I’ve just come back from two weeks in Jordan. It’s a great time to go – there are cheap Easyjet flights and the fact it borders onto Iraq, Syria and Israel means there’s hardly any tourists there at the moment, despite it being a stable, safe country. You can get from one end to the other in five hours, and there was no hassling or haggling (Rich nicknamed it the ‘Middle Easy’). Every day there was a history lesson – Nabataean and Ottoman ruins, Byzantine mosaics, Roman cities, Crusader castles, Bedouin customs, Palestinian restaurants…
I always think a trip is improved by taking along complimentary literature, and it was a bit tougher this holiday – there are hardly any novels about Jordan, and the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide suggestions were uninspiring. However, I found the right books in the end. If you’re thinking of going to the Middle East I’d really recommend Marina Warner’s wonderful Stranger Magic – it’s about the Arabian Nights, and includes beautiful retellings of some of the stories, as well as digressions on everything from translation to Borges to the Arab Spring to King Solomon. There’s a chapter on the importance of carpets to nomadic people – both as portable art and a way of marking out the borders of home in the wilderness – which really added to the experience of camping out in Wadi Rum with our Bedouin guide, whilst the first thing you see on your walk into Petra are ‘Djinn blocks’, huge stones thought to hold spirits, which Warner’s section on genies brought to brilliant life.
I also read Herodotus’ Histories for the first time, in Robin Waterfield’s translation. By this point I was at the Red Sea, only a few miles from the Saudi border and gazing across at Eliat and Egypt, and really relished his gossipy stories and myths about the east: lotus-eating recipes, phoenixes, cannibalism, women who piss standing up, frankincense trees defended by flying snakes… There are amazing descriptions of the mummification process (‘extract the brain by passing a hooked iron instrument through the nostrils…’), poetic riddles from the Delphic oracles, and a massive, genuinely exciting battle between east and west at the end as the Persians attack Greece at Thermopylae (as in the film 300).
Other highlights of my trip: drinking mint tea in a tent at the view-point above Petra’s monastery; snorkeling and seeing a big, blinky octopus; playing scrabble with Arabic coffee and a shisha pipe every evening; bobbing in the fiercely saline Dead Sea; walking past tamarisk and sunbirds to the sultry River Jordan to see Christ’s baptism spot and watching Rich eat a goat’s head (in case you’re wondering, he didn’t go for the full Indiana Jones thing and chew the eyeball.)
Anyway, home now – which means Peckham, and a house full of boxes to unpack and walls to strip. The garden is feral, full of buddleia and blackberries. I’m getting that back-to-school feeling, and quite looking forward to settling in, getting out my jumpers, watching the leaves turn and making a crumble.