(for more Jordan photos click here)
In the mid-tenth century, the small town of Aila on the Red Sea coast went into decline. “We suddenly find luxury goods such as imported Chinese ceramics, but at the same time a lot of rubbish and appalling housing conditions,” archaeologists say. They interpret this as evidence for a widening gap between rich and poor resulting in social unrest in this early Muslim settlement. An earthquake in 1068 and the easy conquest by a bunch of crusaders then sealed the fate of the town. Today, the modern port and border town of Aqaba has grown here, bustling with traders and tourists.
During our one month in Jordan we also found a widening gap between rich and poor, educated and uneducated and between conflicting ideologies. They indicate, we think, social upheavals that are accompanied by vast changes in values – or, more often, a complete loss of values. On the one hand, conservative traditions clearly still dominate society but on the other hand they lose their meaning to many.
One day, when we were hitchhiking, a young Jordanian couple with their 3-month old daughter gave us a lift. Alaa and Sukhaina met in university: “We knew we wanted to marry” they recount. But weddings are expensive. Traditionally the groom has to pay for the wedding celebration as well as for the dowry. He also has to give presents, usually jewellery, to all the female relatives of the bride. In reality the young couple often saves up together for years for the big event. Of course, the father-in-law has to be asked formally for his daughter’s hand. Alaa sighs, “I went ten times all the way to Irbid in the north with my parents and my older brother for support until her father finally agreed…”
Among the Bedouins living in the vast deserts of southern Jordan, life-styles seem to have changed especially fast. “A camel is a man’s best friend – I bought my first camel when I was 15.” Salem is now 23 and hopes to find a good wife soon.“ I wouldn’t mind if she had her own camel,” he says generously. Then he checks his two mobile phones while turning the potatoes in the open fire. They are wrapped in aluminium foil: this progress shortens the cooking time by half.
In Salem, we were lucky to have found a guide we felt comfortable with, being alone in the desert. For many of the younger Bedouins in touristy places like Petra or Wadi Rum were ill-mannered and importunate, especially towards Western women. To some extent, Western women who encourage such behaviour are to blame for this (although it was beyond us why they would – most of these guys weren’t even charming or handsome). But we saw more women who felt obviously uncomfortable and didn’t protest at such behaviour.
“Islam became stronger during the last years. 10 years ago, fewer women were wearing headscarves, and almost none were completely veiled,” explains Ahmed, a fellow traveller we meet in a hotel lobby. And indeed in Jordan a growing number of women wear black veils that leave only a small slit for the eyes open. It seemed to us that the (pseudo) Islamist backlash against “Westernisation” has strengthened macho ideology that reduces opportunities and respect for women much more than in either Western or traditional Islamic societies. In comparison, Syria in general is much more conservative than Jordan, but we felt that women (Western as well as local ones) were treated better there and had – within these strict limits of tradition – broader choices than most Jordanian women.
The rapid economic development of Jordan has induced numerous foreign workers to try their luck in the country. Malaysian and Philippino women work in the hotels, and we met many Egyptians glad to earn more money than at home. “There are also hundreds of Chinese workers in the Chinese-owned factories in Amman,” one of them told us. “Jordan is a good place to work – but Egypt is where I want to live!” We have now moved on to Egypt and spent the last few days at the Red Sea coast in Dahab, one of those mixtures between travellers’ paradise and small-town rip-off. Just arrived in Cairo for our visa business, we are curious how the country has changed since our first visit seven years ago.