Journey to the Jordan: A tale of perspective, generosity, and humility

A transformative encounter with bedouin hospitality in the heart of Jordan.
Dear Reader, Though it is now 2024- I have a lived story from 2015 that I wrote in 2017. It has been sitting dormant for the last 7-years. An experience lived when I was 21 years old and written about when I was 23. Though words and photographs hardly do experience justice, I hope that this can stir emotion, curiosity, and a taste for adventure in you.

After spending over five weeks in the Middle East, primarily Jordan, I found a new sense of truth and reality far from anything I expected about culture when departing from the United States. I had just finished my first semester at college and I had the January term free to do what I wished, so instead of taking a class on campus, I left to seek truth and understanding in a foreign culture that I and many of my peers understood to be dangerous as portrayed in news and media.

A brief background before diving in, three months prior to journeying off on this journey that I didn’t know at the time would change my life, I had an injury that forced me to undergo two surgeries which led me on a path to “Medically Redshirt” from my freshman hockey season in the NCAA. It provided the time for me to focus primarily on other things during my freshman year at school such as my faith, family, friends, other passions, and of course academics. At the school I was attending at the time, there was a “January-Term or J-term” where it is mandatory to take one class between the first and second semester in January at least twice in your four years while at school. I thought the J-term block was a great opportunity to do what my parents instilled in me from a young age, which was to travel and immerse myself in foreign cultures with intentionality, respect, and purpose.

The first week of January 2015 I declined to register for a J-term class and packed a backpack, picked up a few pens, a new journal, a few extra camera batteries, and a change of clothes then flew to Amman, Jordan. I landed in Amman on January 8th 2015, just a day after the Paris shooting on January 7th, 2015 which occurred on my travel day. Remember the Charlie Hebdo Newspaper Shooting? My first morning in the streets of Amman I found myself squeezing my 6’1” frame in between Jordanians to secure captivating shots of the protest and demonstration after news of the shooting. I locked eyes with a few men in the front of the crowd and as I raised my DSLR to my eye he shook his head and finger. There I was, in a country I really didn’t know much about, hearing a language that was like gibberish to me. Less than 12 hours in the country and I could feel the emotion knowing that this experience will help shape the path I will take in my years to come. From the chanting of the crowd, goosebumps cover my body as hairs on the back of my neck rise, a united voice of passion and a sea of bodies further than I could see set the landscape in old Amman.
That was the whole purpose of this trip. To take photos and document stories of as many people as I could then bring them back to the US to share. I had hardly any understanding of what actually was happening in the Middle East. It’s not like our school paper wrote updates about conflict and stories of culture, and sure I could pick my source of news but what was being shared globally I personally felt was different than what was being shared state-side, and different than what was actually happening in the Middle East. My plan was to gather as many stories of politics, culture, lifestyle, conflict, and whatever I came across when I was there not knowing the opportunity would open for professional shoot experience for a publication and worldly recognized humanities organization.

I felt called to document these stories to share them with my college peers, hockey teammates, friends, strangers, and anyone and anywhere who would listen. It was an opportunity for me to hone my skills and passion for storytelling outside of the norm. Now in 2017, as I write this, two years after being there I still sometimes do not have all the words to express all the wonderful things learned and events I encountered there. Let me make one thing clear, in particular, I have never felt so safe and so welcomed in any foreign country as I did in Jordan. The locals were so polite and loving as they invited me into their shops and business to drink tea and talk about news, politics, society, and my own thoughts and beliefs. I always had to stop them from peppering them asking about their culture and life as they continued down their list of question after question for me.

"The locals were so polite and loving as they invited me into their shops and business to drink tea and talk about news, politics, society, and my own thoughts and beliefs."

I have many stories from there that are very worth sharing. About my second week in the local and rural part of Amman, my friend (Let’s call him Abraham) and I had an opportunity to go southwest to stay with a man we met named Saiem Saleh Gasm who was selling bananas at a local day market. It just so happens that he drove every other Friday over eight hours round trip to sell his bananas at the market in a local area of Amman to spend time in the big city. Saiem Saleh Gasm (Saiem for short) comes from a Bedouin family in Wadi Rum in the Arabian Desert. Saiem is a Bedouin who no longer lives the fully nomadic and “off-grid” lifestyle that his family does, their Bedouin lineage dates back thousands of years. I came to realize he wasn’t like most Bedouins there, he had a truck, multiple pairs of clothes, an ID, and a house in a village roughly a few miles outside of the desert in Wadi Rum. Some Bedouin families choose to open their homes for tourism as a way to make a living and give foreigners a beautiful and authentic Bedouin experience, yet this was not the case. Abraham and I were blessed to find out that we were to be the first outsider visitors to the family. Saiem drove us into the Arabian Desert to stay with his uncle Abbuh-Hassan. His uncle lived in a “make-shift tent” a dozen miles out into the desert. He looked to be in his mid-70’s (I came to learn he was only 61) with an exceptional white beard and hands like leather, strong and weathered from the harsh conditions of living in a desert.

When Abraham and I arrived my jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe what I saw. It is hard to articulate the scarce amount of possessions Abbuh Hassan and the family owned. When I was there I tried journaling, but drew a line through my page frustratingly and closed my journal. I just could not seem to wrap my mind around their lifestyle and how it looked to me like they were just barely surviving when instead they were thriving in the desert.

Being a bare-witness to their home really gave me a humbled sense of perspective. It’s not like I was shy of seeing humbling experiences traveling, but this really humbled my heart and mind. For example, I was so blessed to grow up living in Kailua and sailing out of Kāneʻohe Bay in Hawaii, while spending winters in Basalt, Colorado skiing Aspen Snowmass before moving there full time in my mid-teens. Abbuh-Hassan and his family have lived their entire life in a makeshift tent made of torn cloth, sticks, and pieces of tin in the Arabian Desert. With no watch on their wrists or ID’s in their non-existing wallets, Abbuh-Hassan and his family live on the time of the sun and stars. From what I understood, they owned literally the clothes on their backs, a few pots to cook over a fire pit, a herd of goats, and three roughly estimated 100-gallon tubs of water.

I have never experienced such a language barrier as I did there. I am lucky to say that smiling is a universal language.

Meeting Hassan, a seven-year-old nephew to Saiem and grandson of Abbuh-Hassan, was one of the most impactful parts of my journey to the Middle East.
I arrived at their cloth and stick home built on sand in the late afternoon. The Golden hour quickly approached us and we found ourselves huddled around a fire Abbuh-Hassan had stirred up. I broke out my dry bag from my pack and took out two glow sticks, you know, the ones you crack and shake that illuminate a glow for 12 hours or so? I broke it and shook it then handed it to Hassan as he grinned ear to ear. My friend Abraham who speaks a little Arabicbic could make out the words of Saiem’s slang and broken Arabic telling us that this was the first gift that Hassan had ever received. He had been growing up playing on the rocks and sand of the vast Arabian Desert. No toys made in China, and certainly no wifi, it really struck me how fortunate I was growing up. After observing Hassan play with the glow stick I took off my Patagonia Brodeo Beanie and handed it to him. Hassan put it on, it looked like it was made for him. I held out my hands like I was signaling a car to stop as I looked at the young boy and he knew it was another gift. Hassan then nestled up in a blanket as we sat and ate dinner around the open flame. Dinner was especially interesting as I was mortified to discover that our leftovers from the meal were only then offered to the women, the wife of Abbuh Hassan and grandmother of four young girls Hassan’s age who were out of sight for my entire visit. A glimpse of a hooded figure with stretched out arms and covered hands reaching from behind a cloth wall is all that I was able to see.

It was only what seemed like moments later I laid awake on the desert floor on top of a blanket next to the flame. I looked up with no roof over my head to see the constellations. There was no light pollution out there and it truly was one of the most incredible nights of my life. I sat up, grabbed my camera quietly out of my bag, and snuck away from the tent of this generous Bedouin family. I set up my camera to take long exposures of the North Star while laying on the cold desert ground next to goat shit for what seemed to be hours. About an hour into the process an elderly female came out from the back of the home with what looked like a younger female, I think they startled me as much as I startled them with my headlamp and camera. They must have had to go to the bathroom.
I was in the desert with this family for three days.  It was great being able to give the family things we take for granted like an insulated water bottle and a pair of Teva sandals. It gave me such a new perspective about overconsumption and the minimalist lifestyle, Abbuh-Hassan and Hassan didn’t even know how to write their name so when they watched me journal and take out my camera, it was just as impactful for them as my experience there was for me. They had near to no possessions and food but made me feel like the richest man alive. Rich in love, and although there was no wifi, I found a better connection. I bonded with Hassan and I hope I left an impact on him as he did me. It seemed like I did, well I hope at least. The next morning I took some portraits of Hassan and his grandfather. My experience with them in particular during my time in the Middle East was heavy on my heart, I took off my Nano Air Hoodie and handed it to Hassan’s uncle, Saiem. I knew it was something I should do, to show love and selflessness. I felt that they needed it more than I did. I asked that he would wear the jacket until Hassan, the young boy, could fit into it.

I wanted to live out the principles I have grown up with. Life changing moments bring out your character and integrity- even if it means giving money and possessions. My family taught me about the importance of giving with no expectation to receive, and being grateful for our blessings and opportunities while being intentional in our decision-making process. It was only natural for me to share what I had wholeheartedly with this family who had given me an experience that would change my life.

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