Tall Tales and Treasure Hunts

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Roman ruins at Jerash

Masoud was my driver on a fine, clear morning in Jordan. He told me stories as we drove north out of Amman, through a green, hilly countryside dotted with olive groves and vineyards. We were heading to Jerash, one of the best-preserved Roman cities in the Near East. Someone told me that, outside of Italy itself, there are more Roman ruins in Jordan than anywhere else in the world.

Masoud comes from a Pakistani Palestinian family that fled to Kuwait. In 1990, Masoud in turn fled to Jordan (as many Kuwaitis did) when Iraq invaded. Shortly after the invasion started, he saw an Iraqi soldier standing in a supermarket aisle scooping Nivea face cream onto pita bread and eating it. Masoud said the soldiers had probably never before seen modern shops and goods like those in Kuwait. He told me that the Iraqi soldiers took everything, the stores were looted and empty, there was no food to be purchased. So he came to Jordan.

Here is a tale that Masoud told me:

One day last December Masoud's cell phone rang.

"Hello?"

"Hello Hamid, this is Nasser calling from Egypt."

Masoud paused a beat, then "Nasser! How are you, my friend?" 

"Why didn't you say that he had the wrong number?" I asked.

"Oh, I don't know, I wanted to see what would happen," he said.

"Hamid, I am calling you because something has happened. You are a smart man and I know I can trust you, so I am calling you for help."

"Of course, Nasser, how can I help?"

"I was doing some digging in one of my fields, and I found some treasure, Hamid. I think it's probably very valuable and I need to figure out how to sell it. I can't keep it here, because I'm afraid it will be stolen, and I need the money. I know you will know what to do."

My jaw dropped. "Nuh-uh! You are making this up!" Masoud assured me he was not.

Masoud told Nasser that he would consider the situation and call him back in a few days (Nasser called on Masoud's cell phone, so he had the number.) Then Masoud spoke to a friend, who agreed to fly to Egypt and meet with this man Nasser to see what it was all about. Masoud called Nasser back and told him that a trusted friend was coming to see him. The friend flew into Cairo and Nasser met him there. Then he drove the friend several hours outside of the city, into the farmland. He took a very confusing route, and kept looping back and forth, so that the friend could not have retraced their journey. Finally, they arrived at Nasser's farm, and Nasser showed the friend what he had found buried on his property.

There were 300 gold scarabs, each weighing nearly a kilogram. There was also an ancient book, decorated with gold leaf. My friend looked through the book. It was illustrated, and it seemed to be telling a story that involved giant golden scarabs. Nasser refused to allow Masoud's friend to take any photographs. He said that he wanted to find a buyer for the entire treasure, but that if he could not sell the ancient artifacts, he would simply melt down the scarabs and sell the gold.

When Masoud's friend came back from Jordan and told him this, Masoud knew he had to find a buyer for the treasure. Nasser couldn't just melt down what might be priceless Egyptian artifacts! And since the initial phone call, the Egyptian government has fallen, and now Nasser is even more unwilling to turn the treasure over to the authorities. He asked, what authorities? So Masoud is contacting some people he knows, and he will see what happens. Maybe there is someone in Dubai who will be interested.

"But you can't just ship Egyptian treasure out of Egypt. You'd have to smuggle it out," I said.

"I know," he said.

"And you're never going to find a buyer unless you have something to show them. You don't even have any pictures."

"I know."

"Eventually this guy is going to figure out that you are not Hamid."

"I know."

"If you broker a deal, you could show up with the money and this guy could just kill you."

"I know, I know."

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First glimpse of The Treasury at Petra

It was especially thrilling to hear Masoud's story just a few days after seeing the Treasury at Petra--where Indiana Jones found the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I do have to point out, though, that while the Treasury was amazing, the Monastery (which can only be reached by climbing 800 stairs) was even more impressive. I guess the film crew didn't want to schlep that far into the mountains.

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The Monastery at Petra

Jordan is packed with jaw-dropping Roman and Nabatean archaeological treasures, and now it's also packed with refugees from Palestine, Kuwait, and Iraq. Many of the Iraqis who fled here during the Gulf War were quite wealthy--and Masoud has stories about this, too.

Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Masoud regularly took his car to a car wash, where an Iraqi man washed the car. Let's call the car washer Mohammed. Over time, Masoud and Mohammed became friends. When the invasion happened, Mohammed decided that he needed to go back home to his family. So he went home and for the next year or so, Masoud heard nothing about him.

Then one day, Masoud took his car back to the same car wash, and the owner of the car wash was very excited to see him. "Come with me, Masoud. I want to take you to meet someone." Masoud drove with the car wash owner to the finest hotel in Amman. They rode the elevator to the penthouse floor, where they were searched by bodyguards and then allowed to enter the suite to meet with ... Mohammed.

Here is Mohammed the car washer's story: he returned home to Iraq and his family, and was soon enlisted to man a roadway checkpoint just outside of his town. The American troops had not yet arrived in this part of Iraq. One night at the guard station, Mohammed was very tired, and fell asleep in the back room. When he woke up, it was morning and his fellow guards were gone. The checkpoint was completely deserted. Mohammed walked back to town, and found the whole town evacuated. He saw no one at all. He guessed that the Americans had rolled through, and everyone fled. On his way through town, he saw that the bank was closed, its doors secured with a padlocked chain. He went home to an empty house. 

Mohammed took a pair of bolt cutters from his tool box, walked back to the bank, broke the chain and entered. Inside, he found the vault open and $10 million in cash, shrink-wrapped in heavy plastic. He took the cash and lugged it home. And then he fled to Jordan. Now he is a millionaire businessman in Amman. 

Masoud also told me about a car salesman he knows who sold a 3-year-old Ford sedan for $100,000 to a newly arrived Iraqi with cash-stuffed pockets.

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Amman, as seen from the Citadel

I spent a morning at the Citadel, which sits at the top of one of the city's many hills. Just before noon, the prayer call started. The calls blossomed from the minarets all over the city and were carried up the hill by the wind. The haunting, rumbling, moody sound rose from all directions, and I looked out over the crowded city and wondered how many households had stories to tell like Masoud's. And how many of those stories were true.