November 10, 2005

Jordan mourning

Jordan’s King Abdullah has declared a national day of mourning. Most of the victims of yesterday’s hotel bombings in Amman (right) were Jordanian. Wedding guests at celebration. A three-month old baby. Terror has come to a country that has long been an oasis of peace and conciliation in a contested part of the world that's become the poster child for man's basest traits. Surrounded, penetrated and influenced by the aggression, hate and ignorant self-interest of individuals, factions and nations with stakes or claims to protect, Jordan has managed to keep taking the high road. It is a place apart. It seems to live by a simple rule, a golden one.

Jordan is the most gracious country I have ever had the privilege of visiting. If I had a dollar for every act of kindness, every gesture of hospitality, every “Welcome in Jordan” proffered me during my 1999 visit, I would be rich.

But I am rich for having met Ala’a Haddad, owner of the rental franchise where I picked up the car I’d use to cross Jordan. He served me thick coffee and became excited at my itinerary, one that would show me crenellated castles and Roman ruins, antiquities and modern marketplaces, beach resorts and ground Moses had walked. “Very good,” he said as he smiled his approval. “You are welcome in Jordan. Please do not believe what people tell you. We do not eat anybody. Everything is friendly and safe and easy to find.” Haddad gave me his cell phone number and told me to call, 24/7, if I needed anything. We talked about King Hussein, the tireless Jordanian peacemaker who'd recently died from non-Hodgkins lymphoma. I'd long admired Hussein. On the day of his funeral, I’d risen in Boston at 4 a.m to watch on TV. Haddad told me the sight of the world’s leaders gathered in tribute to the king had made him proud to be Jordanian. “You cannot know what it was like for us that day,” he said, recalling the emotion of knowing that Hussein, even in death, could bring adversaries together.

And Nadim Twal, the elegant gentleman whom I’d stopped on an Amman street to ask directions to the Safeway grocery store. “That is in the direction of my house,” said Mr. Twal, “so we will walk together.” He told me of his work in the insurance business and, at our parting, gave me his card. You are welcome at my house at any time," said Mr. Twal. "And please call if you need something.” I hadn't yet left Amman and already had phone numbers and open offers of assistance from two new friends.

And the gorgeous little boy with wide chocolate eyes and teeth like pearls who tried to sell me boxes of Kleenex every time I passed the intersection he hawked from. I was in Madaba, driving in circles trying to find the Church of St. George and its exquisite mosaic map of the 6th century world from Jerusalem to the Nile delta. As I rolled to his traffic light for the fourth time, my small friend and I both belly-laughed. He smiled brilliantly and shouted, “Hello, Lady!”

And the thin Bedouin ticket collector who manned the Siq, the magical chasm that leads to Petra, a wondrous ancient city of sculpted stone afire, and my place of a lifetime. My first day in Petra was an appetizer, and when I approached the Siq for another day, the old man beamed. “Ahhh! Two days! Good! I remember you from yesterday!”

And the bride and groom who welcomed me into the midst of their proud, joyful procession as the wedding party and guests gathered in the Amman Marriott where I was staying. Dancing and singing and clapping and smiles and laughter and tears.

And the young boy who offered me his rented plastic chair when I visited the shores of the Dead Sea. A gesture I will never forget.

And the soldier guarding the mosaic-covered Byzantine church that crowns Mt. Nebo where Moses is said to have died and been buried. As we stood on the sun-kissed summit and looked across the West Bank and into Israel as far as Jerusalem and the Sea of Galilee, this Muslim caretaker of one of Christianity's most sacred sites asked where I was from. "The U.S.," I replied, to which he exclaimed, “Ah, brothers!” When I told him Jordan was a beautiful country, he bowed slightly and said, “It is your country. You are welcome.”

And I know I would be today. May days of peace follow this day of mourning.