The Scent of Jordan

The scent of Jordan is unlike that of any other place I’ve been. Somehow it took me by surprise; I was expecting a different culture, different language, different architecture and food; but a different, and unique, fragrance was completely unexpected. It is a melange of many things: dust, heat, spices, coffee, tea, bodies both washed and not, goats and sheep, and a different array of plants than are found anywhere in the United States. It isn’t unpleasant by any means, despite the livestock influence. It is the exotic perfume of an ancient world struggling to make the transition to what the western world considers modern.

I was in Jordan in the summer of 1983, taking part in the first major archaeological excavation at the early Neolithic site of ‘Ain Ghazal, on the edge of Amman, Jordan’s capitol. The flight had been long, from Lawrence, Kansas, through New York City, with a refueling stop in Italy (surrounded by armed soldiers) before finally landing at the then-new airport in Amman. I flew with some of the other team members on Alia, the Royal Jordanian Airline, from New York, so had already had a taste of things to come as the flight attendants made announcements in Arabic before repeating them in English, and airline food flavored with the spices of the east.

Stepping out of the plane, I was struck breathless by the dry heat before inhaling the essence of what was to me a new world. The late afternoon sky was a cloudless pale blue, reflecting no water, only the near-white sand and earth of the Jordanian desert. The glare of sun and sand was nearly blinding as I was herded with the rest of the passengers into the airport. The interior seemed cool and dim after the bright desert day, and as I looked around I was drawn in by the beauty of the building, with its graceful arches and clean lines, its decorative tile and plants. Even the signs, in the unfamiliar Arabic script, looked like works of art. I didn’t feel the strangeness that I had expected; instead, in an inexplicable way, I felt I had come home.

I made the obligatory airport bathroom stop, and was met with another indication that I was far from my former home: the Turkish toilet. It is a hole in the floor, with two spots either side clearly meant for your feet, and instead of paper, a faucet. Because this was in the new airport, the floor and walls were gleaming white, and the waste would be flushed away. I soon learned that this would not always be the case, and before the summer was out, I was wondering if my knees would hold up until I left. I was later told by a Jordanian doctor that the squatting position for elimination into a Turkish toilet is much more natural, and more healthy, than the seated position preferred in the U.S., and while my intestinal tract may have agreed with him, my legs and knees most definitely did not!

Fellow team members and I were met by one of the co-directors of the site, and taken in a van to the compound that would be my home for the next 12 weeks. By the time we reached it, darkness had settled, quickly, as it always does in deserts, and in the outer suburb of Maarka, there were few to no streetlights to illuminate either the road or our quarters. Through a tall gate, we went into the walled courtyard of a large building; to the right a low-watt bulb showed a small building I would soon learn housed the kitchen, and on the left, a long low building held the toilet and washing facilities, with water coming from a tank atop the building. The building looming before us was a boys’ school during the winter months, that had been rented to us by the Jordanian government for our use during the field season.

We were the last of the crew to arrive, and were led to various classrooms cum bedrooms on the lower two floors, each with mattresses on the floors and rough woolen blankets. We’d been told to bring sheets and pillow cases, and were also assured that the mattresses and blankets were free of any insect life. We had not, however, been warned of the ferocity of the mosquitoes or the fearlessness of the local mice! At that point, all was new and interesting, but too much to take in after the long trip.

The next morning we were roused at an ungodly hour for first breakfast at about 5:00 a.m. Mid-day in that part of the world is generally too hot to work through, so the cooler morning hours were essential for accomplishing the majority of the work we would do. First breakfast was a simple one, with steaming coffee, fresh juice, sour and tangy goat’s milk yogurt, apricot jam, a white cheese our cooks called “Kiri” (which I later learned was Laughing Cow, or La Vache Qui Rit), and “Syrian bread,” a flat and chewy round similar to pita, but without a pocket, and with far more flavor than anything one can find in a U.S. supermarket. After the meal, two vans took most of the crew to the site, but my primary job was lab director, and I spent that morning getting my upper level domain in order.

Part of my responsibility was obtaining supplies for the crew, so I took a bus from Maarka to central Amman, home to both shops as westerners know them, and the suks of the Mediterranean and Middle East, where nearly anything can be purchased after an obligatory bartering session. Here the scent of Jordan was the strongest, and truest. Spice vendors stood elbow to elbow with sellers of tea and coffee. Rugs, clothing, jewelry, perfumes, soaps and lotions, all had stalls.

The sounds of Jordan came alive here too, as each seller shouted for the buyer’s attention, promising only the highest quality along with special prices for special people. Dirty happy children ran shouting and playing through the narrow alleyways. Flocks of goats and sheep were led along by shouting and whistling boys. Bedouin women swathed in blue, with all visible skin tattooed, followed silently behind their stolid husbands. Whining and sobbing beggars surrounded me, both young and old, some with missing limbs or horrific sores; I didn’t know what was real and what was not. And another essential ingredient of that elusive fragrance was revealed in their poverty and need.

I knew I stood out in the suks. I stand 5’8″, tall in Jordan, with uncovered auburn hair that shone in the morning sun. I wore jeans, and my arms were bare and pale below the elbow, my face nearly as white as the desert sands. Jordanians are a beautiful people, with deep brown eyes, glossy black hair, and quick kind smiles. Although anti-American slogans were painted on some of the downtown walls, I was welcomed with warm courtesy everywhere I went, and offered the best that each person had. Again, amidst the foreign scents, colors and textures of the suks, I felt oddly at home.

There are so many stories from that trip: the bus ride with chickens; the afternoon tea with neighborhood women; bargaining for plastic carry-alls and pen tips; trying to explain an illness to a Jordanian doctor using German, the only language we held in common; even an apparent kidnapping attempt. Each adventure, each story, found me deeper entrenched in this new world, and more in love with this new culture and its people. I have forgotten names, and dates, and undoubtedly some of the adventures as well. But I will never forget the scent of Jordan.

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