Jordan in My Heart
An oasis of calm in a region beset by bloodshed, Jordan is a melting pot of refugees — a home for people who can’t go home.
Words by Ashlea Halpern
Photographs by Evgenia Arbugaeva
Videos by Max Arbugaeva
ON MY WAY TO JORDAN, during my connecting flight through Paris, I am seated next to a chatty American woman in her 70s — a retired teacher from Bakersfield, California, who tells me she spent decades teaching in one of the roughest school districts in the state. A student once threatened her with a knife.
When I tell her I’m headed to Amman, the capital, following my layover in France, her face drops.
“Oh, wow,” she says quietly, eyebrows knitted with concern. “Is that safe?”
You can count on three fingers what most Americans think they know about the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan:
1. It’s somewhere in the Middle East.
2. It’s desert-y.
3. It’s dangerous.
Only one of these is correct. It’s a shame to think the other two have deterred so many travelers from exploring this historically rich, culturally diverse, instinctively welcoming Arab nation. So let’s get a few things straight here: Yes, Jordan is in the Middle East. There is a lot of desert, but it’s dramatic red-cliffs desert, not woozy-mirage sand desert. And while it is surrounded by a greatest-hits list of notable conflict zones — Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the West Bank — it is not dangerous. (The U.S. State Department puts it on the same risk level as Italy, though all the same it’d probably be wise to steer clear of the northern borders.)
And this is not a new thing, or some fragile state of affairs: The place we now know as Jordan has always been a harbor from violence, going back centuries, even millennia.
“Across thousands of years, this geographic spot was always safe,” says Hussein Alazaat, a graphic designer and superstar calligrapher whose studio I would soon visit. “There is no fancy stuff to steal, no petrol, no harbors. We’re in the middle of many countries, all with really famous wealth. This land has history, of course, but it’s not sexy to conquerors. If you want to be safe, stay in Jordan.”
It’s why Syrians, Iraqis, Palestinians, and other displaced people have sought refuge here for so long. Some bide their time until they can safely return home; others integrate into Jordanian society, build Jordanian businesses, and start Jordanian families. “But here,” they will say, pointing to their heart, “I’m still Syrian,” or “I’m still Iraqi,” or “I’m still Palestinian.” During my week-long stay, I heard it all the time. The fully veiled Iraqi woman I would meet in a park who worries that her Jordanian-born children will never know and love Iraq the way she does. The Palestinian taxi driver who keeps his old house keys on his key ring, just in case.
While large swaths of Jordan are indeed furnished with towering cliffs and sweeping desertscapes — famously captured in Lawrence of Arabia — Amman itself is pure city. Close to half of the country’s population lives here, with two-, three-, and four-story buildings stacked like shark’s teeth up lung-bustingly steep hills. To see a dab of greenery amid all that ancient stone is like falling off a ladder in a dream — it jars you right awake. Up and down hundreds of stairs, through galleries and graffiti-splashed skate parks, the energy of the city is everywhere. Even the beige monotony of Amman’s Tetris-style architecture quickly grows on me. This is not a pretty city, per se, but it has a way of catching you off guard. You come around a bend or over a hill and — wham! — there she is. A vision in khaki-colored stone, so densely layered it seems impossible that there could be actual streets wedged between the houses. Yet there are, and on those streets are cars with their windows half rolled down, thumping Arabic music competing with Luis Fonsi pouring off rooftop restaurants. Everywhere you turn, you smell sticky-sweet apple and you hear the bubble and suck of the shisha pipe.
That night, as I lay in bed thinking about Amman and how I’m kinda sorta falling in love with it, I hear what sounds like rapid-fire gunshots outside my window. I tiptoe over to the balcony to peek out, the words of that schoolteacher from the plane echoing in my head: “Is it safe?”
Then I see it. A burst of yellow, a shower of red — sparkly and magnificent. Fireworks.
A puffy cloud. A dancing butterfly. A stick figure perched atop a hill with a gold star in hand. These are the images that inspire Zaid Souqi. He plucks them from the artwork of children living in Syrian-refugee camps and in other marginalized communities and prints them onto organic cotton T-shirts, tote bags, and journals. A percentage of the sales from these goods helps fund future art initiatives.
For my first stop in a week of Airbnb Experiences, I’ve met up with Souqi, a willowy Jordanian with a million-dinar smile, in his sunny one-room office at Mazar Al Fann, a co-working space in the hilly, Parisian-like residential neighborhood of Jabal al-Weibdeh. I’m joined by a good-natured Canadian with a keen interest in NGOs. We’re here to learn more about the work of the Orenda Tribe, a socially responsible apparel company Souqi launched in 2016 after ditching his career in corporate logistics. A newly minted MBA with an unusually big heart, he was intrigued by social enterprise and the notion that doing well and doing good needn’t be mutually exclusive. To date, the Orenda Tribe has reached 2,000 disadvantaged kids through 18 projects in six communities.
As Souqi shares a little of his history, the Canadian and I use fabric markers to doodle on a tote bag sewn by women in the Zaatari refugee camp, the largest Syrian camp in Jordan. The canvas itself is recycled from disused camp tents. We’ve been instructed to illustrate the values of the Orenda Tribe — words like “empower” and “inspire.” It’s one of the ice-breaking activities Souqi does with the kids in his workshops.
Why art? I wonder aloud.
“Because it’s the universal language,” answers Souqi. “Everyone speaks it.”
Maya Albabili is one of the lucky ones. In 2015, she was living in Damascus with her husband and three kids, now ages 17, 13, and 8, when they had to flee Syria because of the war. Her spouse, an optician, left behind a glasses shop. But at least her family is alive. And they’re living in Amman, not at the Zaatari refugee camp with tens of thousands of less fortunate Syrians. She and her husband even found a way to generate a little cash by making soap together at home.
I learn Albabili’s story while measuring out olive oil and caustic soda as part of an Aleppo-soap-making workshop at Jasmine Center in West Amman, a women’s co-op that supports the entrepreneurial ventures of 30 refugees. It was founded in February 2014 by Airbnb Experiences host Lara Shahin, herself a Syrian transplant. What began in a tiny room with just five participants is now a full-on crafting center, with distinct areas for sewing, crocheting, and soap-making.
Like Albabili, Shahin was living with her family in Damascus when the bloodshed started. Her parents offered food and money to refugees fleeing war-ravaged Daraa and Homs, only to find themselves accused of terrorism by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. And just like that, they too were on the run. Shahin, her sister, and her folks left first, while her two brothers stayed behind. The family figured it would be in Jordan three months, max. That was six years ago.
“There’s just nothing left in Syria,” Shahin tells me. “No jobs, no money, nothing.” But what really devastated her was the limbo she saw her fellow Syrians facing, many of them older women and stay-at-home moms with no source of income. This uncertainty weighs on them.
As we talk, I try to imagine what it must feel like to be stateless, to have your identity erased by events beyond your control, to move through life like a ghost. Back in Syria, these women used to be somebody. Now who are they? Will any place just let them be? (Albabili has applied four times to emigrate to the United States, where her sister and father live, and every time she is denied with no explanation. Shahin has applied twice for a work visa in Canada — also to no effect.)
An hour passes. I’m so absorbed by our conversation — both the heaviness and the unexpected humor of it; Trump jokes get a lot of laughs — that I forget why I’m even here: to make soap.
“Why are so many people in Jordan hesitant to identify as Jordanian, even when they’re born here?”
I’ve volleyed this question, and roughly 400 others, at my breakfast companion, Airbnb Experiences host and typographer extraordinaire Hussein Alazaat. (Seriously, the guy is a minor celebrity in the Middle East, having “Arabicized” logos for Paul Smith, Canali, and Givenchy, and even designed the logo for the Martyrs’ Memorial in Amman, green-lit by Abdullah II of Jordan himself.)
Yesterday we spent the morning at Alazaat’s beautiful studio and library, housed in a 67-year-old mansion with a Levant-style fountain and a pistachio tree in the courtyard. I had signed up for a three-hour workshop in Arabic calligraphy, glossing over the basics of the square Kufic, ancient Hijazi, and playful Diwani scripts. Alazaat’s instruction was meticulous and exacting. By the end of the session, I’d managed to draw my name in framable blocky Kufic.
Now we’re seated at a sidewalk table at Oqilly, a decades-old workingman’s spot in the shadow of the Amman Citadel. As a foreign woman eating among the men, I’m quite the spectacle, although everyone is exceedingly polite. (The waiter won’t even make eye contact — a sign of respect, Alazaat assures me.) Our conversation veers from Alazaat’s three kids (the eldest is starting to dabble in calligraphy) to annoying Arabic stereotypes (“You have cars?! I thought you only arrived on camels!”) to what women in hijabs can’t — or rather, shouldn’t — do in Jordan (laughing loudly in public among girlfriends, for example, is frowned upon in more conservative circles). But inevitably, the conversation comes back to Syria.
Like so many others I’ve met, Alazaat describes himself as Jordanian by birth but Syrian by descent. He says he spent “like, every weekend” in Damascus before the war, even though his grandfather came here a century ago. Some of his family members are still holed up in the capital; others have escaped to Europe, Canada, and the U.S., among others. Alazaat dreams of going back, but he knows it’s too precarious right now.
“Basically, Jordan is one huge refugee camp,” he explains between bites of oven-fired mashrouh bread and foul moudamas, springy fava beans swimming in olive oil. “Everyone came here because they were forced to leave their own countries.” Silence falls over our table as we stuff our cheeks with crispy falafel balls and creamy hummus, the latter drenched in olive oil and showered with tomato, lemon, and pepper. It’s the best thing I’ve eaten all month.
On a mountaintop in Umm Qais, a wee village of 7,000 in the northwest corner of Jordan, overlooking undulating hills and silvery bodies of water, there are different countries in every direction. From this panoramic vantage point you can see the Yarmouk Forest Reserve, a deciduous oak tree forest in Jordan; the Golan Heights, a Syrian territory now controlled by Israel; and Mount Hermon and Lake Tiberias. I learn this over tea with my ginger-bearded host Roddy Boyle, a Scottish-born global citizen, raised in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, who moved to Jordan three years ago to learn Arabic. In Umm Qais, roughly two and a half hours north of Amman, he hooked up with Baraka Destinations, a sustainable tourism company that works with around 50 locals to arrange culturally enriching experiences for travelers. I’m here to try two of them, both bookable via Airbnb.
First up: a beekeeping session with Jordanian national Yousef Al Sayah, a retired military man turned full-time apiarist. He’s been honey farming for 15 years; his collection now includes 60 hives, housing about 60,000 bees each. We climb into heavy-duty, Outbreak-spooky bee suits and head out to the colonies. Like a snake charmer wooing a cobra, Al Sayah blows smoke into the hive before prying off the lid, careful not to block the hole where bees wearing yellow leg warmers of pollen fly in and out. The combs are swarming with life. It’s at once remarkable and terrifying to behold.
After lunch, I set out for a historical tour of Gadara, the Decapolis on the hill. My guide is Ahmad Al Omari, who was born and raised at these Greco-Roman ruins. Jordan’s Department of Antiquities declared Gadara an archaeological site in 1967, but Al Omari’s family lived there until 1987, when they and 1,500 other residents were finally forced to relocate. He knows every shred of history about this place, which dates from the seventh century b.c. He leads me around the crumbling grounds, past herds of grazing goats and grooves in the cobblestone where chariots used to race, into a decrepit necropolis lined with empty basalt tombs, and through a lovely amphitheater where great poets like the Meleager of Gadara once recited their verses for full houses.
Al Omari worries that the locals don’t appreciate what they have here. He barks at teenage boys in whiskered denim, smoking shisha on plastic chairs in the base of the old theater, and tsk-tsks a group of veiled girls taking selfies by the free-standing Roman columns. I try to assure him that teenagers everywhere don’t care about history and never have, but I can tell their disinterest is acutely painful. He puts it in the context of his own childhood. As a kid, he’d play hide-and-seek in the ancient aqueduct. The lidless sarcophagus in the courtyard of the archaeological museum was a rainwater swimming pool on a hot summer’s day. And that tourist restaurant over there? It used to be his school. For him, Gadara is still home, and he’s fiercely protective of it.
As the sun streaks purple across the sky and a muezzin chants the day’s penultimate call to prayer, we stand at the edge of Gadara, surveying the lights flickering in the village below. I ask him what it means to be Jordanian, and to take pride in this land’s rich and blended history. As he’s done throughout our tour, Al Omari paraphrases the great Meleager: “If you are a Syrian, I say to you ‘Salam!’ And if a Phoenician — ‘Naidios!’ And if Greek — ‘Chaire!’ and you return me the same.”
It’s the most poignant example of nationalism I’ve seen all week.
About the author: Ashlea Halpern is the co-founder of Cartogramme and editor-at-large for AFAR Media. She edited New York Magazine’s pop-up travel blog, The Urbanist, and writes regularly for Airbnbmag, Condé Nast Traveler, Bon Appétit, and Wired. After spending almost four years traveling Asia, Australia, the Arctic, and North America, she recently settled in Minneapolis, MN — the most underrated city in the lower 48, bar none. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern and @cartogramme.