A Message from Aqaba

Aqaba was the final destination of our five-day foray South– a resort town carefully positioned at the northernmost point of the aptly named Gulf of Aqaba, a splinter of ocean that juts off from the Red Sea at the tip of the Sinai peninsula, in doing so creating a natural divide between the nations of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. This is the edge of Jordan, as far South as you can venture while still remaining within the country’s borders, and as with all other places in this part of the world weighted by its own unique history– among other events, it was the site of one of the largest battles of the Arab Revolt, being a principle strategic city during King Hussein’s campaign against the Ottomans during the First World War.

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Aqaba, with the flag of the Arab Revolt raised above

We came here for the same reason that many others come to Aqaba today: to relax and reenergize from our expeditions in the South, to sit on the beach of a resort and, if only for a day, bask a little in luxury and privilege. We felt that we had deserved it– three weeks of intensive arabic and four days of constant hiking and traveling through the South had stretched many of us to our mental (and to some, physical) limits, and we needed nothing more than a day to simply enjoy and let pass slowly away by the sea.

We found ourselves on a boat close to evening, watching the sun dip slowly towards the mountains on the Egyptian side of the Gulf, snorkeling above long-ruined ships, and enjoying barbecued chicken and vegetables when we heard about Orlando. The day grew darker from there– though the sunset was still beautiful, the reefs still spectacular, there was a shadow over the entire event, a constant reminder in the back of your mind that something horrible had happened back home, even if at the time we didn’t know the magnitude of the event.

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Sunset over the Gulf of Aqaba

It wasn’t until much later in the night, upon returning to our hotel and launching ourselves onto the wifi-networks to hurriedly check BBC and CNN did we fully understand what had happened. 50 dead– the worst mass shooting in American history, and the worst terror attack since 9/11. We had seen Paris happen on the news, listened on the radio to the events in Brussels and Istanbul and Beirut, but this hit home. This was our home, our people, and just like Sandy Hook, or Virginia Tech, or 9/11, or any other mass atrocity that occurred on U.S soil, it struck a special, intimate place with all of us– all the more so because we were far away, unable to be in our home country and to help it through its healing and recovery.

 

There was something else, too: the man who committed this crime was a Muslim. He was also a homophobe, an instigator of domestic abuse, a narcissist obsessed with his own importance– but we knew what would stand out the most was his religion. In an age of Trump, of far-right nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment, we knew this would be the defining fact, the thing that would divide Americans at the very time that they need to be brought together in solidarity against hate, against extremism, against violence.

 

Which compels me to write this:

I can’t give an answer to stopping gun violence. It is an epidemic that is unique to my country, a country I love dearly, despite its faults and its failings. But I know the answer isn’t what we see on the news: I know it isn’t Trump, it isn’t facing hatred with hatred, it isn’t excluding others from the promise of inclusion and tolerance and liberty that my country represents.

I know what it is to be afraid. And I know that Orlando, and San Bernardino, and Paris and Brussels all are reasons to be afraid. But, if there is anything to learn from what I’ve tried so hard to share with all of you through this blog, it is that these people- Jordanians, Iraqis, Syrians, Arabs, Muslims– are not to be feared.

They are loving, welcoming, hospitable and kind. Like in the South, my home, religion is incredibly important to them, but in a way that is beautiful, wholesome, tolerant and compassionate, not the extremism we see from this so-called Islamic State. They are cab drivers, construction workers, teachers, farmers, politicians, bankers…they are fathers, mothers, aunts and uncles and sons and daughters.

The people of the Middle East are more like Americans than Trump is telling you. They believe in dignity, in kindness, in love and in helping one’s neighbor– all values that we, as Americans, also hold dear.  And, though they may not agree with our government, they hold no hatred for Americans– not a single Jordanian, or Palestinian, or Iraqi or Syrian I have met here has done anything but welcome us with open arms to their country upon hearing our own nationality.

Whenever you hear Trump, or any other politician speaking hatred and intolerance in our country, think of what I’ve said here, what I’ve spent so much time trying to show all of you through this blog. These are not your enemies, and they do not see you as enemies themselves. These are good people, people who are no threat despite what some may do in some perverted shadow of their religion. If anything, they deserve to be welcomed into our own country with the same openness and compassion that they extend to us in theirs.

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I am frustrated, my friends and family. I am frustrated because, for all people like me who come to the Middle East, to try to understand those who live here and to accept them for who they are, there are other voices- louder voices, more powerful voices- who preach ideas that only serve to divide us, and in doing so weaken us, not just as Americans but as an International Community of human beings.

Yet I hope that some of what I have said here has gotten through. That some of my thoughts shared with you through these travels can shed a little bit of light on this part of the world that is so vastly misunderstood, and in doing so perhaps lessen- if only in a small way- the impact that those very divisive voices have on my country.

This is how I end my time in Jordan. Thankful, for the experiences and opportunities I have been given. Frustrated, for how little it seems my own words can change a national phenomenon of hate and intolerance. And Hopeful, hopeful that this will not be the future of my country, that we, as Americans, will prove to be more open, that we will be more understanding, that we will be more tolerant.

That we will show the world that we can be better than we are now.

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South of Amman, Part 2: Petra and Wadi Rum

If Dana stood at the edge of the Arabian desert, than Petra and Wadi Rum lie firmly within the sahara‘s grasp. Here, there is no green, and no blue aside from the ceaselessly cloudless sky above– just endless shades of brown and red, a landscape of mud and stone and sand.

From Dana we traveled further south, ever closer to our final destination found at the bottom most tip of Jordan- Aqaba, along the Red Sea. This is the “Holy Triangle” of Jordan, where visitors from around the world flock to to see the natural and manmade wonders of Wadi Rum and Petra, or to relax in luxury among the several Red Sea resorts of Aqaba. Yet tourism isn’t what it once was– regional conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq, as well as terrorist attacks in Egypt, Tunisia and Lebanon have crippled a once vibrant tourism industry, characterized by a “Grand Tour” of Cairo, Damascus, and Jerusalem, with Jordan being a mere stopover on a much longer journey. Today, the tourist sites that once drew thousands stand nearly empty, with locals who rely on the tourism trade often remarking how bad business has become.

Yet, even if they no longer draw the same crowds as they did five or ten years ago, Wadi Rum and Petra have not lost a single bit of their absolute beauty. In my travels, I’ve been lucky to see many a gorgeous vista, city and village– from the jagged edges of the Rockies in Colorado to the streets of Sarajevo to the seaside Italian towns of Cinque Terre– yet even they are rivaled by the spectacle of these two sites.

I’ll post mostly photos this time around– there is history to these places, and stories to be told, but these are things you have to discover for yourself, things that can’t be fully appreciated by merely reading the impressions and experiences of someone else.

 

Petra

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The valley entrance to Petra. Once this was a natural river that cut through a canyon, but the river was diverted by the Nabatians to form this natural, easily defendable entranceway 
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The Treasury, in fact a tomb to one of the most revered Kings of the Nabatians. This is the first site a person sees upon exiting the canyon
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The tombs of “lesser’ nobles– less regal than that of Kings, but moreso than the simple caves of the common Nabatian
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Climbing the 900 steps to the Alter of Sacrifice
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Atop the Alter of Sacrifice, looking onto the hidden valley that Petra lies within. The Monastery lies in the hills in the distance
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The Monastery, another tomb later converted into a church by the Byzantines. To reach it, one has to hike another spiraling mountain staircase even steeper and more rigorous than the 900 steps to the Alter of Sacrifice

 

Wadi Rum- the “Valley of the Moon”

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Atop one of the many cliff faces that rise above the desert
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Camels wandering through the desert beneath us
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Desert visas at sunset
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Another view
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Camel riding the following morning

One more post to come, and then back to the States for a time– to rest, recuperate, and prepare for the next journey abroad.

South of Amman, Part 1: Dana

With the intensive language portion of the dialogue now over (65+ collective hours of arabic later…), the opportunity finally presented itself to venture further afield from the traffic and bustle of Amman. Previously, we had limited our excursions to day-length trips outside of the capital, which kept us restricted to the North of the country– places like Umm Qais, Jerash, or the Northern Badia. Yet there’s an entire other side of the country that lies to the South, where the cities of more fertile North taper off and the great Arabian desert begins.

Dana is the perfect transition between these two extremes. Known otherwise as Wadi Dana, or the Dana Valley, Dana is a vast scar of a canyon that carves a path from a collection of 1,300 meter mountains to the desert below at nearly -300 meters. As such, Dana is unique in that it possesses nearly half a dozen different types of bioms and climates in little more than a 20-kilometer start-to-finish stretch (although the actual Nature Preserve itself extends outside the valley proper for many hundred more square kilometers).

And if it isn’t beautiful.

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There’s a town that stands on the edge of this valley that gives the Wadi its name: Dana. A collection of 15-16th century homes that remain from and old Ottoman village, the village of Dana lay in ruins for centuries, until the creation of the Biosphere Reserve began to draw attention visitors to the location. Rather than make Dana another walled-off historical ruin, Jordanians began to instead move back into the town, opening a few tiny restaurants and little hotels to catch the scattering of visitors drifting in from Petra or other more well-known tourists sites.

The village of Dana it itself strange: the streets are quiet, deserted, with only the owners of the three hotels, two restaurants, and a single corner store to be found amongst the streets. Walk off the main street, and the rest of the city still remains in crumbling ruins, while at night stray goats or even a wild horse will walk through the empty alleys. It gives the feeling that nature hasn’t yet renounced its decades-long claim over this place, or at the least is slow in realizing that humans have moved back in. It’s eerie, but also peaceful, and a world away from the human crowds of Amman.

It was in Dana village that we met Abu Yahia, our guide through hiking the valley itself, and one of the most interesting and inspiring people we’ve yet met. 65, with a white beard, heavy Arabic accent, and an eccentric way of speaking, Abu Yahia is what remains of the original inhabitants of Dana: a wandering Bedouin people who lived off the land and what animals they could herd amongst these high valley walls. A lifetime of living off the land has kept his body strong and his mind sharp, and even amongst a crowd dominated by athletic ROTC students he bounds between rocks and down trails with an agility and sure-footedness that none of us could ever match.

To be with Abu Yahia is to see a glimpse of a Jordan now long gone: a time when to be Bedouin was a way of life, rather than a matter of heritage. When people still lived side-by-side with the land, rather than massing together in cities. Walk beside him, and he may stop to point out a cave that he and his family once lived in during the winters, or bend down to show a type of plant that used to boiled into a tea, or crushed into a medicine, or cooked as a food.

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A cave once used to pass winter in

And then there was this: spying a single Juniper tree on a hillside, our guide stopped, and pointing to a vine growing intertwined with the Juniper’s branches said one of the most profound statements I’ve every heard. I can’t recreate it perfectly, but I will try my best below:

“See this vine? It and this tree live together, not hurting each other, not trying to kill each other. And that’s how we have to be.

‘That’s the lesson I want to give to you. I’m old, 65 years old, and I only have 5 or 10 years left. But you can learn these lessons and take them to do whatever it is you do– engineers or ministers or anything– because we need people like you to understand.

‘Peace. That’s what we need to learn, and what nature can teach us. When we live beside nature, we understand this, but when we are apart from it, we forget. Peace between man and nature, peace between man and man– that’s what we need, and what we need to learn. We can’t keep destroying nature, and we can’t keep killing ourselves.”

Sometimes it’s just that simple, and to have it told by a man who has lived his entire life in this valley, who spent years shepherding sheep and many other years showing groups of visitors like us the hidden wonders of this beautiful space, drives home the simplicity of it all. We can’t keep killing ourselves. We can’t keep killing our natural world. What we need to strive for– individually, as a person, and collectively, as humans– is peace.

In a classroom, that very drive towards peace is bogged down in politics and intricacies and terminology. In much of the real world, peace is retarded by long-set hatreds and grudges, or simple intolerances and ignorances. But here, in the Dana Valley, the concept seems a little more simple, and because of that, a little more attainable.

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On Women in the Middle East

Another hot-topic issue that’s been in the news recently is the perception and treatment of women in the Middle East. From controversies surrounding the use of the headscarf or niqab to the prevalent idea that Islam, or Arab culture, represses and degrades women, Arab women are, like it or not, now of the front lines of a decades-long discussion of the place, rights, and inequality of women in our world.

In Jordan, most of our interaction have been in fact with Arab women rather than men. From our teachers at Qasid to our Jordanian friend, Ayya, who accompanies us on every excursion and to every lecture, women in this country have not only been our friends but, for me at least, a primary lens to view Jordan and the greater MENA region and Arab World.

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My language class and our two Arabic teachers (left)

Of all the conversations we’ve had with Jordanian women, one in particular stands out: a lecture given by Professor Al-Saud of the Islamic University of Jordan, a former Dean, parliament member, and current candidate for the upcoming parliamentary elections. Al-Saud began her speech by claiming that the perceptions of women from the Middle East an West is often seen as different, but stressed that they both spheres of the world share many commonalities: that all men and women are derived from the biblical Adam and Eve, and that in this way all men and women’s lives are inherently equal, with no one gender’s life being worth more than the other’s.

That being said, Al-Saud made the case that, due to her religion, certain religious restrictions must be followed to pursue a moral life: among them, the restriction of shaking hands with the opposite gender, and the necessity of wearing a Hijab that covers the head (Al-Saud also claimed that the more concealing Niqab, which covers most of the face, is not a necessity according to Islam and is rather a cultural phenomenon passed off as religious, a claim that would probably be disputed as one travels further South to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf). But the former parliament member also stated that these restrictions did not in and of themselves create inequality, and that Islam says nothing of putting a women’s role as secondary to that of a man. Namely, she criticized the so-called Islamic State (here known as “Daesh”) as “abducting” the sayings Islam has about women and perverting them to their own purposes outside that of Islam.

On the contrary, Al-Saud claimed that the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which among other things claimed that all humans are born “free and equal in dignity and rights”, that “all are equal before the law” and that men and women are entitled to “equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and dissolution”, itself mirrored many of the ideas expressed in Islam about women, which were put down in written form nearly 1,000 years earlier.

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Two Northeastern students in the traditional Abbayya dress (right), alongside two members of the Bedouin tribes (center-left) and another, male student dressed in traditional clothes (far left)

Mind you, this is merely a perspective, and one in which I don’t agree with all points. For example, most women in the Arab World see homosexuality as perverting the fundamental values of family, and as such don’t promote LGBT rights, a view that I don’t personally share. But one thing stuck out of me from what Al-Saud had to say: “We’re all ladies, and we here in Jordan don’t tell women in the West how to live their lives. So why are they so insistent on telling us how to live ours?”

To be clear, Al-Saud considers herself a feminist, but sees the problems related to women in Jordan to be economical and socially exclusionary, rather than because of religion. For example, while nearly 75% of students in Jordanian schools are women, only 20% are in the workforce, and of those half are in education. This, Al-Saud said, prevents women from having the fully equal role in society that they deserve and are supposed to have under the teachings of their religion, and is the primary struggle for Jordanian women today.

Again, while I did not agree with all Al-Saud had to say, to listen to a prominent, feminist member actively involved in education and government and hear her perspectives was immensely valuable, and articulated many of the thoughts I’ve heard expressed by other women here in Jordan as well. Jordanian women see themselves as underrepresented and undervalued in government, education, and the workforce, and have problems with their own society that they are actively trying to fix– but they do so while upholding their own religious and cultural beliefs, which they believe empowers them, rather than oppressing or degrading them.

This is important to keep in mind. Too often with the human rights or feminist movements of the West, we believe our ideas- by nature of being American or European- are inherently superior. But people all over the world, especially women, are both adapting their own culture and beliefs with a real effort to achieve true equality beside men. That is a phenomenon not only unique to Jordan, but across the entire Arab world.

While we may sometimes disagree with some ideas and beliefs held here in the Arab World (which is fair, as everyone has their own opinions and ways of thinking), what is most important is that we support the women of this country and this part of the world in their own fight, rather than dictating what we see as the “best way”. Jordanian women are amazing, strong, intelligent and brave, and carry a unique sense of style that I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world. Those are the things that should be focused on, despite cultural differences, and we should keep those very traits in the forefront of our minds whenever we view women in the Arab World and Middle East.

 

The Future is Between our Hands

Important post today, and one with a lot of thoughts that I’ve been sitting on for a while now. Last Friday, we traveled back towards al-Mufraq, to the edge of the Syrian border, where a week prior we visited members of the Bedouin tribes of the Badia (which I wrote about in that week’s post, “An Orchard on the Edge of Jordan”). I previously touched upon the realities of the Syrian refugee crisis in Jordan in that post, but to reiterate, Jordan hosts somewhere over a million Syrian refugees, to say nothing of refugees from Iraq or other fragile states in the MENA region. Altogether, the country’s population today is  around 30% refugees, a number that doubles if one still considers Palestinians in Jordan refugees.

Let me say this out the gate: the Syrian refugee crisis is the greatest moral failing of our time. Syria represents one of the greatest humanitarian disasters in recent memory, comparable to if not in some ways greater than the the conflicts in Rwanda, Bosnia, or Somalia in the 1990s. Yet rather than taking a collective stance as an international community, or as simply human beings, we have let petty politics and hate mongering divide us.

Europe and America– the very centers of the world where modern human rights and humanitarianism was born– have closed their doors to those who are suffering out of fear, ignorance, and intolerance. Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are perhaps even worse, using the conflict to further their own political gains at the cost of prolonging a brutal civil war that is now going into its sixth year and has displaced millions.

Perhaps thirty minutes from al-Mufraq, past the tiny town Za’atria where one of the largest refugee camps in the world now resides, a small farm not too far from the likes of the Bedouin orchard we visited previously rests but a few miles from the Syrian border. This farm in particular, though, is something unique: it’s a refuge, a place where 150 Syrian families can live, work, and make a salary as laborers all under the patronage of one Jordanian farmer who was willing to open his arms to the refugees flooding across the border.

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Looking onto the camp from above

As such, this farm presents a rare opportunity: to sit down beside, interact with, and talk to the very Syrian refugees we so often see on our newsfeeds, and have been taught to fear by the likes of Trump and other hate-mongering voices of the far right. Although we are too large of a group to enter Za’atarie, here we have the opportunity to hear these people’s stories, listen to their hopes for the future and try to understand how they keep on going after three, four, five years estranged from their homes.

A quick aside: yes, we did enter one afternoon on an air conditioned bus, and left later in the evening aboard the same bus. Yes, we could go home to showers and beds while these people would continue to sleep in tents. And yes, there is a fair amount of guilt to be had in doing so– I won’t say that I’m changing the world simply by talking to some families or playing soccer with some kids. I’m not. But I can relay to the rest of you what they had to say to us, and that itself is valuable.

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Inside the camp

Many of the men and women we met were from Aleppo, a city north of Damascus near the Turkish border that has endured some of the worst of the conflict’s fighting. Some trecked for 15 days to reach the Jordanian border, braving shelling, gunfire, and hunger while attempting to escape the turmoil of their country. For them, there is no home to go back to– their houses are destroyed, the families and friends they left behind often unaccounted for and feared the worst. That is the reality of being a refugee: sitting, waiting for a conflict to end, hoping to one day be able to go back without knowing if the place you grew up in, raised kids in, and called home still exists, or if your friends and neighbors are even still alive. It is being in a constant state of limbo, with the world continuing on even as your life seems to halt to a stop.

These people were taxi drivers. Construction workers. And now they are displaced, homeless, without hope in the future or of the future of their children, many of whom were born here in Jordan without ever knowing Syria. Those were the things we heard, and one more, very powerful question:

Where is America?

Over and over we heard this. Where is America, where are the United States. If the United States is so powerful, if it can lead armies in Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein in days, if it truly is a power of human rights and democracy, than why hasn’t it stopped what has happened in Syria? Why can’t the United States, in all of its power, let them go home?

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I could tell them about the politics of International Relations and Political Science that we so often hear in the classroom at Northeastern. I could tell them how, in the age of Trump and the current state of the Republican party, nearly half our country sees them not as taxi drivers and construction workers but as Muslims, as foreign, and thus dangerous. I could try to explain how, back home, good, honest people just like them have been misled into believing that, somehow, refugees like them are a threat.

But I can’t. Because no explanation can give them their homes back. No rumination of politics and international affairs could give them hope that their friends and families are still alive. No insistence that not all Americans are afraid, not all are intolerant, can bring back those who have already been lost.

 

Think on that.

 

A wall stands not far from the Za’atarie  refugee camp, painted by the hands of children displaced by the Syrian War. In it, in Arabic, a single phrase is written: “The Future is Between Our Hands”

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On it, children have scrawled notes, and drawn pictures of their memories from Syria: their houses, now probably destroyed, are most prominent. But one phrase and one picture in particular stand out, which I’ll post below.

If anything stands out from my posts here in Jordan, take this with you: we cannot let this continue. We cannot sit idly by when other human beings suffer, especially when we are so aware, especially when the realities of the crisis are constantly shoved in our face. We cannot allow ourselves to be blinded by hatred, or intolerance, no matter their religion, no matter if there are others out there who may claim the same faith but pervert it through death and chaos. We cannot let Srebrenica, or Rwanda, or Somalia or Darfur or Cambodia or the Holocaust or now Syria to ever happen again.

But unless something changes, there will be another Syria. Unless we, as an international community, say enough is enough, we will continue to see this happening again. And again. And again.

That, above all, is our collective moral failure.

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Drawings made by Syrian children of their cars and houses back home– and of tanks and soldiers
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“I have a home, and I will go back to it”

The “Other” Arab Spring: Remembering the Great Arab Revolt

Last Thursday was called as an impromptu national holiday, seemingly out of the blue, by the Jordanian Government. Although rumor has it that the holiday was called mostly for political reasons, it’s not without precedent. Nearly 100 years ago to the day, a little known chapter of the 1st World War known as the Great Arab Revolt would come to change the fate of the Middle East, with consequences that would serve as the root to many of the current crisis now facing the region.

A short summary, first: 100 years ago, the failing Ottoman Empire, which had once felled the Eastern Byzantine (Roman) Empire and conquered the great city of Constantinople (now Istanbul), sided with the German and Austrian Empires in a vain attempt to retain its former power and prestige, and to reclaim break-away states in the Balkans, including Serbia and Greece (and so we come to connections to the Balkans dialogue. Everything in history is intertwined…)

Arabs had long seen themselves as unjustly oppressed by the Turks in control of the Ottoman Empire, and in 1915 and 1916, King Hussein of the Hashemite Kingdom of Mecca agreed to assist the British in overthrowing the Turks, whose command over the Arab World was centered in Damascus, in exchange of a State for the Arabs to call their own. King Hussein’s son, Faisal, and the more well-known T.E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia, anyone?) would go on to wage a campaign against the Turks that would stretch from the west coast of what is now Saudi Arabia through Jordan and into Syria, where they would later succeed in capturing Damascus itself. King Faisal was crowned King of the Arabs, and for a time, Arab ambitions in the Middle East seemed assured.

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The Flag of the Arab Revolt, still often flown beside the Flag of Jordan

Yet that’s not how things ended up. Behind the back of King Hussein, the British and French created the now-notorious (but then secret) Sykes-Picot Agreement, which gave France control over Damascus and Syria, as well as the then-Christian majority area that we now call Lebanon, while the British sphere of influence covered Iraq, Palestine, and modern Jordan. When the League of Nations convened following the 1st World War, it was this secret agreement that was honored, not the initial promise to King Hussein and Prince Faisal: Prince Faisal would later be pushed out of Syria by the French and would take up residence in Baghdad, serving as a proxy leader under the British (much like the Shah in Iran).

So how does this relate to Jordan? Well, more than you think: while Prince Faisal was being pushed out of Damascus by the French, his younger brother, Abdullah, would lead his own armies North to wage another war in Syria, but was convinced by none other than Winston Churchill to suspend his command and become king of Transjordan. Abdullah, ever the pragmatic, agreed, and today it is only his lineage that remains from a dynasty that once had the potential to control the Middle East. Abdullah’s father, Hussein, would himself be ousted from Mecca by the al-Saud family of Saudi Arabia, while Faisal’s dynasty would be overthrown in 1958, setting the seeds for military strongman Saddam Hussein’s own rise to power. (Again, everything is connected..)

Jordanians take great pride in their role in the Arab Revolt, which stands to them as a unified Arab effort to overthrow tyranny and oppression (in reality, Arabs were more divided between pro-Ottoman and pro-Hashemite, in part because not all wanted to be ruled by King Hussein and Prince Faisal). In this way, the Great Arab Revolt can be seen as an Arab Spring of its own, nearly a century before the events of 2011 lead to the Tunisian Revolution, Libyan Civil War and Syrian War.

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The Jordanian Flag, still retaining the color scheme of the Arab Revolt flag. The seven-pointed star references the Seven Mountains of Amman (Credit: Middle East Monitor)

It is maybe because the respect Jordanians have for their kings’ efforts against the Turks that is behind why Jordanians didn’t stage an uprising along the lines of Tunisia or Egypt. While protests did occur in Jordan, few called for the abolition of the monarchy: instead, they were for more basic rights, like employment, better inclusion in government, and higher wages. Even today, the King is still seen as legitimate authority to the people of Jordan, even if some prefer the policies of King Abdullah II’s father, King Hussein, over that of the current King.

We had the chance to see the consequences of this division of the Arab World, as conducted by the French and British, for our own at the site of Umm Qais, another ancient Greco-Roman ruin. Umm Qais itself overlooks the Golan Heights, a region that lies between Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel/Palestine (which was itself also created by the British around the time of World War 1 as part of the Belford Declaration, but that’s a much more complicated and controversial issue best left to another time), and is now claimed by both Israel and Syria. At one point, this land could have belonged to a vast Arab State, or at the very least divided between an Israeli-Palestinian state and a single Arab State– but that’s not how history played out.

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Sunset over the Golan Heights. Jordan lies where the photo was taken, Israel/Palestine is to the West, Lebanon in the far Northern hills and the Syrian-Israeli contested  Golan Heights in the foreground. Lake Tiberius rests between all four.

While it’s impossible to know how the Middle East could have played out had King Faisal ruled a united Arab State, many scholars attribute the division of the Arab World under Sykes-Picot as the root of many of the region’s ongoing problems (others, of course, dispute this, but such is political science). Regardless, the Great Arab Revolt remains a vastly important event to many Arabs, especially Jordanians, and an event worth remembering, especially in the West where few of us were ever taught of its existence.

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Looking onto the Golan Heights

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.

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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.

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Looking West, into the valley of Wadi Musa
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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.

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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!

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The East Bank
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…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”).

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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:

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North, following the ancient road to Syria and Damascus
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Southeast, towards the Jordanian town of Aljun
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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.

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