A Trip to Aqaba

by John Finnigan

 

            A twenty-minute delay isn’t that bad, I thought. I’ll just read the paper some more before the flight. I sat down in the only vacant seat, hesitantly, noticing an Arab man seated to my right, wearing a turban of some sort. I ignored my natural hesitance, noting that not all Arabs were terrorists. I calmly read my paper and waited for my flight to arrive until the man next to me asked for a pen.

            “Oh of course, yes, yes, I think I have one here,” I replied.

            “Thank you,” the man said. “I need to write down a few addresses for my trip, I’m heading to Boston for a conference and have no idea how to get around the city!”

            “Ah yes. Boston is a very confusing city to travel in. Where are you from, if you don’t mind me asking?”

            “Not at all, I am from Amman, in Jordan. My name is Naseer.”

            “Well, nice to meet you Naseer. I’m Nick, and I’m actually traveling to Aqaba. It’s a small world isn’t it?”

            I sat down in my flight seat and began studying basic Arabic phrases I would need for my business trip, where I would be planning the building sites for a new string of beach front hotels. I had already read numerous websites and articles on Arab customs and how to get along in the Arab world as a Westerner.  I understood some basics: do not look at women, for fear of retaliation by their husbands or male family members; do not reveal the bottom of your feet; do not wave with your left hand; try not to stay out late in the cities for fear of attack or robbery. I knew the area I would be working in would be more developed and Westernized, but at the same time the areas I would be traveling in worried me. The string of small cities and Islamic regions in the deserts flashed “danger” in my mind. Would I be traveling on horseback? I hoped not, I did not want to be in a backwards region where many people did not have a positive view of the United States.

            After waking from my long flight, I entered the airport and walked towards customs. There were security officers everywhere, some toting automatic weapons and bulletproof vests. Are they expecting a terrorist attack? I nervously walked up to the customs agent with my American passport in hand, thinking this is where they might give me trouble. The man looked at me and asked:

            “Where are you going in Jordan?”

            “I’m going to Aqaba, I have business pla…” The agent stamped my passport and visa with a simple “ok” and waved me through. Well, that was easy. I put my baggage through the security scanners. The two security guards were reading the paper and watching re-runs of American Idol on their TV. I picked up my luggage wondering if I was doing something wrong, but they simply waved me through after noticing my confusion. I got outside and was startled by a man who rushed up to me and grabbed my hands in a welcoming handshake, one that turned into the man holding my hands for quite some time, much to my surprise.

            “Mr. Richards, it is great to meet you. I am Said, I will be driving you to your hotel in Madaba. Mr. Burns will be meeting you there. It will not take too long, only one hour.” Said finally let go of my hands and picked up my luggage, putting it in the trunk. A warm greeting, and I’ve only been here for ten minutes. Said drove down the highway in an old Hyundai, but managed to keep his pace at 120 kmh, despite the 90 kmh speed limit. Said rattled off questions left and right to me. Have you been to Jordan before? What are your plans? Where are you from, New York? Then he talked about how much he loved Obama, how he was a great man. All the while, we were listening to Lady Gaga, not the clerical chants I expected.

It turns out that Said was a Christian, much to my surprise. I was taken aback that there were in fact Christians, Jews, and even those who did not care for religion at all in Jordan. So, I guess I was wrong in my assumption that the region was completely Muslim. Madaba, according to Said, was actually a Christian city, and I soon found myself looking at churches instead of mosques as we entered the city.

We pulled up to the hotel on the outskirts of the city; I could see the Dead Sea far off in the distance, as Said was pointing out everything he could for me. Mr. Burns was outside on the patio smoking a strange device with two other men, each passing a hose to the next after bellowing out huge clouds of thick smoke.  I walked up to the patio with Said, who deposited my bags inside for me.

“Nick! You made it, great to see you,” Mr. Burns yelled out.  I see you met Said, I hope the way here was enjoyable. Come take a seat.” Mr. Burns was my boss who was helping me oversee the building plans in Aqaba.  Next to him were Aymen Ajlouni and Ahmad Eyadat. They were local partners who would be helping us with our investments in the area. After we chatted and after they finished their arguilah (the smoking thing they were enjoying, which I declined) Ahmad invited us to his home for dinner. It was already 7:30, and after my flight I was tired, so I told him I would most likely just go to bed.

“No, no, Nick. You must come, you must meet my family. My wife will be making much food. We have prepared a great meal for you and Mr. Burns,” he exclaimed. Mr. Burns gave me a nod that said “You really can’t say no.”

We sped along down the road, as Ahmad switched lanes and narrowly avoided cars. Soon enough, we were at his house. It reminded me of a small homestead in the middle of the Midwest, save the obvious Middle Eastern architecture. Ahmad had a small garden, a black BMW sitting in the garage, and a large three story house. The inside of the house was decorated, much to my surprise, with numerous televisions, abstract paintings, furniture that looked like it was from IKEA, and a small bar. Out of nowhere, I began to hear a rhythmic chant in the distance. I noticed a woman enter a small room in the house, and then begin to pray on a small rug.

“Ahmad, are you Christian?” I asked inquisitively, noticing that he did not make an attempt to pray.

“No, I am a Muslim. You must be curious as to why I am not praying, right?” he replied. “I do not believe in following religion too closely, it only begets problems when faced with other religions. I encourage my housekeepers and family to follow Islam or Christianity as they wish, but I see no need to for myself. Besides, I love a good drink every now and again! Here, you two try this.” He handed Mr. Burns and me a drink he called Araq, I guessed an Arab type of vodka from the look. He mixed it with a little water and ice, then we drank. Sitting on his patio, we talked late into the night until getting our ride back to the hotel. The small city was still lit up even with it being one a.m. Soon after getting to the hotel, I put on the tv to help me fall asleep. The first channel was the news, in Arabic, so I kept switching channels for something in English. Much to my surprise, I was torn between numerous British news documentaries, Hollywood hits, Oprah, and other popular shows from America. I fell asleep with the windows open soon enough, basking in the light Arabian breeze, my stomach full from the exotic and spicy foods from dinner.

 

Mr. Burns and I left Madaba early the next morning. He wanted to drive to Aqaba, but after a thirty-foot drive realized he could not drive like Jordanians do. So we employed Said once more for the drive to Aqaba and set off. The drive was pleasant; the scenery dotted with small Bedouin camps in the midst of a sea of desert. We stopped at a small shack on the outskirts of a town on the way. This shack turned out to be a small store that offered snacks and drinks similar to American candy and soda, just with Arabic names. The man spoke no English, and his young daughter hid behind the doorway staring at us. I did not doubt we might have been the first Americans she has seen.

 

I fell asleep for the rest of the ride and woke up to us entering Aqaba. Compared with Madaba and Amman, it was nothing I had expected to see. The roads were in pristine condition, far better than most roads back home. Gardens were everywhere, and so were restaurants, small shops, and upscale hotels dotted the beach front. I noticed the all too familiar golden arches of McDonalds up ahead. We quickly turned in and I could not wait for a Big Mac. The place was just as packed as in America, and the workers donned the usual McDonald’s uniform. The menu however was different, as it showed off a McArabia and offered all burgers with either the usual beef patty or chicken patty. I ordered my beloved Big Mac along with a chicken tender meal. As we sat down, Said surprised me by saying that American fast food was seen as an important and special meal in much of the Middle East. Pizza Hut was even a sit-down restaurant. I could not believe that fast food, being as cheap, unhealthy, and common as I thought of it, could actually be considered a specialty. Maybe it was the fact that it’s American and so well known? Maybe our different cultures viewed the food and everything about it dissimilarly?

We arrived at the hotel we were staying in soon after. The grandeur of the hotel was awing: indoor fountains, marble colonnades, and two-story glass windows overlooking the Red Sea. The pools out back were dotted with small bridges over them and even offered a sit down pool-bar. The grandeur impressed me, but I was surprised by the lack of Arab influence in the hotel. Besides the paintings and small designs in the hotel, everything seemed similar to an American or European resort. The concierge greeted us with a warm “hello” as we approached the counter.

“Hello, sirs, welcome to the Moevenpick Resort. Do you have a reservation?”

“Yes, under Steven Burns.”

“Ok, I have your reservation here,” he replied after searching the computer. “Ok, sirs, I will have someone help you with your bags. Another man rushed out of nowhere and picked up our bags, motioning us to the elevators. When we reached our room, I offered the man ten dinars for his service, saying “shoukran” (thank you in Arabic).

“You’re welcome, sir. Enjoy your stay,” he said in near perfect English. The room was spacious and had a view overlooking the sea. The fridge was stocked with pricey small bottles of liquor and the bathroom had speakers to listen to the radio when in there. Glad with the room, we left and decided to explore around the hotel. We walked out to the town and looked at many of the shops, which offered food, alcohol, and countless souvenirs of Jordan and Aqaba, similar to any tourist location. Upon entering a shop of Arabic paintings and artworks, we said hello to the owner and looked at the intricate statuettes. The owner spoke English, and whenever I tried saying anything in Arabic, he replied in English. I figured that they must not like speaking Arabic to foreigners or they just liked speaking English. After talking to Mr. Burns about it he agreed, noting that we could only converse in Arabic with the locals if we pressed the issue.

The stares were not as much a problem as in Madaba, I figured everyone here was just used to tourists. Most of the people at the hotel were German and American, which I judged by the prevalent German being spoken. A few people staying there did seem Arab, not only by the color of their skin or what they spoke, but also by what they were wearing in the pool. A few women in the pool area had on full body swimsuits that covered everything, including their heads. I assumed they were Muslim, as is their religious custom for women to be covered in public. Obviously these were more devout Muslims than the younger Jordanian women I saw, who dressed just like girls in America and Europe, wearing jeans and shirts from the mall.

As I lay by the pool, I started thinking about tomorrow. Being stuck in an office room, looking at numbers and evaluating the building plans of the hotel being built not far away. This world was so different from my own. It was nothing I expected after watching the news, reading Internet articles on Arab culture, and by relying on my own assumptions. I could not believe that I could be as close-minded as I was. Jordan was indeed exotic and a place of its own compared to what I was used to. But the influences of America and the west were everywhere. People here did not look at me in derision or with suspicion as I thought; they bombarded me with questions about America, about how much I liked it. They were not interested in me, they were interested in who I was. They wanted to see America and discuss it with an American, trying to learn as much as they could. We were not so different. I looked at their culture in awe and fascination, just the way they looked at America. The waiter brought me my beer as I sat by the pool.

“Shou…thank you,” I replied, sticking to English.