Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Amman


Looking over the Jordan Valley toward Jordan
from the mountain behind Jericho
I’m always rather relieved to get out of Israel. My departure via the King Hussein Bridge (Allenby Bridge) border control was uneventful, though you never can tell how it’s going to go.

So there’s an underlying tension as one approaches the time of leaving the country which suddenly evaporates as soon as you’re on that bus over no-man’s-land on your way to Jordan. But at least I get a read-out each time showing whether or not I am registering on their computer – thus far, it’s okay.

The Dead Sea
The landscape around the border crossing is barren yet captivating, the old sea bed of a once much larger Dead Sea, carved into valleys and strange mounts by wind and water. I wish I could photograph it for you, but it’s in a military security zone where photography is risky or forbidden, and my objective when I come to this area is to cross the border intact. The flat floor of the Jordan Valley is a little world of its own, Earth’s lowest place. It’s also the place where the next major earthquake in this area is expected – but that’s another matter.

This is actually Har Homa settlement near Bethlehem
but it demonstrates my point about the defensive architecture
On the way here we drove through Jerusalem. It’s an impressive city, perched on high plateaux, with dual carriageways wheeling around the city through valleys and tunnels and a lot of new development, with lots of concrete everywhre. The modern building style here in the Israeli West Bank is fortress-like, with blocks of regimented apartment buildings stacked up in defensible positions – impressive perhaps to some but, to me, a social nightmare in the making and the symbol of an embattled society. Jerusalem is a strident city, filled with determined people and very polarised. I don’t like it.

But as the road curves around the city to join the main Tel Aviv to Jericho road, the landscape widens out, turning into desert mountains – right now comparatively green after the winter rains – and the road soars down, down, down, through the Judaean hills, heading for sea level and then below it, down into the Jordan Valley.

The separation wall in Bethlehem
After going through two checkpoints on the approach to the border crossing, you arrive at the terminal building. There’s one entrance for Jews and foreigners and one for Palestinians. You hand your bag over and head into the passport control hall, where you pay an extortionate departure tax (harmlessly called a ‘passenger fee’) of £35, then you head over to passport control where you show your passport, there’s some tapping on the computer and, if you’re clear, you get stamped. Then you go to another place, where your passport is examined again before you pass through the turnstile. Then you collect your bag and wait for the bus to the other side. Well, that’s what it’s like when it’s not busy and you have a clear run through – I deliberately choose such times to pass through myself.

Eventually the bus leaves, heading through an Israeli checkpoint, then over the rather disappointing Allenby Bridge, which crosses the almost dried-out Jordan River. So much water is being extracted from it that nowadays the river hardly flows. This is one of the world’s more famous and sung-about rivers, and it is now a riverine tragedy. The rape of the Jordan in turn means that the Dead Sea is gradually shrinking and drying up. There is a Jordanian plan to siphon water from the Red Sea into the Dead Sea, with desalination plants to crate potable water, but this is going slowly owing to difficulties making agreements with the Israelis. Everything here is subsumed to the conflict – a conflict conveniently kept going by Israel to justify its obsession with security, perpetual emergency rule and military preparedness.

Farewell Bethlehem
Then we come to two Jordanian checkpoints, followed by the Jordanian terminal 2km further on. They take your passport at the first checkpoint and it miraculously appears and is returned to you at the terminal, after a confusing time seeking out your luggage and then thronging for your passport. Eventually you emerge from this process to run the gauntlet of competing taxi-drivers seeking custom. I had rung an old Jordanian taxi-driving friend, Shawki, who couldn’t come, but he had sent a friend. I found a Belgian-Hungarian  couple who needed a ride, and we shared the taxi into Amman.

You don't see this in Jordan
After a few miles crossing the flat floor of the Jordan Valley, the road heads up the side of a valley penetrating the escarpment on the edge of the valley, climbing 1,300m or 3,200ft up toward Amman, passing belching, struggling trucks and weaving along the side of the scarp until eventually the road evens out and the city starts. Here in Jordan there are no watchtowers, separation walls, checkpoints or controls, no surveillance balloons or cameras, and it’s always a little strange, emerging into a freer country. I keep instinctively looking around, expecting a wall or watchtower, and they just aren’t there.

And you get none of these
I had been busy saying goodbye to friends and completing all sorts of small details before leaving. To add spice to the occasion, the internet at the school went wrong, preventing further blogs and other interactions far and wide. But perhaps that was good too – a release from the duties of a cyber-junkie and an opportunity to focus on real-life events and situations. So you have not heard from me.

I must confess too, I am tired, rather deeply tired, and I’ve run out of things to say. I need to rest and replenish my batteries. I need to sit by the fire and stare into the embers, and to sit for long periods on clifftops, staring at the waves. I also return to a list of things to do, demands to fulfil and responsibilities to observe, some of them questionable, typically British, rather bureaucratic and expensive, and to a host of people who will invite me to visit, many of whom would be a little more convincing if they offered to visit me.

Here's someone I was sad to say goodbye to
- my favourite herb seller
The last few days have been both sad and a relief. People didn’t want to say goodbye, and I have some reluctance in leaving them. Especially at this time, when something could burst out in Palestine, changing everything, probably for the worse. There’s a slight feeling of dread around, though everyone is busy getting on with their lives too, as if normality prevails. I don’t want to abandon them. But in another sense I am relieved, because relationships can become rather one-way and people need reminding through my absence that helping doesn’t go only in one direction.

I’m looking forward to going back to Britain. I left Brtiain with mixed feelings about my homeland, wondering where Britain is going and what part I play in it. I return feeling a little better, though still mixed, and glad to live in Cornwall, not Middle Britain. I look forward to stomping the cliffs, meeting old friends, perhaps even to a change of fortunes.

View over the Old Town of Bethlehem
One of my tasks is to get my book Pictures of Palestine –a humanitarian blogging from Bethlehem finally published. It has been a long wait – two years – as it has done the rounds of publishers only to get nowhere. “Pity it’s about Palestine, not Israel”. “Too biased” – which means it speaks up for Palestine. “Interesting approach, but we could sell it more easily if you were more angry with Israel and made them into the badguys.” Well, the book doesn’t fit into any of the customary categories, and that’s actually its strength. It’s honest, it’s not a rant, it defuses stereotypes and it portrays real life. So I’m self-publishing it on paper and in e-book format, and I’ll be hawking copies to you, my dear readers, before very long!

Now I have 24 hours in Amman to think and adjust. Crossing from Palestine to Britain is quite a long jump, geographically and culturally, to a different world. No more will I time my day by the calling to prayers (which conveniently divides the day into segments), and no more will I have my morning cup of tea looking over the separation wall at the Israeli settlement over the valley.

Villages south of Bethlehem
Whither life leads next, I do not know. My roots aren’t strong any more. Increasingly I’m joining the throng of British expats dotted around the world, including those in Britain who are ‘home’ but not quite. I’m becoming an internationalised Brit who loves the endearing, picturesque, friendly and human aspect of Britain and dislikes the materialism, deadening, play-safe conformism and insularity of the place. People often ask me whether it’s dangerous or risky doing what I do, to which the answer is, yes, it’s slightly risky, but living a safe life in Britain is also risky – the main risk being that of wasting one’s life away avoiding risky situations.

I feel positive about the future though. Where it leads is anybody’s guess. My plan is to return to Palestine in October, inshallah. There’s a change coming in our world, and the calm before the storm is deafeningly quiet. So it’s tricky planning. It’s more a matter of setting intents with some firm flexibility thrown in.

Please permit me to thank you, all my readers, for following my blog over the last five months. I have appreciated your company, thoughts and comments, and have enjoyed sharing the life I’ve been leading with you. There will be more. Leaving God’s holy land and returning to the largely secular, fully explained and accounted-for world of Britain, where everything is perfectly normal except when it isn’t, I wish you all the following prayer, however you care to read it.

May God bless you and keep you,
cause light to shine around you
and guide your way home.

I shall be back in Palestine again one day and invite you to join me on the next trip! Ma’assalam – go in peace.


Now please go to www.palden.co.uk/pop/ to check out my forthcoming book and the extra features on the site – including some wonderful photo-slideshows of Palestine.