19 March 2004
The waters of the Red Sea are not, in fact, red. Rather they are a magnificent dark blue. That is the first thing to keep in mind when imagining the port city of Aqaba. The southern most town in Jordan sits at the northern most end of the body of water made famous by its parting three-and-a-half millennia ago.
What are red are the jagged rocky mountains that tower above the city and cup it from behind. They remind the traveler of central Arizona or southern Spain. The mountains of Aqaba are completely barren, devoid of any human imprint. This gives them the feeling of being at once brand new and eternal.
Between the dramatically contrasting red mountains and blue sea, the city center is made up of clean, white, concrete buildings and healthy, green, palm trees. The buildings take the form of a few hotels and mosques, a few shops and restaurants. The trees fill the parks and line the waterfront and pedestrian thoroughfares.
A big dome of powder blue sky coves the entire area. Days in Aqaba are filled with constant sunshine. The reliable white orb stirs the sea breezes and provides a pleasant warmth that lasts well into the evening.
Across the harbor from Aqaba is the Israeli city of Eilat. With its shopping malls and supermarkets, numerous towering hotels, beach front amusement parks, and countless shops, restaurants, bars, and nightclubs, Eilat has a very American feel to it. It is crowded and loud, full of sun-baked Semites in bikinis and inappropriately tight “banana hammocks.” A showcase of plastic surgery, there may actually be more saline on the beach than in the seawater itself. Like these thousands of “temple mounds,” Eilat is simply over-developed.
By contrast, Aqaba is quiet and much more modest. Most of the women still wear headscarves and one can hear one’s own footsteps during evening strolls along the seawall. Whereas I associate the honking of horns and the blaring of boom boxes with Eilat, the sounds of wind blowing through palms and of air bubbling through narghile pipes are what I think of when I reflect upon Aqaba. The sea air and smell of strawberry or apple tobacco make for a mellow, thoughtful outdoor evening.
What noise and indecency there is on the Jordanian side exists in the large bar room of the Movenpick, the one really grand hotel in town. On Friday and Saturday evenings, one can watch the nimble and voluptuous Luna perform her three sets of Oriental (or “belly”) dancing. Luna, an olive-skinned young French girl whose real name is Cecile, works a room sparsely populated by tourists, mostly Hungarians flown in on a discount package and dishdasha-wearing Saudis who’d driven the short distance across the border from their less-liberated home to watch this pretty Westerner do her stuff. Still, even this risqué business seems very tame compared to the tequila-driven day-glo dirty dancing going on at that same hour in the city across the bay. Indeed, the costumes, music, and attention to detail make Luna’s lounge act actually rather quaint and beautiful.
Early morning, awakened by the sun. I pull back the curtains and open the doors to the balcony of my sea-view room at the Movenpick. The Gulf of Aqaba stretches out before me, the light shimmering off the blue sea, illuminating the red mountains and white buildings, and bringing to life the green palms. The silence of the early morning is only broken when I turn the key in the ignition and roll south along the coast toward the Royal Dive Center for a morning of underwater swimming with rainbow colored fish and playing with octopi tucked into the well-preserved coral reef. Windows open, I push in my Waylon Jennings Greatest Hits CD and cruise incongruously along the water. Banging my hand on the steering wheel, I sing along with the late Highwayman:
I am in the happy heart of Sunday school fairy tale land. Across the water is Israel. Further down I can see Egypt. It’s another beautiful day in the Hashemite Kingdom and Iraq seems a million miles away.