I wrote the first Hebrew language travel guide to Jordan and Syria. It was published
in 1994 by Motiv Publishing.
Map of Petra
Artifacts found in Syrian Military Museum in Damascus
Upon release from 3 year mandatory service in the Israel Defense Forces (most of which was
spent in the Spokesman Unit), I had the opportunity to travel to Jordan. On the eve of Passover 1993, I flew to Egypt
with a friend. We left Israel on our Israeli passports and entered Egypt on our American passports.
This was necessary as at the time, an Israeli stamp in your US passport meant not entering Jordan
(this is still the case for Syria).
We took a taxi to the Sinai -- a 14 hour drive. In Nuweiba we got on a boat for Akaba, Jordan. The ship was the size
of the Love Boat, except that it was overcrowded. We met a group of travellers onboard - two Canadians and an Australian.
From Akaba we took a taxi to Petra. Petra is somewhat of a legend in Israel. From the 1950's to the 1990's, every few years an Israeli teenager or two would try to cross the border and
see Petra. In the 1950's, Israel banned songs about Petra from the radio! In its time, Petra was
the crossroads of trade between the East and West.
We set out in the morning from our youth hostel for Petra -- The Red Rock (Ha-Sela Ha-Adom in Hebrew).
With its huge brown and red canyons, Petra was well worth the wait. We spent the day exploring the area.
In 1993, we were the first Israelis to see Petra in a long time. And definitely the first to get there
It was here that we shared with our three friends our real identities. We explained that we were
Israelis with dual citizenship. They were, to say the least, shocked. It was fun seeing their
reactions. The next morning we continued on our way -- to Amman. Amman was known as
Philadelphia during the days of the Greek Decapolis (a forerunner to the EU?) of which it was a member.
In Amman we stayed at the Mamoura Hotel -- not far from Jordan TV. We visited the military museum --
which depicted all of Jordan's wars besides the 1967 Six Day War.
We visited Mount Nebo -- where, according to the Bible, Moses looked into the Land of Israel and where he died. Thought
not at all religious, I appreciated Mount Nebo. The view was amazing. We could see the tower
coming from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem! And below us the Dead Sea (the Jordanian side WAS
dead compared to the Israeli side!) The Church nearby has the oldest known map of Jerusalem - The Medba Map.
On our last night in Amman I called a friend in Israel (not directly -- via a call to the US) and
told him to meet me at the Allenby Bridge in the morning. That next morning we crossed the Allenby
Bridge -- something very rare for Israelis. Even today, Israelis don't cross at the Allenby
The Jordan River is really a small, backwater river with a rich history. In my 5 years (by that
time) in Israel, I had never dreamt of crossing. Its only a 45 minute ride from Amman, a border, then
a 45 minute ride up to Jerusalem. On the way up, in Jericho, our car was stoned by Palestinian
teens. A quick reminder that we were home.
An article in Yediot Aharonot was published. It was well received, because
within two months I was off to Jordan again -- this time on my own. For
this trip, I flew to Istanbul where I hid my Israeli passport in my back pocket. From Istanbul
back across the Mediterranean to land in Amman, Jordan. Nice airport in Amman. Lots of
stores and a fine restaurant.
On this trip I stayed in the Ramallah Hotel in central Amman. I was obviously "playing the role"
of an American student. I went to The Jordan Star -- a weekly English newspaper. They let me on
as a freelancer. They asked me what I wanted to do an article on. "The Hamas," I replied. Within
a few minutes I was on the phone with Ibrahim Ghosheh (who was finally arrested in September
1997!), self-described "spokesman" of the Hamas.
The next day I interviewed Ghosheh, who tape recorded the interview. Nothing he said was different
from what I expected. Funny -- the Hamas HQ in Amman is surrounded by four hospitals! Hitchcock
would've loved this. The article was published in The Star, and a few weeks later in HaOlam
HaZeh, an Israeli weekly.
This trip was long. It was real boring at night -- not much to do in Amman besides watch Israeli
TV and read Benjamin Netanyahu's latest book. The food wasn't bad -- shwarmas and pita with anything you can think of. Same food
you'd find in Israel -- just greasier ("Gifa" in Hebrew!).
One interesting event on this trip was the time at Jordan TV. I went there -- uninvited of course.
I went up to the man who does the Hebrew news broadcast every night. I went up to him
and spoke Hebrew. He was shocked. I mean SHOCKED. Within 5 minutes I was escorted out. It was
worth it, though. I HAD to.
I was in Jordan nearly two months this time. A LONG time. I knew Amman well. On the third trip (a few months
later), I spent three weeks in Syria. Damascus is a three hour taxi ride from Amman. When you
cross the border, you KNOW you're in Syria. Big pictures of Big Brother (the current one is named
Assad) are everywhere -- covering even the largest buildings in Damascus. This is 1984 in real-life.
Amazing. They are Marxist AND a dictatorship over there -- two failed philosophies.
Damascus is a cool city that's seen better days. The Assad family's dictatorship and socialism aren't doing much good to the Syrian economy. The river flowing through it is really an open sewer. I walked across
the city a few times. Went to WAFA, the Palestinian News Agency (is that an oxymoron? There is
NO free press in Gaza). Told them "my story" and they brought me to the headquarters of the PFLP,
headed by the terrorist Dr. George Habash. When I got there, I was told the doctor was sick and
I interviewed his deputy Abu Ali Mustafa. While I was there I found in my pocket a bus ticket for the Ariel-Tel Aviv
bus line. It ended up in the PFLP toilet. An interesting note to this story. In 2001, the PFLP
tried to blow up a car next to Mike's Place, a Jerusalem pub that I spent time at that year. Luckily no one
was hurt. Because of this attempt, Israel assassinated the number two man at the PFLP - Abu Ali Mustafa, the man I interviewed
Terrorists organizations are allowed to run freely in Damascus. If I got to them so easily
(in Jordan as well), imagine what the Mossad does! I made it to Allepo (Haleb) on this trip.
Allepo is a big market. I met a hotel manager, who in another world, would've been an engineer.
Lots of Syrian engineers with nothing to engineer in their economy!
On one Friday night I visited the Jewish community, in the old city of Damascus. I brought a
Talis ("Talit") from Israel and went to Friday night services. As I entered, everyone turned
my way. "Who's that white boy," is what they were probably saying. I took my seat and joined
in. After services, the people approached me. The Rabbi stood in front of me and said, "Where
are you from?" -- but in Hebrew! I answered, "Adif sh'ani lo agid lecha." ("It's better that
I not tell you.") He told me it was dangerous for me to be there. I shook his hand and was on my way. On the way back, I passed the long alleyways that make up
any old city. But this time I noticed the shopkeepers and their stares -- I was told by the
Rabbi that the shopkeepers keep an eye out for foreigners for the Syrian authorities. It was a
nervous walk back.
In the center of Damascus is Martyr Square. Criminals are executed here -- and so was Israeli
spy Eli Cohen. Nothing much to do there but get a bite to eat. Across the street from Martyr
Square is "Schmuck Jewelry" -- interesting name for Damascus!
After the third trip, I wrote the book. It was the culmination of nearly two years of involvement
with Jordan and Syria. It was a challenge writing something in my 2nd language. There's nothing
like seeing your book in the window of a bookstore!
Years later, I still sometimes see my book in Israeli bookstores. In 2001, I had the amazing experience
of meeting the Syrian Rabbi and taking him out to lunch. I gave him a copy of the newspaper article that
I wrote for an Israeli newspaper about my trip to Syria and a copy of the book. I had him sign one for me -
he signed my copy in Aramaic! Meeting him there, in Jaffa (Yafo), was incredible. He told me stories of
meeting Assad and of seeing to it that members of the Jewish community who wanted to leave got out before
he headed to Israel. I was proud to be breaking bread with him seven years later in Israel.
In June 2008, while preparing for a return to Jordan, I saw this book at an Eilat book store. It was a nice surprise to see my book mentioned. I hope all of these books sell well.
In June 1993, I wrote this article for The Star, one of two English newspapers published in Jordan. The Star comes out weekly (unlike the daily Jordan Times). As soon as we got to Amman, we went to their offices and one of the journalists was kind enough to photocopy my article for me. I was lucky they still had it in the archives - they only had articles back to April 1993 and it was on the bottom of a large stack of huge volumes!
In June 2008, we decided on a short trip to Jordan. I hadn't been there since 1994 and despite the extreme summer heat, this was a good time for us. We left our house on June 25th at 6:15am, taking a taxi to the Arava Border Crossing. By 7am we were done with passport control on the Jordanian side. We were originally planning on taking a bus to Petra, but the bus didn't leave till 9am so we took a 45 Jordanian Dinar (JD) taxi to Petra. We were there in 90 minutes. The driver was terrific - charismatic, funny and he stopped along the way for a gorgeous view. I ended up turning that view into a very large panorama poster.
He dropped us off at the Sharah Mountains Hotel. The room cost 31 JD but we agreed on a bit less. Big room, clean bathroom and a TV. We immediately prepared our day backpack and went to the hotel lobby. Mahmood, the hotel owner, took us and three Mexican travellers to the Petra entrance. He refused to accept a tip for the short ride. We paid 21 JD and started walking. Its about a 20 minute walk to the "Siq" - the canyon. 20 minutes later and you're at the famous treasury building. The photos speak for themselves. We spent a bit of time there, in awe of Nabatean architecture, and then headed off. A few minutes of walking to the amphitheatre. Just before it is a climb to the top of Petra. It wasn't easy but we did it. The rock stairs were easy to navigate, but it was a steep climb. We rested on top, took photos and climbed down.
We continued on to the other Petra buildings and enjoyed lunch in the shade. By this time, it was hot - over 100 degrees. We started the walk back and were at the hotel by early afternoon. There was so much we missed, but we know we'll go back again soon. This was a great intro trip for the two of us together. We rested in the hotel and enjoyed watching Jordanian cable TV. Over 350 channels! Mahmood, the hotel owner, was on his way in the morning to Amman and offered us a ride at a very fair price.
We left at 6:15am and were in Amman after 9am. We learned a lot from chatting with him - you couldn't get this kind of a tour guide for a lot of money. On the way into Amman, he drove us through the wealthy Abdoun neighborhood. He dropped us off at the Sydney Hotel in Amman and he stayed for Turkish coffee. We headed out to the pretty (really!) streets of Amman. I've been to three Arab capitals and Amman is by far my favorite. The city has circles which act as landmarks for travellers and locals alike. Most people speak English and those who don't will take you to someone who does when you need help. Amman is a tourist friendly city.
We started at the Ministry of Tourism and got a few travel booklets. We then headed to The Star and found the article I wrote 15 years earlier. We spent the rest of the day and the next day walking and touring the city. We walked up and down the first three circles, spent hours in Amman's open market, saw two beautiful mosques, took a taxi up to the Citadel, walked down to the Roman Amphitheatre, ate too much food and did more shopping than we had planned! We even hit a few music stores and bought some music - chillout and dance. The hotel didn't have air conditioning (the one in Petra did) so it was hot all day and we were better off outside on our feet. The taxi drivers were nice to us and so were the store and restaurant owners. We left Amman knowing we'll be back.
In the morning, we got on a JETT (Jordan Express Tourist Transport) bus to Aqaba. The bus ride was as good as can be - a bathroom onboard (even clean!), cheap food and drinks sold by the two stewardesses and a terrific view from the second floor. In four hours, we were in Aqaba. We walked to a restaurant and had lunch - with a view of Eilat in the background. A short taxi and we were at the border crossings and were home in Eilat in no time.
We got home and unpacked our souvenirs and showed them to friends. The next day I got the photos developed and did a lot of panorama enlargements.
What changed in 14 years since my last visit?
Amman was bigger (and it wasn't a small city in the 90's!) and much of the construction was new. Jordanians complained of high inflation. They blamed it on high gas prices (you think expensive oil prices affect you in the the US, Europe and Israel?!) and on Iraqis. Iraqis?? Everyone knows that many Iraqis fled to Jordan before and during the Iraq War. Many of them came with money they stole from the falling Saddam regime and the new government. They're spending it like wild in Jordan. As they didn't earn this money, they're paying exhorbitant prices for everything from furniture to homes. One taxi driver told me of a relative who bought an apartment for $20,000 and sold it to an Iraqi for $100,000 a few weeks later!
Amman's economy looks bustling to the tourist - the streets are filled with people going about their day-to-day business, the markets are filled with buyers and sellers and taxis are busy driving people throughout the city. But most restaurants were empty or almost empty. The only thing they can afford is "food on the streets" - mainly shwarma which cost 700 fils (1,000 fils is one JD). That same shwarma cost 150 fils in the 90's.
We usually didn't hesitate to tell them we were from Israel. Their response was great - surprise and then a warm welcome. From talking to dozens of people, we got the following picture - peace takes time and 14 years after the Israel-Jordan peace, the attitudes of most Jordanians to Israel have changed. A few were blunt. One taxi driver told us this story - When we were young, our parents told us to hate the Jews and Israelis. Today we have problems with Iran and the Shia in Iraq. They're our real enemy.
They like their king, but don't think he has much of the common touch. Jordanians aren't afraid to speak their minds (unlike Syrians). They don't feel their parliament has much power. They want a better economy. The two things they can do to help this would be to let women work and for their trade organizations to stop banning Jordanian businesses from dealing with Israel - they can learn a lot from our hi-tech industry and from how Israel has improved its economy since the 80's.
I wish Jordan a better future. They're a warm and capable people. Time is healing the wounds between Jordan and Israel. But time won't fix Jordan's economy - only bold reforms will do that.
We had a great time and plan on returning soon with friends. There's more to see in Petra and Amman and a half dozen other places we want to visit. Great memories!