2011: Morocco, Spain, USA and the Middle East

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Middle East » Jordan » South » Aqaba
January 1st 2011
Published: March 27th 2018
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The atmosphere is electric as the Traveler gets off the taxi and finds himself instantly immersed in the sounds, smells and colors of this land. Gone are the solitary, vast open plazas and wide, shady boulevards of Central Asia. Gone are the artificially restored Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan. Gone are the forest of shiny new skyscrapers of the oil rich Gulf States This is the Middle East, chaotic, noisy—no stops pulled. Here, despite the wars and destruction, cities often preserve the same layout they've had for thousands of years... which means, very narrow streets not designed for car traffic and growing populations.

And food. Food is everywhere. Any where you turn you see an enticing snack tempting you. Communism never crushed the entrepreneurial spirit of these cultures. People have been honing their business skills uninterrupted for thousands and thousands of years. People work hard and fast in this endless game of competition and free enterprise.

The Traveler watches, fascinated as a fellow creates balls of falafel at lightning speed, popping them into the fryer, then out again the be crushed into a flatbread sandwich. Within seconds his meal is ready for him. Nearby is
a coffee stand where a cup of strong coffee is poured for you, where you drink it standing up. In most of the world, drinking coffee is a relaxing pastime, something you do while leisurely reading the newspaper or chatting with friends. Not here in Jordan. Here you don't want to waste a lot of time.

The Traveler follows the narrow street downhill where the city abruptly ends, and an oasis of palm trees begins. Food is being grown in plots beneath them. Irrigated land is precious in this part of the world, so no space can be wasted. There is a walkway through the small oasis that clearly leads somewhere interesting though...

The Sea. Not a lake or a river. It's a sea that connects to the Atlantic Ocean... which connects with all the other oceans... which allows large amounts of goods to be moved freely all around the world. It's this sea, which, once man learned how to travel across it, made the Silk Road obsolete and caused the decline of the Golden Age of Central Asia. It just was so much easier and cheaper to move goods between Europe and Asia this way. The Silk Road just couldn't compete any more.

The Traveler heads out to a boardwalk that reaches out into the Red Sea. Out in the water, folks are enjoying an evening swim. Here, all the women he sees are wear conservative Islamic dress (but few face veils), however this doesn't keep them from enjoying the water. Some of them swim, fully dressed... but always accompanied by their husbands.

He gazes out to the lights visible along the shore on yonder side. Suddenly it strikes him how unique this place is in the world. This is one of the few, if not the only place in the world where you can look out and see 4 different countries. Right up the shore is the nation of Israel, the oddball country in this part of the world dominated by Arab cultures. Next to it is the country of Egypt, the heartland of Arab culture. Then, just 22 kilometers to the south is Saudi Arabia, the land where Islam and the Great Arab Conquest sprung out from.

And right in the middle of them all is this country, Jordan. A country artificially created when the British and French decided to chop up the Middle East into small, controllable pieces after the fall of the Ottoman Empire 100 years ago. It is in this country that the Traveler will get his introduction to True Arab Culture.

But for some reason, it's the Jordanians that set up the most obvious landmark of the four: an enormous flagpole with the Jordanian flag, clearly visible from the other side of the sea. Why? the Traveler wonders. Is there a special meaning to this place? Why is Jordan trying so hard to stand out?

The Traveler takes a seat in the oasis and pulls out his guitar, inspired by this place. Soon he is joined by a friendly, respectful group of young men. "We are university students" they tell the Traveler—all of them speak excellent English. They sit and listen to his songs, chat for a bit then move on. Seems like it's going to be very easy to make friends here.

The Traveler continues on, wandering the back alleyways of Aqaba, where men are gathered sipping tea and socializing, then back to his hotel where he can still hear the bustle of the city late in to the night.

Arabs vs. Ottoman

The next morning the Traveler is ready to seriously start exploring this Arab Heartland. He soon finds a very filling breakfast: bread, fresh from the oven, coated with oil and herbs. He's ready to explore Aqaba some more. Not far away, near the giant flag, is a mysterious castle that it seems is open to be explored. The gate is open, and there is no one guarding the entrance. The Traveler head inside, past two rounded towers, through a darkened passageway to a open courtyard inside. There's a large engraved seal he can't quite make out—with two small Jordanian flags under it... clear reminders of who owns this castle now.

The Traveler researches to find out what significance this castle holds. Turns out, this was a very significant place not only in the history of Jordan, but in the Arab and Muslim world. This is the Fortress of Aqaba, which was a garrison of the Ottoman empire, and overrun by Arab forces in 1917 in an important step in their quest to break away from Turkish rule. In fact, the giant flagpole was set up here to commemorate that event.

The revolt was led by Auda Ibu Tayi, although sources say that it was Lawrence of Arabia who convinced the Arabs to attack this fortress—even though it meant crossing a seemingly impossible desert to get there. The scene of the attack on Aqaba is in the movie Lawrence of Arabia—albeit quite exaggerated. Conquering this fortress in Aqaba was an important victory for the Arabs, as it isolated the Ottomans in Medina, in present day Saudi Arabia. From here the Arabs, with help from the British, pushed on towards Syria. A year later, the Ottomans would be defeated and their empire dissolved.

But the Traveler is suddenly struck by a question, a Question that will continue to puzzle him for years to come. A Question that he thinks is might be crucial to understanding the troubled relationship of the Islamic World and the Western World:

See the Arabs were Muslims—as were the Ottomans. Supposedly they were all part of the "Ummah" the brotherhood of all Muslims who have a sacred duty to assist each other and defend each other when attacked. And yet, the Arabs allied themselves with the non-Muslim British to fight against their Muslim brothers.

Why? Why would they choose the British over their Turkish brethren? What seems to be the motivation was that they were tired of oppressive Ottoman rule—and the British promised that they would be given back their ancestral land—the Arabian Peninsula along with Mesopotamia. You know "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" sort of thing. The Ottomans could be pretty brutal in their rule, so it's not surprising that their subjects—but Muslim and non-Muslim were revolting.

But didn't the Arabs know where they were dealing with? Didn't they know the history of the British? The British were imperial conquerors seeking to expand their domain. Were the Arabs so naive as to think the British really cared about Arab interests? Why did they choose to be ruled by non-Muslims rather than Muslims?

The Traveler reads of how the Arabs felt so betrayed when, at the end of the day, the British and French walked back on their promises. Instead of helping create an Arab Empire, they simply chopped up the Middle East into bite size colonies that they could control.

But what did you expect!? THAT'S WHAT EMPIRE'S DO! Empire's always look out for their own interests and for opportunities to expand and exploit others. You should've known that.

The Traveler decides to dig a bit deeper. He finds out, to his surprise, that the Saudi tribe—who ultimately gained control of the peninsula were not involved in this revolt. It was mainly desert Bedouins that were involved. Some of them actually switched sides during the conflict when they saw that the Arabs were gaining the upper hand.

So what were the Saudis up to? Here's the kicker: they were embroiled in a long conflict with the Rashidis—another ambitious Arab tribe vying for rule over the peninsula. At the time, Arabia was rules by a patchwork of tribes. Ultimately it was the Saudis who got the upper hand and took full control of much of the peninsula, gaining diplomatic recognition by the 1927. It seems that the the British, and later the Americans realized that indirect rule over this wild desert land would be much easier than direct rule.

It is here, at this frontier Ottoman garrison, that the Traveler starts to get a taste for how complicated this world really is. People you'd think should be allies fight and betray each other. People you'd think should be enemies are have been allies—or rather frenemies, working together and than against each other.

There's an old Arab Bedouin proverb that goes: "I, against my brothers. I and my brothers against my cousins. I and my cousins against the world". This proverb might give a clue as to why Arabs don't see a contradiction between being united with their Arab brothers—and in conflict with them at the same time. It's something that goes hand in hand with the harshness of desert life, the Traveler later learns. The reality of desert life is that resources are very limited. And at some point, there just is not going to be enough water and pastureland for every one. So how do societies survive? The sense of community constricts, and you feel your loyalty to a smaller group of people. A group of people that can live off of these resources. Then you fight against any other group of people competing for these resources.

But then, when circumstances change and it's a larger foreign force that is putting you at danger, your sense of community expands. Clans and tribes suddenly feel a sense of solidarity, and they fight united against their common foe.

Of course, this paradoxical love/hate relationship between people groups exists all around the world, but it seems to be particularly strong in desert tribal cultures. And particularly strong here in the Middle East.

So what about the "Ummah"? Is it just an abstract concept that has no meaning in real life? Is Islam truly a uniting force? Has it ever been? Throughout Central Asia—and on throughout much of the world, the Traveler has seen, and will seen how armies, with the shout "Allahu akbar!" on there lips have conquered vast swaths of this planet, pressuring and/or coercing a huge segment of the earth's population to convert to Islam... to pray in exactly the same way, at the same time, facing the same city... Hundreds of millions of people fasting and breaking their fast on the same exact time on the same dates, with a methodical discipline unlike anything else you will see on this planet.

Surely Islam is a uniting force throughout this world. Hundreds of millions of people share a similar belief system, lifestyle, and worldview thanks to Islam.

... And yet... here in the part of the world where Islam was born, it seems that tribal rivalries, feuds and grudges are much stronger on determining the relations between groups of people.

The Traveler hopes to find some answers. But the deeper he digs here, it seems he just finds more and more questions.

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