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Amman again | Getting out of Israel

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Wednesday 28 March 2012
Amman again
from O Little Town of Bethlehem


I’m always rather relieved to get out of Israel. My departure via the King Hussein Bridge border control was uneventful, though you never can tell how it’s going to go. So there’s an underlying tension as you approach the time of leaving the country. This tension suddenly evaporates as soon as you’re on that bus over no-man’s-land away from Israel and on your way to the Jordanian border control. But at least, when I pass through the Israeli border control I get a read-out showing whether or not I am registered on their computer as a risky person – thus far, it’s okay.

Looking over Jericho and the Jordan Valley toward JordanThe 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 a military security zone where photography is 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.

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. There’s a lot of new development, with lots of concrete everywhere. The modern building style here is fortress-like, with blocks of apartment buildings stacked up in defensible positions – impressive to some but, to me, a social nightmare in the making and the symbol of an embattled society. Jerusalem is a strident city, very polarised. I don’t really 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.

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 a rather extortionate departure tax of £35 (a ‘passenger fee’), 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 Jordanian 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.

Eventually the bus leaves, heading through a final Israeli checkpoint, then over the rather disappointing Allenby Bridge, which crosses the nowadays almost dried-out Jordan River. So much water is extracted from it upstream 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. Water extraction from the Jordan River 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 create 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 to justify Israel’s obsession with security, emergency rule and military preparedness.

Then we come to two Jordanian checkpoints, followed by the Jordanian terminal further on. They take your passport at the first checkpoint and miraculously it is returned to you at the terminal, after a confusing time seeking out your luggage and then thronging to collect 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.

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, gradually climbing 1,300m or 3,200ft up toward Amman, passing belching, struggling trucks and weaving along the side of the scarp until the road reaches the top, levelling out and approaching the city. Here in Jordan there are no watchtowers, separation walls, checkpoints or controls, no surveillance balloons or cameras – it’s always a little strange, emerging into a freer country after  being in Israel. I keep looking around, expecting a wall or watchtower, and they just aren’t there.

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.

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

Amman in JordanThe 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 feeling of dread around, though everyone is busy getting on with their lives too, trying to make normality prevail.

I don’t want to abandon them. But in another sense I am relieved. I’m looking forward to going back home. I left Britain with mixed feelings about my homeland, wondering where it is going and what part I play in it. I return feeling a little better, though still mixed, and glad that I live in Cornwall, almost another country, not in Middle Britain. I look forward to stomping the cliffs, meeting old friends, perhaps even to a change of fortunes.

One of my tasks is to get my book Pictures of Palestine 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, not a rant, defusing stereotypes and portraying real life, a bit like a travel book. So I’m self-publishing it.

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

Whither life leads next, I do not know. My roots in Britain aren’t strong any more. I’m feeling more like an expat – and in Cornwall there are quite a few returned expats, who need to be in Britain but don’t really want to. I’m becoming an internationalised Brit who loves the endearing, picturesque, friendly and human aspect of Britain and who dislikes the spiritually deadening materialism, conformism and insularity of the place. People often ask me whether it’s dangerous or risky doing what I do in Palestine, 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.

Please permit me to thank you, all my readers, for following this story. While writing the blog during my stay I have appreciated your company, thoughts and comments, and have enjoyed sharing this story with you. Leaving God’s holy land and returning to the largely secular, business-dominated 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 Spirit bless you and keep you,
and cause its light to shine within you
and guide your way home.

Ma’assalam – go in peace.


© Text and pictures copyright Palden Jenkins 2011. This is an extract from the book Pictures of Palestine by Palden Jenkins. You may print it out in single copies for your own non-commercial use or forward it by e-mail as long as the piece is unaltered and properly attributed to the author. The book's website is at www.palden.co.uk/pop

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