Wednesday, March 15, 2006

One of my days

For some reason, I always seem to find my way into unique encounters, wonderfully odd and exceptional situations that I imagine even others living abroad rarely experience (well, other than Jimmy and his crazy drum-playing band!). The other day was a perfect example.

About 15 miles NW of Irbid is both the ancient and the modern village of Umm Qais, an unbelievable place that has become one of my favorite locations in all of Jordan. Near the modern village of Umm Qais is a large hill where the ancient Roman city of Gadara is located, a city within the Decapolis where Jesus cast out demons. The ruins itself are very cool, containing Ottoman homes as well as a large Roman amphitheatre made of black basalt. Most impressive, however, is the view. From this vantage point, your eyes are literally provided with a map of the Middle East. To the east, less than 5 miles away, is Syria. To the far north, but still visible, is southern Lebanon. To the northwest, West Banks villages are within 20 miles. To the west, closer than even Syria, is the Sea of Galilee and Israel, with Mt. Nabor and Nazareth in the far background. Directly in front of you is Jordan’s Yarmouk River gorge. Towering behind the gorge is the Golan Heights. Aside from the breathtaking physical beauty of the rolling hills of Roman olive trees, the huge and imposing plateau of the Golan, and the shining blue Sea of Galilee, the sheer magnitude of the view is astonishing. For someone studying history or political science, it’s a dream! It’s like the 4 corners in the SW US, but instead with all these extremely significant areas of contention. Some of the panoramic views are enhanced further by the Roman and Ottoman ruins surrounding them. When I stand at Umm Qais, I'm always struck with how cool it is that I'm actually in the Middle East!

Will and I were up in this area, taking it all in, attempting to decide if we should hike to Syria (don’t worry mom, we didn’t do it!), and exploring the archaeological sites. Like I said, at Umm Qais, there are Ottoman ruins above or next to many of the Roman ruins, and until about 20 years ago people were still living in these Ottoman homes. However, due to a decision by the Jordanian government to develop the area for tourism, they were actually forced to leave (compensation was provided). Anyways, as we walked around one of these courtyards, a Jordanian man came up to us and introduced himself. He told us that his family had lived in the area we were walking since the 17th century. With tears in his eyes, he pointed to the homes and showed us where he was born and where his grandparents had lived. He told us that he still has a picture of his grandmother beating a rug in front of the place we were standing. Like all of the families living there, his family was evacuated when he was just a kid. It was fascinating to hear his story, but especially the emotion with which he told it. He said that he comes to the site three or four times each year, and it was clear that the visits remain difficult for him. It was almost as if he sought us out, desperate to share that part of himself with someone. Walking away, he was holding his wife’s hand, needing the support.
Without talking to this guy, the sight would have been just another ruin, but it became a story. It reminded me of two things: one, the deep, soulful bond people here have to their land. It’s true with Palestinians wanting to return, and it was true with him. Second, the history in this region runs so deep. On any given piece of land, the number of civilizations, let alone generations, is countless. Certainly at the site of Umm Qais, people lived long before the Romans. In more concrete terms, we stood on ruins of Romans and Ottomans, on former homes where people were born a mere 30 years ago, while in the background stood places of current magnitude like the Golan Heights. Wow!

After this encounter, I wondered through some of the ruins to find a better view of the sunset and before long, I was far from Umm Qais proper. Suddenly, about 50 feet from me, I heard bells, shouting, and stomping. I looked (I was wearing my glasses, believe it or not, so I could actually see!) and saw a guy riding a horse, and a bunch of sheep. It was a shepherd grazing his sheep on the hill. This is one of the beauties of living here...I feel like in the States, it would be really awkward to interrupt someone doing their work to just chat. But I strolled right up and chatted up with this shepherd for probably half an hour. He was ludicrously happy to talk, and seemed to especially enjoy my line of questioning about the animals and the Bedouin lifestyle. I ended up meeting his father too, who was just up the path. This dude was straight out of a cartoon! First of all, he looked like a dwarf! He was certainly short enough to be one, and he wore this red kifaaya, which made his virtually toothless smile look even bigger. He had the heartiest laugh, and he laughed at everything. In addition, every couple of minutes, he would let out a strange, highly comical cry towards the sheep. I could barely hold in the laughter! I just loved talking to these guys, as it’s such a rare glimpse into a truly different kind of person from what I am accustomed. It turns out that the family is originally from Tiberias, the Israeli city less than a few miles away, on the other side of the lake. They wanted me to come to there place for dinner, but Will (that ass!) was talking to some Iraqi archeologists, so I had to refuse.

Speaking of Iraqi archeologists, (and this is the final of the three random and fabulous encounters of the evening), just as I was feeling giddy about the previous interactions, I caught up with Will, who had invited some folks to have dinner with us. They were Iraqis, recipients of a grant from Japan to work with some Japanese archeologists on a dig at Umm Qais. These are trained, competent folks, but because of Saddam Hussein, there was was little emphasis on archeology in Iraq. Of course, Iraq is quite rich in ancient sites, especially with the Babylonians, and the hope is that if things ever get settled, archeological work will flourish. Iraqis need experience now. Anyways, we sat and chatted at dinner with two of these Iraqi men- Ahmad, who was about 40, and Abather, probably 30. We discussed a wide range of topics, from their archeological experiences, to our Arabic, to the war in Iraq and its aftermath. They were both very frank in their initial happiness at the US intention to dispose Saddam, but also in their disappointment at the aftermath. They said, “I am happy [at the US ousting Saddam], but I want [basic necessities, like electricity].” It was very interesting to get their opinions, which they frequently said are “just ours” as Iraqis and not Arabs in general. (In addition, they were Shi’as.) It was another one of those conversations where I felt such a mixture of emotions, ones that are difficult to describe. For me, probably the strongest were sadness and humility. These men were unbelievably gentle and kind, interested in what Will and I had to say and unwilling to impose their views. They only wanted the best for themselves and their families, but their situation living in Baghdad, both during Saddam and now, was and is one of hardship we truly cannot fathom. One of the men wanted so desperately to come to the United States, and I could see his embarrassment when asking about possibilities like the Fulbright Grant. Gosh, it breaks my heart. Where’s justice in this world? Why have I been provided with everything I could possibly need when others can't even live in peace? Yet, they maintained such kindness and optimism. I could tell that they weren’t excited to return to Iraq, but Ahmad told me, “If you come to Iraq, you are like my family.” Those are such humbling conversations when you realize that your accomplishments are entirely insignificant, that they rest primarily on birth and fortune; but at the same time, you are struck that as members of the same human community and as children of God, our significance, each of us, is truly indescribable!


Blogger Scotter said...

Sure, you wear your glasses walking around Umm Qais, but not when I'm in the car your driving! Just goes to show your safer over there than in America. Sadaam certainly knew what to do with ruins. Didn't he build a Babylon Theme Park? Where would you rather spend your time, looking at the "real" history of Babylon or enjoying historically themed rides? Imagine the Hanging Gardens of Babylon the roller coaster. On a more serious note, I appreciate your description and your reflection.

3:48 PM


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