I awoke suddenly in the middle of the night to the sound of a blaring mezzuin calling men to prayer. The sound was so loud that it felt like my bed was vibrating, as if someone had placed a huge ghetto blaster right under it, which emitted a pulsating sound. At first I was so dazed that I didn't remember where I was. Then I realized I had arrived earlier that night with friends to Umm Qais, a rather obscure and remote little Moslem town in the extreme north west of Jordan where relatively few Western tourists visit. (Umm Qais is situated where the borders of Jordan, Israel and Syria meet, perched on a hilltop 1,240 feet above sea level, overlooking Israel's sea of Galilee, the Golan Heights and the Yarmuk gorge.)
When we had arrived in the dark, it was difficult to get a sense of the town of Umm Qais. My friends had made arrangements for us to stay at the Gadera Rent Room, which was pretty well Umm Qais's only accommodation situated on the town's main street. The Rent Room had four floors, with no elevator. My friends would stay on the Arabic style lavish suite upstairs on the fourth floor, which meant that they would climb a hundred stairs with their luggage. I opted to skip the stairs and stay on a lower floor. The only available accommodation was a large basic dorm-like room for women with five single beds, all with plain yellow bedspreads. At $50.00 US a night, with no breakfast, I tried to convince myself it was almost like a “boutique hotel”.
It was late enough that when I arrived two of the beds were already occupied by sleeping guests, whom I hadn't met.
Hearing the Mezzuin, I realized there must be a mosque nearby even though I had not noticed one when we arrived. It felt like the mosque was so nearby, it was right under my bed. Could it be that I was sleeping right on top of a mosque?
I asked the blonde German woman in the bed across from me what time it was. "Just before 4 a.m.," she replied.
"How long will this mezzuin last?" I shouted out to her over the noise. It would last a few minutes and then it would start again in another half hour or so, she explained.
I put the covers over my head to try to dampen the noise a bit, realizing that I couldn't have found a worse location in Umm Quis to sleep. I thought of a potential headline for an article I would write: "Stupid Jew Chooses To Rent a Room Right on Top of Mosque," or "In Umm Qais, Don't Call us. We'll call you."
Later on in the day, I did check to what see what the Globetrotter Travel Guide of Jordan said about the Gadera Rent Room. It talked about the amazing archaeological ruins of the ancient ton of Gadera, and said that the modern town (where I was) was not worth the detour.
Just after the second call of the Mezzuin I managed to fall back asleep and was awoken again by the alarm clock of my two German roommates, who were getting up at 5 a.m. to go to the excavations they were working at the nearby archaeological site.
What time is it? I inquired. “Almost five a.m.,” one of the German women responded as she put on her bra. She explained that this was their routine wake up time since they would excavate the site before the heat of the day.
I intended to be in Umm Qais for three nights, and was now making the calculation that each night I would be awoken at least three times. So much for the "boutique hotel" idea.
As it was, it hadn't been so simple to arrive in Umm-Qais. My friends had left Jerusalem later than intended such that when we crossed the border at Beit Shean into Jordan, it was already dark. We had made arrangements to get a van on the Jordanian side of the border, and from there we'd drive eastward into the mountains to Umm Qais. The rental company representative would be waiting for us with a car on the highway just after we crossed the border. As it turned out, we were on the last bus to cross the border for the night.
Inside the Jordanian border control office, I couldn't help but notice the large imposing signage with the face of King Abdullah of Jordan, and also of his father late King Hussein. It was if the signs were reminding us "The King is everywhere. Long Live the King". It was a reminder that in Jordan, the King has very wide ranging powers, and Jordan is not a democracy. (I had read enough to know that Jordanians did not talk in public about whether or not they liked the King.)
By the time we got out of border control, we walked out onto the dark unlit highway, and our rental van had not arrived. There were no other cars going by and I began wondering if we'd spend the first night camped out on the highway. Thankfully, after about 20 minutes or so the rental company representatives did arrive with our van
As we began to drive, I asked if my two friends if they had brought a good map, assuming of course, that they had.
Each one looked at the other. "Did you bring the map?" “No, I thought you were bringing the map?”
At first I thought they were joking and burst out laughing.
Realizing it wasn't a joke, I searched my bag and rifled through the two guidebooks to Jordan I had brought with me, a Lonely Planet and a Globetrotter guidebook. There was a very small map at the back of one of them, which would have to do.
It wasn't easy to figure out where we were exactly and we realized belatedly that we had passed by a turn off on the way and had driven too far north. After doubling back to find the unmarked turn off, we began ascending a windy dark road into the barren dessert mountains. We were the only car on the road, there were no lights, and it was quite impossible to see what lay ahead, as the punishing road twisted and turned. It was a harrowing drive and I hoped that we were in fact on the right road. Sensing the tension, the four children were all completely quiet in the back.
Suddenly, there was a blinding white light that shone into our van. We stopped immediately realizing that we had come to a Jordanian military checkpoint, which took us completely by surprise. I saw a tank on our left hand side and an armed soldier was staring down at us from a tower on the right side.
Neither one of my guide books had mentioned that we'd have to pass a military checkpoint, nor had any of the Jordanian contacts we had spoken to in making the trip arrangements. I wondered if this was a permanent checkpoint and if so why it was there. I would later learn that there was no way of getting in or out of the town without going through a Jordanian army checkpoint.
I asked one of my German roommates, Anna, about this as we sat in the common kitchen drinking tea, overlooking the mosque that would wake me up throughout the night.
“Security is especially tight here because the Jordanian government is worried about Islamic extremists getting to the border with Israel and conducting terrorist attacks or undermining King Abdullah’s [Hashemite] regime,” she said.
“Northern Jordan traditionally has been the centre of Palestinian extremism,” she said. “There is a big Palestinian refugee camp in the city of Irbid, less than an hour’s drive from here. In Black September in 1974, Irbid was considered the stronghold of Yasser Arafat and Palestinian nationalists [who challenged the Hashemite regime].”
Catherina, another German roommate, added: “I was in Irbid the other day, and a soldier got on the city bus to look at everyone’s passport. He wasn’t interested in women’s passports, but in the men’s. The regime is fearful of Muslim extremists who want to carry out terrorist attacks… There are concerns that there are Al Qaeda cells around here. Israeli security officials had reportedly been concerned that Al Qaeda might try to kidnap an Israeli farmer or soldier near the Jordan Valley."
Editor's note: My visit to Um Quais described above occurred in the spring of 2008. I can only imagine how much security there must now be in Um Quais in northern Jordan, as the threat of ISIS, which controls parts of Syria, looms ever larger. Undoubtedly, ISIS sleeper cells are in place throughout Jordan.