The West Bank, and the East

“Then Moses went up from the lowlands of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, eastwards from Jericho. And the Lord showed him the whole land…There in the land of Moab Moses the servant of the Lord died, as the Lord had said.” – Deuteronomy 34

To walk the steps of Mount Nebo, or “Jabal al-Nabii”, is to walk in the steps of pilgrims, popes, and prophets. According to Biblical accounts, it was here that Moses first saw the Promised Land on the West Bank of the River Jordan, a land that was then known as Canaan and is today called Israel and Palestine. As such, it’s a site important to Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike, all of which consider Moses to be among the most important of prophets, behind perhaps only Jesus in Christianity and Mohammad in Islam.

IMG_2108
Mt. Nebo as seen from afar

From atop Mt Nebo, a thin blue-green line can be glimpsed as it snakes it way through the fertile Wadi Urdun, or Jordan Valley, before draining into the Dead Sea. This is the Jordan River, the line that serves as the border between Jordan and Israel/Palestine, and according to Biblical texts marks the edge of the Promised Land as granted by God to the Israelites. Moses himself, the prophet who led the Israelites from enslavement in Egypt, would never set foot on this land– he would die on Mt Nebo within site of the West Bank, with his successor, Joshua, the one who would lead the Israelites into Canaan.

IMG_2070
Looking West, into the valley of Wadi Musa
IMG_2069
North, towards the Jordan River and the West Bank

Today, the other side of the River Jordan- the West Bank- is notable not only as the edge of a land vastly important to the world’s three leading faiths, but as a place of political and social conflict, with the current Israeli settlement of the West Bank and the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict being one of the most enduring and polarizing issues of world affairs. While our dialogue takes place in Jordan, and not in Israel/Palestine, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is as much a part of the history and politics of Jordan as it is of Israel, especially when it comes to the territory we collectively refer to as the West Bank.

From the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 to 1967, the West Bank, or “Cisjordan”, was considered a part of Jordan itself, with the Palestinians living there granted Jordanian citizenship. Following the Six Day War of 1967, thousands upon thousands of Palestinians fled across the river into Jordan, forming one of the largest Palestinian refugee populations in the world. Today, some 3 to 3.5 million Jordanians are Palestinian– a fact reflected in everyday interactions in Amman, with every odd person identifying themselves as Palestinian or claiming to have a Palestinian parent. For the most part, “Jordanian Jordanians” and “Palestinian Jordanians” get along just fine– they all hold Jordanian passports, speak the Jordanian Ammiya dialect, and are treated equally under the law. If anything though, the loss of the West Bank to Israel and the subsequent Palestinian population has tied Jordan even more closely to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and today it serves as one of the states most vital to any kind of political situation to the ongoing problem.

IMG_2066
Today, Mt Nebo is privately held by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land

I came to the Dead Sea and the East Bank of the River Jordan while reading “The Arab Center: The Promise of Moderation”, by former Jordanian diplomat (and first Jordanian ambassador to Israel) Marwan Muasher. In it, the author describes the vital position Jordan holds in being the “Moderate Center” of the Middle East, a power broker that lies in balance between the West in America and Europe and other Arab nations such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, especially in reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinian issue is understandably incredibly important to Jordanians, who see the Palestinians as being unjustly occupied and oppressed by a colonial force, but by and large the Israel-Palestine conflict is viewed here as being a problem in need of a political solution, rather than a military one (although there are still fringe groups within Jordan who might still advocate for the latter). That’s important, especially considering the historic wars between the Arab States in Israel that occurred throughout the 20th century: for Jordan at least, Israel is seen as a legitimate, if problematic and unwelcome, state that can be reasoned and negotiated with, and with whom a solution on the Israel-Palestinian conflict can still be mutually reached.

Just as it was telling to stand amongst an apricot orchard and peer into Syria, it’s likewise thought-provoking to stand atop Mt. Nebo, or on the edge of the Dead Sea, and see the West Bank nearly close enough to touch. The West Bank, Israel-Palestine, the Promised Land, the Holy Land: whatever one calls it, it’s a land hugely important to billions of people on Earth, and is it perhaps because of this importance that we still fight over it today.

Yet as much as Muslims, Christians, and Jews may seem divided over the Israel-Palestine conflict, to stand on Mt. Nebo carries another reminder: that these three religion share more than merely conflict, but also dozens of tales of emancipation, struggle, redemption, promise and above all faith that exist in one form or another in all of the holy books. Christianity, Islam, Judaism: all come from the same roots, and all worship the same God. We often forget this by focusing on seemingly irrevocable differences, but perhaps we are all more alike than many of us would like to admit.

Something to think on. Also, on a side note: if anyone needs a refresher on Moses and the Exodus story, the animated “Prince of Egypt” does a great job, and has some pretty great musical numbers thrown in to boot. Check it out!

IMG_2111
The East Bank
IMG_2112
…and the West

 

Another Side of Amman: Souk Jara and Rainbow Street

Not a long post today, but one with a lot of pictures. The area in Amman that we live in, Medinaat Riad, is a quiet suburb surrounding a busy highway known as Queen Alia Street (or, as most Ammanians call it, “sharaa jamiiaa”, or University Street, for the University of Jordan located about half a mile down the road). It’s a good picture of typical middle class life here in Amman– most people simply live their day to day lives, shopping at the nearby Mukhtar Mall, grabbing falafel at the sandwich shop across the street, or buying small necessities as the half dozen little corner stores that dot the neighborhoods. It’s not complicated here, and aside from the endless traffic that streams by on Queen Alia Street, not all that rushed either.

But while this quiet, suburban lifestyle may give a better glimpse of the “real” Amman that the downtown couldn’t give, and better yet is safe even when returning home at the later hours of the night, it’s also not that exciting, especially if you’re in your early 20s. Luckily, there’s another side of Amman that’s much younger, and much more active and lively: Rainbow Street, a collection of cafes, restaurants, and markets clustered beneath Jabal Amman in the city center (or “belad”, literally “country” or “nation”).

IMG_2071

IMG_2102
A Cafe on Rainbow Street

During the summer months, a bazaar (“Souk”) opens up on Rainbow street, filled with crafts, pottery, cloths and fabrics, and hand-drawn paintings or horses, camels, or Jordanian landscapes. Dozens upon dozens of personal stands line the walkway, giving the entire street a beautiful, vibrant feel (to say nothing of the food and smoothie stands that lie at the far end of the market).

IMG_2101IMG_2100IMG_2099

Between long days studying Arabic at Qasid, sometimes much longer nights spent working on Arabic homework, and the constant barrage of a new culture, language, politics and way of life bombarding you with each step outside the apartment, stress can pile on quickly without realizing. Sometimes, a day spent at the Souk shopping for gift for friends and family, or eating icecream in the evenings while catching the view of Jabal Amman, is all that is needed for at least some of that stress to fall away.

While Rainbow Street may seem a world away from the “other” Amman of Medinnat Riad and Sharraa Jamiiaa (and to be sure, the area around Qasid does seem to better reflect the lives of most people in Amman), it’s a welcome reprieve from a sometimes chaotic city, and is as much an intricate part of this surprisingly complex, incredibly beautiful country as any other.

More to come soon.

IMG_2074.JPG

 

 

An Orchard on the Edge of Jordan

In Jordan, there is the city– Amman, Aqaba, Salt–  and there is the Badia.

When The British and French divided the modern Middle East following the first world war, the land on the other side of the river Jordan from the British Mandate of Palestine (“Transjordan”, as it became known) was left for the most part unclaimed. Whereas Syria had Damascus, Iraq the fertile lands surrounding Baghdad, and Palestine the holy cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Jordan was seen as little more than an unappealing, semi-arid stretch of plains and hills– a Badia, as opposed to a true Sahara, or desert. This was a land of wandering tribes, or Bedouin, a people hard to tame, tax, or force to confine into cities.

It was much because of the tenacity of these people that the British by and large left Jordan with minimal colonial interference, allowing it to grow and develop according to its own traditions and customs under the control of the King Abdullah, who united the tribes into a single state under the British protectorate during the 1920s. Even today, the tribe– which can range from a few hundred individuals to tens of thousands– remains an intricate part of Jordanian society, with the Sheikh, or tribal leader, serving as an important intermediary between the King and state and the day-to-day people of the Badia.

IMG_1942
In the Badia

We traveled North, near the city of al-Mafraq, not far from the Syrian border. This land is very emblematic of the Badia– more arid than the Mediterranean hills of Aljun that overlook Palestine, and much flatter than the 7 jabal of Amman. Yet it is not a true dessert. While dry, farms and orchards flourish here, with watermelons, nectarines, and figs thriving off aquifers tapped from deep underground. And apricots. Lots of apricots.

On the edge of Jordan an orchard of nectarines and apricots rests within the shadow of the Syrian border. Here, acres and acres of trees stretch out in every which direction, with thick, heavy fruit hanging low from the trees. Farmers from the local tribe spend their days here picking fruit under the shade of the leaves, while not five miles away rages one of the most horrible wars in recent memory.

To say first: there is no danger in being this close. Unlike Lebanon and Turkey, the Jordanian border is strong enough to keep the conflict firmly on the other side of the border. Yet it is sobering to stand on a hill and be able to see, just over the border, another town that, had it been but five miles south, could now be farming apricots rather than be caught in the midst of this incredibly horrible conflict.

IMG_1978
Looking at Syria

Which brings me to the next point: that of the Syrian refugee crisis. While Jordan’s borders are secure, and nothing like the sort of attacks that have characterized Lebanon, Turkey, Paris and Brussels has occurred here, the war has taken its own toll on the country. Some numbers for comparison: while around 600,000 Syrian refugees have sought asylum in Europe (a sizable number), around 1.5 million have sought refuge in Jordan (with similar numbers in Lebanon and Turkey). Before the refugee crisis, Jordan had a population of around 7.5 million; it has since increased to closer to 9. One tiny country, smaller than the population of New York, has taken more of the burden of this refugee crisis than the entirety of Europe. Something to think on.

There’s also this: Za’atarie, the world’s second or third largest refugee camp, is also the fourth largest city in Jordan. In comparison, that’s like if Houston or Philadelphia in the United States was populated entirely by refugees. We actually passed by this camp while traveling through the Badia, and while we couldn’t enter, even by looking out the windows of the bus, all you can see is white tents stretching on for miles.

IMG_1938
The Gates of Za’aterie

Thankfully, Jordan has handled the refugee problem with grace and humility. Jordanians see Syrians as their cousins, to be taken in and sheltered as you would a relative, and not just because of kind heartedness- borders drawn a century ago by the French and British cut across family and tribal lines, so many of the Syrians now fleeing across the borders in fact are the distant cousins and tribal members of Jordanians.

But that isn’t to say there aren’t problems. Jordan was the fourth, and is now the third, most water scarce country in the world. Having a massive new city now draining the same water sources that Jordanians desperately need is problematic to say the least, and to add to the problem, sewage waste from Za’aterie is threatening to contaminate a vital aquifer within a few years time, a problem the Jordanians haven’t yet come to a consensus on fixing. To be clear, most Syrians don’t live in Za’aterie or one of the other smaller refugee camps; 85% live amongst Jordanians in Salt, Amman, and other cities, trying to eak out a living as they wait to return home. You see them on the streets, pedaling water bottles or small trinkets, or amongst the children asking for alms. Everywhere you go, a Syrian refugee probably isn’t far away.

There is something very important to consider in all of this: no matter what people may say in Europe or in America, the Syrians here have not caused one terrorist attack like in San Bernardino, Paris or Brussels. For all the strain the refugee crisis has put on the country, the nation has not collapsed under economic pressure. These refugees aren’t trying to take Jordanians homes or jobs or attack or kill anyone: they just want a place to feel safe as their home country is slowly destroyed.

We ended out night in the Badia at the Sheikh’s home, where he offered us coffee, tea, food and a warm spot by the fire outside his house to talk, tell stories, and learn about a tribal way of life that, not too long ago, still consisted of living in tents rather than concrete houses. It is these moments that remind me of what makes Jordanians so special: their unapologetic hospitality, friendliness, and welcoming spirit, at a time when my own countrymen consider them terrorists, jiihadists, or simply dangerous. It is that hospitable spirit that both allows them to welcome us so graciously into their country as it does allow them to weather this refugee crisis without abandoning their humanity behind the same fear, prejudice, and hatred that has gripped the U.S and Europe.

 

IMG_1920

 

 

History in the Hills: Jerash and Aljun

Jordan may not to some carry the same significance as Jerusalem, Israel, Mecca and Medina, but there is a history here, a history stretching farther back than anything in America, than even Europe. This is the land of Ammanites from the Old Testament; it is the site of the conquests of Alexander the Great; it is the frontier of the Roman province of Syria-Palaestina. It is where the early Muslim armies first clashed with the Byzantines, where the Crusades were later fought over the banks of the river Jordan. Today, Jordan may seem an island in a sea of turmoil and conflict, but it has not always been this way.

Jerash and Aljun are two relics from this more ancient time. The first, Jerash, is an ancient Greek city, established after the Hellenistic conquests of Alexander the Great of much of today’s Middle East. It is part of the “decopolis”, or ten cities, a collection of settlements scattered around northern Jordan that once existed as a vast network of interconnected cities. The word “Jerash” itself derives from an ancient Greek word meaning “city of the old”, and was established as a refuge for wounded veterans from wars.

IMG_1856
The gates of Jerash

Later, Romans would incorporate the Greek city into their empire, adding onto existing structures with their own architecture and designs and repurposing Greek temples into Roman ones and, later, Christian churches. You can still see instances where Greek and Roman architecture stand side by side– Greek ruins are often subtler, less imposing, while Roman pillars, gates (see above) and structures are often stand taller and more regal, as a symbol for their superiority over Hellenistic civilization.

As well as being a place of historical significance, it is also a site that carries religious importance. Biblical stories tell of Jerash as being the site where Jesus first preached to the masses, while the hills in the distance are in fact the mountains of Galilee, the same mountains as mentioned in the Old Testament.

IMG_1873
Civilization still remains here. The town of Jerash stands just outside the edge of the ruins

Only some 40 percent of the entire ancient city has been uncovered- the rest, including most of some 24 churches, still rests beneath the earth. Progress to uncover these structures is slow: funding, both to excavate and the preserve, is few and far between, and for now, these buildings remain undisturbed and protected from the weathering elements.

Further north still, not far from the border of Palestine, a citadel lies atop a hill, overlooking the road to Damascus. This is Aljun, or Al-rabad, “The Control”, in Arabic. This ancient fort comes from a different, more recent (though still ancient) time, where Saladin warred with the Crusaders from Europe. Aljun was never itself sieged by the Crusaders, but it nevertheless stood as an important watch over both the Jordan river and the trade routs to Syria, and today remains as a testament to those ancient wars fought over what both considered the the Holy Land.

The views of the top command a wide view, from Palestine to the West to the borders of Syria to the North:

IMG_1898
North, following the ancient road to Syria and Damascus
IMG_1892
Southeast, towards the Jordanian town of Aljun
IMG_1891
West, towards the Jordan River and Palestine

When in Amman, the history of these lands is easily lost in the streets and traffic and crowds, but here, out in the countryside of Jordan, the hills come alive with the stories of the past. Here, where a man herds goats through the fields, Romans once marched with armies. There, in a street now lined with shops selling bread and live chickens, Jesus may have walked to address his first gathering of believers. It’s incredible– and unlike anywhere else on earth.

That’s the thing about the Middle East, and what makes is special. This land means so much to so many people. It is the heart of Islam, of Christianity, of Judaism. Go just a little further East, and you’ll find the cradle of civilization along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates. South, and you’ll stumble across the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and the homeland of the wandering tribes that went on to conquer the majority of the Middle East and North Africa.

Names like Damascus, Jerusalem, Mecca, Cairo, Tunis, Tripoli, Algiers– these names carry weight behind them, the weight of centuries and millennia of history, a history that has helped define the tale of mankind. Too often, with the conflicts we now see in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen, we forget this, but it’s important to consider the significance of these places, and how they’ve shaped nations and peoples. This is part of what I love about the Middle East, what has drawn me to it– and why I am glad to be here now.

IMG_1886

Introduction to Amman

After a good 30 hour day of traveling (helped in no part by a nine hour layover in Frankfurt), we finally made it to Amman, the capital and largest city of Jordan. Only around 9 million people live in Jordan, less than the population of New York City, but of those some 5 million reside in Amman itself, meaning that the city is absolutely massive.

IMG_1832
Hills upon hills upon hills

Amman is built upon a series of hills– 7 originally, but since the 1960s or so it has grown exponentially, and many more artificial hills have been created, along with new suburbs and metropolitan districts. It’s a massive, confusing city, rows upon rows of houses piled atop one another and crafted into a maze of streets that seems to extend in every which direction, in a pattern and order that both somehow makes sense and at the same time is utterly impossible to make heads or tails of.

It’s not a very walkable city, as well. The area we live in is a quiet suburban area, without that much to do, but is only a five minute walk from the Arabic institute we will be studying at, Qasid (which I’ll write more on in the future). Everywhere has to reached by car or taxi– even here, in what seems like a pretty middle class area, you have to walk in the middle of the street to get anywhere.

Which gets to the next point– Arabic culture. I already have the feeling that Amman and Jordan are more tame, if that’s the right word to use, than the likes of Cairo or pre-war Damascus, but even so it’s quite a shift from America, or even the likes of Turkish-influenced Sarajevo. I can’t quite put my finger on what’s behind that feeling yet, but even the surface things you see day-to-day are alien to the likes of Boston or Europe. Cars, Taxis, and Motorcycles racing through the streets with no real regard for each other, and people interjecting to cross every which way under assumption that others will stop for them (something similar to what I remember from the Dominican Republic). Walk down the streets, and you’ll find older men just sitting, playing cards or smoking, and watching people walk by– especially us. There’s a cafe culture, but one a world away from what you’re find in Europe: no alcohol, for one, but instead lots of Sisha smoking and small drinks like tea.

But as I said, those are all surface things, and it will take some time yet to get to what feels so different about it all. For now, all I can tell is that there is a kind of ordered chaos to things. Things work, and work well, but not in a fashion that would seem conventional or even practical in America or Europe. People take things at their own pace, with inshallah (god willing) being more of a way of life that merely a saying. It’s also impossible to see Arabic culture as separate from religion– every day, the call to prayer rings five times from dawn until after sunset. Religious phrases like above become common, every-day usage, so much so that even the Arabic language can not be seen without the influence of Islam.

IMG_1838
One of the most famous mosques in Amman, the King Abdullah Mosque

Yet Jordanians seem very intent on insisting that their religion is moderate and tolerant, and take great strides to distance it from the more radical views held by ISIS or even Iran and the Saudi government. Jordanians see Islam as the most perfect of religions, and take pride in this belief, but believe also that all religions must be protected and allowed to worship. Though there are far more mosques than churches, several church spires share the skyline alongside the minarets, and some 9% of the Jordanian population is Christian. While Judaism isn’t as present (likely because of the proximity to Israel), Jews are also often included alongside Christians when Jordanians speak of tolerance and inclusion.

We had the chance to enter a mosque (pictured above), and right away when entering, it becomes clear that the site carries as much sacredness and holiness to the people here than does any church in the States, if not at times more so. Here, tradition and custom take priority much more so than in the city. Whereas in day-to-day life in Amman men and women can walk around fine so long as they don’t wear too revealing of clothing (no shorts or spaghetti straps for women, and no tank tops for men, though short sleeves are fine for both genders), here both men and women must cover as much of their bodies as possible, must enter with their right foot and leave with their left, and must never show the bottoms of their feet to another, along with other customs that are more strictly held within the mosque than on the streets.

IMG_1828
The Roman Amphitheater

Finally, Jordan is a city of ruins and history. Once it was called Philadelphia (really!) and was colonized by the Greeks; later the romans moved in, and for a long time after it was only a small town of around 2,000 permanent residents that traded with wandering Bedouin tribes. When King Abdullah I conquered Jordan and united the tribes following the first World War, the city gradually began to become the center of what was at the time a sparsely populated land leftover from the partitioning of the Middle East between the French and British. But the legacy of past rule remains, not only with the old Roman amphitheater(above) but also from the old citadel that lies atop one of Amman’s original 7 hills, which was a site important to both Greeks, Romans and early Muslim groups.

That’s all for today, but I’ll keep updated as time goes on. Middle Eastern culture, history, politics– every two days into being here, it’s more intricate and hard to penetrate than I ever would have imagined. To study this area of the world, interact with it, delve into it– that takes time, dedication, and probably more than a small share of frustration. I don’t expect to come close to understanding the Middle East only be interacting with one small corner of it for this small of an amount of time, but what I can do is discover if it really is a place I feel passionate enough about to put forward all the effort required to understand and study it.

No consensus on that yet, but only time can tell.

IMG_1829
View from atop the Citadel, with the Roman amphitheater in the foreground

From Southeastern Europe to the Middle East

A little less than a year has now passed since I last traveled abroad. Lately, I’ve been looking through this blog, reading over the old posts written down here, browsing through old pictures, and already I find myself missing the Balkans, missing the orange-tiled roofs of Sarajevo and the bridge over the river at Mostar and the cafés of Belgrade. Two semesters back to back in Boston (as wonderful of a city as it is) makes all of the memories of there tinged nostalgic as a desire to travel, see the world, and break free from the cold, dreary Northeast takes hold.

Besides just nostalgia, though, there’s another reason why I’ve started writing on this blog again by opening with the Balkans. For the past year or so, since returning from Serbia and Bosnia, I’ve been mulling over in my head where to go with my studies after traveling and experiencing Southeast Europe. I dabbled in Social Entrepreneurship, International Development, Comparative Politics, but time and time again I found myself coming back to a certain phrase I had written last summer while in Serbia: that the important things in this world aren’t politics, nor government nor even international relations, but the individual stories of thousands upon thousands of people that together make up nations.

What has come to interest me isn’t the political going ons that political science so often focuses on, but what nations, in essence, are — not just as far as a country, but in the aspirations, histories, and collective struggles of a people. Who are the Kurds, the Yazidis, the Arabs, the Persians– or for that matter, the French, the Germans, the Serbs and Croats? What makes them unique, what drives them, what defines them. Those are the questions I’ve found myself asking, and worth delving into.

IMG_1787
Something to keep busy with over the next travel day. Not exactly light reading…

Since last summer, I’ve stumbled into Middle East Studies, not for the conflicts and wars that so often flicker across our newsfeeds (although I’d be lying to say that the media’s attention on the region isn’t partly what piqued my interest), but because, for all of the attention given to that part of the world, the people there seem the least understood. I’m not talking about Arab-Americans, or even students from Kuwait and Jordan who study abroad at Northeastern, but the people who live most of their entire lives in the countries that make up the Middle East and North Africa– the cities that they form, the cultures that they develop, the politics that influence them and, yes, the wars that we in America see and react to.

For those of you who are older, who still remember the Soviet Union or the collapse of Yugoslavia, think of this: for those of my generation (“Millennials” if you will), we have not had a time in our conscious lives not defined by Americans somehow involved in the Middle East. My first concrete memory was of 9/11, my childhood developed alongside the war in Iraq. When I was a Sophomore in High School, now going on five years ago, I remember listening on my car radio to the stories of the Arab Spring, of thousands of people gathering in Cairo, Tunisia, Bahrain in a call for the end to autocracy. Now, in college, our attention has fallen on Syria and once more Iraq: on the Syrian Civil War, on the Refugee Crisis, on the so-called Islamic State. My life, and the lives of others in my generation, have always been tied in some way to the Middle East, in the same way the Baby Boomers were always tenuously connected to the affairs of the Soviet Union.

Perhaps that is the reason why I want to see the Middle East, and why today I find myself traveling to Amman, Jordan. To be clear: I am not an adrenaline junky from VICE who wants to head head-first into a war zone. Nor am I a conflict studies student. My interests here is connected to the wars we see today for the same way my interests in the Balkans were connected to the Bosnian and Kosovo wars: hard subjects, like war, like ethnic cleansing, like genocide are important to study and interact with because, one day, solutions have to be found to stop them from happening again.

What Bosnia was in the 90’s the Middle East is today. And while ISIS will fall, and Syria will one day repair itself, lessons can be learned in this region that can prevent more Bosnias, Rwandas, Syrias from happening again. And even after the conflicts have subsided, the people of this region- the Arabs, the Kurds, the Turks and Persians– will remain important. I believe that’s why I’m traveling here.

For now, a 30+ hour travel day lies ahead. I will update sometime soon, when finally in Amman.