`The midday sun loomed over the ancient Roman city of Jerash. Other boys and girls on the trip marched in crowds, their class dean, Salma, trotting behind them, but Adam hung back. The sun scarred the acne beneath his pubescent mustache.
A history teacher from an American university walking them through the ancient city and explaining its engineering wonders to these boarding school kids did not appeal to Adam. His parents’ parents were Jordanian; they must have passed the Roman columns as their mules defecated on the roads.
Two years before this trip, he saw Petra with his parents for the first time. Jordanians at the booth charged Americans more than quadruple the price for entry. To ride a horse in Petra cost more than a full tank of gas in the capital. Kids ran around and mothers roped them back with curses, which sometimes were self-inflicted. He’d always thought his American friends at the boarding school would think lowly of Petra.
On his way out his parents laughed at some old man. His tourist beard hid under the shade of his baseball cap. He was glancing at the Petra Treasury while wearing cargo shorts and sunglasses. Adam only remembered the tears which rolled down the man’s cheeks as he stared at the pink rocks with—Adam realized later—a sense of awe and inspiration.
“Mr. Will graduated from Dartmouth. Middle Eastern studies. Did you know that?”
He glanced up at the voice of his class dean. She was middle-aged music teacher from his hometown. Even the sight of her waggy hair irritated him.
Adam wanted to push her buttons. “Did he? No, I did not know,” he said.
She almost became a mechanical engineer. However, her minor in music took over. It brought her to him, a pubescent vessel who thought of her as a parable about what following the aesthetics of the heart did to people. It robbed them of grand gestures of welcome and hybrid car-level income. Only weeks later after this day, he would find out that she conducted world-class orchestras and moved attendees to tears of standing ovations before deciding to give back to the people of her country, albeit as the irritated class dean she was on that day.
“These students ahead of you will be leaders one day. Maybe you should consider joining them. Hear some of what Mr. Will has to say about the architecture and design of Jerash; you never know what might interest you.”
Other Jordanians of other upbringings walked past the two of them. Adam thought they must have been eavesdropping on the half-Arabic, half-English conversation he was having with the dean.
As his father took the last step out of the Siq (or the dimly and narrow entrance hallway to Petra) he turned around and stretched his arms out in front of Adam and his mother and his siblings. Father looked flustered and worn out with sweat and dragging breaths, like he’d sacrificed himself for them to enjoy the day out of the capital.
“Did you enjoy Petra?” He smiled. “I hope you did, because the earliest we’ll come back to it might be in ten years.”
The sun had burnt Adam’s back after visiting the rock-out city of the valley. Even as a kid, he’d also promised not visit Petra until ten years from that day. Besides the crying old man, he remembered an American girl (she must have been American!) walking around in hot pink shorts and a sleeveless crop top with a shirt wrapped around her waist.
After walking around, the teachers and Dean Salma chaperoned the school kids into a theatrical performance of Roman tactics and weaponry. Olive-kissed Arab actors wearing bright Roman colors performed the testudo, or shield-wall formation, and swung prop swords and spears around, modelling the days of the coliseum. After they finished performing, the dean stood and clapped for the performers as they took a bow, and then she sat back on the giant stairs, with an Evian bottle under her arm.
Some rowdy kids sat at the top of the stairs, whistling and clapping with loud laughter. The gel and wax-sprays spiked their hairs into shoe-polished pine needles. Their jeans had chains around the waist, and they stuck oversized plastic sunglasses to their V-necks. Adam’s female classmates looked at these teenagers with disgust, appalled at the catcalling that went around. Such boys simply had a bag of sunflower seeds and a pack of cigarettes to go through and needed a place to hang out at that was not their neighborhood streets or flea markets.
“Is everything okay at home? With you and your parents?” Adam heard Dean Salma ask him.
They were walking as a group across the asphalt parking lots, to ride the busses back to the capital. She swindled a plastic bag containing the sandwich and snacks wrappings she’d accumulated over the course of their time.
“Why do you ask?” Adam replied.
“It is just that back there … It hadn’t occurred to me that you might have been worried about something at home. Were you?”
He did not know how to reply. Saying no would have sufficed, yet it would have unarmed him of any excuse for his callousness. He walked alone the entire trip and refused to appreciate the past two hours. Many of his classmates probably left with pictures on their phones and memories in their heads. However, he was asked if something made him not enjoy the trip which, as a bright attendee of this affluent boarding school, he most certainly would have enjoyed—almost on instinct—had this hypothetical thing gnawing at his worry been absent—those were Dean Salma’s implications.
“No. I’m fine. It was just the sun giving me headaches.” He lied.
She offered him the last of her green cherries out of a plastic bag, but he refused them. She ate them and stuffed the plastic bag with the moratorium of wrappers she’d been swindling in her hand. Adam got on the bus, but Dean Salma walked all the way across the parking lot to the trash can and threw the bag in there. Her black blazer swayed in the afternoon wind as she frowned under the heat of the sky with a smile on her face.
When he’d lived in his hometown, out in the villages, years ago, the neighborhood congregated their trash bags into an empty plot of land. At the dusk of every fortnight, he would stare from the window as small groups of men and children gathered around and burned the garbage. The fumes supervised kids running around with slingshots, rust-ridden bicycles, and sandy pants. But later, the mayor installed dumpsters around all of his hometown’s neighborhoods. Fumes ceased and instead of younger kids running about, older schoolboys sprayed their initials and the initials of their schoolgirl crushes on these dumpsters.
When the music and dancing in the buses died down after the first half of the drive back to the capital, the kids formed a rough half-circle that centered around Dean Salma, who sat by the stairs seat. Adam, who sat in the back of the bus, had managed to doze off for most of the chatter.
He later woke up as they were nearing the capital, where his father would pick him up, and this trip might have become long-forgotten. The kids enthusiastically answered Dean Salma’s questions about Roman architecture and the Jordanian history of Jerash, and some of them told their travelling stories. The atmosphere filled with jokes and laughter, with insight, with a spirited love for what these kids witnessed of the country.
Adam got off the bus and went home, realizing he might not see Jerash for a long time.