By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Roll Jordan roll

I am in Jordan participating in a Kennedy School executive education program for government, nongovernmental organizations and private-sector executives from throughout the Middle East. The program is taking place in a conference center on the Dead Sea, the renowned salt-filled lake where your body floats effortlessly.  (It really works, and is sort of amazing.) Water runs into the Dead Sea from the Jordan River to its north. The river is literally a shadow of its former self, thanks to water diversion in this parched area of the world -- anybody with images of the mighty Jordan River would be utterly amazed to see that it in many places is actually no wider or more rolling than a brook.

With the declining flow from the river, the Dead Sea is itself retreating by about 3 feet a year. Interestingly, the governments of Jordan and Israel are cooperating on a new project to pump water into the Dead Sea from the Red Sea farther south (one bank of the Dead Sea is in Jordan, the other bank -- visible from the Jordan side -- is partly Israel and partly the West Bank).
1) There are more security precautions than I expected. Several years ago, there was a terrorist attack on an American-owned hotel in Amman that killed many Jordanians at a wedding party. There is a checkpoint on the highway when you enter the Dead Sea area, home of a number of tourist hotels. At the Marriott where I am staying, entering cars are checked for explosives, and there is an imposing security barrier, reminiscent of those around the White House. You also go through a metal detector and bag screen on entering the hotel. (While I have been here, they have changed the main entrance to the hotel, apparently to move things around to make terrorist planning more difficult.)
2) Many of the service employees at the hotel are Asian. Given the high unemployment here, this has been quite a surprise. I was told that many Jordanians don't want to work in a hotel that serves liquor, and that the service tradition is poorly developed. (However, I would say that the Jordanian employees at the hotel are incredibly friendly and accommodating.)  The wages for Asian workers may be lower than for Jordanians. I even saw a Chinese nanny at the beach speaking Chinese with two Arab children -- apparently, some affluent people here want their kids to learn Chinese, just as in the U.S.!
3)  I had a chance on my "day off" to visit Petra, south of the Dead Sea and, understandably, voted a Wonder of the World.  Petra preserves ruins (many of them Roman) of an ancient trading waystation on the roads to Arabia and Asia, but this description doesn't even come close to doing this place justice. One enters the city by walking a half mile path along the base of an enormous chasm -- the path is around 15-feet wide, and on each side of you is 200-foot tall sheer stone formations, in colors of pink and brown, making you feel like a tiny creature at the bottom. Most of the structures one sees are not freestanding buildings, but rather actually carved on the ledges of towering walls of stone. The climax of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was filmed here, and I always assumed this was a Hollywood set -- it looked too amazing to be real. It is real.

Posted on Jan 19, 2011 at 7:26 PM

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