The Western media cannot get enough of the Middle East these days, whether the focus is on politics, religion or refugee crises. However, the media is prone to misconceptions. We can dispel some of these media myths by sharing our personal experiences – so let us talk about Jordan, one of the pivotal countries of the Middle East which I recently visited. My trip inspired me to look beyond the headlines about Jordan, and think about the reality of life there.
For starters, here are a few facts. Founded in the 20th century, its capital city is Amman. Its official language is Arabic, and its population of 9.9 million people are known for their motto of ‘God, Country, King’.
This simple phrase goes to the heart of the country’s politics; Jordan functions under a constitutional monarchy. There is a government, headed by Prime Minister Al-Mulki, and the King, Abdullah II (a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed). This structure, a strong dynastic family, is similar to that of many countries prior to the Arab Spring of 2010. During the uprisings in countries such as Egypt and Libya, dictatorships were overthrown. However, in Jordan, the people love their King. Abdullah II is seen as an icon, a ‘benign dictator’. In fact, the lobbies of the hotels I stayed in were all graced by large portraits of the King, his father, and his son, the (not bad-looking) 22 year-old Prince Al Hussein.
Our view of religion in Jordan also needs educating. The media correctly portray the Middle East as largely Muslim. However, the perception that all countries reject Christianity is unfounded. In Jordan, 95% are Muslims and 5% (around half a million) are Christians. I found this out in a conversation with a mosaic designer, who was himself Christian. This surprising fact became evident in Amman, where I saw many women going about their daily life without wearing headscarves. It is an insult for people to ask each other’s religion and wherever there is a mosque, you will usually find a church next door. All of this highlights how Christians and Muslims live in harmony.
Another area for rethinking is the refugee situation in Jordan. 20% of Jordan’s population are refugees (and us Brits are the ones complaining…). The majority of these refugees are Palestinians, forced out of Israel. Many settled in the suburbs of Amman in tin shelters which have now developed into stable communities, integrated into Jordanian society. More recent challenges are posed by thousands of Syrians on the northern border. These camps are only 50 miles from thriving Amman, yet there is no apparent trace in the city. It is illegal for Jordanians to employ Syrian refugees - although some do anyway. Generally, refugees are kept out of sight, out of mind.
A different challenge comes from the country’s youth. Jordan has a huge population of young people, yet many of these bright teens are destined to work abroad since the economy does not create enough jobs. In addition, most women will never work; fewer Jordanian women have jobs than those in Saudi Arabia. Jordan’s economic growth is not matched by its social progress. Nevertheless, women can express themselves more freely than in other Middle Eastern countries. Most city women, whether they wear the hijab or not, dress in smart, modern outfits, while older ladies pair their headscarves with ornately embroidered dresses.
Let's look at the landscape now. Jordan is home to the renowned Dead Sea (which is in fact a large lake), and people come from all over the world to float in the rehabilitating waters. The mud, packed with minerals, treats skin conditions. The Dead Sea, literally dead because of its high salt concentration, is getting saltier as less water now flows in from the Jordan River. The Dead Sea is dropping by 1 metre every year. So if this experience is on your bucket list, check it off before it is too late!
To finish off, here are my top three attractions:
One of the seven wonders of the ancient world, which lives up to this title. The 2,000 year old city is carved out of a series of rose-red stone gorges, it is vast and took us a whole morning to trek to its furthest temple. Unforgettable experience.
2. Wadi Rum
The desert national park in the south, inhabited only by Bedouin nomads. The sand is vibrant orange, explaining why it was used as the set for the film ‘The Martian’.
3. The Dead Sea
After one ‘floating session’, your skin is noticeably softer from this unearthly yet relaxing experience. Some important tips: wear goggles when covering yourself with Dead Sea mud, do not get the salt water in your eyes – it hurts. A lot.
Original Images by Jemima Storey