Up until last month my travels through the Middle East had been restricted to the airports of some of the bigger cities there – Dubai, Doha, and Abu Dhabi – when flying back and forth between the US and Delhi during my 3 years of grad school. But earlier this month I got an opportunity to visit Jordan and it became my window to the Arabic world.
For neighbours it has Syria, Iraq, and Israel, countries associated with war and disturbance. The region that was once the Cradle of Civilization might as well be called the cradle of instability today. Murmurs within the family doubting the wisdom of my choice for travel were only natural with even the son voicing concern (wow, he’s all grown up!).
And here I am, after spending a week in the gorgeous desert country of Jordan to tell you that it is as safe as traveling to those places for which there are no advisories. The people there are friendly, most speak English, there is lots of fresh vegetarian food to chose from (yes, I do prefer to eat mostly vegetarian), and the US Dollar is as legit as the Jordanian Dinar. Mental conversion is also quick and easy for us Indians; 1JD=₹100!
We took off on an early morning AirArabia* flight and arrived at the Queen Alia International Airport (Amman) via Sharjah absolutely sleep deprived. There was no time to waste. A quick shower fixed us up for the moment and we reported promptly for lunch. We were spoiled for choice at the lavish buffet lunch at the Crown Plaza Amman. The centerpiece of the spread was a pilaf – lamb shoulder with rice. But before that I piled my plate with all the mezze fixings – got to eat your salads first! There was an entire counter devoted to pickles – imagine my delight. Pickled olives, chillies, cucumbers, gerkins, and even eggplant stuffed with chillies! The black olives on offer here were surely the best on the trip.
Lunch was followed by a visit to The Citadel, the ruins of a fort atop a hill that was inhabited at different times by the Romans, the Byzantine, and the Umayyads. From here you can catch panoramic views of this capital city – an ancient amphitheater on one side and on the other side is the Moshe Safdie-esque towering refugee settlement of Baqa’a housing Palestinians displaced during the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, the largest such camp in Jordan. The Temple of Hercules, the Ummayad Palace, and their romantic overgrown-garden setting is worth spending half a day at. The small interpretive section at the entrance is tastefully designed using the ubiquitous but gorgeous local limestone the use of which is mandatory in Amman city.
We managed to squeeze in a short visit to Jerash the Greco-Roman city believed to have been founded by Alexander the Great. Emperor Hadrian, better known to some of us as the architect of the Pantheon and also the one behind Hadrian’s Villa (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its own right) visited Jerash in AD 130. The arch built to commemorate his visit is today the main entrance to this archaeological complex. A day wandering through is not sufficient to take in the numerous ruins – the Theaters, the Forum, Temples, the market street, the Hippodrome, and inspect the details and the remnant mosaics.
As the sun set over Jerash, we walked back to our tour bus. Dinner tonight was planned at Sufra, a restaurant popular with locals and tourists alike. With the bus parked far, we took a walk along the busy Rainbow Street alive at this time with evening revelers. The slow moving traffic was a reminder that cruising is well and alive in the streets of this Arabic country too. But then it is a great street to people watch.
We gorged on olives and flatbread and then it started – the endless stream of mezze – hummus, labneh, mutabel, tabbouleh, fattoush, gallayet, beitinjan salad (eggplant with white cheese, tomatoes and coriander), kufta, kubbeh, and finally sajeyat lameh (lamb with onion and pine nuts) the main course that we had little room for. Yet, few turned down mint tea as the final course.
It was nearly midnight by the time we made it back to our cozy rooms at the hotel. The thought of an early morning had me under the covers quick.
The one thing certain about group travel is that someone will always be late. The plus point of still being ready on time is that you can have a leisurely breakfast. And you don’t want to rush through a breakfast buffet like the one at the Crown Plaza. There was the usual continental fare but also plentiful local dishes. For my first breakfast in Jordan, I decided to go native. I served myself a bowl of wholesome fūl, a popular breakfast all over the Arabic Speaking World with roots in Egypt. The beans, usually fava beans, but here a mix of many, are traditionally simmered through the night and served the next morning. Each country has their own way of serving fūl – salt and spices are added and it is eaten with fresh cooked bread. The Jordanian-style is to add salt, olive oil, tahini, lime juice, ground cumin, sumac, and chopped tomatoes. The bread on offer was shrak-like (smaller and cooked on a flat griddle instead of the usual inverted dome-shaped), a thin flat roti, filled with a choice of oregano (za’tar)or white cheese. Out of curiosity I served myself a piece of Halaweh which turned out to be a dense but less sweet and delectable version of our desi gajjak!
Oh yes, we also visited the Royal Automobile Museum before leaving for Petra.
We had a long drive to Petra ahead but not before a short trip to downtown Amman. It was too early for most shops to be open but the green grocers were ready with their beautifully stacked fresh produce. Among them was a shop displaying spices, dry fruits, dried herbs and tea blends. In the rush to keep moving all I could grab was a little za’tar. There was sure to be more za’tar on this trip; or so I thought and moved on.
I cannot leave you without a recipe, of course. For all the labneh Jordanians make there is no milk to be had with tea. The popular tea blends here have spices and dried herbs mixed in for a very different take on our regular black brew. Dried sage, chamomile, and rose petals, with spices such as cinnamon, star anise, and cardamom are popular additions. One of the most popular with the Bedouin tribe is mint tea and one that is refreshing even in our present weather. Each day, we are drinking rounds of this and the office staff is appreciative; they too have benefited from my short break away.
Jordanian Mint Tea
CTC tea (1/2 teaspoon per cup of water)
fresh mint, a few sprigs per cup
sugar or honey, to taste
Brew your cup of tea as you usually do, using half the regular quantity of tea leaves to get a light brew. Press down fresh mint into the serving cups. Pour over with hot brewed tea, sweeten to taste, and serve. Come back for seconds!
Variation: Chill it, add ice cubes for a fabulous glass of iced mint tea.
*AirArabia is a no-frill, low-cost airline operating in the Middle East with connections to major Indian cities. They are presently offering special Summer Fares to Amman. But take the no-frills part seriously – they do not offer even water to drink free of charge. Also, it is a good idea to carry your own food instead of pre-booking what is on offer (don’t tell me later I didn’t warn you!). The silver lining is that they offer 30kg+10kg free baggage! [I could have bought more dates, and za’tar, and pumpkin seeds…]
Disclaimer: On this trip I was a guest of the Jordan Tourism Board but the opinions are all mine!