By Stephanie Altwassi
One of my dreams for A Piece of Jordan is that through our writings and eco experiences people will get to know the real Jordan. Jordan and it’s people have the ability to challenge stereotypes and alter the world’s view on the middle east. When someone asks ‘Is Jordan safe?’ I want them to come and meet the people I know! The people who have accepted me into their hearts despite at times us being so different.
The first meeting….
I first met Abo Mahmoud or Hajj Ahmed as he if often known, in February 2006 (almost 10 years ago to the day). I had come back to Jordan for my first visit since my initial encounter with Anas in August and well, it was time to meet my future in laws. When we arrived at the house we were taken into a large guest room, known in Arabic as diwaan. The diwaan is lined with traditional mattress style seating and can take around 100 guests (quite an experience to see for the first time, but that’s a whole other blog post).
When Abo Mahmoud entered, I was a little nervous to say the least. Unlike my mother in law who greeted me with a grin which spread from ear to ear, Hajj (a nickname given to those who complete the annual Pilgrimage to Mecca) was a lot more reserved. It was cold so he was wearing his furwa, a traditional Bedouin winter coat, and a must in Jordanian winters, and his mendeel scarf – which only added to his serious look. That day he didn’t say much and he didn’t sit with us for long, he exited to the living area of the house and I didn’t see him again until my next visit.
Despite his initial reservations it didn’t take me long to realize Hajj Ahmed is one of the kindest, gentlest people I have ever known. With a cheeky grin and sparkly eyes I can say with all my heart how thankful I am to have him as my father in law. Since the day I moved to Petra he made it clear that he would take care of me, that he thought of me as one of his daughters and that anything I needed I should never be shy of asking.
My dad Rob in the centre, his friend on the left with Hajj and two of my brother in laws Mahmoud and Waleed.
The start of my life in Jordan
The first few months of my life in Jordan I would spend many days with Hajj and my mother in law Amneh, trying to understand each other and laughing when we couldn’t (which for a while was A LOT!). Whilst most of the time it was funny, there were also times that our inability to communicate freely as we wanted was more than frustrating. I would see Hajj’s eyes light up as he spoke to others, stories of his past, jokes and wise words that even with a translation the magic would be somehow lost, I often felt I was missing something. My need to be able to communicate with this great man that considered me his daughter, despite not being able to talk to me properly, was a huge push in my determination to learn Arabic. 10 years down the line I am able to sit here, ask him about his life and see his eyes light up as he tells me his story.
Now 80, the life Hajj remembers as a child seems a distant memory to what we see today in Petra. Hajj’s childhood started before Petra became a holiday destination, a time where people were very much connected to the land and were very proud farmers.
The town of Wadi Musa/Petra was an area he and his family would only live in in the winter months. In the summer they would set up their Beit Shar (Tent made from goats hair) in an area called Al Hay, about 15km out of Wadi Musa. Being higher up the mountain, Al Hay is a lot cooler than down in the valley (Wadi Musa – Valley of Moses) so it wasn’t until the first rain fall that they would prepare their tents, load up their animal transport and journey down the mountain.
Hajj as a young(er) man
The effect of tourism
When tourism increased and became a main source of income for so many, Wadi Musa developed as a town to settle in permanently. Beautiful stone houses were built, many of which still stand today (although sadly most are only used to house animals) and the town grew.
My father in law began working in Petra at a very early age and he has seen the both the growth and decline in tourism in Petra.
One day at work, Hajj was approached by his father and a friend – they had found him a wife!
At the time he told them both he and his proposed bride were too young and he wasn’t interested. However, 5 years later, he only had eyes for her and in August 1963 Ahmed and Maryam were married. Hajj told me he always dreamed of a large family and he certainly got that. They were blessed with 14 children – 10 boys, 4 girls (a fact that when my husband told me I struggled to believe) and with all but one married there are at last count 47 grandchildren. Family gatherings are really something special in Hajj’s house, albeit a little chaotic and noisy.
Hajj and my youngest Meerah
Sadly I was never fortunate enough to meet Maryam as she passed away before I met Anas. All the stories I hear of her make my heart smile, a beautiful soul whose generous, loving nature lives on through Hajj and her children. I do however, have an amazing mother in law. Amneh married Hajj a few years before I arrived in Jordan and to this day I love watching her and Hajj together, the laughter and warmth they have as a couple makes their home always welcoming and full of love.
A Beautiful collage made by one of the nieces