The Jordanian Desert

JORDAN – November 2005

 An unexpected coda to the Bahrain trip occurred almost exactly ten years later. This time there had been no planning and was an accidental result of a birthday present from my son Sean. He gave me the choice of which country I would like to visit and perform an ad hoc show. I decided on Jordan – the ancient city of Petra and the ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ setting of Wadi Rum were the real draws. They sounded spectacularly romantic.

For the first time ever, we arranged to join a holiday tour company. The luxury of not having to worry about travel or accommodation or even where to visit cancelled out the sense of emasculation about handing over control. There was an added draw that we would have immediate contacts with whom we could negotiate a Wilde show.

I did have one former link with Jordan, albeit a slim one. Back in the 1950s, a British soldier named General Sir John Glubb had been the guest of honour at a prize giving at my old school. Glubb was a latter-day Lawrence of Arabia, as brave, in some ways, as Lawrence and a lot less complicated. In 1948, he had been in the odd position (for a British officer) of commanding the Arab defence of Jerusalem and the West Bank against the Israeli attack. Up until 1956 when he was dismissed by the King of Jordan, many people regarded him as the real ruler of the country.

His lack of fame today was due possibly to the fact that, while it was cinematically stirring to have thousands of extras charging into battle shouting ‘El Awrens’, it was a lot less stirring to have them charging into battle shouting ‘El Glubb’. My only memory of him was of a spry Colonel Blimp figure exhorting us to become ‘the backbone of Empire’ at a time when the colonies were visibly dropping away like sweet wrappers.

As in Bahrain, we did have a tragic forewarning of trouble. Just seven months earlier, in March 2005, a British theatre director had died in the Gulf state of Qatar. He had been directing an amateur production of ‘Twelfth Night’ at the Doha Players Theatre and had left the auditorium during a performance to investigate some noise outside. An Al-Qaeda car bomb exploded, wrecking the theatre café area and killing him.

View of Wadi Musa

November 2005: Tuesday

With this sobering event still fresh in the mind, and fully aware that the carnage was at its height in neighbouring Iraq, Sean and I flew with a party of British tourists from London to the Jordanian port city of Aqaba. We were met at the airport by the tour representatives and directed straight into` a coach for the journey north to our first destination. It was dark when we drove through the town of Wadi Musa and followed the steep zigzag road down the valley to arrive at the ancient ruins of Petra.

By 8pm, we established ourselves in the Palace Hotel and then went to discuss our particular situation with the tour guide. Sami was an alert, intelligent Jordanian aged about thirty who spoke excellent English. Which was fortunate, as it was difficult to explain why we wished to insert a maverick theatre show into the tour company’s carefully planned itinerary – and what on earth did Oscar Wilde have to do with Jordan in any case. And, for Sami, the extra question: who the hell was Oscar Wilde?

Eventually we agreed on a plan. The coming Saturday night was free of other events, and we would be staying at the Days Inn Hotel in the capital city, Amman. I could perform in one of the hotel conference rooms and there would be an instant audience composed of the tour group and other guests. I looked at Sean – this had turned out to be ridiculously easy. We settled back to enjoy the ride.

Petra Valley

November 2005: Wednesday

The site of Petra is, of course, one of the most famous tourist magnets on earth. Having once been the wealthy capital of a tribe called the Nabataeans, the city had fallen into such disuse that by the 14th century it had completely disappeared into the sands. It had been re-discovered by a European traveller in 1812, but even today, only 1% of the ruins have been archaeologically explored. One 19th century poem famously referred to it as the ‘rose-red city, half as old as time’. (James Joyce borrowed the phrase when he referred to Dublin as ‘the nose-red city’).

Petra entirely deserved its reputation. The guide Sami led our group down to the Siq, a mile-long natural gash in the hills. The vertical cliffs on either side of this gorge soared up for about sixty feet; there was just a sliver of blue sky above. Horse-drawn carriages whipped along the narrow flat-stone path at a brisk trot, past the slower camels and the odd donkey – and always the incessant tramp of human feet. The Siq was like a busy street, but the oddest street in the world.

The Siq at Petra

Beyond the Siq lay the highlight of Petra – the extraordinary Treasury, a colonnaded temple frontage carved out of the cliff-face. A couple of hundred yards further on, the path skirted an amphitheatre, again carved out of solid rock and, according to Sami, capable of holding 7000 people. “It was last used as a theatre by the Romans.”

The Roman Ampitheatre at Petra

In the evening, Sean and I were drinking Marghareta cocktails in the hotel bar, when a young couple sat at our table and introduced themselves. The young man was Jordanian and called Annees; the girl was Palestinian and called Kherma. They explained that they were trying to set up a tourist website and were visiting Petra to recruit hotels. We told them about the Wilde show. The conversation drifted into politics; we shared at least some of the same political opinions, especially over Iraq, and we got on well with them.

After an hour of talking, Annees’ mobile phone rang and he answered it. Suddenly, his face became serious. He clicked off the phone, then turned to us:

“Wow, that’s bad news. Really bad news”.

Both Sean and I thought immediately that he must have had a family bereavement or something of the sort. Then he continued:

“There has been some bombing in Amman. Three hotels have been blown up”.

Jesus! It immediately crossed my mind that one of them could be the Days Inn. I also wondered if we were secure here – if there was an anti-tourist attack going on, this bar would be an obvious target. I crossed over to the TV in the far corner; it was on the CNN channel. I watched for a minute and my heart sank. Yes, one of the victims was the Days Inn. I went back to tell the others.

TV News of the Amman bombings

As the news spread, the atmosphere in the hotel became highly charged. Aroused from his bed, Sami arrived to say that he thought that the police would soon be providing cover for the Petra hotels. When I asked him about the Days Inn, he pursed his lips and shook his head. I looked through the window to the dark street outside – nothing was moving. We ordered another round of drinks, then another.

After an hour, as we had not been blasted into oblivion and were now flush with Margharetas, the talk turned to new possibilities. Anees suggested that we played the Wilde show at the Petra amphitheatre tomorrow night.

“It would be the first show there for 1700 years. The last show was in 329 AD. It flopped.”

I seized on the idea – it would be an amazing way to fight back. We started to plan the operation – the theatre was there, the show was there, even the audience was there. Why not? Sean gave Kherma our publicity material; she said she could photocopy it for distribution around Petra tomorrow. They left promising that, between us, we could fix something up.

Sean and I retired to the bedroom. The TV channels were buzzing with the news: hysterical coverage by CNN, more sober reportage by BBC World. There were over sixty people dead. My exhilaration at the challenge sobered slightly – after all, this was seriously dangerous. I said to Sean that if he wanted us to return to England, there would be no problem. He shook his head:

“I think that if the bullet has got your name on it, then that’s it”.

I nodded agreement, with the slight proviso that you don’t have to write your name on it yourself.

We decided that if we could get the show off the ground, we would donate the money to a charity for the victims. We slept at 2 am.

Petra Palace Hotel at Wadi Musa

November 2005: Thursday

As I sat down to breakfast, I saw through the window that the hotel management were still flying the American and British flags outside. Given the news from last night – and the activities of the Bush/Blair military tourists next door in Iraq – I rather wished they’d taken them down. It was not exactly the smartest move to advertise our precise locality.

I went down to the lobby and sat next to a Bedouin guide waiting for his party. He asked whether the attacks last night would affect European tourism. I nodded.

“I think most people who have already booked will still come. But the problem will be the people who might have come later and will now be put off”. He looked glum.

A pick-up truck parked outside the entrance to the hotel and four Jordanian soldiers started to unwrap a machine gun attached to the rear. Shading their eyes, they gazed across the valley into the eastern hills and positioned the muzzle of the gun in that direction. The fourth soldier knelt behind a low wall and aimed his rifle up the street. I ordered a latte coffee.

Machine gun post outside hotel, Wadi Musa

Half an hour later, a long procession of civilian cars streamed past the hotel, flying Jordanian flags, hooting their car horns, and yelling support for the government. Petra appeared to be mightily pissed off.

I later discovered that, although geographically at the heart of the troubles of Palestine, Israel, Iraq and the rest, Jordan had never been attacked before. Now the tourist trade was under threat and everybody in the town stood to lose by it, from the senior hotel management to the little Bedouin boys selling coloured stones.

I suddenly spotted our Palestinian ally Kherma hurrying into the lobby. She came over:

“I am so sorry. We cannot do the play in Petra.”

She’d had a bad night of it. After they had left us, they had returned to their hotel and were arrested by CIA agents. They had been taken to a police station and questioned for three hours over their suspicious activity – the earlier visits to various hotels on behalf of their website. This morning they had been picked up again and questioned for another two hours.

I went outside with her to join Anees. He said that he had mentioned the Wilde show but there was no way the authorities would allow it. It was too dangerous to have concentrations of tourists anywhere. He seemed more upset by the collapse of our project than by the obvious threat to their business. We wished each other good luck and they hurried off down the street. Quite apart from anything else, the show was now in deep trouble.

An hour later, Sami called a meeting of the British group. It seemed that the American Embassy had given an overnight order for all American tourists to leave the country. The tour company was offering any of our people the same opportunity to leave if they wished. There were a few glances between couples, a muted shuffling – and not a single person accepted.

Sami took me to one side and said that he would try to think of a way to stage the show.

As Bernard Shaw commented – assassination is the sincerest form of theatre criticism.

Army dancers at Petra Dinner

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