Saturday 5 January 2013

Amman and the Hashemite Kingdom of Boredom


I must stay in Amman a second night. I cannot cross the Allenby (a.k.a. King Hussein) Bridge till tomorrow, because the Israeli side closes early on the sabbath. The other two crossings remain open all day on the sabbath but they are too far away.

I learnt this from the concierge before I paid for a taxi to take me to the bridge. I felt pleased that the journey was now taken out of my hands and someone else was running things. For a day I am no longer a tourist, a subjective person who travels for no good reason, but am here for a very good, objective, grown-up reason, that the crossing is closed. I walk around the centre of the town (in the shabby little centre, it does not feel like a city), in the pouring rain. My memory of Amman will be of somewhere grey and chilly. Tomorrow, as I leave, it is expected to snow. 

I suspect that back in 1948 there was not a burqa in sight and Jordanian women wore knee length skirts, just as I have seen Egyptian women did in films of the period. Now headscarves are common though so are blue jeans. I saw one pair of women wearing the full veil with only peep holes for their eyes and happening to be behind them in a queue at a street stall I notice that they were English, spoke with classless (meaning middle middle class) English voices and one of them was white (I could tell by her wrists). 

It was good to chill after much effort yesterday at Petra. Good to swim in the pool of the very comfortable, somewhat pricey Hotel Toledo, use the steam bath and blog. I would advise you, though, gentle reader, to get a five star hotel for this money.

Amman had 2,000 inhabitants when King Abdullah I chose it as the capital of Transjordan and it is now the capital of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, known to foreign correspondents as the Hashemite Kingdom of Boredom.  Abdullah I first chose the town of Salt, a larger place, but changed his mind after someone in Salt was insolent to him. Amman had no house fit for an emir, so he used the railway station as his palace. 

By the time Transjordan gained independence from England, in 1949, the population had grown by 150% to 5,000 but in 2010 the population of the Greater Amman area numbered 2,842,629. Despite or because of this, the city centre is a non-event, a busy road full of shabby shops and a vegetable market rather than a souk, very unimpressive, but attractive because poor. Like many modern cities, Amman is a driving city not a walking city and has very elegant parts, like the one my hotel is in. The centre, however, has the great charm of letting you know that you are in a small country. You feel a weight lifting from your shoulders in small countries. It is the same in Luxembourg. 

Nevertheless, Amman is not a new place. It was 
known to the ancients as Philadelphia (there is a W.C. Fields joke here) and was ruled by the Nabataeans, who built Petra, before they were conquered by Trajan. To prove its antiquity, Amman possesses two magnificent monuments, the citadel, built by the Romans and substantially rebuilt by the Umayyads, and the Roman amphitheatre (actually there are two but one is in great condition). I went over the citadel without a guide and enjoyed it. I was not in the mood for the repetition of unimportant and not necessarily accurate facts.

The Jordanians are probably Palestinians but then all these identities and nations are pretty new ideas in what were parts of the Vilayats of Damascus and Jerusalem in the Ottoman days. (I repeat myself, I know, but what a shame a democratic Ottoman Empire did not emerge and survive into our day, at peace with Britain and ruled by Greek ministers, with no modern Middle East.) At any rate, Jordanians on the street looked happier than the Arabs in the West Bank and have, despite what Israeli Arabs told me, a much higher standard of living. GDP per capita here is about twice that of the West Bank.

My unscientific but persuasive survey of four taxi drivers and two guides suggests that Jordanians love their King, their Queen and the memory of the old King, King Hussein. On the other hand, all six of my interlocutors were over 40 and the median age here is 22. They all spoke English well and did jobs which earned them good money from foreigners. My last driver, a Bedouin who was born in a tent, was an East Banker, to be distinguished from the West Bank refugees from 1948 and 1967. East Bankers love their king, he says. I asked him why so many of the refugees are still living in tents and realised that until a certain number of years ago most people lived in tents. This is the kind of insight you don't get from reading the newspapers.

I asked about whether you got into trouble with the police for criticising the authorities and was told you can criticise the Prime Minister and the ministers but not the King. 'There is a red line drawn around the King.' 

King AbdullahII has an English mother, is a fresh-faced blue-eyed Harrovian, one month younger than me (a child, in other words) who speaks Arabic badly and is obviously as British as the flag, despite having a curious beard that looks like it may be stuck on with paste. He has a young, innocent, honest face. He followed Harrow with Sandhurst and a year at Oxford. He is the only decent ruler in a region full of horrible leaders. And the King is a king. Monarchies have innumerable advantages over dictatorships. The first of these is that they are legitimate, ipso facto, without need for elections. Elections in this past of the world mean the triumph of religious parties and then, often, no more elections. As Mark Steyn said, a king is his own ideology.

Jordan is the last of the British-client monarchies north of the Gulf. Like the famous Haroun al-Raschid, King Abdullah II likes to go out among his subjects, I was told, in disguise, to hear about their problems incognito. If only he had married Jemima Khan he would be quite perfect for a Richard Curtis film but in fact he is married to a lovely queen from Ramallah in the West bank who has won the country's love.

For other views of Jordan, by people who, unlike me, know something about the country, click here and here.

Talking about blue-eyed Jordanians, my second taxi driver, with skin as pale as vellum and blue eyes, turned out to be one of the Circassians I had read about, Muslims who came to Palestine from Czarist Russia. My waiter at lunch also had white hair and blue eyes but denied being Circassian and I realised he was an albino and wondered if I had caused offence. An albino Arab waiter - straight out of the pages of Bulldog Drummond, John Buchan or William Le Queux. 

The hotel restaurant has filled up since I came in here to blog. Then I was alone except for the secret policeman who was pretending to do the Amman Times crossword(Joke). Now it is full and not of businessmen but holiday - makers. Who are these people who go to a $120 three star hotel in Amman for their holidays in early January? Many of them are Antipodeans and all seem placidly content though only one table of bibulous Australians are positively excited. 

Since the albino waiter I saw a third pale man with white hair and wonder what story John Buchan could have spun from this. Probably he would have me called to see the Minister of the Interior and be told I had to offer my services to save both the King and vital British interests. 

1 comment:

  1. I think you should write a John Buchan sort of novel don't you? I understand that a lot of younger Jordainians are agitating,seemingly civilly for more democracy. I suppose most Jordainians are as poor as Palistinians all around. It's all disturbing. Lawrence of Arabia posed as Circassian you know. It's minus cold in Bucharest today. Take care.