Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Tatler (Asiawide Distribution) Aug 08 - text

Jordan: A Photographer's Perspective

When I arrived at Queen Alia International Airport, the first impression I had of Jordan was its rather intense dedication to tourism control. Beyond the normal rigmarole of customs and immigration, the tourism police meticulously compared our documentation with the itinerary we submitted during our visa application. If any divergence from the original plan was suspected, we would be put right back on a plane with not so much as a glance of Jordan.

Armed guards reminded us that conflict was no stranger here. Jordan is a relatively peaceful land wedged between states known for discord. Syria and Iraq form its northern borders, while Saudi Arabia wraps around the east and southeast. Israel and the West Bank share the Dead Sea to the west, while Egypt lies across the Gulf of Aqaba in its southwest corner. When it comes to political turmoil in the Middle East, Jordan is squarely in the line of fire. Watching tense officials riffle through our paperwork underlined that we were about to venture into the danger zone.  

After we received the stamp of approval, we headed into the capital city in a chartered minibus. As we drove along the dusty roads towards Amman, I was struck by the sheer vastness of the sky above us, an immaculate azure dome above the desert plateau and its swirling sands. Most of the structures in the city reflected the tans, taupes and khakis of the desert, forming a neutral background for colorful storefronts and advertisements. We checked into the Marriott, passing through metal detectors that guarded each entrance, an understandable safeguard for a hotel that has been bombed three times in the recent past.

Once on the streets of Amman, I quickly noticed the lack of panhandlers and peddlers that you often encounter in large cities. As much as I’d read about the Muslim practice of hijab, it was still a shock to see women covered from head to toe in the dry heat, with their long, loose-fitting jilbab, and only their eyes visible under their niqab veils. Many women averted their eyes, especially when they saw that I had a camera. Only husbands are allowed to photograph their wives. Aware that I might inadvertently offend someone, I shot with my camera at my hip and relied on telefoto for tighter shots.

After one night in the capital, we drove south towards Mount Nebo. From the summit, our tour guide led us to the banks of the Jordan River, flowing down from the Sea of Galilee. It was incredibly unreal to be standing beside a river of such historical and religious significance. Friends in our tour group more religious than I were visibly moved as they touched the waters at al-Maghtas, the site where Jesus was baptized. Bearing precious water in an arid land, the Jordan River and its tributaries are critical to the torso of the Fertile Crescent, much like the Nile in the southwest and the Euphrates and Tigris in the northeast.

Heading downstream, we reached the eerily quiet waters of al-Bar l-Mayyit, the Dead Sea. There was not a bird within hearing range or any sign of life, other than a handful of tourists bathing in the buoyant waters. As the sun submerged, a soft mist rose above its spectacularly still surface. We stayed for two nights at the Mövenpick Resort & Spa, designed to resemble a seaside village with its low, sandstone structures and clean architectural lines.

Next, we headed for Petra, my most anticipated destination by far. Petra has held a place in my imagination since I saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as a kid. We were finally on our way to Harrison Ford’s Holy Grail. Soft, shifting dunes lounged lazily beside rough limestone steppes as we drove down the King’s Highway. Gazing upon this land of the Bedouins, I wondered if much had changed from the days when this area was first dubbed the Fertile Crescent, the Levant, even the “cradle of civilization”. The harsh contrasts of sand, rock, and shadow are inspiring for a photographer, but not exactly a lush Eden. After a full day’s drive, we reached Petra at nightfall.

The next morning, we set off towards Al Siq, a protective gorge forming the only entrance to Petra. Walking in the morning light, I was mesmerized by the pastel palette of sandstone layers around us. Pinks, purples, mauves, and all sorts of nameless colors wove along the weathered walls inside the narrow canyon. Shallow niches had been carved into the wall by pious hands commemorating the dead. The smell of camel and donkey dung stung our nostrils as the upper walls of the gorge closed in, leaving us in long shadows.

Just as the gorge was becoming slightly claustrophobic, we caught a glimpse of cobalt blue sky and an elaborate structure ahead. Set several meters deep into the rock face, Al Khazneh al-Faroun, the Treasury of the Pharaoh, has welcomed visitors for centuries as they entered Petra, the stronghold of the ancient Nabateans circa fourth century BC and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. It’s not easy to give justice to a two-story building carved deep into stone over two thousand years ago on a 35mm, but I clicked away regardless. The kid in me wanted to clamber up the intricate façade to find that secret switch that would reveal the Pharaoh’s treasure. The adult in me wanted to genuflect at the accomplishments of a clearly sophisticated civilization.

As with most buildings in Petra, the Khazneh is a monument to the dead. An entire city devoted to honoring ancestors is difficult to imagine today. The Nabateans must have spent the greater part of their lives chiseling and honing to form these exquisite tombs, whose glory can only be imagined now. Brightly colored stalls lined the ruins, with friendly shopkeepers who smiled at us, while their children scampered happily along the sandstone mounds. Much to our relief, we were neither harassed nor ignored.

We continued along the natural curve of the hillside towards the four Royal Tombs on the city’s main promenade. Each of these illustrious monuments features specific architectural styles, from traditional Nabatean to Greek Hellenistic to the more modern Doric. In a breathtaking blend of nature and man, tombs materialize out of the rocks as far as the eye can see. Gaping cavities endure, paying silent homage to their late inhabitants. We trekked northwest for two hours towards the largest and loneliest of Petra’s edifices, Ed-Deir, the Monastery. With its predominantly Nabatean elements and distinctive disc engravings, some archaeologists believe it to be the tomb of the last Nabatean king.  

On the second morning of our Petra adventure, we hiked to the summit, astutely referred to as the High Place. The journey up the face of the mountain was sweat inducing to say the least as we swayed on donkeys up a narrow path. Any misstep of two or three inches would have been fatal, but these donkeys knew what they were doing. Perched on the Attuf Ridge, the High Place overlooks the entire canyon of Petra and formerly served as a sacrificial site for ancient worshippers.

After descending the mountain on foot, we hopped aboard jeeps for the final leg of our Jordan journey, the Wadi Rum. Famously featured on the silver screen in the 1962 epic, Lawrence of Arabia, the Wadi Rum is the largest and arguably most stunning of Jordan’s wadis, or valleys. We stopped to rest at a teahouse set in a traditional Bedouin tent, with three walls of heavy carpet and one open face. Our host regaled us with song and dance, and I felt my eyelids getting heavy in the afternoon heat.

Lulled by the lilting melancholy of the oud, the lute’s Arabic predecessor, I felt myself submersed in the surreality of Jordan. In just six days, I had traversed far from my initial impression of tension and conflict. I peered across the sandy sea as evening winds brushed new waves along the dunes, and reveled in the feather-light sense of freedom that washed over me.

(submitted June 22, 2008, 1348 words)

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