Petra shopkeepers are friendly, frank and curious about visitors. Margie Goldsmith
“Would you like to have your name written in Arabic?” the Jordanian shopkeeper asked. He held out a silver pendant as I browsed in his souvenir store in Petra.
“No thanks,” I said, thumbing through postcards of Jordan.
He looked at me with intense black eyes and said, “You’re Jewish, aren’t you?”
I could feel my heart pound. I’d been in Jordan a week, visiting the major sites. At the Dead Sea, which the Arabs call “Lot’s Sea,” no one asked me that. Nor did they ask when I was at Mount Nebo where Moses is buried, or at Bethany-beyond-Jordan, where John is said to have baptized Jesus. Why was he asking, and what was the right answer? Although born Jewish, I wasn’t brought up with any religion, and our family celebrated Christmas not Chanukah, Easter, not Purim.
“What makes you think I’m Jewish?” I stalled.
“You have Jewish eyes. I know Jewish eyes.”
“Are you Jewish?” I tried to throw him off.
“No, I am Muslim. But you are Jewish, yes?”
I could see he wasn’t going to let me out of the store without an answer. All I could think about was what my friends had said when I told them I was going to Jordan. “Are you crazy? You’re American, you’re female, you’re blond. You have a Jewish last name!”
“But Jordan likes Americans,” I’d insisted. I particularly wanted to see Petra, so my friends suggested I fly to Cincinnati instead to see the Petra, Lost City of Stone exhibition when it opened in September 2004.
Of course, I didn’t pay any attention to them. I booked my flight and here I was.
Visitors find impromptu “shops” on the street as well as market stalls and stores. Margie Goldsmith
“Well?” he said. “You are Jewish, yes?”
“I was born Jewish,” I replied finally.
“At least you don’t try and say you are Canadian,” he grinned triumphantly. “I knew you were Jewish.”
And that was the end of the conversation. That is, until I brought up the topic myself the next day, after a full day touring the pink sandstone monasteries and tombs around Petra.
I sat in the shade drinking thick black coffee with my guide, Ali, a 32-year-old who has a wife and toddler son he adores. When I asked him how he felt about Jews, he said that Jews, Christians and Muslims lived happily side by side cultivating the olive trees together until 1948. Following the establishment of Israel as a country, that longstanding regional harmony quickly unraveled for a variety of well-documented reasons on many religious and political fronts. Both Arabs and Jews, in particular, were taught to hate each another in every possible way: they learned it in school, in the newspapers, at home, and on the streets.
It is easy to appreciate why Petra is one of the world’s ancient wonders. Jordan Tourism North America
“We were taught that the Jews are our enemies, they took our land, they killed my people. Of course, the same was done to the Jewish kids, though no one told us that at the time. For more than 40 years an entire generation from both sides grew up hating each other. So yes, I hated Jews based on what I was told, and also because of what I saw going on in Palestine as I was growing up.”
In 1998 Ali went to New Jersey to attend college, where he was shocked to learn that everything the American people knew about Palestine was what they saw on TV. “All I saw was Palestinians killing the Jews. It really surprised me that no one knew anything of what happened in Palestine during the years I was growing up,” Ali said.
While studying in the US, Ali needed work and the first job he was offered was selling used cars for Danny, a Jewish man in his neighborhood. “I couldn’t believe it. I thought I would kill myself before I’d work for a guy whose people killed my people and took our land. But I needed a job, so I went to meet Danny. The meeting was very comfortable, and I felt like I had known him for a very long time. He told me to think about it – he even said he knew what I must be feeling as a person who’d just come from the Middle East. He said he’d been like me when he first came to America. The next day he called me and we talked again. I took the job and worked for Danny for more than three years.”
Petra guide, Ali, speaks frankly about Danny, his Jewish American friend, and his children’s future. Margie Goldsmith
Ali looked me in the eye. “I loved Danny more than anything in America. When I came home to Amman, I told my family about him and invited him to come to Jordan to meet them and prove to everybody that what our government had taught us was totally wrong. I also wanted to show everybody that Judaism and Zionism are two different things. That was a big shifting point in my life because if I am going to say I hate Jews, then I must say to Danny, ‘I hate you’. And that will never happen, because I love Danny even more than my biological brother.”
Ali paused, then added, “I have met lots of Jews who were like Danny. I know the current situation in the Middle East is bad, and it really needs somebody to save it because now people are starting to hate each other without anybody teaching them to do so.”
“How will you bring up your son?” I asked. “I will teach my son to treat others as they would like to be treated.”
I looked at him hopefully and nodded silent affirmation. Maybe one day soon, Christians, Jews and Muslims will live happily side by side in the Middle East again if people like Ali share their stories enough times.
For the sake of the children, common ground must be found, leading to peace without delay in the Middle East. Margie Goldsmith
Don’t miss reading Margie Goldsmith’s active adventures “Beyond Petra” as she decides on impulse to hike to the top of Mount Aaron. Along the way she experiences a brief taste of traditional Bedouin hospitality that leaves her longing for more time on her holiday.
Jordan Tourism Board of North America, www.seejordan.org.
When on holiday to Jordan it is possible to rent holiday apartments and use them as a base to experience the local culture and way of life.
The growth of popularity when it comes to a Sharm el Sheikh holiday is no mystery as there is so much to see and do.
Margie Goldsmith is a NYC-based travel writer who has visited 111 countries on 6 continents. She is a contributing editor of Elite Traveler and writes for National Geographic Traveler, Dallas Morning News, Miami Herald, Baltimore Sun, and Christian Science Monitor, among others. Berkley Press published her novel, Screw Up, and her essays appear in Travelers Tales, The Walker Within, and In Search of Adventure: A Wild Travel Anthology. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.