Seeking something in the Middle East
introspection post-Jordan & Dubai
Enjoy an audio reading of this piece, or scroll to keep reading.
“The surest way to block an epiphany is to wait for it.”
I whisper this little ten cent platitude to myself, actively waiting for an epiphany from atop a camel traversing Mars. Cass’s camel wears a crochet muzzle because he is allegedly a biter. When we pause for a photo, the camels criss-cross at the neck in slow, cartoonish quarrel. Our guide speaks no English, but he knows the right tongue clicking pattern to diffuse the scene.
Much to my surprise, the photos do the immensity some justice: I must be 10 feet tall on this thing. Fear lurks behind a soft smile along with 28 teeth that failed Invisalign and what happens if I fall off, snap my neck, and die? Just taken out in one fell swoop, left to rot in Wadi Rum where they shot The Martian and Lawrence of Arabia.
“She went out of this world doing what she loved most: looking cool as hell on Instagram.”
Wrestling with the total loss of control required to mount an animal—a feeling I hadn’t experienced since horseback riding exactly once as a kid—I repeatedly remind myself that it’s all a transfer of energy. That if I can trust the animal, then he will be ok and we will be ok, him and I. And I guess that was the epiphany…
Trust the animal.
Rainbow House hostel is a newer establishment, situated between Amman’s buzzing downtown and Rainbow Street—a lovely strip of shops, bars, and restaurants where you can get overstuffed shawarma sandwiches for $.75 USD. (If this is analogous to, say, our dollar hotdogs, then I really fucking hate America.)
Bader, the cheerful, young owner of Rainbow House, brings us to the rooftop at golden hour for a panoramic view of his hilly city. Some European travelers are already up there, clinking beer bottles and discussing their next jaunt. “You’ve got to get drunk to experience Jordan!” urges Bader with a local’s smile. This isn’t the sentiment you’d expect in a Muslim country, in a city that awakes daily at 5:45 AM to reverberating prayers. But if you’re a drinker who also prays and even sometimes does both at once, then you’ll feel right at home.
Weaving through the crowds of downtown Amman, we slip into gold souks and piece through the dainty chains. Test fragrances from gilded walls of oils, take home a few roller balls: musk, rose, oud. Wait in a snaking line for kanafeh, sticky and nutty, so sweet you feel your body go into overdrive. There are fresh juice bars on every corner. A rainbow of cashmere pashminas. Spice shops with crimson saffron spilling out of baskets. Cars don’t stop at red lights and around every corner, you are reminded that Middle Eastern people with light eyes possess the kind of beauty that stalks your dreams until you die.
Our room at Rainbow House is frigid, and our hair is wet from a communal shower that doesn’t get hot. This is what $50 USD for three nights gets you. Shivering, I text Andrew my anxieties about being a world away from him. The thought of someone coming into my home and experiencing my man, our space. But there is nothing I can do, nothing he can say to assuage me.
Love is wild. Trust the animal.
Getting to Jordan was not easy.
I’d come to New York a day early to stay with my travel companion and fly out of JFK. Then there was a power outage at our terminal, and our flight was canceled unceremoniously. We got the notification and dashed out of a West Village wine bar where we were drinking orange wine and eating ricotta toast. Sat in Cass’s studio passing around vodka and pomegranate juice as she begged Turkish Airlines to put us on the next flight. But their hands were tied. We eventually settled on a different airline two days later for $500 more, losing a full day of the trip.
The first travel snafu is always an omen. You either embrace the proceeding influx of suck, or wallow with each missed bus, wondering why the universe rewards people who clap when the airplane lands.
The main reason I wanted to visit Jordan in the first place was to see Petra, the ancient city of carved, rose sandstone. One of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Throughout the planning process, we’d debated just how we’d get there, given it’s nearly three hours from Amman, and we weren’t sure about the whole tour guide thing. Eventually we settled on the JETT: a popular coach bus that sends tourists to Petra daily.
Our phone batteries plummeting on the 4+ hour ride back to Amman from Wadi Rum, we’re doing everything we can to secure next-day JETT bus tickets. Our driver even called the station for us, hoping an Arabic transaction might be more efficient. But nothing. We eventually showed up at the station where they told us all the JETT buses were full for the next few days.
We didn’t have days, plural. So, we did what anyone hellbent on disappearing into a gorge 5,854 miles from home would do: we rented a car and drove the remote stretch of highway ourselves.
Once you get out of Amman, you learn that the further south you go, the more uncertain your situation becomes. It’s like being trapped in the Old Testament. The only living beings in sight are shepherds and their flocks. Cell phone service goes. Your eyes glaze over as you comprehend the beige vastness. Driving a car in a foreign country is one thing. Driving hours through the Arabian Desert with a bottle of water and no sign of civilization is like,… let’s just say you might not have the utmost regard for your own life. That, or you’re delusionally self-assured.
Little column a, little column b.
And yet there’s this marked serenity to the whole thing. Like you’ve been liberated from all the cold takeout and gender reveal parties life has to offer and booked a one-way ticket to the promised land.
(You will be stopped by the police three times. Each time they will smile and say “welcome” as they wave you along.)
I’d tell you all about Petra if I could. Really, I would. But the words still haven’t formed, and I’m not sure I even want them to. (I selfishly withhold my best experiences.)
All you need to know is I was led through a tear in the space-time continuum by cave-dwelling Bedouins with sky-high cheekbones and thick, black kohl under their eyes. Kids no older than eight riding horses and smoking cigarettes like desert outlaws. Merchants selling carved onyx just beneath the tombs.
The mystery of the Middle East is really just a mirror into the mystery within you: one that is ultimately unsolvable, and therefore your truest source of peace.
Leaving Jordan for Dubai is like leaving Morocco for the Morocco in EPCOT at Disney World. Dubai is not a place for old souls, however dubious the title. It is a place for people who earnestly debate Helvetica versus Calibri. People who fantasize about owning a Tesla. Who love a good all-inclusive resort because that’s what the city is: a vacation within a vacation within a vacation and any capital A authenticity is drained with each layer of the onion.
This is not to say Dubai has no redeeming qualities. The people are lovely. And if you think the intersection of public transportation and innovation is a cool place to hang out, boy have I got news for you. Dubai is the future gone kinda right. Everything about Dubai can be described as “user friendly.” Because whether you’re a tourist or a local, you are a user of the Dubai OS.
Press the button. Redeem your ticket. Listen to the crystalline robot voice with the English accent and exit the train at Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall. Crane your neck to really take in the World’s Tallest Building. Get the fuck out of the mall. Splash some water on your face.
I’m personally not one for a trip of non-stop adventure. I am a woman of leisure. I need to lay down.
Dubai has incredible places to lay down. A comfy lounge chair beside a pool beside a man-made beach. Some kind of peachy prosecco drink with a big sprig of dried tarragon poking out. Smoking allowed. I am lower middle class royalty in Dubai and I have the pictures to prove it.
On the final day, the day we reserved for an aggressively boozy brunch, we meet a bunch of young 20-somethings who work in luxury brand marketing. NYU grads. Parisians. They are enamored of Dubai. Dubai is safe, and there’s always something to do. Even if the techno parties are very underground. Even if they get so drunk, they projectile vomit onto the beach.
I shoot a couple flirty DMs to one Parisian girl late night. She ghosts me.
There is something sacred to lacing up your dusty boots that one last time—the way they taunt you from across the room knowing they’re too big to fit in your suitcase; and despite all the hiking and climbing and resentment, you must wear them on the plane. You must sniff each sock in your luggage to find a clean pair, strap in, and go back to where you came from. Eighteen hours and two airports on two different continents between you and home, and those fucking boots are all you’ve got.
I eat airplane macaroni and cheese and read an entire book. Writhe in discomfort. Pass over so many time zones, I’m too jet lagged to sleep for a week.
And still, I pass the halal cart by my apartment and long for an inconvenient elsewhere. One where everyone is habibi, and the sun warms my winter skin.
Broke But Moisturized is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.