[The story so far – on a trip to Jordan the hotel that was meant to provide accommodation and a venue for NJT’s Wilde show has been blown up by an Al Qaeda bomb.]
November 2005: Friday
The next thirty-six hours were spent in very intense (and inevitably edgy) tourism. Jordan itself proved to be a treasure. The night-time candle-lit walk through the Petra ruins, then on the following day the Crusader castle of Karak, the church of Madaba, Mount Nebo where Moses reputedly stood as he beheld the Promised Land, and the Dead Sea – there were some magnificent sights.
As we strolled down the slope from Mount Nebo to the coach, Sami broke the news that, as our intended accommodation in Amman was now rubble, the five-star Jordan Valley Marriott Hotel had offered to house us.
With darkness falling, we drove south along the eastern shore of the Dead Sea and drew up outside the Marriott. It looked glorious, marred only by the incongruous sandbag machinegun posts on either side of the entrance. Once through the doors, the sheer luxury revealed itself. This put even Bahrain’s Diplomat Hotel in the shade. Sean and I gazed from our bedroom balcony over the three swimming pools below, before consulting the menus of the five restaurants available. He commented: “I suppose being a refugee does have its compensations.”
After partaking of the Italian restaurant option, we wandered around the grounds. The Dead Sea lapped against the rocks about 20ft below us. A full moon lit the distant cliffs of the Palestinian West Bank ten miles away. A glow in the sky even further west signified the lights of Jerusalem. Sami had mentioned earlier that on most nights, as sound travels so well across water, one could hear the rumble of patrolling Israeli tanks. It seemed extraordinary that only a few miles separated this sumptuous arcadia from the shambles of occupied Palestine. We sipped cocktails under the star-flecked desert night.
Back in the bedroom, I switched on the midnight TV news. There had been large demonstrations in Amman during the day, it having been declared a national day of mourning. The UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, had cancelled his scheduled visit to the city. It seemed that very few foreigners had been killed, but at the Radisson Hotel a Jordanian/Palestinian wedding party had caught the worst of it. At the Grand Hyatt, one of the victims was a famous Islamic film producer, who had created the movie ‘Mohammed, Messenger of God’. Al Qaeda seemed to have really shot themselves in the foot.
Although their Jordanian-born leader Zarqawi was being blamed, the actual bombings had been carried out by a group of four related Iraqis – a suicidal family outing. At the Radisson, one couple had entered the ballroom where the wedding was taking place. The wife had had a problem detonating her bomb, whereupon her husband lost his temper and told her to leave, before exploding his own bomb. The wife was still at large.
November 2005: Saturday
We had another early morning breakfast before setting off for further whistle-stop touring. We headed east and after halts at two desert ‘castles’, (actually more like hunting lodges or caravanserai), we reached an old Turkish army fort in a small town called Qasr Azraq. It had been the winter headquarters of Lawrence of Arabia in 1917 and his room in the main gatehouse was still intact.
Driving away from the town, I noticed a road sign ‘Iraqi Border – 100 kilometres’. Hmm? This was getting a bit too near the action. On the news last night, they reported that American planes were strafing the extreme west of Iraq just near the border with Jordan. It was a sharp shift from World War One into present-day reality.
Moving back to the west, we arrived in the town of Jerash and stopped outside the extensive remains of the Roman city. These were some of the most evocative ruins I had ever seen. Not content with merely excavating the area, the archaeologists were attempting to restore as much as they could of the original buildings. From the almost intact Hadrian’s Arch entrance, to the chariot racecourse, the reconstructed pillars of the town forum, the colonnaded main street, and the completed mosaic of the amphitheatre, it was a marvel. We spent most of the afternoon exploring the area then, as the sun began to set, we walked back towards the exit.
Suddenly, I heard possibly the least likely sound that could be expected to emerge from a Roman ruin in Arabia – the skirl of Scottish bagpipes playing ‘Over The Sea to Skye’. I looked across in surprise to a grinning Sami. He gestured us up to a large building ahead and we entered another amphitheatre, this one much larger than the first. Circular tiers of stone seats veered up to the sky. Six uniformed Jordanian soldiers, playing the bagpipes and kettledrums, wheeled in formation under the command of a stout, avuncular officer dressed in a black suit and red check headscarf. Our group of about sixty made for the seats of the lower tiers and settled back to hear the music.
As the wailing notes of ‘Scotland the Brave’ subsided, Sami stepped forward. He announced that the acoustics of the building were very good, then gestured towards myself. “Mr Titley will now perform his speech.”
WHAT!! Talk about being thrown into the deep end. Oh well, what the hell. I stepped down onto the stage area and took up position. I was wearing a khaki combat jacket and a baseball cap; the Jordanian army bagpipers were standing to attention in a row behind me; and the Roman architecture formed the backdrop. In almost thirty years of performing Oscar Wilde this was without a doubt the weirdest show I’d ever done.
Given our present embattled status and genuinely proud of the decision of the Brits to stay in the firing line, I was tempted to do the St Crispin’s Day speech instead. Then reason persuaded me that it might be a little over-the-top.
Instead, I launched into the final section of the play: ‘The tragedy of old age is not that one is old but that one is still young.’ Amazingly in the conditions, the jokes drew some laughter and I rolled on towards the end. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of the officer raising his baton. I finished and bowed to the audience as the bagpipes prepared to groan into action again.
NJT performing Wilde at Jerash, Jordan
There was a burst of real applause and I strode back to my seat filled with elation – somehow I had pulled off at least a bit of a show in Jordan! A voice yelled out: “Well done, Carruthers!” As the tune of ‘The Road to the Isles’ swelled, a Scotswoman from our group gave an impromptu display of Highland dancing.
Ten minutes later, we received the signal from Sami to move on. An Englishman from the group approached me and shook my hand.
“It’s good to show that WE can do something as well. That we’re not just fodder for the tourist trade.”
We dropped a few coins into the band’s collecting box; the officer gave me a broad smile and a wink. Then we drove back through the dark to the Marriott.
November 2005: Sunday
Before we left the hotel, Sean was determined to swim in the Dead Sea. It lived up to its reputation. He walked out from the shore, lay in the water, and effortlessly floated on the top of it. Due to the salinity, it was impossible to sink. One story had it that a drunk had tried to commit suicide by drowning himself here. Much to his annoyance, he kept floating back up again. As no fish could survive in this environment, one of the hotel bars had the ironic title of ‘The Dead Sea Fishing Club’.
That afternoon, we headed south on the lengthy journey back to Aqaba. Driving through Amman, we passed a Palestinian refugee camp. It had been there for decades and had an arched wooden gateway, rather like the entrance to a Wild West fort stockade. Beyond it, the ramshackle huts stretched out as far as could be seen. Sami said that Jordan not only had thousands of Palestinian refugees, but now there were more thousands of Iraqi war refugees adding to the problem.
At 9pm, we drove along the shore of the Red Sea and parked at the sea-front Aqaba Gulf Hotel. Although it was deluxe enough, it seemed rather down-market after the splendours of the Marriott – we had been spoiled. Passing through the lobby, Sean pointed out a framed document displayed on the wall. It was a letter from the US Embassy sent about a year previously thanking the staff for hosting President George W Bush. It appeared that we had arrived in yet another prime terrorist target.
November 2005: Monday
It was another day of pure tourism. Speeding in four-wheel drive ex-army jeeps with the desert air hitting our faces; strolling through the desert valleys of Wadi Rum, where the bare hills and escarpments rose like islands from the sea of flat sand; lazing on the rocks watching the sun grill the landscape; eating a meal beside the bonfires of a Bedouin camp. Passing one vast hill, I recalled seeing it before in the film of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. It was where the Arab army set off to capture Aqaba – a tiny caravan of men against the immensity of the bluffs behind them, with the women ululating from the cliffs.
As we began the return to Aqaba, Sami suddenly stopped the vehicle and turned back to our last halt. He had left his sunglasses behind. “Leave nothing in the desert except your footprint”.
November 2005: Tuesday
I woke at 9am, after a disturbed night. I had been aroused at dawn by what I assumed to be drunks singing outside the window. It turned out to be the amplified morning prayers.
Waiting at Aqaba airport for the flight back to London, we received one last piece of news. The fourth member of the Al Qaeda bomb squad had been captured. She was a woman in her forties who, presumably ashamed that her colleagues had died in the attacks and she hadn’t, had attached more bombs to her body and travelled by bus from Amman to Aqaba. Her intention was to attack one of the sea front Aqaba hotels. She had been arrested at the bus station.
[Next week Aug 15 – a total change of scene as NJT travels on board the Royal Yacht Britannia attempting to spread Oscar’s influence even further.]