I arrived in Jordan late last night (actually very early this morning) for the Middle Eastern Premier of my film 'A2-B-C' (website ENGLISH/ 日本語), which takes place on Wednesday (INFO).
Checking into my hotel in Amman, I was surprised to find it so festively decorated for Christmas.
Yes, indeed, Peace, Hope and Joy.
But with Wham's "Last Christmas" among the holiday songs playing in the background at breakfast, they had gone too far. I mean, you can't even escape from that in the Middle East?!
As this is my first time in Jordan, and indeed in the Middle East, I came a couple of days before the start of the film festival so that I could visit the ancient city of Petra, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World (INFO). On the three-hour drive from Amman to Petra, Murad, my driver, asked if we could stop so that he could pray. I said, "of course", and he pulled over to a roadside shop. Rather than wait in the car, I went inside and had a look around while Murad went into the back where there was a place to pray.
Yes, I bought the turban. I am SUCH a tourist...
Arriving at the hotel in Petra, I found that my room had a gorgeous view that I assumed must be overlooking the valley in which the ancient city lies. But since it was already almost three and it gets dark around 4:30, I thought I would have to wait until tomorrow to found out.
I went down to the lobby to ask if they had any maps or information about Petra for tomorrow. Although it takes a full day to see the main part of the ancient city, they suggested since there was still over an hour before dark that I visit "Little Petra", and called a taxi to take me down into the valley. While I was waiting in the lobby, I overhead the hotel manager saying that there were only four guests in the hotel tonight. I wondered if it was because it is off-season.
In the taxi on the way to "Little Petra", the driver introduced himself as Falah and asked me where I was from. When I said "America", he said "Thank you for coming", and told me that there were so few tourists right now not just because it is winter, but because of everything that is happening in the region- in Palestine, in Syria. "People are afraid to come here, even though Jordan is safe," he said.
The 30,000 people that live in the modern city of Petra depend on tourism, and the recent and sudden decline of visiting foreigners has been devastating for the people here. Falah said that until the war in neighbouring Syria, thousands of people a day would visit the main part of ancient city of Petra. Today, he told me, there were just 100. When we pulled into the entrance of "Little Petra", there were none, and no tourists means that there was no one to buy the souvenirs from the solitary woman who sat watching over them as the desert sand blew around her. And this is just one of the many consequences.
Petra's history goes back several hundred years B.C. (INFO), but I am not going to pretend to know very much. I am looking forward to learning more tomorrow when I spend the entire day in the main part of the ancient city. For today, I just wandered around the valley, trying to take in the shear scope of what I was witnessing, knowing that this is just "Little Petra".
In the car on the way back to the hotel, Falah told me that his family had lived for generations in the dwellings carved into the rose-coloured rock until all the people in his father's generation were relocated during an official campaign to increase the areas in which tourists could visit (and spend money).
When he looked up at me in the rear-view mirror, I couldn't help but notice the tree-shaped air freshener hanging from the rear-view mirror.
"You asked me before where I am from," I said. "I was born in Watertown, New York, just like that little tree. Every one of those little trees you see around the world are all made by the Car Freshener Corporation in Watertown, New York (WEBSITE)."
His eyes smiled in the mirror.
Falah's roots are in Petra, and now so were mine, inside of this little tree air freshener swinging from the rear-view mirror of a taxi driving through the streets of the ancient city.