabra, vast, sunny and silent. It led us around to approach Jabal Haroun from the shadeless southwest. I’d been walking seven hours, and could now hear the voices of tiredness and defeat.
Everything was about putting feet in front of feet. Yamaan saw and walked ahead, letting me fight my own fights. There was no climbing, or even scrambling. It was just an uphill walk, partly on steps cut by the Nabateans. But it was, somehow, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Crystal sunlight poured from translucent skies. One switchback revealed views over the back of the mountain into unimaginably deep canyons, guarded by a single, luminous juniper. There was purity.
Near the top I heard a high, cracked voice. “This way!” it said. “I’ve been watching you the last two hours.”
After brewing us the sweetest, hottest tea at her shack by the fenced-in ruins of the Byzantine monastery, perched on a plateau below the final summit, brown-toothed Tamam wiped her hands on her old black dress, adjusted her headscarf, popped the key of Haroun’s tomb into a pocket and led us to the last few steps. We were going to meet a saint.
The whole Burckhardt anniversary, which had driven me onwards since the beginning, meant nothing now. He’d climbed his own mountains. This was me, climbing mine.
Back at home, a friend nodded when I told her I cried at the top.
“Some places do that to you,” she said.
That reminded me of what Rosalyn Maqsood wrote, in her excellent book on Petra:
Believers accept that certain localities can be impregnated with the life-giving force of some saint or hero. Traces of their essential virtue would cling to their mortal leavings even though their spirits had passed to another world, and [would] be continually renewed by the constant stream of prayer and devotion emanating from the pilgrims who found their way there. These places are visited to gain healing, or fertility, or protection against dangers, or whatever is the desire of the heart. Jabal Haroun is such a place.
© Matthew Teller. All rights reserved. Do not copy.
After the epic that was David Attenborough’s Africa series, which ran on BBC TV in the UK recently, their next big nature extravaganza is Wild Arabia – due later this month on BBC2 in the UK (episode 1 airs 9pm on 22nd Feb, I believe).
The three-part series was filmed over almost two years in the UAE, Jordan and Oman, during 2011 and 2012. Apparently, it is set to feature the first high-definition images of Arabian leopards. Here’s an old news story from the Abu Dhabi National explaining more – and here’s the lowdown from BBC producer Chadden Hunter in a 2min video interview.
From the few clips currently available on the BBC website – click here to see them – it looks, frankly, sensational. Camera operator John Aitchison blogged some superb stills here – wow; those Dubai flamingoes! More pictures on a public Facebook page here and more crew blogging here.
All of this comes on the back of the original Wild Arabia, a natural history of the Middle East that went out on Radio 4 as three half-hour episodes in 2007. You can listen to the whole series online here. It’s well worth it – more serious and thoughtful than (in my entirely humble opinion) TV could ever be, presented by a field biologist (Tessa McGregor), focused squarely on nature across the region and drawing in opinion and observation from scientists and experts.
That makes me wonder how much of the new TV Wild Arabia is actually about the natural world. It seems that it’s more of a portrait of the contemporary Middle East, from urban society and cityscapes to ancient history, mixed in with typically beautiful BBC nature sequences too. That’s all good: animals without people is, rightly, a no-no nowadays.
Another question: how much of this is going to be a promo for Abu Dhabi and/or Dubai? It seems like the rest of Arabia gets pretty short shrift. I’d be interested to learn more about how the series came about – who pitched it, how the concept was developed, why they chose to limit the geographical scope.
My reservations notwithstanding, could this, finally, be an intelligent portrait of contemporary Arabia on mainstream, primetime TV? How wonderful if it is. But if so, how come it took the BBC’s Natural History Unit to deliver? Ha!
Anyway, it’s about time. Looking forward keenly.
You can pre-order the DVD here, before the series even airs.
A travel story with pictures – shot on a veteran iPhone 3GS (sorry for the dimness).
I was recently in Amman, and had to visit people in Tel Aviv. I used the bus to cross westwards but then, for complicated reasons, shelled out for the short flight back. It’s absurdly expensive – about 100km (60 miles ish) as the crow flies, for a fare of almost £200 (almost US$300). Royal Jordanian is the only scheduled airline operating the route, so they can charge more or less what they like.
The advantage is you’re flying over epic terrain. While the aircraft maintains a low, flat cruising altitude, the land does a rollercoaster underneath you – dropping away from the hills around Jerusalem down roughly 1500 metres (5000 ft) to the lowest point on Earth at the Dead Sea, then back up another 1500m to the Transjordanian plateau. Less than half an hour after glimpsing the Mediterranean Sea, you’re set down in the vast open desert fringing Arabia. You cross the biblical River Jordan. You fly from the place where Jesus died to the place where Moses died. From a country cut off from its neighbours, you reach a country bound into the regional flow of ideas. It’s a journey between worlds.
And TLV-AMM is a surprisingly popular little connection. Israeli carriers are barred from the airspace of most Middle Eastern countries, so to fly east into Asia they must take a circuitous route (in blue on the map) out over the Mediterranean, north over Turkey, then east over the Central Asian ‘Stans before heading south. By contrast, Royal Jordanian (and all other carriers, cheaper Asian ones among them) can fly a direct route east over Iraq, Iran and Pakistan airspace (in red on the map). Flight time to Bangkok is around 11 hours from Tel Aviv – but from Amman it’s 8hrs 20min. To get to Mumbai takes 8 hours from Tel Aviv, or 5 hours from Amman.
So there was an interesting mix boarding at Ben Gurion airport – several Indian-looking couples apparently heading home with a maxed-out baggage allowance, lots of people who looked Thai and Filipino, also laden down with stuff, and a fair smattering of young Israeli backpacker types presumably seeking enlightenment in Goa or Kathmandu or somewhere. All of them were using this breakfast-time hop to connect with shorter, cheaper onward flights from Amman.
Then there was an excitable Dutch family group who seemed to be on holiday. Plus one single Arab business person – a guy in a sharp suit, with an accent that sounded Jordanian. (Palestinians, incidentally, are prohibited by Israel from passing through Ben Gurion airport.) And me.
Oh, and this guy.
He’s the (supposedly inconspicuous) plain-clothes sky marshal, at least one of whom is present on every single Royal Jordanian flight for the safety of passengers and crew. He did wake up just before takeoff, incidentally. Then he read the newspaper, until the businessman came over to say hello; they chatted over coffee and cakes most of the flight.
The aircraft was titchy – an Embraer 175. I’d been seated over the wing, but even before takeoff I moved to the (empty) back of the plane to grab a window seat on the right-hand side.
On the tarmac at TLV, this happened:
Immediately after takeoff, this view opened up over the poor benighted communities living around TLV’s perimeter fence:
On the right are the hotel towers by Tel Aviv beach, looking over the blue expanse of the Mediterranean. On the left, lit by a patch of sun, is the hill of Jaffa, once Palestine’s biggest port (mentioned in the Old Testament), and still an important centre of Palestinian population, out of which Tel Aviv grew in the 20th century. More here.
In less than a minute we were flying over what I think is Lod:
It took me several minutes to grasp how fast we were covering ground. By the time I realised where we were, we’d already passed over Ramallah – too far north to see Jerusalem – and the ground was starting to drop away into the Jordan Valley. This road, wiggling from top left to bottom right:
Here it is again:
By now the light was changing, and I was able to take a clearer image of the beautiful rolling landscapes of the West Bank, and its deep canyons leading down to the Jordan Valley.
Seconds later we reached the floor of the Jordan Valley
Abrupt cliffs hem in the ancient desert city of Jericho. One of those cliffs holds the place where Jesus was tempted by Satan. The road leading north-south along the floor of the Jordan Valley is visible at the bottom of the frame.
And here is the Jordan itself, directly below us:
Fed by canyons to east and west, set down in the wrinkled, folded ghor, the Jordan forms a ribbon of fertility through the desert – though the river itself is almost indiscernible amid the undergrowth.
Here’s another view, showing the tortuous meanders of the river:
Towards the top of the frame you can see a bridge crossing the jungle-like thickets of the river. That is the Allenby (or King Hussein) Bridge, the crossing-point between Jordan and the West Bank – and the only route by which Israel allows Palestinians to leave the country to travel overseas. Here’s a closer look:
Just south of the bridge (towards the top of the picture, though hard to see) is the Baptism Site at Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, where John baptised Jesus.
Now we’re flying over Jordan (the country). Here, again, is the meandering River Jordan:
That squared-off expanse of blue is the northernmost tip of the Dead Sea – salty, smelly, greasy, hazy, itchy, sweaty and utterly extraordinary. Have you been? You should, even if only once. Floating unaided on a hot, silent sea, flanked by sun-scorched mountains, is quite a thing.
Here’s another look:
In the foreground are the patchwork fields around South Shuneh in Jordan. Then in midground you can see the squiggle of the River Jordan. In the back are the cliffs and ridges of the Jerusalem Wilderness, or Judean Desert, in Palestine.
Seconds later we were flying over the immense canyons feeding rivers down from the high mountains of Jordan’s Balqa region:
The land quickly rose up to meet us, forming the Transjordanian plateau – high ground flanking the east side of the River Jordan and Dead Sea. Closer beneath us now, threading a path between scattered towns, I could see an old road:
This is what’s known as the King’s Highway, for millennia the main road between Syria and Egypt – and still one of the best drives you can do in rural Jordan.
On the other hand, there’s this:
This is the Desert Highway, known in this section as the Airport Road, speeding south from Amman (underneath us) past the airport where we’re about to land, all the way to Jordan’s southern border with Saudi Arabia.
Then, after heading east into morning sun the whole trip, finally we banked again and the light was kinder.
Here’s another look:
By now we were on final approach…
That was it. Tarmac at Queen Alia airport, Amman. Total flight time, from wheels up to wheels down – roughly 25 minutes (I forgot to time it exactly, sorry).
There was some kind of bread thing. A carton of drink. Very little legroom. Or headroom. The atmosphere was a bit odd.
But I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
Last weekend I was invited to speak at Destinations, an annual consumer-facing travel show in London. My subject was “Reshaping Middle East tourism” and, gratifyingly, if rather amazingly, something like 100 people came to listen – a vote of confidence in the idea of going on holiday to the Middle East, at a time when doom and gloom is widespread.
I talked about guidebooks, about how tours work and other things – but here is the bit where I tried to explain, for a general audience, what’s happening in the Middle East at the moment, and how both we, as consumers, and the travel industry as a whole could respond to it.
It’s mostly as I spoke it, polished up just a little. Note: I chose not to discuss Israel, partly because it has its own tourism context focused on VFR and Christian pilgrimage, but mostly because it is generally well insulated from the effects of political upheavals elsewhere.
…So how does all this relate to what’s going on in the Middle East at the moment – what’s been called the ‘Arab Spring’?
First of all, the ‘Arab Spring’ is a misnomer – implies a single revolutionary event – which, of course, the news media love – in fact the whole region is going through profound social and political change – a transformation, which will take years…
What is it about? Day by day, in contrast to what news media might say, my sense is it’s not driven by democracy or human rights or equality, or any of those grand ideals. If I had to sum it up, it’s about ACCOUNTABILITY.
People from Morocco to Tunisia to Egypt to Saudi Arabia to Bahrain to Oman have been ruled by leaders – sheikhs, presidents, monarchs – who are effectively unaccountable (not in every case: traditional systems of accountability do exist, but even they are creaking under pressure).
Large swathes of those people are increasingly fed up with it.
I was in Kuwait recently, where there have been large demonstrations by the political opposition and others, challenging the status quo – someone there clarified it for me – he said people are asking for CLEAR REGULATORY AUTHORITY. How boring is that? Not democracy, not equality, not all that grand stuff, but simply accountable regulation. People don’t want to be ruled by whim or decree anymore.
That’s a revolution. It’s also an uprising against authority. But it is not a single, one-off event.
Building the kind of nation to replace the hideously invasive, militarised police state Egypt suffered under Mubarak, or the psychopathic repression inflicted on Syria by the Assad regime, or even the widespread corruption in Jordan, with a balanced constitution where the rule of law is respected, where accountable politicians debate, and where there is transparency in government allied with freedom of expression – that takes years. Generations.
It is not one news story, after which everything goes back to ‘normal’ – despite whatever Egypt’s tourism minister might wishfully think.
Down the tubes
Here’s a thought. Tourism does very well under dictatorships. The global travel industry loves stability even more than the White House does. Tourism in Egypt boomed under Mubarak, when developments JUST GOT BUILT and when nobody asked too many questions (because if you did you could end up in the Nile wearing concrete underpants). Ben Ali, Tunisia’s tinpot dictator who was the first to fall, back in 2011, oversaw his country’s tourism industry develop from nothing, even while his police forces were pulling out people’s fingernails in the torture cells under Tunis.
Even Assad in Syria – I remember 2006 and 07, when there seemed to be a genuine window for reform – I wrote several articles on the tourism opportunities opening up in a freer Syria…
This is not to condemn anybody in travel for complicity with dictatorship, passive or otherwise. None of us foresaw the uprisings. Nobody did – not journalists, not analysts, not the people themselves.
But now, today, instability means Middle East tourism – particularly in Egypt – is down the tubes.
In Egypt in 2010, 15 million tourists brought in £7 billion in revenue.
In 2012, tourism numbers dropped by 4 million – and revenue was cut by £2 billion.
And that mostly happened during what was thought of as a period of recovery. That all ended on 22nd November last year, when the elected president granted himself unlimited powers to “protect the nation”, which brought hundreds of thousands of people back out onto the street in protest. That public anger at the unaccountability of power, and incompetence in government, remains at boiling point.
As a consequence, in Luxor and Aswan hotel occupancy rates are down at 5% – in Cairo 15% – even Sharm and other Red Sea resorts are only half full. That’s despite crazy loss-leading offers. Jordan, too, has got it in the neck. Lebanon is desperate. Tunisia is struggling. Bahrain is finished. Only Dubai is booming.
Normal no more
Here’s a prediction. If “normal” is what the situation was in 2010 before the Arab uprisings began, then Middle East tourism will not be going “back to normal”. Ever.
There’s a new pattern emerging.
And new opportunities – which most of the travel industry is missing, because they’re too worried by the news headlines to notice.
If you forget about “normal”, there’s a chance presenting itself to rebuild the KIND of tourism the Middle East can offer.
Tourism with integrity.
Tourism where money and resources are channelled to the people of the host destination, rather than siphoned off by big-business cronies of the ruling elite – which is what was happening cheerfully under Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia and is still the case, in marginally different circumstances, in Dubai and the Gulf.
My sense is – as in food, media and a dozen other areas of life – our taste for industrially produced tourism on a mass scale is fading. These days, we want better. At the moment the travel industry is failing us – it’s too slow, and too hidebound by fossilised business practices to react nimbly – but the economic clout it carries, especially in the countries of the Middle East, could be a key driver for tangible change in the region. The travel industry, if it could see what’s happening more clearly, could be prompting root-and-branch innovation in the host countries, driving social integration and helping erase inequalities, and could equally be inspiring new outlooks and new approaches to the Middle East within tourists’ home countries.
At the moment, it is doing neither, because it’s focused on the 2010 way of doing things. Meanwhile, the Middle East has irrevocably, fundamentally and permanently changed.
Bucking the trend
Funnily enough, Jordan – or, rather, Jordanians, since it’s almost always the private sector driving change, not the government – are already bucking the trend.
Jordanians in travel have been busy the last couple of years reinventing their country away from the standard model of cultural-historical big bus tourism, led by the big players, and into a more niche outlook of adventure-style responsible tourism, down at the grassroots.
There are lots of examples. Up in the north is the region’s first-ever community-owned, community-run tourism initiative, the Al Ayoun Trail, where three untouristed hill villages are working together to develop a walking trail, country lodging, homestays and rural enterprises. In the south is Feynan, a desert eco-hotel far off the road, where everything is sourced locally, from food to guides, and where there’s a sense that the business is genuinely part of the rural economy – there’s a cultural to-and-fro at Feynan that’s very hard to find elsewhere (and is the antithesis of similar experiences in the UAE and Oman). Many others in Jordan in similar vein – food, wine, adventure sports and more.
Thanks to the Lebanon Mountain Trail Lebanon now has homestays across the country offering homespun lodging and food – you’ll also find farmers’ markets in Beirut, vineyard tours. Lebanon does rural tourism very well, but most of the media never cover it – they just do the standard Beirut nightlife stories, fawning over swanky hotels and that absurd high-roller lifestyle…
Palestine is a fabulous holiday destination – almost completely untainted by that big-business tourism ethic – from north to south you can be staying with families, exploring city souks and tiny centuries-old stone villages, walking in the hills, or visiting world-class cultural sites. Palestine is a cracking place to spend time, safe, charming, endlessly fascinating – but I challenge you to find one company at this show [Destinations] that could sell you a touring holiday to Palestine.
Nobody knows about it.
Even the Gulf is experiencing something of the same turnaround – there are small tourism operators even in the big-glitz UAE – I kayaked off the coast of Abu Dhabi with Noukhada – in Dubai there are now rootsy, locally run food tours of the city’s older, unvisited districts – and so on, including Oman.
There’s even some of this coming through in Egypt, with retreats and voluntourism-style working holidays in Sinai, for example.
The old tourism will survive, for sure, for many years to come – but the terms of what is ‘normal’ are shifting – it’s up to each country in the Middle East to plot a new and better path, and it’s up to us to reshape our idea of what the region is all about.
Instability. Opportunity. Speciality.
This year, next year, for several years to come, expect INSTABILITY. The Middle East is going through a prolonged revolutionary episode, driven by popular discontent. It will not be over quickly. Even when the killing stops, things won’t settle for years ahead. Work with – and around – the instability.
OPPORTUNITY. Tourism matters hugely to this region. In almost every country it’s at or near the top of the list of contributors to GDP. Buying a package holiday includes protections, of course, but you pay for that with a series of mark-ups – and so do the ordinary people on the ground, who often see little or nothing of the money you spend to visit their country. Once, we didn’t know any better. But now we don’t need to rely on middlemen any longer. Use sources of knowledge – guidebooks, internet searches, social media – to connect with local providers where you want to go. The region’s changes are an opportunity to reshape how we visit these places. Book direct. Take local advice. Don’t rush. See more.
Instead of a bog-standard tour, go for the SPECIALITY option. If you’ve been to Jordan already to see Petra and the ruins, go back to stay with a family, or learn how to cook stuffed vine-leaves, or do some country cycling – get to know the place on YOUR terms, not how a London-based tour company wants you to see it.
Change is good
Hospitality is a key aspect of Arab culture – people are fantastically welcoming – but because of the way tourism has developed in all these countries, as a state-directed driver of the national economy, and because of the cultural imperatives dictating the formality of the relationship between guest and host, all these countries have built tourist industries that essentially keep tourists away from locals.
That, at last, is changing. We need to change with it.
Before I went to Kuwait I was given a contact to bidoon activist Abdulhakeem Al Fadhli, and during my short visit to the country was able to meet him – an extraordinary man, aged 36, who has given up his job, his income and his prospects in order to devote his energy to demanding human rights and being (as he put it) “the biggest troublemaker” to the Kuwaiti government. On 18 February 2011, as protests were sweeping across Tunisia and Egypt, Al-Fadhli attended a demonstration for the first time in his life, he explained, only to be faced by water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets. “I knew I needed to fight,” was what he said to me.
As protest organizer for Kuwait’s bidoon community – something he can only realistically do using social media – he has been in and out of jail several times over the last two years, sleeping in different homes almost every night, swapping temporary sim cards in and out of multiple phones, only using an encrypted internet connection, abandoning his car to ride with different friends. He was scathing about the government’s attempts to crush the protests: “copy-paste tactics,” he called them.
As I say in the piece, since I met him Al-Fadhli has been rearrested, and at the time of writing is currently in jail awaiting a retrial on a charge (apparently subsequently withdrawn) of assaulting a police officer, for which he was given a two-year jail sentence in absentia.
There is much more to tell, which I’ll save for another time. While I was with him, Al-Fadhli explained the bidoon story first-hand and took me to meet activists and ordinary people. This short report (below) was the result – the briefest of introductions to a complex tale of injustice.
Click here to listen to audio from BBC Radio 4, or click here to download the podcast (MP3 file: 13MB). A slightly shorter version went out on BBC World Service radio. I have pasted the full text transcript – including material cut from the radio version – here below. It’s a story which needs telling over and over.
The tailor leaned forward, tweaked some wild rocket off the bunch, deftly rolled it together with cardamom-flavoured rice and shreds of lamb, then popped the bite-sized ball into his mouth.
“This government,” he said, between chews, “they are fascists. Face like sheep, heart like a wolf.”
In an airy tent pitched on the desert plains west of Kuwait City I’d been greeted by a circle of plump, middle-aged men. After coffee, dates and tea, the twelve of us squatted on the carpeted ground for lunch together.
The tailor, like the rest, was bidoon – short for bidoon jinsiyya, meaning “without nationality”. Kuwaiti in culture, language and sensibility, he was nonetheless officially stateless, lacking citizenship or rights.
The bidoons’ story starts in the years around 1961, when Kuwait gained independence from Britain – but how some people at that time came to be citizens while others did not remains unclear to this day.
Kuwait’s 1959 Nationality Act granted citizenship to those able to prove residential ties extending back before 1920. This chiefly covered the urban merchant class and ruling elite, but left many excluded. The government line is that newer arrivals either tried to hoodwink officials into granting them citizenship by declaring false information, or simply excluded themselves.
The latter, at least, has the ring of truth. The concept of nationality was unfamiliar at the time, particularly for the semi-nomadic bedouin, who roamed without recourse to border authorities.
Amidst a climate of suspicion during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, Kuwait amended the Nationality Act to define the bidoon as “illegal residents”, expelling many.
After Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait was ended by the 1991 Gulf War, the bidoon who remained found themselves accused of collaboration, sacked from government jobs and increasingly marginalised.
Today the bidoon number at least 106,000 people, though no reliable figures exist. They remain effectively barred from public education and most jobs, unable to get birth certificates or own property. The tailor at my desert lunch explained that he had to register his car and his business in the name of a Kuwaiti friend. Another man showed me a marriage document which gave his wife’s nationality as “under investigation”.
A government committee examines individual cases, but officials – like many Kuwaitis – assert that most or all of the bidoon are foreigners who have concealed their identity to gain the material benefits of Kuwaiti citizenship: free education, free healthcare, no taxes, subsidised housing, lavish unemployment benefit, a monthly food allowance, and more.
Rights campaigner Dr Rana Al-Abdulrazzak, a director at Kuwait’s Central Blood Bank, highlights the role of state-controlled media. “We neglected the bidoon issue because we couldn’t see it,” she told me. “It was never discussed.”
She goes further, accusing the Sunni ruling elite of discriminating against the bidoon, many of whom are Shia. “We’ve been taught to be selfish: Kuwaitis are very racist,” she said.
Such candour is rare, though most Kuwaitis shun the bidoon, either for sectarian reasons, or often through a sense of urban superiority.
At a meeting in Kuwait City, an architect from an elite family – speaking on condition of anonymity – told me: “The bidoon have no leverage, but they are in all senses Kuwaiti. Citizenship is their right.”
He declared a two-cent rise in fuel prices would cover the “negligible” cost of absorbing the bidoon, and described the situation as “shockingly inhuman”.
“It is apartheid,” he said.
I drove with bidoon activist Abdulhakeem Al-Fadhli to Taima, on the outskirts of the capital. Tin-roofed shacks flanked an open drain, flowing along broken alleyways. A patch of waste ground, where bidoon rights’ demonstrators face down the security forces’ tear gas and rubber bullets, has been defiantly renamed “Freedom Square”.
At a diwaniya, or social gathering, in Taima, Al-Fadhli explained his reliance on social media.
“The Arab Spring gave us the biggest motivation to believe we can do something,” he said, emphasising that the bidoon were opposing the government, not the monarch.
“But,” he added, “we know America will not come for us.”
Since I met him Al-Fadhli has been re-arrested following a fresh round of protests, and is awaiting retrial following a two-year jail sentence imposed in absentia. Campaigners allege that he has been beaten and tortured while in police custody.
A constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament, Kuwait is generally freer than its Gulf neighbours. Yet having ignored the bidoon for so long, it must now deal with an entire disaffected generation, born in poverty, raised with little or no schooling and now self-educated in human rights.
As across the Arab world, the status quo appears increasingly untenable. Absorbing the bidoon into mainstream society would anger many Kuwaitis. But inaction could be costlier.
Had a wonderful return visit to Dhofar in southern Oman a couple of months ago, on assignment for the Times, who wanted a frankincense story for their pre-Christmas travel pages. I happily obliged. Here’s the link – but it’s behind a paywall, so in case you’re not a Times subscriber I’ve pasted the text in (the unedited version, before anyone wielded a blue pencil), and also got hold of a PDF. Click to enlarge.
“Satan only likes dirty places.”
Salim’s round eyes watched me, making sure I understood.
“He waits in toilets and rubbish bins. But if he smells this –” Salim grabbed a ceramic frankincense burner off the counter and wafted clouds of resinous white smoke under my nose – “Satan stays away.”
Omanis take smell seriously. Arrive in Muscat and the first thing you notice is a lingering, seductive fragrance. Traditional ankle-length dishdasha robes, worn by men throughout the Gulf, in Oman feature a unique aromatic accessory: a dangling tassel, woven into the collar, that is dipped daily into scented oil. Omanis drift about in a cloud of their own sweetness.
But these are not the blended whiffs of commercial perfumiers. Souks and malls overflow with natural products that smell lovely. Visitors invariably latch onto culinary spices, but for locals the aromatics matter far more. Splinters of oud, a resinous wood imported from Cambodia, sell at wildly inflated prices for burning in the home. Bukhoor, woodchips soaked in aromatic oils, are equally popular.
The daddy of them all is lubban, or frankincense, golden pearls of resin that, when burned, smell so heavenly Satan himself, it seems, dare not approach. In the bewitchingly smoky souk of Oman’s second city, Salalah, frankincense vendor Salim wafted more devilproof fumes my way. A little bit peaches, a little bit furniture, it smelled to me like ancient history.
A thousand kilometres from Muscat, southern Oman’s Dhofar region is where the scraggly tree Boswellia sacra thrives. Its sap is what we know as frankincense, harvested by painstakingly scraping away bark, then returning days later to pick off the globules of hardened resin. Heated over embers to release the smoke, it has been central to religious ritual across the Mediterranean world for millennia. Ancient Rome imported vast quantities of the stuff on a complicated supply network that led back, via camel caravan routes across the desert, to the sole, far-distant source – Dhofar.
I spent days meandering around the low-rise Dhofari capital Salalah, watching shadows lengthen across whitewashed arches (the city’s name derives from a local word for “white”) and sipping sweet water from freshly opened coconuts, sold at roadside stalls beneath towering palm groves. Beside the excellent frankincense museum, packed with detail on maritime history, I dropped into Basma Alnobe’s shop, selling frankincense oil, frankincense water, even frankincense soap. Men may harvest the resin, she smiled, “but it takes a woman to judge quality.”
The Queen of Sheba would agree. Her local palace lay just east of Salalah, by the coastal creek of Khor Rori. At the shadeless ruins of Sumhuram, above the creek, I looked down into the long galleries where frankincense would have been stored before being shipped to Yemen and up the Red Sea. It is said that Nero burned an entire year’s supply at the funeral of his second wife, Poppaea, in 65 AD. I tried – and failed – to imagine the quantities involved.
Two hours north of Salalah, over the mountains that ring the coastal plain and into the sandy deserts beyond, the scanty ruins of Ubar lay mute beside scorched noticeboards. This former frankincense trading city was destroyed roughly 1500 years ago in a cataclysm so huge it merited retelling in the Quran. It seems a giant sinkhole opened up without warning, swallowing the city – and memory of its location. Ubar was only rediscovered in 1992 using satellite tracking by a team led by Sir Ranulph Fiennes, and today remains far off the beaten track, a whistle-stop site on the edge of an immense desert.
I sat for a while with community elder Bakheit bin Abdullah, who dug with Fiennes. “We’ve already lost many things,” he told me. “Life is good, but tourism is coming. I fear for the future here.”
I reassured him as best I could. In terms of Western tourism, Salalah isn’t even a blip on the radar. Oman Air runs shuttles from Muscat and Dubai, and Qatar Airways launches Doha flights next May, but that’s hardly a stampede. Weekly charters from Stockholm and Helsinki deposit a few blinking Scandinavians onto the beaches each winter, and occasional cruise ships use the deepwater port as a stop-off between the Red Sea and the Gulf, but for nine months of the year Salalah slumbers.
That changes every summer, when the Indian Ocean monsoon brushes past. From June to September, while the rest of Arabia bakes, rain drizzles onto Salalah from grey skies, fog envelops the beaches and temperatures plummet to a balmy 20C. Saudis, Bahrainis and Emiratis pack into Salalah in their thousands: every soggy mountain meadow hosts an extended family, delightedly picnicking in the rain. The desert they have at home. Wet green grass makes a holiday.
Yet dodge the monsoon to visit in quiet October, as I did, and you experience scenery like no other in Arabia, under crystal-clear skies washed blue and luminous by the summer rains. The greenery persists: it could almost be Derbyshire, these rolling uplands cut by scrubby folded valleys – until you spot camels silhouetted on the ridge-tops.
“First we had frankincense, then we found oil,” one insightful young Dhofari told me. “The next generation’s wealth will come in solar power – but we will always love frankincense.”
That passion crosses cultures. When Shakespeare wanted an image to counter the stink of corruption, he had a distraught Lady Macbeth mutter, “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.”
But he’d never been to Salalah. They’d have just the thing for her there.