“Follow me,” said Furat, our guide, and he took off. My husband Matt hastily grabbed my hand, and, like a pair of eager James Bond impersonators, we gave chase. Furat popped in and out of sight as he wove through the old city, ignoring red lights and crosswalks. “There he is!” Matt pointed. In the distance, I saw a figure split two female shoppers, then disappear behind the swirling black wake of their hijab. The deepening darkness urged us on.
We had lingered too long over our earlier dinner at Hashem, a legendary local restaurant. Though nothing more than a few metal tables set in an outdoor corridor between two buildings, the food was marvelous. We plowed through plates of crispy salad and hummus — the best I’d ever tasted — slathered with ful. We burned our mouths on falafel, crunchy and fresh from the hot grease. The waiters replenished the food as fast as we could eat. And, after a week of hiking, we could eat quite a lot. We were still eating when we heard the squeal of the gates. At Furat’s signal, Matt and I had paid our portion (an astonishing total of $6 for two people) and hurried after him.
We turned and turned and turned. We threaded through restaurants, in and out of shops, and cut down alleys lined to the sky with vegetables and pots. Finally, we came to a stop. We were at a store. The walls were lined with barrels, each bursting with grains and powders in psychedelic colors. A wave of smell drenched me. It was a complicated brew, pungent and unrelenting. Someone handed me a cup of tea. Shoppers shouted and pointed, hurrying to get their orders in before the proprietor shut for the night. Even without speaking Arabic, I could recognize the staccato and brusque tone of negotiation. “What do you want?” Furat asked us.
Matt looked at me. I looked at him. We both shrugged.
What did we want?
We didn’t know.
What does any traveler want?
In some ways, it’s a question with an easy answer. We travel because we are curious. We want to see something new. We want to be surprised, calmed, excited, inspired, awed, or even, perhaps, a little antagonized or frightened. In other words, we want to feel — intensely so — and we know that stepping outside of what we already know will provoke those emotions. But how do we choose where we’ll go? Or what we’ll do while there? What are we really looking for? And why do we always want to bring something home?
For me, Jordan was a bucket-list destination. I’d longed to visit since my early twenties. In 2000, I participated in the Birthright Israel program, which sent groups of young Jewish adults to the country. I’d hoped to take advantage of one of the marathon 24-hour excursions to Petra that depart daily from Jerusalem, but, that year, intifada activity had been rising. On the last day of my trip, a suicide bomb erupted in Netanya, killing 60, leading Israel to close its borders.
Jordan loomed like a mirage, luring me across decades and miles. Finally, in my mid-forties, circumstances and finances aligned. My husband and I selected Experience Jordan, an outfitter, and signed up for a guided small-group hike of the Jordan Trail. In February of 2020, we boarded the plane for Amman.
We arrived thirteen hours later, on a Sunday, landing so late that, by the time the taxi dropped us off at the hotel, it was Monday. We checked in, slept about four hours, then sleepily boarded a van (along with 13 strangers) for the drive. In Dana (Dah-na), I looked around for the trailhead, but there was nothing. No sign, no blaze, no cairns. It was then that I realized that contrary to its name, the Jordan Trail is more a general direction than a marked path. We had a starting point, an endpoint, and, thanks to the outfitter, Eid, our local Bedouin guide.
Eid could not look more different than us. We wore high-tech boots and Gore-Tex jackets, with hydration packs strapped to our backs. He wore old jeans and a pair of sandals and carried a plastic bag for his things. For the next five days, Eid walked a seemingly desultory route, wordlessly picking his way through the scrub; we followed him, snaking along the steep slopes, through the mountains, and over the passes to Little Petra and Petra, then South to Wadi Rum.
At one point, torrential rain- then Jordan’s first snowstorm in over a decade- disrupted our itinerary. Instead of camping as planned, Eid invited us into his home. We ate dinner cross-legged on the floor with his family, then slept side-by-side on the plush rugs of his guest room. Once the inclement weather passed, we continued, dropping down into the slot canyons of Petra. Seventy kilometers after we’d begun, we climbed back into a van, which returned us, reluctantly, to Amman for one final night- and one final dinner
Throughout the journey, I kept thinking about how Jordan felt like a land torn from the pages of Invisible Cities. In Italo Calvino’s book, narrator Marco Polo spellbinds the Emperor Kublai Khan (and us) with tales of exotic places, their delights, and unique horrors. It is difficult for the reader to discern which destinations are real and which illusory. There’s Venice and New York. But also, the less familiar, like Armilla, Zirma, and Dimora. Fact or fiction, they are all improbable: built on water or in the sky; hewn from stone or blown of glass; governed by a coalition of the living and dead; fashioned from brick and steel, or stifling earth. Some are invisible. Many unreachable. But the prodigious detail makes them all real. The unimaginable becomes familiar, the impossible believable.
To my Western eyes, Jordan fit right in. I could imagine the entry: Pink mountains blushing above a brown desert, empty and hostile to the visitor’s eye; only those who know will find the entrance and travel the wadi. The narrow canyon walls retract, suddenly revealing an open sky and a hidden city, which explodes from the sandstone in a honeycomb of carved temples, businesses, and homes.
As we traveled, meeting and talking to residents along the way, my starry-eyed perspective began to shift. I began to see Jordan as a country of juxtapositions and contradictions: modern and ancient; mundane and otherworldly. It is home to monochromatic desserts and kaleidoscope souks; cars and camels; noise and silence. A destination, but also a thoroughfare, a crossroad of three continents. A center of business, both mundane and magical. It is where Hollywood location scouts flock to use real landscapes to stand in for fake ones, whether intergalactic, lunar, dessert, or invented. It is a place where the unreal must be sold to make money for needs that are quite real.
In Invisible Cities, the descriptions eventually shift from aesthetics to the historical, political, and economic, with Marco Polo revealing the dirty underside powerful societies endeavor to hide. What do we choose to see when we travel to other places? Why are we drawn to the dreams and illusions? If we want to truly understand another culture, another life, we must experience more than tourist sites. Calvino would urge us to look elsewhere. The tourist enjoys, but the traveler observes, examines, and listens. The real journey is not to, but in.
On our last day, we arrived back in Amman in the late afternoon. With the few hours we had left, Matt and I reluctantly decided to shop. We needed to buy gifts for our kids (and the grandparents watching them). We also wanted to find something for ourselves.
Souvenirs are a lucrative, but inescapable and often irritating component of travel. To my dismay, we often end up frantically perusing the uninspired kitsch, banal t-shirts, and over-priced locally made products in the airport shops. Whether we buy to validate, remember, support, and/or thank, the ideal memento usually meets three needs: affordable, transportable, and unique. So far, Matt and I have failed to find anything that met the requirements. We’d browsed souvenir shops, but always left dissatisfied and empty-handed. Ultimately, we realized, it was not a thing or object we sought, but a feeling. Something that would tease out memory, however amorphous and intangible once we’d returned to the grey winter skies and freezing temperatures of Pittsburgh.
Ideally, we wanted a Jordanian version of Proust’s madeleine from Remembrance of Things Lost, a conduit to remember: the comradery in Eid’s house, as we sat on the floor with his family, scooping our food with oven-fresh pita; the smoky flavor of cardamom tea boiled on a campfire and drunk leaning against a rock; waiting hours for maqluba to slow-bake beneath the sand, then waiting even longer for it to cool; watching the steam plume the cold night, then savoring the flavors against a backdrop of black and white striped tents, empty dessert, and blistering stars. And, most of all, hummus, eaten in a multitude of locations and styles: inside caves, restaurants, or homes; outside, in the open air; home-made and pre-packaged, in bowls and boxed; blended smooth or chunked with chickpeas; drizzled with olive oil and topped with spices, pine-nuts, ful, or lamb.
Eventually, Matt and I pinpointed something that fit the bill: spices. When we asked Furat where to go, his eyes lit up. “I’ll take you,” he said.
When we emerged from the store, we were full from drinking multiple cups of tea, and loaded with packages. One held sumac. Another za’atar. The third was a mystery. “I don’t know,” laughed Furat. “Call it the proprietor’s special mix. He says it goes with everything, but fish. Lamb, chicken, vegetables. Just no fish.”
Back at home in Pittsburgh, our arsenal of Jordanian ingredients allowed us to continue to travel- by kitchen. We cracked open cookbooks and fed on memory. We drizzled toasted pita with oil and za’atar. We sprinkled sumac on salads and tasted flights of labnah- Turkish, Israeli, Lebanese . . . We brewed gallons of loose-leaf cardamom tea, boiling the water in a gold-painted aluminum Jordanian teakettle that we’d bought after witnessing the utility and ubiquity of the item among the Bedouins.
My husband became singularly focused on hummus. Matt compiled recipes, both master chef and family favorites. He experimented with brands of tahini. He tried canned chickpeas and dried- removing skins and not. We ordered hummus to go from a dozen local restaurants, comparing them to each homemade batch. The real game-changer was Salem’s, a nearby Middle Eastern market and café that we began to regularly visit. It was there that Matt met Nabil, a cashier, who was also a chef and expert on Middle Eastern food. He divulged sporadic advice.
Salem’s became a necessity, a place of supplies and tips.
“So, what spices do you use?” Matt asked Nabil, after a few months.
“No spice,” said Nabil. “Just chickpeas and tahini.”
“No spice? What about cumin?”
“No. No cumin.”
“No, no paprika.”
A few more batches brought Matt closer and stimulated another round of questions.
“No spices,” confirmed Matt
“No spice,” agreed Nabil.
“What about salt?”
“Okay, yes, salt.”
“No garlic powder?”
“No, no garlic powder.”
Matt considered, then asked about whole ingredients. “Garlic cloves and lemon juice?”
Matt came home and started another batch.
The secret, Nabil insisted, was simple: quality tahini. Matt upgraded, buying the expensive stuff, and the next batch of hummus provided confirmation. The following week, Matt came home grinning, cradling a bucket of tahini.
Throughout that year, and the next, as we continued to prepare some of our favorite dishes, I reflected on why Jordan had affected me so profoundly. In each of Calvino’s Invisible Cities, the tourists depart changed in some way. My own experience exemplified this. I’d gone to Jordan, in part, to learn about cultural, religious, and political differences. I found both conflict and commonality. I found warmth and generosity. I experienced wonder there, as I had expected, and the transformative power of hummus, which I had not. As Marco Polo explains, we “take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer, it gives to a question.” Jordan had indeed answered some questions- and raised new ones.
We still occasionally talk to Furat, who helps us replenish our stock of Jordanian spices. It’s more expensive this way, but I suppose it’s as much about the friendship as the product. Sometimes, when I’m cooking, the sharp note of Za’atar reminds me of Furat’s question at the market: What do you want?
Thanks to many years in the kitchen with the perfect souvenir — and Calvino — I know a little better now. To travel is to gaze into a mirror; the reflection shows what is foreign and, to our surprise, it is often us.•