It’s midnight in Amman. I’m seated outside an aromatic sweets shop, deep in the thrall of people-watching — every corner of curiosity kindled by locals grasping at beloved plates of knafeh. Much of the time I spent in Jordan felt like this: a hunger, complicated and aspirational, and necessarily feasted upon by the spoonful. My week there was spent doing just that, and what I discovered was magic.
Words and Photography by Mandy Sham
“I wish life could always be easy like this.” Owise laid supine on the sand, soft and cool like earthenware. I’d met him ten hours ago, building a kite in the desert.
In fact, all of us — his fiance Majd, and Guillermina and Facundo from Buenos Aires — were kindred passing ships in the night. Somewhere between the first hellos, sips of thyme sage tea and golden hour bouldering, we’d crossed this unspoken threshold from strangers to a private communion of a little something more than friends. Our relationship felt categorically different — a bonding not of some deep or instantaneous connection, but from the way we were all serendipitously joined by the surrealism of the desert.
“It genuinely is difficult to describe the monumental nature of this place.”
It was grand, what we now witnessed: the stars and planets in the sky, fiercely undiluted — twinkling with all the grace and might of the silence that now echoed through camp. In a small pit in the sand next to us, a fire burned out of a puddle of isopropyl. Its flames glowed blue, willowing with quiet allure. We listened to Moondog. We watched Jupiter and Orion, and wished on airplanes and shooting stars.
There are moments when the revelation of a person or place’s true nature begins to crystallize; they build upon one another like paint layers of acrylic, both representing and obscuring the whole. In Jordan, these moments feel encompassed in the entirety of the experience: the way energy so palpably snakes through the souks, laden with fig-filled baskets and bunches of fresh herbs — the way cafes and bookstores open you to the amiable nature of strangers with hearts made of gold (or better yet, falafel).
“The Middle East is a beautiful display of contradictions and polarities, where the fraying of traditions meets a renaissance of new interpretations.”
In Amman, it seems the idea of spontaneous community is inherently woven into the fabric of living. On a bus, an architect laid out his love of Jordanian heritage and the restaurant rituals he shares with his father; the cook of a restaurant invited me to don an apron and assist in the happy union of lamb, onion and tomato; I hitched a ride across the country, luxuriating in conversations punctuated by gas station cardamom coffee and Palestinian ice cream.
Many of these special moments felt so rightly permanent, yet happened in transitory spaces. It brought me back to the inherent power in travel (itself a transitory space, manifested physically and geographically), and its ability to help one see a new world, or simply the world anew. Naturally, being nowhere — in a car, a plane, a land in which you are anonymous — you are freed from the weight of being elsewhere.
“I feel I inhabit a world a million miles away. This one twinkles with distant lights from houses on the hills of Wadi Musa”
Jordan, too, is a transitory place. Travelling here, and the Middle East at large, is a beautiful display of contradictions and polarities — where the fraying of traditions meets a renaissance of new interpretations. It’s the nuances in between that I find endlessly fascinating — an opportunity to inquire deeper into the particular fragility and strength of modern day Muslim society. Given that so much is changing while much else is resistant to change, Jordan’s collective identity feels especially malleable — a culture characterised neither by this nor that.
Mostly, I’m amazed by the ever resilient threads of subculture found in unlikely places. In Amman, a bookstore cafe holds one of the only open safe spaces for the local LGBTQ+ community; the inner courtyard of a church has an Italian restaurant run by Iraqi refugees (and the pizza there is apparently the talk of the town); a shop sells tote bags printed with the Arabic slogan, “Honour is not under the skirt.”
It’s because of this ever-shifting mosaic, tensing under the weight of such nuanced identity, that some of my most interesting conversations to date have taken place in Jordan. I am reminded constantly of all that is unknowable — that what feels especially permanent deserves a re-examination. Over beers and knafeh, Owise and I commiserate on patriarchy and the culture of shame in the Middle East and Asia. Over shisha in Wadi Rum, a gardener and I debate the changing world order (and eventually, its constellations).
“It simply felt right here — unmeasured and unravelled.”
Still, it’s just as quickly that the chaotic misalignment of new and old identities fades in the Jordanian hinterland. Wandering through Petra is a journey back into time — a relic that still irrevocably pulses with the intention of its builders, the nomadic Nabataeans — beautiful, magnificent, beloved. It genuinely is difficult to describe the monumental nature of this place, but the way it draws people from all over the world says enough. In fact, it renders most speechless.
After a day of hiking in Petra, I feel I inhabit a world a million miles away. This one twinkles with distant lights from houses on the hills of Wadi Musa — a thousand different interior lives spilling over lounge areas and dinner tables. I can hardly think of anything more cathartic than digging into Bedouin mansaf — lamb on rice with fermented yogurt sauce — after a full day of toiling on monastery steps in the indiscriminately oppressive desert heat.
It simply felt right here — unmeasured and unravelled. That night, the moon cast its silky, ghostly glow. I remember taking in every ounce of joy from my hibiscus and cinnamon tea, listening to my Airbnb host regale tales of Amman, of espresso machines and her deep desperate need for coffee sans cardamom, of life in the desert. After an arduous and long day, I was happy to be back; I was happy to be here.
Something about almost every evening and encounter in Jordan felt bound by travel kismet — that idea of being led by the spontaneity of life’s centrifuge, spinning us into the worlds of others with a stubborn kind of grace. There are times where I have a good feeling about being in a place, deep in my bones; the desert is a common motif among them.
It’s in Wadi Rum, lying down on a dune beneath the Milky Way, that I can’t recall ever wanting to be anywhere else. Where the present consumes you completely — as it so often did for me in Jordan — you are, in some deep and knowing sense of the word, home.