Jordan is a less exciting country than many we have visited. Take away Petra, and Wadi Rum and you are left with very little to see. At least that is how it seems to me.
There are a couple of biblical sites, of course: There is Madaba with its famed mosaic map of the Holy Land on the floor of a Byzantine church; there is Mount Nebo, where Moses is reported to have seen the Promised Land for the first time after forty years of going round in circles in the desert, blinded, no doubt, by sandstorms; and there is Bethabara, the site on the Jordan River where John the Baptist immersed Jesus. But none of that is particularly exciting for a secular person like me, especially when in my case Islam is the alternative to secularism.
The whole idea of the Promised Land is a fairly unjust deal from my perspective. After all, the piece of real estate that Abraham’s God promised him and his descendents was the land of the Canaanites, my own ancestors’ property, myself being a Kanaaneh, Arabic for Canaanite. Mind you, history in general, and that of these parts in particular, is fairly flexible. When it suits me I can fall back on my equally valid claim to Arab ancestry. Arabs are the descendents of Abraham, albeit from the less favored second wife, Hagar the slave women. Her status as Sarah’s servant has been fixed in perpetuity in the West’s mind by the Greek-derived term ‘Saracens’ or ‘Sarah’s servants’ for Arabs. Still, as we Saracens say, “elli khalafu abouk ilak ow-la-akhouk – what your father bequeathed is for you and your brother.” So the Promised Land is equally mine by any fair judgment. Some smart aleck is going to come up with a legalistic counterargument about the inheritance rights of half siblings from one’s fathers’ slave women, or the lack thereof. You just wait till we, the slave descendents, get to Durban II; we are going to ask again not only for our share of inheritance but also for reparations for all the unpaid labors of our slave ancestors and for all of their suffering too. Though he does not come from a line of slaves, we have the ear of the USA president this time around, we hope.
As to the baptismal site in Jordan, you may forget about that as well; Israel contests that and offers an alternative location right at the exit of the Jordan River from The Sea of Galilee, less than an hour’s drive from my home. Considering the fact that the Jordanian site is down river from the Israeli one, it is more likely to be polluted. Sorry to disappoint all of you potential fervent pilgrims, but the Jordan River is but a thin stream and the Sea of Galilee is polluted enough to warrant a cautionary note from our health authorities to all picnickers on its shores. Agricultural settlements around it, including those in the Golan Heights, dump their sewage into it and we keep drawing water from it for irrigation and drinking (not to worry, we have chlorine!), so much so that it has gone way below the designated danger line. At the way things are going, desertification of both the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea is creeping at an ever faster pace, all in the good cause of ‘making the desert bloom’. Development is an oxymoronic two-way street. You can’t compete with Egyptian cotton if you don’t have a Nile of your own. Or, to put it in the crude village idiom, ‘you don’t fry eggs with farts’; you need a more substantive source of heat.
And the ancient schematic map in Madaba is less than accurate. Also Arrabeh is full of Byzantine mosaic floors. I probably am sitting on top of one right now. My next-door neighbor once found a well preserved mosaic floor in his front yard. It was appropriated by the Israeli Archeological Authority and moved to a museum. Byzantine archeological wonders are plentiful right here. They are worth no more than one visit to Madaba and we have already done that twice.
Petra is something else; it is a site worth a special visit in and of itself even if you have to travel from Patagonia, Inner Mongolia or outer space. We have made the pilgrimage to Petra twice before. As to Wadi Rum, famed for its sand dunes where Laurence of Arabia footage was shot and one of the reasons we acquired our four-wheel drive Subaru Outback, it is still on our schedule. But winter is the wrong season for it; desert flash floods are too much of a challenge for me. There is also the well preserved Ajloun Crusader Citadel. We have visited that one a few times before and we have Crusader Citadels on this side of the Jordan River as well. And there is the famous Roman ruins of Jerash in whose amphitheater an annual songfest is held featuring on more than one occasion my and many Arabs’ idol, Fairouz. But again this is the off season for the Jerash Festival.
So, if we go to Jordan, there has to be a better excuse for it than archeology or ecotourism. And we limited our visit this time around to the capital city of Amman, a place Palestinians give themselves credit for elevating to the status of a city in the first place. But both Armenians and Circassians make similar claims with equally valid historical reasons though you wouldn’t know it by their small numbers nowadays. Amman’s residents are over 80% Palestinians who arrived there as refugees in two waves, in 1948 and again in 1967. Palestinians are the clear majority in the whole of Jordan, a country reputed to have been created for the first time by Winston Churchill when, between two puffs on his cigar, he drew a line on a map, called it Jordan and put his Hashemite interlocutor in charge of it. Despite Amman’s vibrant marketplaces and some modern and new neighborhoods, many still doubt the validity of Jordan’s claims to proper countryhood. As a friend of mine explains, ‘it is little more than a bunch of people with a king’.
In fact we were struck by the absolute number of cars on the roads of Amman, as well as by the good condition of some of the roads and of the cars crowding them. We were informed that two factors could explain this change: the recent drop in vehicle sales tax and the wealth infused into the city’s coffers by better-off Iraqi refugees and returning Palestinians from Kuwait and the Gulf States.
What brought us to Amman is the recent discovery of a fellow public health physician who is a third generation descendent of my late Aunt Samiyeh who was driven out of Dannoun, her coastal village, in 1948 to become a refugee in Lebanon. Suha is employed by UNRWA and is rising in the ranks fast, considering her young age. She came to Amman for an in-service training course. Didi and I, with my sister and her cousin-husband in tow, crossed the border, a simple and well facilitated process at this stage of normalization of Israel-Jordan relations, to meet her. I had also to tend to some other business related to promoting my book of memoirs, ‘A Doctor in Galilee’.
Suha’s entry to Jordan is not as casual a matter as ours is. She travels on as a UN staffer and has to have a good excuse to gain clearance from the responsible authorities in three sets of bureaucracy: Lebanese, Jordanian and UN. She tells us that one outlet Palestinian refugees like her had from the near total incarceration as a stateless people in Lebanon was to travel to Cyprus. Alas, that has recently ceased to be available with the Cyprus’ association with the European Union.
Suha had studied medicine in Baghdad on an Iraqi state scholarship. She admits to a sense of personal indebtedness to Saddam Hussein which she attempts to repay with prayers for Allah’s forgiveness of his many sins. She thinks of him more as a cruel and super-strict father than a political dictator; red was out because it betrayed allegiance to communism and so no red was acceptable in anything you put on, not even as a stripe on a pair of pajamas. That must have been why he was the darling of the Americans early in his career when the Cold War was at its zenith.
Born and raised in Lebanon, Suha also owns up to having had a degree of abstract romanticism when it came to imagining Palestine. Till, as a teenager, she took a trip that brought her to a mountain top close to the western end of the border with Israel. Suddenly she realized that Palestine was right there under her nose; Acre, the regional center city of which her parents and uncles spoke so often was right there at the distance just before Haifa at the horizon. Closer yet was the coastal plane, lands that once fed her mother’s family, the Rustoms of Dannoun, and her father’s family, the Khalils of El-Bassah. After that trip, she says, her infatuation with her nearby homeland grew even stronger and her sense of belonging to the soil her feet never walked redoubled.
Again and again Suha repeated her special appeal to the four of us, her relatives from Paradise Lost: “Ihna akalnaha!- We have suffered the worst possible loss! The only hope we still have is the connection through you. Khalliku mahalku-Stay put, please!”
Suha relates an incident during a UN function in a European capital. “A fellow UN worker from Slovenia sat next to me on the bus. She asked where I was from and I told her in detail. All of a sudden she started sobbing. During the whole period we were there her eyes would fill with tears every time she saw me. I never found out if she had suffered some family separation of her own or what was behind that. Perhaps she just was a sensitive human being.”
On our trip back our luggage was lighter. We had parted with a load of home-made Palestinian olive oil soap that cousin Amineh, Suha’s mother, had asked for from another cousin here in Arrabeh. And I had taken with me a 1.5 liter coke bottle refilled with Rubb, my own homemade carob molasses, as a special present. She promised to share it not only with her mother but also with her uncle Faisal, my own playmate from the Nakba days who has retired from a career of medical practice in Libya. Suha’s sister, married to an Iraqi engineer and living in Canada will miss out. And so will relatives in the Gulf and in Syria. "We have scattered across the face of the earth; globalization at its best!", Suha adds with bitter sarcasm.
As the taxicab drove down the barren hills of Jordan I was tired enough to fall asleep. I had a restless and nightmare-interrupted sleep the night before. I kept dreaming of being forced out of my home and becoming a refugee myself. I woke up in the midst of the Jordan Valley fields brimming with fresh vegetable produce. Were we in a ‘normal situation’ these farmers could sell their vegetables in Arrabeh’s bustling framers’ market every Tuesday and Saturday.