From Dream Deployment to Dystopian Detention

Featured image
Central Amman.

It all began so well. Just before Christmas, my wife, working for the U.N. in the New York HQ, was asked to step in as Chief of Staff at a U.N. Mission in Amman, Jordan in early 2020. Though surrounded by countries riven with turmoil or ravaged by terrorism, the Kingdom is an oasis of relative safety. So much so, that spouses — such as I — could go along, too. It was only to be for four months, allowing the previous incumbent to take some maternity leave. 

On the eve of departure we celebrated our 25th anniversary of getting together at a favorite restaurant, The River Café — nestled under the huge spans of the Brooklyn Bridge. The next day, January 19th, after a delightful brunch at a classic New York diner with friends fresh in from Australia, we headed for JFK. Then we boarded a very acceptably appointed Royal Jordanian plane for the 13-hour direct flight to the exotic metropolis of Amman.

Central Amman from my window.

After a few days of handover and familiarization, my wife was working very full weeks in her role of Chief of Staff. You may ask why there is a U.N. Mission in such a safe country? The answer is that it is the base for the U.N. Special Envoy Martin Griffiths, here to attempt to negotiate a peace in the war in Yemen. It is one of the major man-made humanitarian disasters in the world today. For more than four years the conflict has raged between the Iranian-aligned Houthi ‘rebels’ and the shaky coalition government backed by the Saudis. The U.N. also has a mission on a ship anchored off the Yemeni coast as neutral ground where representatives of the warring parties can be brought together. 

To our relief, it looked possible that my wife’s role would not include having to visit the actual war zone. Indeed, at weekends — that’s Friday and Saturday here — we were free to enjoy brief immersions in the glorious Levantine experience. For just over a hundred miles to the west, or 3 hours drive, is Jerusalem, the cradle of no fewer than three major religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And who knew that, though firmly in Israel, to minimize potential conflict, custodianship of the Holy Sites is actually held by Jordan and its King Abdullah II?

Within a week we were glorying in one of the greatest sights of our lives and a true wonder of the ancient world, the city of Petra. Its extraordinary architecture of buildings literally carved into the cliff faces, dating back to the 1st century BC, should put it on everybody’s bucket list.

Approach to The Treasury, through the Siq, as you enter Petra.
The Treasury at Petra.
Petra and its camels.
The caves of Petra.

A week or so later, we were at the Ma’in Hot springs: dizzying waterfalls of volcanically heated water cascading over cliffs into the arid desert. Nearby — as Moses had around 3,000 years prior — we stood on Mount Nebo and got our first glimpse of the Promised Land. We little realized then that, as with him, we were not destined to reach it either.

Hot springs at Ma’in.

Other marvels of the region amazed and enthralled us. Jerash, two hours or so’s drive to the north of Amman, has one of the best preserved Greco-Roman sites. There is the magnificent Hadrian’s Arch, still standing, along with the many Corinthian columns of the Temple of Artemis and the huge oval colonnade of the Forum. Even closer, but to the west, is the Dead Sea.

Hadrian’s Arch, Jerash.
The 800-meter Cardo Colonnaded Sreet of Jaresh, Jordan.
Roman amphitheater in Jaresh.

There we stayed at the remarkable Mövenpick Resort — its architecture intriguingly echoing Arabian villages sprawling down to the water’s edge. As everyone knows, the salt content is so dense that you can easily float on it. And the mud you should cake yourself in has apparently amazing skin revitalizing properties.

Mövenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea.
The sweeping view of the Dead Sea.

Then, for my birthday in early March, the darling Mrs P organized a trip to the historic city of Aqaba, Jordan’s only foothold onto the Red Sea, and flanked by Israel, Egypt and Saudi. As it happened, my wife had never seen ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and first watched  the 3¼ epic on our wide screen TV in Amman.

But not for us the life-threateningly scorching camel ride he took through the desert in 1917 to liberate the city from the Turks – instead a mere 4 hour air-conditioned coach journey swooshing down the now metalled highway.

The Desert Highway, Amman to Aqaba.

If the shimmering red vistas of Wadi Rum stretching beyond its windows look oxymoronically both alien and familiar, it’s because they are. The sweeping dunes, craggy canyons and stunning rock formations were used as the location for ‘The Martian’, starring Matt Damon, two Star Wars movies, ‘Indiana Jones’ and, of course that David Lean 1962 epic of the Great Arab Revolt.

Wadi Rum. Photo: Daniel Case.

We were privileged to stay at the mega-starred Al Manara, very appropriately ‘A Luxury Collection Hotel’ group resort. You know you’re in an elite establishment when there are 36 chefs serving just 200 rooms.

Al Manara at night.
Al Manara lobby.
View of Red Sea from Al Manara.

We had the extra treat of being cooked for individually by Chef Ashraf (whose pedigree includes a Four Seasons, a Hyatt and a Kempinski, no less) a local dish called Maqluba.  Its name translates as ‘upside down’ —  curiously appropriate in being a down-to-earth family meal taught to him by his mom, being prepared in such an haute kitchen.

Chef Ashraf.
Chef Ashraf making Maqluba.
The finished Maqluba.

Wallowing in such wonderful memories, we started planning trips to a Bedouin camp in the Wadi Rum Desert, a plane flight to Beirut, and crossing via the Allenby Bridge over to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. And there were also a series of trips being planned by family and friends to see us during our second two months and explore some of these extraordinary places with us.

Then came Friday the 13th. Not that I am superstitious (though look what happened to Apollo 13, sent up at 13:13 hrs on the 13th), but it was quite a coincidence that it was then that the coming privations really began to hit us. We had heard of this novel virus that had begun in a Wuhan Seafood market and wreaked illness and death there since November. We noted that it was eventually declared a global emergency by the WHO at the end of January. And, though things were looking bad in South Korea and Italy by mid-February, it still didn’t seem to be worth fretting over too much. After all, the seasonal flu had a way higher body count. 

Me in the midst of panic buying at the Carrefour supermarket.

But that Friday, rumors started circulating that life-changing draconian measures were going to be imposed in the Kingdom. The Jordanian Government announced that they would be closing Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport from the following Tuesday (17th) — and with no end date.

Suddenly, almost without warning, we realized we could be stuck in Jordan indefinitely. It was also announced that the schools and tourist sites would be closed. Even more alarming in a reasonably devout Muslim country was the canceling of prayers and banning of attendance at the mosques.  This triggered panic buying — even though there was no suggestion then that the food stores would close.

By the Monday, everyone was talking about imminently having to work from home. As a last fling of fun, my wife and I went to the entertainment centre in the nearby Kempinski Hotel to play pool, joking that we were the last people going there. But when we left around 9 p.m. it was like being in “Omega Man” — such was the desertion.

Mrs P. surveys an empty mall.

On Tuesday, the decision was taken to close the U.N. Mission offices and for my wife and the rest of her staff to work from home and tele-commute. All the shops and the malls were shut, except for supermarkets and pharmacies. Movement between the regions of Jordan (called governates) was banned — and, just like that, we were marooned in Amman. We managed to borrow a neighbor’s dog, a fluffy brown baby bear-like chow chow called Simba, as an excuse to get out. Apparently, this is an exemption allowed in many European countries and the poor canines are exhausted by too many people taking them on ‘walkies’!

With Simba, the chow chow.

Our new routine was manageable and it seemed that the panic buying had slightly declined until the afternoon of the following Friday, the 20th. Then the Government ordered a complete and absolute curfew to be imposed from 7:00 a.m. the next morning. Immediately, hoards of people stormed the supermarkets. It was the more understandable when the next announcement about when the foodstores and pharmacies would open again (and then in a scheduled rosta) would not be made until the following Tuesday.

For everyone, it is now virtual house arrest — with the penalty of a year’s prison sentence faces anyone caught breaking the curfew. Goodness knows how Simba — and all the other dogs — with even that exemption stopped, will get the chance to answer the call of nature.

Meanwhile, the whole of the city is being hosed down with disinfectant. And so we hunker down and feel very thankful for Netflix, YouTube, Kindle books and Scrabble. But how long can this be sustainable? Remember the experiment where people were giving themselves electric shocks just for something to divert them after only 15 minutes of boredom? So far we are not ordering a shock machine from Amazon yet — and gratefully acknowledge that we are very much better off than many.

Sterilization measures in greater Amman municipality.

Jordan’s measures are so strict that the Kingdom even got a mention on the main NPR news in the U.S. last Saturday — on this first absolute ‘house arrest’ lock down day. Harsh as these measure are, it may perhaps to turn out to be a more effective approach to containing the pandemic than the less restrictive route so far taken in much of the U.S. Unless a similar lock down is enforced there, the coronavirus outbreak could be fatal for millions. 

As things currently stand, we have no idea when we’ll get back to New York — a new epicentre — or whether we have any chance of visiting the U.K. in July, where a new grandchild is due. Will we ever see the Promised Land? This is a life-changing event — it’s hard to think that society will ever be the same again.

Stay safe and let us all be especially kind to one another — though maintaining the necessary social distance.

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