Archive for the ‘Jordan’ Category

Reflections on Jordan

Monday, January 26th, 2009

We spent 17 days in Jordan: 3 nights in Amman, 8 nights in Aqaba, 3 nights in Wadi Mousa, and 3 nights in Madaba. We left our bikes in Syria, so we cannot comment on riding in Jordan, but we can say that the hills on the Kings Highway are steep and there are significant distances between services, so be prepared.

The entire time we were in Jordan, Israel was bombing the Gaza strip. That definitely influenced our impressions of Jordan and the entire region. More than 50% of Jordanian citizens are Palestinian refugees. Every store that had a TV was showing the constant news reports showing blood soaked children. This led strong feelings of empathy for the people of Gaza, which could not help but wear off on us.

We met Egyptian hotel owners who were very friendly and provided great hospitality and yummy breakfasts.

We met an Egyptian trained doctor who was more than happy to give Becky more medication than she needed and possibly did more harm to her health than good.

We met Egyptian store owners, restaurant owners, and vendors who were more than happy to charge exorbitant prices and to see just how much money they could extract from tourists.

We met Jordanian Bedouins who were very friendly and welcoming. They were happy to share their culture and provided what felt like genuine hospitality.

We met Jordanian Christian hotel owners who provided hospitality that felt familiar to us.

We met Jordanians of Palestinian descent. One of them made some comments that we still find disturbing. His view seemed to be that no peace was possible while Israel existed, and he made several comments in favour of the Holocaust, including “Hitler did not kill all the Jews, so they would remember why he did what he did.” If this is a common sentiment, (and from what we understand, it is), there’s little hope of peace. Until Palestinians and Israelis can feel empathy for one another, and view each other as neighbours and fellow humans rather than faceless enemies, we don’t hold out much hope for the future.

We experienced a Jordanian state hospital whose staff gave the appearance of cleanliness but the bed sheets did not. We were later told that the private hospitals are much better.

We laughed at the story of a Jordanian tourist association who printed 50,000 copies of a brochure on desert tours in Arabic while only printing 20,000 copies in English. Do they really think that Arabs would come to Jordan to see the desert?

We enjoyed the stark and yet varying landscape of the Western Jordanian deserts. We spend many hours soaking in the sun and enjoying being alone in the desert.

We spent two days taking in the atmosphere and the awe inspiring vista of Petra. We rode camels and donkeys along the streets and pathways of Petra. Becky was given a gift of a necklace by a Bedouin girl that is one of her great treasures of this journey. Petra is a special place.

We saw the Dead Sea and enjoyed picnicking on one of its many cliffs. For 12 JD each (about $20 CAD) we enjoyed a brief float in the Dead Sea followed by a very cold shower!

We saw the rustic site of Jesus’ baptism and the construction of a tacky “baptism resort” on the Israel side of the River Jordan. We came within 5 or 10 meters of Israel, but never crossed over.

We drove through many police checkpoints with young men holding machine guns, smiling, and welcoming us to Jordan.

Overall, we very much enjoyed our time in Jordan although are wary of Jordanian health care, but were also very happy to return to Syria where you don’t feel ripped off every time you go to the market to buy vegetables. The influence of Egypt is strong (a country where poverty and tourism meet – such that tourists are constantly bombarded with scams and overinflated prices), but the friendliness and genuine hospitality of the native Jordanian’s provide a balance. It is definitely a country at the crossroads in the Middle East and is influenced by its various neighbours.

A brief Servas visit

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

Ramez and Becky in front of the Roman Theatre in Amman

Ramez and Becky in front of the Roman Theatre in Amman

We had planned a short time in Amman in order to arrange our bus tickets to Damascus. Amman was a farming village until it was declared the capital in 1924. Because it is such a new city, there really is not much to see in Amman. Rather than spend the whole day on the Internet, we decided to contact one of the Servas day hosts for a brief visit.

We met Ramez after he finished work and walked around parts of downtown Amman. Ramez is a public relations specialist at the Spanish institute and speaks Arabic, Spanish, and English and is learning to speak Italian. He is a Jordanian of Palestinian descent and he has a lot of family in the West Bank city of Hebron, as well as a few in Jerusalem. Unfortunately his fiancée had an exam at university, so we weren’t able to meet her.

At one point, we came across a sand artist, and watched as he made a desert scene with camels in a bottle of coloured sand. It was fascinating to watch. The sand is compacted in the end, so the scene isn’t lost by settling sand. The bottle is sealed with a layer of glue.

We shared a wonderful meal of foul (broad beans), hummus, and falafel at a local café that we would never have found on our own. At $4JD ($7CAD) for all three of us, the price was right too. After dinner, we enjoyed some of “the best kenufe in Amman”. It didn’t equal the Kenufe we had in Antakya (which is apparently where Kenufe was invented), but it was yummy.

Our visit was brief, but we enjoyed the opportunity to meet Ramez and get to know him a little.

Sand sculptor at work

Sand sculptor at work

Wandering around Western Jordan

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009

Having the car meant that we could take our time exploring different areas and enjoy the desert like the locals – with a picnic. We enjoyed the Dead Sea and stark desert vistas while soaking up the sun and munching away at our lunch. We have been in Jordan for more than two weeks, and it has not rained a drop. The locals tell us that this is supposed to be the rainy season, and the lack of rain is devastating the area. It definitely is brown.

As we drove around Jordan, we passed through many Jordanian checkpoints with guards carrying machine guns and sometimes armored vehicles. These seem to be permanent fixtures on the various roads in the kingdom. In most cases, the guards said hello and welcome and waved us on our way. Our passports were checked once – we suspect because the guard was bored. Unfortunately, the folks at the checkpoints don’t usually speak much (if any) English, so they would not be particularly helpful if we were in need of directions or the location of the nearest gas station. As a traveller, it is a little unnerving at first, but once you are familiar with the process, it is painless. For assistance, there are also Tourist Police nearby at most places, and all the ones we spoke to speak good English.

An afternoon at the hot springs

With muscles sore from walking around Petra, we decided an afternoon soaking in some hot springs was well worth the 10 JD fee. The Ma’in hot springs are located at the bottom of a steep valley, 150 m below sea level. They have turned what was once a natural series of waterfalls into a not very fancy resort – Our Jordanian hosts recalls the beauty of the natural water falls before the development of the resort. Upon arrival, we were not particularly impressed, but once we entered the pools we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

There were about 25 other people enjoying the two waterfalls. Most of them were Jordanian or other Arab nationals, mostly men. At first, Becky was conscious about whether or not her behavior was appropriate, but eventually she decided that she was going to enjoy the experience and did not let any preconceived ideas about Jordanian norms affect her enjoyment of the experience. With the lack of a local female guide, it has been a challenge to determine what behavior is culturally appropriate versus offensive. Compared to other tourists, Becky has been conservative in her attire, so perhaps that is why we have not run into any of the issues mentioned in guidebooks. We noticed one Arabic-speaking family with the woman in a bikini top and shorts, so didn’t worry too much. Watching another woman bath in full chandor was interesting as well.

In a nook at the back of one of the falls, Scott and a Jordanian man who spoke little English exchanged shoulder massages providing a unique cultural experience. This sort of contact appears to be quite common throughout the Middle East, especially between men, but also women.

The Site of Jesus’ Baptism

We doled out the 7 JD each for the tour of the Site of Jesus’ Baptism. Because the site is so close to the Israel border, the only way to see it is with the guided tour. The actual site is not spectacular, but we really wanted to see the River Jordan and the Israel border, and this was the only way we could manage it. We tried driving to the King Hussein bridge, but you get turned back well before the river or bridge are visible!

The River Jordan used to run about 200 m wide, and now is barely a trickle at 5 m wide. There are many dams to divert water upstream, and this also means the level in the Dead Sea is getting much lower every year. With the lack of rain this year, the entire area was brown and dried up.

Both Israel and Jordan claim that the baptism site of Jesus is on their side of the Jordan River, but from what we can tell, the Jordanian claim has more historical merit. On the Israel (West Bank) side of the border (Jericho) they have built a fancy pavilion and were putting in some tacky palm trees along the shoreline. The Jordanian side feels more authentic and less commercial.

We also visited the Greek Orthodox “Church of the Map” in Madaba, which has an early Christian mosaic map on the floor, showing significant locations in early Middle East Christianity, including the location of the church discovered at the baptism site – quite neat.

Floating on the Dead Sea

We checked out the Marriott Dead Sea Resort, just to see what they had to offer. The cost to use their facilities was a ridiculous 30 JD per person. So, we walked around their site, walked down to the sea, and stuck out fingers in for a taste. We were shocked at the sting when our fingers touched our tongues – It is definitely salty (30% salinity). The Marriott looked like any other resort elsewhere in the world, and we both agreed that it would be a very soulless way to see Jordan – we’re much happier to be self-guided travelers.

Almost immediately after floating in the Dead Sea, you need access to a fresh water shower to rinse the salt off. We thought we would try going to one of the public beaches, and just bring some water bottles with us. We drove up to a beach, but were soon accosted by some young Bedouin boys with camels and horses wanting something from us – some money or candy or something. We did not understand them, but their demeanor was not innocent curiosity or friendliness.

So we opted for the ridiculously priced alternative – the Amman Beach. For 12 JD each, we gained access to their beach and cold showers. Actually, we also had access to their cold swimming pools, which would have been nice in the summer but at this time of year they were too cold to swim in. After we left, we noticed there was a second part of Amman Beach that did not have swimming pools – we think this was where it cost 7 JD. It is a little to the south, but still within walking distance.

Entering the Dead Sea is challenging because any rock or pebble near the shore is encrusted with salt. You needed to walk beyond the salt encrusted shore to get to sandy bottom without scratching your foot. Any open sore or scratch would be exceedingly painful. Once we had passed the salt covered rocks, we did not need to go far to get deep enough to lean back and float. We each had to get the typical shot floating in the sea with our hands and feet in the air. Becky did not last long, as the salt water quickly irritated the skin on her thighs. Scott let the salt dry on his skin, which was rather amusing.

The 12 JD for the 10 minutes we were in the sea definitely make the Dead Sea float our most expensive excursion per unit time (over $200 CAD per hour!) – but we would have regretted not doing it.

The Black Iris – a Jordanian Home for travellers

For three nights, we stayed at the Black Iris Hotel in Madaba, which has the best breakfasts we have had in all of the Middle East! (This includes our breakfast at the Sheraton in Aleppo. Although the Sheraton buffet was more extensive, Odeh’s breakfast was much tastier) Also, all of his rooms are non-smoking – unheard-of since we left North America. Highly recommended!

Our host Odeh has been very welcoming and friendly. He has studied Hotel and Restaurant Management and culinary arts in Switzerland and as a result, the hospitality he provides feels more like what we would expect at home. We made a bargain with him, a wonderful home-cooked Jordanian dinner in exchange for some computer assistance. We think we got the better half of the deal by far, especially since we now have recipes we can try at home!

Odeh’s family owns the Black Iris, and are Jordanian Christians – Bedouin descent. We wonder if the familiarity of Christianity makes it easier for us to feel welcome. We do feel warm welcomes at all the Muslim run hotels we have stayed at, but Becky definitely feels an underlying pressure of “am I dressed right” or “is my behavior appropriate” that she just didn’t feel here. It may also be the presence of all the women at the hotel – Odeh’s mother and sister are often in the lobby and the cleaning staff are female. This is a definite contrast to all the other places we have stayed in Jordan, where all the staff are male, and mostly imported workers, either from Egypt or Bangladesh.

Lots of photos below…

Wonderful Petra

Sunday, January 11th, 2009

Our first impression upon entering Petra was “wow, look at all the tourists”. We have been lucky so far, that most of our visits to tourist places have been empty. With the nice weather in Jordan at this time of year, we guess it is not really that surprising to see so many tourists – we’ve just been spoilt. Our second day at Petra had the opposite effect – there were very few tourists, and the entire site was much quieter. We guess the Jordanian weekend made a difference.

Walking through the first passageways of the Siq made Becky feel like she was in the middle of one of the Disney mountain theme rides. We definitely know where Disney’s creators got their inspiration. We suspect that it is the smooth paved floor that led to this feeling, as the areas with ancient cobble stones don’t feel quite so supernatural. We were especially amused by the horse cart driver talking on his cell phone!

First view of the Treasury

First view of the Treasury

The first view of the Treasury, made famous by Indiana Jones, took our breath away. After the organic curves of the Siq, the massive façade of the Treasury was a huge contrast, especially since it was illuminated by the morning sun.

The natural rock formations have a breathtaking beauty that cannot be compared to any other place we have been. Petra is called “The Rose City” because the rocks are mostly various shades of red, but it is the greens, yellows and other dark colours that contrast with the red to give the formations wonderful texture and definition.

As we walked down the Street of Facades, Scott wandered away to take some pictures. Becky paused by a large display of necklaces to admire the work of the Bedouin girls. After declining to purchase anything, the girls asked if Becky would like to sit and join them for some Bedouin tea – free no charge. After hesitating, Becky decided that this was one of those opportunities that should not be missed. She walked behind the table and joined the girls for some conversation and a cup of very sweet mint tea, exactly what the doctor ordered at that point in time!

While enjoying the tea, Becky talked to the girls about school. They live in a cave in one of the valleys behind the Petra tourist site. The older two were 15 and 22 and both in high school. School is out for a month on the yearly holiday break, so the girls spend their days at Petra selling jewelry that their mother makes at home.

Scott came to join us for tea, and one of the younger girls asked if Scott would marry his sister. The older girls chastised her for it, but we just laughed. Becky said that he was already married it her. It did not even occur to her that to a Jordanian that did not mean anything, as a man is allowed to have up to five wives! Fortunately, Scott pointed out that the rules in Canada were different. It was an interesting cultural exchange.

Before we left, the oldest girl gave Becky a camel bone necklace – a gift. She took no money. It was an honest expression of hospitality – and a highlight of Becky’s day at Petra and likely one of those memories to last a lifetime.

We climbed up to the tombs near the bottom of the Street of Facades, and found a nice place to sit and enjoy lunch while soaking in the heat of the sun and the surrounding views. It was peaceful in a different way than Little Petra, as there were people milling about below, tourists and Bedouin all experiencing different aspects of Petra.

Transportation within Petra has been divided into sections, with different means of transportation for the different sections. Camels only go from the Treasury to the town center, carts go from the Treasury to the dam, horses go from the dam to the main gate. Donkeys go almost everywhere, including up the 850 steps to the monastery. The various means of transportation are managed by the Bedouin men. The younger boys guide the donkeys with the older men managing the camels, horses, and carriages. Over our two days, we took the opportunity to add two modes of transport to the collection for our journey: camels and donkeys.

Our journey to the town center on the first day was a slow three-hour amble downhill involving various side trips to inspect nooks and crannies, so the walk back up would take at least an hour. To reduce the amount of walking, we hired a camel. A camel ride was one of the things that Becky wanted to do while in Jordan, and this was the best opportunity. We negotiated a price (not too bad, 15 JD for the two of us) for a camel ride up to the Treasury. Riding a camel is amusing, with a gentle but deep rocking motion back and forth; however, it is not exactly restful. By the time we reached the Treasury, our legs were jelly and we were ready to walk the remainder of the way to the gate.

The Monastery (yes, that's Becky in front)

The Monastery (yes, that

Rather than climbing the 850 stairs to the Monastery on the second afternoon, we decided that a donkey was a more efficient approach. We negotiated what we think is good price with a 10-year old Bedouin boy (6 JD for the two of us). He hopped off the donkey and had Becky hop on, while Scott hopped onto the second donkey. Becky was surprised at how smooth it was to ride the donkey, when it wasn’t galloping or climbing stairs. The stair climb itself was impressive, and the donkeys performed amazingly well. We did find that at times we were hanging on for dear life! It did not take us long to decide that the way down would be much better approached on foot. The climb up took just under 30 minutes by donkey, and likely would have taken 90 minutes or so on foot at Becky’s current speed (slow) – so it was a 6 JD well spent. It is also impressive to note that the 10-year old boy walked and ran up the stairs pushing the donkeys along and a pretty impressive clip. There is no worry that he doesn’t get enough exercise in his day.

The walk down from the Monastery took us 45 minutes – at our usual slow amble. We were entertained by a couple who had hired donkeys for the trip down. We could tell by their shouts that it was a rather harrowing experience – at one point in time the man actually fell off the donkey after a stirrup broke. Fortunately, he was unhurt. The poor animals looked rather tiny in comparison to their charges. We think we made a better choice of donkey (bigger donkeys) for our trip up; however, the couple did successfully make it down from the monastery and all the way back to the Treasury on their beasts of burden.

The highlights of Petra are both the carved facades and the high places. Sometimes, like at the Monastery, both are combined in a single location – extra spectacular. Our guidebook says that it is possible to climb to the top of the Monastery, and stand beside the 10m high urn (or climb on it). Scott was sorely tempted, but in the end he obeyed the “No Climbing” sign and stayed on the ground. He did take the opportunity to abandon Becky for a morning and climb to the High Place of Sacrifice though. There are many High Places throughout the hills of Petra. They were used for religious rituals of various kinds, and all have spectacular views. The High Place of Sacrifice is the most accessible, with the original Nabatean staircase repaired and upgraded, making the 110m climb much easier. The entire top of the hill has been leveled, and two giant obelisks sculpted out of the rock – a huge amount of work. The obelisks were not carved and set in place – they are actually attached to the rest of the hill! The High Place of Sacrifice also provides spectacular views over the centre of Petra, with a great view of the Street of Facades as well as the City Centre. Since he was at the High Place with no other people around (which is apparently very rare) Scott took advantage of the nice flat rock, warm sun and beautiful views to meditate and do yoga.

We had high expectations for Petra, and it greatly exceeded them. The hills, rocks and colours were beautiful, with something new to look at around every corner and then there was the carving. The facades and caves were awe-inspiring, and changed every hour with the shifting light. For Becky, the most special part was the Bedouin people. We enjoyed friendly chats with everyone we talked to, from the smallest children selling postcards, sitting with their families or guiding us to the right trail, to the women with handicrafts and the men on their animals.

More pictures below …


Starhawk’s comments on Gaza

Saturday, January 10th, 2009

We spent the today at Petra, but we’ll tell you about the fabulous monuments tomorrow, after our second day here. Today, we’d like to look again at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which continues to occupy our thoughts as we travel through Jordan.

A friend of ours forwarded this letter to us, and it has helped us understand a possible reason for the Israeli perspective on these attacks. We’ve been trying to understand how Israelis could have a 91% approval rating for the attacks, given their free press and the horrific civilian casualties we’re seeing in the news. We have been reading (a left-leaning Israeli newspaper) occasionally, and it seems to have reasonably balanced coverage.

We have always been taught that the power of stories to shape national consciousness is strong, and this may be one more example.

Dear friends,

All day I’ve been thinking about Gaza, listening to reports on NPR, following the news on the internet when I can spare a moment. I’ve been thinking about the friends I made there four years ago, and wondering how they are faring, and imagining their terror as the bombs fall on that giant, open-air prison.

The Israeli ambassador speaks movingly of the terror felt by Israeli children as Hamas rockets explode in the night. I agree with him—that no child should have her sleep menaced by rocket fire, or wake in the night fearing death.

But I can’t help but remember one night on the Rafah border, sleeping in a house close to the line, watching the children dive for cover as bullets thudded into the walls. There was a shell-hole in the back room they liked to jump through into the garden, which at that time still held fruit trees and chickens. Their mother fed me eggs, and their grandmother stuffed oranges into my pockets with the shy pride every gardener shares.

That house is gone, now, along with all of its neighbors. Those children wake in the night, every night of their lives, in terror. I don’t know if they have survived the hunger, the lack of medical supplies, the bombs. I only know that they are children, too.

I’ve ridden on busses in Israel. I understand that gnawing fear, the squirrely feeling in the pit or your stomach, how you eye your fellow passengers wondering if any of them are too thick around the middle. Could that portly fellow be wearing a suicide belt, or just too many late night snacks of hummus? That’s no way to live.

But I’ve also walked the pock-marked streets of Rafah, where every house bears the scars of Israeli snipers, where tanks prowled the border every night, where children played in the rubble, sometimes under fire, and this was all four years ago, when things were much, much better there.

And I just don’t get it. I mean, I get why suicide bombs and homemade rockets that kill innocent civilians are wrong. I just don’t get why bombs from F16s that kill far more innocent civilians are right. Why a kid from the ghetto who shoots a cop is a criminal, but a pilot who bombs a police station from the air is a hero.

Is it a distance thing? Does the air or the altitude confer a purifying effect? Or is it a matter of scale? Individual murder is vile, but mass murder, carried out by a state as an aspect of national policy, that’s a fine and noble thing?

I don’t get how my own people can be doing this. Or rather, I do get it. I am a Jew, by birth and upbringing, born six years after the Holocaust ended, raised on the myth and hope of Israel. The myth goes like this:

“For two thousand years we wandered in exile, homeless and persecuted, nearly destroyed utterly by the Nazis. But out of that suffering was born one good thing—the homeland that we have come back to, our own land at last, where we can be safe, and proud, and strong.”

That’s a powerful story, a moving story. There’s only one problem with it—it leaves the Palestinians out. It has to leave them out, for if we were to admit that the homeland belonged to another people, well, that spoils the story.

The result is a kind of psychic blind spot where the Palestinians are concerned. If you are truly invested in Israel as the Jewish homeland, the Jewish state, then you can’t let the Palestinians be real to you. It’s like you can’t really focus on them. Golda Meir said, “The Palestinians, who are they? They don’t exist.” We hear, “There is no partner for peace,” “There is no one to talk to.”

And so Israel, a modern state with high standards of hygiene, a state rooted in a religion that requires washing your hands before you eat and regular, ritual baths, builds settlements that don’t bother to construct sewage treatment plants. They just dump raw sewage onto the Palestinian fields across the fence, somewhat like a spaceship ejecting its wastes into the void. I am truly not making this up—I’ve seen it, smelled it, and it’s a known though shameful fact. But if the Palestinians aren’t really real—who are they? They don’t exist!—then the land they inhabit becomes a kind of void in the psyche, and it isn’t really real, either. At times, in those border villages, walking the fencelines of settlements, you feel like you have slipped into a science fiction movie, where parallel universes exist in the same space, but in different strands of reality, that never touch.

When I was on the West Bank, during Israeli incursions the Israeli military would often take over a Palestinian house to billet their soldiers. Many times, they would simply lock the family who owned it into one room, and keep them there, sometimes for hours, sometimes for days—parents, grandparents, kids and all. I’ve sat with a family, singing to the children while soldiers trashed their house, and I’ve been detained by a group of soldiers playing cards in the kitchen with a family locked in the other room. (I got out of that one—but that’s another story.)

It’s a kind of uneasy feeling, having something locked away in a room in your house that you can’t look at. Ever caught a mouse in a glue trap? And you can’t bear to watch it suffer, so you leave the room and close the door and don’t come back until it’s really, really dead.

Like a horrific fractal, the locked room repeats on different scales. The Israelis have built a wall to lock away the West Bank. And Gaza itself is one huge, locked room. Close the borders, keep food and medical supplies and necessities from getting through, and perhaps they will just quietly fade out of existence and stop spoiling our story.

“All we want is a return to calm,” the Israeli ambassador says. “All we want is peace.”

One way to get peace is to exterminate what threatens you. In fact, that may be the prime directive of the last few thousand years.

But attempts to exterminate pests breed resistance, whether you’re dealing with insects or bacteria or people. The more insecticides you pour on a field, the more pests you have to deal with—because insecticides are always more potent at killing the beneficial bugs than the pesky ones.

The harshness, the crackdowns, the border closings, the checkpoints, the assassinations, the incursions, the building of settlements deep into Palestinian territory, all the daily frustrations and humiliations of occupation, have been breeding the conditions for Hamas, or something like it, to thrive. If Israel truly wants peace, there’s a more subtle, a more intelligent and more effective strategy to pursue than simply trying to kill the enemy and anyone else who happens to be in the vicinity.

It’s this—instead of killing what threatens you, feed what you want to grow. Consider in what conditions peace can thrive, and create them, just as you would prepare the bed for the crops you want to plant. Find those among your opponents who also want peace, and support them. Make alliances. Offer your enemies incentives to change, and reward your friends.

Of course, to follow such a strategy, you must actually see and know your enemy. If they are nothing to you but cartoon characters of terrorists, you will not be able to tell one from another, to discern the religious fanatic from the guy muttering under his breath, “F-ing Hammas, they closed the cinema again!”

And you must be willing to give something up. No one gets peace if your basic bargaining position is, “I get everything I want, and you eat my shit.” You might get a temporary victory, but it will never be a peaceful one.

To know and see the enemy, you must let them into the story. They must become real to you, nuanced, distinctive as individuals.

But when we let the Palestinians into the story, it changes. Oh, how painfully it changes! For there is no way to tell a new story, one that includes both peoples of the land, without starting like this:

“In our yearning for a homeland, in our attempts as a threatened and traumatized people to find safety and power, we have done a great wrong to another people, and now we must atone.”

Just try saying it. If you, like me, were raised on that other story, just try this one out. Say it three times. It hurts, yes, but it might also bring a great, liberating sense of relief with it.

And if you’re not Jewish, if you’re American, if you’re white, if you’re German, if you’re a thousand other things, really, if you’re a human being, there’s probably some version of that story that is true for you.

Out of our own great need and fear and pain, we have often done great harm, and we are called to atone. To atone is to be at one—to stop drawing a circle that includes our tribe and excludes the other, and start drawing a larger circle that takes everyone in.

How do we atone? Open your eyes. Look into the face of the enemy, and see a human being, flawed, distinct, unique and precious. Stop killing. Start talking. Compost the shit and the rot and feed the olive trees.

Act. Cross the line. There are Israelis who do it all the time, joining with Palestinians on the West Bank to protest the wall, watching at checkpoints, refusing to serve in the occupying army, standing for peace. Thousands have demonstrated this week in Tel Aviv.

There are Palestinians who advocate nonviolent resistance, who have organized their villages to protest the wall, who face tear gas, beatings, arrests, rubber bullets and real bullets to make their stand.

There are internationals who have put themselves on the line—like the boatload of human rights activists, journalists and doctors on board the Dignity, the ship from the Free Gaza movement that was rammed and fired on by the Israeli navy yesterday as it attempted to reach Gaza with humanitarian aid.

Maybe we can’t all do that. But we can all write a letter, make a phone call, send an email. We can make the Palestinian people visible to us, and to the world. When we do so, we make a world that is safer for every child.

Please feel free to repost this. In fact, send it to someone you think will disagree with it.

Starhawk is a U.S. journalist and peace activist. For more, see

Thinking further about this, this national founding mythos may also help to explain Canadian treatment of our native population over the centuries. We like to think we’re doing better now, with progress on land claims and the apology for residential schools, but conditions on many Canadian reserves continue to be horrific, so there’s more work to do.

Little Petra, a castle and stark vistas everywhere

Friday, January 9th, 2009

Today we decided to take advantage of the rental car and check out some of the less touristed (and free) sites in the area. Our first stop was Siq al-Berid (a.k.a. Little Petra) – a short 350 m long valley with some beautiful facades and cave dwellings.

Upon arrival, a Bedouin guide at the entrance mentioned that the police might not permit us to enter, as in the night last night someone had snuck in and dug a large hole looking for gold. He offered to take us in another way. Since we were not interested in a guided walk, we decided to take our chances. There were four or five men with a pickup and tools, but no-one who looked like a police officer. We walked past them and around the hole with no-one stopping us and entered the Siq. It was like stepping through into a different world – a narrow valley with caves and carved facades everywhere, and not another soul. We were absolutely alone – and remained that way for almost two hours.

We explored the various nooks and crannies, surprisingly many for a valley so short. Scott climbed every staircase he could, while Becky remained on solid ground. At the end of the valley, there was a staircase up and out. We climbed it and entered a valley behind the Siq. There were footprints and pathways, but again, not a person in site. We walked for 15 minutes and then found a quiet place to sit and meditate for a while. While we were sitting, we could hear a Muezzin sing the call to prayer and some Arabic singing off in the distance. It was completely peaceful.

On returning to our car, we saw a couple of other tourists and a person selling tea – the only people we saw until we got back to the car. We were very glad for the peace and quiet, since we expect Petra to be quite crowded with tourists.

After seeing Little Petra, we headed up to Al Shawbek. Our guidebook mentioned that it was a small agricultural town with better produce and better prices than Wadi Moussa, but Scott mostly wanted to see castle, built by the Crusaders starting in 1115. We stopped to look at produce and get some groceries – which we found to be just as expensive as Wadi Moussa (where we pay a huge tourist price for basic groceries). The produce was quite mediocre, not nearly as good as in Aleppo, or even Aqaba. Oh well.

The castle at Al Shawbek is spectacular. It covers an entire hill, with stunning views of the stark landscape. This time of year, all the land is brown – making it difficult to imagine what it would look like during the growing season. It was the first castle built by the Crusaders in Transjordan and was rebuilt by the Mamlukes and Ottomans at various times. The castle is an interesting mix of ruins and reconstruction. We really enjoyed the feel of the castle and imagined what it was like living there – with the various alleyways and rooms. We found a staircase that apparently leads to an escape route at the base of the hill, but had left our headlamps behind, so we could not get beyond a couple of flights before it was complete darkness. Becky ranks this castle as one of the best on our journey – and the added bonus was that there was no fee to see it!

Scott continues to be fascinated by the Tourist Police. They are always very friendly and welcoming, and we see them almost everywhere we go. Today at Al Shawbek castle we were greeted by Ali and his sidekick, who wanted to ensure we were having a good time in Jordan, and that we had a good visit to the castle. We’ve seen a separate group of police for tourists in other places, but never as prevalent as here in Jordan.

After Al Shawbek, we drove up to the small town of Dana at the top of the Dana Nature Reserve. The town is perched on the cliffs looking down into a valley that leads to the desert floor of the Rift Valley along the Israel/Jordan border. The views in the morning must be just spectacular. Again, at this time of year everything is stark – brown and dark green with very few signs of life. The Dana Guesthouse is a beautiful place to stay, with interesting architecture and balconies in each room with views of the sunrise and sunset. Surprisingly, there were no guests – we had been told the nine rooms are full almost year-round. Unfortunately, at 60JD per night it is well out of our price range. It is one of the most advanced places in Jordan for ecological awareness, and even has recycling! The hiking within the reserve is supposed to be fantastic, but would likely be better in spring when everything is greener.

Aqaba Reflections

Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

It is difficult to believe that we have been in Aqaba for a full week. Even so, we both feel that we barely got a chance to see Aqaba. Most of our time was spent taking care of basic life needs like eating and resting. We did spend a fair bit of time on the Internet trying to develop a more comprehensive picture of the situation in Israel and Gaza.

Sunset over Aqaba

Sunset over Aqaba

Aqaba is a modern tourist town. It feels much more “Western” than any place we have been since we left the United States. It is filled with western fast food outlets – MacDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, KFC, Quiznos. It also has a bunch of Jordanian fast food outlets serving kabobs, falafel, and freeze squeezed juices. We tried out the Quiznos (one of our favourite sandwich places back home) but were not impressed. The bread is not the same, and “beef bacon” and “turkey ham” just don’t cut it! We can sadly attest that MacDonald’s hamburgers are the same here as anywhere else we have tried them.

There were several Internet cafes in Aqaba, but we found the best Internet to be the free wireless access provided by MacDonalds. As a result, we spent two or more hours each day camped out in the MacDonalds gathering news reports and following world events. (No, this did not mean we ate meals at McDonalds every day, but the JD .29 ($.50 CAD) ice cream cone was very tempting)

Movenpick Resort (just a bit out of our price range)

Movenpick Resort (just a bit out of our price range)

The prices in Aqaba (and Jordan in general) seem to be similar to what we would pay in Canada. Accommodation is slightly less expensive because there are a lot of options for low to mid-range hotels. Most of the low to mid-range hotels are run by entrepreneurial Egyptians. The hotel we stayed at in Aqaba was Egyptian owned and the breakfast bar / coffee shop was owned by a Bengali family. The businesses were run only by the men of the family – including the housekeeping services within the hotel. They were very friendly and helpful, always willing to provide a cup of hot water when we requested it.

The window to our very spacious hotel room (there is enough room beside the Queen size bed for us to store bikes and setup up our tent if we had them), opens onto a back street. There are several garbage bins where the occasional person and many feral cats spend the day picking through the stuff. Aqaba is a very clean city, with people in electric green uniforms spend their days picking up any trash that makes its way onto the sidewalks or streets, although they don’t pick it up if it is in gardens or shubs! As night approaches, the feral cats get into a fight over some choice bits of scrap in the garbage bin – the growling and screams can get intense at times. Then sometime between 10 pm and 2 am the garbage trucks come and collect the days trash, from which point it is silent until morning and the bins start to refill.

Continuous pollution measurement - looks good!

Continuous pollution measurement - looks good!

Walking around the streets in Aqaba took a little bit of re-acclimatizing. We were both immediately shocked when the cars actually stopped at the cross walk. In Aleppo, at first it felt like we took our life into our hands every time we wanted to cross the street – it was a game you played with the various cars and trucks on the road – how close can the car come without hitting the pedestrian (or can I make the pedestrian jump!). That said, we never saw a collision and felt quite safe in Aleppo after we got accustomed to it. Aqaba was very civilized from a traffic perspective, which gives us much more confidence with renting a car and driving here.

A quick update

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

We have been totally negligent on updating the blog these last few days. We are still in Aqaba, Jordan, and it has been a long week. We are just now starting to make plans to see some of the highlights of Jordan before returning to Syria. Our time has been occupied with doctor visits, a hospital visit, and following the events in Gaza.

A short summary of Becky’s health crisis:
• Becky develops a fever and sinus infection, which after 2 days doesn’t improve on its own.
• Becky sees a doctor, who gives her many medications and insists she needs injections. This after not taking any sort of patient history, and doing a perfunctory examination. The examination consisted of “say aaahhh”, feeling her sinuses and listening to her chest. No questions about medical history, allergies, chronic conditions, current medications or anything!
• At the second visit, Becky is improving, but the doctor gives her two injections rather than just the one.
• At the third visit, Becky is much improved, but the doctor changes the injection to a different medicine.
• Becky has an allergic reaction to the medicine causing shortness of breath (asthma attacks that don’t immediately improve).
• At the forth visit, the doctor dismisses the shortness of breath and wants to give her a second injection of that same medicine that caused the reaction – Becky refuses the treatment and we pay the doctor and decide never to return to his office.
• Becky goes to the emergency room at the hospital to get here breathing under control. The doctor there seems much more competent, explaining that an allergic reaction is reasonable and giving some new medication to get her asthma under control.
• Becky is finally on the mend (we hope).

So far, we are under-impressed with the medical treatment in Jordan. Although Jordan is in general much more modern than Syria, its medical system seems to be 20 years behind the treatment we received in Syria. The Christian hospital we went to in Aleppo was very clean, well staffed and professional. The only surprise in Syria was that they allowed smoking in the hallways.

Entering the grounds of the hospital in Jordan required going through a military security checkpoint. The guard asked if we had a camera and said we would have to leave it at the security desk. Becky explained and showed him the picture of the medication she needed to show the doctor, so the soldier said it was OK as long as we did not take any pictures. We followed the signs for emergency and saw a sign for reception that had no one at it. It seemed rather chaotic and disorganized to us, but that might be attributed to our lack of Arabic. After being polite Canadians and waiting for 5 minutes, Becky insisted that Scott start being more assertive and figure out what we needed to do. This led us to the actual emergency room and then to accounting to pay and get paperwork before we could see the doctor.

The hospital itself was an interesting mix of military personnel and civilian staff. The nurses uniforms included full Muslim headscarves (in white), which in combination with formal military uniforms gave an impression of cleanliness and sterility; however, the bed linens were clearly not changed between patients. Becky sat on the bed but would not even consider lying down, as there were a number of small drips of random blood on the bed sheet. There was no use of disposable paper bed linings although one of the beds did have a plastic sheet over it (which was filthy). On a positive note, there was no smoking permitted inside the part of the hospital that we saw.

We are now planning on renting a car in Aqaba for 4-5 days, so that we can see Wadi Rum, Petra, the Dead Sea and the various other sites between here and Amman while stopping where we want to. We will return the car in Amman – fortunately, many companies allow you to do one way rentals for free or a very low fee. We have discovered that Internet quotes for rental cars are outrageous, but when you walk in and get a quote they are more reasonable ($40-60 USD per day).

We hope to post some more reflections on Aqaba soon!

Welcome to Jordan

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008

Yesterday, we spent most of the day on the bus from Aleppo to Amman. The trip took over 10 hours. Until we reached Damascus (about 8 hours) the bus stopped about every 45 minutes and the driver did something with a bottle of water. Becky guesses that there was an issue with coolant, since she saw him take a bottle of something to the back of the bus each time. The bus also had poor shocks, such that we bounced several times with every bump in the road. Scott thought the road was actually pretty good, but we certainly noticed every bump more, especially the speed humps which are quite common in Syria, even on highways.

Crossing the border itself proved to be rather trivial. Leaving Syria cost us 500 Syria Pounds each in exit taxes. Once the tax was paid, the customs official happily stamped our passports. We asked about extending our visas and if we could use the visa when we returned (we have multiple entry visas), and the person said yes. We’ll see if this turns out to be the case when we return in a couple of weeks.

Entering Jordan required that we purchase a 10 Jordanian Dinar (about $20 CAD) Visa. The border officials were very friendly and welcomed us to Jordan with smiles. This was much more relaxing than the ultra serious expressions of the Syrian officials. That said, we’re glad we didn’t try to exceed our duty-free allowance – one person was caught with two cartons of cigarettes, and was hauled off the bus, presumably to pay a fine of some sort.

At first glance Jordan seems much more “modern” than Syria. The buildings are of similar construction (cement and stone) but they look much newer.

Unfortunately, upon arrival in Amman, Scott was afflicted with a nasty gastro-intestinal malady, perhaps the stomach bug that was going around our crowd of cyclists in Aleppo. Not wanting to take the 4 hour bus ride to Aqaba until his stomach was a little more settled, we decided to spend 2 nights in Amman. Becky spent the day wandering about downtown in search of Internet and food while Scott rested.

Becky’s first journey was a trek out to the books@cafe Internet café, restaurant, and English bookstore. It required walking downtown and then up into one of the adjacent hills. Amman is built upon 19 hills. When they say hills, they are not kidding, the hills are all quite steep. Most of the hills are accessed by stair cases, so you do not need to follow the lengthy winding roads when you are afoot. Of course, when the city is projected onto a flat map, the roads do not necessary go the way they appear on the map. After over an hour of wandering, Becky was successful in finding the shop.

She was overjoyed to learn that the restaurant had ginger-ale on the menu. We have not been able to find ginger-ale since we left the US. With our various stomach ailments over the last 6-weeks, we were very much missing it. She enjoyed a ginger-ale and burger while updating emails. Unfortunately, she couldn’t get the web browser to work, so the blog was left for later – it turned out that the browsers had proxies set so they would work in Syria.

After this adventure, Becky returned to see how Scott was doing. He was still flat in bed, and not planning on moving any time soon. Throughout her wanderings she noticed a distinct lack of the little corner stores that sold staples throughout Syria. This was a definite sign that people bought their groceries at a larger store somewhere. She asked at the hotel and was directed to the local C-Town grocery store.

Getting to the grocery store required taking a taxi since it was not close enough to walk. When the taxi drove up one of the large hills, Becky was glad to not be on foot. Amman is not an easy town to walk in. The grocery store turned out to be reasonable and had a few staples that we have been missing (namely oatmeal and ginger-ale). The problems began when she tried to catch a taxi to get back to the hotel. The intersection was rather busy, but it seemed that no matter which side she was on, there were no taxis. There were lots of taxis on the other side, however, changing sides seemed to make no difference.

After about 10 minutes of trying, she finally got in a cab. She showed the taxi the card for the hotel indicating where to go Things did not feel right. Becky noticed that the taxi did not reset his meter. The taxi was going in what felt like the wrong direction. At one point, she was positioning herself to leap out at the next light, as this was not going well. Soon thereafter the taxi stopped someplace and said this was where she was going. Wanting to get out, like the foolish overly polite Canadian she is, she paid the taxi the full amount on the meter and left! She left cursing herself for paying the full fare rather what the fare should have been had the meter been reset. Glad to be away from the taxi, and noticing several 4-star hotels nearby, she sought out an attendant at one of the hotels. Eager to not be ripped off again, she explained to the attendant that she had been ripped off and delivered to the wrong part of town and solicited his assistance in hailing a taxi to take her back to her hotel. The attendant was very helpful and said that she could take a car from the hotel for a flat fee of 5 JD, or take another city taxi with a meter. Knowing that the fare would be less than 1 JD with a regular taxi, she asked that he hail a regular taxi. Soon thereafter she was safely deposited at her hotel for 750 fils (.75 JD or $1.50 CAD). Fortunately, taxis in Amman are very inexpensive, so even the taxi that ripped her off only got about $3 CAD – still it sucks to be taken for a ride!