There’s a rumor going around America that Jordan is just a big sandy desert. Now in the business of clarifying that, there are two slight misconceptions there. First of all, not all of Jordan is a desert, just most of it. And unfortunately for those who were expecting images of sunsets over golden dunes, most of the desert is not sandy.
What is Jordan, geographically speaking? In fact, it’s a rather eclectic mix of environments Most of the people in Jordan, and in fact, most of everything is concentrated in a little North-South strip on the Western edge of the country. In the north of this strip you find the capital, Amman, home to 38% of country’s population and the center of the country’s economic, intellectual, and cultural life. In the far North, Irbid (my city) and the city of Zarqa hold 34% of the people, and serve as hubs for the country’s industry and trade. The South holds desert outpost cities like Ma’an and Tafila and on the Red Sea, the luxurious resort town of Aqaba. Then, to the East, it’s pretty much all desert. (There’s also a valley in the South called Wadi Rum, which is home to massive sand dunes and monoliths and mountains and such. It looks like the stereotypical “Middle Eastern Desert”, and as such it is one of the most popular locations to shoot classic films such as Lawrence of Arabia and Transformers II. I haven’t seen it yet, so it’s not in this post, but I’ll be sure to snap a few shots when I visit it.)
The eastern desert plateau covers 80% of the country and has an arid climate year round, which explains why there’s nothing much on the map there. (Thanks to USAID-Jordan for some of the stats.)
But what are all of these places really look like? How exactly is this country sculpted?
First of all, we have our pretty regular looking climate around Amman and Irbid. Classified as “Mediterranean” or “Semi Arid”, this is characterized by rolling hills, shrubs, and sparse tree cover.
It doesn’t rain much here in the summer, and in the winter, the rainfall is irregular at best, but nonetheless, it’s enough to sustain life.
In the north of the country, the Ajloun mountains add a taste of greenery to the landscape. This area gets a decent amount of rainfall and even snow during the winter, and as a result, it hosts beautiful green forests and cool weather during the summer.
Also, if you’re in the castle building mood, the Ajloun mountains provide a pretty great vantage point for defense against invaders. I’m pretty jealous of the crew that got to hang out here.
At the northernmost part of the country, the Jordan River Valley winds through a rare strip of fertile farmland and hosts much of Jordan’s agriculture. Only 2.8% of Jordan’s land is arable, and most of it is found here.
Umm Qais, an ancient Roman City perched on the northwest corner, provides a beautiful vista of the surrounding landscape and an interesting lesson in politics, as you can see the fertile hills of the Jordan Valley stretch across the northern border and join with the hills in the West Bank of Palestine, Israel, the Golan Heights, and Syria. (Like most borders that I’ve seen in the Middle East, I can’t help wondering what the Brits and the French were thinking of when they penciled this one on the map. I knew before that it wasn’t about the people, and seeing the land, I’m not pretty sure it wasn’t about geography.)
On a side note, the pine groves nearby offer a pretty comfy place for a barbecue and a nap.
Down south of Amman, the land gets increasingly desert-y. But every once in a while, the dry plateau opens up into a huge wadi that collects what little water there is in the water table and funnels it into a stream that ends up in the Dead Sea. These wadis, some of which are dry in the summer and flow only in the winter, serve as valuable sources of water for plant, animal, and human life.
I stepped inside and felt, at once, a little disappointed. The church was undergoing serious construction, so I could not really walk around. I was reading a sign about San Nicolò’s significance when I was startled by a loud snort. The source of the noise appeared to be an older gentleman dressed in a checkered fleece, despite the heat, who was sitting asleep on a wooden bench nearby. Every so often, he would let a strident snore escape as he sat slumbering on his throne. Eventually, he woke up and noticed us. He said a few introductory words about the church in Italian, walked to the door where two other men stood and then sat behind a desk where he clasped his hands into a ball on its surface and began humming peacefully.
I was struck by the serene manner in which this man carried himself. With his calm movements in mind, the church assumed a new atmosphere for me. It became a beautifully walled city of white marble, whose interior was punctured by shafts of bright light. The construction scaffolding, though quite expansive, only carried the weight of one or two workmen, whose silhouettes were foggy in the dusty light and whose panging hammers were like dripping water on stone. The church had transformed from a decrepit monument into a heavenly sanctuary, draped in an atmosphere of sleepy luminosity. And yet, it is this very luminosity that lends such an environment a certain vibrancy, infusing it with an unquenchable vitality. Despite the church’s incompleteness, all of its various elements – the man, the sound of hammering, the shafts of light – form their own harmonious ecosystem and I, a casual tourist, felt close to God in its presence.
On Friday (14th of October) I met up with some friends from Amman at the Ajloun Nature Reserve. Jordan, unlike most Middle Eastern countries from what I’ve heard, has a fairly well-developed national conservation bureau (or government established non-profit, such matters are always more confusing than one would imagine here) called the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature. It’s been taking great pains, with varying levels of success, to try to preserve some of Jordan’s natural heritage since the mid-sixties. There are a number of protected areas/parks throughout Jordan and Ajloun is one of them. Along with protecting some of Jordan’s dwindling forests, it serves as the site for the reintroduction of the once-extinct-in-the-wild roe deer.
The parks in Jordan differ somewhat from American National Parks, especially in the sense that they are expressly set up to help employ the local populace and preserve the local wildlife first and foremost. This means that for most trails you are not allowed to go on them unless you hire a guide from the park and that every park seems to have very nice (if expensive) restaurants and accommodation for visitors. This may seem overkill but when you consider that most of Jordan interacts with the environment by picnicking on the side of the road and leaving a pile of trash behind and that tourism is still a major form of income here, it makes sense. This way, the parks, and the people who share the space with them, stay funded.
However, if you’re the penny-pinching student type like myself, it becomes hard to drop $50 to be guided through some place you’d rather explore on your own. Thankfully in Ajloun there is at least one major trail that can be accessed without a guide. It more or less cuts across the park over hill and dale through groves of Evergreen Oak and Pine with the occasional Pistachio or Strawberry tree sprinkled throughout. In many ways, it actually felt like hiking in the Angeles National Forest north of LA. The Evergreen Oaks reminded me of our ubiquitous Coastal Live Oaks and the Strawberry trees, with their peeling bark revealing a red under-layer, were sort of like a bigger, lighter Manzinita. I guess the Southern California Mediterranean Climate rings true in flora as well as weather. The dirt, however, was shockingly red, sort of like
being in dry-California-y Hawaii.
While I saw no endangered deer, I had a lovely walk/reunion with many Middlebury types from last summer as well as Jade, my new best friend/constant Amman host. I tried hard to discuss with them my agnst about the future but my heart wasn’t in it; it’s too hard to worry about life decisions in a place that beautiful.
From the moment I met Huahua, I could tell that she was picking her brain, struggling to find some form of common ground between us, the basis of which would become one of my most fulfilling friendships in China. Although we come from opposite ends of cultural, religious, and linguistic spectrums, she has managed to break through all of these barriers and in the process has truly helped me feel at home here at the CET Shanghai program.
When I first met my Chinese friends here at Donghua University, it was our glaring cultural differences that made initiating friendships a challenge. I am truly a member of modern western culture in all senses; I have strong family ties to Canada, England, and America. I grew up in an archetypal western household with all of the modern conveniences that I have come to realize most people in China live without. It is in this sense that adjusting to life here in Shanghai has been one of the most fulfilling challenges of my college career. My friendship with Huahua serves as an illustration of this challenge in many ways.
Huahua was raised in the remote western province of Xinjiang. She is a member of a highly culturally and historically rich Islamic minority group of China. From the time that I have spent with her, I can see that she constantly tries to find new ways to incorporate my classmates and I into her community of Chinese friends here in Shanghai. From introducing us to the traditional style of dance and food of her hometown to effortlessly joking and conversing with us in a way that accommodates each of the foreign students’ varying levels of Chinese, Huahua has become a truly distinguished member of our community here in Shanghai.
One of the first things I realized during my stay in China is that communication and cultural understanding between foreigners and natives are always challenges. At the time of my arrival at Donghua I realized that many of the Chinese are willing to help break the language and cultural barriers that exist between foreigners and natives. Huahua is a perfect illustration of this type of person, and she has truly broadened the Shanghai Fall 2011 CET class’s understanding of China.
*Photos taken by Andrew Wong (University of Rochester), CET Shanghai Fall ’11