Abi Steadman, a first year IR student, went on the Grimshaw delegation to Jordan in 2015.
You walk across the reception hall and out through open glass doors. A gentle breeze stirs through your hair, the folds of your dress. You welcome it; the heat of the day lingers like a kiss on bruised lips. The stone terrace is brought to life by over-head vines and succulents in ceramic pots, the first plants you have seen here. You cross to the balustrade overlooking the garden and, beyond the trees, the city. From this high up, Amman is a constellation. The orange and white lights rise and fall with the curve of the mountainsides; in the valley, downtown Amman resembles a luminescent lake. The horizon glows where pitch sky meets electric light.
This is the residence of Princess Ayah Bint Al Faisal, niece to King Abdullah II of Jordan.
Six months ago, you received an email from the Grimshaw Club. They had organised nine trips abroad: would you be interested? Well, is the Pope Catholic? Of course you’d be interested! You browsed the PDF. Countries scrolled before your eyes. You spotted Ukraine, Abu Dhabi, Cambodia…and then came an image of the Treasury at Petra, that beautiful stone façade so famously destroyed in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. You paused. So, there was a trip to Jordan. Would you be interested?
Six months later, you found yourself at Heathrow on the hottest day of the year. Thirty five degrees Celsius in Britain and you were about to leave the country – typical. A wave of heat washed over you as you stepped out of the air-conditioned departure lounge and into the tunnel connecting you to your flight. The staff of Royal Jordanian Airlines smiled warmly, checked your passport, your boarding pass, and ushered you onto the flight.
‘Are you on the Grimshaw trip?’ You asked the guy seated beside you. You had met so many new faces in the past three hours that you scarcely recalled a single name.
‘No, I’m going home,’ he replied. He gave you an embarrassed glance. ‘What is a Grimshaw trip?’
‘Oh, sorry,’ you laughed at your mistake. ‘The Grimshaw Club is the International Relations society at LSE. We’re visiting Jordan.’
‘I have a friend doing International Relations at LSE. She just finished her first year.’
‘Really?’ You squeaked. ‘Me too!’
‘You might know her – Maya?’
‘Yes!’ You exclaimed excitedly. He smiled nervously. ‘What a small world!’
A small world indeed – yet as you stepped out of Queen Alia International Airport that evening, you felt as though you’d arrived on a different planet. Men and women in traditional Islamic dress hovered at the baggage claim. A smoking booth in the corner enveloped its occupants in a white haze. The rhythmic hum of Arabic bounced off the polished floor and high ceiling. A small child stared at your group curiously. You could not blame him; the Jordan Grimshaw Club trip comprised thirteen different nationalities, a noisy group of over-excited men and women from all over the world. You smiled at the boy. His eyes widened, alarmed, and he buried his face in his mother’s skirt.
‘Well,’ you chuckled, turning to your new friend Tasnima. ‘I have been on a five hour flight. I probably do look quite scary.’
Not nearly as scary, however, as Princess Ayah’s beautiful home appeared when your battered bus crested the mountain top the following evening. You were literally about to meet royalty. You’d never even met a member of your own country’s royal family, let alone a royal family who actually ruled. What would you say? You reminded yourself firmly not to swear.
In the end, your fear was unfounded. The Princess was warm, welcoming, informal. She apologised for her casual jeans, as though she were the one meeting people of importance. You were led through the reception hall, out onto the terrace, down the stairs and into the garden. Steam unfurled from the vast swimming pool. Soft lights buried in the greenery lit the cushioned seating area, where highly specialised experts of the royally-appointed Senate would soon join you. The Princess sat herself cross-legged on a pouffe, and announced she had a surprise.
The surprise turned out to be her father.
Prince Faisal Bin Al Hussein, the King regent in his brother’s absence, strode into the garden in his quilted 2012 Olympics jacket, shook hands with every single member of the group, seated himself beside his daughter, and proceeded to smoke a cigarillo.
‘So,’ he said. ‘What would you like to know?’
That evening would not be the only surreal experience of this trip. Over the next five days, you would climb to the top of a Roman amphitheatre, crash through red-orange dunes in a battered 4×4, watch the sunrise in the desert, and consume copious amounts of lamb.
You’d never even liked lamb, until you’d tasted it cooked for four hours beneath the sand. You would brave Petra under the unforgiving midday sun. You would visit the site where Jesus was baptised at Bethany, wave to Israeli tourists as you dangled your feet in your respective sides of the metre-wide Jordan River, and feel the sting of the Dead Sea in a paper cut. The British embassy, the Near East Foundation, the Arab Institute for Security Studies and the UNHCR would all enrich your understanding of a region complex, terrifying and utterly unique. And of course, you would try shisha for the first time. Lemon mint would become your favourite flavour.
‘How was it?’ Your mother would ask as she met you on your return.
‘Oh my God,’ you’d exhale. ‘Where do I even begin?’