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Dr. Charles Silverstein, our Travel Editor, is a licensed psychologist in New York City. He is best known for having presented the case for the deletion of homosexuality as a mental disorder before the American Psychiatric Association. He is also the founding director of two gay counseling centers, and the founding editor of the Journal of Homosexuality.

He's author or co-author of six books about gay life, including the three editions of the popular Joy of Gay Sex, contributed chapters and articles in professional books and journals. He is considered an expert in the diagnosis and treatment of relationships between men and problems of sexual disorders. Further information about him and his practice may be found on his website:



In the Footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia

"Do you remember the film 'Lawrence of Arabia' starring Peter O'Toole?" I said to my friend Terrance, who was much too young to have seen it.
Terrance after his Dead Sea Mudbath
"Why don't we go to Jordan and follow his footsteps in the desert?" I was already drifting away in my fantasy of being Lawrence. I explained how the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan contains some of the world's most outstanding archeological treasures such as the Roman city of Jerash, north of the Jordanian capital, Amman, and the Nabataen city of Petra tucked away in the southern desert.

"I want to know three things," he said. "Can I drink the water and get alcoholic drinks? And I also want to know if I can get laid by a Hashemite hunk in Jordan." There it was, the difference between the two of us, me the romantic, Terrance the practical. Still, we travel well together.

"I have no idea," I truthfully answered, still plotting to pique his interest. But what difference does it make? I remarked to myself. The entire country of Jordan is an archeological diamond.

(This article was first published in The Guide, a Boston gay travel magazine. It was published in 1994. I have kept the 1994 prices so that you can compare them to the present day.)
"O. K., I'll consider going to Jordan, but only if we spend at least two days in Petra. I watched the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan on television," Terrance noted. "O.K., let's go."

I might as well answer some of these questions right away. In contrast to many other Middle Eastern countries, the water is perfectly safe to drink in Jordan, including hotel tap water. You needn't buy bottled water for drinking, except if you travel in the desert.

The Jordanian people have a well deserved reputation for both honesty and friendliness. They do not steal or try to intimidate foreign travelers. When the border between Israel and Jordan was opened as a result of the peace treaty, 1,500 Israeli cars lined up to enter Jordan for the weekend.

The Koran forbids the drinking of alcohol. However, you will find both beer and hard liquor offered for sale. The only problem is that the beer has no alcohol content whatsoever. One day, while in Amman, we bought a bottle of bourbon in one of the special stores set up to sell alcoholic drinks to foreigners at exorbitant prices. We knocked off the entire bottle that evening only to find that we hadn't even gotten a buzz. If you want hard liquor in Jordan, buy it from the duty free shops when you leave the United States.

As for getting laid, well, that's more of a problem. There are no gay bars or clubs or cruising places. The Koran forbids homosexuality, and Jordan is an Islamic country. Fortunately, foreigners are allowed more sexual latitude than natives of the country. We are, after all, infidels, and not expected to make our behavior conform to the holy book. Besides, we're bringing in needed tourist dollars. This means that one is likely to connect sexually with other gay tourists. Places like Petra and Aqaba get a steady flow of international tourists, including lots of attractive gay men.

Food in Jordan is a bit of a problem if you're staying at the most popular tourist hotels. In these hotels, all the meals consist of awful tasting buffets. On the other hand, you'll find lots of very good inexpensive Middle-Eastern and foreign restaurants in Amman. Aqaba is also noted for inexpensive restaurants so that you can avoid the buffets. Since most Jordanians speak English, go to the Arab restaurants where the food is very tasty.


I removed my earring during the trans-Atlantic flight from New York City to Amman. It was on my right ear. "I'm not interested in making a political statement in Jordan" I said to Terrance. "I want to enjoy the pleasures of this country. Let the gay Jordanians fight their own civil rights battles." I should have known better.

Charles and Terrance in Aqaba
While in Amman, we visited the Dead Sea Spa Hotel, the only hotel on the Jordanian side of The Dead Sea. There is no public transportation from Amman to the hotel, so for 20 Jordanian Dinars, called JDs we hired a taxi and driver for the afternoon. The hotel itself is an expensive bore, and the lunch buffet worse than average. If you're interested in The Dead Sea as a resort area, you're better off on the Israeli side because it has many hotels, more activities, and public transportation from Jerusalem. People go to the spas because they believe in the healing properties the saltiness of The Dead Sea water, and the black mud with which you are supposed to coat your body. We went for the fun of a mud bath.

It must have been a rather dull day on the beach when we went for our mud bath, since virtually everyone at the hotel watched as our bodies were smeared with mud, from head to toes. Bathing suits were kept on. We were surrounded by a dozen laughing tourists, speaking a stew of languages, and taking pictures of the whole process.

The mud protocol calls for allowing the mud to dry completely on the body. Within minutes, especially under the hot desert sun, bits of mud start flaking off. After you've finished baking, you wash the mud off in The Dead Sea, so that you exchange the layer of mud for an even more annoying layer of salt. Finally, one takes a lengthy shower and washes the salt from the body. We found the process hilarious, if also a bit reminiscent of childhood mud pies.

A couple of days later, we took the long drive south from Amman to Petra. There are two ways of doing it. The fast way is by the Desert Highway, a straight road on level ground that takes three hours. Modern, air conditioned buses take this route. But we decided on the Kings Highway, an old road that meanders through some of the most beautiful desert and mountain scenery in the world, including the Jordanian version of the Grand Canyon. It passes through the remarkable Ma'in Springs, a 200 foot high thermal waterfall for bathing, the stunning mosaics at Mount Nebo, and the crusader castle in Kerak.

Charles on top of one of the mountains in Petra
The easiest way to get from one place to another is by hiring a taxi for the day, outrageously expensive in the United States, but modestly priced in Jordan. You merely negotiate the price with a taxi driver and pay him at the end of the day. These drivers are absolutely reliable and honest. We found "Sami," a pleasant man and agreed to pay him 70 JD ($98) for what would prove to be a 13 hour drive from Amman to Petra.

It was 8 p.m. by the time our car arrived at the Forum Hotel in Petra. We were exhausted by the 13 hour road trip, and could easily imagine how tired Sami must have been. After depositing us, he had yet to drive back to Amman, which would take him three hours on the fast Desert Highway, arriving home at midnight. Still, he wouldn't leave until we were secure in our room.

The Forum is a popular hotel because it sits just outside the entrance to the Nabataen city of Petra. The view from some of the rooms is spectacular. On the other hand, it is a dull 1st class hotel (96 JD/$135/day for a double), always stuffed with tour groups, giving one the feeling that everything is in transit. They serve the usual tasteless buffets. Most of the hotels are in Wadi Musa, the town next to Petra. You'll also find the majority of restaurants and evening activities. They sell sand paintings virtually everywhere, small glass jars containing colored sand pictures. They make fabulous (and small) gifts to take home. I recommend that you stay in town.

We were grimy, tired, hungry and thirsty as we approached the desk clerk. "My name is Silverstein, and I have a reservation," I said, matter of factly, my passport and credit card in hand.

"Yes, sir," said the clerk. "We are holding a room for you. And where is Mrs. Silverstein?"

Terrance was standing just a few feet behind me. "There he is," I said. Terrance, bless his even temperament, smiled at the desk clerk coquettishly and waved a limp wrist.

"I'm sorry sir," said the shocked (if not outraged) desk clerk, "but I can't give you this room because it only has one bed."

There then ensued a loud argument between me and this petit bourgeois official about the propriety of two men sleeping in one bed. I was too exhausted to put up with his homophobic bullshit, and told him so. "About time you met some openly gay men in this hotel," I roared. The commotion brought out the assistant manager. I said to him, "We have slept in one bed since we arrived in Jordan (which wasn't true), and we're going to sleep in one bed in your hotel for the next three nights. And it's not your business what we or any other guests do in bed together."

"Give them the room," said the assistant manager, aware that I was writing about tourism in Jordan.

"Did you say that you weren't going to make any political statements in Jordan?" said my traveling companion with the limp wrist. "Don't you think you informed everybody within earshot that we're fags, including the French tour group standing right behind me?"

"So what?" I replied self-righteously, as we walked to our room. "Our money is good, and we shouldn't have to hide our sexual orientation because it might offend some petty hotel official."

"Well, since you outed yourself, do you want your earring back?" I put the earring back on my right ear. We gave Sami a great tip, and took his phone number in Amman. He insisted we have dinner with his family before we leave the country. We originally agreed to pay 70 JD ($98) for the day. We gave him 90 JD ($126) because he took perfect care of us.

The next day we asked to have our room changed so as to get a better view of the ancient city. "And make sure it has only one bed," I exclaimed to the now intimidated desk clerk.

I assumed that employees of the hotel would gossip about us, but I had no idea just how widely news of the incident would travel. During our two days of exploring the ancient city, employees of the hotel occasionally walked with us, making comments about our sleeping together in one bed. "How do you know him?" or "are you related?" were common questions I avoided answering since it was none of their business. What do they want, I kept asking myself? They weren't in the least hostile. Were they looking for blowjobs from foreign gay men, or gay themselves and looking to make social contact? I had no idea, and never did figure it out.

It was during our two days in Petra that I learned a bit about ethnic relations in Jordan. While in Amman I bought a "kufiya" (pronounced koo-fee-a), the headdress worn by Arabs on their heads to shade them from the sun. I wore this occasionally in Amman. But in Petra Arabs objected to it, pointing at it and saying, "Arafat, Arafat." It was a black and white kufiya, worn by Palestinians living in Jordan. Jordanians wear a red and white kufiya. The Palestinians are those who fled the West Bank when Israel conquered it and who look forward to a Palestinian state. Most of them live in and around Amman. The Jordanians, on the other hand, are of the Hashemite tribe. They were native to the land when Jordan was proclaimed a sovereign state after World War One. There is some animosity between these two groups. Since I was then in the south, where the Arabs wear only a red and white kufiya, I bought one for myself much to the satisfaction of my previous critics.

Charles on "Matilda" in Wadi Rum
A greater surprise occurred that night. We were invited to dinner by the manager of Petra's only deluxe hotel, Taybet Zaman. The hotel car picked us up and when we arrived we were greeted by Ossama Dabbas, the General Manager, his assistant manager, and a P.R. man. We had also arranged to take a balloon ride over Petra ($150/pp), and the captain of the balloon joined us as well. (We missed the balloon ride because of high winds.)

Mr. Dabbas immediately introduced us to the manager of the Forum Hotel, where we were staying, and who came to Taybet Zaman to meet us! "I hope your accommodations are now satisfactory," he said with a knowing look on his face. I heard a slight emphasis on the word now.

"Quite," I replied. Then we went on a tour of the hotel. Taybet Zaman is a 19th century Arab village consisting of many small buildings restored with great taste and elegance. Though a few miles outside of Petra, they provide free transportation to the site. It is without doubt, the most beautiful hotel I saw in Jordan. A double room with tax and service cost $218/day. Two meals a day (the usual buffets) cost an additional $31 per person.

It was clear that everyone in our party knew that two gay men were sharing a bed in Petra. Their curiosity was palpable, so when we finished the dinner buffet, I said, "You probably want to know who I write for." All heads moved closer in, including Terrance's, who had no idea whether this was or wasn't a "statement" night. It was.

I confirmed the fact that we were gay, and that I would be writing about our experience in Jordan for American gay magazines. "Gay people like to travel to interesting places just as much as straight people. There are already a large number of gay tours throughout the world. I thought gays might want to travel to Jordan now that there's a peace treaty with Israel."

"So why don't gay people come here?" said Mr. Dabbas, with a sweeping gesture of his arm indicating his hotel. "I would welcome them."

"When we go on a trip," I said, deciding to test the limits of my host's invitation, "we don't expect a desk clerk to tell us who we're going to sleep with. Men sleep with men, and women sleep with women. And when we dance, we do so in same sex couples."

"So?" said my host. "You can dance here, and then go to bed with whomever you're sharing a room with."

"Gay people are very sensitive to the hostile stares or insulting comments of homophobic employees," I noted.

"I would fire any employee in this hotel who was insulting to a group of gay tourists."

Mr. Dabbas then told me that until about 25 years ago, two men could get married in Oman. The idea blew my mind, but how could I check it out?

By the end of our conversation, I was convinced that Taybet Zaman, at least while under the direction of the current manager, would be receptive to gay tour groups.

Petra is a fabulous site, perhaps one of the world's greatest archeological treasures. Whole buildings have been carved into the soft, multi-colored stone by the Nabataeans, considered "pre-Arabs" by archeologists. They settled in Petra before Christ. Because they controlled the trade route through the desert, tariffs on trade goods made them fabulously wealthy. They were eventually conquered by the Romans.

Boys singing & dancing on beach in Aqaba at night
The site covers many square miles, with long flights of stairs (one is over a thousand steps), and mountain trails. The scenery from the tops of these mountains is simply breathtaking. You need at least two days to see the place because it's spread out over miles of terrain. It's beautiful, but tiring. A two day pass costs 25 JD ($35) in 1994. Don't take the horses because they are only allowed to walk a very short distance. You do not need a guide, though there are lots of attractive ones. They don't know any more, and sometimes know a lot less, than guide books available at the hotels. But guides are useful if you want to do one of the more hair-raising, knee scraping, narrow ledge ascents. In general, however, you can't get lost; just follow any crowd up or down a mountain. The walk begins by passing through a narrow gorge called the "Siq," that empties into a courtyard containing the first of many building, called the "treasury." There's nothing in them, and the names are made up. We know almost nothing about their use.

Be forewarned. In 1994, there were NO BATHROOMS anywhere within the confines of Petra. One can easily spend 6-8 hours a day at the site, walk for miles, even up those thousand steps, and expect a bathroom at the top of the mountain. No chance. The result is that every cave is used as a toilet by both tourists and locals, and it's not a pretty sight (or smell). [I don't know whether the Jordanian government has installed bathrooms in the past decade.]

Terrance was wonderful to me during our two days of rock climbing. "You're responsible for keeping me alive," I said to him as we walked through the entrance to the site. I had a slight ear infection and my balance was a bit off and needed him to watch that I didn't walk off a cliff. Mother Teresa couldn't have watched over me more carefully or lovingly than Terrance did those two days. I was very touched by it.

After two days of hiking around Petra, we hired a car and driver (25 JD/$35) for the drive to Aqaba. We arrived in this Jordanian port city, which was just a bedraggled little town during World War One. Today, hotels are springing up helter-skelter, covering over the sands of the desert with concrete. That's because Aqaba is noted as one of the best diving sites in the world. Boats go into the Gulf of Aqaba (called the Gulf of Eilat on the Israeli side) for both snorkeling and scuba diving. Diving here costs less than half of what it would cost anywhere else in the world.

But we were not in Aqaba for diving. I wanted to go to Wadi Rum ever since I saw "Lawrence of Arabia." It was through this picture postcard desert that T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole in the movie) and Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn) attacked Aqaba, then held by the Turks. My desire thrilled the child in me, and I had every intention of indulging it to the fullest.

We were well prepared for the heat of the desert. We wore wide brimmed hats to shield us from the sun. Terrance carried the back pack containing water, sun lotion, salt tablets, a first aid kit, and one of the two cameras we brought into the desert. I carried the other camera.

The taxi (25 JD or $35 round trip from Aqaba to Wadi Rum) takes you to the government rest house where you can hire either a camel or a jeep for the day, or, for the more adventurous, walk around the desert. (There are also young people who camp out.)

"Let's take the jeep," pleaded Terrance, wanting to cover as much ground as possible in the shortest amount of time - and in the greatest comfort. But his worst fear had already been realized. I had turned into a nut case, hallucinating that I was Lawrence (who was also gay) about to cross this vast desert area peppered with wildly shaped, multi-colored, vertical rock cliffs. So we compromised. We agreed to take the three hour camel ride, then return to our Aqaba hotel to sun bathe and swim.

Terrance in one of the caves in Petra
One of the pleasures of independent travel is that you meet the most interesting, sometimes the oddest people. This is in contrast to bus tours, where everyone is boringly the same. While waiting for our camels, we bumped into an elderly Swiss man. He was the spitting image of Santa Claus, with snow white beard and hair, wearing a chest full of medals, pins and embroidered patches, and a World War One army hat on his head, feather and all.

"I've been walking this desert for 50 years," said Santa Claus, gently nudging me over to the large map on the wall. He then inquired as to where we were traveling with our camels. We told him we were going to an outcrop of rock famous for archaic pictographs.

"Ah! That's wonderful. It's like crawling up a woman's legs," he said. "Then you come to a narrow passageway, and you walk into her cunt. And there in her cunt are the drawings on the wall."

Before I could thank my newfound friend for his valuable information, our taxi driver interrupted to report that our camels were ready. They were females, so I named mine "Matilda," and Terrance called his "Mable." (They cost 14 JD/$20 each for the day)

"I think our camels are lesbians," Terrance quipped, traveling behind me. "Mable keeps rimming Matilda's ass. "Incidentally," he said, "I thought you said it was going to be hot as hell here." It was the last week of March, and the desert was aglow in color, but quite cold. We should have brought sweaters, instead of sun lotion.

Riding a camel is easy enough, especially since a Bedouin walks along leading it by the reins. In about an hour or so we arrived at our destination, looked at the archaic pictographs, and started our return. A few Bedouins, each leading a couple of camels, joined forces, so that we were a small group returning to the Wadi Rum rest house. Mable was tied on a long tether to Matilda, so that she, and Terrance, followed behind me (the better to rim Matilda?).

At one point in our return journey, we passed a small group of Bedouins who stopped and stared at us. Then they broke out into hysterical laughter, and pointed at something behind me. That something was Terrance, who was probably the first person in the history of Wadi Rum to ride side saddle! Proof positive, I thought, that it's all in the genes.

Back at the rest house we paid for the camels, found our taxi driver, and returned to Aqaba and the relaxation of the pool and the sun.

As we strolled around Aqaba late that afternoon, we spied a store that sold used Arab costumes. I had already been wearing my kufiya for a week. Why not the rest of the outfit? Terrance was already trying on some of the duds. With the help of the storeowner, used to the strange ways of foreigners, we took pictures in Arab drag. Terrance, already having been called "Mrs. Silverstein" at Petra, put on the woman's gown. We got not a few strange stares from a group of teenagers, but no hostility. In fact, I think they were afraid of approaching us.

The Spartacus Guide said that was good cruising behind the soldiers' barracks. At last, we thought, a chance to sample a Hashemite hunk. Unfortunately, we learned that there are no soldier barracks in Aqaba. Another fantasy shot to Hell!

Terrance riding sidesaddle on "Marble" in Wadi Rum
Late one afternoon in Aqaba, after we returned from a day's visit to Eilat, the Israeli city next to Aqaba, we walked the sidewalk along the public beach. It was jammed with people, including bands of boys and men, who collected into groups on the beach. They were singing and dancing, and didn't mind my taking pictures of them. (The Koran forbids images and this is taken very seriously in some Moslem countries.) But we couldn't find any man who was "cruising," at least in the Western sense of that word, and we were forced to return home with the same sexual fantasies we arrived with.

The next day we boarded the express bus for a comfortable three-hour ride on the Desert Highway from Aqaba to Amman (4JD/$5.60 each). It arrived in Amman on schedule. Five hours later, as we were dressing for dinner with Sami, our taxi driver, Terrance realized that he had left a suitcase on the street by the bus station. "All my shoes are in that suitcase," he said, almost crying. He was sure they were lost.

We returned to the bus station. Inside the station was his bag. No one had stolen it. It was a perfect illustration of the honesty of the Jordanian people. I've heard similar stories from other travelers. That evening we had an enormous dinner with Sami and his family, and the next morning he drove us to the airport for our flight to New York.

One must spend at least a week in Jordan to appreciate its historical and cultural significance. One can do it in three ways. The first is to spend the whole time in Jordan. The second is to split up a two-week vacation between Jordan and Israel. The two easiest entry points are over the King Hussein Bridge, (That's what the Jordanians call it. The Israelis call it the Allenby Bridge), or the Eilat-Aqaba border. Finally, one might combine Jordan and Egypt. Flying between Amman and Cairo is the easiest way route. More adventurous people can go from Aqaba, overland to Taba in the Sinai, to Sharm el-Sheikh, or by boat. That will be fabulous if tiring.

Travel Hint
"Up to 70% off," say the hotel brokers and websites on the Internet. Don't believe it. I've actually seen hotel brokers charge more money for a room than the hotel itself charges. That's because they add extra fees on top of the ten percent commission they get from the hotel.

If you're booking a hotel, or airfare or rental car, first check their website. Hotels (and airlines) run periodic specials on their websites that are cheaper than the hotel brokers. And you don't have to pay up front like you do with the brokers. It often pays to call a hotel directly and ask about their rates. If they are having a hard time filling their rooms (or airplane seats) when you plan on arriving, they may offer you a special discount. But give them a reason for doing it. "I'm a member of the Front Runners. Do you often a discount for us?" Or being a senior, or a college student.

After you get a price from the hotel (airline), go to their parent site (e.g. Holiday Inn), and see what they have to offer. Only then should you check the hotel brokers. Finally, when you do pay the bill, use whatever credit card gives you the best frequent flier mileage.

Want to ask a question about Gay travel or submit your own travel stories? Email your questions or submissions to Dr.Silverstein at: psychs@mindspring.com.

photos by Dr. Charles Silverstein


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