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More than just Petra

While Jordan is steeped in history and culture, its stark beauty — and the customs that help protect it — should not be missed

  • Feb 28, 2014
  • 2,305 words
  • 10 minutes
Jordan’s landscape practically begs to be explored, including soaking up the views of Wadi Araba. (Photo courtesy of Feynan ecolodge)
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The best advice I heard before going to Jordan was “don’t read anything about it.” A friend wanted me to be surprised. “Especially before you go to Petra, don’t read anything.” I arrived in the country a slightly ashamed, deliberate ignoramus, and had one of the most memorable trips I have ever had. It now feels inappropriate to write about it — I don’t want to spoil anyone’s trip — but Jordan deserves attention.

Sitting between Syria, Iraq, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Jordan is the modest, charming guest at a dinner who cannot be heard above the noise of those around him. Since the revolution in Egypt, and certainly following the troubles in Syria, tourism in Jordan is down, according to various sources, between 40 and 75 per cent. People are afraid to go there. And while the regional conflicts have scared away visitors, they have also sent millions of refugees from Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Iraq toward this small country, putting a strain on its minimal resources (which include one of the lowest water supplies in the world).

Tourism is one of the country’s largest industries, behind potash and phosphates, so its decline is of concern to Jordanians. But while Petra, for example, is seeing far fewer visitors than it had before the regional troubles, certain ecotourist sites were less severely hit. One of these is the Feynan Ecolodge, in the Dana Biosphere Reserve — a more than 300-square-kilometre area established by Jordan’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature. Ecotourists and adventure tourists seem to be a hardier bunch, and better informed about the fact that Jordan is not only perfectly safe to visit, but also a fascinating and beautiful country with secrets that should be seen and not described.

The Feynan Ecolodge sits like a modest but slightly mythical structure in a valley of sand and copper. It looks like a building grown from the ground rather than imposed upon it, and it holds some sense of fantasy or impossibility — a promise of comfort under a hot, inhospitable sky. I reached it on the back of a small 4×4, which raced the fall of the sun to get to a scenic landing where the hosts of the ecolodge like to lead their visitors before they are brought to the hotel.

The landscape was intriguing, barren, and I found it strangely soothing. I stood on the bed of the truck, leaning on the roof, and caught my first glimpse of Bedouin camps, pitched around irrigated plots where people were growing tomatoes. The desert became mountainous and rocky, reddened by the sunset and blackened by the legacy of copper mining: boulders of slag lay everywhere.

Copper has defined this land, and the possible renewal of the mining industry is a simmering source of stress for conservationists. The ecolodge was built on a site central to mining in the area. By building it, the RSCN took a stand in the name of conservation: their ambition was to prove that ecotourism could be a profitable alternative to mineral development.

Nabil Tarazi, the Montreal-educated founder and managing director of EcoHotels, the company that manages the ecolodge, told me that Jordan’s Natural Resources Authority is always eyeing the area and threatening to exploit its copper. With so few natural resources in Jordan, it is no wonder that the government would consider continuing what has been an ancient industry. There are mines in the district as old as the 10th century BC. If revitalized, mining could destroy a massive amount of this land.

The ecolodge itself is a romantic and miraculous example of living in harmony with the environment. The building is completely off the grid. It gets energy from solar panels arranged on its roof. The water in the showers is from a spring; the fire in the lobby, lit on cool desert nights, is fuelled by jift, a pressed log of olive skins and pits — a byproduct of olive oil production. The entire hotel uses less energy than a two-bedroom apartment in Amman, Jordan’s capital.

By the time I arrived at the door of the ecolodge, night had fallen and darkness was thickening in the way unique to a moonless desert. The lodge is lit only by candles, and even in my room it was hard to see the shoes on my feet. There were sounds of tourists bumping into things. I had trouble pouring myself a drink.

One of the attractions of the lodge is dining under the stars. On a clear night one can see every drop of galactic milk spilled across the sky. And in the morning, pursuits can range from hiking, canyoning, touring ancient mines and Byzantine ruins and visiting local families, to lazing on the patio after breakfast, watching the hills being painted by wind and sun.

Feynan is a self-reliant place. Almost 90 per cent of the products used by the lodge — the candles, jugs, decorations — are made and sold by the local community, and the RSCN ensures that more than half of the revenue from Feynan goes back to the local community. The menu is vegetarian, the bread is made by a local woman whose income from the hotel supports her family. All the staff are local.

The RSCN built the lodge in 2005 as part of an effort to generate money to fund conservation. In 2009 it invited the private sector to manage the property, and thanks to the work of Tarazi and EcoHotels, revenue increased 130 per cent in the first 18 months — a good result in the name of conservation.

The RSCN is a non-governmental organization established in 1966 by Jordan’s previous monarch, King Hussein, and its presence is notable in various ways throughout the country. It has established more than 10 reserves, and is responsible for various captive breeding programs that have saved, for example, the Arabian oryx from extinction. The RSCN monitors hunting, and has established an array of educational programs to raise environmental awareness and jobs to protect the country’s resources. I first encountered its auspices at a restaurant in Amman, which is run by an RSCN branch called Wild Jordan. Its mandate is to use local produce and hire local staff, and that particular restaurant serves good food but no alcohol. At first I thought the Society’s role was to deny me wine, so I was inclined to be critical of it. In fact, for the few days leading up to my arrival at Feynan, I had questions about the appearance of some of the reserves it runs.

In the hilly, Mediterranean-looking village of Ajloun is one such place, a forest reserve with pine trees, oak, carob and fig growing in unlikely proximity to the desert. I was taken to an olive grove where some of the trees were close to a thousand years old, and while the trees were the very embodiment of history and resilience — their twisted trunks so full of stories — the garbage covering their roots told a sadder tale. Even miles from Amman or any major settlement, plastic bags are scattered across fields like a crop. Jordan has a problem with garbage — the result of bad individual habits and poorly funded municipal collection.

Conservation runs deeper than collecting trash, but to a prim Canadian used to pristine reserves, it was a shock to find bits of garbage in the desert valleys of Wadi Rum and here in Feynan and the Dana Biosphere. It took me a while to understand the work done by the RSCN.

The community around Feynan is Bedouin, and I was lucky enough to have a tour of some of their tents the following day. Jordan is essentially a Bedouin country, even though the majority have forsaken nomadism and life in tents. What I saw in those tents was how many Jordanians like to see themselves.

I was treated to cardamom-scented coffee, and the traditions of the local Bedouin were explained by Suleiman, a man in his 20s so enamoured of his family’s lifestyle that he resists the lure of Amman and is desperate to find a woman on Facebook who would be willing to live as a Bedouin. He was a funny, lovely guy, who, when his yearning for a partner bubbled up, would say things like “man without wife is like 50 without 5; man without wife is like kitchen without knife.”

For me, what was so fascinating about Suleiman and his family was not so much the examples of rituals and stories of tradition, but the practicality of their lives — the very self-reliance on commercial display at the ecolodge. Their tents were not the ordered, elegant goat-hair constructions I saw among Bedouin in more touristed areas; they were fantastic amalgams of tarps, sheets, acacia wood and cardboard — made up as much by material indigenous to the desert as by whatever has blown across it. Those very plastic bags that my prim self had complained about were here in use — strung from tent poles, holding flour, tinder, cellphones.

I have read that the Bedouin take pride in their use of things at hand — they believe it distinguishes them from settled people who rely on others to provide for them. This was not spelled out by Suleiman, but he made it clear that he loved his way of life. Ingenuity, imagining new uses for nearby objects, is a characteristic that has served the Bedouin well through their survival in this difficult terrain. Anything with a multiple purpose is cherished. An acacia tree, living in rain or drought, will feed the sheep, goats, donkeys and camels; it will provide poles for tents, wood for saddles, bark for curing skins, gum to eat, fuel for fire; and it will offer shade.

Suleiman’s mother made bread, abud, in the embers of a fire, burying the dough, turning it, and shaking loose the ash once it was ready. We ate it in the visitors’ tent, which adjoined the women’s tent (that was completely closed from view). The bread was served with cooked tomatoes and was hearty. I had a sense of the importance of simple comforts. Snow falls on the mountains in winter. Daily life is about herding and working, raising children and living on very little.

It seemed incongruous that Suleiman’s father, dressed in a respectable black dishdasha, an embodiment of tradition, would be answering his cellphone while he made coffee over the fire. But everything was present for its utility. Survival is sometimes a matter of making shift, and the Bedouins have made a culture of this.

I later climbed a thorny acacia and watched children walk home from the nearby school that sits improbably amid those tents and barren mountains. The families around the valley gave me a more vivid picture of what the RSCN has accomplished. Its work involves saving wildlife, preserving landscapes and maintaining natural heritage, but it does this most effectively by helping people. When communities are not struggling, they can care for their environment and have an even deeper pride in the nature they are a part of. This conservation effort has strengthened a community, maintained a way of life that is increasingly difficult in urbanized society — difficult at the best of times. The ecolodge, with the RSCN ’s involvement, provides employment, instruction, the wherewithal to stay put — not exactly a typical feature of these nomads’ lives, but a comfort highly prized in a country where nomadism is as much about escaping famine as about exercising tradition.

I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the lifestyle of Suleiman’s family, the nature of the ecolodge, and something about Jordanians as a whole. At some level, sustainability means self-sufficiency. The ecolodge’s practices — based on standards celebrated but not often seen in wealthy countries such as Canada — are essentially Bedouin. The RSCN, the ecolodge, the Bedouin and all Jordanians are asking the same question: how do we survive in this desert? They are finding the same answers. Make the most of what is locally available, do not take what cannot be replaced, and help each other. What is remarkable about their practices is that hospitality always plays an important role. The Bedouins have customs regarding sanctuary, a practice of welcoming those in trouble and not asking questions of them.

Suleiman took me on a hike to watch the sunrise. He talked about how much he loved to do this on his own, how beautiful he found the mountains, his encounters with hyenas, ibex, wolves, eagles. I watched the rising sun ignite the landscape and thought, of course he doesn’t want to leave this place.

The fact is that while ecotourism in Jordan has not been hit as hard as other tourist ventures, it has been hit. And the longer tourism declines, the more the threat of mining arises. If copper mining begins again, Suleiman and his family would be forced to leave.

The next day we went on a wild ride over the mountains, catching stunning views of Wadi Araba, distant Israel, a landscape of scripture, empires, beauty and constant seeking. My trip would eventually include the coastal city of Al Aqabah, the Dead Sea, a number of luxurious resorts, and an astonishing variety of natural and human-made marvels for such a small desert country. At the end of the breathtaking ride over the mountains was Petra. And that, I promise not to spoil for you.

Toronto-based novelist Colin McAdam won the 2013 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for his third book, A Beautiful Truth; his first novel was a Governor General’s Award finalist, while his second was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. He has also written for Harper’s Magazine and The Walrus.


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