I think it was the staring that bothered me first. It was hard to ignore, but it was harder to convince myself that it surely couldn’t have been that many people staring.
Driving into the city from the airport the night before, I fell in love with Amman. It was a Friday and unusually quiet, but the little traffic we did run into gave me minor heart attacks. The driving here is of a standard I’ve never seen; frightful. Lanes seem to exist for no reason, as cars straddle the faint lines, speeding and slowing down at a whim. Amman is full of mini hills and valleys, and the summer sun beams down on the low buildings and the relatively sparse vegetation. Summer is drawing to an end rapidly – the evening air is crisp and I’ve been avoiding rooftop events, despite my love for sipping G&T at outdoor bars.
Having moved from Dubai I had grown accustomed to the adhan (the call to prayer), but I hear it much louder now. It’s soothing. That day, it reminded me of the Dubai creek; the original centre of the city’s commerce and an older part of the Emirate, unburdened by glistening towers, and overpriced cars, replaced by abras on a creek that charged a mere 1Dirham to cross over to the souq. As I walked down the street, a middle-aged man stopped me.
‘Excuse me! Hello! Where in Africa are you from?’ I must have stared at him for 10 seconds, puzzled. I looked back to see if anyone else passing by thought this odd. ‘Um, Zimbabwe. Why?’ I replied. ‘Well, you see I’d like to go to Swaziland…I have a travel agency, maybe we could help each other? Let me take you for coffee.’ I politely declined, half out of fear of what his reaction to a harsh rejection might be, half because perhaps I had expected something like this to happen. What followed in the weeks to come, were strange encounters with people I hope to never come across again. Sometimes I’d walk into the local supermarket and have children stare and point at me, both confused and amused. Their parents, to my disappointment, did nothing. At the Amman citadel, on the highest hill in the city, and where the Roman Temple of Hercules (yes, that Hercules) once stood – a group of young men shouted “Sudan?” or “Burkina Faso?” at me, hoping I’d confirm, so they could repeat the one phrase their domestic worker had taught them once. Just the other day, a woman in a shop came up to me and asked me if I was “Rosie”, another black woman who worked as a cleaner in her apartment building. She then proceeded to ask me to help her find the things on her list, ignoring the people who actually worked in the shop. “Tibvirei ambhuya,” I said eventually, smiling and walking away.
She smiled back.
Wadi Rum, Aqaba & Petra
My weekend away in Wadi Rum and Aqaba was a dream. I was surrounded by expats – mostly European and American – who didn’t ask me uncomfortable questions, thankfully. Wadi Rum, the ‘Valley of the Moon’ is a protected desert in Jordan, with breathtaking sandstone mountains and ancient rock inscriptions and paintings. As we climbed mountains and sand dunes, all that lay before me were miles and miles of desert. The emptiness, the silence, broken by the occasional sound of an old truck in the distance – it all made me feel very small. That night we basked in the light of a full moon, pointing out the few stars we could see. The cool breeze and the silence felt like a prayer – soft, soothing and bare.
Aqaba is the only coastal city in Jordan and lies on the shores of the Red Sea. A fierce blue colour and perfect temperature for a place that averages 33 degrees in the summer, the sea has been my favourite destination in Jordan so far. Our boat tour took us to the reefs, where we snorkelled in between diving off the boat and taking naps. You can see the Palestinian (they’ll tell you it’s Israel but we know better) and Egyptian side from the shores, miles and miles of sandy land and luxury hotels on the shore. Glorious.
Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the splendour of Petra, the ancient ‘Rose city’, best known for its rock-cut architecture and advanced water conduit system. The city’s carved out temples and buildings tower over you, offering much-needed shade from an often scorching sun. My friend Tessy and I made our way up the mountains and across the valleys, walking for hours on what felt like a trail that would never end. As painful as the walking was, the joy of sightseeing with my black African friend in a predominantly Arab and white group of tourists, felt somewhat rebellious – grabbing our ‘otherness’ by the horns I guess. But also, at least I didn’t stick out alone.
Traveling while black in this region has definitely tainted my otherwise exciting experience. It means being both invisible and hyper-visible, stared at both in awe and in disgust, and both praised for your ‘perfect English’ and despised for not speaking Arabic well enough. My advice is to take a friend if you decide to visit this beautiful country. A black friend. A friend who gets it and who will calm you down when someone asks you if you speak ‘African’. Be prepared for the discomfort, but keep your head up.
You’re black, after all. Which means you’re magic, and not everyone responds in awe to things that outshine them. The world is vast and full of assholes, but there’s beauty too. It’s that beauty that makes the discomfort worth it at times.