Alia's fingers perform a nimble dance as she weaves the leaves of palm and banana into baskets. She makes it look like a breeze, that same gentle breeze that's swaying the grapevine we sit under. Alia and her friend Um Hani also use reeds, straw and a local plant called halfa to create the simple, gorgeous baskets with a rustic-chic look. I try clumsily, laughing at the twisted mess I produce.
It's a muggy afternoon at Beit Al Baraka - a sweet, three-room bed-and-breakfast in the sleepy village of Umm Qais in the north of Jordan. In the distance, I see hills carpeted with dashes of green. Amid the birdsong, a fragrant scent wafts in from the garden lush with lemon, orange and kumquat trees. In this village that wakes up to a view of Syria, Israel, Palestinian territories and Lebanon every day, a sense of peace prevails.
Umm Qais is far from a bucket-list destination. The so-called lost city of Petra, the Dead Sea and the Wadi Rum, all in the south of Jordan, take the spotlight. A clutch of tourists makes it to Jerash, the imposing Roman ruins 30 miles north of Amman, the capital. Few venture farther up to Umm Qais; those who do mostly come for the ancient Decapolis city of Gadara, steeped in history that stretches back some 2,400 years. Inhabited since the Ottoman era, until 1989, Gadara offers stunning views of the Sea of Galilee and a roam around Roman theaters and fountains.
On the spring day I visit, Gadara sits eerily empty. Although the city is relatively close to Syria, it is far from the war-torn areas and has felt no direct impact, such as a flood of refugees or a notable military presence. Yet, Umm Qais has suffered greatly from wide-brushstroke travel advisories suggesting that tourists stay away from the north of Jordan, which has been a casualty of collateral damage. The number of tourist arrivals in the country only started to pick up again in 2017.
"This is where we played hide and seek," says our guide, Ahmed Al Omari, pointing at a complex of underground water wells. Born in Gadara, Ahmed grew up amid these ruins. His childhood memories are weaved into the stories of this UNESCO World Heritage site. He shares them as we walk around; his love of the place is palpable. This type of organic insight is what the people at Baraka, an Amman-based consultancy specializing in sustainable tourism development, were aiming for when they launched the tourism initiative at Umm Qais.
"The locals are the ones telling their story at Umm Qais. This is important, because many tourism sites alienate the community," explains Muna Haddad, Baraka's managing director. "In our model, locals are very much part of the story of the place. In fact, they lead the experience."
Tourism can be a potent tool for boosting a local economy - if done right, with a conscience, a vision and a plan. Baraka boasts all three. All the tourism projects in Umm Qais, except for the B&B, are locally owned. Over a period of three years, Baraka works with local leaders to build and operate the businesses, then, once viable, transfer ownership back to them.
Since the B&B officially opened in January 2017 it has hosted more than 1,000 guests. The tourism projects in Umm Qais now employ 38 members of the community, supporting more than 30 families. Instead of staying two hours - in and out to see the ruins of Gadara - people are now staying two days, or longer. In addition to the activities curated and offered by Baraka, there are other places to stay and eat in Umm Qais; it's slowly, but steadily, gaining ground as a tourism destination.
There is plenty to keep visitors busy in and around this village that counts no less than 42 different tribes among its 7,000 inhabitants. Many empires left their traces on what was once a buzzing city of poets, artists and writers. It passed through the hands of the Greeks, the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt, the Romans, the Byzantines and the Ottomans. Today, you can see the vestiges of all these cultures in the water system, the ancient theaters and the baths.
On one sultry morning amid olive groves, on the edge of the village, we don hefty, white beekeeping suits with long gloves and veiled headgear - the full regalia. In the heat, it doesn't feel pleasant. But one look at Yousef Sayyah, the beekeeper who is so evidently passionate about his calling, and we forget the temperature. A former soldier, he spent the last 15 years keeping bees and harvesting honey, wax and royal jelly. Yousef explains the way of life inside a beehive; he has 15, with 60,000 bees each. As we watch the queen, who is twice the size of the worker bees, lay eggs into the honeycomb, "busy as a bee" gets a whole new meaning.
We take a guided hike through Yarmouk Nature Reserve, which spreads into the surrounding hills. Expecting desert, I instead stumble into endless forests of deciduous oak, the national tree of Jordan. Until the protected area was established in 2010 by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, these forests were threatened by logging and overgrazing. Several of the bird species - the reserve has 14 percent of all of Jordan's birds - are endangered, including the pygmy cormorant, marbled teal and griffon vulture. There are nine hiking routes to choose from around Umm Qais, including the start of the recently unveiled Jordan Trail that runs from the country's north to the south.
The landscapes and flavors are equally surprising. We dine at Galsoum's Kitchen that evening, where Um Sulaiman offers home-cooked meals prepared with locally sourced ingredients. As we sit on the cushions around a low table in her house, she brings out farm-to-table delights like chacheel, a local delicacy made with flour, eggs and local herbs stewed in a yogurt sauce; and makmora, chicken baked in layers of dough and drenched in olive oil. We are the only guests that evening, our hostess entirely devoted to making us happy.
The next morning at Beit Al Baraka, I wake up to roosters, a call to prayer and a colorful breakfast spread featuring freshly baked manakeesh (a thyme-topped pastry), labneh, small rounds of strained yogurt and fresh juice from the garden's oranges.
In this age of manufactured insider experiences, Umm Qais offers something rare. Walking around the village as it goes about its day, with children's laughter and the muezzin's chant and no other tourists in sight, there is a sense of discovery. Baraka's project harnesses the power of tourism to usher outsiders into a serene village in a troubled corner of the world.
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IF YOU GO
Where to Stay
Beit Al Baraka
44 Al Mutanabbi St., Umm Qais
A three-room bed-and-breakfast at the heart of Umm Qais. Rooms from $100.
Where to eat
A home-based restaurant in Umm Qais. Entrees start at $22.
What to do
Beekeeper Yousef Sayyah runs informative hour-long tours of his beehives amid olive groves just outside Umm Qais. $30 per person.
Guided tour of Gadara
An hour-long walk around the ruins of Gadara reveals the highlights of this ancient Decapolis city with its Roman remains. $30 per person.
Hike through Yarmouk Nature Reserve
This six-hour hike takes you through its forests of deciduous oak, Jordan's national tree. $60 per person, with lunch included.
44 Ali Nasouh Al Taher St., Amman
This top-notch operator runs tours all around Jordan. My tour, which took in the entire country from north to south, had a cultural focus. Week-long trips from $2,000.