04 February 2011
The Aqaba port at the northern tip of the Red Sea inlet has existed in some form or another for over 6,000 years – through the ancient kingdoms, the trading missions to Punt, the wandering and exodus of the Jews, and the manufacture of political states. It existed 1,400 years before the last of the Siberian wooly mammoths died, and thousands of years before the rise (and fall) of Ancient Greece. Now the tiny port city is squeezed tightly between Israeli access to the water at Eilat to the Northwest, the expansive Saudi Arabian coastline to the south, and the dark desert of Egypt across the water to the West.
Less than 100,000 people live in Aqaba at present, but the rapid development of five-star resorts stretching along the coastline southwards from the city center betrays a concerted government effort to attract tourist dollars and growth.
‘You see,’ a Jordanian Palestinian in a bad toupé told me, ‘they built the resorts far out of town along the coast, to develop the whole of the land in between. They want to pull the city down along the coast. We were there! Five-stars, you know, but my wife, she wanted the city so we came here.’ I had just met him in the lobby of our hotel. I looked over at his wife, sitting veiled in the corner of the lobby. ‘She likes to have five stars,’ he continued, his hair unmoved, as he tried to hit home the five star point as often as possible, ‘and we always stay at five star resorts, but, you know, in Aqaba, the city is nice. I told her, ‘but this is five stars! This is a nice resort! Satellite TV… swimming pool… but she wanted to come here. Here you can walk amongst the people and eat some food in a café.’ I looked at the wires protruding from the ceiling and the cracked, dusty, windowpane. Hoping to kill the conversation through banality, I dryly mentioned that we had enjoyed the food at the café on the corner.
‘Ah ha!’ he said, ‘that place?’ he pointed out the window, and I nodded. ‘You have seen nothing yet! Wait until you go to Amman. You will go to Amman, right? My wife and I, we live in Amman. I’m from Iraq, but Palestinian, but I had to leave Iraq in the first Gulf War. I was living in Kuwait. You know Kuwait? All my life. Now we live in Amman, my wife and I.’
‘How long is the drive?’ I asked. I knew now that I was in this conversation for the duration, and figured I might as well soak it for as much local information as I could, despite having too little energy to be social. We were considering the bus to the capital, but knew little about the trip.
‘It is quick! Just a few hours. Of course, it is quickest by car. We drive! You see there?’ He pointed out the window again. ‘The black Mercedes? That is my car. My wife and I, we drive in that all the time. That is how we travel to the resorts. We drive everywhere in that car.’ The man’s hair remained unnaturally still. I wondered what would happen to it if he rolled the windows down on one of his resort trips. I appreciated his friendliness and my impatience made me feel guilty.
‘I think we had better get to our room,’ I excused myself as Nora walked up, ‘but thank you very much for talking to me. Aqaba is such a friendly city.’
We took the elevator to the first floor, and as the door opened we were met by the muzzles of two plastic machine guns. Two boys waved them wildly, their nozzles lighting up erratically and emitting obnoxiously loud space-age firing sounds. The seven-year-old commandos fired in all directions.
* * *
Nora and I decided to go for a walk and catch some of the cool evening air. We turned the corner out onto the main commercial street.
‘Ah! Hello again!’ It was the Palestinian man from the hotel, in the toupé. He and his wife were sitting at a small sidewalk table at Hani Ali, a renowned dessert place, popular late into the night.
‘Please! Come, sit and join my wife and I!’ I looked at Nora. We hadn’t gotten very far on our walk, but couldn’t think of any good excuses.
‘Okay’, Nora agreed, as we walked over to the table, gambling that random encounters are the best social opportunities in unknown cities.
‘Have you tried Knafeh?’ the man asked eagerly. We had had some at this very café only two hours before.
‘Yes…’ Nora started, before he jumped in.
‘Umm, I don’t know, it looked like that…’ she pointed to their plates.
‘Loh Semacht!’ the man cried out, signaling the waiter before we could stop him, ‘Knafeh Naboulsieh!’
Knafeh is a heavy dessert, served in large pie-like slices across the Middle East, and best eaten slowly and warm. The Palestinian city of Nablus is famous for its particular style – Knafeh Naboulsieh – and its residents had recently made a 75-meter, 1,350 kilogram Knafeh in an effort to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records. The dessert itself is based on Naboulsi cheese, which is cooked and smothered in honey and shredded-wheat-like pastry before being toasted, doused with more honey, and served warm. It is delicious, but one piece is more than enough. We protested.
‘No, really! I invite you!’
A minute later two heavy and warm plates appeared on the table. Nora ordered a strong Turkish coffee and I got a tea. We’d need the boost to get us through this, and enough liquid to wash it down.
‘You are from Egypt?’ the man asked Nora, betrayed, once again, by our uniquely Egyptian pronunciation of Arabic. Nora responded that we’d just come from Nuweiba, and that we were living in Cairo.
‘God willing, things can get better there,’ he responded. ‘Mubarak is a bad man. Everyone is watching this. Of course, my wife and I, we like to go to Egypt. But only to Sharm el-Sheikh! We stay there in a nice place, five-stars. They have 1,000 rooms! Package deal, you know. It is cheap from here. My wife and I, we like to go there.’
‘What about Jordan?’ I asked, selfishly trying to steer the conversation back to strategizing our upcoming days, ‘there have been some protests here. What is going on?’
‘In Jordan? Nothing is going on. Here the police help the people. We are a law-abiding people and we follow the law. The law is good and the police are good. If you are speeding, for example, and you are stopped by the police, okay, you can say, I am sorry, I know I was speeding, but maybe can I not get in trouble? And the police, he is a nice man, he will say, okay, and then you go again. We follow the law here.’ I pondered the contradictions, musing on the impossible logic that led from neither the law being followed nor the police enforcing their mandate to the conclusion that Jordan was a law-abiding country. I shrugged it off and sipped my tea. The Palestinian man seemed pretty convinced, his toupe shaking with his nodding head.
‘Nothing like this can happen here,’ he continued. ‘In Egypt the people eat off the streets, they are sick and poor. Look around, all of these people around here, all of the people working here, they are all Egyptians. They come here because there is no work in Egypt. They come here to work. They can make money here and send it back to home. This man,’ he waved wildly towards our waiter, who looked over, puzzled, ‘Egyptian!’ I looked at the Egyptian, in his paper hat and button up striped shirt. I wondered what he must think of what was happening back home. I wondered if he was worried about his family. Nora, working to divert a substantial monologue that may or may not end up offending everyone in proximity, jumped in.
‘I’m sorry,’ she asked the man’s wife, who had been sitting across the table in silence but who clearly spoke English, ‘but I don’t even know your name!’
‘My wife is named Ahlam,’ the man interrupted, before the woman could get a word out, ‘and I am Abdelatif.’
‘Well,’ Nora continued, looking at the woman directly, ‘it is very nice to meet you. I’m Nora.’
As a man in heavily patriarchal Muslim society I often found myself in frustrating situations of cultural dissonance. In Egypt, among the more devout, wives are not named in public. They are the wife of their husband and are referred to as the mother of the couple’s eldest son. I have always tried to trust my instincts in regard to just what kind of interaction I might have with women around me in the Middle East, and am careful not to touch women, even shaking a hand, or casually start conversations with them, the way one might do with anyone while waiting for the bus or buying groceries in the US. I wasn’t afraid of offending the women, and indeed I had good conversations with many of them, but they could find themselves in trouble at home for speaking to a man, especially a foreign man. Gender politics, in Egypt at least, are very complicated, and beyond simple greetings I would often wait for the woman to begin a conversation. I was thankful to have Nora with me. She could access the world of women in a way that I could not. She tried again.
‘Do you have any children?’ she asked. This time Ahlam answered first, pulling pictures from her purse.
‘Six,’ she said, ‘this is the oldest, she is finishing university in Amman.’ She handed us a photo of a very pretty girl in a red academic robe, sitting in front of a bookshelf, her long jet black hair descending from a graduation cap down over her shoulders. Four subsequent photos, like Russian dolls, presented younger and younger daughters until she reached the last photo – a boy of about four, with big dark eyes and puffy black hair. Abdelatif looked at me.
‘God be praised!’ he exulted. ‘It took six tries, but finally I have a son!’ I tried not to react. Nora looked at Ahlam.
‘Will they all learn English?’ she asked Ahlam, ‘you speak it so nicely.’
‘Of course!’ Abdelatif interrupted again, ‘once he is old enough he will be in school, and he will learn English!’ I wondered if Abdelatif knew that his five daughters existed. I felt bad for them.
We finished our Knafeh and drinks and chatted about the differences between Egyptian and Jordanian Arabic. We heard about Amman and its seven mountains, and about Damascus and Baghdad. We watched as people came and went, strolling slowly along the pavement. The tables around us filled and emptied.
‘One last thing,’ Abdelatif started, as we made motions towards our own exit, ‘Please, come with us, we would like to invite you, my wife and I, let’s take a drive down the coast. I can show you the beaches and the ocean.’ It was already nearly dark, but Nora and I agreed, abandoning hope of an evening together walking and exploring. We were in too deep to say no.
Within minutes we were in the back of the black Mercedes. Abdelatif took a moment to conspicuously link his smart phone to his dashboard computer through Bluetooth wireless, and pulled out into town. I wondered what his smart phone had to say to his dashboard. Perhaps something like, ‘here we go again.’ We cruised quickly southward along the wide highway, looking out at the black water and the lights of Israel across the bay. Abdelatif peppered the ride with commentary about phosphate mining and resort construction, and about beach camping and his childhood visits to Aqaba, many years ago. We passed resorts and a giant development owned by the Saudi royal family. He pulled into a wide lot, just right of a freeway bend, and we briefly walked the beach, stumbling upon dating teens and precarious beach tents before getting back into the car and continuing our journey southward. Minutes later Abdelatif cautiously slowed and stopped the Mercedes in the middle of the highway. It was silent and the sun was deep behind the hills. Nora and I sat and waited, unsure what had happened.
‘Just around there,’ he said cautiously, pointing to the bend up ahead between two small hills, ‘that is the Saudi Border.’ I had always wondered what it would be like to be this close to Saudi Arabia. I wanted to drive as close as we could get. I wanted to see into it.
‘Can we drive up to the border?’ I ventured, knowing the answer but pushing anyway.
‘No!’ Abdelatif delivered the word definitively, and started pulling the car around through a wide highway u-turn. ‘If we drive to the border and turn around, the Saudi border police will come after us. They will follow us and they will stop us. We need to turn here.’
‘They can follow you into Jordan?’ I asked, disbelieving.
‘Of course!’ he replied. ‘This crossing is only for Saudis. They control the crossing. They come here to shop and do other things. We cannot go there.’
As we started back, Abdelatif turned on the car stereo. Careless Whisper by Wham! filled the car, then a series of syrupy 1980s slow dance ballads. ‘Do you know Lionel Ritchie?’ he asked me, ‘the song ‘Hello?’ with the video and the blind girl? I love Lionel Ritchie!’ The stereo regressed into a medley of soft love songs from Broadway Musicals. Abdelatif sang along, all the way back to Aqaba.