Middle East

09.27.139:00 PM ET

Petra Suffers As Syria's War Spills Over

It's one of the Seven Wonders of the modern world, but tour guides at Petra say that the conflict in Syria has taken a drastic toll on their livelihood. Souad Mekhennet reports.

The sun was at its highest point when Hani Al Nawafleh got off the metal chair that he always placed at the entrance to Petra, one of Jordan's major tourist attractions and one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. Some of the towering rocks of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, depending on how high the sun stands, are changing its colors from coral into rose—which is why people also call Petra the “Rose City.”

Al Nawafleh, who works as a guide, had been waiting for hours for customers. "It is really frustrating and bad," he said while beginning the tour. "I used to have at least eight to ten customers per day and have to turn down requests sometimes. But now I am happy if I have one or two per day."

The changes and challenges in the region have influenced the numbers of tourists in Jordan, a country that is dependent on tourism and foreign aid. "First it was what you call in the West the 'Arab Spring,' which made some people stay away," Al Nawafleh said while taking me to the horses that would carry visitors through Petra, a magnificent city carved out of beautiful rock that had been the ancient capital of the Nabataeans and a wealthy trading center among the spice trail.

The rock-cut architecture and water supply system made Petra world famous and became the scenery for movies such as Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade.

Al Nawafleh is not only a guide but a storyteller—about Jordan, the region, about life and love, all as he relaxes his weight on a walking stick. He’s perhaps the leading tour guide in Petra, known by the coffee vendors and shop owners as "Abu Ashraf" —father of Ashraf, the name of his oldest son.

Al Nawafleh said he has been working for over 57 years as a tour guide in Petra and has seen many good and bad years throughout his life, but the last couple of months have been the worst for his profession.

"What has really hurt us here in Petra, is the war in Syria and the increasing escalation in the last months," he said.

The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in Jordan confirmed that in the first quarter of 2013 numbers of visitors have decreased by 11 percent and that they believed that the past three months has seen the sharpest declines as the civil war in Syria rages on.

"I feel for what is happening in Syria, but we in Jordan are also paying the price—hundreds of families are depending on tourism here in Petra," Al Nawafleh said while his black eyes focused at the Nabatean monuments.

According to official numbers, seven percent of Jordan’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is provided through the tourism sector. For people living in the towns surround Petra, the loss of income is more than 70 percent, according to their own accounts.

"My coffee shop used to be packed with visitors every day." said Ahmad, who did not want to give his family name, “But I have never seen my place that empty as it is now," he said, offering up an Arabic coffee with cardamom.

Al Nawafleh sipped the coffee and pointed towards a cave a bit further away. "See, this is where Lawrence of Arabia lived and also has written parts of his book," he said lighting a self-rolled cigarette. "After all these years, the Arabs have still not learned to stick together and are just still fighting against each other."

The British military officer T.E Lawrence, one of the most famous spies in history, between 1916 and 1918 led a revolt against the Ottoman Empire. In 1917, Bedouin women living in Petra participated in the city’s revolt against the Ottomans.

“But now look where we all are,” said Hassan, a souvenir vendor and a friend of Al Nawafleh. “Isn't it ironic what role Turkey is now playing in Syria and their support for the Muslim Brotherhood movement?" He was referring to the Turkish government’s stand and their support for political parties in the region that had connections to the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt or close ties with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party in Turkey.

Al Nawafleh said he was especially worried about the increasing intolerance in the region. "Look at what has happened to Maaloula, one of the only places in this world where people still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus," he said, his voice rising. "All in the name of what? Democracy? Arab Spring?"

According to Syrians that I had interviewed in the last weeks and to media reports, the village is now under the control of al-Qaeda-linked fighters, and hundreds of residents had to flee.

"First, the war against Saddam Hussein, and now the Arab Spring. What good has all this idea of democracy brought to the region?" Hassan asked his friends and himself. The men debated for a few minutes about the concept of democracy and how countries such as Iraq and now Syria have turned into religious and sectarian battlefields.

"We used to be Arabs, but now people in the region ask, ‘Are you Sunni, Shia, Alawite, Christian or Jew?’ This is sad," Al Nawafleh said. He said he could not befriend those whose only goal is to look for ways to divide the world. He had already guided many travel groups from Israel and never had a problem, even when they would discuss the Palestinian issue, he said.

"Everything can be solved if the different parties would really think about the future of their children and just learn how to talk to each other, no matter if it's Syria or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict," he said as the afternoon sun slowly turned the bright blue sky into light orange near the horizon.

He and his friends not only had to be worried about declining visitors to Petra and their jobs, but also about their country, a relatively small kingdom increasingly surrounded by states with conflicts. For years Jordan has borne the burden of receiving hundreds of thousands of refugees from Palestine, Iraq and now Syria. "We are not a rich nation. We don't have oil, we even don't have much water and the prices are increasing," Al Nawafleh said, adding that people are getting increasingly impatient.

"I am hoping somebody will come and help us," he said while taking the last sip of the cardamom-spiced coffee, "I hope they will not wait until it's too late."


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